Let us remember –
Roughly 20,000 working class union members took a stand for political honesty in the forgotten 1981 national union strike of PATCO, Professional Air Traffic Control Organization.
They were willing to lose everything in order to stand for political honesty. And many did lose it all, including homes, livelihood and family. Yet these working class union members took the burden courageously and honorably without incurring any violence as our country turned their backs on what should be the highest responsibility of every citizen in this country – always stand for honesty.
Let’s remember the guts and dignity of a class of workers who could show us, the American people, our power today.
Campaign promises had been made just the year before by the incoming conservative rising star Ronald Reagan, who labeled himself pro union, given his work with Hollywood’s Actors’ Guild. After years of negotiations, these strikers wanted better equipment and working conditions. My dad, one of the strikers, had the equipment fail on him once putting many people in the air at risk. He was made for the job and had an unyielding calm of dealing with any crisis, gifted with a memory for details. The strike was illegal as federal employees are banned from striking, but, like my father, many believed they were standing for a greater good – political honesty for the American people.
Reagan, The Hero of the Republican Party, took a hard stance and gave the union forty eight hours to get back to work which shocked everyone. Some believed there were back room deals being made. But there weren’t. I was 13 years old, and I remember the gripping stand off well and the hours of those days were tense, filled with anxiety and guilt. Everyone believed there would be a terrible airline crash because of the lack of skilled air traffic controllers, a job that takes years of training. I laid awake all night in a state of fear waiting for the FBI to arrest my father. They didn’t get him, but they got other union members.
The media was not kind toward the union as they wrote anti union stories emphasizing the union’s greed for more money. Allies and other unions turned their backs on the strikers, though they were watching, as some had ideas to strike too. PATCO leaders were being fined $1000 a day and others were put in prison.
My parents hid nothing from me. I attended the rallies, joined the meetings when the media bursted in hunting and pecking for stories, as it felt. We watched our backs wondering if the FBI were following us or watching us or tapping our phones.
“If the black coats come to the door, go to your room and shut the door,” my father had said to me. Would the FBI arrest the entire family? The fear was tremendous.
In the final hours my father had to make a personal final decision – to lose his job with an uncertain future and put his own family in financial uncertainty or return to work with his tail between his legs. My grandfather said my dad’s strike was ego driven and told him listen to Reagan, as Reagan said he’d put our country back together. Everyone respected my grandfather, a self made man and WW2 veteran.
We sat together at the kitchen table as Ted Koppel blared the ongoing news from the nearby living room.
My mother said to him, “It’s your job. You have to make the decision.”
My dad never wavered. Not once. “Campaign promises were made. I voted for him. I’m not going back,” he said.
In the end. 13,000 members were fired and the union went bankrupt. My family went broke and spun into emotional and financial turmoil for years. My grandfather laid the blame on my dad driving him to drink and we still to this day feel the jolt of that union bust, ripping my family into political factions and sides.
But, more importantly, our entire country suffered, as that strike broke many unions across the country, cultivating the catalyst for the rise of the 1% today and the exploitative labor industry we endure every day in this country. The reason millenials work multiple jobs at slave-like wages, why teachers can’t afford to live in the very neighborhoods they serve and why we have succumbed to accepting the fact a full time job can keep you in poverty in our country today. This is why they had striked and why unions are needed, to protect against big business bullies and safeguard the workers.
President Jimmy Carter had warned us about Ronald Reagan. “He’s a right wing radical,” he had said. Carter also warned the American people about other values we were losing as a nation. And he practically screamed the warning to the American people in his Crisis of Confidence Speech of 1979 when he said the people were beginning to value money over purpose and that being dependent on foreign oil is the “moral equivalent of war.” The people blamed Carter for not leading the people. And the GOP slammed Carter for that speech calling it “MEOW”.
President Jimmy Carter today is nearly a forgotten president, though he is well and alive at 94 years, continuing his writing and summits at The Carter Center. Mainstream media continues to portray him as weak, indecisive and a peanut farmer, despite acknowledging his profound work in The Navy, including technological advances in nuclear energy, his profound work in civil rights/human rights and his anti establishment position not catering to big money.
Yet, it wasn’t Carter who failed – it was an entire generation that did not listen to the greatest advice of a visionary leader, of a president who was actually encouraging the people of America to rise up against big money and oil companies! Carter was essentially pushing the American people to be activists against big money and oil companies. Instead, the Boomer generation opted for a life of comfort and values of exploitation, as they remain stuck heralding stories of the 1960s.
As we look back on Carter’s legacy, including his initiatives of the solar panels on the White House and 17,000 wind turbines in the State of California, as he pushed for sustainable energy, we can recalibrate our history and recognize the people of the United States of America has been dealing with forty years of fake news about our country’s greatest living leader, The Father of the Solar Age and as Bob Dylan calls him “The Rock’n Roll President”.
We knew about climate change in the 1970s. It’s well documented in Robert Redford’s 1980 short film “The Solar Film“, as well as the 1976 book Rays of Hope: The Transition to a Post-petroleum World, by Denis Hayes (A Worldwatch Institute Book). What lessons can we gain from our failure in 1980 and that strike in 1981 in order to empower us now?
This historical review matters more today than ever before because it helps us understand that pivotal 1980 election and a cultural shift in our country that brings focus on today’s leaders, both Republican and Democrats, and how we failed as a nation to listen to the most profound leadership, censoring truth and supporting the most corrupt political leaders who have caused wars, death, destruction across the world for forty years to maintain a generation’s comfort level and big money interests.
I find it appalling that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama can still honor Reagan. Pelosi helped raise Reagan’s statue in Washington, D.C. and Obama spoke glowingly of Reagan at Senator McCain’s funeral. I also find it absurd that the Democrats could allow Reagan to be inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame just this past March 2018, but, then again, perhaps it was the Democrats who helped elect Reagan in 1980 and no one wants to talk about that failure.
As an environmentalist, I am shocked over and over how many of our leaders, including Al Gore, could possibly talk about environmental issues without talking about Carter. I’ve asked and they have dismissed me. I’ve come to the conclusion that our environmental mission has become nothing but a competitive save the world “superman ego-drive” all stepping on one another to be the leader, while we undermine all the work done by previous leaders. It’s a game driven by pure narcisism than genuine collaboration to save ourselves and our children’s future as our planet faces ecological collapse.
And this news retrospective will likely never go viral. Why? Because it’s the establishment who has the reigns of the media, education, politics and money, all which are power. And nobody with money wants to talk about the power of unions.
It’s time to honor President Jimmy Carter and recognize him as the unsung hero who has walked his talk and demonstrated with his life the power of humility, kindness, generosity and vision.
We Americans have blood on our hands. It’s time to come clean. We can take a stand just like those air traffic controllers of 1981 and go for broke to put our country . . . our entire planet . . . back together, for our children and future generations. And we can do it.
Barbara McVeigh is the author of Redemption, How Ronald Reagan Nearly Ruined My Life. She has produced President Carter birthday celebrations in Marin County for last two years with support of Marin County Democrats, musicians and more.
Her documentary film The Man Behind The White Guitar about Brazilian Guatarist Jose Pires de Almeida Neto releases in 2019, as a message of honesty, peace, kindness and integrity – and to never lose our power to IMAGINE and live big dreams.