Psst, Ed Schultz - Reagan Wanted Higher Pay for Air Traffic Controllers in '81

So much of liberalism hinges on the willingness of liberals to engage in collective amnesia. Fortunately, many conservatives prefer to remember.

Ever since the sequester's cuts took effect, Ed Schultz has railed about their impact to the economy, particularly air travel. Since he frequently flies his own plane from Minnesota to work in New York City and to a fishing lodge he bought in Canada (did I mention how Schultz often urges others to "Buy American"?) , Schultz fancies himself an expert on aviation. (audio clip after page break)

Let's hope Schultz is more adept at flying than he is at revisionism, such as his remarks yesterday about President Ronald Reagan's handling of a major strike in 1981 by members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

Here's what Schultz said about the strike after it was mentioned by a caller (audio) --

CALLER: You know, Ronald Reagan, back in, what, '78?, PATCO, you know, put a bunch of air traffic controllers on the bench and you probably remember ...

SCHULTZ (interrupting): You know what he did? Wait a minute there, it's not like he, he fired 'em 'cause he didn't want to pay 'em. But he didn't get rid of 'em. I mean, there was just a new wave that came in and worked for cheaper, for less money. That's what that was all about.

Yes, the caller's recollection of the timing of the strike was off -- 1978 was midway through the Carter malaise and two years before Reagan was elected -- and this sailed right past Schultz.

But Schultz's claim that Reagan fired air traffic controllers because "he didn't want to pay 'em"  is demonstrably false. In fact, Reagan wanted PATCO members to receive a raise -- double-digit at that. And what the striking workers did was indisputably illegal.

In her 2001 book "When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan," one of his speechwriters, Peggy Noonan, described what happened --

The controllers were the tough and hardy professionals who manned airport control towers and radar centers around the country. Their jobs were stressful, demanding, high stakes. They were federal government jobs and their contract was up. They decided to demand a huge pay increase.

Reagan agreed with their argument that the pressures of the jobs justified a pay hike, and he offered an 11 percent pay increase -- substantial in a time of budget cuts. But PATCO was demanding a 100 percent increase. It would cost taxpayers $700 million, and no way would Reagan accept anything even approaching that.

Reagan told (transportation secretary Drew) Lewis to tell the union that under no circumstances would he accept an illegal strike, and under no circumstances would he negotiate a contract while a strike was on. He added this: You tell the leaders of PATCO that as a former union president I am the best friend they've ever had in the White House.

But Reagan's decision was not an easy one. Very few unions had supported him when he ran for president in 1980 -- but PATCO had. Very few union leaders had been friendly to him -- but PATCO's had. And Reagan always had supported the rights of workingmen and - women to bargain collectively and protect their interests.

But no president, he thought, should ever tolerate an illegal strike by federal employees. These weren't workers moving against a business or industry; these were professionals who provided a vital government service. Moreover, there was a law forbidding federal employee strikes, and each member of the union had signed a sworn affidavit agreeing not to strike.

Reagan told Lewis he agreed with Calvin Coolidge: 'There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time."

Along with that generous 11 percent raise, Reagan authorized secretary Lewis to take part in contract negotiations with PATCO, the first time the union had dealt with a cabinet officer, and Lewis in turn allowed salaries to be negotiated. "Never before had the government offered so much in a negotiation with a federal employees' union," writes labor historian Joseph A. McCartin in his 2011 book "Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America."

Other labor leaders keeping an eye on the negotiations saw it as "the best civil-service contract ever negotiated," according to McCartin.

Inevitably, partisan politics intruded. Congressional Democrats alleged that Reagan's concessions were payoff to PATCO for its campaign endorsement. Foremost among the critics was a little known congresswoman from New York named Geraldine Ferraro, who became the Democrats' vice presidential nominee three years later.

Negotiations broke down and the PATCO workers went out on strike in August 1981. Reagan gave the air traffic controllers 48 hours to return. Most refused and Reagan followed through on his warning, firing more than 11,000 workers, two-thirds of the work force.

"Although there were 39 illegal work stoppages against the federal government between 1962 and 1981," McCartin wrote in a New York Times op-ed in August 2011 on the 30th anniversary of the strike, "no significant federal job actions followed Reagan's firing of the PATCO strikers. His forceful handling of the walkout, meanwhile, impressed the Soviets, strengthening his hand in the talks he later pursued with Mikhail S. Gorbachev."

It was for this reason that George Shultz, Reagan's final secretary of state, said his firing of PATCO workers was the most important foreign policy decision Reagan ever made.

Ed Schultz is certainly entitled to disagree with what Reagan did, but this doesn't give him the right to utter a blatant falsehood about it over the airwaves to be repeated ad nauseum by other ill-informed liberals.

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts