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How air traffic controllers helped end the shutdown — and changed history

The control tower at LaGuardia Airport in New York. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

“The #TrumpShutdown has already pushed hundreds of thousands of Americans to the breaking point. Now it’s pushing our airspace to the breaking point too,” tweeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday as air traffic snarled along the East Coast and New York’s LaGuardia Airport became paralyzed. That chaos was a consequence of air traffic controllers calling in sick. Within hours of these reports, Trump backed down without extracting the commitments he had sought from Democrats and reached a deal with congressional leaders to reopen the government.

The role of air traffic controllers in these events calls to mind a quip attributed to Mark Twain: History doesn’t repeat itself, but occasionally it rhymes. Air traffic controllers revectored the course of U.S. history once before. The illegal strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981 led President Ronald Reagan to fire and replace more than 11,000 controllers, inaugurating an era of diminished worker bargaining power. In time, we might come to see the controllers’ actions on Friday as a historical bookend, signaling — finally — the end of that era. It also shows that labor still has some power, at least when public opinion is on its side.

For weeks, commentators marveled that hundreds of thousands of federal workers, including the controllers, reported to work day after day without being paid, or knowing when they would be paid. “This government shutdown would’ve lasted like a day in European countries because no one would go to work without getting paid,” one observed on Twitter. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that French public sector unions would have simply organized a 33-minute silent vigil in protest as U.S. unionists did on day 33 of the shutdown at the Hart Senate Office Building.

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While some private-sector unionists, like Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, pledged to gather support for a “general strike” if that’s what it took to break the shutdown impasse, leaders of federal workers’ unions consistently repudiated collective action. Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the controllers’ union organized in the aftermath of PATCO’s destruction, was one. As it became clear that staffing shortages were producing air traffic delays on day 35, Rinaldi announced that NATCA did not “condone or endorse any federal employees participating in or endorsing a coordinated activity that negatively effects the capacity of the National Airspace System.”

It is understandable that Rinaldi and other federal-sector union leaders refused to endorse collective action during the shutdown, for it is not merely PATCO’s ethereal ghost that haunts them: The law they operate under ties their hands. If union leaders had organized or endorsed any form of work stoppage to protest their hostage-taking during the shutdown, they would have risked seeing their organizations dissolved. Thus, one federal union official told me that a work action “would likely have disastrous consequences and, as a strategic matter, play right into the hands of the president and his supporters in Congress.” This official worried that labor’s enemies would use it to “rid the federal sector of unions.”

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If federal leaders had reason to fear collective action, they also knew their members were being pushed to the brink. By day 33, NATCA was joining with the flight attendants and the airline pilots associations to issue a joint statement with an ominous warning: “In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.”

U.S. air traffic controllers pride themselves on being the custodians of the busiest and safest air transit system in the world. By day 34, some of those working in high-volume facilities apparently concluded that they could not sit idly by and watch conditions deteriorate, listen any longer to economic adviser Larry Kudlow likening their work to “volunteering,” or stomach Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s suggestion that they take out bridge loans.

As patience began running out on day 35, it is not surprising that controllers at key facilities like the air route traffic centers outside Washington and Jacksonville, Fla., would decide to call in sick. Controllers have used sickouts effectively in the past. PATCO staged sickouts in 1969 and 1970 that paved the way for its later recognition as the air traffic controllers’ union. Lacking the ability to strike legally, and without the permission or endorsement of their leaders, protesters simply let their supervisors know they were unable to work.

If the controllers who called in sick on Friday (or the IRS agents who refused calls to return to work without pay) coordinated in an effort to produce a work stoppage, then arguably they broke the law just as PATCO strikers did in 1981. But context matters. The controllers who struck in 1981 flagrantly challenged the strike ban, sought salary increases amid a gathering recession and confronted a popular president who had recently survived an assassination attempt with such grace and bravery that even many of his critics had softened on him. The controllers who called in sick or IRS agents who stayed home this week did not strike, sought only to be paid for their work and confronted an increasingly unpopular president whose legitimate claim to his office has been thrown into doubt by ongoing evidence of his possible electoral collusion with Russians — a president who created this standoff and all but forced them to push back.

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Perhaps these protesters grasped a truth overlooked by many who invoke the PATCO example: It was not the law that ultimately gave Reagan the authority to break PATCO; it was public opinion. While the public supported Reagan’s stand against PATCO, there is little indication that it would support Trump should his agencies attempt to discipline workers who had reached a breaking point.

Could this event mark a turn as the 1981 strike did? Possibly, for like the PATCO strike it did not occur in a vacuum. PATCO struck just as conservative politics and neoliberal economics were ascending to power; the magnitude of its damage was reinforced by those larger dynamics. The worker actions that helped end this shutdown came in a very different time, one when the left rather than the right is gaining energy, when economic deregulation and privatization are losing their luster, amid growing public concern about rising inequality and weakened worker bargaining power, and hard on the heels of the successful strike by Los Angeles teachers and the “#RedforEd” teacher mobilizations of 2018.

A small group of strategically placed workers just acted to help bring a widely detested shutdown to an end. They refused to play the role of victim and instead became agents of their own liberation. By doing so, they might have also put the nation on a new political vector.