Ronald Reagan, actor, TV personality, SAG union leader, governor and America’s 40th President was elected in 1980 beating Jimmy Carter.  In one of his first major actions, during the summer of 1981 he fired 11,345 striking PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization).   At the time, Robert Poli was President of the PATCO Union and the strike was over working conditions at the nation’s Air Traffic Control Centers.  The strike began on August 3, 1981 when 12,000 of the country’s 17,000 controllers walked off their jobs.  The strike was illegal according to Federal Law. (By the way, the PATCO Union had endorsed Reagan for President.)

Reagan’s famous “Government isn’t the solution, Government is the problem” line, one leg of the Regan/Conservative tripartite policy foundation, was put into place in his ending of the PATCO strike and firing its workers.  While I suppose the fact that Reagan removed the solar panels Carter had installed on the roof of the White House (thereby ushering in two decades and more of lost R&D into alternate energy sources) should have given us a clue as to what was up with Reagan, it was the firing of the PATCO workers that ushered in our new age of conservative social, labor and economic policies.  What we didn’t realize, at the time, was that this anti-union action would reverberate all through the labor market and the economy in general, changing forever the social contract between workers and our society.   (BTW: As a Screen Actor’s Guild member, Reagan led a 1952 SAG strike.)

Public attitudes towards unions and union members since 1980 have undergone a profound transformation.  Back then, union jobs – high paying, protected from management whims, offering benefits like health insurance – were considered plum jobs  in the world of working and middle class America.  Unions were seen as champions of the little guy – of folks who had no political connections, no big daddy money bags to help them, a counter balancing force against what were termed, at the time, “corporate vested interests.”

Today unions are considered Communist organizations by many, out to destroy the fabric of American society and spread liberal poison over the planet. (Or some such nonsense.)  Union members are derided as soft, lazy, political animals who care only about maintaining their own goodies with nary a thought for the rest of us. My, how things have changed. 

Let’s take a look at a few statistics.

Non-Government Workforce Union Members in 1980:  30%
Non-Government Workforce Union Members in 2014:  6%

Average Hourly Wage in 1980: $6.70
Average Hourly Wage in 2014: $16.90

Not bad, right?

But here’s the “adjusted for inflation” figures:

Inflation Adjusted Average Hourly Wage in 1980: $16.49
Inflation Adjusted Average Hourly Wage in 2014: $16.90

So over the period of 1980 to 2014 - thirty-four years - the hourly wages of the American worker have increased by $0.41?  That’s 41 cents, stated another way. Damn!

And take a look at household incomes over the period:

Median Household Income 1980:  $16,354
Median Household Income 2012:  $49,486

I mean, not bad, right?  Median Household Income more than doubled between 1980 and 2014.  But take another “ adjusted for inflation” look:

Median Household Income Adjusted for Inflation 1980: $46,995
Median Household Income Adjusted for Inflation 2012:  $51,017

So in terms of purchasing power, the nearly 300% increase in Family Income between 1980 and 2012 amounts to an increase of around 10% when you consider the effects of inflation.  Not so great really.  And when you consider the structural changes in the workforce over the thirty-two year period – in 1980 there were around 20 million women in the workforce, today it’s 40 million – there are far more two-wage earner families in America today than in 1980.  Today it’s virtually impossible for single wage earner families to survive.

Think about how much it costs for higher education today than it did back in 1980.  Think about how many more “fees” we pay today since our political leaders are reluctant to raise taxes.  And don’t forget this one:

Back in 1980 CEO annual compensation was around 40 times the earnings of their workers.  Today that figure is approaching 400 times.  This while the average wage of the average American worker – you know, the folks who actually work every day so that their CEO is able to earn 400 times what they do - increased by $0.41 (41 cents) over the same period.  Really? 

Sure. Much has changed in our economy over the past thirty+ years.  Most assuredly the most important change is that the economy is a global enterprise, when back in 1980, not so much.   And you will hear all sorts of rationalizations for the decline in average American’s earning power and wealth.  But what you will hear are “rationalizations” in the face of policies that have basically driven America’s working and middle classes closer to abject poverty.  And when did this long decline begin?  Well I can’t think of a better starting point than in the summer of 1981 when President Ronald Reagan fired the striking PATCO workers, whose workers were led by Union President, Robert E. Poli. 

A leading reference work on public administration concluded, "The firing of PATCO employees not only demonstrated a clear resolve by the president to take control of the bureaucracy, but it also sent a clear message to the private sector that unions no longer needed to be feared".  Could not have said it better myself. 

May Robert Poli rest in peace while all us continue to struggle. 


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