- - Thursday, September 28, 2017


The chiefs of the labor unions have always had differences with working stiffs over Ronald Reagan. The chiefs hated him and the working stiffs usually loved him.

Now they’ve got something else to agree to disagree about. The Labor Department has its own hall of fame, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta has announced that the most famous unionist of all will be inducted into the department’s “Hall of Honor.”

To some unforgiving militants in the American Federation of Government Employees Local 12, the Gipper is still persona non grata because he broke the air-traffic controllers union in August 1981 when it engaged in an illegal strike against the public.

Members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization knew their strike, which had shut down commercial air travel and imperiled national safety and security, was also against federal law. President Reagan warned them that if they didn’t return to work within 48 hours he would fire them all. They didn’t, and the Gipper did what he said he would do, and sacked more than 11,000 of them. More than a thousand controllers returned to work within the 48 hours.

Mr. Reagan fired them despite warnings of several of his closest advisers that he risked a major disaster by firing the controllers, who manage the complicated supervision of the traffic in the skies. They were replaced by military controllers until a sufficient number of civilian controllers could be hired and trained. There were no disasters and civilian replacements were quickly trained.

Mr. Reagan reckoned, correctly, that his record as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a trade union, and his frequent defense of the right of workers to organize, would satisfy millions of union members that he was not against the legitimate aims of unions.

In a speech to the building and construction workers union that year, Mr. Reagan recalled his work as a unionist. “I hope you’ll forgive me,” he said, “if I point with some pride to the fact that I’m the first president of the United States to hold a lifetime membership in an AFL-CIO union.”

Nearly two decades is a long time to hold a grudge, but Alex Bastani, the president of Local 12 of the government workers’ union says he suffered “shock and disappointment” by Mr. Acosta’s nomination of the Gipper to the “Hall of Honor,” and urged him to reconsider. Mr. Bastani said the sacking of 11,345 controllers was “a cruel act of industrial violence.”

Mr. Reagan knew about strikes. He led the Screen Actors Guild during its first three strikes, Secretary Acosta recalled at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., when he announced his nomination of the former president to the Hall of Honor induction.

“As president of the Screen Actors Guild, President Reagan negotiated never-before-seen concessions for members, which included residual payments and health and pension benefits.”

The unions were understandably awed by the new president’s courage. Illegal strikes were a familiar part of the landscape. The Labor Department counted 39 illegal strikes and “work stoppages” between 1962 and 1981, when Mr. Reagan broke the controllers’ union. A succession of presidents did not enforce the law. After Ronald Reagan, there were no more illegal strikes.

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