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Reviving the Strike in the Shadow of PATCO

Steve Earlybyline‚ Mar. 08‚ 2012

In the summer of 2011, labor unrest on both coasts provided a sharp rebuttal to the widely held view that the strike is dead (and buried) in America. Even as veterans of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) gathered in Florida to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of their historic defeat, a new generation of strikers was taking on big private-sector employers like Verizon and Kaiser Permanente. Last August, 45,000 Verizon workers walked out from Maine to Virginia in a high-profile struggle against contract concessions. One month later, they were joined by 20,000 nurses and other union members similarly opposed to pension and health care givebacks at Kaiser Permanente in California. Both of these struggles came right on the heels of last year’s biggest upsurge, the massive series of public employee demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin that included strike activity by local high school teachers.

Of course, in 2010, there were only eleven work stoppages, involving 1,000 workers or more, in the entire country. And the year before that, as PATCO historian Joe McCartin notes in Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, the government reported only five major work stoppages involving a mere 13,000 workers in all—a tally roughly equal to the number of workers who walked off the job in a single, momentous strike on August 3, 1981. So, like the walkouts of 2011, these new books remind us what striking looks like, whether it fails or succeeds in a single union bargaining unit, or becomes part of a broader protest movement.