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Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (2011): The Winners Lose

Joseph A. McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (Oxford University Press, 2011)

full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.

Ronald Reagan's profile looms over a photo of a strike in the early 1980s on the book's cover.

The end of an era.
photo credit:

I was born in 1968. So in 1981 I was thirteen years old, and I was growing up in a staunch Republican family (though one who preferred to get their news from MacNeil and Lehrer; I still haven’t figured out how to reconcile that). I was not terribly politically aware, partially because of the atmosphere in which I was raised and partially because the entire idea of politics was something of a mystery to me and I didn’t really understand how Presidents were any different than kings or something like that. So at the time, when my parents, who are still staunch Reaganites, dismissed the entire ATC strike as something that needed to happen and was good for the country, it never occurred to me to question that, and by the time I did become politically astute enough to wonder about it, the entire incident had faded not only from my conversation at home, but from the media, and slipped into obscurity to the point where I had forgotten it even happened. So when this came across my Vine emails, I grabbed a copy because I had only the vaguest memories of the incident at all, much less how it might have changed America.

What a dash of ice water to the face.

Everyone—at least everyone I know who saw me reading the book and is old enough to have been around at the time—has an opinion on what really happened. Most of them struck me as being surface at best, rehashings of what the press were saying at the time, either a shallow regurgitation of the feelings on the left or an even shallower regurgitation of the feelings on what passes for the right these days. (I even had someone opine that Reagan’s actions were taken in the name of “national security.” Were there talk-show hosts like Glenn Beck in 1981 and I was just too young to notice?) Joseph McCartin talked to many of the principals on both sides of the fight—those who were still alive in the early part of the last decade, anyway—and emerges with a picture that is, not surprisingly, a great deal more clear-headed than anything else I heard while reading it.

The basics: the nation’s Air Traffic Controllers were a bunch who saw themselves as overworked and underpaid. (McCartin never comes out and says, explicitly, that this is true, but the feeling is definitely there—and this story starts in the late fifties, decades before any of the studies we now having that show Air Traffic Controller as one of America’s highest-stress jobs.) Thus, in violation of governmental policy, they decided to try and form a union. Thanks to some help from sympathetic private-sector unions, they did so and, after a couple of false starts, came up with PATCO. Not all of the Air Traffic Controllers were behind PATCO, for various reasons, but enough of them were that when PATCO talked, people listened, especially when they used the language of slowdowns or work stoppages. (McCartin points out, ironically, that “slowdowns” involved the ATCs actually doing their jobs according to government strictures; the only way they kept air traffic flowing efficiently in the seventies was to break the rules.) But you know the end to this story: not long after Ronald Reagan’s election, the ATCs went on strike, for various reasons detailed in the book, and Reagan broke the strike so ferociously that he effectively turned the tide of union action in America forevermore; no one strikes in the 2010s the way people struck in the 1970s.

You know what? Before I read this book, the last half of the last sentence in that paragraph is something I never really thought about, but once I was done with Collision Course, it made perfect sense. You see small bands of strikers today, usually out in front of the usual suspects (on the west side of Cleveland, it’s usually Rite-Aid; as a former worker for a Rite-Aid subsidiary, I can sympathize), but a half-dozen, maybe a dozen people with pickets? That’s greasy kid stuff compared to some demonstrations I saw growing up in Pittsburgh in the seventies. That’s a direct result of Ronald Reagan. Some people see that as a good thing. There are times when I’m one of them, but McCartin traces the ripples, how much more is affected based on Reagan’s handling of PATCO, up to and including some of Scott Walker’s recent idiocies, and I am forced to be reminded that this stuff does not happen in a vacuum. Every action has consequences—many of them unintended, because Ronald Reagan, in the early months of 1981, could have no more foreseen the rise of the wacko-neocon movement any more than the Founding Fathers could have foreseen the dawn of the moving picture era. (Though one thinks, perhaps, it may have been on Reagan’s mind when he decided to repeal the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.) But to get back to the original point I had planned to make in this paragraph, that’s one of the strengths of McCartin’s surprisingly readable little history: he not only focuses on the events leading up to the strike and its breaking, but he ropes in all the little tangents, both on their way in and in the aftermath, and makes connections that the average reader wouldn’t or, more importantly, that the average consumer of news, even in the days of the Fairness Doctrine, never even had the chance to mull over, because no one knew about all this stuff going on behind the scenes—and by the time it was too late, no one thought to connect any of it to PATCO.

I always hate reviews of nonfiction, especially academic nonfiction, where the reviewer says something like “it reads like a novel!”. No, it doesn’t, or it is, at best, “creative nonfiction” (a genre I am still not convinced actually exists). McCartin’s book is quite readable for academic nonfiction, but it sure as hell doesn’t read like a novel. Moreover, it shouldn’t; you can almost feel McCartin’s research on every page, and that lends the book a weight, and a gravity, it would not otherwise have. On the other hand, there are points where that makes it into something of a slog. That can’t be helped, and not only is everything in here important, but there are stretches where McCartin can’t get to some points of view on a particular subject, usually because the person he needs to interview is no longer alive, and so this probably could have gone another hundred pages or so and still left the astute reader asking some questions about little nooks and crannies that didn’t get addressed. As far as a criticism, that is about as minor as one would expect; this is a good’un for students of recent history, as well as the politically active on both sides of the aisle who want to understand union culture in America today. *** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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