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Sleeping Air Traffic Controllers, Reagan, and Union-Busting

The fact that Reagan fired all of the air-traffic controllers in 1981 seems to have fallen out of our general memory, but he did, and those against it predicted that it would lead to accidents.  That was a while ago, but I would venture a guess that the problem of air traffic controllers falling asleep is not something that has just manifested.  It’s probably been going on for a long time. 

I’m going to bypass the complex legal reasons Reagan was able to do this and discuss instead some of the reasons workers strike. Keep in mind that I have no doctorate in this area; I’m just an interested citizen.  So in my mind, the reasons are simple.  Those who own mines, factories, etc. want to optimize their income by paying workers as little as possible for as long as possible with as few benefits and as small an investment in safety as possible.  Workers want to make as much money in as short a period of time as possible.  They don’t want their health temporarily or permanently impaired while working, and they don’t want to die while working.

Most people also take pride in a job well done.  

Unions and the ability to strike are one mechanism that helps keep this equation balanced.   Those in power do not like to share power. 

The air traffic controllers who did not report for work in 1981 were seasoned professionals, with backgrounds in aviation and engineering.  Those who were thrown into the void left by Reagans firing were not.  Although I imagine that, after all these years, those who do this job are professionals, they obviously have less power than the unionized workers did.  They have less choice about their hours–the length of their shifts, how their shifts are scheduled, etc.–and their pay.  Nowhere to go to complain; no mechanism for improving working conditions. 

Sleep deprivation and the biochemistry of shiftwork (working a few day shifts, then a few swing or night shifts, or double hours over the course of a month as many people do, including factory workers, emergency physicians, air traffic controllers) creates a breeding ground for impaired decision-making. 

Reagan, when he so proudly smashed PATCO in 1981, created a dangerous situation for all who fly. 

When workers have no way to improve their lot, we are pretty much back in the world of Dickens, except that we are moving at much higher speeds, through realms and using technologies that Victorians only dreamed of. 

Presently, the apparently legalized theft of Wall Street, which swiped much (maybe most) of the hard-earned wealth Americans had socked away in their homes or in retirement funds for decades has done away with the option of moving to a better job somewhere else for many in this country.  They are tied to homes they cannot sell, and, if they move, they lose what little they still have.  Workers are powerless in this economy.   They are right where those in power want to keep them.  Those in power–presently, large corporations, which now have the rights of individual people, according to the Supreme Court–have hornswoggled those who are living pretty much hand-to-mouth into thinking that big business is their natural ally.  There are one or two middlemen between the corporations and the public to make this unlikely mechanism work; a cohort of heartless liars and thieves dressed up as Everyman or Everywoman, or maybe even someone who has drunk the kool-aid and no longer knows how to think clearly.   This is a very neat sleight-of-hand.  Fancy-talking con artistry is a human art that is fun to watch from a distance; it is hard to watch when your friends and relatives are the victims. 

The United States, postwar, worked hard to put into place regulations that protect all of us from bad food, high-rises, situations in which we might die from fires, earthquakes, workplace accidents, contamination of our shared natural resources, and so on.  Believe it or not, there were many people who, after the conflagration of world war, were willing to work for the betterment of us all.  Now, there are many who have no idea what conditions were before these hard-thought and hard-won codes, regulations, and laws were enacted.   

Humans are notoriously local.  This is our biochemical and neurological nature.  Having or using less now for someone in the future or someone across town or on the other side of the world is simply not the way we think.  It takes serious ethical tools and thought to work out these complex networks, and these thoughts must enter our ethical toolkit through our own hard work.  The tools must be useful and concise enough for everyone to understand and use.  I don’t know what they are and I don’t know how to forge them except through conversation (including art) and example. 

Workers are not someone else.  We all work.  We all deserve fair treatment.

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2 comments

1 Hettie { 04.26.11 at 1:30 PM }

Amen!! Well said!!

2 Kathleen Goonan { 04.26.11 at 2:17 PM }

Thank you. I don’t see many in the media making these connections.

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