The True Legacy of Ronald Reagan

Last Friday would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday. I really didn’t want to write about Reagan. I know at this point we are all supposed to say that whether or not we agreed with him, we admired his optimism, his skillful communicating style, and his bold vision. Once considered deeply divisive, Reagan is now showered with bipartisan praise every year on his birthday and who am I to rain on that parade? 

Sorry, but I couldn’t help myself. I was four years old when Reagan was elected. At the age of 10, when my parents got divorced, I had no doubt that Reagan was to blame. I know, it sounds silly. But I grew up in a union family and my parents believed in The Labor Movement (yes, with caps) like it was a religion. The reality is that Reagan’s presidency was devastating for union workers.

It wasn’t just that Ronald Reagan was anti-union. As most people know, he headed up the Screen Actors Guild before getting into politics. But Reagan was instrumental in changing the balance of power between workers and employers, which has directly led to the epic levels of income inequality we see today.

For most, this can be summed up in one word: PATCO. In 1981, almost 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization walked off the job to protest their working conditions.  President Ronald Reagan called the strike illegal and did the unthinkable: he fired all the workers who participated in the strike. When 13,000 people lose their jobs in one fell swoop, workers across the country pay attention. The message was heard loud and clear.

That mass termination marked a new chapter in labor relations in which workers became acutely aware that union activity could cost them thier jobs. The number of major strikes decreased dramatically, from an average of 300 each year in the decades before the PATCO strike to less than 30 per year today. No one underestimates how devastating strikes can be, especially for the workers involved. But strikes are also how most major victories for workers have been won.

PATCO introduced workers and employers to the idea that a strike could result in permanent replacement workers.  It didn't matter how many years a worker had been there or how justified the demands. Once considered “the nuclear option,” permanently replacing striking workers “quickly became standard operation procedure and helped employer after employer either face down strikes or break them.” It is no wonder PATCO had a chilling effect on workers' right to engage in collective action, and led to a major loss of leverage for workers in trying to improve their working conditions and their lives.

It wasn't just that Reagan did what he did to the striking air traffic controllers. What really broke my parents' hearts was that even after what happened to the PATCO workers, even after de-industrialization that destroyed urban America, even after the loss of manfacturing jobs sent overseas, even after the eviceration of the social safety net, Reagan was re-elected in a landslide. 

So maybe it wasn't Reagan who broke them up so much as the American voters.

But what's important about Reagan is not the laundry list of accomplishments or offenses. As historians evaluate his legacy, we see the crucial role he played in creating the world — especially the California — that we live in today. As historian Richard Reeves explained, Reagan changed American politics by “reversing the populist political attitude of one that believed business was the villain to making government the adversary.” 

Today, as we are forced to sit by and watch poor children lose childcare subsidies, the disabled lose home care services, young people lose any hope of going to college, we see Reagan's true legacy. Even as budgets have been passed with deep and painful cuts to people who can least afford it, they have been accompanied by massive corporate tax breaks

That's why PATCO mattered. Because without unions, we are a state and a nation of haves and have nots; rich getting richer, poor getting poorer and a vanishing middle class.