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Professor Joseph McCartin and the History of Labor


Professor McCartin teaches in the history department at Georgetown. (Photo: Claire Callagy)



By Gabrielle Matthews
Joseph McCartin knows labor history.
The professor of history at Georgetown is currently writing a book about the crisis experienced by American labor unions in the last third of the 20th century. McCartin posits in his upcoming work that U.S. labor relations changed dramatically for the worse with the 1981 strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO): a subject of some contentious debate amongst labor historians.
McCartin’s first book, Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, traced the rise of organized labor in the first third of the 20th century, illuminating events that led to the labor policies of the New Deal and the National Labor Relations Act. Yet the system of industrial relations whose origins McCartin probed in his first work was clearly unraveling in the late 20th century. This led him to search for a way to tell the story of labor’s decline, and that search led him to focus on the critical years of the 1970s and 1980s, when the underpinnings of the New Deal order began to give way.
“There was a complete reversal of some of the trends taking place in the early part of the century: the decline of the labor movement and its membership and its influence, and the erosion of the government policies that had been supportive of labor in the earlier period,” McCartin explained. “So, I wanted to investigate what was behind that, and tried to tell a story to help explain why organized labor was in decline.”
One of the changes that McCartin seeks to explain is the swift decline in the incidence of strikes in the late 20th century. McCartin notes that strikes were very common in the U.S. during the first three decades after World War II. Their frequency was a measure of the rough parity in bargaining power that then existed between workers and their employers. When workers felt underpaid or unfairly treated, their ability to withhold their labor in a strike could often give them the leverage they needed to get their concerns addressed. Strikes were effective and they became a normal and accepted part of American industrial relations.
After the mid-1970s, however, this changed. Forces like economic globalization changed the patterns of production and how markets functioned. As a result power tilted toward employers making strikes less potent as a weapon to pressure corporate entities. Yet not until the 1981 PATCO strike and its aftermath, McCartin argues, did it become clear how much the balance of power had shifted.
The PATCO strike itself grew out of one of the labor movement’s greatest achievements in the second half of the 20th century: the establishment of unions in the public sector. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s 1962 executive order allowing federal workers to organize unions, workers in local, state, and federal government alike began organizing in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Overall the labor movement experienced lots of problems by the 1970s, but the one bright spot was the organization of government workers,” McCartin noted. Yet the role of the strike in the public sector was different. Federal workers and most state and local workers were legally forbidden from striking.
This important distinction set the stage for what McCartin considers the single most important event in American labor relations in the late 20th century: the PATCO strike. “When the air traffic controllers employed by the federal government struck in 1981 they defied the law,” McCartin said. “They felt like their situation was difficult enough to justify engaging in what they saw as civil disobedience.”
President Ronald Reagan’s handling of the strike had enormous consequences. After giving controllers 48 hours to return to work, President Reagan fired and permanently replaced more than 11,000 who refused to heed his warning. The president’s decisive action resulted in the most influential episode of strikebreaking since the Great Depression. Strikebreaking and the use of permanent replacements for strikers became more uncommon after World War II, but in the aftermath of the PATCO strike, the practice experienced a resurgence.
“One of the ironies of the PATCO strike is that it helped to legitimize the breaking of strikes in the private sector, where striking really is sometimes necessary,” McCartin explained. “When Regan authorized the firing of the controllers, he was legally on solid ground, but he did that in the context of the federal sector.” When private sector employers began to emulate the president, as they did in a number of prominent strikes in the 1980s, the results for organized labor were devastating. Over time labor gave up the strike weapon. By 2002 the number of workers who engaged in strikes was a mere 1/60th what it had been in 1952.
In part because of the diminished ability of workers to strike, the balance of power that once existed between labor and management has tilted sharply since 1981, McCartin argues. “Major strikes don’t happen because workers no longer feel they can win them,” McCartin explained. “And it’s hard to conceive of a strong union or a strong workers’ organization where workers don’t have the ability to strike effectively.” This is a story he aims to tell in his upcoming book, tentatively titled Collision Course: The Story of PATCO and the Strike that Changed American Labor Relations.
“I want my book to consider labor’s decline, but also the transformation that has happened in labor relations overall as the result of the organization of government workers, which today constitute over 40 percent of all union members,” said McCartin. “Historians have done very little work on these public service unions, which are a major national influence.”
Having thus documented the crisis of American labor, McCartin next hopes to participate in developing better models of labor relations for the 21st century as executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. This new initiative at Georgetown University made possible by a $5 million grant from the Kalmanovitz Charitable Foundation will convene scholars and practitioners from labor and management in an effort to find just and equitable solutions to problems that beset labor today.
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I am fascinated by the rich history of the U.S. labor movement, and Professor McCartin’s course was recommended to me by other students who were involved in labor rights activism on Georgetown’s campus.
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