Labor Day, 2017

The controller strike of August 1981 has become something of a legend. Ronald Reagan ordered the PATCO controllers back to work and, when many balked, they were fired. (Also fired were quite a few away on their summer vacations).

The legend part of this is that Reagan was a Republican, and aiming to destroy Unions in general. Of course, Democrats are so in bed with the unions, no Democrat would ever do as Reagan did. Right? [snark alert!]

Well, as it happens, the first air traffic controller strike was forcefully beaten down by a Democratic President (Grover Cleveland) in 1894. OK, so it did not really involve air traffic controllers, as it was nine years before powered flight was even begun. But, in 1894, it was the same battle: a Presidency vs. a powerful labor union, in this case, railway workers. This was the Age of the Robber Barons … well, let’s call it the First Age of the Robber Barons, not to be confused the present Second Age of the Robber Barons, under President Trump.

Here are a few history notes and links, starting with the events of 1894; from President Cleveland’s chosen U.S. Attorney General, Richard Olney, through the Pullman Strike and the early regulatory capture of the ICC, all the way to a 2009 assessment of reform actions needed (but not taken) by President Obama:

  • 6/30/1894: Olney wrote a letter to US Attorney Walker (in Chicago); Walker replied with a 7/2/1894 letter; the letters show Olney’s willingness to suppress/destroy unions, during the buildup to the Pullman strike.
  • 1905: a Columbia Law Review Essay on Olney and the railroad industry
  • 4/10/1917: Olney’s NY Times obituary. Indicates he was a lawyer in private practice, including corporation law, for twenty years starting around 1876.
  • 2008: The Debs Case: Labor, Capital, and the Federal Courts of the 1890s – a 70-page analysis by David Ray Papke, Professor of Law at Marquette University; in particular, see text of the 1894 letters between Olney and Walker, starting at pg.42.
  • 6/24/2009: Obama and ‘Regulatory Capture’ – a Wall Street Journal article by Thomas Frank; discusses Olney and President Obama’s opportunities at the start of his presidency.
  • Grover Cleveland – the President who appointed Olney to serve as United States Attorney General (1893-1895) and Secretary of State (1895-1897). This essay, from the UVA Miller Center, looks at Cleveland’s history on domestic affairs.
  • Robber Barons And Rebels: Chapter 11, at History Is A Weapon – A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn