Forty Years since the PATCO strike: Part two

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This is the second part of a five-part series. Part one was posted on August 3.

“The standard of living of the average American worker has to decline.”—Paul Volcker

“Carter made his order. Now let him come down here and enforce it.”—West Virginia coal miners to the Bulletin

“There is one essential question that arises out of the Chrysler bankruptcy: Who is to pay for the breakdown of the capitalist profit system, the working class or big business?”—the Bulletin

Between 1968 and 1975 a series of economic and political crises convulsed world capitalism. Advanced capitalist countries were shaken by massive strike waves, which in France in 1968 reached revolutionary proportions. In 1974, a coal miners’ strike drove the Tory Heath government in the United Kingdom from power. Right-wing dictatorships fell in Portugal and Greece.

A rally of PATCO strikers from the New York City area in East Meadow, Long Island (WSWS Media)

The crisis of American capitalism lay at the center of the world crisis. In 1975, the US imperialist war in Southeast Asia came to a humiliating defeat with the fall of Saigon. A year earlier, President Richard Nixon was forced to resign from office as a result of the Watergate scandal, which was bound up with the debacle in Vietnam.

The enormous financial cost of the Vietnam War accelerated the decline of US capitalism and the drain on American gold reserves. It was in response to this crisis that Nixon, in August 1971, exactly 50 years ago this month, unilaterally removed the gold backing from the US dollar. This failed to halt the weakening of US capitalism relative to its chief European and Asian rivals, and helped set in motion the high inflation and low economic growth that characterized the 1970s.

Like a number of other countries, the US experienced heightened strike activity in the 1970s. One million workers or more went on strike every year between 1969 and 1978, with the earliest years of the 1970s witnessing the most pronounced labor struggles. Strikes raged across the US, attested to by the Bulletin, the newspaper of the Workers League and predecessor in the US of the World Socialist Web Site. Bulletin reporters covered hundreds of these struggles. The Workers League fought tenaciously throughout the 1970s to mobilize rank-and-file workers against the trade union bureaucracy and its policies of class collaboration and support for the big business Democratic Party.

The prominent role played by the Workers League contrasted sharply to the indifference of the radical protest groups, which branded American workers as pro-imperialist and racist, frequently condemning the unions as “white men’s job trusts.” The milieu of middle-class radicals had been moving to the right since the waning of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the early 1970s, embracing lifestyle and identity politics and every manner of anti-working class prejudice.

Inflation played a major role in fueling the strikes of the 1970s, as workers endeavored to maintain the buying power of their wages in the face of rising prices. To a certain degree, workers succeeded in keeping wages in line with inflation. At times they won wage hikes greater than the inflation rate, as when steel workers secured a three-year, 30 percent raise in 1971. Although the AFL-CIO bureaucracy prevented these struggles from coalescing into a political challenge to the two-party system, from the standpoint of US capitalism the situation was intolerable.

Paul Volcker, a Chase Manhattan bank executive appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter to head the Federal Reserve Board in 1979, put forward the ruling class position succinctly when he declared that year: “The standard of living of the average American worker has to decline.”

Jimmy Carter signs the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Edward Kennedy stands behind him on the right. (Source: Wikimedia/White House)

Volcker’s interest rate “shock therapy,” raising the benchmark federal funds lending rate to over 20 percent, aimed to break the inflationary spiral and undermine the combativeness of the working class by creating mass unemployment. The Fed, acting on behalf of the Carter administration and the American ruling class, deliberately set out to force the closure of large sections of US manufacturing that were no longer profitable. Over 6.8 million jobs were lost to plant closures between 1978 and 1982. Whole cities and regions—primarily those associated with mass production industries and industrial unions—were devastated, including much of the industrial Midwest.

However, it was not enough to alter economic conditions to the detriment of workers, as experience had taught. Nixon’s attempt to impose wage controls in 1971 had failed to stem the strikes of the 1970s. The ruling elite sought a clear and decisive defeat of the labor movement. The goal was to intimidate and weaken the working class and encourage private industry to launch a union-busting campaign.

The battle had to be chosen carefully. In the 111-day coal miners’ strike of 1977–1978, Carter attempted to impose a Taft-Hartley back-to-work order on the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The miners flouted the order, burning copies of Carter’s edict on the picket lines.

“Carter made his order,” workers told the Bulletin. “Now let him come down here and enforce it.” Another slogan was “Taft can mine it, Hartley can haul it, and Carter can shove it.” Carter was humiliated and lost the confidence of the ruling class, which shifted its support decisively to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.

A different target was needed. Indeed, when rank-and-file UMWA members once again initiated a national strike in April of 1981—by rejecting by a large margin a sellout contract imposed by the union—just weeks before the PATCO struggle, the new Reagan administration did not invoke Taft-Hartley or otherwise directly intervene. The 160,000-strong strike lasted for 72 days, with the coal operators of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) refusing any modification of the offer rejected by the miners. Ultimately, the miners won minor concessions from the operators.

Kentucky miners hold Bulletin newspapers calling for rejecting the sellout contract in February, 1978 (WSWS Media)

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