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Labor’s Hall of Honor or Hall of Shame?

By Clyde Weiss ·
Labor’s Hall of Honor or Hall of Shame?
President Reagan, with Attorney General William French Smith, makes a statement to the press regarding the air traffic controllers strike from the Rose Garden. (White House Photo Office)

The U.S. Labor Department says it will induct into its “Hall of Honor” a man who broke a labor union: former President Ronald Reagan

This is no small insult to working people. It’s a slap in the face to all those people whom the Hall of Honor is supposed to honor. Its mission is to honor people “whose distinctive contributions in the field of labor have elevated working conditions, wages, and overall quality of life of America's working families.”

That applies to a very special group of people who put workers’ rights – and the struggle for dignity on the job – ahead of all else.

People like the 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers – members of AFSCME Local 1733 – who were inducted in 2011. Learn more about them here.

People like Cesar E. Chavez, founder of the National Farm Workers Association – later known as the United Farm Workers (UFW).

People such as Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, whose “fearless campaigning helped swell the ranks of the United Mine Workers.”

What did Reagan do? In 1981, he fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers – members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) – who struck for higher wages and greater respect. Reagan, a former head of the Screen Actors Guild, demanded that the striking air traffic controllers return to work after they refused the Federal Aviation Administration’s counteroffer of a shorter workweek and a less generous pay package. He also imposed a lifetime ban on rehiring the striking workers. It destroyed PATCO.

As historian Joseph McCartin pointed out in a 2011 essay in The New York Times, Reagan’s confrontation with PATCO transformed the American workplace and that the fallout from his actions “has hurt workers and distorted our politics” ever since.

It “undermined the bargaining power of American workers and their labor unions,” McCartin wrote. “It also polarized our politics in ways that prevent us from addressing the root of our economic troubles: the continuing stagnation of incomes despite rising corporate profits and worker productivity.”

The decision to induct a union buster to the Labor Hall of Fame is another telling example of where the priorities lie in the Trump administration. 

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