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Ronald Reagan: The Union Buster

While Trump's Labor Secretary Alex Acosta inducts Reagan into the Labor Hall of Fame, here is the real truth behind Reagan's labor record

Kris LaGrange's picture
Mar 05, 2018

Last Thursday, Trump's Labor Secretary Alex Acosta inducted one of the more head-scratching inductees into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Fame, President Ronald Reagan. While Reagan was the only union president to ever get elected President of the United States, his record while he was in office was not what many would call pro-union. Here are some of his biggest attacks on organized labor.

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s farmworkers in California were being organized by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farmworkers. As Governor, Reagan had the opportunity to support the farmworkers on multiple occasions. Instead, he campaigned against the grape boycott, calling it immoral and attempted blackmail and appeared on TV eating grapes in defiance of the boycott. He also vetoed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act which would have given farmworkers the right to collectively bargain.

All of this was just the appetizer for the destruction that Reagan did once he was elected President. Perhaps his most public anti-union effort was when he fired 13,000 air traffic controllers who were on strike in the summer of 1981. The firings destroyed the union, PATCO, forcing the union to be decertified. Reagan also announced that the 13,000 striking members would be banned for life from working for the federal government. While some were allowed to be hired back in 1986, it wasn’t until 1993 that the ban was lifted on the remaining PATCO members. In a column in the Washington Post following the firing, columnist Harold Meyerson said this was “an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got that message loud and clear -- illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad." Throughout the rest of his term, there were no more major strikes.

Reagan also used his appointments to set a lasting legacy for breaking unions. He would appoint 3 management representatives to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) causing it to significantly depart from its legal obligation to help promote collective bargaining. Under the board, they settled only half the cases the NLRB did under President Jimmy Carter and found in favor of the employer in 75% of the cases. For comparison, the board under Republican President Richard Nixon only found in favor of the employer in 33% of cases. Most of the cases found in favor of employers were around firing workers who were organizing. The board would often stall cases for an average of three years and even when they decided in favor of the employee they would often only award back wages. Now thirty plus years later, that standard is often used in NLRB cases.

The situation at the Department of Labor wasn’t much better. While the DOL continued to strictly enforce disclosure rules for unions, they cast a blind eye to high priced union-busting and consulting firms that began popping up. With no oversight, these high-priced firms took action to squash organizing drives by dumping millions of dollars of dark money into these firms. At the same time, Reagan made it less safe to be a worker. He closed 1/3 of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration offices (OSHA), decreased the staff by 25% and eliminated 75% of the penalties against employers. Instead of tough penalties against bad employers, OSHA began seeking voluntary compliance. Under the guise of reducing federal regulation, the Reagan administration forced OSHA to drop rules that required companies to pool their information about hazardous materials that might be used on a job site meaning that a laborer might not know that a painter is using a chemical that could be dangerous without the proper safety gear. His administration routinely used this excuse to block numerous OSHA regulations over his eight years in office.

Reagan’s Presidency marked the end of a bi-partisan union movement and moved the Republican Party far closer to big business. It also established a number of anti-union precedents within federal agencies that have taken decades to fix. Over the eight years Reagan was in office, union membership dropped from about 20% to just 16%. Since then, union membership has continued to decrease, with it now being about half of what it was during Reagan’s presidency. When looking at unions history in the United States, there is a clear delineation between before Reagan and after Reagan.

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