In both the United States and the United Kingdom, the political might of conservative governments was tested by union strikes during the 1980s; the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in the US and the 1984-85 coal miner’s strike in the UK. Even with similar political views, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan made drastically different choices in response to the strikes; for Reagan, firing more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers immediately made sense, while Thatcher took a longer, more drawn out path in which the strike lasted nearly a year before burning out. Thatcher needed to cultivate anti-union sentiment within the United Kingdom in order to continue her agenda of privatization, while Reagan saw the immediate reaction as a way to craft a public image of a no-nonsense leader who wasn’t afraid to get things done.

With the 1980s strikes, both PATCO and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) perceived their interactions with the government to be a turning point in history. PATCO viewed the walkout as a vehicle for which the airline industry would be driven to a halt, pressuring the government to recognize PATCO as a force to be reckoned with [1]. NUM, aware that the Thatcher government was ready for a fight, elected the audacious Arthur Scargill as chairman, and prepared to defend what they saw as a battle against a remote authority over a way of life (Goodman, 1985). Both 1981 and 1984 acted as boiling points for union relations in the UK and the US, bringing the forces of conservative ideals against the power of the working class.

The most pivotal difference between the two strikes was the degree of power the two unions had within their respective countries; this has a clear impact on the different reactions between Thatcher and Reagan. The NUM was the quintessential militant union during the Conservative reign of Edward Heath, and many credit his downfall to the miners themselves [2]. Conversely, PATCO had only been formed in 1968 and, since its inception, dealt with legal criticisms from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) that questioned their legitimacy as a professional organization (as they considered themselves) rather than a mere trade union [3]. In sum, the NUM was seen as a militant, Marxist force that could topple even the strongest leaders, whereas PATCO was considered a union of minor importance within the grand scheme of labor relations. These two different atmospheres led to the stark difference in the responses of both Thatcher and Reagan.

The difference in reactions between Reagan and Thatcher can, in part, be explained by their relationship with unions leading up to the strikes. In Britain, Edward Heath’s loss to Wilson’s Labour government in 1974 was still fresh in Thatcher’s mind, and she knew knew that the miners would be a sticking point in her new administration. Many around her, including Jonathan Aitken (who served in Parliament) saw the struggle between mineworkers and the government as the ultimate battle to be won, and they approached the issue with a strong policy agenda already in place. As Aitken argued in his biography of Thatcher, it was Thatcher’s second term that “exorcised the demon of militant trade unionism which had done such damage to the economy throughout the 1970s, and had driven two prime ministers from office” [4].  Branding the NUM as the bane of the Conservative party’s existence allowed strong anti-union policymakers to be appointed to Thatcher’s government almost immediately, including the appointment of Ian MacGregor to the National Coal Board, who was not only known for being anti-union but was criticized for having no commitment to public sector enterprise (Goodman). Individuals such as MacGregor had immeasurable power to push the policy agenda that would prevent the unions from taking power, creating a strong policy stream from which to work.

Reagan’s response to the strike was advised by members of the Department of Transportation, including Secretary Drew Lewis who pushed Reagan towards the firings [5]. Not being virulently anti-union himself, Reagan’s response differed from Thatcher’s long-standing animosity not only with unions, but with NUM in particular. Reagan saw the strikers as a nuisance, but as one that could be exploited to create a personal image to prove his value to his party, and to the United States. For Reagan, the PATCO strike was not necessarily an opportunity for furthering a “union-busting” policy, although it was seen as a defining moment of his presidency. As Reagan said in his autobiography, “I didn’t think of it in such terms at the time, but I suppose the strike was an important juncture for our new administration [6]. I think it convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.” Instead of being a product of the larger policy agenda of pro-privatization, as was the case in the UK, Reagan was simply responding to a crisis as it had emerged organically. This helped create his public image as a tough, no-nonsense president, something that would be beneficial both at home and abroad.

Comparatively, the 1981 PATCO strike has much in common with the 1984-85 miner’s strike in the UK. Both were promulgated by increasingly tense labor-government relations, and both impacted public-sector workers who, according to them, were being unfairly treated by the government. The Thatcher response not only involved the problems and politics of a conservative government working with nationalized industries, but the policymakers involved created a culture that needed a more drawn-out response to the strike (which could be used in the future to push for the privatization of industries) rather than simply existing as a one-off response to a drastic measure taken by public employees. This drawn out response was necessary, rather than something as abrupt and harsh as firing 11,000 workers, because Thatcher needed to prove to the public that her goals of privatization were more than a swift reaction to hurt workers. It was not due to her inability to treat the miners with drastic measures, but rather her desire to create a narrative of anti-union sentiment featuring a drawn out, extensive, strike which was illegal and hurt the workers more than it helped.

Reagan’s response appears to be detached from long run labor policy, and conversely represents a strong reaction to a fluke in public labor relations, certainly supporting his image as a ‘man who sticks to his word’. A study of the two cases of union busting in the 1980s reveals that two conservative leaders, with different mindsets and different goals, approached the question of public sector unions in different ways. Despite this, their responses were formative for the future of labor relations in both the United States and United Kingdom. With the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, the downfall of the union as a political force in western nations became eminent.

Goodman, Geoffrey. The Miner’s Strike. Pluto Press, 1985, Australia.

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Melissa Keller is a Masters student at the London School of Economics, pursuing an MSc in Comparative Politics with a focus on comparative political economy. Her research interests include the intersection of racial discrimination and the welfare state in the United States, as well as the influence of organized labour on welfare development.

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