Ronald Reagan’s Approach to Unions & Organized Labor

January 03, 2018
IN HIS WORDS

Most private email users, like those who have registered a Reagan.com address, understand and appreciate the ideals of both freedom and privacy. Those are two of the principles that motivated President Ronald Reagan’s approach to organized labor.

        While unions and the Republican Party have often come to loggerheads, Reagan took a very hard stance against unregulated unions. Reagan believed that employers largely deserved the right to define their own business practices. Regulation by government or by unions could threaten that basic ideal, restricting companies’ productivity and contribution to the American dollar.

        During Reagan’s presidency, organized labor was on the rise, as workers mobilized to pursue more active roles in the management of their companies. In some cases, those efforts led to work stoppages, put companies’ security at risk and, in turn, workers’ livelihoods. One of the nation’s most well-known union crises came during Reagan’s presidency.

        Shortly after Reagan took the helm of the country, more than 13,000 air-traffic controllers went out on strike, following the collapse of contract talks between their union and the Federal Aviation Administration; the workers had sought higher wages and reduced working hours in a package that totaled more than $770 million. The strike grounded thousands of flights, stranding travelers across the country just as the summer-travel season was at its height.

        Reagan ordered the federal workers back to their posts, but they ignored his mandate; in an unprecedented decision, the president fired more than 11,000 of the workers. Non-striking workers were joined by military personnel to man the vacant posts, and air travel was quickly restored.

        Reagan’s bold pronouncement sent an unparalleled message to the private sector. Businesses gleaned that threats from unionized workers don’t need to go unanswered; they can take a hard line on their organizational principles and still be successful. The move also illustrated to unions that their employers have the right to maintain productivity and cohesion, with or without their buy-in.

                The president continued to reinforce that message throughout his tenure, demonstrating that, while the rights of individual workers are important, the overall bottom line of a company also must be respected, a concept that encouraged competition and workforce development for decades to come.

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