On August 3rd, 1981 12,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off their jobs, on strike. They were asking for better wages and safer working conditions among other things. As Federal employees, they were however, not legally able to strike. President Reagen ordered them back to work. Two days later, on August 5th, 12,000 PATCO workers were fired. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article about it. And another link from Labor Notes.
In 1981 I was a union steward with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. on September 18th, Minnesota filled two chartered buses for the trip to Washington D.C. in support of PATCO. We left St. Paul at 7:00 am and drove 24 hours to reach D.C. by 7:00 am Saturday, September 19th. We smoked cigarettes and drank beer the entire way there. I was young, what can I say. The Minnesota delegation was treated to a conference by some of our Democratic leaders at the Rayburn House Office Building. We cleaned up in their bathrooms and prepared for the March. We had picket signs and hats and tee shirts in support of PATCO. None of us really understood the significance of the day.
While we walked to where the march was to begin we ran into a car load of reporters from WCCO TV in Minneapolis-St Paul. One of them yelled out the window, “Hey Minnesota, Where do we go?” We told them to follow us, and they did. The plan was to march down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol. Then we would gather on the Capitol Green between the Washington Monument and the Capitol for the rally with several speakers scheduled. No one realized the support that would be shown that day. Somewhere between 250,000 to 500,000 people came to support their union brothers and sisters. It was the largest protest march up to that day ever in Washington D.C. At the link above from Labor Notes, there is a picture of the rally.
It was an unbelievable sight and I am very proud to have made history for the Union Labor Movement. There was so many people there that we were unable to march. As far as I could see there was nothing but people. Union people. Even though the PATCO workers didn’t get their jobs back we made a very strong statement for organized labor. We spent the day listening to speakers and making new union friends. President Reagen was invited to come and speak about the issue but he never showed. No one expected him to.
When it was over we (the Minnesota delegates) were going to ride the subway to where the buses were parked. As it happens, the subway wasn’t running and so we walked 18 blocks after being awake for 36 hours and on our feet for 12 hours. Needless to say, we slept some on the way back. For more information on this historic day, Google “solidarity day 1981”. Much has been made of that day but the strongest feeling that I came away with was of belonging to a nation wide group that had real meaning. We really cared about each other and our future. I have only had one job since then that wasn’t a union job and I plan to retire still being a union member. For those of you who don;t agree with unions, remember this: The 40 hour work week, 8 hour day, over time pay, vacation pay, sick time pay, sick leave, seniority, the ability to have insurance through your employer, safe working conditions and no child labor were all brought to you by labor unions. People DIED fighting for these things that today, most people take for granted. Let us never forget that the freedoms we have today were not free. Someone, many someones fought long and hard for those freedoms. And the fight goes on.