While Ronald Reagan was eulogized as a charismatic, upbeat and beloved personality during the five-day funeral program of homage in his honor, hardly any mention was made that he was the first U.S. president to break a strike by a labor organization. There were no comments whatever about Reagan from the AFL-CIO or its major affiliates.
In 1981, President Reagan fired 10,000 federal air-traffic controllers who had gone on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Then he refused to allow any of the strikers to return to their jobs. It destroyed their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and had a demoralizing effect on the entire labor movement for years.
Ironically, during his actor days, Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild and was a progressive Democrat who supported liberal causes. His transformation as a Republican began after he became master of ceremonies for General Electric events and realized his talent for captivating live audiences. He was then persuaded by top Republicans and business interests to run for governor of California, a position he held for eight years, and that was to become a stepping-stone to two four-year terms in the White House.
One of Reagan's prime goals was to "get the government off our backs" by slashing federal programs for the poor and disadvantaged. His highly publicized metaphor was the "welfare queen" who rides around in her Cadillac to collect food stamps, an image which he used to attack federal welfare programs. To further reduce spending on federally subsidized school lunches, Reagan proposed to classify ketchup as a vegetable.
At the same time, he persuaded Congress to approve large tax cuts for the wealthy and create a federal budget deficit that was the largest in American history. During Reagan's presidency, he was also criticized for trying to cripple the Civil Rights Commission's anti-discrimination actions. Unions accused his administration of weakening workplace safety standards. He appointed Antonin Scalia as the most conservative member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
With his charming manner and glib wisecracks, Reagan became known as the "Teflon" president, because most criticism of him, however valid, never stuck. One of the more damaging attacks was his failure to speak out publicly against AIDS until five years after it had become a major crisis and nearly 21,000 Americans had died of the disease and many thousands more had been infected.
Reagan was the "great communicator" of his time. He was able to infuse the public with an optimism that was not warranted by reality. He preached a strong America and had no problem in getting Congress to double the Pentagon budget, even though it meant short-changing essential social services.
Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), a plan to protect the United States from a nuclear attack by intercepting incoming rockets, was a delusion from the start. After 20 years and $80 billion, it remains a wasted effort.
Outside of his winning the arms race against the Soviet Union, Reagan's foreign policy has undergone much criticism. After Congress passed sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa, Reagan vetoed the measure.
Reagan violated international law by engaging in an "arms for hostages" deal with Iran, using the weapons to support the "contra" rebels, accused of human rights abuses in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration maintained relations with Saddam Hussein even after he had used chemical weapons against his own people.
Nevertheless, Reagan's influence has been enormous. He made conservatism the nation's dominant economic and political ideology, marginalizing the labor movement and putting liberals on the defensive. His policies in support of racial bigotry and attacks on welfare programs brought many blue-collar workers to become "Reagan Democrats" and provided a substantial number of votes in winning the White House for George W. Bush, who is now continuing the Reagan legacy.
Our weekly "LaborTalk" and "Labor and the War" columns can be viewed at our Web site www.laboreducator.org. Union members who wish information about the AFL-CIO rank-and-file reform movement can visit www.rankandfileaflcio.org.