Abandoned by the President, with minimal support from the public or related industry groups like the FAA, the union was left looking feckless. Compare this basic situation to the effects of the Railroad Strike of 1877. When railroad workers struck in Martinsburg, West Virginia, for higher pay in 1877, traffic was brought to a halt for weeks. The country flocked to the defense of striking workers; riots spread across Philadelphia, Saint Louis and Pittsburgh leaving numerous deaths in their wake. When the military was called in, demonstrations escalated into a small scale war on the streets of Baltimore.
During the air traffic controllers' strike, the public barely blinked. Anybody with a technical job watching the situation unfold had to feel shaken that, as smart and skilled as they thought they were, they could be instantly replaced.
However, what was lost in the public's perception of that strike is that although Reagan was able to replace a majority of the strikers, it wasn't easy. Most of the positions were only temporarily filled by air traffic controllers from the military and other sectors until permanent replacements could be found. And even then, it took ten years to replace all of the blacklisted workers.
Finding somebody that knows how to operate all the knobs and switches of a traffic control panel, knows landing protocol and knows how the whole process comes together is much harder than one might think. Air traffic control is not a trade that can be learned overnight with an instructional manual.
To this day, only one air traffic controller handles all of the landings at a number of major hubs. When the controller handling D.C.'s Reagan National Airport recently fell asleep on the job after working four consecutive overnight shifts, planes were forced to land unassisted, thankfully without incident.
If the air traffic controllers' strike was a failure of labor relations, it wasn't because of the unimportance of technical skills; it was the under-appreciation of them. Information technology workers tend to trivialize what they do -- out of humility or just to make complex tasks more approachable -- to the extent that they never speak up for themselves. They are more likely to complain about the user interface design on a software application than their own lot in life.
In a way, it's a very selfless worldview where rational accomplishment is a goal in and of itself, there's no need for power, and all anybody needs in life is access to information. But at a certain point, freedom of information can only go so far. Improving peoples' lives requires access to power, even if the bureaucratic processes involved in achieving that power are completely abhorrent to the independent computer programmer lifestyle.
In the world of labor relations, organized unions have been the best option towards progress for workers. So far, nobody has been able to develop an app that can replace them.
Image: NARA/Alexis Madrigal.