Falling in Love on a PATCO Picket Line

Where better to find the love of your life than on a picket line for the heartbreaking 1981 PATCO strike?

PATCO strikers picket San Francisco International Airport on September 5, 1981. (John O'Hara / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In 1981, seven months after taking office, former Hollywood actors union leader Ronald Reagan sent his infamous signal to the world that the official attitude of the United States government toward trade unions would henceforth be unremitting hostility. In firing over ten thousand striking air traffic controllers and destroying the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), President Reagan provided an opportunity to labor leadership in the airline unions and the broader AFL-CIO to step up and face forcefully the challenge of a new stage of labor-capital conflict. Following a few days of saber-rattling and tough talk — with William Winpisinger of the Machinists even uttering the words “general strike” — those union leaders made a firm decision: to step back and cave in.

Before the strike officially gave up the ghost, the Bay Area labor movement called a demonstration at San Francisco International Airport in support of the picketing PATCO members. I attended as part of a contingent from a small socialist group, Workers Power, which a few years later merged with a couple other left grouplets to form what is today Solidarity.

Comrades from both sides of the Bay came out in the late summer afternoon to carry signs and chant alongside PATCO members and sisters and brothers from a number of unions. Representatives of the air traffic controllers, other airline unions, the California AFL-CIO, and the San Francisco labor council thundered through a bullhorn at perhaps five hundred angry people, vowing that they’d never let PATCO die.

Most people listening suspected that the strike had already been lost. In a way, this was not too surprising. PATCO had been one of two unions in 1980 to break ranks and support Reagan against Jimmy Carter (the other was the Teamsters), and the temperature of the solidarity of the other unions was understandably lukewarm. But that afternoon, for a moment, it burned red hot.

Following their speeches, most of the top labor leaders went home. So did the police, leaving behind their sawhorses that were meant to set the boundaries of the picket line along the sidewalk in front of the United terminal. The rest of us resumed picketing in a long circle behind the sawhorses. I was walking and chanting about fifteen feet behind a couple of sign-carrying Workers Power comrades: Maureen, a medical resident, and Jan, a Social Security worker.

I knew Jan a bit better, since Maureen’s crazy schedule in family-practice residency kept her from making most Workers Power meetings. The first time I had seen Maureen in action came as she chaired a forum on electoral politics cosponsored by Workers Power, the Peace and Freedom Party, and the New American Movement. I noted her poise in front of a noisy and occasionally rowdy crowd of a hundred people, including the moment when, introducing the panel of speakers, she said, “On the left, Bob Brenner,” the leftist historian, and someone catcalled from the crowd, “That’s your left, Maureen.” The crowd laughed, and a second ripple of laughter came with the realization that the correction was a double pun. Unflustered, she waited for the merriment to subside, politely said, “Thank you for that insight,” and went on with the introductions. I was impressed with her composure.

The next time I saw Maureen came in the run-up to Solidarity Day on September 19. This was organized labor’s big response to the busting of PATCO. Impressive though the numbers were — some hundreds of thousands of union members marching and demonstrating in Washington, DC, and San Francisco — it had zero impact on the PATCO struggle. Given the choice between a full-on confrontation between labor and the anti-union Reagan administration and a symbolic gesture, president Lane Kirkland and the other suits leading the AFL-CIO timidly chose the latter, a decision with terrible consequences for labor and the working class cascading for decades.

A week before the demo, I went out with a bucket of wheat paste, a couple brushes, and a stack of posters to help advertise the upcoming event. I convinced Workers Power to pay local artist Mike Mosher to design the poster. After they were printed, we distributed them among the comrades and divided turf across the Bay Area. Maureen and I spent a day together plastering them onto telephone poles and walls around San Francisco’s Mission and Haight districts, the 1981 equivalent of social media promotion.

At SFO, after a few turns around the picket line, I saw Jan and Maureen say a couple words to each other and nod as they approached the end of the circle. Instead of simply turning back along the other side of the picket, they kicked down the saw horses, stepped over them, and crossed the lane of traffic running parallel to the sidewalk to a pedestrian island, where they resumed walking back in the other direction. We all followed them. The picket line, still a long circle, was now blocking a lane of traffic.

Beyond the raised concrete island we were walking on was a second one, past another traffic lane. When Jan and Maureen came around the circle, once more they stepped out into the next lane, and again everyone continued behind them. The picket line now blocked off two lanes, and what lay ahead were two more, the artery by which vehicles circulated through the airport.

The cars rolling on these two lanes were moving considerably faster than the ones that had been inside the islands. They were either coming into the airport to unload their passengers for flights or heading back to the freeway and home after picking them up. As Jan and Maureen drew near the end of the island again, I held my breath: What were they going to do this time around? Without hesitation they stepped in front of the mass of oncoming cars, which came to an abrupt halt, some with tires screeching. Several people picketing between me and the women came up to the edge of the curb, wobbled for a second, and then stepped out into the road. I joined them, and a flood of picketers ran out.

In a minute, hundreds of us, slightly astonished at what we had done, faced a growing clog of cars. Within ten minutes, the cars bunched up, packed tightly, throughout the airport. A half hour later, the traffic jam had spread to the freeway, and soon after that, all the way back to San Francisco. The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next morning featured a photo above the fold with a solid sea of stopped cars on Highway 101.

No one had planned this stoppage, not even Jan and Maureen, so improvisation flourished. We talked with and leafleted the peeved drivers, explaining our action. We shouted slogans and chants. We stamped our picket signs on the road in time to our chants. We sang “Solidarity Forever” and, appropriately, “We Shall Not Be Moved.” People gave impromptu speeches. A few drivers attempted to move through or around the throng, but discovered their vehicles were quickly covered with bodies.

Over the course of two hours, we held firm. Hundreds of planes left, empty. Thousands of passengers, for whom we felt somewhat bad, missed their planes. The police couldn’t get to us because the road was impassable. Somewhere in the middle of that, I overheard two PATCO members standing behind me assessing the scene. “You know,” said one to the other, “If we had done this the first day, here and in the other airports, we could have won.” A lightbulb moment: two workers wrapping their minds around the demonstrated power of solidarity and direct action.

Another illumination: the thought came to me that I’d like to get to know Maureen a little better. A dozen exhilarated comrades went together to dinner that night. Except for Maureen and me, the others were paired off in couples. As if reading my mind, Jan maneuvered the two of us into sitting next to one another.

We began to spend more time with one another. Soon we were dating, eventually moved in together, got married, had kids. Forty years later, we’re growing old but we’ve survived, still arm in arm in the class struggle. If only the same might have been said for PATCO.