Ronald Reagan and a Nation at Work

Ronald Reagan and a Nation at Work

By John F. Di Leo – 

Reflections on the days when a labor leader led our nation, on the great man’s birthday…

As the author writes this column, dozens of ships, each one laden with tens of thousands of truckloads of cargo, are sitting in the Pacific, parked for weeks at a time in a line, waiting for the West Coast longshoremen to stop their slowdown and get back to work.

Modern containerships are measured in TEUs, a unit of measure specific to the transportation industry.  The standard intermodal container (so-called because it can be transported by truck, rail, or ship, easily transferred from one to the next by gantry crane), is either 20’ or 40’ long and 8’ high. There are other sizes – some 45’ long, some 9’ high – so rather than asking how many containers a ship holds, we measure them in Twenty-foot Equivalent Units, or TEUs.  A 40’ container is two TEUs, a 45’ container is 2.25 TEUs, etc.

The modern transpacific container ship holds anywhere from 3500 to 22,000 TEUs.  Since the 40’ container is the most common, and is most familiar to us as being about the size of the typical trailer we see hauled by semis on our nation’s roads, we can therefore think of each of these ships as holding at least 1750, and as many as 11,000, full big truckloads of cargo.

Today, there are dozens of such ships outside of Los Angeles alone, with more parked outside Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, and the other ports of the West Coast.  Do the math; there are millions of truckloads of cargo sitting, waiting, for weeks, waiting to arrive, and waiting to be shipped, because of the current West Coast labor crisis.

It’s not a strike, but an illegal slowdown, expressly forbidden by their contract, but joyfully utilized by one of the nation’s most corrupt labor unions at contract renewal time.  The current negotiations have been going on since spring, 2014, and they’re not going well.  The union has caused the backlog to grow through the late fall and winter, causing cargo to miss Christmas sales, causing manufacturers of export goods to be unable to ship by year’s end.

The longshoremen, clerks, and crane operators of the ILWU have an average salary of $147,000/year.  They have opportunities for tons of overtime.  Their healthcare is fully paid by the carriers (no twenty or thirty percent employee contribution as is typical in the private sector).  They have a generous pension; most will retire with fifty to ninety thousand dollars per year in pensions… but they want more.

They have been offered a five year contract guaranteeing 3% yearly raises… continued full support of pensions and healthcare… but that’s not enough.   What the labor union cares most about is the fight against automation, the standard progress of modern commerce, and the ONLY way that a port can handle the big modern containerships.

So we are at an impasse, and the union slows down, hamstringing commerce, costing the economy, by some measures, about a billion dollars a day.

They know they have the rest of us over a barrel, because all the west coast ports are unionized, and the trip through Panama to the Gulf Coast or East Coast is long and expensive (and not even an option for the biggest modern ships, two big to travel through the Panama Canal).  So commerce stagnates, and the nation suffers, and we pray that federal government-appointed mediators will find a way.  But so far, no luck on that hope either.

This could be viewed in micro – a dispute between management and labor, between the dockworkers (longshoremen, clerks, and crane operators) on the one hand, and the shipowners and port facility managers on the other.

But the cargo they carry is for wholesalers and retailers, for manufacturers and distributors, for farmers and consumers.  We buy goods that were imported on these ships.  We go to work every day, manufacturing products that are exported on these ships.  By hamstringing the ports, this slowdown – a strike-without-a-strike – is hurting us all.   Workers, truckers, manufacturers, buyers, salesmen, investors, consumers – we all suffer when the longshoremen’s union decides to play God with our lives.

Help could come from Washington.  A president with a broad understanding of all sides – manufacturing, transportation, labor, consumers, retail, investors, finance, etc. – could use the bully pulpit of his office, as well as the authority of the National Labor Review Board, Department of the Interior, Maritime Administration, and all the other federal agencies with a legitimate stake in this battle.

But we do not have a president with a broad understanding of all sides.  We are stuck with a president who reflexively sides with labor’s most extreme agitators.  When there is a dispute between different branches of labor, as in this case (factory workers, truckers, railroad employees, and every other unionized profession in America is being crippled by the longshoremen’s action), the current Resident of the White House just buries his head in the sand and stays out of it.

It didn’t have to be this way.

A Labor Leader with Vision

On February 6, 1911, a baby boy was born in Tampico, Illinois.  He was named Ronald Wilson Reagan (Wilson being a family name on his mother’s side; this was no mark of allegiance to the destructive president of the nineteen-teens)… but his father heard his cries and quipped “for a little bit of a fat Dutchman, he sure can scream, can’t he?!” and the nickname – Dutch – stuck for the rest of his life.

Dutch Reagan was raised in near-poverty, the lowest of working class conditions, in an Irish Protestant home in northwestern Illinois.  He lived in Tampico, Chicago, and Galesburg, each for a short time… as his father moved from job to job… but he spent the longest time in Dixon, and considered that fine small town to be his home town.  He attended college at Eureka, became a sportscaster just across the Mississippi, and as we all know, moved out west in his twenties to try his hand at acting.

A fine, talented actor, handsome and clear of tone, he had some dramatic hits, and some fun light comedy too, a successful actor in the second tier, never quite an Errol Flynn, but known and respected nevertheless.  He became active in the budding union of actors, the Screen Actors Guild, and wound up serving as president of SAG for six terms, from 1947 through 1952, and again in 1959-1960.

His brilliance as a labor leader was that he was never some short-sighted shop steward, fighting for concessions in every negotiation, but rather, was always interested in the big picture.  He looked to the future, and aimed for the long term.

As SAG president, Reagan supported the film and television industry – knowing that only if the industry thrived, could the actors be paid.   He thought of the future, never resisting automation or other changes, but focusing SAG on how its members could be a constructive part of societal change.  As many actors resisted television, Reagan embraced it, and helped create new secondary or replacement careers as the movie offers dried up or never developed at all.  To Reagan, television wasn’t a competitor to film, but another place for his actors to work and exhibit their craft.

Always he thought of the big picture, even when working on a small screen.

A Labor Leader in the White House

Ronald Reagan gradually entered the political world, first as a spokesman and speechmaker in the 1950s and early 1960s, then as a Goldwater supporter in 1964, when his televised endorsement hit the airwaves.  His October 1964 presentation was entitled “A Time for Choosing,” but for fifty years now it has simply been known as The Speech.  No other individual summarized the challenges and the political divides of the 20th century as did Ronald Reagan in that magnificent address.

Again, it was his ability to see the big picture, and eloquently explain it to an audience, that launched the 1966 campaign that put him in the California governor’s mansion in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s for two terms, and then in the White House for two magnificent terms in the 1980s.

When he arrived in the White House, he was the first former labor leader ever to be elected President.  Not just a union member or shop steward, Reagan was a long-serving union president, and of one of the highest-profile unions in the country, no less!  All laborers had reason to expect his eight years to be good for them, and they certainly were; he did everything he could to boost the economy, spurring factory starts and job creation, cutting taxes and in particular, fighting bracket creep, so that people moving up the ladder from the line to foreman, and up to plant manager or better, would better enjoy their wage increases without taxes robbing them of their hard-earned rewards.

The laborers’ best friend was indeed the man in the Oval Office.  The 1980s were rough years for many workers – some industries were fleeing America for foreign shores, and nothing could halt that migration – but Reagan’s policies helped ensure that new jobs were created to replace the ones we were losing, and that a tight lid on inflation enabled apparent wage increases to be “real” again after the stagnation of the 1970s.  He saw the big picture, and did his best.

The PATCO Strike of 1981

Unfortunately, as Ronald Reagan was just taking office, just starting on his quest to do what needed to be done – appointing a Grace Commission to audit the federal government, building support for broad tax rate cuts to make the economy grow again, rebuilding a military that was dreadfully jeopardized by the years of Jimmy Carter’s errant leadership – Reagan was confronted by a threatened strike by a government employees’ union: PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association.

They were arguably overworked and underpaid, and they fulfilled an unquestionably critical role: they monitor the skies and ensure clear paths for pilots, safe takeoffs, safe landings, and safe flights.  Like the police and firemen in our cities and our battlefleets at sea, the air traffic controllers are there to keep Americans safe.

Under the law, such employees can collectively bargain, but they cannot strike; it would cause too great a danger to let them walk off in bulk.  In 1981, seeking wage increases that were reasonable and hours reductions that were not, this stubborn union threatened to strike, thinking that a President who had once led a union himself would automatically take their side.

They were mistaken. President Reagan reasserted the fact of such a strike’s illegality; he ordered his negotiators to be responsible in their negotiations – to be as fair as possible to the workers and the taxpayers alike – but continuously warned the union that they must not strike, or they WOULD be fired.

Despite management making the best offers they could, the union thought they would “call Reagan’s bluff”… and they struck.

And Ronald Reagan did what he had to do: He directed the government to effect their crisis plan (a combination of non-striking workers and managers took the helm and went to work), and fired every striking employee, issuing an order that they could NEVER be rehired as air traffic controllers again.  Yes, it was a lifetime ban.

As President Coolidge put it:  There is no right to strike against the public good.

Seeing the Big Picture

There were union leaders who were amazed at Reagan’s clear and decisive action; even though they knew, of course, that he was a conservative Republican, many thought that, in his heart, he would still take the side of labor versus management… that his union roots would win out.

But what these short-sighted trade unionists failed to appreciate was that Ronald Reagan had always seen the big picture, in everything he did.  He remembered his roots as a working class kid in rural Illinois, and as a struggling actor with months between jobs.  But he also knew that no negotiation is all about the desires of one side of the table.

Labor actions in a factory affect not only the workers and the managers, but also the restaurants and schools and shops of the town that surrounds the factory.  If the factory shuts down, the whole town may collapse.

Labor actions in a school affect not only the teachers and the school board;  a teachers’ strike can leave working parents torn between taking time off and even losing their jobs.

Labor actions in a police or fire district affect not only the hardworking policemen and firemen – who we do value, and who we would love to reward better if we could – but they also can result in putting a community at risk of crime, arson, and other dangers.

So too, when President Reagan looked at the PATCO crisis, he thought of the long hours in which air traffic controllers were responsible for the safety of our airlines and airports, for passengers and crewmen, the travel and cargo industries, and he came to a conclusion: we should do what we can, as employers, to look out for the best interests of the responsible controllers who stayed on, but we should interpret their willingness to strike as a violation of that honorable concern.  Someone in their position knew better than anyone what would be the result of their walking off as a block, and must be dealt with, severely, for such a heinous violation of a public trust.

Ronald Reagan saw the big picture, and he did his job as President.  America was immediately better off for it.

The Crisis Today

Today’s situation is not just limited to the West Coast seaports.  All over the nation, we see rumblings of union actions today… refinery workers along the gulf coast…   a bus union in Arizona… power plant workers in New York…  and it speaks to one thing: a loss of the big picture, in the eyes of the participants.

We live in an interconnected economy, one in which ever-larger groups have ever-more power to do ever-more damage to the lives of people who anyone would think were entirely unrelated to the point of crisis.

For good or ill, we have moved to a faster-paced economy – business majors call it “the Just In Time model” – in which any holdup along the supply chain disrupts the rest of society, costing us money, costing us time, costing us opportunity.   The law must recognize this shift; actions that might not have been recognized to be “a strike against the public good” a century ago may very well be deleterious to the public good today.

The ILWU – well-paid, well-protected, well-guaranteed – is costing us all billions of dollars by their illegal slowdown.  They are causing businesses to fail, as agricultural goods spoil while waiting for transportation, as truckers are stuck with containers they can’t deliver or cargo they cannot pick up.

Union factory workers stay at home as their production lines are down, awaiting imported parts for further production, or as their inventories of export product are full and stagnant, awaiting a way to ship the goods to fill orders.

The big picture is clear: it’s time for government to value the individual and stop overvaluing the organized.  It’s time for government to respect society and stop letting a greedy group illegally hold everyone else hostage.

But it takes a real president to make that case, and to focus the engine of the United States government in the right direction; we don’t have such a president today.

But on this, the late Ronald Reagan’s birthday, we can at least remember the time, not too long ago, when we DID have a president with such vision… and we can use his memory, and the lessons of his life, as guidelines for the next president we choose.

There will never be another Ronald Reagan, but how fortunate we are that we had him once.

Copyright 2015 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is an international trade compliance trainer, actor, and journalist based in Chicagoland.  A former precinct captain and campaign activist, he has now been a recovering politician for over 17 years.

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.  Follow John F. Di Leo on LinkedIn or Facebook, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo, or at his own webpage at

“Ronald Reagan and a Nation at Work” was originally published in Illinois Review, HERE.

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