When President Reagan famously fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, the power of organized labor in the United States began a downward spiral that continues to this day.
The legacy of that mass firing and its impact on the future of labor unions will be examined by historian George Hopkins at Monmouth College’s 6th Annual Labor Day Lecture, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Whiteman-McMillan Highlander Room in Stockdale Center. Sponsored by the college’s history department, the lecture is free and open to the public.
Hopkins, who is emeritus professor of history at Western Illinois University, has titled his lecture “Labor’s Fatal Moment: Ronald Reagan and the 1981 PATCO Strike.”
In 1954, 40 percent of American workers belonged to labor unions, but now barely 10 percent do. Hopkins believes that the sharpest decline came during the Reagan era and was linked to the Professional Air Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. He will use the strike to ask if organized labor “is a dinosaur. Is it reduced to nostalgic bumper stickers on rusty pickup trucks that read ‘Labor Unions: The Folks Who Brought You a Weekend?’ Or, do unions still have a role in improving the lives and fortunes of working Americans?”
Continued Hopkins, who was voted Professor of the Year by WIU students in 1979, “My talk will focus on the collateral benefit to non-union labor when unions were strong. PATCO was so significant because it paved the way for the contemporary assault on public employee unions. Meanwhile, private sector unions have declined, not only because of market forces, but also because of bankruptcy law. Since 9/11, every major airline has declared bankruptcy. The effect on airline pilots has been devastating.”
Hopkins began teaching history at WIU in 1968 and taught full-time through 2005. He taught courses on modern U.S and East Asian history, including the Vietnam War.
He is the author of five books, including “The Airline Pilots: A Study in Elite Unionization (Harvard University Press, 1971), and many articles, mostly dealing with aviation and labor history. Known internationally as an expert in this field, Hopkins has been quoted in The New York Times and has been interviewed on network television and by many other news outlets.
Hopkins received his doctorate from the University of Texas in 1969 and his bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University in 1959. From 1959 to 1964, he was an officer and aviator in the U.S. Navy. He was stationed in Japan and flew patrol planes.