Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sympathy for the Devil



It is occasionally useful to put yourself in the shoes of someone else and try to walk a mile. Let’s try these shoes on for size.

Imagine you’re 25 years old and you decided to become an air traffic controller. The PATCO strike in 1981 occurred before you were born. What do you suppose you learned about the strike while growing up ? Anything ? Would it even be mentioned in the history books in high school or college ? If you went to one of the Collegiate Training initiative (CTI) schools I suppose it might. Otherwise, I doubt it. I wonder what the typical 25 year old thought of PATCO before they became a controller ? Before they themselves had to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Imagine being a teenager growing up during the “Republican Revolution” with Newt Gingrich laying all the country’s problems at the feet of the Democrats. A job made all too easy with Bill Clinton hamstrung by his own personal weaknesses. As soon as that nightmare is over, here comes George W. Bush, riding into Washington with his white hat on. There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s going to bring back all the “values” that we American’s admire. Truth, justice and The American (Ronald-Reagan-is-a-saint) Way.

What must that 25 year old controller be thinking now ? Loaded down with a mountain of debt from the CTI school, working next to others that didn’t even have to go to school, making a lot less than promised, possibly working a second (or third) job to make ends meet and working under the compassionate conservatism known as Imposed Work Rules.

What must they be thinking ?

My bet is that -- right about now -- they’re thinking that somebody lied to them. Somebody lied about how much they’d be earning. Somebody lied to them about what the job requirements were -- you have to go to a CTI school (but you don’t.) And that “somebody” wasn’t PATCO.

As a matter of fact, I’d bet more than a few of them are looking anew at the history of PATCO and what can be learned from it. The first thing that they’ll find is that PATCO wasn’t the devil that Saint Ronald made them out to be. The next thing that they’ll learn is that PATCO’s plight started out much like their own: Poor pay, excessive overtime and an oppressive and deceitful management. Sympathy for the devil will follow shortly thereafter.

There is some great quality that remains undefined in my mind about America. Some call it a yearning for freedom -- for lack of a better analysis or a better term. I once read it described as a national short-term memory. Once we’re proved wrong we, as a nation, move on and forget about it. We tend to amend our ways but we don’t beat ourselves up about it. That was back then. This is now. We’re better now. Let’s move on. A national willingness to forgive ourselves of our transgressions, if you will.

I wish to add to that line of thought. Americans refuse to be oppressors, even if we are. If you’re the oppressed, America will root for you, even if it means rooting against ourselves. But first, you must truly be oppressed. And then recognized.

PATCO-pre-Poli made tremendous gains for air traffic controllers. They didn’t happen overnight. NATCA regained any ground lost to Saint Ronald in the PATCO strike and made a few gains of their own. NATCA’s successes didn’t happen overnight either. But they were moving forward, right up until the reign of King George.

It’s hard to understand the Bush Administration’s attack on government employees outside of an ideological framework. Perhaps that is the reason so many in America still don’t understand what is happening to their government. I’m not sure that President Bush has an ideological framework so much as the people behind the throne do. They aren’t really interested in explaining their motivations (at least not in public) and President Bush really isn’t the man to explain anybody’s ideology -- much less his own.

Regardless, this too shall pass. To hasten that day and prepare for the future, I’d recommend looking at the examples of the past. If you still think it is only the victors that write history, you haven’t been paying attention. The victors might have been the only ones that could afford to write the books, once upon a time, but that is no longer the case. Magazines are even cheaper. Blogs are free.

I don’t think a college-educated crowd with the internet, email, text- messaging and YouTube will have much trouble finding new and creative techniques -- legal techniques -- to make their point. One thing I’m certain of -- they won’t suffer the role of the oppressed silently.

Don Brown
October 16, 2007

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