Air traffic controller vs. US

I do not blame any air traffic controller for being dissatisfied with an offer by his goverment to limit his raise in pay to six percent, which is what the government was offering just before the controllers went out on strike.

The controllers wanted a lot more than a six percent raise.

What they wanted, along with about everyong else in the United States, and also in most other countries, is to have the government underwrite their standard of living and see to it that they enjoy, every year, an improvement in standard of living, not a decline.

This is the problem of the times for government. It is universal. It does not distinguish between capitalist and communist countries. It does not distinguish between developed and underdeveloped, between North and South, or East and West. Almost everywhere in these times people omit look to government to improve their lot, regularly, every year. And they, the people, can become unpleasant if they find their standard of living is actually going down, or is even being threatened with a decline.

President Reagan discovered just how strongly a lot of Americans feel about this when he talked about the possibility of cutting back just a little on some of the terms of the social security system. Mr Reagan's popularity and power are at what is probably an unparalleled peak. He can humiliate the opposition in the Congress on almost anything to do with budget and taxes -- except for social security.

He wanted to take the bottom out from under the social security system by eliminating its mimimum benefit of $122 a month. In the House of Representatives that proposal won the support of 17 Republicans and three Democrats. All the rest, 404 in all, voted against him. There are limits to what even Ronald Reagan can do.

Today's younger generation does not realize how remarkable this new condition is, or indeed that it is new. What is the first function of government today? Why, of course, to maintain employment and income.

When I came into the practice of journalism in 1929 such ideas of government responsibility simply did not exist in "respectable" quarters in the US.The accepted function of government was to maintain the armed forces, fight wars when necessary, conduct diplomacy, and collect such taxes as people were willing and able to pay.

The idea of the federal government going far outside those activities was novel and highly controversial. Yes, there were national parks. But that was radical and by no means yet accepted across the entire political spectrum. It was all right to raise tariffs to protect American industry. But it was not all right for workers to go on strike to try to improve their terms of labor. The idea of a strike was still a radical one.

The great change came during the depression which began in 1929 and lasted to World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a radical because he conceived of making jobs and supporting them out of the public revenue. Most newspapers, including this one, thundered against the assumption by government of the responsibility of trying to keep people at work. Employment was the function of private enterprise, not of government.

What a long way we have come in such a short time.

What was novel and surprising about the air traffic controller's strike? No one was surprised that they went on strike with demands which by President Reagan's calculations were 17 times the benefits which the government had offered and could afford. It was novel and startling when a President of the US said a firm no to such demands, refused to bargain while the strike continued, and said to the strikers, back on the job in 48 hours or you are out of a job.

That sort of thing has not been said to workers in any modern industrial democracy for a very long time. And yet, somehow, one senses that the time had come when it had to be said if the modern democracies are to remain economically solvent and even viable. The alternative is endless inflation. If Mr Reagan had given in to the controllers for even some part of their demands he would have lost his chance of getting control of the economy and bringing inflation down to tolerable levels.

The record in the US since World War II is such that the air traffic controllers had every reason to think that they could strike and win. That has been the pattern for so long that nothing else seemed credible. suddenly, it becomes possible, and credible, for a President to say no. It is a turning point. It means that bringing down the inflation is conceivable. It means that there may be a way out of the stagflation bog in which all of the modern i ndustrial democracies have been wallowing for too long.

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