The Phelps Dodge copper mine in Morenci, Arizona. | National Archives
Joseph A. McCartin,  January 29

Breaking the Coulter Curse

The end of the government shutdown and the ghosts of strike-breakers past

The Phelps Dodge copper mine in Morenci, Arizona. | National Archives
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It seems that a dose of cosmic justice was meted out last week, as air traffic controllers calling in sick suddenly made President Donald Trump’s shutdown untenable. In short order, the tantrum-prone avatar of the southern border wall—who previously pledged that the shutdown could well drag on for months on end—caved in to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Ann Coulter, who helped shame Trump into pursuing the misguided shutdown strategy in the first place, was apoplectic, Trump’s base was dismayed, and the president’s approval ratings nosedived in the polls. This was a reckoning that was not just thirty-five days—but more than thirty-five years—in the making. 

As many longtime observers of the political scene have noted, it was fitting that a sickout by air traffic controllers in some key high-volume facilities caused massive delays on day thirty-five of the shutdown and helped force Trump to buckle. The last time air traffic controllers used collective action in such a decisive moment, the results were disastrous. When members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike in 1981, President Ronald Reagan vowed to fire and replace them if they did not report to work within forty-eight hours. When more than eleven thousand controllers defied him, Reagan followed through on his threat, wiping out the striking PATCO works, setting federal labor relations back a generation, and sparking a period of aggressive strike-breaking and anti-unionism in the private sector. This time, though, the story was different: air traffic controllers employed a strategic collective action to break free of their working-without-pay hostage status, and in the process they “evened the score,” as journalist Harold Meyerson writes.

But the poetic symmetry of a Reagan-era precedent being turned on its head in the Trump era does not end there. Consider the role played in the confrontation by Ann Coulter and the long historical arc that brought her there. 

This was a reckoning that was not just thirty-five days—but more than thirty-five years—in the making.

On December 19, when senators were still expecting to vote on a bill that would temporarily fund the government and postpone discussion of Trump’s border wall, the xenophobic right-wing pundit sprang into action. In a podcast interview for the Daily Caller, she goaded Trump by insisting that his whole presidency would become “a joke” if he did not use this moment to fight for his wall. Unless he rejected any stop-gap budget that did not include wall funding, Coulter further warned, she would not support him in 2020. By the next day, Trump had unfollowed her on Twitter, no doubt hoping she would be a lone voice in the right-wing wilderness. Instead, Rush Limbaugh, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, and others also began chiming in to urge Trump on. By December 21, Trump was committed to fighting for wall funding—and closing down the government to get it.

Arguably, this recent shutdown would not have played out the same way had Ann Coulter not thrown down the gauntlet to Trump. But even when Trump picked it up, Coulter was never optimistic that he had the courage it would take to win. By January 2, she began predicting that he would “fold” in the end. And when he finally did, she announced that Trump had displaced George H. W. Bush as “the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.” Trump, for his part, was left scratching his head about Coulter after the shutdown. “Maybe I didn’t return her phone calls or something,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Trump evidently doesn’t know Coulter all that well or grasp the animus she brought to this fight. In all likelihood, it wasn’t simply Trump’s failure to secure wall funding that angered Coulter, but the fact that he had retreated just as air traffic controllers and other federal workers undertook incipient collective action. You see, Ann Coulter hates unions. You might say it’s in her genes. Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO strike played an important role in her family’s history.  

Coulter’s father, John V. Coulter, was one of the people most responsible for translating the momentum of Reagan’s 1981 action into a war against labor strikes in the private sector. The elder Coulter became a notorious union buster in the post-PATCO era. Coulter was a former FBI agent specializing in counterintelligence who went on to serve as a vice president at the Phelps Dodge Corporation. In 1983, when Ann was twenty-one, the company’s president called John Coulter in from New York to join the bargaining process with Phelps Dodge’s miners’ unions, with one objective: to refuse to continue the cost-of-living adjustments encoded in earlier contracts, forcing the union into a strike. As Jonathan D. Rosenblum shows in his detailed 1995 account, Copper Crucible, the plan worked perfectly. Once the miners walked out, Coulter supervised the hiring of replacement workers. After a bitter three-year struggle, the union was destroyed.  

Like father, like daughter. Ann Coulter invokes that episode in her father’s life with evident pride, boasting that his work “culminated in the largest union decertification ever.” It’s not surprising then that for years she has expounded her antiunion views almost as enthusiastically as her opposition to immigration. Detroit’s post-Great Recession woes owe to “unions driving the jobs abroad,” she has claimed; as for public sector workers, she says they simply should “never, ever be allowed to organize.”

Ann Coulter hates unions. You might say it’s in her genes.

No doubt seeing government workers deal the coup de grâce to the shutdown she helped instigate added some bile to her denunciation of Trump as wimp-in-chief. And it’s safe to say that John Coulter, who died more than a decade ago, would have been every bit as angry over the specter of revived worker militancy forcing the shutdown’s settlement had he lived to see it.

What are we to make of this family saga and its connection to the shutdown struggle? For starters, the deeper historical forces at play here point up the potentially transformational nature of this moment. For decades, the U.S. labor movement has been haunted by the PATCO debacle that John Coulter helped leverage into a successful war against unions in the private sector. Once he showed that PATCO-style union-busting could be transferred to the private sector, many other employers followed suit, and a string of broken strikes unfolded across the 1980s. The long-term legacy of Coulter’s war shows up in a simple tally of strike actions: the number of large-scale strikes plummeted from an annual average of 289 in the 1970s to an annual average of only thirteen over the last decade. During those same years, of course, the anti-unionism John Coulter helped to spread so decisively in the private sector also laid the groundwork for the take-no-prisoners brand of weaponized conservative invective that his daughter would transform into a multimillion-dollar media brand.

As long as fear held workers in check, challenging that dynamic seemed hard. Yet last week’s good news on the labor front—from the air controllers’ action to the victorious Los Angeles teachers’ strike—suggests that fear might finally be giving way to workers’ growing desire for justice. And as we know from modern labor history, the collective longing for fair play in the workplace can easily spark a kindred desire for action prompting workers to take risks they might not have imagined taking before. 

Obviously, the struggle to win increased bargaining power in the fiercely unequal American workplace is going to be long and punishing, thanks to the Coulters and their like. But at long last, it may well be that the struggle is beginning in earnest. 

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor or History and Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.  He is the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.

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