Public Employees Need the Right To Strike

From Labor Notes:

Conservative politicians and media are aggressively challenging the right of public employee unions to bargain collectively. Both Republican and Democratic governors have pushed through bills that limit what unions can bargain over and have bludgeoned public workers into massive cuts.

Maybe, while we’re under such a ferocious attack, this is the time for unions to look past the right to bargain and assert the right to strike. As we approach the expiration of our contract January 15, this issue is important to Transport Workers Union Local 100.

Since 1966 TWU bus and subway workers in New York City have struck three times. Each strike was illegal—violating the ban on strikes in the state’s public sector bargaining laws—and cost the union and its members millions in fines.

The most recent strike, in December 2005, lasted two-and-a-half days. The union was fined $2.5 million, each striker was fined a day’s pay on top of the pay lost during the strike, the union lost dues checkoff, and the local’s president, Roger Toussaint, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for violating a court injunction.

Local 100 filed a complaint in 2009 with the International Labor Organization (the UN agency responsible for international labor standards) and the ILO has just ruled that the anti-strike Taylor Law violates international law.

The ILO found that, by prohibiting public workers’ strikes, the Taylor Law violates the fundamental right to free association. While the ILO recognizes exceptions to this right for workers performing “essential services,” it stated clearly clear that transport workers should not be included under any essential services law.

The ruling called for members’ fines to be reimbursed and for the union to be compensated for losses suffered while dues checkoff was suspended. (Checkoff was restored after 19 months, once Toussaint put in writing that the local does not assert the right to strike and has no intention of striking in the future.)

The ILO called on the U.S. to bring the various state laws restricting public workers’ right to belong to unions, bargain collectively, or strike into line with international conventions recognizing these rights.

The United Electrical Workers won a similar ILO ruling in 2007 against North Carolina’s prohibition of bargaining with public workers. The ILO can’t enforce its rulings, though, and North Carolina’s policy hasn’t changed.

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