Union and government officials both agreed Monday that the California Supreme Court’s decision to allow strikes by public employees will substantially increase union strength at the bargaining table.
But they disagreed on whether the court’s ruling would increase the number of strikes by public employee unions, which in recent years have become the fastest growing labor organizations in America. Despite repeated lower court rulings against such activity, public employee unions have often gone out on strike in an effort to achieve better contracts.
Leo Geffner, attorney for the Service Employees International Union Local 660, which won the case, contended that the court ruling may actually decrease the number of strikes because “now management will negotiate more realistically at the bargaining table and not rely on the illegality of strikes to take advantage of workers.”
The lower court rulings against strikes often led to walkouts, Geffner said, because management “had to be shown that their workers would engage in a walkout if necessary.”
Won’t Be Reluctant
But Steven Weinstein, an attorney for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, which initiated the legal action leading to Monday’s ruling, scoffed at Geffner’s suggestion.
Weinstein said that in the past many public employee unions had “acted in a responsible fashion” and did not strike because of lower court rulings against walkouts.
Now, he said, those unions will not be as reluctant to strike.
David Johnson, head of the Sanitation Districts, said he was “disappointed but not distressed” by the court ruling.
“We have always bargained in what we think was a realistic manner,” he said, and the fact that unions can now legally call a strike will not change that stand.
Los Angeles city and county officials said the ruling apparently takes away a powerful negotiating tool from government officials who had used the threat of injunction to bring unions into line during contract talks.
Donovan Main, Los Angeles County counsel, said such injunctions meant that the courts could levy large fines against striking union officials. He and other officials said the injunctive power was “a disincentive to strike.”
But Main noted that management rarely has used the courts to force public employees to settle their strikes.
“Usually strikes are resolved through the bargaining process, and the public entity does not pursue punitive action,” he said.
In the 1960s, the California Legislature gave public workers the right to join unions and engage in what was called “meet and confer” discussions with government managers.
Since then, the Legislature has gradually expanded laws giving all 1.4 million state and local government workers the right to engage in formal collective bargaining with management and sign written labor union contracts.
While only 20% of non-government workers belong to unions, it is estimated that nearly half of the state’s public employees are union members. In addition, about 75% of all government workers in California are covered by union contracts even though not all are union members.
Although collective bargaining rights have grown over the years, the Legislature has refused to take a clear stand on the strike issue.
Only 10 other states--Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin--allow public workers at least a partial right to strike. California is the first state where a court ruling has given public employees the right to strike. In the other states, that right has come from their legislatures.
Strikes Now Commonplace
Laws and court rulings against public employee strikes have not been very effective in California or other states. In fact, such strikes have become so commonplace that officials no longer keep precise figures on their numbers.
The last official figures from California showed that in 1981 there were 13 government employee strikes compared to 51 in 1980.
And even at the federal level, where strikes also are clearly forbidden, there have been walkouts by postal workers and other federal employees.
While the federal government in recent years has rarely acted to break such strikes, President Reagan did fire all of the nation’s air traffic controllers who joined a walkout in 1981.
Times City-County Bureau Chief Bill Boyarsky contributed to this story.