Labor groups Tuesday applauded the state Supreme Court ruling giving public employees the right to strike as a landmark decision in labor relations, but most union leaders and government employers said they don’t believe it will lead to a rash of work stoppages.
Some of those commenting on Monday’s 6-1 ruling agreed with Justice Allan Broussard, who wrote in the majority decision that the right to strike could provide the incentive to resolve disputes at the negotiating table and prevent, rather than encourage, disruptive job actions by public employees.
Others, noting that there have been 440 strikes by government workers in California from 1970 to 1983, said they did not believe the ruling would have any impact on the likelihood of strikes by disgruntled teachers or state, county and municipal employees.
“We struck in February. If we have to do it again in June, we will,” said Dan Saling, executive director of the Irvine Teachers Assn. “Other than some clarification in the law, what have we gained? A moral victory. Now we can go back to those public-sector employers who said a strike was illegal, immoral and fattening and say, ‘You’re wrong.’ ”
Only a few feared the ruling will cause a dangerous shift of power in labor relations.
“Public-sector unions or associations become increasingly belligerent in take-away economic times, and that’s what we’re in right now,” said Anaheim City Manager William O. Talley. “It gives them another weapon to use to achieve their means. Public-sector management can’t call a lockout. We can’t shut down a factory or stop producing goods like the private sector. We have to continue providing services and policing the streets.”
Broussard, joined by Justices Stanley Mosk and Joseph Grodin, with Chief Justice Rose Bird writing a concurring opinion, ruled that public employees can be prohibited from striking only when there is a “substantial and imminent” threat to the public health or safety. He cited as examples firefighters and police officers.
Justices Otto Kaus and Cruz Reynoso avoided the central issue and ruled only that a $246,000 fine against Los Angeles sewage treatment workers was illegal. Justice Malcolm Lucas cast the dissenting vote.
No Specific Prohibition
Although California law does not specify that strikes by public employees are illegal, it does prohibit strikes by firefighters. State appeal courts have ruled on several occasions that public employees cannot strike without legislative approval.
“This ruling gives public employees the same right that private employees have had for decades,” said Keith Hearn, spokesman for the 80,000-member California State Employees Assn. “It puts labor and management more as equals. Before it was ‘take it or leave it.’ They’ve been able to engage in punitive actions such as layoffs, reducing benefits such as sick days, and employees didn’t have any recourse.
“This merely shifts the burden of proof,” he said. “Management now has to prove that a job action would jeopardize the public’s health and safety.”
The ruling could have an impact on what union leaders and public-sector employers call “unrealistic” proposals submitted by both sides on the first day of contract negotiations.
“On the one hand, employees may be more bold than in the past,” said Fullerton Finance Director Mark Flannery. “On the other hand, it could compel public-sector management to make more realistic proposals that would prevent strikes. When I speak of management I’m referring to public-sector management as a whole. I believe in Fullerton we’ve been doing a good job all along.”
‘Realistic Proposals’ Expected
Jim Pacelli, negotiating chair for the District Educators Assn. in Huntington Beach, said the ruling “will lead to realistic proposals on both sides, right off the bat. We began this year with a proposal for a 10% pay increase, which is the lowest initial proposal in many years. The district came back with 1%. We’ve been at 3% for, I think, 60 hours of negotiating. It’s a very long, frustrating process, and I think it’s that way by design.”
John Sawyer, head of the 7,000-member Orange County Employees Assn., which represents some county agencies and 27 cities and governmental districts, said the court’s ruling would force employers to be “more careful and less cavalier.”
“But I wouldn’t expect any big rash of strikes,” he said.
The last large strike in the county was a 22-day walkout by Orange County Transit District bus drivers and mechanics in 1981. OCTD spokeswoman Joanne Curran said district officials have historically acknowledged that employees have a right to strike.
Bird wrote that the justices should go further in their ruling, giving public employees the constitutional right to strike. “The individual’s freedom to withhold personal service is basic to the constitutional concept of liberty,” she wrote.
Lucas in his dissenting opinion said public strikes “may devastate a city within a matter of days, or even hours.”
The case stemmed from a fine assessed against County Employees Assn. Local 660 in Los Angeles, which was charged for the cost of hiring replacement workers following an 11-day strike.