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Public Employee Right to Strike

Strikes by public employees are abhorrent. They cut off services to citizens, which, unlike in the private sector, leave no alternate source of such services available to the affected public. They should be prevented in any reasonable way available to society. The proposed constitutional amendment currently before the California Legislature would not accomplish that goal and indeed would exacerbate the problem.

Strikes by public employees occur whether legal or not. During the 10 years from 1974 through 1983, there were 388 “illegal” public sector strikes in California. (Before the California Supreme Court said otherwise, the courts, unions and public agencies universally presumed such strikes to be illegal.) It therefore should be obvious that simple prohibition is ineffective.

When anti-strike legislation is on the books, a public employer may assume that since its employees are legally unable to strike, they won’t, and therefore there is no reason to bargain in good faith with them. This attitude may force a union which otherwise wouldn’t strike to hit the bricks just to get the employer’s attention.

Further, highly trained employees cannot simply be replaced in mass or overnight, the air traffic controllers aside. While an employer may be able to replace manual laborers without too much difficulty, the same is not true of most public employees.

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For example, if the Los Angeles police went on strike, and half of them didn’t return within five days and were fired (as mandated in the proposed legislation), what would the employer do? Hire the first 3,000 gun nuts who walked through the door, strap .38s on their hips, and set them loose on us? I think not.

What about the engineers who build our streets and sewers? Our teachers? Our animal control officers, librarians, water and power workers, or any of the other 1.6 million highly specialized public employees, many of whom have no private sector counterparts? (The air traffic controllers were a notable exception because the federal government was able to tap the armed services for thousands of ready-trained replacements, but at the risk of the public’s safety; and the unaddressed problems that led to that strike continue to fester, and may lead to further strife.)

The bottom line is that the occurrence of a strike is more dependent on a union’s strength than it is on any legislation, pro or con. Rather than indignantly sticking its head in the sand, the Legislature should recognize this reality, and seek to create meaningful alternatives that would foster the resolution of disputes between labor and management.

Labor peace is dependent on realism at the bargaining table, good faith negotiations, and a true desire for a contract on the part of both the union and management. A flat prohibition against strikes, such as the Legislature is now considering, has the potential of distorting reality, does little to foster good-faith bargaining, and makes the need for agreement less obvious. Rather than cursing the darkness and adopting such a ban, the Legislature should accept reality and light the way toward labor peace by mandating the use of proven dispute-resolution procedures.

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R. DOUGLAS COLLINS

Canoga Park


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