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Public Workers Deserve the Right to Strike

California conservatives seem to find most decisions of the state’s Supreme Court outrageous, but they were particularly infuriated a year ago when the court ruled for the first time that public employees have a legal right to strike.

And their bitterness wasn’t eased when the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court later unanimously upheld the state court’s decision.

The California court ruling, which came after 24 years of bitter legal battles, was courageous and logical, but it turns out that it did not dramatically change labor relations for public employees--as many liberals had hoped and many conservatives had feared.

Government officials were, like most conservatives, enraged by the 6-1 decision of the state’s high court. Gov. George Deukmejian said then: “This is the type of decision that Californians have come to expect from this court.”

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Many predicted that the ruling would ignite an explosion of public employee strikes. But the latest count shows that since the decision was issued in May, 1985, there have been only 12 public employee strikes. In sharp contrast, there was an annual average of 31 public employee strikes in the state during the 16 years before the ruling, when such walkouts were regarded as illegal. (There is no record of the number of strikes before that.) Strikes before the ruling came with more frequency in part because of economic conditions but also because management often tested the resolve of the unions to face a court injunction prohibiting an “illegal strike.” Now, with the legality issue out of the way, both sides seem to be bargaining more realistically.

Relations between the nearly 1.5 million government workers and managers in California at the state and local level seem to have actually improved now that most public workers don’t have to automatically accept contract proposals offered by management. Certainly those relations have not worsened since the historic decision.

But the ruling left several issues unresolved. For example, it still forbids strikes that create “a substantial and imminent threat to the health or safety of the public.” But whether a strike poses such a threat must be determined in each case by a court. However, the ruling offers those public employees forbidden to strike no fair alternative if they are unhappy with their wages and job conditions.

The Legislature should resolve that issue by providing for binding neutral arbitration when, say, police or firefighters cannot reach contract agreements with government managers.

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Generally, however, the decision was reasonable because the right to strike is a mark of a democratic society. It mars our democracy to deny that right to the nearly 20% of the nation’s work force employed by the government at the federal, state or local levels.

Despite the fact that the right to strike is an essential ingredient of a free society, the federal government still forbids strikes by its employees. Only 11 states besides California allow public employee strikes. And California is still the only state in which the high court, not the Legislature, has authorized such strikes.

The court intervened because when the Legislature granted public workers the right to negotiate union contracts, it maintained what the justices called a “stony silence” on whether they have the right to strike. In view of that legislative silence, for more than two decades the lower courts just assumed that public employee strikes were illegal.

Yet, when the state Supreme Court finally acted, it “just gave a legal blessing to what has always been the case anyway,” contended Bonnie Bogue, associate director of public employee relations at UC Berkeley.

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She noted that before the decision, “when public employees felt they were not getting fair treatment from the government, they went on strike even when lower courts said it was illegal.”

Conservatives are trying to get either a constitutional amendment or a legislative act to outlaw public employee strikes on the theory that such strikes challenge the sovereignty of government and because, in some cases, the public has no alternative source for government-provided services.

Under that theory, strikes should be outlawed in a wide variety of private businesses, such as industrywide strikes against gas or electric companies or against defense production companies.

But the price of democracy should include the right to strike in almost all circumstances and, when a strike clearly causes serious public harm, arbitration by a neutral third party should be ordered by the court that bars a strike.

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Fortunately, the chances of overturning the court ruling are negligible.

Even though most public employee strikes in California are legal, some intriguing problems remain. For example, in private industry, a struck company can legally hire strikebreakers. Government bodies presumably can do the same thing, but it would be difficult. Most public employees are protected by civil service rules that entitle each person to a separate hearing before being permanently replaced.

Usually the issue is clear because striking government workers who fail to show up for work can be replaced after some relatively brief period. But civil service rules recognize that some people who do not report to their jobs during a strike may have a legitimate excuse, such as illness, and that would come out in a hearing.

The hearings, though, can be lengthy. And besides, strikebreakers usually must go through the time-consuming civil service exam process. In sum, it isn’t as easy for government to hire strikebreakers as it is for private industry.

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Government workers are far more unionized than private industry employees. Well over half of California’s public employees belong to unions, and more than 75% of them are covered by union contracts, whether or not they belong to a union.

Like workers in private industry, they, too, deserve the privileges of our democracy, and so far, at least, the state Supreme Court ruling has shown that they can have those privileges without damaging society.

Spoiling for a Fight?

While other steel companies around the country are peacefully negotiating new union contracts substantially reducing wages and fringe benefits, U.S. Steel, the nation’s largest steelmaker, seems almost anxious for a fight with the United Steelworkers.

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Last week, Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the union signed a tentative, 37-month contract that will cut labor costs by about 10%. Results of a referendum on the pact by Bethlehem workers will be announced June 16, and approval is expected. Most other companies have already reached agreements or are working toward settlements with the union in a cooperative mode. But not U.S. Steel.

In contrast to the rest of the industry, the giant firm refused an early start on negotiations, it rejected the union’s proposal for a joint industry-union effort to seek “fair trade” laws from Congress and it scorned a joint labor-management media campaign to increase public awareness of the dangers of imports to the industry.

And U.S. Steel is still saying--publicly, at least--that it expects to get a contract that cuts labor costs as deeply as any pact negotiated with any firm in the industry. The union has already flatly rejected that demand.

For the first time, the union is negotiating separate contracts with each company, rather than the traditional industrywide agreement, and is giving more contract concessions to those firms having the most financial troubles.

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The deepest contract cuts went to Wheeling-Pittsburgh, a relatively small steel firm that has been in bankruptcy proceedings since last year. Labor costs there are now down to $18 an hour, including both wages and fringe benefits.

Labor costs in other already negotiated contracts average about $22 an hour, although they vary slightly from firm to firm.

U.S. Steel, which made a slight profit on steel in the last quarter, says it wants terms close to those in the Wheeling-Pittsburgh contract.

Only about half of U.S. Steel’s income is derived from steel; most of the rest comes from its holdings in the depressed oil industry. The firm has indicated that it may drop out of the steel business entirely unless it becomes more profitable.

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The entire industry has been going downhill for years. In the early 1950s, it employed nearly 580,000 workers. Today, the total is about 190,000.

The generally cooperative labor relations in the rest of the industry may not be enough to revitalize it. But it is far better than the confrontational stance adopted by U.S. Steel. A strike against that firm, when all the others are still in production, could only hurt the company and its workers.


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