Why Public Sector Employees Aren’t Striking, Even Though They Should

By: Caroline Witz

2018 was a good year for Rami Malek. Between his Emmy award-winning Mr. Robot and a starring role in the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which grossed over $800 million dollars, he stands to take home a pretty hefty paycheck. His identical twin Sami, a LA public schoolteacher, probably made about $74,000. In a city where a family of 4 needs to make over $72,000to live above the low-income threshold set forth by HUD, in a profession that requires advanced education, that’s significant. The low pay, plus underfunded and overfull classes, has driven LA teachers to strike.

In Arizona, a right-to-work state, teachers can’t even do that without risking losing their jobs, their pay, or their state-regulated teacher certification—and most states follow the same rules as Arizona when it comes to public sector employees. Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center and vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, says the issue is that “in certain jurisdictions, public-sector workers do not have the right to strike.” Even recent RedForEd walkouts are carefully treading a line: though their organizers do not call them strikes, such work stoppages could technically be illegal under a 1971 Arizona Attorney General opinion, subjecting teachers to credential revocation.

Similar issues are arising as the government shutdown continues. Ever since Reagan-era precedentthat makes striking as a federal employee a felony offense, the ability of federal employees to bargain collectively has been severely diminished. Now, when many federal employees are going without pay—whether working with no paycheck or furloughed—laborers are less satisfied with their working conditions.

While the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1937, ensured employees have the right to strikeagainst their private employers, public employees are often not entitled to the same protections.

Advocatesof restrictive striking policies for public sector employees have two main qualms. The first of these is that public service employees perform essential tasks. Were they to strike, tasks necessary to society’s functioning wouldn’t get done. Because of this position, they say, the bargaining power of the workers and the pressures on the government to settle are uneven. One 1943 courteven went so far as to say, ”To admit as true that government employees have power to halt or check the functions of government unless their demands are satisfied, is to transfer to them all legislative, executive and judicial power. Nothing would be more ridiculous.” Secondly, advocates fear overburdening government systems with the extra cost associated with raising salaries or increasing benefits.

However, for would-be public strikers, it is exactly this kind of power that makes the public sector ripe for labor reforms. Many jobs in both the public and private sectors are indispensable, but private employers are given far less power to restrict their employees’ ability to unionize and strike. In a way, the government gets to play both sides by creating restrictive policy which favors itself as an employer, gives workers fewer rights, and uses its own budgetary constraints as a justification. Despite the prevalence of private interests in politics, the government is able to shield itself from the consequences of hard-bargained labor concessions which might well have succeeded in the private sector even for jobs which are necessary for society, even for employers who have strained budgets.

Ultimately, it’s clear that there are consequences to allowing public sector workers to strike with abandon. However, there are also consequences to unfavorable working conditions. There are consequences which stem from living in poverty. There are consequences to not receiving a paycheck, but being unable to sustain gainful employment because you still have to come into work. These consequences leach into the economy and into our society. When the government puts the Sisyphean task of sustaining everyday life onto workers in the public sector, they forget that those workers are not separate from the class of people who require services from our government. Perhaps it is because these workers are so essential that it feels even more unjust to use their own indispensability against them. Some have even gone as far as to say such bans, when implemented at their most restrictive, are human rights violationsthat implicate the freedom of association.

Certainly, public workers are not wholly denied recourse in organizing or advocating for improvement in their own working conditions. Public unions are on the rise, and the majority of Americans support them. Similarly, chilling effects exist even when striking rights are present: it’s expensive and difficultto be on strike as well as to be an employer whose employees strike. It’s a last resort. It is for exactly that reason that we should protect the strike as a form of collective bargaining: times tough enough that both employer and employee are willing to suffer in the name of not conceding are ripe for bargaining—we just have to make sure all the tools are in the toolbox.

 

 

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