Accessibility links

Breaking News

New York Strikers Are Breaking a Law

The 33,000 public transportation employees currently on strike in New York City could be back on the job by the end of the day Thursday. While on strike, however, they are breaking the law.

In 1967, the New York State Assembly passed something known as the Taylor Law, which bars public employees from walking off the job. VOA takes a look at this law - what it says, why it was passed, and why public transportation workers believe they don't have to follow it.

Robert Davenport stands in front of the entrance to the 242nd Street subway station, a green megaphone in his hand. "I only hope that it's not too late to save the dying heart of the working class," he yells, as his colleagues cheer.

The striking workers assembled at this subway stop in the Bronx do not seem to be daunted by the hefty, one-million-dollar-a-day fine a judge recently imposed on their union. The workers are also facing individual fines: two-days' pay for every one day they're off the job. But electrical engineer Robert Davenport says that does not concern him - and he wishes Mayor Michael Bloomberg would stop hiding behind a law that he says is unjust.

"I wish they would just stop with the 'breaking the law' crap," Mr. Davenport says. "The fact is, if we'd kept that same, close-minded idea, then [civil rights leader] Rosa Parks would still be sitting at the back of the bus, following orders."

Nearly 40 years ago, after a particularly bitter transit strike, lawmakers in New York passed the Public Employees Fair Employment Act - also known as the Taylor Law -- which finally gave workers on the public payroll the right to unionize and bargain collectively. The law, however, retained a long-standing prohibition against strikes by public employees.

According to Jim Pope, who teaches at Rutgers University Law School, officials across the United States were concerned about strikes by public workers as early as 1919, when police officers in Boston walked off their jobs. "The idea of policemen striking and leaving private individuals and property unprotected scared a lot of people," Professor Pope says. "1919 was a time when there were a lot of strikes in general, and the Russian Revolution was just happening. People confronted this issue in an atmosphere of fear. And that stuck."

At least 40 states have laws that bar public employees from going on strike - something the United Nations' International Labor Organization has insisted is a violation of its conventions. But Professor Jim Pope says these laws have not stopped public employees from walking off their jobs. In fact, nine unions in New York State went on strike just one year after the Taylor Law was passed in 1967.

"There's actually a fair amount of dispute about the impact of this kind of law on the number of strikes," Jim Pope says. "Some people say it really has virtually no effect. I suspect it probably does reduce the number of strikes to some extent, but it makes the conflicts, when they occur, especially bitter."

And it looks like that is going to be the case with this transit strike - the second since the Taylor Law was passed. Right now, the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is not negotiating with the Transport Workers Union. Mayor Bloomberg has said there is nothing to talk about until the workers report back to their jobs.

But train conductor Tom Doherty says the MTA was not taking the union seriously until the strike began. "It's the only leverage you have is a strike, he insists. There is no other leverage. This authority does not negotiate with you if you don't strike. The point is, if you push us far enough, we don't care about the Taylor Law. We'll pay the fines. I mean, you gotta sacrifice in order to gain, you know?"

Just how much the striking workers are going to have to sacrifice remains to be seen.