When Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) went on a three-day strike during last year’s Christmas shopping season, it did more than disrupt the lives of millions of New York City bus and subway commuters; it also broke the law. And in doing so, it opened itself up to roughly $3 million in fines. On Friday, April 7, lawyers for the local argued before Justice Theodore Jones of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn that the fines, if levied, would bankrupt the union. Therefore, stated the defense, the fines should be waived. Given that the strike, not officially backed by the national union, cost the city’s economy a lot more than $3 million, this would seem an odd argument. But the strike has to be put in the context of a four-decade conflict between TWU Local 100 and state and local officials.
Back in 1967 the State of New York, at the urging of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, passed a law, the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, to discourage strikes by public employees. The law was prompted more than anything else by a crippling New York City subway strike in January 1966 that lasted nearly two weeks. Known as the “Taylor Law,” after George W. Taylor, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and well-known labor negotiator (no legislator apparently wanted his name on the bill), the act sought to put public employees and employers on an equal footing. Though the law affirmed public-employee collective bargaining rights, the unions despised it from the start because of its ban on strikes. Section 210 of the law reads: “No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike and no public employee or employee organization shall cause, instigate, encourage, or condone a strike.” In 1969, as New York City had been experiencing a wave of public employee strikes, legislators in Albany amended the law to penalize each striking worker with a loss of two days’ pay for each day absent.
The Taylor Law seems harsh. But its purpose was and remains to discourage walkouts by public employee unions, which by definition, operate differently than private-sector unions. The TWU argues that an adverse decision by Justice Jones would seal its doom, through fines and the potential loss of the right to automatically deduct dues from member paychecks. Local 100 President Roger Toussaint and other officials are pointing to recent financial reversals. Four months ago the union had $3 million in the bank; now it’s $4 million in the red – a drop of $7 million even without taking into account any fines. Even assuming the truthfulness of this claim, the fact remains the union defiantly broke the law, fully aware of its consequences. (New York Post, 4/10/06; FrontPageMagazine.com, 12/28/05).