When Did Strikes Become Illegal?

And what do Taft, Hartley, Condon, and Wadlin have to do with it?

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Pounding the pavement

Thirty-three thousand New York City transit workers went on strike Tuesday morning after union and management officials failed to agree on a new contract. State law prohibits public employees from going on strike; later on Tuesday, a judge ruled that the union must pay a $1 million fine for every day they skip work. When did strikes become illegal?

At least 60 years ago. The federal government had to make work stoppages legal before it made them illegal: Several laws that were passed in the 1930s gave workers the right to join unions and go on strike. The Wagner Act of 1935 also created the National Labor Relations Board to help oversee employee disputes in private industry. (The new rules didn’t apply to civil servants or to those who worked for airlines, railroad companies, or certain other industries.) But the end of World War II led to an upsurge in labor unrest, and millions of workers across the country went on strike. In 1947, Congress amended (and restricted) the earlier law with the Taft-Hartley Act. Now unions had to give warning for impending strikes, and the president was given explicit permission to intervene in some situations. (For example, you can’t go on strike just because an employer won’t assign work to your union.)

The New York State legislature quickly followed suit. The Condon-Wadlin Act (also of 1947) made it illegal for state employees to go on strike; anyone who walked off the job would be fired. (If they got their jobs back, they wouldn’t get a raise for three years.) The harsh penalties were difficult to enforce, however, and they didn’t always deter the union bosses. Starting on New Year’s Day 1966, the New York City transit union shut down the subways and buses for 12 days. Though the workers had clearly broken the law, they were never penalized. (To help resolve the dispute, state legislators voted to forgive them.)

New York lawmakers changed the rules the following year. The Taylor Law reaffirmed the ban on public-sector strikes, but with smaller (and more enforceable) penalties. According to the Taylor Law, an employee can be charged with a crime if he tries to “cause, instigate, encourage or condone a strike,” or if he avoids work without permission. (The law also gave public employees the right to unionize and created a system of arbitration for labor disputes.) Transit workers who walked out for 11 days in 1980 had to pay individual fines; their union was told to fork over more than a million dollars.

The Empire State isn’t the only one that bans government work stoppages. According to the United Federation of Teachers, public employees are allowed to strike in only nine states. In some states, the right applies to some jobs but not others. In Illinois, any government worker except a firefigher or police officer can go on strike.

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