Strikes and Public Employment

In public employment there has been an increasing resort to strikes in all parts of the nation by employees previously immune–teachers, policemen, firemen, welfare workers, garbage collectors, hospital attendants, doctors, nurses, and zoo keepers. The strike fever is contagious, and leapfrogging demands and multiplying disputes leave government hesitant, defensive, and distracted from the unresolved problems of our urban crisis. The basic question-and the great challenge-is how to prevent strikes that imperil the public interest while still providing millions of public employees with the opportunity to participate in the process of determining the conditions of their work, an opportunity not only guaranteed employees in the private sector but also accepted as socially beneficial.

The common answer to this question in public employment was to prohibit all strikes by statute or court decision and to prescribe penalties in the form of fines or imprisonment, or both, for violation of these prohibitions. Employees were allowed to negotiate with their employers through unions, but they were required to accept as final the decision of the legislative or executive body with authority to set terms of employment. Any further change had to be sought by lobbying or through the polls.