Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Why Public-Sector Strikes Are So Rare

Public employees don't have the right to strike in 39 states. What other options do they have for getting what they want?

AP/M. Spencer Green
Last month’s teacher strike in Chicago -- the city’s first since 1987 -- was yet another of the year’s attention-getters for public employee unions. The strike raises a lot of questions about how much power unions should have and the methods they use to get better pay, benefits or working conditions. But it also raises another question: If teachers in the nation’s third largest school district can strike over issues that are troubling many states and cities, why don’t other public employees do the same (especially in places like Wisconsin where their collective bargaining rights are under attack)?

Only 11 states give public employees the right to strike, while the other 39 prohibit it. But even in those 11 states, strikes are rare and alternative dispute resolution tactics are used more often.

I spoke with Linda Kaboolian, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and co-author of Working Better Together: A Practical Guide for Union Leaders, Elected Officials and Managers, about why strikes aren’t more common and what other options unionized public workers have for getting what they want. Kaboolian’s edited responses appear below.

Given the contentious relationship between public employers and employees in a number of states this year, why aren’t strikes more common?

Strikes are at a historic low -- even where they’re permitted. If you take a look at the data from the past 30 years, we practically have no strikes occurring. I think that public opinion and tolerance level for public-employee strikes is probably fairly low, and when you have a number of states trying to take the right to strike away, that has a chilling effect on the use of collective action like a strike. It’s not an opportune environment for public workers to be thinking about doing that.

Additionally, while the private sector has used lockouts and striker replacement against employees on strike, that’s not as possible in the public sector because a lockout means no services. And in terms of replacement employees, public workers are usually in some position of trust that you wouldn’t just hire someone to come in for a week to do.

The last reason is that the economic climate has not been good, and the truth of the matter is that you don’t strike during tough economic times. One thing that’s really underreported is that public sector unions have given a lot of concessions in recent years. Before Wisconsin’s controversial collective bargaining law was passed in 2011, the unions had already given contract concessions because the economic climate was so bad. Since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, there have been many contract concessions. This doesn’t mean everyone thinks there are enough concessions.

If you’re a union leader in the public sector and times are flush, then you want to make sure your members get their fair share. But if times aren’t flush -- and you know they’re not -- then you really aren’t in the position to exert that kind of power. When I talk to people at the top of these unions, they know there was no money. They aren’t worried teachers are getting money and firefighters aren’t; there was no money. There was no reason to strike because there’s nothing to strike over. Public-sector strikes can only be about economic issues when and where they’re allowed.

The economic climate in Chicago is similar to that in the rest of the country, so why were the teachers willing to strike?

I think the issue in Chicago was very different, and if you’re thinking about why that strike was such an unusual event, you have to take a look at it in the context of what’s happening in education reform. This was coming to a head for a very long time. It’s very different than what’s happening in the rest of the public sector. It was policy-driven rather than economics-driven. And I think in that sense, it was a very bold thing to do. It was remarkable how much public support they had. The surveys of parents -- the parents who were quite inconvenienced -- were remarkably supportive of the teachers.

Does that mean the public is more supportive of strikes or other collective action by certain public employees (like teachers, police or firefighters) who are more visible?

Teachers, firefighters and police are the public workers that people feel a lot of empathy for because of the challenges of the job. You can push that to the limit -- as they have in Boston, where the firefighters have alienated the public with their demands -- but I think the support for teachers has a lot to do with the emphasis a community has on the importance of education.

Why don’t the 11 states that still allow strikes move to prohibit them?

They haven’t banned them because when they set up collective bargaining laws, they did it in a political environment where the norm was that people had the right to strike but they did it very rarely. You have to remember that a strike is extremely expensive for employees -- it isn’t just a problem for managers or politicians. People who are striking aren’t getting paid. It’s always been seen as something public workers would do in the most extreme circumstances and only as a last resort. The fact that those laws have survived this climate is quite extraordinary, but it’s also because people obviously aren’t using the strike unwisely. If they were, I think you would see a lot of attempts to reform it.

For those we didn’t want to strike at all -- like police and fire because they’re so important -- we gave them alternative dispute resolution, because they should have some power that's countervailing to management. [Police and fire unions are more often than not barred from striking either through state law, judicial force or their own contracts.]

Strikes are an artifact of the time where we thought about collective bargaining as a way of balancing power, and the potential for the strike to help balance that power. The potential itself leads to a kind of pressure to make a deal for both the employees and the employer: The union knows it has to build support for collective action and has to ask its members to make that sacrifice to not get paid, and for the employer it creates a deadline to make a deal.

What are some common alternatives to striking?

When employees can’t strike, they usually have arbitration and mediation, which usually consists of determining whether the money is there, if the work is being done, and if the conditions are what the employees are talking about. Sometimes a professional comes in and actually tells both parties what the deal will be. There may even be some guidance in the state law as to how that deal is formulated; it could be prevailing wage of surrounding communities or something like that. Professional arbitrators are often used in the case of police and fire. Massachusetts has a very unusual method for police and fire where a union employer board does mediation for police and fire contracts.

Employees that are unable to strike sometimes use tactics like sickouts, but they can be disciplined for such action. Are there other non-strike tactics employees use that don’t involve mediation?

Sometimes employees “work to rule,” and they abide by the contract in its most narrow definitions. Normally, many employees do things that the contract doesn’t say they have to do like working overtime or skipping lunch. When things get tense, then they can work to rule, which means if the contract says I leave at a certain time, that’s when I leave. You can’t catch me for a last conversation on my way out. My lunch is this many minutes and I use it all. Working to rule like that actually can be very difficult for an employer because the truth is that all of us give and take in the workplace every day. If they work to rule, employees do what they have to do and don’t make accommodations. Everyone becomes extremely rigid, and it really hampers production.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
From Our Partners