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How Public Employees Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Strike

Municipal strikes have been rare for decades, but union activity in California suggest they might be making a comeback. Blame it on inflation and staff shortages.

Los Angeles city workers picket at Los Angeles International Airport.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
In  Brief:
  • Municipal workers in San Jose earned a big raise by threatening a strike.
  • Following a strike in L.A., this signals the tactic's return in the public sector.
  • That said, government strikes are still illegal in most states.

  • Most city workers in San Jose just scored themselves a raise of nearly 15 percent. They got it in an old-fashioned way — by threatening to strike.

    Ninety-nine percent of the membership of the two largest municipal unions voted to authorize a strike. It was only set to last for three days, but that was enough for the City Council to bring the union back to the bargaining table. Last Tuesday, the council voted to approve two contracts that will increase salaries by 14.5 percent over three years, assuming budget targets are met in the third year. The contracts also expand the amount of paid family leave time from a single week to eight weeks.

    Not everyone is delighted. Mayor Matt Mahan blasted the deal as a too-generous giveaway that will hurt local taxpayers. “Our council did not do its job,” Mahan said at a news conference. “Our leaders were elected to represent the people, and the needs of the people took a backseat.”

    But the deal showed not just the power of collective bargaining, but the leverage that can come from a threatened walkout. Coming just a week after a one-day strike in Los Angeles, these California actions may signal the start of a new era. “Strikes — well, successful ones — tend to be contagious,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University who studies union activity. “That means the likelihood that any unionized workplace experiences a labor dispute is going to be higher.”

    This is a moment of labor unrest in general. Even as city workers walked picket lines in Los Angeles, it was just another day in the long-running strike across town of actors and writers against movie and television studios. The number of workers who joined unions last year increased by 200,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank. Members of the United Auto Workers are expected to vote to authorize a potential strike this week, with existing contracts expiring next month.

    The issues in all these cases aren’t the same and dynamics are different between government and the private sector. Government strikes are illegal in 39 states and there are a bunch of hoops — arbitration, mediation, fact-finding — that are mandated prior to strikes even in some states where strikes are legal.

    But the public sector is much more heavily unionized than the private sector. Government employees have felt the bite of inflation as much as any other workers. In addition, they often have additional stress due to widespread labor shortages among cities, counties and states.

    “That gives labor both incentives to want more, because of inflation, and a little more leverage, since it’s a seller’s market for labor,” says Joseph Slater, a University of Toledo law professor. “Labor shortages make strikes more credible because it’s harder to replace strikers.”

    Reagan Embodied a Backlash

    Teacher strikes have been fairly common in recent years, from the Red for Ed movement in several states five years ago to the three-day teacher and staff strike in Los Angeles schools this past March. But strikes among general government employees have been rare for decades.

    There were plenty of strikes back in the 1960s and 1970s. New Yorkers with long memories will remember the stinking stacks of garbage bags that piled up during a sanitation strike in 1968. That same year, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis after meeting with striking sanitation workers there. In 1975, more than 45,000 state employees struck for higher wages in Pennsylvania.

    Several factors converged to drive these strikes and others, says Alexis Walker, a political scientist at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash. For one thing, government unions gained greater legal protection in many states in the 1960s. Unions in general were stronger back then, with thousands of strikes called by those representing private-sector workers in the ’60s and ‘70s. In addition, successful mass movements petitioning for rights for women and African Americans helped inform the rebellious ferment of the time.

    But things began to change by the late 1970s. City employees took a big hit financially, including layoffs, as New York City sought to avert bankruptcy in 1978. That same year, California voters approved Proposition 13, a massive property tax cut that weakened local finances and prompted anti-tax revolts elsewhere. In the private sector, union workers were often employed in manufacturing and other industries that found it easier and more profitable to move operations overseas, making strikes riskier.

    And then there was PATCO. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization called a strike in 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan entered the White House. Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers, vividly demonstrating that workers who struck ran the risk of losing their jobs. It had been legal to replace striking workers since the 1930s, but the tactic had rarely been used prior to the 1970s. “Certainly it was a big signal that it was OK to go after unions and really bust unions in ways that hadn't been as prevalent before,” says Slater, the law professor.
    PATCO strike, 1981. (Georgia State University Library PATCO Archives)

    Hibernation Is Over

    The idea that government workers would go on strike essentially was put on ice for decades. They sometimes felt under siege in recent years as states such as Wisconsin curtailed even their basic collective bargaining rights.

    So, what’s changed now? Some of it’s just economics. Many public-sector employees are unhappy both about pay and their working conditions. There’s been a lot of rhetoric about “essential workers,” but it hasn’t always been backed up by dollars.

    “Pay raises in the public sector since the beginning of the pandemic have generally lagged those of the private sector, although the difference narrowed a bit in the last year,” says Rosenfeld, author of the 2021 book You’re Paid What You’re Worth, And Other Myths of the Modern Economy. “This both fuels labor shortages and contributes to a general feeling that it’s the right time to strike if contract negotiations are perceived as stalling or the terms on offer are insufficient.”

    Then there’s the post-pandemic mood. Strikes and increased union activity in general in the private sector make it easier for government employees to imagine going out on the line — especially when current vacancies can’t be filled, let alone lots of replacements found. Polling suggests that public opinion about labor unions is the most favorable it’s been since the mid-1960s. “Biden is one of the strongest labor advocates that we’ve seen in decades as president,” says Walker, the political scientist.

    All that being said, government strikes may well grow more frequent over the next couple of years, but they won’t become common. They’re illegal in too many places and can be painful essentially anywhere.

    “The ability of this to spread is probably going to be concentrated in our strongest union-friendly places, like California or New York,” Walker says.
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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