Illegal Strikes

Nothing defuses labor militancy like a few years of prosperity.

The state’s coffers flush with tax revenue, public employee unions are winning raises they didn’t see in the recession of the early ’90s. So it’s been a while since Massachusetts has seen one of those peculiarities of organized labor: the illegal strike.

But for much of the state’s recent labor history, striking was a common strategy among public employees. During the 1994-95 school year—the state’s most recent period of public labor unrest—four teachers unions went on strike within a few months of each other—in Belmont, Holyoke, Tewksbury, and Salem. And in the 1960s and ’70s, soon after teachers won the right to collectively bargain their contracts, they were “constantly having to go on strike” because they couldn’t get what they wanted from local school committees, says labor historian James Green of UMass-Boston, who coordinates the academic degree program of the university’s Labor Resource Center.

As in many other states, the public employee collective bargaining law in Massachusetts forbids workers to go on strike—or even to encourage or condone a strike. But why are public employee strikes illegal? And what happens to those who break the law?

Green says the rationale for the prohibition goes back 80 years to the infamous Boston police strike of 1919. Until then, there had been no public employee strikes because no one in the public sector was unionized. And the state’s first experience did not set a good precedent, according to Green.

Fed up with low wages and long hours (police routinely worked 72 to 98 hours a week), the local police organization decided to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor. Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis responded by warning that “a police officer cannot consistently belong to a union and perform his sworn duty,” according to Green’s account in Commonwealth of Toil: Chapters in the History of Massachusetts Workers and Their Unions. Nineteen union leaders were fired for their union activity, and the next day, Sept. 9, Boston police voted 1,134 to 2 to go on strike.

The problems began when street gangs took advantage of the lack of police presence and started looting, vandalizing, and harassing the public. Green says the National Guard was able to contain the damage, but the national media blew the incidents out of proportion and President Woodrow Wilson declared the strike “a crime against civilization.”

Massachusetts General Laws

Chapter 150E, Section 9A Labor Relations:
Public Employees Strikes Prohibited

“No public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike, and no public employee or employee organization shall induce, encourage or condone any strike, work stoppage, slowdown or withholding of services by such public employees.”

Though Boston police offered to go back to work if their dispute went to arbitration, the police commissioner opted to replace the strikers with an entirely new work force. Governor Calvin Coolidge agreed, with his oft-repeated line: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

The experience “served permanently to taint the American public’s attitude” about public sector strikes, Green wrote in Commonwealth of Toil. And that feeling was particularly fierce in Massachusetts. The police “were totally, utterly defeated….They lost their jobs and were blacklisted,” Green says. “The memory of that enormous setback remains strong.”

The strike created so much resistance to public employee unionization that, even when attitudes had changed enough to permit the legalization of public sector unions in the 1950s and ’60s, a no-strike clause was an inevitable part of the bargain.

There is no official record of the number of public employee strikes each year, according to the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission. But the agency does keep track of the number of its strike investigations, which could be prompted by a work slowdown or a threat of a strike, as well as an actual strike. And that number has ranged from 11 in 1989 to just one in 1992—an average of three or four a year over the past 10 years. (There were no strike investigations in 1996, 1997, or 1998, and none as of April of this year.)

When a public union ignores the law and declares a strike, the employer typically files a complaint with the Labor Relations Commission. The commission holds a public hearing to investigate, and orders any striking employees back to work.

If the union refuses to comply, the employer can request a court order. And if the workers remain on strike anyway, the court can find them in contempt and impose fines or other penalties.

In most cases, judges fine striking unions, sometimes as much as $10,000 a day, until they relent and return to work. But a few times over the years, Massachusetts judges actually ordered strikers to jail.

The most recent case of teacher incarceration was during the Springfield strike of 1980, when a judge ordered about 10 teachers to prison. He appeared to take some pity on the strikers, however. Rather than sending them to the local jail, he kept them separate from the regular criminal crowd and locked them up at the state hospital in nearby Monson. The teachers stayed almost a week, until the two sides reached an agreement at the bargaining table that included an acceptable raise.

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Today that strike—the first and only teachers’ strike in Springfield—seems like ancient history to most school staff. And relations have long been smooth with the local school committee, according to Charles Baldwin of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, who is the Springfield union’s chief negotiator. “No [teachers] association and school committee have a better relationship than we do,” Baldwin says. “It’s 180 degrees from…20 years ago.”

Green, the labor historian, says public sector workers generally don’t need to go on strike these days. “Public employee unions have always wanted to take the collective bargaining route, and now with the economy improving, they don’t have as many reasons to strike,” Green says. “They’re not facing the same assaults…that people in the private sector are facing where…employers are threatening to downsize and restructure.”