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LABOR / Harry Bernstein

OK of Public Sector Strikes Sets Stage for Fight

May 22, 1985|Harry Bernstein

By ruling last week that public workers have the freedom to strike, the California Supreme Court may well have set the stage for a highly charged political battle that could backfire on Republicans, who are determined to outlaw such strikes.

In its historic, 6-1 decision, the court ruled that public workers have a right to strike unless such an action would create a "genuine" and "imminent" threat to the public's health, safety or welfare.

Gov. George Deukmejian and many other Republican leaders immediately denounced the ruling as "outrageous," saying it takes away the right of elected leaders to govern. The three conservative members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--Mike Antonovich, Pete Schabarum and Deane Dana--said they would seek a statewide initiative to reverse the ruling if they cannot get the Legislature to do so first.

Indeed, Republican leaders in the Assembly plan Thursday to propose a constitutional amendment that would outlaw strikes by public employees and authorize the dismissal of workers who are absent without cause for more than five days.

However, getting the Democratic majority's support for a ban on public employee strikes will be close to impossible for the Republicans, so the initiative will be their only alternative.

Steven Merksamer, Deukmejian's chief of staff, says that, "if an initiative (on public employee strikes) were to appear on the ballot, it would enjoy substantial support," but he wouldn't say whether the governor would join the campaign.

Republicans considering the anti-strike initiative would do well to recall the election of 1958, when the party campaigned hard for passage of Proposition 18, a "right-to-work" initiative that would have outlawed union shop contract agreements. It suffered a devastating defeat.

For the first time in 70 years, Democrats gained control of the state Senate, Assembly and all six statewide constitutional offices. They now control all but the governor's post.

This year, however, conservatives might be tempted to launch an initiative battle for two reasons: They would like to put curbs on unions, and they might see such a campaign as another chance to attack Chief Justice Rose Bird, who faces reelection in 1986. She prepared a strong concurring opinion in the Supreme Court's ruling, written by Justice Allen E. Broussard.

While they might favor the initiative tactic, it could backfire on them because it would mean tampering with a basic American principle--the freedom of workers to strike.

The most dramatic example of such tampering was in August, 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and outlawed their union. His action presumably would have been allowed under the state Supreme Court ruling that held that strikes threatening the health, safety or welfare of the public are against the law.

Even though conservatives continue to lobby for laws to ban public workers' strikes, such laws seem to have little effect. Public sector strikes follow about the same pattern as those in private industry. In more than 95% of all labor negotiations, contract agreements are reached without strikes or lockouts.

Whether a union will strike in the public or private sector appears to depend less on anti-strike laws and more on the economy and the willingness of public officials and private managers to compromise.

For instance, in 1980, when all California lower courts were holding that public workers' strikes were illegal, there were 40 such actions. In 1982, when the state had budget surpluses and therefore more leeway in what it could pay public employees, there were only six.

In the United States, nearly one-fifth of all workers are employed by the government. Currently, only 11 states permit most public employees to strike. The rest are subject to the same no-strike rules that apply in Poland and other totalitarian countries.

One of the key reasons to prohibit strikes by public employees is the harm that they can cause the community. If the same logic is applied to privately operated utilities that provide communities with such necessities as gas, water and electricity, and to privately operated monopoly transportation services, and to critical military production, nearly 40% of the nation's workers could be deprived of the right to strike.

Although punishment for strike activity in totalitarian nations is almost always severe, unionists in the United States have also suffered jail terms, heavy financial penalties and, as with the air traffic controllers, loss of their jobs.

Even Deukmejian, who so harshly criticized the California Supreme Court ruling, seems to recognize the problem of enforcing bans on public employee strikes and apparently has mixed feelings about them.

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