Better bargaining rights haven't cut public worker strikes, report says

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Most members of public employee unions are keeping off the picket line and on the job this summer. The only major public-sector strike in the US today is by police and firemen in Mobile, Ala.

But this summer vacation from damaging strikes by state and city employees may be short-lived, forecasts a July report of the Public Service Research Council an independent organization devoted to research about public-sector unionism.

The proliferation of state and local bargaining legislation, the 75-page report concludes, is a major reason why almost a "four-fold increase" in strike activity occurred from 1958 to 1977. In 1965, for instance, when only nine states had some form of bargaining legislation covering state and local public employees, there were 47 strikes; but in 1978, when 37 states had adopted bargaining statutes, there were 481 strikes, according to preliminary figures.

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"The proponents of compulsory public-sector bargaining have misled legislators to believe that the imposition of bargaining in the public sector would reduce union strike activity," says David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Council. "But this study shows that this is not the case, but that, in fact, compulsory public-sector bargaining increases strikes."

The council's report concludes that "In most cases, strike activity was notably higher in the period following legislation. As a national compilation, states without or prior to bargaining legislation averaged 1.24 strikes per year , while states after legislation averaged 4.65 strikes per year -- almost a four-fold increase."

One reason put forward as to why more strikes occur after unions win more bargaining rights is that the laws enable unions to wield more power than they did previously and they become more demanding. The results of a public employee strike, of course, can be devastating in many instances -- sometimes creating a state of emergency.

Massachuesetts, according to the report, enacted legislation in 1965 to extend collective bargaining to all public employees. The data clearly show that there was a substantial increase in strike activity after the bargaining legislation became law. From 1966 to 1977, there were some 66 strikes in the Bay State, involving more than 50,000 workers and resulting in 247,006 "man days" (one day's work by one man) lost.

In Hawaii, legislation establishing collective bargaining for the state's public employees took effect in 1970, and as of 1977, 20 percent of the state's public employee bargaining units were actively engaged in bargaining. But the report concludes there was "a marked increase in strike activity following the legislation." From 1958-69, there was only one public employee strike there; from 1971-77, there were eight strikes.

In 1967, New York State enacted the Taylor Law, mandating collective bargaining.Strike activity in New York City has mushroomed since then, although the city's precarious financial position has mitigated it recently. While New York experienced a 10-day transit strike this spring, it avoided a threated walkout by firefigthers, police, and other uniformed workers because of the city's unique fiscal situation, says John Barth of the Public Service Research Council.

Earlier this year, the District of Columbia's 34,000 public employees got some brand-new bargaining power -- the right to bargain for their wages, which previously had been tied to the wages of federal employees. Bobby Faeth-Slasky, spokeswoman for the District of Columbia's nonpartisan Public Employee Relations Board, says she doesn't know if the new bargaining power will mean fewer or greater numbers of strikes.

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