Neither New York City nor any other of the financially struggling US cites that have been beset by public employee strikes in recent months can afford to settle labor disputes in such a costly and at times dangerous fashion. The primary cost of New York's transit strike is in millions of dollars in lost business and city revenues -- tax money sorely needed to stave off the threat of bankruptcy that continues to hang over the nation's most populous city. But in Kansas City and Chicago, where striking firemen refused to answer alarms and inexperienced outsiders had to be brought in to protect the public, human lives and homes became bargainint chips.
There are better ways of resolving labor disputes between increasingly powerful public employee unions and municipal and state governments. Few Americans would deny public servants the same collective bargaining rights enjoyed by members of the civilian work force. But public employees of necessity must shoulder a special obligation to ensure public safety and order.
Moreover, the severe economic stress most cities and states are experiencing calls for greater efforts to trim waste and increase productivity. For instance , a key issue in New York's transit strike is so-called "givebacks," or nonwage concessions which, according to one estimate, would save the transit authority nearly half of its anticipated annual deficit of $450 million. Among the changes the Transportation Workers Union is resisting is a proposal to allow part-time workers to fill in during rush hours rather than pay full-time employees overtime for such duty. Another would eliminate a union rule that requires a driver who calls in sick to be replaced, even if a maintenance failure has left him with no bus to drive that day. Public servants in a city still too close to financial ruin can expect to attract little public sympathy for defending, much less staging an illegal strike over, such apparent excesses.
Several states have laws similar to New York's Taylor Law which prohibit strikes by government workers. By and large these have proved only partially effective, although people tend to forget that the majority of labor negotiations involving public workers are resolved without strikes. Too often such laws do not impose penalties severe enough to deter would-be strikers, and the courts seem too timid to enforce them.
Many states and localities across the US have found binding arbitration to be a workable, if not perfect, approach. If an impasse is reached at the bargaining table, an impartial third party is brought in to render the final judgment. In the large majority of cases, the ruling of the arbitrator is complied with and no strike results. An added advantage is that mandatory and binding arbitration encourages labor and management to try harder to come to terms before being forced to turn over the decision to an outsider. Some union leaders object to arbitration as a weakening of their authority and leadership; city and state officials do not look favorably on having financial decision taken out of their hands. But in th efinal analysis, these seem small enough sacrifices to avoid disrupting an entire city.
For New York, struggling to keep businesses and people from feeling to sunnier climes, one of the less obvious costs of simmering public disatisfaction over crippling strikes could be a hastening of the city's out migration. So far New Yorkers have demonstrated remarkable tolerance and adaptability and appear to be taking the strike in good stride. But a successful transit strike will likely prompt other unions to follow suit. The long-term consequences of prolonged work stoppages and disrupted city services ought not to be lost sight of. Transit workers and all New Yorkers stand to benefit from an early settlement.