Op-ed: America Needs Strikes

Read Chris Rhomberg's piece "America would be better off with more strikes" at CNN.com.

Public school teachers in Chicago walked off the job Monday after failed contract negotiations with the city. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the strike "unnecessary." In a piece for CNN.com, Chris Rhomberg, sociology professor at Fordham University, argues that America would be better off with more strikes.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now the opinion page. Public school teachers in Chicago walked off the job today after contract negotiations with the city broke down last night. It's the first strike by public school teachers in Chicago in a quarter century. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel called the walk out unnecessary, avoidable and wrong. If you cast a ballot in a strike authorization, how did you vote and how did it work out for you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We get calls from management as well, but given the demographics, we're more likely to get calls from union members.

In a piece for cnn.com, Chris Rhomberg argues that America needs more strikes. He's an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University and joins us from his office there in the Bronx. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

CHRIS RHOMBERG: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we need more strikes. Why?

RHOMBERG: Ha. Well, what I mean is that if the system worked the way it was supposed to, the way it was designed to, then strikes would perform an essential function. Now, the strikes are a last resort, but they're necessary to protect the collective bargaining process and push the two sides to compromise and negotiate their way towards an agreement. And without that, then the system really fails.

CONAN: So your argument is that the power in these negotiations is tilted so far in management's favor that, well, people - strikes are not very common.

RHOMBERG: Yes. There's been a drastic decline on the frequency of strikes over the past several decades.

CONAN: Might that not be attributable to the dwindling union membership and fewer and fewer union shops?

RHOMBERG: Well, in part. But sociological research has shown that although union density, membership, has declined in the last several decades, the number of strikes has fallen even more dramatically. During the 1970s, there was an average of 289 major work stoppages involving 1,000 more workers annually in the United States. By the 1990s, that has fallen to about 35 per year, and in 2009, there were no more than five.

CONAN: And what do you think has caused that decline?

RHOMBERG: Well, I don't think it can be explained by things like globalization or technology or - it's not an economic necessity or natural evolution because other industrialized countries have higher union densities and greater rates of strike and, in some respects, have done better economically than we have, especially with regards to things like income inequality. So what I argue is the key change has been the change in the law over the last several decades. Decades of federal court and NLRB decisions have basically turned upside down and reversed the playing field.

CONAN: Some people will argue that in this economic climate, it's - competitiveness is so fierce that strikes don't make a lot of sense.

RHOMBERG: Well, if you look at the record of other industrialized countries, for example, I mean, those countries with high unionization and high levels of productivity have also done really well. That was in Europe, even Canada, for example. So I don't believe it's just the economic competitiveness. In fact, studies have shown that unionized workplaces are as productive or more productive than non-unionized workplaces because employees feel a greater stake in the enterprise.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from those of you who've been involved in strikes, particularly strike authorization votes. How did you cast your ballot and how did it work out? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Adrian. Adrian on the line from Baton Rouge.

ADRIAN: Yes.

CONAN: Hi.

ADRIAN: I was a strike captain at a high school in Baton Rouge in the late '70s.

CONAN: Presumably with the teachers rather than the students.

ADRIAN: With the - and the strike was about collective bargaining. And it went on for about two weeks, and the strike collapsed. And everybody went back in and the teachers' unions in Louisiana today are clubs.

(LAUGHTER)

ADRIAN: They have no power whatsoever. But the interesting thing was at that time, I did not have tenure, and my principal said there will never be a place for you in this system. So I'm now in business and no longer teach.

CONAN: Specifically because you were a strike captain.

ADRIAN: Yes, and participated in a strike without tenure.

CONAN: And was anybody else singled out like that?

ADRIAN: I'm sure. I can't name anyone, but I'm sure.

CONAN: And what caused the strike to collapse?

ADRIAN: I think everybody just got starved out after a period of time and started straggling back. And at one point, out of about 50 teachers at my school, there were two others left out.

CONAN: And I wonder where replacement teachers brought in in the meantime?

ADRIAN: Yes.

CONAN: And that scare people?

ADRIAN: Yes. That's...

CONAN: And Louisiana - if I'm correct, Louisiana is - the strike was in Louisiana?

ADRIAN: Yes, and...

CONAN: And it's the right-to-work state?

ADRIAN: Yes.

CONAN: OK. Well, thanks very much, and I'm so sorry it didn't work out for you.

(LAUGHTER)

ADRIAN: Life has been good since, but I do miss teaching.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call. And I wonder, Chris Rhomberg, there are many states over the past several decades, particularly in the South, that have become right-to-work states, Indiana, most recently. How does that change things?

RHOMBERG: Well, one thing I should clarify is that public sector workers are governed by different set of laws than those in the private sector. The private sector, the key piece of legislation is the National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935. But public sector workers, most of them are state or local employees and are governed by states laws, which can vary a great deal. Many states do not allow public employees collective bargaining or limited only to certain employees, and many prohibit public sector workers from striking at all. But without some means to bargain with the employers at the table and negotiate, then both public and private employees lack voice in the workplace.

I'm very sorry to hear about the experience of the caller, but I think it illustrates the lack of protection for workers who take the drastic last resort of going on strike.

CONAN: Replacements, so that is - interestingly, we're seeing that in the National Football League right now where the referees are on strike.

RHOMBERG: Yeah. Let me clarify one more thing, and that is the referees are not on strike actually. They've been locked out. That is increasingly, over the last several years, their employers have taken the step of locking out workers and operating in replacements, and the law allows them to do that. They basically say to their unionized employees, you can't come to work now. And we're going to operate with replacements. And as long as they're willing to tolerate that, I mean if the NFL is going to tolerate the quality of officiating, then I really don't see that they have any incentive to come back to the bargaining table.

CONAN: Replacements - you also point in your piece, to a particular decision that said replacements have begin to acquire power the longer it goes on.

RHOMBERG: Yeah. I mean, the symbolic turning point for American unions is really when President Ronald Reagan fired federal air traffic controllers in 1981 and replaced them. Now, again, because they were federal employees, Reagan's decision didn't actually directly affect the private sector. But subsequent Supreme Court decisions and decisions by the NLRB under the Reagan administration really did change the legal playing field.

It made it easier for employers to replace workers, or harder to settle strikes when replacements were being used, especially permanent replacements. And it also gave employers, then, the option, increasingly, to just make extreme demands and reach impasse, because the law actually allows employers to impose their last-best offer if the two sides can't agree. The only option really for the workers, at that point, is to strike. But as they said, it's much more risky and the strike, now, is much more dangerous.

CONAN: PATCO, the air traffic controllers who were fired by President Reagan, weren't they one of those sets of public employees who were prohibited from striking?

RHOMBERG: They were. They were. So it wasn't really a mechanism for them to have orally collective action in the workplace. In the case of the Chicago teachers, you know, the law does allow them to strike. But again, I want to emphasis, this is not an easy decision for any group of workers.

The Chicago teachers haven't gone on strike in 25 years. Strikes imposed pain in all sides, you know, where the employers losses production, but workers also loss wages and benefits. It's just that it's a necessary element, then, to push the two sides to compromise during negotiations and try to reach agreement.

CONAN: Let's get Lea(ph) on the line. Lea's with us from Cape Coral in Florida.

LEA: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LEA: Yes. Many years ago, in the early 1970s, I was working as a nurse as I am right now. And I believe it was 1972, where it just so happened that all of the hospitals in the state of Hawaii had their contract run out at the same time. And also at that time - this is no exaggeration - there was a nurse that had been working in the facility where I worked, for over 35 years, she was getting ready to retire and her retirement benefits was $27 a month. So we did all go on strike at the same time. There was chaos. They made the doctors come in and pass out medicines. They made the supervisors go out on the floor and give bed baths and empty bed pans. The strike was over in three days.

CONAN: Three days?

LEA: Because - in three days. As a result, all the doctors were having fist fights because they couldn't read each other's orders. It was chaos. But as a result of that strike, never again did they ever allow the hospital contracts to run out at the same time. And we lost a lot of power because one hospital can be on strike, people can go to another hospital. It's not like here where all the hospitals are under (unintelligible), or the majority of the hospitals are under NCH, these are individual hospitals.

CONAN: I see. It's interesting, Chris Rhomberg, there in the city of New York, for many years, all of the public employees - the transit unions for example - their contracts all run out at midnight, New Year's Eve.

RHOMBERG: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So, remember, in New York State, there are also severe sanctions for striking for public employees. And there was a transit worker strike here a few years ago, and the union faced severe financial penalties for the short-lived strike that they went on.

CONAN: So, Lea, would you..

LEA: Yeah.

CONAN: ...would you say that strike was effective?

LEA: Oh, it was very effective. People were writing in letters to the editor, saying, pay them what they want - we weren't asking for much. But they treated us - I was actually one of the negotiators. The people that were negotiating for the hospitals and their head negotiator treated us so badly when we were in negotiation meetings that it was really pitiful. We would discuss something, they would go out and put out a press release, making all kinds of false claims of what we were requesting. But the thing was, the head negotiator ended up in my operating room one day. I was an operating room nurse.

CONAN: Lea, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

LEA: OK. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Chris Rhomberg is on the opinion page with us this week. He's an associate professor of sociology at Fordham. His CNN.com piece from today is titled "America Would Be Better Off with More Strikes," and that there's a link to that on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. In the interest of full disclosure, NPR is a union shop, which has never gone on strike. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email that we have from Bryan(ph) in Dallas: Does your guest think air traffic controllers, or cardiovascular surgeons or nurses should have the right to strike? To what extend should the right to strike be protected? What professions should be exempt?

RHOMBERG: As you asking me that question?

CONAN: Well, the caller - the emailer is, yeah.

RHOMBERG: OK. All right. Well, look, I think that the bottom line is, should the workers themselves should have the right to decide whether they want to belong to a union? It certainly didn't really be up to the rest of us to decide.

CONAN: Well, to belong to a union is one thing. Should the unions have the right to strike when they're police, or firefighters or air traffic controllers?

RHOMBERG: Right. Well, sure as any other forms of dispute mediation, or arbitration or conflict resolution, then the way the system has been set up in the U.S. is the government usually doesn't intervene, then, to try to bring about a settlement. It's really left up to the parties themselves. So without the right to strike, a crucial element has been missing.

Now, with regard to the previous caller, the woman who was the nurse, many times, the issue is in service, occupations and professions like that is not really about the wages, or not solely about the wages, but the conditions at work, you know, the staffing, for example, or the quality of service. And people who are working in those professions, you know, feel a real obligation to their patients or to their students, in the case of the teacher, and may have real conflicts about this. But in part, what they're doing is they see unionization and, ultimately, their right to strike as another way to have a voice in the workplace and to the defend conditions that they see are important.

CONAN: Again, did I hear that you think police and firefighters should have the right to strike?

RHOMBERG: What I say, is that there should be some mechanism for dispute resolution, for negotiation, you know. And some states do allow for that, that they may prohibit the right to strike for certain public sector employees, but there are fallback mechanisms.

CONAN: OK.

RHOMBERG: Unlike the private sector, where basically the government takes the hands-off attitude, and so this is up to the parties themselves.

CONAN: Let's get to James, and James is a caller from Jacksonville in Florida.

JAMES: Yeah. I'm actually - right now, I'm going through a contract dispute with my employer. And their first offer, I'm going to have to vote no for, because with the increase in the health benefits, it's a pay cut for us and - that and the outsourcing the company has been doing, as well, shipping jobs overseas. That's...

CONAN: So that's on the contract. Has your union voted to authorize a strike if the bargaining committee thinks it needs it?

JAMES: And right now, we are in the process of doing the strike vote. The ballots are going out.

CONAN: And you're going to have to vote no?

JAMES: I am going to vote no, absolutely.

CONAN: No on the contract offer, so giving them the authorization to strike if they want to?

JAMES: Well, yeah. You know, we'll be giving them authorization to go to the strike. Because we've been convincing this country that you've got to live to work, instead of working to live. I heard one of your other segments where they're talking about Germany with the different mind-set. And we are just burning everything out. Everybody doing overtime. We're devaluing a working - a living wage, which the people aren't making anymore. We call it - oh, we're going to contract out, which is just the hidden of devaluing people's employment.

CONAN: I wonder, Chris Rhomberg, as you listen to this man's experience, that's an argument a lot of workers would make.

RHOMBERG: Well, sure. But I mean, it relates to the question of, what kind of model of economic growth we want to have in this country? I mean, if you're saying that, you know, companies should compete on the basis of cheapest costs, you know, just sent it out to anywhere in the world that's the cheapest labor in order to reduce cost, then you'll get the kind of situation that we have.

But if you base the appeal of your products or services on the quality, you know, of the products or services, you know, then when you have in interest in maintaining stability among your employees and investing in your employees and retaining experienced workers in not contracting out, but negotiating with workers in order to raise productivity, you know. So I think that unionization and collective bargaining are a key piece of the latter strategy, and it's a much more high road on the economic development.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the phone call.

JAMES: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Chris Rhomberg, thanks for your time today.

RHOMBERG: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Chris Rhomberg, associate professor of sociology at Fordham, author of "The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor." His CNN.com opinion piece is called "America Would Be Better Off with More Strikes." And he joined us from his office at Fordham. Chris Rhomberg, we appreciate his time.

Tomorrow, we'll focus on Iran as nuclear inspectors grow more and more frustrated. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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