Labor spotlight

The history of the Taylor Law

How teacher strikes became illegal

The Transport Workers Union holds a rally outside City Hall during the 1966 transit strike. The 12-day walkout, from which the union emerged triumphant, prompted Gov. Rockefeller to appoint a panel to “make legislative proposals for protecting the public against the disruption of vital public services by illegal strikes, while at the same time protecting the rights of public employees.”

New Yorkers awoke on New Year’s Day, 1966, to discover the city’s bus and subway system eerily still. Thirty-five thousand transit workers had walked off the job. It was a baptism by fire for John V. Lindsay on his first day as mayor. For the next 12 days, tens of thousands of New Yorkers resorted to driving to work, producing monumental traffic jams, while others trudged marathon distances in the cold.

The strike was a remarkable show of force by the Transport Workers Union, led by the union’s firebrand founder Mike Quill. As he was led off to jail for contempt of court, he gibed, “Let the judge drop dead in his black robes.”

The transit workers walked out in defiance of the 1947 Condon-Wadlin Act, a state law that forbade strikes by government workers on penalty of dismissal and a three-year pay freeze for those later reinstated.

But the workers never felt the law’s lash. Eager to end the crippling strike, Lindsay agreed to a generous settlement and arranged for the state legislature to pass a retroactive waiver of the law.

That 1966 strike acted as the catalyst for the Taylor Law, New York State’s foundational labor relations legislation. Three days after transit workers returned to work, Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a blue-ribbon panel to “make legislative proposals for protecting the public against the disruption of vital public services by illegal strikes, while at the same time protecting the rights of public employees.”

The panel, chaired by George W. Taylor, a professor of industrial relations and a well-known arbitrator of industrial disputes, issued a report whose recommendations would form the core of the 1967 Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act, popularly known as the Taylor Law.

While it maintained the strike ban, the new state law recalibrated the penalties for striking to make them more enforceable and set up a whole labor relations structure to help resolve disputes before they escalated.

Like Condon-Wadlin, the Taylor Law uses a broad definition of strike activity, making it a crime for public employees and their unions to “cause, instigate, encourage or condone a strike.” An employee is presumed to be on strike if he or she “is absent from work without permission” or “abstains wholly or in part from the full performance of his duties in his normal manner” during a strike. The courts have held that the law even prevents employees in certain situations from stopping voluntary work.

The penalties for violating the strike ban remained severe. A union that encourages or condones a strike loses its right to deduct dues from members’ paychecks. The law directs government officials to file for a court injunction against any union or individuals that “threaten” to violate the Taylor Law. Judges have the authority to levy fines against the union or those individuals for ignoring a court order. Individual strikers can be disciplined for misconduct under the Civil Service Law, but in settling the 1975 teachers strike, the UFT won the Board of Education’s agreement not to “dismiss, demote, discipline, or otherwise act against any staff member because of his or her participation in said strike or related activities.”

On the positive side, the Taylor Law granted public employees the right to unionize and to bargain collectively, a right denied educators in many states. [See “The big picture on unions,” page 15.] In the event of an impasse with management, it provided for mediation and arbitration. The state Public Employment Relations Board was created as an independent agency to administer the law and act as a referee in disputes.

“Governor Rockefeller wanted an effective vehicle to stop public employee strikes, but he was a believer that the way you maintain labor peace is to have institutional mechanisms to resolve differences between management and labor,” said labor historian Joshua B. Freeman, the author of “Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II.”

The Taylor Law marked progress on the national stage for public employees, who had been left out of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act that gave collective-bargaining rights to private-sector workers. New York State would become the seventh state in the nation to grant collective-bargaining rights to public employees.

The Taylor Law spurred a burst of union organizing outside New York City, including teachers in dozens of smaller school districts upstate. A year after its passage, an estimated 360,000 new public employees in the state had attained bargaining rights for the first time. By 1970, 90 percent of New York State’s 1 million public employees belonged to unions.

New York City municipal unions gained much less from the new law since they were already well-established. City workers had won the right to organize in 1958 under Mayor Robert Wagner, though it took a 28-day strike by city welfare workers in 1965 to impel the city to pass a collective-bargaining law. The Taylor Law allowed the new Office of Collective Bargaining to manage the city’s labor relations program since its procedures were deemed “substantially equivalent” to the state act.

The UFT and the TWU fell under PERB’s jurisdiction, however, since the Board of Education and the Transit Authority were not mayoral agencies.

Municipal labor leaders condemned the Taylor Law’s strike ban, which denied them a union’s most potent lever. According to Ronald Donovan in his book “Administering the Taylor Law,” two labor lions of the era, AFSCME International President Jerry Wurf and District Council 37 Executive Director Victor Gotbaum, disparaged the Taylor report’s recommended strike penalties as the same as Condon-Wadlin except that “Condon-Wadlin tried to bludgeon unions to death and failed; the report would try to bleed them to death to make sure they don’t function.”

The municipal unions filled the old Madison Square Garden for a rally in May 1967 to condemn the new law.

While the Taylor Law facilitated widespread unionization in the public sector, its record on settling disputes before they become tinder for strikes has been mixed.

In the afterglow of the 1966 transit strike, union leaders did not immediately rule out illegal walkouts as an effective weapon. In fact, in the first year after the Taylor Law took effect, nine unions across the state called strikes.

New York City teachers under the leadership of UFT President Albert Shanker were the first to test the new law when they refused to report to work for the opening day of school in 1967 in a dispute over pay as well as the right to remove disruptive students and the need for more funding to lower class size in high-needs schools. The final settlement met the union’s core demands, but Shanker was sentenced to 15 days in jail for contempt of court and the UFT was fined $150,000 for the 17-day strike.

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher strikes of 1968 over community control of the schools and due process for teachers closed schools for a whopping 55 days. The UFT lost the right to dues check-off and was hit with another hefty fine, while Shanker was jailed a second time for 15 days.

That UFT strike and a 10-day strike the same year by city sanitation workers — in which a militant rank and file pulled a reluctant leadership into a walkout — prompted Governor Rockefeller to call for substantial revisions to the law that further shackled labor’s hands. In 1969, lawmakers removed the ceiling on union fines and introduced new penalties against individual strikers of two days’ pay for each day on strike.

When teachers walked out again for five days in 1975 over swelling class sizes after the near-bankrupt city laid off 18,000 teachers and other school employees, the union was again fined and lost dues check-off. That five-day strike also cost members 10 days’ pay, although make-up time was negotiated and deferred wage increases were eventually paid.

The Taylor Law has changed the calculus that union leaders must make before striking. It’s instructive to contrast the 1966 transit strike with the next big strike by transit workers 15 years later. After that 11-day strike, the TWU lost automatic dues check-off and had to pay a $1.25 million fine, while individual strikers incurred 2-for-1 wage penalties, equivalent to the value of the first year’s pay raise.

“People perceived that the transit workers suffered greatly in that strike as a result of the Taylor Law penalties,” said Freeman. “Those penalties were a real downer and made people to this day think very carefully about taking job actions.”

The punishment of the TWU and its members was not extraordinary either. Strikers have incurred the 2-for-1 wage penalties in 80 percent of the strikes since 1969, while unions have temporarily lost dues check-off privileges following two-thirds of the strikes since 1967, according to Donovan. Penalties for contempt of court, typically in the form of union fines, have been assessed in 20 percent of the strikes since 1967.

The number of public-employee strikes in New York State has dropped sharply since 1981. While Yonkers teachers defied the law twice in the 1990s, no New York City municipal union has mounted a large-scale strike in the past quarter century.

The decline coincided with a sustained period of economic growth and ebbing union strength and militancy nationwide. But the Taylor Law penalties clearly worked as a deterrent.

The Yonkers Federation of Teachers, for example, paid dearly for its defiance of the law. It was fined $25,000 and lost dues check-off for nine months following a two-day strike in 1990 and was fined $50,000 and lost dues check-off for 18 months after a three-day strike in 1999. In both walkouts, Yonkers teachers suffered 2-for-1 wage penalties.

Yet even as strikes in New York State have become rarer, the conditions that drive unions to contemplate striking have not disappeared, a function of the Taylor Law’s inability to prod government employers to bargain in good faith and sign timely contracts. That weakness is the focus of a new UFT effort to reform the law.

“People are enormously frustrated with the Taylor Law,” said historian Joshua Freeman. “They are asking, ‘Can you beat it? Are there alternatives?’”

nyt_060905_14b.jpgThe city unions organized a massive rally at the old Madison Square Garden on May 23, 1967 to protest the new Taylor Law. UFT members (foreground) welcome a Transport Workers Union marching band into the Garden.

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