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The Case For Striking In The Public Sector

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

Upon the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1937, which granted the right to collectively bargain to private sector employees, there was no similar initiative to remedy the inequality of bargaining power between public sector employees and their employers. Rather, the collective bargaining rights have been left to the states, wherein the policies implemented relating to the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees have, for the most part, been attempts to skirt traditional forms of collective bargaining, such as strikes and collective bargaining agreements. In fact, in New York State,

the Taylor Law mandates a “two for one” penalty under which a striking employee is penalized one day’s pay for each strike day in addition to the day’s pay the employee loses while striking. Under the Taylor Law, the struck employer is responsible for collecting the monetary penalty and keeps the money raised by the strike penalty.[1]

Laws like this attempt to deter public sector strikes by attempting to penalize workers beyond the already numerous costs of striking. Reasons cited for restricting the ability of public sector employees to strike include the belief that public sector employees already receive sufficient pay and benefits, or that the provision of collective bargaining, especially strikes, would yield these employees too much political power, in that their services are necessary for society to function as it does.

The faultiness of the first reason lies in the fact that when public sector employees are allowed to strike, the wage concessions made by employers are not excessive. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “Employees covered by the right to strike earn about 2 percent to 5 percent more than those without it.”[2] To give this figure significance, the relative union wage effect, states that unionized workers earn about 15 to 20 percent more than nonunionized workers (in the private sector).[3] While it may be true that public sector employees enjoy higher wages than employees in the private sector, the concern that they will be overpaid upon receiving collective bargaining rights is unreasonable.

The second reason, the fear of employees gaining undue political power and halting necessary functions of society would be reasonable, bar for the fact that states without collective bargaining laws are actually prone to more industrial conflict, in which public sector employees withhold their work using other tactics, such as “slowdowns, work-to-rule campaigns, and “sickouts.”[4] Without the right to strike or use other collective bargaining tools, workers still find ways to withhold their work in the public sector, so the fear of strikes having this effect is simply borne from a lack of concern for the rights of public sector workers.

Many public sector workers are subject to unfair labor practices and have little tools to combat them due to the notion that they wield massive economic and political power. However, for many employees in the public sector, that is not the case. The right to collectively bargain and strike is not just essential for private sector workers—it is a right that should be extended to the public sector as well.

[1] Harry Katz, Thomas A. Kochan, and Alexander J.S. Colvin, An Introduction to U.S. Collective Bargaining and Labor Relations (New York, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 335.

[2] Jeffrey Keefe, “Laws enabling public-sector collective bargaining have not led to excessive public-sector pay,” Economic Policy Institute, last Modified October 16, 2015,

[3] Katz, Kochan, Colvin, Introduction to U.S. Collective Bargaining, 254.

[4] Robert Hebdon and Robert Stern, “Do Public-Sector Strike Bans Really Prevent Conflict?” Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society 42, no. 3 (2003): 494

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