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The battle over the Taylor Law

Published Apr 9, 2006 10:59 PM

The Taylor Law in New York State prohibits public employee unions from conducting strikes, or even job actions like “work to rule.” Violation of the law leads to fines, sanctions against the union and even jail for union leaders. But there is no pressure on employers to bargain fairly with employees. As a consequence, tens of thousands of public employees in New York State are working under expired contracts.

One of the most powerful unions in New York City, Transport Workers Local 100, which represents the bus and subway workers, defied the Taylor Law and went on strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Agency for three days in December because its contract had expired and the union has a policy of “no contract, no work.” The strike had a huge impact on the city, in which a majority of people use public transportation.

After the agency’s new contract offer was rejected by just seven votes out of more than 22,000 cast, the MTA took all its offers off the table, refused to bargain and demanded the Public Employees Relation Board appoint a panel to impose a contract on TWU 100. The union is facing a $3 million fine and loss of dues check-off, which could bankrupt it.

In the field of education, 46 locals in New York State United Teachers, out of 740 districts covered by NYSUT, entered the fall semester of 2005 with a contract that had expired over two years earlier.

The Professional Staff Congress, a mem ber of NYSUT that represents 20,000 faculty, adjuncts and professional staff at the City University of New York, had its contract with CUNY expire over three years ago. A wall in NYSUT headquarters gives the names of 84 local leaders imprisoned for striking in violation of the Taylor Law.

The Council of School Supervisors and Ad ministrators, representing 6,500 administrators and principals, just declared a deadlock. Its contract expired June 30, 2002. The Firefighters union in New York City got a contract this past fall after 51 months of negotiating, stretching back to three months before 9/11.

A debate is going on in the state labor movement on how to deal with the Taylor Law. Any serious leader realizes that to change it will require a joint effort of all the workers in New York City, both private and public. Some union leaders want to combine direct action with political lobbying to get the state to amend the law; others would rely on lobbying.

This debate surfaced at a City Council hearing on March 30. The Council has no oversight or influence on the Taylor Law but allowed union leaders to bring it up in a hearing on the transit strike.

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents 80,000 teachers in New York City, said that the Taylor Law allows senior city officials and negotiators to simply stay away from the bargaining table without any consequence. Of course, they can be sued, found guilty of failing to bargain in good faith and then reprimanded and told to mend their ways. But no fines or other penalties are imposed, other than a public scolding.

“The city’s ability to stall without repercussions means unions have virtually no leverage,” she said. And when disputes are ultimately resolved through the Taylor Law’s arbitration procedures, the state arbitrators have “ruled that the pattern must prevail” and workers must accept the terms set by another union.

The UFT has laid out an ambitious program around the Taylor Law, with amending it a number-one priority. But just imploring the State Legislature is not going to satisfy teachers who are working more hours, often in chaotic situations, for a slight increase in pay. And it is not likely to result in significant changes to the law.

The city administration told the City Council hearing, “It is the administration’s position that the Taylor Law has been effective over the years in helping to foster harmonious labor relations. The administration would oppose any legislation that attempts to diminish or dilute the positive effects that this law has had.”

What lies behind this debate among labor leaders is the rising anger among rank-and-file workers who see their living standards and jobs eroded by this pattern of stonewall bargaining.