The Ethics of Strikes

John Day

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The SEPTA strike here in Philadelphia is entering its second week. Suburban Station has filled with long queues during the morning and evening rush hours because the subway lines and buses have been closed down and only the Regional Rail is still operating. The Inquirer told a story of a man in New Jersey whose commute to the King of Prussia Mall went from an hour and a half to over three hours. There was another story of a high school student who walked eight miles to maintain his perfect attendance record. It’s not often that a major newspaper reports on the triumph of the human spirit in everyday life, but there is was in full glory.

Over the course of the week, I've been thinking about what the proper ethics of going on strike are, particularly for public employees. I've thought about the Calvin Coolidge quote: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." But the strike that Coolidge was talking about was a police strike, and the police department is the important and most legitimate service a government provides. Transportation is a secondary service, and in an ideal society, all transportation would be privately-owned. Despite that, the realities of life present a situation in which thousands of productive workers are dependent on using SEPTA to get to their job in a reasonable length of time. This strike has made harder for them to live up to their full productivity.

There are obviously situations in which going on strike is moral, that's what the whole plot of Atlas Shrugged was about. An individual has the right to fight for his interests even if it is detrimental to the society around him. As the men of the mind withdrew from society, society completely broke down and many innocent people suffered greatly. If John Galt’s goal was to stop the motor of the world, than Transport Workers Union Local 234 President Willie Brown’s goal is to stop the motor of Philadelphia.

So then why is John Galt a hero and Willie Brown a villain? One difference is that a union that goes on strike denies its individual members of their freedom to work while the strike is ongoing. In contrast, every striker in Atlas Shrugged was on strike on his own accord. The other difference is a public’s expectation of services. If individuals are to coerced into paying for public services, they should at least have the confidence that those services will always be available. In his radio address, Galt tells the world, "We have no demands to present to you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you." [emphasis original] This certainly is not the case for the transport workers. SEPTA receives a great deal of funding of the city and state and would not be able to survive as a private institution.

If Michael Nutter wants to win over the appreciation to the people of Philadelphia, he should do what Ronald Reagan did in response to the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike. With unemployment at over 10%, there are thousands of competent people who would be willing and able to do the job.

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In an open strike, an employee (generally skilled) chooses to strike as a bargaining tool. There is really no other reason to strike, since an employee who is not bargaining is in essence changing jobs instead. Likewise, an employee without skills who goes on strike is probably going to be replaced very quickly in an unregulated society.

I am not familiar with all the regulations in government that protects union members, but my basic understanding is that strikers in today's society have a certain element of power granted to them through government regulation. An employer is not free for many reasons simply to hire other workers and fire strikers. Even though public transportation is still public, it should be operated according to the freedoms accorded with any private enterprise. That is, individual transportation companies should be able to simply hire new individuals, to break contract with other workers, and to hire outside of unions. If any of these freedoms are denied, then strikers are in essence using a power of manipulation to gain more for themselves. Should we disparage the individual strikers? Of course not - it's their right to behave however they choose. Should we disparage the organizers of strikes who recognize that a strike might, through government regulation, help sway an employer to capitulate... of course we should. Anyone who uses government authority without a concept of ethics is unethical.

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