Published 16 Nov, 2011
James C. Little, President of the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO (TWU), announced today that the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labor Organization (ILO) has found that the New York law banning and penalizing public worker strikes violates fundamental workers’ rights protected by international law. This decision upholds a complaint filed in 2009 by Little and former Local 100 President (now International Vice President) Roger Toussaint.
The ILO found that the outright ban on public sector strikes under New York’s Taylor Law, as well as the punishments it imposes on “illegal” strikes (including fines, loss of dues check off and imprisonment of union leaders), violates the Freedom of Association protected under ILO Conventions 87 and 98.
The committee recommended that the U.S. government take steps aimed at bringing the state legislation, through the amendment of the relevant provisions of the Taylor Law, into conformity with freedom of association principles so that only: 1) public servants exercising authority in the name of the state and 2) workers of essential services in the strict sense of the term may be restricted in their right to strike.
The ILO also urged the government to take measures without delay to ensure that the union is fully compensated in respect of the sanctions and the withdrawal of check-off and to take steps for the compensation of Mr. Toussaint for his 10-day detention and the additional sanctions imposed against the striking workers.
Little said, “This ruling from the ILO, which pertains to the critical New York City transit sector, could become a spearhead for the American labor movement’s defense of the rights of public sector workers, and eventually spur re-shaping of U.S. law in this area.”
The complaint was based on New York’s response to TWU Local 100’s 60-hour strike in December 2005. At that time, New York’s MTA had a $1 billion surplus, but was insisting on concessions that included divisive two tier pensions and health care proposals. These concessions, which the strike prevented, would have tripled employee contributions, with the result that workers would have lost tens of millions of dollars in earnings by now and hundreds of millions over the long run. New York State courts responded to the strike with an array of penalties, including a $2.5 million fine on the union, a penalty of an additional day’s lost pay for each day each worker was out on strike, personal fines on the top three officers, and jail time for the Local President. Most harmfully, the courts ordered an end to Local 100’s automatic dues check off. This last penalty, which ultimately lasted 18 months, struck observers as nothing less than an effort to break Local 100, intimidate the entire labor movement and eliminate the threat of any public sector strike in the future. But TWU’s flagship local was not so easy to kill.
The ILO, a tri-partite (governments, employers and unions) agency of the United Nations, has long held that the right to strike is an essential element of the Freedom of Association and the right to collective bargaining protected by core Conventions 87 and 98. (They are called “core” Conventions because, since 1998, the ILO has found that they are “fundamental to the rights of human beings at work.”) The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association has repeatedly ruled that, as a founding member of the ILO that has agreed to follow the ILO Constitution, the United States is bound by the principles of these Conventions. In other words, even though the U.S. has failed to ratify Conventions 87 and 98, they simply elaborate the key principles of freedom of association and collective bargaining already contained in the ILO Constitution, by which all ILO member states, including the U.S., are bound. The ILO Constitution is a treaty obligation of the U.S., and under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal and state courts are bound by it, even if state laws, such as the Taylor Law, contradict it.
Plainly put, the right to strike is an element of the Freedom of Association, which is the highest law of the land. The Taylor Law’s ban on and penalties for strikes, as applied to TWU Local 100 and its members in 2005, violated this Freedom.
Little added, “It is now up to U.S. courts and government agencies to rectify this wrong. TWU will be there every step of the way to help make sure they do.”