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Can You Fire Striking Workers?

October 23, 2009

We don’t see strikes in Mississippi that often, but following the events in Hinds County I did some research on the subject of replacement workers. Going back to the 1930s, legislation and the Supreme Court has upheld an employer’s right to hire permanent replacement workers. Here is an essay from an employment attorney on the subject.

This right is part of what is called a delicate balance between labor and the employer. Barack Obama, who has worked side-by-side with labor unions going back to his community organizing days, opposes this right and wants it overturned. From his campaign website:

Protect Striking Workers: Obama and Biden support the right of workers to bargain collectively and strike if necessary. They will work to ban the permanent replacement of striking workers, so workers can stand up for themselves without worrying about losing their livelihoods.

Obama owes labor big time for his victory so this should not be too surprising. Luckily, no real talks have surfaced since being elected.

All this got me thinking about the most notorious incident where striking workers were fired. I, of course, am talking about the 1981 PATCO strike where some 13,000 air traffic controllers walked of the job in direct violation of the law. The workers were demanding a shorter work week (32 hours instead of 40) and more pay ($10,000 across the board increase) while the country was in a recession. As federal employees the air traffic controllers had a no-strike clause in their contract. Congress actually passed that law in 1955 but during that time a total of 22 unauthorized strikes had occurred. Ronald Reagan changed that. Here is a classic clip from 1981:

Most workers did not take Reagan’s warning seriously- and they were soon out of a job. While things did go slowly at first, the contingency plans worked and soon everything was back to normal. PATCO, the union representing the workers, was soon decertified and Reagan banned the former air traffic controllers from being re-hired in the future. A president with strength. After just nine months it’s sometimes hard to remember what one looked like.

The lasting impact of this is that we have seen fewer strikes over the past 28 years while employers have felt more comfortable hiring replacement workers.

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