As a former delegate for the firefighters union and as a writer who spent most of my life in the proletariat, I can see that America's labor history is both informed and defined by the decision of workers to strike. What else do working people have to leverage their needs and desires but the withholding of their labor? Next to compulsory arbitration, the strike is the only powerful recourse when labor negotiations break down. It is a way to seek justice of a kind.
But there are other elements in the recent transit strike that we should remember. There is the legal mandate that says the Taylor Law is designed to prohibit strikes against the public's interest, and that we are a nation of laws. The workers might now seek to overturn the Taylor Law in the Legislature, but as long as the law is the law all unions must be made to obey it in the future. The transit workers seemed to take a high road in saying that the Dred Scott decision was a law as well, but that never made the ownership of another human being right, and we must fight against injustice law or no law. It is a lofty ideal to fight injustice, but it must be done before a judge and not at the expense of the comfort of our citizens.
There is another side to these observations: These workers were determined in what they saw as their correctness in closing down our transportation system. Why? Because they are blue-collar workers living in a society where 27-year-olds who do little more than move paper from one side of their desks to the other are buying multimillion-dollar second homes in the Hamptons, part of a society where CEOs are often paid 1,500 times the salary of their lowest level employee.
And in New York City, especially, we all should realize the disparities that are agonizing our city employees. The Suffolk County police, for instance, are paid almost 50% more than New York's Finest, and the firefighters of San Francisco are earning almost double what we pay New York's Bravest.
On the one hand, there is always the argument that each of our city workers is lucky to have a job. On the other, there is the writing on the wall that predicts much labor unrest in our future. Our public pension systems, and many of our private systems as well, are underfunded and respected financial analysts are predicting their collapse. Our workers are marginally paid in relation to the excessive pay they see around them, and they can see that their share of the pie is getting smaller and smaller.
Still, I hated the strike, and our transit workers were wrong to punish the rest of the hardworking New Yorkers, to have forced them to cope with stress and anger in what ought to have been a time of joy. In ending the strike, Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Roger Toussaint has kept himself from a jail term, but he should be reminded of the harsh burden he conveyed to all of us. Someone should strap a refrigerator on his back and make him walk the many miles in near freezing temperatures that most New Yorkers had to endure in this strike.
Smith, an author of 14 books, is a retired firefighter and chairman of the First Responders Financial Co.