When did strikes become illegal?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 20 2005 6:10 PM

When Did Strikes Become Illegal?

And what do Taft, Hartley, Condon, and Wadlin have to do with it?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story hereThe Explainer now has its own free daily podcast; click here to learn more.

Pounding the pavement
Click image to expand.
Pounding the pavement

Thirty-three thousand New York City transit workers went on strike Tuesday morning after union and management officials failed to agree on a new contract. State law prohibits public employees from going on strike; later on Tuesday, a judge ruled that the union must pay a $1 million fine for every day they skip work. When did strikes become illegal?

At least 60 years ago. The federal government had to make work stoppages legal before it made them illegal: Several laws that were passed in the 1930s gave workers the right to join unions and go on strike. The Wagner Act of 1935 also created the National Labor Relations Board to help oversee employee disputes in private industry. (The new rules didn't apply to civil servants or to those who worked for airlines, railroad companies, or certain other industries.) But the end of World War II led to an upsurge in labor unrest, and millions of workers across the country went on strike. In 1947, Congress amended (and restricted) the earlier law with the Taft-Hartley Act. Now unions had to give warning for impending strikes, and the president was given explicit permission to intervene in some situations. (For example, you can't go on strike just because an employer won't assign work to your union.)


The New York State legislature quickly followed suit. The Condon-Wadlin Act (also of 1947) made it illegal for state employees to go on strike; anyone who walked off the job would be fired. (If they got their jobs back, they wouldn't get a raise for three years.) The harsh penalties were difficult to enforce, however, and they didn't always deter the union bosses. Starting on New Year's Day 1966, the New York City transit union shut down the subways and buses for 12 days. Though the workers had clearly broken the law, they were never penalized. (To help resolve the dispute, state legislators voted to forgive them.)

New York lawmakers changed the rules the following year. The Taylor Law reaffirmed the ban on public-sector strikes, but with smaller (and more enforceable) penalties. According to the Taylor Law, an employee can be charged with a crime if he tries to "cause, instigate, encourage or condone a strike," or if he avoids work without permission. (The law also gave public employees the right to unionize and created a system of arbitration for labor disputes.) Transit workers who walked out for 11 days in 1980 had to pay individual fines; their union was told to fork over more than a million dollars.

The Empire State isn't the only one that bans government work stoppages. According to the United Federation of Teachers, public employees are allowed to strike in only nine states. In some states, the right applies to some jobs but not others. In Illinois, any government worker except a firefigher or police officer can go on strike.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.