Paul Jacob

At the start of the school year in Bethel, Washington, the local teachers' union went on strike. A week later, New York city's cabbies went on strike. The two strikes lasted just a few days each, but could hardly be more different. And yet both tell us interesting things about life in our over-governmentalized age.

But first, let's clear up something. Both strikes were mass protests involving not force, but inactivity. The word "strike" is, indeed, a funny word for not showing up to work. It's such an active word. (When I don't show up for work, it's not usually because I'm being active.) The word is also violent. I don't have the right to strike you in the face. You don't have the right to strike me with a bowling pin. Our very liberties don't allow aggression.

Now, not showing up to work isn't very aggressive. Barring some legal, binding contract, everyone has a right not to show up to work. And employers [should] have the right to not pay those who don't show up.

And, while it lasted, the Bethel public school teacher strike was a case where a contract hadn't been signed. Why not just start hiring non-union teachers?

I don't belong to a union, as you can guess. But I do employ union workers. After all, as a citizen, I'm a shareholder in our government. More and more, it is in government that we find unionized workers.

But I'm not a Washingtonian, so it wasn't my biz to tell Bethel's teachers to start looking for other jobs. I can quote the state's Attorney General, though: "In Washington, state and local public employees do not have a legally protected right to strike. No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute."

You might be asking yourself, how could a right to strike not be in common law? And the reason is that what we mean by a strike, by a union, is (as you suspected earlier) something more than just not showing up for work. It also has something to do with preventing other people from taking the job you are not showing up to work for. For strikes to be really effective, it helps that unions get special treatment, in law. There's a reason that Washington state, a once very strong union state, legally allows union strikes only against corporations; politicians are savvy enough to shift the "gun under the table" form of negotiation away from themselves.

Unfortunately, when illegal strikes occur, Washington officials rarely put up much more than a weak harumph.

The strike lasted only three days. The teachers pretty much got what they wanted: a policy about class size, and a raise. Most "harumphs" were uttered in private.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.