Illegal But Not Immoral

Many of the New York City buses that aren't running now have a famous, half-century-old photograph posted prominently in one of the ad spaces. It shows a woman looking wearily out of a bus window.  

The woman, of course, is the late Rosa Parks, and the photograph celebrates her historic refusal to give up her seat, a refusal that set in motion events that changed the face of our nation. Today we call Rosa Parks an American hero. In 1955, her action was illegal. Indeed, it was its illegality -- and the risk she took to commit it -- that made it heroic.  

But it was not unique. There were many other actions that were illegal when they were committed, actions we now recognize as at least the exercise of a universal right, and in many cases beneficial to people everywhere. India might not be free today if Mohandas Gandhi had not led tens of thousands to the sea to gather illegal salt in 1930. There are Jews in this country and around the world who would never have been born had not brave Danes, Netherlanders and even Germans hidden them from the SS  in the 1930s and '40s. The refusal to carry passes in South Africa in the 1960s was only one of many nonviolent but illegal campaigns that ultimately toppled apartheid. In our own country, it was illegal to shelter a runaway slave in the 1850s and '60s, to marry someone of another race (until 1967!); and, for much of the 19th century, to organize a union.  

These actions are worth mentioning now because so much of the commentary on the transit workers' strike has centered on the fact that under New York State's 1967 Taylor Law, the strike is illegal, as are all strikes by public employees. Both New York State Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have in fact used the word "illegal" in every single comment they have made to the media about the strike. Mayor Bloomberg, indeed, has used the strike's illegal nature to justify describing it as "shameful" and "thuggish."  

But the most cursory look back at history will show us that the mere fact that an action has been outlawed has not always meant that it was wrong. Some 30,000-plus New Yorkers are today picketing in the bitter cold, risking substantial financial and other penalties, to defend not only their own future as workers, but the future of transit workers not yet hired. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is demanding what amounts to a six percent pay cut for future transit employees, in the form of an unprecedented contribution to their own pensions.  

Ever since the Transport Workers Union won pensions for transit workers, the pensions have been a substantial part of what makes it worthwhile to "move New York" by doing, among other arduous and sometimes risky jobs, the hard work involved in keeping the world's only 24/7 subway system running. The union's strike for its future members might well be seen as valiant at another moment in time.  

It's perfectly clear why Governor Pataki and the officials of the Metropolitan Transit Authority would harp on the illegality of the strike. But those of us who care about workers' rights -- and Mayor Bloomberg, who was elected with the support of several municipal unions -- should be pointing out that workers have a right to stop working when their employers don't offer them what they consider a fair deal -- and should be able to do it legally.


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