illegal is not immoral

Given how much attention was paid, at the beginning of this month, to the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest, I’ve been somewhat disheartened to see so many bloggers writing vitriolic posts about the NY transit strike. I understand, having worked in a city with its fair share of labor unrest, that living through a transit strike is not a fun experience, especially when it’s cold outside. And I’m not talking about the people who are using their own blog to complain about their own experience (ie–I had to walk very far in the cold) without using it as an opportunity to attack the workers or the union, anymore than I would be upset by the same person doing it in their own (offline) journal.

But I find it mindboggling that so many people seem to be buying the boss’s rhetoric about the legality of the strike, and the ‘thuggish’ (to quote Bloomberg) behavior of union members in striking right before the holidays. Yes, the strike is illegal. Which means that in order to get a strike vote, Roger Touissant (the local’s president) had to convince the members of his union to make not one, but two extremely difficult choices. The first one was to go on strike at all. Now I know there are people out there in the universe who think that unions just snap their fingers and the members walk off the job. But that ain’t the way it works, folks. Think about your own economic situation, and what it would take for you to voluntarily decide to give up your income for an indefinite period of time. To say to your own family, your own children, “sorry kids, there won’t be a Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa) this year, because we decided to stop working to force our boss to treat us better.” You’d have to be pretty serious about your demands, to make that decision.

And for the most part, union members aren’t hard core activists. They’re regular folks, who want to do their jobs, take care of their families, have vacations, live a normal life. Which leads me to the second choice–the choice to conduct an illegal strike. I have a confession to make here. I have been an organizer and an activist for my entire adult life, and I have never been arrested. I have broken the law at times in the course of my activism, and I have risked arrest. I have talked to other people about why they might make the choice to do it. And I’m here to tell you that getting regular working people to voluntarily break the law, to subject themselves personally to ridiculous fines or arrest, is damn hard.

So when I hear Touissant compare the illegality of the strike to the illegal demands being made by the boss, I know that he’s right on. Not every person has a chance in their life to make the kind of difference that Rosa Parks made. But most of us do have a chance to sit in judgment on people who are doing it. People who are making that tough decision–do I put myself in jeopardy and break a law I think is wrong to make things better for everyone? or do I obey an unjust law and suffer the greater consequences of injustice? For myself, I’m a far greater admirer of people like Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Alice Paul and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. than I am of people who sat quietly by during segregation, or apartheid, or the Holocaust, because to speak out against the law of the time would have put them in danger. I admire the resolve of Touissant and the members, and understand the hard choices they are making. The moral decision to break an immoral law.

And I’d do this post a disservice if I didn’t point out that there is some excellent reporting being done on the strike by Jonathan Tasini over at his Working Life blog.


December 22, 2005. politically motivated.


  1. Trasherati replied:

    I find it very disheartening, and quite hypocritical, that many who are criticizing the MTA strikers are the same people who boycott grapes to protest the working conditions of those in grape-growing regions, and won’t shop at WalMart because of how they treat employees in far-flung Malaysian factories. Moral selectivism…and doing what’s right only when it’s relatively easy – bah. I hope their feet *really* hurt at the end of the day.

  2. chip replied:

    Of course the mainstream media coverage is part of the problem. The only things I’m hearing stress only the inconveniences of the strike and its illegality, blaming it entirely on the union. I see nothing that shows that management is to blame, that people should be angry not at the workers, but at the managers and politicians who have brought this strike on the city.

  3. Doppelganger replied:

    As someone who recently endured a lockout — which most members of the public dishearteningly believed to be a strike — I’ve learned not to underestimate (1) people’s ability to be hypocritical in their beliefs about fair working conditions, and (2) government’s and the media’s propensity to misrepresent labour disputes, and (3) management’s willingness to take advantage of all of the above. And this happened up here in “liberal” Canada. Sigh.

  4. elise replied:

    Some where along the way much of the media has gotten so they support politicians instead of trying to find their faults. The latter is what kept them on the toes. Now they can say “Hey look how great I am” and the media is just there cheering them on.

  5. suki replied:

    While many did not think the strike was the right answer, I too found it admirable… I just couldn’t sum it up as eloquently on my blog… even though I was arguing adamantly about it over the phone with my bf in NY.

  6. allan replied:

    I am no more a fan of big unions than I am a fan of big government or big business.

    Still I agree with your statement.

    That philosophy is also well stated by C. F. Bastiat

    “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”

    Thanks for a well thought out post

  7. Comfort Addict replied:

    I was pretty shocked, too, by the vitriol of the response to the strike. As I understand it, management goaded the transit workers into the strike by illegally introducing a second tier pension plan as part of the proposal. I don’t know why the average working person, unionized or not, can’t understand that the workers were being bullied and sympathize with them. I agree with Mr. Toussaint when he said that “the thugs are not on this side of the table.”

    This reaction of irritation rather than support points up just how big an issue class is in America. Oh yes, we have other problems (racism and sexism to name a couple) but class is the 2000 pound elephant in the corner that no one talks about. Somewhere in the early 80s, Reagan somehow conned a bunch of otherwise middle-class people (many of them in Macomb County, Michigan, where I live, home of the “Reagan Democrat”) into thinking that they would be rich if it just weren’t for unions, “welfare queens” and other “freeloaders.” Bush I continued this and Bush II has accelerated it. Someday soon (as the baby boom hits retirement with a bang), I hope that they’ll realize that they’ve been duped but, based on the people I ran into while working the last election, I’m not optimistic. Many is the time when I have contemplated giving up and heading for Canada. I always remind myself, though, that, if people like you and Landisdad and Mrs. CA and I go, the country will really go to hell.

    You’re absolutely right when you say that, sometimes, the right thing to do is not the legal one. Were it not for that kind of thinking, we’d all still be under a king. Happy holidays to you, Landisdad, the Bee and the Potato.

  8. Library Lady replied:

    I used to be an employee of the city of New York. The only employee groups that have any power in NYC are the cops, firemen and trash collectors. Everyone else from the teachers to the (ahem) librarians to the clerical people to the transit workers gets stepped on.

    So I felt a good deal of sympathy for the transit workers.

    On the other hand, while I don’t give a rat’s tuchus if it inconvenienced people like my brother the hedge fund king, there are a lot of people who get paid by the hour, have no other source of transport and lost a lot of wages during the strike.They were angry and deserved to be. But I hope they also understand that every time people get denied good working benefits and a living wage, we all suffer…….

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