July 14 Municipal Workers Strike

July 14, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1978.

That was the day municipal workers in Cleveland, Louisville and Philadelphia walked off the job.

That summer was rocked with public sector strikes, starting with a firefighters strike in Memphis.

In Cleveland, municipal services came to a virtual halt as city workers honored a police work stoppage.

In Louisville, firefighters walked off the job, after the Kentucky Labor Relations Board found the city guilty of unfair labor practices.

And in Philadelphia, 20,000 AFSCME members, including sanitation, highway and health department workers rejected a last minute contract offer.

They demanded wage increases.

But they were also furious when the city announced it would have to lay off city workers to pay an arbitration award to the police.

Sanitation strikes soon followed in New Orleans, San Antonio, Detroit and Tuscaloosa.

By the third week of July, transit workers in Washington DC staged a wildcat strike, as did postal workers in California and New Jersey.

Labor historian Joseph McCartin notes that public sector strikes peaked in 1975 and again in 1978.

By the late 70s, “the volatile recipe of rising public sector union militancy, inflation and anti-tax
reform made public sector unions more vulnerable than at any other time.

Suddenly the union became a convenient scapegoat for public officials dealing with declining relative
tax revenues, demands for improved public services and taxpayer unrest.”

McCartin adds that by 1978 public employers came out swinging in labor disputes.

Public sector unions would struggle to “hold their own in an increasingly hostile environment…as their ability
to strike was being severely eroded.”

The backlash against public sector militancy set the stage for President Reagan’s smashing of PATCO just 3 years later.

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