This is just something that I was thinking about in the car on the way to work this morning.

Today the members of the New York transit authority’s union went on strike. This has left nearly 8 million people without transportation for the duration of the strike. The mayor Bloomberg has said its an illegal strike.

Putting politics aside, it made me wonder about whether the union should be allowed to stop working or not. Notice I did not say “strike or not”. There’s a difference between the right to strike and the requirement to work.

In most parts of the country, policemen and firefighters belong to unions. So do ambulance drivers, doctors, etc. Some don’t belong, but many if not most do.

Thinking specifically about policemen and firefighters, if they strike they are still required to work. Its a matter of public saftey. The police department employees may have differences over their contract renewals, but there are still streets to be policed, crime to be fought, and cars to pull over and ticket for no reason. The same thing goes for firefighters. Just because they don’t like their current contracts, that doesn’t mean they have the right to not put out a fire.

So in a city like New York, we have to look at that situation. 8 million people have no other primary method of transportation around the city, other than subways and buses. The municipal transportation system in the city is as vital as the electrical grid and water systems. By not working, the union members are effectively shutting down a needed public resource necessary for the functioning and survival of the people of the city.

There are laws in many states saying that during winter periods, electric and gas companies are barred from shutting off service to any person for non-payment. This is because heat during the winter is necessary for survival. Should the same rules we have in place for police, firefighters, and other essential services not be applied to the transit systems in cities that have huge populations with no other means to move about?

We still have to realize that unions give their employees bargaining power where otherwise they would be at the mercies of their employers. Labor unions over the centuries have helped to guarantee improved working conditions for people not even in the unions themselves. Labor’s fights for better pay and health care have the beneficial effect of becoming law in many cases, which then apply to all workers regardless of union membership. Think about minimum wage, overtime benefits, and child work laws, for example.

The employees of New York’s transit authority may have valid complaints and issues with their work environment. I would not personally go as far as Michael Bloomberg and call the strike “illegal”. But the real question is, does that union have the right to stop working even though they are on strike?

As much as I personally hate cliches, the one popularized in Star Trek fits this situation very well.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

We must balance the needs of 8 million people against the needs of a few thousand. Should any small group necessarily have the right to freeze up an essential service because of contract issues?

They can continue to work while working to resolve their contract issues. An effective solution may even be to balance both sides of the argument. The workers can strike, but limitedly. Keep the buses and subways rolling, but on a limited schedule. Its an inconvenience to those 8 million, but you are not denying them access to transporation. It also still provides effective backing to motivate management towards agreement with the union on a new contract. By denying those 8 million people access to needed transportation, you potentially turn those who you need support from against you. Simply slowing the system enough to cause inconvenience lets the everyday man and woman support your cause without making them angry and blindly turning against you.

The last word on this is an extension of that Star Trek cliche. Many people will say that yes, the needs of the many are more important than the needs of the few. However, in our republic we have embodied in law and common practice the need to protect the few from the will of the majority. This can be embodied in a short phrase as well.

“The wants of the many must be tempered by the needs of the few.”

Simply because a majority of whites in the South were against equal rights for blacks, the needs of black Americans for protection and improvement in position in society were more important than the wants of the majority of Southerners.

An issue today of similar type, if not degree, is gay rights and equal treatment. Many people in this country, likely a comfortable majority, do not want gays to have equal protection under federal law. Equal protection also extends to such things as gay marriage. Simply because a majority of people do not want to give equal protection and equal rights to a minority group is not a legally proven requisite for denying equality to that group.