Thursday, December 22, 2005

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.

• Posted By landismom @ 12/22/2005 02:30:00 PM
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