There is always danger that a column about a current event may be obsolete by the time it gets into print.
After a columnist finishes writing, he goes home and goes to bed. But other reporters stay up all night to keep abreast of late developments. They continue to update the paper's news stories. As a result, a pundit can awaken to find that page one and his column tell two different stories. That's embarrassing.
There is minimal danger of such a fate overtaking today's District Line, even though it will be about our latest school strike, in which the mood swings quickly from pessimism to optimism and then back again. It would be easy to turn in a pessimistic column at 6 p.m. and learn at 8 a.m. that that the two sides had reached agreement.
I'd love to have today's column jinxed by such a development. That would be a small price to pay for getting everything back to normal again.
Besides, there would still be need to concern ourselves about this: The compromise that will end this strike will probably increase the chance that there will be another one soon.
Consider the background. Many public employees are forbidden to strike by law, by contract, or because a court has ordered them not to. The assumption used to be that public services would not be interrupted.
Surely police officers, fire fighters, teachers, garbage collectors, postal workers, nursoldiers would not violate laws or contracts, would they?
Or would they?
They would. We must revise our outdated assumptions. Public services are being interrupted with frequency and impunity, and the situation is getting worse, not better.
Each time public servants strike in violation of court orders, laws or contractual agreements, officials warn that the strikers will be punished, usually by fines or firings or both. Strikers guilty of threats, violence, intimidation and other criminal acts are told they face criminal prosecution.
But in almost every case, the warnings prove to be without substance. To end the walkout, public officials agree (openly or tacitly) to forgive all transgressions by individuals.
On rare occasions, when a fine is actually levied, it is against a union or the head of a union, and its impact is minimal. The fine that is finally paid is almost always a small fraction of the the fine that was originally imposed.
The union leader who is fined becomes a hero to his flock. He is quietly reimbursed from the union's treasury. He endures no personal punishment, and is therefore emboldened to be even more defiant of the law the next time a court order is issued.
Each time amnesty is granted and illegal acts go unpunished, we therefore make it more likely that other illegal acts will follow. Why should anybody be afraid of laws or court orders that have been revealed to be nothing but hot air?
It has become such common practice to grant amnesty to illegal strikers that a rare turnabout in that policy causes great hardship among men and women who had no idea their offenses could lead to severe punishment. In condoning similar acts in the past, we have led them to believe that this is the way the game is played. We have encouraged them to expect that current transgressions will be forgiven just as casually as transgressions were forgiven in the past.
Is there a way out of this self-perpetuating dilemma? I don't know.
Suppose hard-nosed judges and administrators were to issue formal warnings to oeople who seemed about to engage in illegal acts. Suppose they said, "So help me Hannah, I will punish (or fine, or fire) every last one of you who defies a court order. I warn you that there will be no amnesty for those who defy the courts."
Would that constitute fair notice that past practice could no longer serve as a guide to the future?Or would union leaders and members smile indulgently and say, "We've heard the cry of 'Wolf!' before, and we have finally learned that there is no need to be frightened."
More has been written and said about the status of teachers than the average person can digest and evaluate. I will not add to the din. We outsiders are not in a position to draw up contract proposals. We must leave such matters to our elected officials.
The one thing we are qualified to have an opinion on is whether intricate human relationships can remain in balance when some people are permitted to defy courts or laws.
That question has special importance when it involves people like teachers or policemen, whose conduct is supposed to be exemplary.