In the Trenches: Acme learns about handling workers who cross the picket line

In this edition of In the Trenches, Acme learns about handling workers who cross the picket line. Remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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Federated United Bearers of American Resources, Local 314159, represents about 1,000 production and maintenance workers at Acme’s flagship facility just south of Key West. Their contract expired three months ago, but meetings of union representatives and Acme managem ent had been fruitless. Both sides recognized the risks of going without the new collective bargaining agreement that was so long overdue.

Fed up with things being at a standstill, the union began a strike action against Acme. More than 1,000 of Acme’s workers walked out one morning and morphed into a vociferous crowd of chanters marching around the plant’s front gate.

But the sentiment wasn’t universal; 13 union workers refused to walk out. The resulting harangues at the plant gate revealed that these workers were in poor financial condition and couldn’t afford the luxury of bringing home only the miniscule bacon coming from the union’s strike fund.

During the course of the strike, nearly 40 additional workers abandoned the gate-site theatrics because they, too, had insufficient savings. Acme, of course, welcomed all of them back to work, no questions asked, and without any extraneous favorable or unfavorable treatment.

Production continued in spite of the picket lines blocking the plant gates. The returning workers, Acme’s supervisory staff, various contractors and a crew of temporary workers soon discovered they were perfectly capable of keeping the plant floor humming along at its rated capacity. After more than three months of what had degraded into somewhat sporadic negotiations, Acme and the union still hadn’t finalized a collective bargaining agreement that would end the strike.

The union blinked first. The members decided, by means of a vote, to terminate the job action and return to work, even without an agreement in place.

Acme made no immediate response, but one week later, working under the principle that without something like a firm deadline nothing gets done, Acme told the union representatives that the company was instituting a lockout. This management action didn’t apply to the 50 or so people who returned to work before the union capitulated.

Acme held firm on the lockout, applying it to any worker who tried to return to the plant after the vote to end the strike had taken place. Acme’s production operations continued as well as they had done while the strike was hot. Thus, Acme announced that it would keep the lockout in force until it and the union reached a vote-ratified collective bargaining agreement. Acme declaimed at every opportunity that lockout was intended to help pressure the union into accepting terms more favorable to the company.

About three weeks later, the union members voted on what Acme called its “final offer,” but failed to receive enough votes to pass it. When the union informed Acme that the vote failed, it also announced that if this lockout proved to be an unfair labor practice, the union would consider any subsequent contract to be void and unenforceable.

Two weeks after that, the union members again voted on the original “final offer,” and it now passed with the slimmest of margins. The union representatives informed Acme of the vote outcome, reiterated its stand regarding the question of the unfair labor practice, and placed it into the hands of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

How could this situation have been avoided? Should employers be selective about whom they lock out of a plant? Does it make sense for management to seek a union contract when the plant is running quite nicely without one? Is a strike really in the best interest of either party? What factors provide sufficient harmony that eliminate the need for workers to organize?

A maintenance planner says:

The state of union/company relations is, and always will be, a delicate one. Having a long-overdue collective bargaining agreement shows unwillingness by both parties to tackle important issues governing the workplace. Having two parties confer and come to an agreement requires substantial effort from many people on each side. They need to know what the issues are and how to deal with them. Maintaining the status quo is easier and less time-consuming.

With no collective bargaining agreement and talks at a standstill, the union took the next big step by initiating the strike action. Although an effective tactic, initiating a strike should be a last resort, not a first choice. The union should have considered the factors affecting the workforce it represents, not only in the workplace, but in the community as a whole. The fact that 13 workers refused to walk out during the initial strike shows that not every worker issue was taken into consideration. Having 40 more workers break ranks and return to work means that 5% of the represented workforce returned to work out of necessity. Personal responsibility trumped solidarity with fellow union members.

The union should have defined the strike’s goal for the workers and the workers should have demanded regular updates on the progress of negotiations. Acme upped the ante by replacing the workforce as best it could to maintain production and thereby gained the upper hand in this situation. Acme’s ability to maintain rated capacity using temporary workers reduced the union’s value to the represented workers and reduced the union’s bargaining power. Three months later, with no progress toward an agreement, the striking workers saw the situation for what it was and voted to return to work. Acme’s lockout a week later only reinforced its position and the union’s weakness.

Was the lockout justified in this situation? For the most part, it was. Acme upheld the tenets of collective bargaining by requiring a vote-ratified agreement before ending the lockout. The one issue here is the 53 workers who stayed or returned to work before the lockout. Does Acme still view them as union members?

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