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

May 7, 2009
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.

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?

Are they still paying dues? What happens if the locked out workers return to work? Acme clouded the waters a bit by not locking out all the union workers, regardless of their status as back-to-work or still-on-strike. It was in Acme’s best interest to allow these workers to work if they wanted to, but the NLRB might view the situation differently because of the lockout. After the workers ratified the final offer, tensions will likely still run high for some time at the Acme plant.

Organized labor wouldn’t be needed if companies were paternalistic in their practices toward their workers and the community. Workers should strive to be assets to the company that pays them. Organized labor sometimes overestimates the value of poor performers and underestimates the value of excellent performers, and paternalistic companies are rare in this day and time.

Bryan G. Trantham, maintenance planner
Evergreen Packaging-Waynesville Facility
[email protected]

An academician says:

Management/labor relations are always a source of tension. Sometimes it’s of minor consequence, and sometimes it’s a major issue, like what we see at Acme. Labor costs usually are a significant part of management’s operating budget and thus management would like to keep labor costs as low as possible. Labor, on the other hand, would like adequate and competitive salary and benefits. These often are competing goals, but both sides have an interest in achieving management/labor harmony. Management needs productive workers, and the workers want jobs that allow them to pay the bills and maybe save a bit extra. So, it’s in the best interests of both sides to arrive at a balance between their needs and wants.

Depending on the situation, the balance of power will shift to the management side or the labor side. It appears that in the Acme case in question, the power is pretty much on the side of management as it appears to be getting along well without the union workers. However, my office overlooks the construction of a high-rise in downtown Chicago, and about a month ago, the Carpenters Union set up a picket line at the site to call attention to a work dispute. The strike was settled within a day, probably because the other trade unions refused to cross the picket line and work at the site ground to a halt. I assume the project managers gave in to the union demands.

Before deciding how much to push an issue, the players need to have a good assessment of the balance of power and the consequence of their actions. Acme seems to have guessed correctly, and the union didn’t.

Could the current problem have been avoided? Probably. There are numerous ways to avoid a strike, and I think that a good Human Resources Department is critical. One of its responsibilities is to have a good feel for worker issues, and respond to them. It’s not an accident that Wal-Mart is now a big champion of health care benefits and has been extending the company benefits considerably during the past couple of years. Wal-Mart is non-union and would like to keep the unions out, and one way to do that is to respond to the pressing needs of the employees. My guess is they found that health care benefits were more a pressing need than pay — medical bills can be enormous for people without insurance, regardless of one’s current pay scale. So, Wal-Mart is now the champion of health-care benefits.

A good HR department at Acme probably could have spotted the pressing issues and could have addressed them, at least to the extent of avoiding a strike. Contrary to common belief, labor disputes aren’t always about pay. Work conditions, supervision, forced overtime, work rules, benefits and seniority rights also are high on the problem list. Some of these can be addressed without much cost to the company, but it takes a company that listens and is serious about addressing the issues. And it’s better to work with a strong union than a weak one. Strong unions can get decisions made quickly and have strong member support. Weak unions (as it appears in Acme’s case) seem never to get their act together.

Two final points: I don’t think a prolonged strike benefits anyone. It’s costly to the company, and the strikers lose pay and benefits. And finally, I don’t think that running a facility with supervisory staff, contractors and temps is a good idea. It’s costly, wearing, and only a short-term fix. Acme needs to look for a long-term solution to its problem.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

Plant Services is searching for a plant professional to join our group of experts and provide an “In the Trenches” guest response. Put your thoughts in front of your magazine-reading peers and online readers. For further information, contact Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz at [email protected] or call (630) 467-1301 x 309.

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