Replacement workers critical in labour disputes

Using temp workers in strikes, lockouts can reduce costs, keep employer in business
By Peter Martin
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/14/2012

A labour dispute can be an uncomfortable and even dreaded subject for many corporate and HR leaders, especially when there is a lack of contingency planning. Negative associations abound with terms such as “work stoppage,” “shutdown” and “lost revenues” casting a black light on the hard months ahead.

However, when the situation calls for a lockout or when unionized workers hit the picket lines, some companies are turning to trained and qualified replacement workers to keep production flowing out and revenues flowing in — often at reduced overall costs.

Rising above negative perceptions

One of the first challenges is overcoming the negative perceptions around a lockout. An employer may feel locking out employees is a move that will paint it in an unfavourable light and see it labelled as the aggressor. This is not necessarily the case.

A lockout is often a necessity to protect supply chains, customers, equipment and operations when bargaining has failed. It is equally justified when a union is dragging out negotiations, trying to align a work stoppage with strategic dates.

Then there’s the fear the media will portray the company as bullying employees and not seeking a peaceful resolution, not to mention the nagging concern post-lockout reintegration will be more difficult due to lingering hard feelings.

The best approach to dispel these fears is open communication and dialogue. Talk to employees before it happens and be transparent and honest about the objectives and reasons.

In some instances, locking out employees causes them to become more aggressive with their bargaining units, creating more visibility on the issues and actually achieving an amicable agreement.

In addition, lockouts prevent work from going into limbo. Bear in mind unions can work beyond the expiry of a collective bargaining agreement without a contract, as it is very advantageous for them to issue notice of a strike during the busy holiday season, for example, leaving an employer powerless.

Instigating a lockout will give the employer control. This is integral in order to determine the course of action and timelines needed to ensure a healthy future. In short, there should be no fear of initiating a lockout — it can actually be a very profitable move.

The replacement worker advantage

One thing unions tacitly acknowledge, but are reluctant to discuss, is the importance of replacement workers. Without them, an employer’s only options are to close the facility, offshore the work or, even worse, sign a bargaining agreement it cannot actually afford, which may lead to closure of the firm before the new agreement expires.

Although unions dislike the contracting of temporary workers, in theory, they quietly understand their usage ensures union members have jobs to return to once the dispute ends.

Replacement workers bring a host of attractive advantages. As a short-term solution, they will be focused on providing the best service available.

Generally recruited from far outside the affected area, replacement workers possess no emotional attachment to the incident and, therefore, will concentrate entirely on the tasks assigned to them.

When replacement workers are contracted from a reputable company, they will be carefully screened and closely evaluated. Each worker will understand her ability to operate without absenteeism or tardiness and with strict adherence to safety protocols.

And her determination to smash previous production records will ultimately contribute to her overall score with her recruiters. The performance levels of replacement workers will determine if they will be assigned to future jobs.

Finding the right replacements

Not all replacement workers are created equal. They should possess:

• full certification and a verifiable skill set

• a clean criminal record and legal immigration status

• the expectation of longer-than-normal working hours

• an understanding they will be crossing picket lines or be locked into the facility

• a proven track record of operating during a labour dispute

• a commitment for the duration of the project, regardless of length.

With all these credentials in place, an employer is nearly guaranteed to realize cost savings. Many companies actually became profitable after the first few weeks of a lockout. Initially, there are upfront expenses in putting skilled people in place but the cost of having outside staff during a labour dispute can be outweighed by a significant increase in productivity.

The right hiring source

When choosing outside workers, there are risks in selecting the right corporate security company to screen, deliver and manage them for you. Here is what to look for:

Remote location capabilities: If an employer is in a remote area, it should select a firm that knows how to find and screen certified workers and deliver them to its doorstep.

References: Be sure to always check references. The two most important questions to ask the company directly are: “When is the last time you provided replacement workers for a labour dispute?” (It should be very recent.) “And do you subcontract?” (Pick a company that does it itself.)

Ample resources: The company must have the demonstrated ability to meet the size and scope of your project and deal with attrition. In addition to ample staff, it should be able to provide full facilities, kitchens, cooks, entertainment, transportation and seamless administration of the entire payroll and workers’ compensation concerns, taking the responsibility and liability out of your hands.

Sophisticated processes: Sophisticated processes should be at play to ensure high productivity levels throughout the duration of a replacement worker contract.

Through a combination of process engineering audits prior to the assignment, the extensive skills match of the individuals employed and the proprietary internal quality assurance process, an employer should set production records with anywhere from 15 per cent to 40 per cent fewer staff prior to lockout.

Peter Martin is the Milton, Ont.-based president of AFIMAC, a provider of comprehensive corporate security, labour dispute, crisis response and contingency planning services. For more information, visit

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