Beware the damage one cannot see

Strikes and lockouts feed the ‘us versus them’ mentality that HR tries so hard to break down

Is a labour disruption in your future?

If an organization is involved in collective bargaining, and it is not subject to binding arbitration (such as would be the case for health-care providers, for example), it may be subject to strike action or, less often, an employer-initiated lockout. Each provincial and federal jurisdiction has a clearly delineated procedure that requires some kind of formal conciliation before the parties get to the point of a labour disruption. But sooner or later, without a resolution, the organization will make its way to one minute past midnight.

A strike may last only a few days if the organization is lucky. More typically, a strike will continue for the better part of two months, perhaps longer, and hopefully not forever. Strikes are often nasty affairs. Like an iceberg, what one sees may be only a small part of the destructive force of a strike. It is what one cannot see that may cause lasting damage to the organization. From a human resources standpoint, there are three major problems created by a labour disruption that have their largest impact below the surface.

First, a labour dispute breaks up the family. Human resources professionals spend a great deal of time and energy striving against an “us versus them” kind of mindset and getting all employees to focus on organizational objectives and to pull together as one unified team. All of that goes out the window as soon as the strike or lockout starts. A work stoppage is entirely us versus them: there are two opposing sides and there is a clear dividing line, symbolized by the picket line. The striking employees want what management is not prepared to give them, usually money. The point of the strike is to try to harm the company to the point where the company “surrenders” to the union’s demands. The company is trying to “break” the strike, by putting monetary and ethical pressure on employees to cross the line. The obvious analogy is no longer teamwork, but warfare; people have ceased working together, but have turned on each other to fight over dwindling treasure.

Second, a labour dispute reveals character flaws and deficiencies. It is exciting to be part of a group of strikers. Mob mentality takes over and a person may act in a way he would never act if alone or in another context. He may damage property, threaten people, even hurt people. He chants aggressive insults, even though he would never harm a fly or degrade another human being. He is motivated by greed, even though his job may give him everything he needs.

For management’s part, a sense of superiority and hypocrisy may preside when managers are dismissive of employee demands, forgetting that their own compensation is measurably higher. A spirit of meanness enters into the mindset of both sides, so that there is self-justification and self-congratulation for conduct that is really just an unsavoury means to an end.

Third, a labour dispute breeds disloyalty, a sense of betrayal on both sides and a loss of security. This works both ways, so that management no longer feels it can count on its employees and, for their part, the employees wonder if the company they have always found reliable actually views them as nothing more than part of the machinery. If a strike persists to the point where employees “cross the line” or if the employer tries to use replacement workers, there will be vile bitterness within employee ranks.

Let’s revisit these three below-the-surface problems in the immediate aftermath of a strike, when a settlement has been reached. First, an organization will not rebuild its team in one day, though it will have to immediately set about trying to put the labour dispute behind and focus on moving together, once again, towards a common objective. This may require redefining the objective. It will certainly require fresh communication, patience and persistence.

Second, the management team has to take the lead in understanding the labour dispute is the abnormal period, when uncharacteristic feelings take hold and poor behaviour results, something unlikely to recur after the dispute is resolved. There may be some behaviour that is “beyond the pale,” such as physical assaults, serious and repeated threats of violence and property damage. However, for the most part, employers should get over the more trivial incidents and get on with the business of managing the plant in pursuit of common objectives. The more strike-related misconduct management chooses to deal with, the longer the strike will linger, well after it is officially over.

Third, managers have to understand employees will have lost faith in the company. They may feel their jobs are at risk. Managers will have to take active measures to reassure them about the future of the organization and the key role each employee plays as a valued individual. Here, more than ever, actions are required and words are not enough.

There are a number of things HR should keep in mind when it comes to labour disputes. First, both sides should avoid a labour dispute if they can. Second, the lines of communication should be kept open during the labour dispute, and the leadership of both sides should act sensibly, with the (almost) certain knowledge that the dispute will end. Third, to the extent possible, all issues should be resolved in the settlement, including disciplinary issues and return-to-work issues (order of return, and what to do with replacement workers). In many workplaces, the return would have to be staggered, as the operation may need a gradual start-up. This should be fully discussed. If issues cannot be resolved, they should be submitted to arbitration as soon as possible.

Finally, understand that a labour dispute usually ends because one side capitulates, sometimes both. There will be frustration, anger and an ongoing sense of entitlement that remains unfulfilled. Be prepared to deal with these bad feelings through the term of the new collective agreement, right into the next round of bargaining.

Strikes are very negative events, although they are part of the system of free collective bargaining and likely to remain with us for years and decades to come. When this negative event ends, an organization should openly acknowledge the damage caused and commit to use all the positive human resources tools at its disposal to heal the wounds. As with the iceberg, much of the damage will be hard to see and it may be long-lasting, so be prepared for a long period of recovery and renewal, both with the management team and with the unionized employees.

Jamie Knight is a partner at the management labour law firm, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP. He frequently leads collective bargaining sessions and, if a strike cannot be avoided, helps employers reach a settlement. He may be contacted at (416) 408-5509 or [email protected].

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