Labour dispute cast of characters

In any work stoppage, employees and managers can be grouped into several categories depending on the roles they assumed during the strike. An employee’s strike role should shape the way a manager makes decisions involving that employee upon return.

Picket captains — A high-profile role, these individuals control picket lines during the strike. They are generally union leaders from local chapters. After a settlement, they tend to bring their captain leadership style back into the workplace and often present an “authority problem.” They will often look for opportunities to reinforce strike issues as a way of keeping informal captaincy alive. Managers or someone from HR should meet with picket captains in the first couple of days after the strike settlement to repair relationships and to clearly indicate that, while important, the roles assumed during the strike are no longer applicable to the workplace. Employers should convey to local union leaders that business is expected to resume and the new post-strike workplace has zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour.

Striking staff — This group is hardest hit. They receive low wages each week if they decide to picket, but even less if they stay at home. Stress and exhaustion, combined with a significant loss of income and most benefits, make a deep impact. Upon return to work, managers should rearticulate in staff meetings and to individuals the value of and how to use the employee assistance plan. Managers can also ask employees to keep an eye out for each other, and identify those who are particularly stressed so that managers can touch base one-to-one and offer support.

Crossers — This group usually causes the post-settlement workplace the most grief. They are the employees who choose to continue working (generally because they can’t afford to strike), and, as a result, conflict arises post-settlement between them and staff who walked out. Managers should be sensitive to this group’s challenges and pay personal attention to stressed employees. These employees are often subjected to a variety of negative behaviours (shunning, harassment) for several months after. Zero tolerance needs to be in place for any behaviours that don’t promote workplace well-being. Support services led by third-party facilitators, such as return-to-work workshops and debriefings, can also be offered for those who crossed away from the rest of the team.

Essential service workers — During any labour dispute, certain services have to continue for business continuity. This group crosses the picket line every day to perform defined duties.

Contract staff — These individuals have separate work contracts with the employer, and may or may not cross the picket line.

Managers — Managers must cross the picket line every day. They may be reassigned elsewhere.

Excluded staff — This group must cross the picket line because they are not part of the labour dispute.

This mix of employees and managers can cause a high degree of toxicity in the workplace after a strike settlement, often making a huge impact on the emotional and physical well-being of all involved, as well as on productivity.

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