Taming a wildcat strike

Having a plan allows employers to react quickly, effectively when disputes arise

During a labour dispute, a union may call for a strike if it deems the action necessary to reach its bargaining objectives. In this case, the strike is legally permitted because it is authorized by the union, and striking workers enjoy certain legal protections, such as the right to return to work.

Wildcat strikes, on the other hand, are not authorized by the union and are, therefore, technically illegal. And when employees walk off the job while a union contract is still in effect, or while the two sides are still negotiating, management can be caught off-guard.

HR managers must take the lead in preparing employees for the emotional, logistical and security challenges a wildcat strike presents. Having a plan is essential — a company’s ability to withstand a wildcat dispute increases exponentially with a plan because experienced managers can quickly enact its fundamentals.

In a traditional strike, the government sets the criteria. Employers and unions must go through a conciliation process, which imposes a strike deadline. The conciliator attempts to bring the parties together to understand their differences and bridge the gap. If both positions are immovable, the conciliator issues a no board report and the company can expect a strike in about two weeks.

Most companies start planning for a potential strike three months to six months before their collective agreements expire. But when either party asks for a conciliator to join the talks, serious planning must take place and chances are higher a wildcat strike will occur.

Preparing the plan

A well-developed strike management plan is usually a subset of an overall business continuity plan. The specifics should not be a company secret as details let all sides of the negotiation know the company is prepared to continue operations — a key factor in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement and staving off a wildcat walkout.

The goal of a strike management plan is to minimize the risks to both individuals and corporate assets. Details on how decisions will be made, communicated and implemented should be worked out. Both human and material resources will be needed to minimize damage and allow the facility to recover from the disruption.

The plan should evolve through the following stages:

Information and intelligence collection: The employer’s structure will determine the proper composition of the strike management team, but leadership typically falls to the HR manager because she is ultimately responsible for labour relations.

The strike management team should review the tactics frequently used by on-site unions and review their activities in other industries and locales. Many unions are aligning with the “occupy movement” and using social media on a far grander scale. Posts about the strike on Twitter or Facebook can incite others in the labour community to initiate protests of their own against a company.

For example, how will a company respond if protesters set up a secondary picket line on the property of the company’s biggest customer? The strike management team must consider how to manage customers as well as ways to stop rogue protests, including initiating cease-and-desist orders.

Plan development: The strike management plan should outline specific responsibilities for the strike team members and support staff. It should also address the company’s public relations policy and procedures and how news will be disseminated to the media. Guidelines for imposing justified disciplinary actions against employees involved in wildcat walkouts must also be reviewed.

Underlying all phases of the plan must be a clear understanding of the company’s negotiating goals and objectives, and how long it can endure a wildcat strike. Shareholder expectations, insurance requirements and corporate accountability are all factors the team must consider. The team must also understand which internal documents will need to be prepared and how staff will be trained to respond to the strike.

Plan testing: While the plan may be in writing, it will probably be implemented under the glare of publicity and considerable pressure. While it would be tough to stage a mock wildcat strike, a company can break its strike management plan into its key elements for training purposes. Managers and team leaders can then participate in tabletop exercises to run through “what if” scenarios.

Implementing the plan

Should labour negotiations break down, the strike management plan will kick into gear. If employees stage a wildcat walkout, the same processes will need to be enacted — and quickly. The following factors need to be addressed.

Security: Security measures should ensure the company’s assets and personnel are protected so union officials, employees and management can resume positive relations once the strike is over. The strike management team needs to anticipate where the workers will set up picket lines and what security measures need to be in place at those locations. The company’s security officers must be prepared to act with utmost professionalism to ensure encounters with protesters are non-confrontational.

Transportation services: Moving personnel and products safely on company property in the midst of a strike can be a glaring vulnerability. Ensuring that supplies needed to support production are delivered without interruption requires a well thought-out transportation plan that outlines manpower, equipment and deployment demands. For example, will drivers be needed to pick up employees off-site and escort them to work to avoid driving personal vehicles through a picket line? Will transportation services be needed for off-site warehousing of deliveries or critical data? How will products be shipped if a supplier refuses to cross the picket line?

Evidence collection: A company’s legal personnel must become involved when illegal picketing activities surface. Gathering court-ready evidence needed to impose strike injunctions is a clear advantage in wildcat disputes. Based on the evidence gathered, a turnkey package should be prepared which lawyers can bring to court and present to a judge. Documentation should also be collected so management can impose justified disciplinary action against rogue workers once the walkout is over.

Executive protection: The company’s existing risk-assessment models can form the basis of the executive protection plan during a strike. The plan must account for perceived or actual threats to management in general or specific executives. Arrangements should be in place to bring in security escorts and drivers should the situation deteriorate or specific threats emerge.

During wildcat walkouts, the strike management team should arrange for frequent briefings to executives on the negotiation’s progress, or lack thereof, as well as updates on any rogue activities.

Angry employees: Handling confrontational exchanges with agitated individuals requires a skilled HR approach that defuses the situation without physical harm to any participant. Specific verbal and non-verbal tools must be used to de-escalate confrontations and lead to a lasting solution. By controlling the environment and having the appropriate demeanour, attitude and speech, HR can limit damage to property or persons and reduce a company’s exposure to lawsuits.

Post-strike analysis

Once the situation calms down, the strike management team must look inward to uncover any underlying factors that contributed to the conflict and recommend changes to prevent similar occurrences in the future. HR managers need to play a big role in this.

James Rovers is a Toronto-based vice-president for strategic development at AFIMAC Canada, security and crisis management experts. He can be reached at (800) 313-9170 or [email protected]. For more information, visit www.afimaccan.com.

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