Strike Handling Tips For Bosses

Stonewall Jackson on a long night march to a desperate battle at dawn muttered to his companion “delicious excitement!”; and General Robert A. Lee surveying the field of carnage observed reflectively “it is well war is so horrible — we would grow too fond of it”. The same could be said of strikes. The generals (company CEO’s, and strike leaders) can easily become intoxicated by the battle, and egos run amok.

This article offers some strike handling tips for bosses to balance my last “Labour Lore “column that gave tips to workers. Latest statistics suggest an increasing number of strikes. As I write, workers from Colgate Palmolive in Petone have gone on a 24 hour strike and manned a picket line to coincide with the arrival of a company bigwig.

Plan your counter action.

Among the first things a boss should do if faced with a strike is obviously plan your counter action – hopefully before disruption starts. How long is the strike likely to be? If it’s just for 24 hours, he might simply just ride it out.

A 24/7 business facing disruption of unknown duration will need to work out ways of manning or shutting down the plant. Such issues as hurrying through work in progress; topping up raw materials; energy supplies and stocking up critical customers will likely come to the fore. Decisions on what work can be done by non-striking staff will need to be thought through and maybe use the time a workplace is stopped to catch up with overdue maintenance.

Salaried staff who can turn their hands to vital jobs can be a good contingency strategy- using a foreman with a current stationary engine drivers certificate to keep the boilers going perhaps, or team leaders with heavy truck licenses to deliver goods. For companies in strong trade associations it could be wise to try and secure understandings that competitors will not take advantage of the situation. A union might be singling out an employer to be the “fall guy” in a campaign to lift the overall industry wage. Captains of industry could well pinch a leaf out of the old unionists songbook “United we stand – divided we fall”

Identify ringleaders and ensure they can be got hold of.

Cultivate an intelligence network. Take opportunities to address staff directly instead of having the company’s position filtered through the workers negotiating team. Gutsy managers have been known to gatecrash union meetings and forcefully voice their views. Make sure workers home addresses and wives and partners first names are readily available and if appropriate make the opportunity to put management’s side of the story directly to them.

A boss when faced with a strike should get seasoned legal advice.

More often than not he will not play the legal cards as they are expensive and can inflame matters. However it’s sensible to know the legal options. Maybe he could lockout, or suspend striking workers or seek an interim injunction. Section 97 of the Employment Relations Act 2000 now has penalty provisions if a boss employs strikebreakers (“scabs”) to do the work of strikers. The Labour Department Mediation Service could be contacted and new amendments (section 50) provide powers in serious cases to intervene and fix employment terms.

Lockouts conjure images of workers shaking the factory gates trying to get in whilst the resolute boss stands steadfast inside refusing entry until his tough demands are met. There is truth in this image as an employer’s lockout is the flipside to a workers strike. Lockouts give bosses powerful rights – why not use them. One Employment Court Judge put it “to do harm to hostages in order to persuade others to cease harmful actions”. It is essential if locking out that workers clearly understand the employer’s conditions for a return to work – otherwise lost wages could be ordered to be paid.

A boss can suspend non-striking workers without pay when their normal work has run out because of a strike. Suspension notices must be given to each worker as there work runs out. Suspended workers who disagree with their fellow workmates strike action can be used to pressure a return to work as they are hurting being suspended from work without pay.

Public interest in a strike can call for careful media handling.

A boss needs a competent press spokesperson who responds to issues as they arise. A boss is unlikely to win over the public with pathetic employer utterances such as “sorry no comment” or “the matter is sub judice”. A good written backgrounder sent to journalists can do wonders to win balanced media friends.

Instructions to cross picket lines need careful thought.

Could there be other ways around the issue? I once represented a bakery surrounded by a picket. The strikers knew the bosses and non-striking workers had baked the bread. The bakery had an unused back entrance. A ruckus was engineered outside the main gate so the picketers rushed around to join in the fray. Meanwhile the creaky back gate was unlocked and out into the breaking dawn the trucks loaded with fresh bread – sped!

There may not be a settlement tomorrow or the next day, but eventually there will be. One of the greatest barriers to this happening is bosses or workers becoming hung up on principle. Cries of: “No talk whilst striking!”; “No settlement without backdating!” All I can proffer is get over this – for the sun will rise tomorrow.

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