Tips For Running A Strike For Workers

How should one run a successful strike?

I recently represented workers in a multinational company. The foreign bosses criticised New Zealand managers for not squeezing out maximum shareholder value and being too soft as they had never copped a strike over pay! My union client got angry and obliged them with real threats. The company caved in like a fawning dog. Tough talk is cheap, be it by workers or bosses.

Let’s get through the legal basics first. To strike is to either to stop work “ a bluey”; reduce normal output “go slow“; or fail to do work normally done “work to rule or a black ban” .

Work to rule” and “go slows” have the advantage that one is still on the job and getting paid. Such tactics can either get the boss to talk or make them loose their cool and suspend or lock out staff.

Strikes are illegal if the collective agreement hasn’t yet expired. Also its illegal to strike in an essential industry, like petrol delivery or hospital work, unless 14 days notice of intention to strike is given. Strikes for a genuine health or safety reasons are not illegal.

To strike is to act together.

A few stroppy workers just walking off the job may lead to a boss justifiably dismissing them for simply abandoning work. Technically speaking employment agreements are “put on hold” when workers are lawfully out on strike. In the last analysis its useful to remember strike law is hard to enforce – try jailing a community’s nurses for example because they are genuinely underpaid. That’s why the army had to be ordered to break the 1951 Watersiders Strike by doing the warfies work  and a general election called to support the then governments stand. Another emample is special act of Parliament was needed to break the 1983 strike troubles at the Marsden Point Refinery.

Successful strikes are not usually knee-jerk reactions.

They are likely to be thought through and coordinated to involve workers in key positions and timed well. It was not just happenstance that the Cook Straight ferries used to strike at the start of the Christmas holidays for more pay. A bakery to illustrate, facing unnecessary staff cuts needs the bread bakers, the store people and delivery drivers and those who start production process to all be involved. Just a few production hands walking of the job in a wildcat fit of pique would likely fizz out.

The first thing to do if a strike is in the wind is to plan.

In-house union or staff association leadership needs to be sorted out and someone elected with clout and mana. Elect a committee from as wide a representation of the workforce as is possible. It’s then up to them to organise the strike. A critical first decision is to time when to pull the pin. Is there an important export order deadline, a full sales order book or a visit of bigwig coming up? Each committee member should be given a particular job suited to their talents. A media spokesperson, a picket line coordinator, someone in charge of leaflets and a web site, others to handle finances, hardship problems and so forth.

Prior to a strike it’s suggested to have an “all up” meeting.

Debate the reasons and alternatives for taking such drastic action openly and fairly and explore alternatives. Get a mandate – half cock supported strikes inevitably fizz. Collect up all the workers home addresses and phone numbers, partners and children’s names. A strike headquarters should be established and manned continuously. Failing to keep all fellow strikers in the picture, by phone contact or leaflets is a sure recipe for a strike to fail.

A picket line is generally the heart of the strike.

A picket line needs to be set up straightaway, picket captains selected and rosters sorted for workers to man it. Picket captains should not be hotheads, and rules laid down on picket line  behaviour – absolutely no drugs or beer for instance. Vehicles and others crossing the picket line should be stopped and told firmly what the issues are and encouraged to turn back. Feelings will run high. Just a few years ago this “Labour Lore” column reported the tragic death of Christine Clark run over on a picket line in Lyttleton. I’m told that about five hours is the maximum time one should have to spend on the line.

Placards and captions that attract public support are really worthwhile.

Pictures of picket lines often end up on TV or in the newspapers. “Scabs” is the colloquial term of endearment for those who cross picket lines. “Black bans” are when certain supplies to a company are stopped either by picket or agreement with the staff of other employers. Sometimes “flying pickets” are organized outside a companies supplier’s premises to draw attention to black bans and get support from fellow workers – also to embarrass the boss.

Each strike has its own momentum and unexpected twists. I was involved with the laboratory workers whose gung-ho hospital managers flew in Australian lab technicians as strike breakers. I look back thinking, what a scandalous waste of hospital limited funds so much better spent on glue ear operations for deaf kids for instance. All the ideologically driven management had to do in this strike was to stop refusing to talk to their pretty sensible professional staff. Do remember it’s imperative to keep the public on side and actively counter bad publicity such as “lab workers strike endangers lives”.

A strikes ending should also be thought through.

There is little merit rubbing the losing parties nose in it (notwithstanding it can be really satisfying) ; some face-saving may be in order. The conditions for a return to work need to be communicated to all strikers and the phase back into work routines sorted. Lessons will have been learned. More often than not, bosses will have a silent grudging respect there can be a point when their workers say “enough is enough”.

Have a matter you’d like to discuss? Get in contact with us now for a free 15 minute phone consultation.