Plan Not to Strike Out
WHEN EMPLOYEES STRIKE, companies need to be prepared on all fronts. Management will face an onslaught of unique challenges and should have a comprehensive contingency plan in place to deal with whatever issues may arise long before any strike is announced. Management must, for example, be prepared to calm angry workers, deal with replacement employees, and keep lines of communication open so that the strike can be ended. And if they are approaching the time when a contract has to be renegotiated and a strike is possible, they should pay attention to such issues as inventory levels. Without such a plan, companies can incur significant losses. For example, management at an automotive manufacturing plant created a situation that led to a worker strike two days before the company was due to run out of parts. When the company could not fulfill orders, it lost customers, could not pay staff, and was forced to close its doors.
To develop a contingency plan, some companies hire consultants that specialize in strike services while some deal with issues internally. In either case, successful management teams must take a proactive and long-term view to the planning process. The most critical part of the contingency plans are evaluating resources, developing communications plans, and vetting temporary replacement workers.
The plan, which should provide a step-by-step timeline detailing when and where each aspect of the plan kicks in, must specifically address the issue of resources. For example, what will be needed to keep operations running? That might include offsite facilities, manpower, and transportation. The plan should address how these will be procured and accessed when needed.
Companies should budget for six to eight months of work stoppage to ensure that they have adequate resources over that period of time. The plan’s goals should be realistic in terms of operational capacity during a work stoppage.
The plan should also discuss what is needed that is specifically related to the strike as well, such as how the company will provide for trained security officers, videographers, injunction investigators, transportation and logistics equipment, and other necessary resources. To obtain information about what will be needed, management should conduct—or direct others to conduct—a site audit and survey of all corporate locations.
Ideally, the plan should be operational at least six months to a year before scheduled labor negotiations. It will take time to develop a good plan, but it will be worth the effort. For example, one financial sector client invested six months in planning with a project management team. The plan was successfully completed well before the strike, and as a result, when workers walked out, the company was able to continue operations seamlessly by rerouting responsibilities to other company facilities, as provided in the plan, to get work done.
Most union members are simply workers trying to negotiate with management in good faith, and they are not interested in causing problems. But the company must be prepared to deal with any employees who may want to disrupt business operations during the strike.
One way to do that is through the use of technology, like camcorders, that can help the company monitor whether anyone is trying to stir up trouble. Advances have made this process considerably easier than it used to be as recently as two years ago. Previously, security officers onsite would have to capture incidents of violence or theft on video tape, upload and copy the footage onto different CDs for different parties, and courier the CDs individually to be reviewed and acted upon by clients, legal counsel, or other stakeholders. The process was inefficient and could take up to a week.
Now, new Web-based incident management systems make this process far simpler and faster. These are information-sharing software systems that allow all stakeholders to share the latest data about an issue, such as a labor dispute. There are many different systems on the market, but some allow video to be taken, uploaded, and sent off with a message instantly via text and e-mail. Stakeholders can access this critical information from any location via a Web portal and act upon it right away. The speed and accuracy can mean a major breakthrough in labor dispute management.
For example, a large steel and aluminum company in the eastern United States recently used such a system when violence broke out on a picket line. In this case, striking workers tried to disrupt the delivery of finished goods from the manufacturing plant. The altercation turned violent when the workers began damaging vehicles and property. Truck drivers sustained injuries as the striking workers hurled objects through the truck windows. Security personnel onsite were able to capture the incident on video and instantly upload it to company management and the police. The incident happened on a Thursday; the perpetrators were taken before a judge two days later. After those troublemakers were arrested, the picket line stabilized immediately, and company drivers were able to safely enter and exit the facility.
In another case, 3,000 employees of a mining company in Ontario went on strike. The picketers became unruly and were crowding all the building entrances, making it difficult for anyone to get into or out of the facility. The company was able to document the problem and instantly communicate the situation, with supporting data, using video and its incident management software. As a result, the courts ordered that the number of picketers per entrance be reduced from 50 to seven.
Another aspect of any comprehensive contingency strike plan is the use of replacement workers. This component will allow management to keep operations running while the company negotiates without being pressured to get workers back fast.
The challenge is selecting the right workers. Companies should be careful to contract with a reputable third party to provide replacement workers. These companies will typically come from far outside the area so that they won’t have personal connections to the workers or the community. The individuals they send should be carefully screened and closely evaluated.
The third-party contractor must verify that each replacement worker has the necessary certifications and skills to do the specific job. The employee must also have a clean criminal record and be legally qualified to work in the country.
The contractor must also ensure that its replacement workers understand that they will be working longer than normal hours and will be required to cross picket lines or be locked into the facility. The replacement workers must also commit to working for the duration of the project.
A proven track record of operating during a labor dispute is highly desirable. The better third-party contractors who provide this type of service will tie worker performance, adherence to safety protocols, absenteeism, and tardiness to an overall score. This score is then used by them to determine future placement. Replacement workers, once they are up to speed, generally perform well, sometimes even beyond expectations.
However, no matter how successful interim operations become, the ultimate goal is to get permanent workers back on the job. Once this happens, company managers must stress open communication and respect for returning workers. It is not uncommon for returning employees to experience lingering feelings of resentment, high rates of absenteeism, and low morale. These are a carryover from the emotions caused by the dispute. It is critical that management recognize that the returning employees must be treated with respect and courtesy to ensure a speedy return to operational efficiency.
By developing a contingency plan that includes an evaluation of resources, effective communications equipment, a plan for replacement workers, and a plan for reintegrating the permanent workforce, managers can weather labor disputes while ensuring the long-term health of the company.
Peter Martin is CEO of AFIMAC Global, a company that provides comprehensive corporate security, labor dispute, protection, crisis response, and contingency planning services.