Saturday, January 30, 2016

Don't quit, strike

Last month, about 150 employees at a Cargill meat processing plant in Colorado were fired for not showing up to work for three days (StarTribune, January 8, 2016). The workers were protesting what they believed was a change in Cargill policy not allowing workers to take a prayer break. Religious accommodation, and more generally, diversity, issues are challenging and important in today’s workplace, and these challenges are made more difficult by cultural and language differences. Cargill, in fact, says that this was a misunderstanding. Without intending to downplay these important issues, I think this case also serves as a reminder of a different kind of misunderstanding—the misunderstanding of labor law as only applying to unionized situations.

When there are conflicts over prayer breaks, being paid for set-up time, cuts in health care benefits, or any other of the many difficult issues in the modern workplace, nonunion workers in the private sector should remember that they are covered by labor law in the form of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). A common misunderstanding is that the NLRA only applies to workers who are trying to unionize, collectively bargain a union contract, strike in support of those negotiations, or other activities that involve formal union activity. The NLRA does indeed cover those situations. But more fundamentally, the NLRA seeks to protect workers who band together to enhance their collective power and voice in determining wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. Why? Because the NLRA is premised on a belief that the employment relationship is an unequal one, and it will work better for all if workers act together rather than individually to better balance corporate power.

So collective activities—that only require two workers—to have a voice over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment are protected, which means that workers cannot be discharged, disciplined, or other discriminated against for engaging in these activities. So when multiple workers feel aggrieved by prayer break policies or any other work-related issue, they should remember these protections.

First, this means that you have the right to talk with co-workers about these issues (including your wage or salary)--not necessarily during paid work time or in areas that disturb customers; but during breaks in private areas. Second, this means you should to express your voice collectively rather than individually. Talk with managers as a group rather than as individuals. Third, if things are so bad that you are willing to quit, you should instead think about going on strike. As a group, you can collectively refuse to work until a certain policy is changed. The company doesn’t have to pay you, or give in to your demands. But it cannot fire you for this protected activity. You can be replaced which means that you are not immediately entitled to get your job back if you end your protest and someone else has filled your job. But you wouldn’t be entitled to this if you quit either. However, by going on strike instead of quitting, you are entitled to your job back once there are job openings. If you quit, you are at the mercy of the employer if there are job vacancies.

Returning to the Fort Morgan Cargill case, this was reported in the media with no mention of union representation. So I thought these workers should have struck instead of quit, and they'd already have their jobs back by now. However, it turns out that these workers are actually represented by the Teamsters and covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Like almost all other U.S. contracts, it contains a no-strike provision banning strikes during the life of the contract. So the Fort Morgan workers could be fired for striking. Instead they should have union representation and a grievance procedure to help them. Unfortunately, those supports seem to have failed in this particular case. That’s a story for another day.

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