Tips for crossing the picket line
April 2, 2009 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I work in an office that is union-organized and my job is a union title. Our contract renewal is being bargained right now. I want to be prepared to cross the line if we go on strike.

I do not personally belong to the union, although I pay dues because my state is not "right to work". The last time the contract was being renewed, I found out that the union can penalize you financially if you cross the picket line while still a member. I think I should be able to make my own decision, so I resigned from the union. I've never asked for a refund of any dues.

If we go on strike, I will cross the line if I feel the company is being reasonable in their offers. I do not need advice on whether to cross or not.

What I need advice on is how to prepare for crossing, what to expect after crossing and how to deal with problems it may cause. I already plan to take the train to work instead of driving so there is no car around to be vandalized (not thinking the union itself would do anything, but we have some overzealous coworkers). Any contact info they may have for me is out of date by several years. There are a few people I work with that I am friends with. Some of those relationships may be hurt, but I am prepared to deal with that. I've talked with some of them about this.

Based on the reactions I got when I resigned and the way some people have treated me since, I assume some people will be rude to me and I'll be harassed when leaving work from time to time. That is fine, too.

Again, I do not need advice on whether to cross or not.

If you want to email me privately, write me at helpcrossing at please. Thanks
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It probably depends upon which union you previously belonged to. The Patent and Trademark Office Workers may not as be as gung-ho as the Teamsters. During the lengthy Detroit newspaper strike, picketers not only verbally harassed scabs as they crossed the picket line (and vandalized their cars), they also followed them to their homes and picketd verbally harassed their family members. In a big blue collar town (like Detroit, for example) many of your neighbors will likely be members of some union, and now (thanks to the SCAB signs the protestors put on your lawn during the night) they know you crossed the picket line. There is a serious possibility that your home and vehicles will be vandalized.

Again, it all depends upon your industry, the size of the union, the issues at hand and other factors.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:36 AM on April 2, 2009

It's not clear what your question is here. It sounds like you know what you want to do and have considered it thoroughly. I think it's going to be impossible for anyone else to tell you what to expect: you know your co-workers and your work situation better than anyone here. It's not just that different unions are different, but different locals within the same union are different, and so are different workplaces within the same local. The only general advice that's applicable is perhaps to remain calm and do what you think is right without escalating any tensions that might arise.
posted by agent99 at 11:59 AM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would advise against it, but if you're serious about scabbing out, you should expect little to no support from your superiors. In recent contract negotiations with a union I'm familiar with, several scabs were told that they would have greater job security if they agreed to cross. In reality, contract renegotiations specifically left these individuals hanging after the administration gave in to the union. Remember to take the long view - if you cultivate a reputation as an anti-union worker, it may damage your job prospects in the future. If it's a weak union, no problem. If it's a strong union with near universal membership in your particular area, you may want to think about relocating after the strike.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:02 PM on April 2, 2009 [7 favorites]

To be honest, if I were in a union that struck, and one of my coworkers scabbed, I would probably not be friends with that person anymore. And I'm a pretty reasonable person. I'm not saying that to tell you not to cross, just to let you know that you should be prepared to get the cold shoulder socially after the strike, even from people who seemed ok with you leaving the union.

This will, in turn, probably hurt your career at this firm - for instance, if Joe Union Member gets a promotion, he will probably have to leave the union, but will still remember that you scabbed. Also, depending on the relationship between union members and line managers (who are often more sympathetic to union demands than top brass), middle management might be reluctant to promote you, give you plumb assignments, etc for fear of looking like they are rewarding you over union members. So you'll want to think about what this will mean for your career.
posted by lunasol at 12:14 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

You should expect that, at the very least, colleagues will feel that you are selfishly "free riding" on their sacrifice (i.e. lost wages after strike pay is accounted for) during the strike by continuing to work and yet also benefiting from the gains, if any, that the union wins when the labour disruption is resolved and a new contract is signed. If I were a co-worker of yours, I expect that I would feel the same way.

Many will probably be rude to you, but consider that your actions may strike them as equally, if not more, offensive. Be as polite as you can when arriving and leaving each day, even if the favour is not returned. You're doing this because you think it's the high road, so be dignified, but without exuding sanctimony. If you feel you can apologize sincerel, feel free to do so, but only if you actually do feel that way. Expect to be delayed at the picket line for some time (how long depends on the conventions of your jurisdiction).

One potential angle would be to come up with a few compelling reasons why you "can't afford" not to scab -- debts, bills, feeding your family, looming foreclosure, religious objections, etc. -- but employing these explanations in an effort to ease strained friendships would be misleading given that you have based your decision on an ideological/intellectual orientation rather than on economic hardship. Besides, crying poor probably wouldn't win you much sympathy when others facing similar circumstances are making the same difference choice and arriving at the opposite conclusion.

You could also emphasize that, as a non-member, you had no opportunity to vote against a strike. This is not persuasive as by your account you forfeited that vote voluntarily in order to avoid fines.*

I won't advise you not to cross the line, as you've made your position clear, but I would suggest that you reconsider working in a union shop as your career progresses... not just so that choices like this won't be held against you, but also because there is an inherent ethical conundrum in being paid the union wage while simultaneously ready to undermine the union when its members are fighting to maintain or improve that wage. Forgive me if this sounds naive, but in the meantime you might consider the idea of donating any gains from the strike in which you did not participate to a charity of some kind so as to disavow any advantage earned in this way.

* (As an aside, "fines" levied against union members for crossing picket lines are not always legally enforceable, so you might have kept your membership, voted against the strike, and then crossed the picket line... not that doing so would have reduced the ire you'd face while crossing.)
posted by onshi at 12:40 PM on April 2, 2009 [5 favorites]

Err, "the same difficult choice".
posted by onshi at 12:41 PM on April 2, 2009

Don't expect this to blow over once the strike is done. Expect that you will always -- I mean that literally -- be known as a scab, regardless of how good you think your motivations are. Expect that decades from now, even if everyone you currently work with leaves, your reputation will follow you. Expect that old men on their deathbeds will remember your name and what you did. Fair or not, those are things that you should expect.
posted by sageleaf at 12:44 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you decide to become a scab, you need to realize that most of your friendships will be lost, not changed or just negatively affected.

I don't say this to pile on, but to point out the basic point on which you'll be differing from your co-workers: to vote to strike is to decide that taking action on behalf of the whole is the highest priority. The basic calculus by which one decides to become a scab is basically about reaching the point where you've decided to care more about yourself than about the group as a whole.

It might feel to you like you are just trying to extract yourself from the situation. But whether you want to or not, your actions as a scab will directly undermine your co-workers. Regardless of how you see it, you would not be getting out of the conflict. You would simply be switching sides.

In short, my advice would be to kiss your workplace friendships goodbye.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 12:51 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your coworkers and other union supporters will probably try to make your life miserable while you are crossing the picket line. If they settle and come back to work then they are probably going to ostracize you forever. I've had to work in a hostile environment just because a few people just thought they could act like jerks, and it was awful.

What you want to do is really only going to be smart if your coworkers all lose their jobs permanently. I don't know what business or industry you are in so I can't comment on the odds of that happening.

Have you considered that many strikes are often settled within hours or days? Will it be worth crossing the picket line it if that happens?
posted by 14580 at 12:54 PM on April 2, 2009

Forgive me if this sounds naive, but in the meantime you might consider the idea of donating any gains from the strike in which you did not participate to a charity of some kind so as to disavow any advantage earned in this way.

As someone who uses the phrase "right-to-work" instead of the phrase "open shop," you probably don't think that this is something that you should be obligated to do. But relinquishing benefits that you actively avoided earning would be the least you should do if you care about your reputation and workplace friendships.
posted by billtron at 1:17 PM on April 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I was in college, the clerical workers' union went on strike. I had a student job assisting two elderly ladies in a library, a payroll clerk and an administrative assistant. Before the strike began, I asked whether I should bother to report to work during the strike, as they wouldn't be around to open the office. They both said "Oh, we're not union members, so we won't be striking." Well, their job titles certainly were among those covered by this union, and since this was not a right-to-work state, they were certainly paying dues.

Anyway, I really don't think it affected them at all or was any kind of a big deal, even though about half the employees in this department were members of this particular union. But I think everyone in the office liked them personally and knew they were fairly apolitical people. Also, this particular department wasn't a hotbed of union activism.

My point is, there do exist workplaces where scabbing isn't such a big deal. Whether yours is one of these, I don't know.
posted by jillsy_sloper at 2:44 PM on April 2, 2009

Management may or may not look favorably on this depending upon the culture of your workplace.

If the union has any level of power, and if you may ever want to move to management, if you are in the minority of people crossing the picket line, this actually may prevent upward movement in terms of getting a promotion.

If management is looking to promote people who have good work relationships with co-workers and have the ability to work well with others, this may be problematic for you. In my workplace, management actually had a history of promoting union stewards, people who appeared to be leaders and had a decent relationship with union.
posted by hazyspring at 2:58 PM on April 2, 2009

Your pro-union coworkers will probably think ill of you going forward, but you sound like you know that's coming. I'm not going to tell you they are wrong to do so, either. Crossing a picket line is messing with the livelihood of your coworkers and friends.

As for this:

I already plan to take the train to work instead of driving so there is no car around to be vandalized (not thinking the union itself would do anything, but we have some overzealous coworkers). Any contact info they may have for me is out of date by several years.

I wouldn't worry about it. Labor law is very strongly in your favor as far as any sort of retaliation that the union might take against you, to the point that the actual individual presidents of unions have been held personally responsible for the organizational misconduct of the union - so the opposite of limited liability for corporate officers. If your union is big enough to pull of a strike, it's got at least one in-house attorney, and that attorney and the union leadership are going to make darn sure that none of the members do anything unlawful to you or anybody else who crosses the picket.

Caveat - if you are in a public sector union (ie a state, county, or municipal employee) the labor laws covering this kind of situation might be a little different. But if you are a public employee, you probably aren't going to go out on strike anyway.
posted by jennyb at 3:04 PM on April 2, 2009

I have been involved in 3 strikes. There is bound to be animosity, no matter how things end, when the strike is settled. You will doubtless be ok after the strike ends, but you relationship to fellow workers will call for a realignment since you have "picked sides."
posted by Postroad at 3:50 PM on April 2, 2009

If I may piggyback on without meaning to start a debate; I'm curious: what is the big deal with crossing the picket line if the poster doesn't personally belong to the union? Why would there be so much animosity, to the point where it sounds like the OP would loose their friends? The thought of it doesn't make sense to me at all.
I've never been in a union, nobody in family's in one, and I know nothing about the politics of unions.
posted by jmd82 at 4:34 PM on April 2, 2009

as per jmd82, I would also like to piggyback a question. Since the OP is not part of the union, he doesn't get strike pay. Why in heaven's name would he voluntarily agree to take an EXTRA shot in the nuts over and above what the union members are doing? Will the union agree to give him something in exchange for not crossing the line? As he's not a member, I seriously doubt it.

Imagine if the strike actually lasts more than a week, or a month? Having zero income sucks.
posted by barc0001 at 4:56 PM on April 2, 2009

jmd82- People who believe in the unions are very strongly opinionated about the subject. It's like a religion or military tradition. I'm not saying that in a bad way. They are proud of those who went before them and will support "the cause" no matter what.

No, logically, someone who isn't in the union shouldn't have to feel bad about breaking their rules. But union members consider it bad form, it shows that they don't hold all the power. And their belief is that it's a slippery slope from there back to sweatshops. They aren't totally wrong about that. But sometimes they go overboard.
posted by gjc at 6:32 PM on April 2, 2009

Strikes are serious business. Many unions do not have a strike fund so there is little or no strike pay. At best, they may get $100 or $200 a week, but only after at least two weeks on strike with nothing. That won't pay the grocery bill for a family, let alone the mortgage bill or utility bills. Strike funds run out after just a few weeks and then they are on their own.

People's lives are on the line. It's no effing joke. They can lose their homes, their cars, their health insurance, have to pull their children out of college, delay their retirement by a few years.

You can definitely expect resentment long after the strike is over. They will not forget those who worked against them.
posted by JackFlash at 6:51 PM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Whether or not you are a member most likely only affects your ability to vote. If you are paying dues, and in a Union position, then you are probably covered by the contract. If that 's the case, you will benefit if the actions taken by your co workers result in gains. What to expect is not so much a legal question as it is a moral/ethical one.
No one goes on strike because they can afford to, nor because they want to(bluster aside). People make the decision to go on strike because they feel they have no other choice, and that choice is not made lightly. The costs to crossing a picket line are mostly social. There are no neutral parties in such a situation, by crossing the line you will be consciously prolonging the strike. That's what you need to prepare for.
Mrs. Unioncat suggests the Free Rider Problem.
posted by Unioncat at 6:53 PM on April 2, 2009

For jmd82:

Part of a strike is about sticking together for the good of the collective whole. So, part of not crossing is about ideology as some have expressed above.

The other piece is that if someone doesn't pay dues or isn't a member or doesn't honor the strike, if there are gains that come out of the strike, then the non-member benefits just the same as everyone else, without making the same sacrifice as others.

I was on strike for 28 days. During that time, I got a temp job, plus strike pay. We won the strike, and got significantly above and beyond the original package. This does not happen in all or even most strikes. We were lucky. In my location, no one crossed the picket line. We had one Jehovah's Witness who wouldn't participate (either for or against) and people treated him fine afterwards. There were two people who didn't do their strike duty (i.e. 8 hours of picketing a week) and people didn't talk to them for a few months. I can't even imagine how it would have been if someone had actually crossed. I did know there were a few members who did cross (not non-members as the OP is) and they got sued for their pay they made during the strike in court.

Prior to the strike, I was never really into the union, and never really thought about it one way or the other. After the strike, that we won, we came back to work and for a period of time management treated us really horrible and conditions were difficult.

A strike is generally a horrible thing, there are always winners and losers, and coming back to work afterwards is almost always difficult, and it takes years to repair the damage done.
posted by hazyspring at 7:33 PM on April 2, 2009

jmd82: If I may piggyback on without meaning to start a debate; I'm curious: what is the big deal with crossing the picket line if the poster doesn't personally belong to the union?

While all of the above is true, and unions are highly emotional things, on a purely practical level the OP is getting union wages. He is benefiting, enormously, from the strength the union has in negotiating those wages. When the union goes to the line in a display of that strength to further improve conditions and/or pay for workers, you are quite literally biting the hand that feeds you when you cross the picket.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:52 AM on April 3, 2009

It sounds like you're mostly focusing on what will happen during a strike. You need to prepare yourself for what happens after the strike is over, when you are likely to be the most hated person in your office. And that's saying a lot, because, as hazyspring points out, strikes cause a lot of damage to working relationships.
posted by Mavri at 6:06 AM on April 3, 2009

The last strike I was on the fringes of pissed me off. It was a conversation I heard while waiting to cross the street. Some guy with a picket sign was asked where he worked in the striking department. He said he didn't work there at all, he was paid by the union to support strike actions all over the country. Basically what this meant to me was that the union was taking the dues and using them to pay people to be full-time strikers. It left me with the impression that this guy had an active interest in ensuring that there was always a strike somewhere.

It didn't make any sense to me at all. It doesn't seem to be in the best interests of the union members to always be on strike somewhere, but it certainly seemed to be in the best interest of the union itself. I don't think it's about the individual members any more. We have developed this insane dynamic where the union higher-ups set a stereotypical anti-management tone, and management takes it upon itself to act like the anti-worker assholes management has historically been portrayed as; both sides spend weeks smearing each other viciously, and after it's over everyone is supposed to smile and shake hands for the camera and pretend we're all friends again. Upper management and union officials seem to treat it as a charade that must be endured every few years. While unions by and large have done great things for worker's rights, in so many cases it just feels like the union-management dynamic hurts people more than it helps these days. I saw this as a grad student - we unionized, and immediately the members were expected to be hostile towards our tenured colleagues, and the administration immediately took such a stereotypical anti-union stance it shocked me. They went in seconds from treating us fairly because we were humans beings to treating us fairly because they were legally obligated to do so. It was entirely unproductive in most respects.

Management never seems to understand that caring for their workers is the best thing they can do to ensure the well-being of the business. Union never admits that there are times they should be content with what they have, that there really isn't anything more management can do for them given the current state of things. And anyone who voices these opinions out loud is viewed with disgust by management and union alike. But both sides have a stake in this, don't they? Management needs the union because it gives them a single entity to work with to ensure that the employees can't say they didn't have a hand in their own treatment. The union needs management, because without them there's be no need for the union. They need to strike occasionally to remind management that they have power, and that the dues paid are doing something. But the unions are damn near business themselves now, and there's no union to protect you from the union. They say strike, you are expected to do it, even if it means you lose your house. Your choice is sympathy and strike pay, or solvency and vilification. The workers are getting shafted more often than I like to see, and all are expected to go along with the game.

Look at this thread. The very first answer (and almost all that came after) started out by calling the asker a scab. I don't care whether you feel it's the right term or not, and I don't care whether you grew up in the union and Joe Hill is your great-great-grandfather. It's the equivalent of answering a question about premarital sex by referring to the asker as a whore. It's that kind of kneejerk reaction that bothers me, the complete inability to see shades of gray in any of this. That mentality is counter-productive, whether it comes from one side or the other. You don't have to agree with the position, but christ, be polite about it.

To the asker: If you cross the line, you will likely get some backlash from union members. As stated above, how much and how bad really depends on what union, and participation numbers. A clerical union is probably going to give you less hell than an autoworker's union, but you really never know. I have been in unions before, and I personally wouldn't hold it against you if you didn't honor the line. But I see the shades of gray. I don't ask what your reasons are, I just assume that they must be important.

For those of you arguing that the asker is getting union benefits without "paying" for them, please remember that (a) dues are deducted whether the asker wants them to be or not, and (b) the union knows exactly how many non-members are affected by their negotiations, and I'm damn sure this is taken into account by them in some way or another.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:50 AM on April 3, 2009

"It's the equivalent of answering a question about premarital sex by referring to the asker as a whore."
I think a more accurate comparison to the reaction here would be "answering a question about having sex for money by referring to the asker as a whore"; i.e., all of the relevant aspects of the activity (crossing a picket line to work a union job during a strike) named by the epithet (scabbing) are satisfied in this case, rather than a massive judgemental leap (from premarital sex to whore), even though a more polite term such as prostitute, sex worker, etc., might have been used.

Labour relations is rife with non-neutral language, including the "right-to-work" invoked by the OP. You're right to point out that "scabbing" is a rude term, but the OP will probably encounter it (and worse) from striking colleagues. All the more reason to carefully consider how best to undertake his/her intended course of action, no?
"For those of you arguing that the asker is getting union benefits without "paying" for them, please remember that (a) dues are deducted whether the asker wants them to be or not..."
At present the OP is benefitting from past rounds of collective bargaining at this workplace, and is "paying" for it through union dues. This seems fair; however, I think most of us above have been clear that the "free rider" issue with respect to the looming strike concerns the OPs not "paying" (in terms of wages lost during the strike) for any improved terms of employment won by a strike. I would expect that much of the friction the OP may experience from co-workers during and after the strike would arise directly from this, and advice was offered as to how the OP might mitigate this.
posted by onshi at 9:29 AM on April 3, 2009

For those of you arguing that the asker is getting union benefits without "paying" for them, please remember that (a) dues are deducted whether the asker wants them to be or not

A non-member does not pay dues, they pay a agency fee which is somewhat less than normal dues. The union is their agent in labor negotiations even though they are not a member.
posted by JackFlash at 10:41 AM on April 3, 2009

calling the asker a scab...christ, be polite about it

It's one of the OP's tags, so he's familiar with the word. If he can't handle the term "scab" on an AskMe page, I don't think he'll enjoy the politeness of the actual picket line.

Debate about modern unions is all well and good, but the question is about what will happen when he crosses. He got a lot of honest, realistic answers here. With luck, there won't be a strike and no one will call him anything.
posted by sageleaf at 11:31 AM on April 3, 2009

Just to get correct on the dues thing, a non-member in a non right-to-work state DOES pay dues. This is the situation the OP is in. In order to get part of the money back, he/she has to submit each year for this, and the OP is saying that he/she does not submit for money back. So, the OP is paying 100% of dues.
posted by hazyspring at 5:10 AM on April 4, 2009

the union can penalize you financially if you cross the picket line while still a member.
Read the contract carefully to be certain you can't be legally hurt by crossing picket lines. Talk to your manager, or HR Dept. if the manager is pro-union, to make sure they want you to cross. Ask your manager what your employer will do to help you avoid any problems.

You do sound somewhat adversarial about the union, and I will simply note that participation in the union is one way to change the union.
posted by theora55 at 8:19 PM on April 4, 2009

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