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February 10, 2013 9:05 AM   Subscribe

My union may be going on strike. What does that mean? Assume a naive mid-career professional with limited understanding of labor relations.

I'm an engineer belonging to a professional aerospace union in Washington state. After a difficult negotiation involving federal mediators, the union has sent out ballots to vote on the company's latest contract offer and ask for strike authorization. The union has recommended that the membership vote NO on the offer and YES on strike authorization.

I started to type out all my feelings about the union, the offer, the adversarial nature of the negotiations process, etc., and then I realized that this was unnecessary background. So, let's get right to it.

If my union goes on strike, and I join them:
* I don't get paid, right? Can I use vacation or sick leave?
* What happens to my health insurance & other benefits? If I lose coverage, what are my options?
* Should I be looking for temporary employment?
* Can striking lead to full-time unemployment?
* Are there other things I should do to prepare?
* What else do I need to know?

If my union goes on strike, and I choose not to join them:
* This is scabbing, right?
* What should I know about choosing not to strike?

Complication: Although I work with union engineers, I also support a few projects at sites where the engineers are NOT unionized. I would really like to maintain good relationships with my non-union colleagues - especially because I'm worried that they'll think the union is too much of a hassle and decide to move the work. Is there anything I can do? Should this influence my decision to authorize or join a strike? Would it be inappropriate to mention the union and the possibility of strike to them? (I'm not sure if they're aware of it.)

I'd appreciate any thoughts on these topics. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of those questions need to be put to your union rep--who should be someone in close proximity to you who's designated to answer exactly these questions. Different unions have different rules, and it can be difficult for someone in your position to understand the choices and ramifications (let alone us).

If you don't join the union action, then yes, you're being a scab. If the union strikes and you scab, this can jeopardize your relationship with the union, which can impact current and future employment in your company and sector. It can also sour relations with co-workers who do go on strike, accepting loss of pay and possible termination in order to protect your employment situation.

I don't envy you. It's tough. You'll likely be without salary or benefits for the duration, and there's no guarantee that the outcome of the action will be to your benefit. On paper, solidarity with your union is the key to collective survival; but you don't live life on paper.
posted by fatbird at 9:17 AM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your union can answer most of these questions for you.
* You will not get paid by the company and will not be able to use vacation or sick leave. Your union has a strike fund and there will be procedures for accessing it- you will likely either all receive a small baseline amount, or you will apply based on hardship/need.
* If the strike lasts a while you may be in danger of losing benefits- the union will have a ton of information about this.
* You can look for temporary employment if you want but if the strike ends you will be expected to go back to work immediately (the next day). You also will probably be encouraged to help out with the strike by picketing, making phone calls to get support, etc and if you have another job you won't be able to do any of these things which ultimately support the outcome you/your union wants.
* You can't be permanently replaced unless/until the strike lasts for one year (look up the National Labor Relations Act and National Labor Relations Board for more legal stuff)/
* To prepare you should talk to your co-workers about what is best for you collectively and how you can support each other.

If you don't join the strike:
* Yes, this is scabbing.
* These wounds will last a long time (the possible perception that you chose your individual interests over collective interests will be lasting).

On your complication:
You can write to your non-union colleagues and say whatever you like eg I am sorry if this makes your work harder. Considering this possible strike is national news, it's not really your job to tell them about it but you can if you like.

Overall- talk to your union rep and go to meetings. There will be a ton of meetings where these questions are answered for you, and there are likely co-workers who have gone on strike before (since this happened at your firm with your union not super long ago)- talk to them.
posted by cushie at 9:19 AM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

What cushie says about permanent replacements is wrong. Your employer may hire temporary replacements to run while you strike. They may also choose to hire permanent replacements. If that happens those employees can continue to work when the stike is over and you won't get your job back unless there is a spot for you. They can do so immediately and if they have been aware that you might strike they probably already have plans on how to run without union employees unless they expect a quick strike.

Your union should be educating you about this if they are asking for this vote. There should be meetings. You can also talk to your managers, who probably have keen instructed to either provide strictly factual info or to direct you to hr.

Also, check out the faqs from your state and the NLRB. See, for example: http://www.esd.wa.gov/uibenefits/faq/labor-dispute.php
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:14 AM on February 10, 2013

I'd appreciate any thoughts on these topics. Thanks.

You are not the only engineer who is conflicted, and it's OK to feel this way. However, it may help you to face the fututure to look at things this way:

The time at which you do your individual moral math is when you are contemplating the boxes on the ballot. It's okay to vote YES on the contract and NO on the strike. But you should also understand that just because the union members vote YES to authorise a strike does not mean one will definitely be called. The vote gives the union negotiators more leverage to go back to the table and say "Look, our union members have authorised us to call a strike and we're prepared to do so in 48 hours. Are you sure you don't want to reconsider the pensions issue?"

However, regardless of the permutations, if a strike is called, there is no decision process to go through. Your union is on strike and you strike. If there is a danger that you will not stand on the picket line with your fellow union members, resign now and cast no ballot.

You can consider your relationship with non-union engineers, but they are not going to blame you individually for the collective action of your union, because, again: when your union is on strike, you strike. However, your engineer peers, both union and non-union, will judge you individually if you scab. Remember that these are your future team leads, bosses, and references. The social pressure against scabbing is something you want to carefully consider because the ramifications of scabbing are much, much deeper than the choice to collect a paycheck or not.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:42 AM on February 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Re the suggestion to talk to your managers and/or HR --- the only info they'll give you is some combination of:
Do Not Strike.
Strikers Are Disloyal.
The Union Doesn't Really Care About you, Only We Managers Do.
Unions Are Socialist/Communist/Un-American.

Management will only give you the company line; for an extreme example, look up Walmart's mandatory anti-union lectures, and their history of firing anyone who dares to join a union. There's a reason corporations hate unions and try with all their might to block them: historically speaking, unions are why you're working a 40-hour week at a liveable wage with benefits like sick leave, instead of a requirement of five days a week working 13-14 hours plus a 'half-day' of a mere 8 hours on Saturdays, no sick leave/vacation leave and starvation wages.

(Sorry 'bout that rant... I come from a long line of union rabble-rousers!)

If you go out on strike, no you do not get paid, and no you cannot use sick or vacation leave. If your union goes out on strike but you personally continue to go in to work, yes that makes you a scab. What makes a union effective is when people stick together; yes, it's tough being on strike, but all your union has in it's favor is strenght in numbers, and that's the only reason any company ever deals with a union --- if corporations had their wish, all unions everywhere would be abolished and made illegal.
posted by easily confused at 11:01 AM on February 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

I went on strike with my union when I felt that striking was a bad idea (I felt like we were not strong enough to win any concessions, which proved to be the case). The whole reason unions work is that the boss knows that all the workers will stick together. If you start flaking out now, the union will look weak, you'll lose concessions, and things will get worse. Trust me on this - one reason my union is weak is because many, many union members do things like vote to strike, then choose as individuals to do a one day "symbolic" strike and then go back to work...while the union is still formally on strike and has not completed negotiations. The bosses know that a "strike" isn't going to hit them very hard, so they just sit tight - and then the union is in a weaker, worse position for the next round of negotiations.

If you're going to strike, you've got to fucking strike. And if your union votes to strike, even if it's a poor decision or you personally would rather not do it, you have to go out and stay out. It's not "relationships with the union" that you have to worry about - it's the union's relationship with the bosses and the union's ability to win a good contract.

Our union used to win awesome contracts. I still remember a big dinner celebrating one - this was back before I worked at this place and I went as the guest/date of a union member. Things have deteriorated a ton since then, and while there are a lot of reasons, one reason is that people don't understand that if we're not united, the union doesn't fucking work.
posted by Frowner at 11:06 AM on February 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

Also, one thing our union won - the end to keeping people on as temps for years. Before the union, you could work your whole career here as a temp with no benefits and wages lower than everyone else's - now, with the union, if a position is going to last more than a year at full-time, it has to be a real job.
posted by Frowner at 11:09 AM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some perspective might be appropriate here. I won't comment on what I and other engineers I know think about Boeing's union. However, it should be noted that Boeing's union is one of the few, if not the only, engineering union in Washington State (and, increasingly, in the entire country).

Many of these answers assume industries where unions are prominent and common. Aerospace engineering is not that way. When reading these answers, I would keep in mind that it sounds like they are assuming unions as the norm, which, again, is not aerospace engineering.
posted by saeculorum at 11:33 AM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

My somewhat limited experience on the management side suggests that even where management doesn't like unions (or has a really bad relationship with THEIR union), they don't TRUST scabs. It's one thing for management to bring in temporary replacements or volunteers (when it's a public safety issue), but union members who scab may be appreciated in the moment but aren't trusted by management in the long term. Similarly, non-union colleagues or associated workers typically don't feel good about scabs, even if they don't like unions. "Unions are terrible, people shouldn't join them" is an abstract thought; "This particular guy is untrustworthy because he doesn't keep promises" is a concrete one. Not joining the union is one thing, but once you've joined, even virulently anti-union folks distrust scabs.

If management manages to completely break the union, such that there is no union any longer, sometimes scabbing is forgotten in the ensuing chaos and circular firing squad blame festival. But otherwise it will sour your relationship not just with your union colleagues, but also probably with management and possibly with your outside colleagues.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:03 PM on February 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

* I don't get paid, right? Correct
* Can I use vacation or sick leave? No
* What happens to my health insurance & other benefits? If I lose coverage, what are my options? Your union may continue your coverage. But you lose other benefits
* Should I be looking for temporary employment? If you can find it.
* Can striking lead to full-time unemployment? yes, it depends on your state.

If my union goes on strike, and I choose not to join them:
* This is scabbing, right? You will be a strikebreaker.
* What should I know about choosing not to strike? I am pro-union, but I do believe that people should have the choice to not strike. I work in a union shop, I would not hold it against you, especially if striking and the loss of income would cause you lose your home or car, which can happen.

When I striked, it was truly awful. I hope to never have to do it again. The loss of salary was almost impossible, we were poorly paid to begin with. We got very little out of the settlement. I work in a state with crippled unions, kind of like what Wisconsin did.
posted by fifilaru at 2:44 PM on February 10, 2013

Management will only give you the company line.

In contrast with your union representatives, who will give you frank discussions about what is in your best interests. This integrity is why unions in America have never been stronger.

Just kidding. Decades of corruption have made a shambles of unions and keep the Office of Labor Management Standards very busy.

If you really want to know the answers to your questions, I recommend a consultation with a local employment/labor relations lawyer. You do not need to hire a lawyer, but most will give you a 1-2 hour consultation for a few hundred dollars where you can ask all you want.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:09 PM on February 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I take offense with broad generalizations that unions are corrupt. Yes, like any other group, you can find good and bad examples. There's a lot more I'd like to say, but I'll leave it at that.

Like many others, I suggest you call or meet with your union rep right away to see what they have to say. If there are old-timers in your workplace that have gone through strikes before, it might help to talk to them also.

Good luck to you as you weigh this important decision. If you do vote for the strike, I encourage you to participate in your union's strike related activities. You'll understand better what is happening.

As far as talking to non-union engineers, they might consider it a professional courtesy to receive a heads up that something might happen soon with your union. It might be a way to put out feelers for temp-work.
posted by dottiechang at 7:58 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks everyone. The negotiations have been frustrating, and I don't really trust either side right now. Your comments have helped a lot, and I'll speak with my union rep.

> Many of these answers assume industries where unions are prominent and common. Aerospace engineering is not that way.

Well, I've run into "why do we even HAVE a union?" kind of attitudes, and maybe that happens less in other industries? To be honest, I feel like there's a little social pressure NOT to strike, but talking about the union feels as messy as politics/religion, so I don't really know what my coworkers think. I do feel much more confident about joining a strike after reading these comments, so thanks to everyone for that, too.

(For what it's worth, I do prefer having the union over not having it, even if I'm not a diehard supporter. Our union publishes detailed salary data after we get raises every year, and that transparency alone is a specific, tangible benefit that's almost worth the union fees.)

Anyway, I'd love to learn more about how my union (or other unions in industries that usually don't have unions) might differ from typical unions. If anyone has any resources (books, articles, master's theses, search terms -- "white collar unions"?), please let me know.

Thanks again!
posted by taz (staff) at 10:10 PM on February 10, 2013

This is an interesting and, from my view, fairly balanced, case study on SPEEA's recent history.
posted by saeculorum at 7:47 AM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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