Obligations of Salaried Employees Amidst a Labor Strike: Navigating Crossing Picket Lines and Consequences

Navigating Labor Strikes: Concerns Arise Among Salaried Workers

Amidst discussions surrounding potential labor strikes, a significant number of salaried white-collar employees are grappling with the question of whether they possess the option to refrain from crossing a picket line, in a display of solidarity with their lower-paid colleagues.

The Detroit Free Press, a prominent component of the USA TODAY Network, has highlighted Ford Motor Co.’s measures to prepare its salaried workforce for possible roles in parts depots, should a strike transpire.

Consequently, the subject of permissible actions within a strike scenario is currently at the forefront of consideration.

Is it within a company’s rights to mandate salaried employees to cross a picket line?

“In a general context, if the salaried employee lacks union representation, which is often the case, the answer is yes,” affirmed Michelle Kaminski, an associate professor specializing in labor relations at Michigan State University.

However, for white-collar workers who are unionized and possess contractual clauses that enable them to abstain from crossing picket lines, they should find themselves within their rights, as outlined by Erik Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

The Ramifications of Avoiding a Picket Line during a Strike

The consequences of refraining from crossing a picket line during a strike are multifaceted:

  • According to Gordon, nonunion workers who opt not to cross picket lines could face potential termination. He pointed out that if these workers genuinely feel intimidated by the picketers, the company might allege a violation of labor law. However, unless the picketers physically obstruct access to the premises or a credible threat of violence exists, the picketers are generally free to create noise and employ personal insults as a form of protest.
  • Kaminski emphasized that if nonunion workers reject management’s directives and refuse to fulfill their assigned tasks, they run the risk of job loss. The company could resort to such severe measures if nonunion workers fail to comply.
  • Kaminski further highlighted that sympathy strikers, who join a strike to express support but aren’t the primary group striking, can potentially be replaced on a permanent basis. Depending on their position within the organization, some might maintain the right to be placed on a preferred recall list for a limited duration. Although many perceive being fired and being permanently replaced as synonymous, Kaminski pointed out that they are technically distinct.

Effective Strategy: Training Salaried Workers for Blue-Collar Roles Amid Strikes

In the context of companies preparing salaried employees for blue-collar positions during strikes, there is considerable merit in such an approach, as highlighted by Kaminski. She remarked, “I find Ford’s management decision in 2023 to be astute.”

She elaborated on the rationale, observing, “This year’s United Auto Workers negotiations have taken on an unusual degree of contentiousness. It’s evident that the union is actively rallying its members around the concepts of solidarity and unwavering commitment in anticipation of a potential strike. Correspondingly, it’s logical for the management to take proactive measures. They possess the capability to engage in both negotiations and contingency planning for a strike scenario. These roles aren’t fulfilled by the same individuals involved in the negotiation process or the development of alternate strategies.”

Gordon provided additional context, noting that earlier in the summer, UPS had anticipated that nonunion managers might step in to assume the responsibilities of Teamsters members if a union strike were to transpire.

Considerations for Salaried Employees Unwilling to Cross Picket Lines

For those salaried workers who express hesitation about crossing picket lines, a notable factor at play is the growing prevalence of remote work arrangements. Such arrangements eliminate the physical necessity of crossing picket lines in order to fulfill job responsibilities. In light of this, the Detroit Three automakers were approached for their perspectives on this matter.

◾ In response to the inquiry, GM spokesman David Barnas conveyed to the Free Press, “Our paramount concern in any business continuity plan is the safety and well-being of our employees. Due to competitive considerations, we refrain from disclosing specific intricacies of our business continuity strategies.”

◾ Ford’s spokeswoman, Jessica Enoch, opted not to provide a comment on the matter.

◾ Similarly, Stellantis spokeswoman Jodie Tinson also chose not to comment on this issue.

Drawbacks of Preparing Salaried Workers for UAW Roles

“Imagine having individuals who typically design fuel injection systems suddenly operating forklift trucks,” remarked Harley Shaiken, a respected expert in automotive labor and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. “This approach lacks careful consideration. Can we realistically expect to keep this transition confidential, given its highly charged emotional nature for numerous workers? The likelihood of information leaking is virtually certain.”

In scenarios where a company, such as Ford, aims to safeguard the supply chain for essential vehicle parts destined for emergency responders, an alternative approach could involve collaborative negotiations with the union. For instance, a negotiation could lead to an exception being made for a specific parts depot, with UPS drivers responsible for transporting these parts. According to Shaiken, this could prove to be a significantly more cost-effective solution than arranging travel for salaried workers across the nation.

Shaiken further highlighted, “This alternative strategy challenges the positive rapport that Ford has painstakingly fostered with the UAW in recent times. This rapport didn’t spontaneously emerge; it was cultivated by both parties acknowledging the potential for significant disparities and resolving them through negotiations. Among the Detroit automakers, Ford boasts the most robust relationship with the UAW. However, this rapport can be swiftly undermined during critical negotiations. This is far from an inconsequential matter.”

Expert Opinions Emerge Regarding Ford’s Contingency Plan

Labor experts, including individuals like Shaiken, whose familial ties reach back to Ford’s Rouge plant, have raised queries regarding the timing of Ford’s initiation of a contingency plan, a full two months ahead of the contract deadline slated for September 14.

Undoubtedly, the ongoing negotiations have displayed a notably heightened degree of tension. Nonetheless, Shaiken underscored that the current juncture merely marks the opening weeks of these deliberations. “It’s essential to consider the analogous situation with the Teamsters and UPS. Negotiations reached an impasse, and there was even confusion about who walked away from the table. However, roughly eight or nine days prior to the deadline, Sean O’Brien, the General President of the Teamsters, expressed a clear trajectory towards a picket line. Soon after, the CEO of UPS presented a tangible proposal via email. O’Brien acknowledged the potential for dialogue. Subsequently, both parties returned to the negotiating table and concluded a contract in a single day, a resolution that both sides currently commend. Naturally, the agreement awaits ratification.”

Shaiken also highlighted that the initial stages of contract negotiations invariably involve robust and vocal efforts from both sides. “Am I suggesting that the possibility of a strike is non-existent? Absolutely not. The union is pursuing substantial concessions, while companies contend with their own complex issues. However, we are far from an inevitable strike scenario.”

He further expressed reservations about the prudence of devising a contingency plan at this juncture. “The timing of this move seems premature. Perhaps this was conceived as a pragmatic step considering the perceived direction of the negotiations. It’s evident that the repercussions they are encountering are tangible and detrimental.”

Navigating the Risks of Assigning White-Collar Employees During Strikes

“Occasionally, they attempt to step in for striking workers, resulting in either successful adaptation or at times, even humor,” shared Gordon, shedding light on the dynamic when white-collar employees are redeployed during strikes.

In families where both white-collar and blue-collar members are present, the situation can carry significant implications.

“In certain blue-collar households, crossing a picket line is viewed as a grave transgression,” Shaiken emphasized. “The strike symbolizes the ultimate weapon wielded by workers. Violating this stance fractures the sense of unity. This solidarity is intrinsic to the essence of the union, particularly in the case of the UAW.”

However, contrasting dynamics emerge in families where some members are participating in the strike. Kaminski noted the intricate dynamics, stating, “For families relying on the paycheck brought in by a salaried worker during a work stoppage, the situation can become intricate. The need for income can complicate the family dynamic for those impacted by the strike.”

Understanding Union Members’ Reluctance to Cross Picket Lines

◾ The prevailing sentiment among union members is that declining to cross another union’s picket line reflects a fundamental sense of unity, as articulated by Gordon. He adds, “This perspective goes beyond mere solidarity; it’s also rooted in practicality. A time might come when their own union is engaged in a strike, and they anticipate reciprocation – the hope that the union they’ve supported will extend a similar favor.”

◾ In situations where a company’s workforce comprises members from various unions, adhering to picket lines holds amplified significance, exerting a more potent influence than a single union strike alone, as Gordon elucidates. “This approach becomes a potent tool wielded by the union during labor negotiations.”

◾ Gordon highlights that if a union’s bargaining agreement contains a clause prohibiting strikes, the union cannot actively encourage its members to abstain from crossing another union’s picket line. Such action would qualify as a sympathy strike, which is typically prohibited under such agreements. For example, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, governed by a no-strike clause, advised its members that the decision to cross Writers Guild of America picket lines rested solely on individual judgment. Gordon adds, “SAG-AFTRA later initiated a strike after their agreement had lapsed.”

◾ Kaminski points out that Teamsters contracts specify that they are not obliged to cross any picket lines in locations where they are involved in deliveries.