There has been some talk in the news lately about a strike involving unionized healthcare workers, specifically healthcare workers employed at state-run nursing and group homes. The reasons cited range from low wages, poor benefits, and working conditions to lack of adherence to coronavirus standards. The union states twenty-four employees have died due to the virus. Some of the union’s more disturbing claims relate to the lack of personal protective equipment, deficient testing programs, and staff shortages. While Governor Lamont has offered $280 million in federal funds, it is going to be interesting to see how this plays out.
I’m sure everyone has heard the term “strike” before and generally knows what it means. However, there are still some misnomers out there, and if you’ve never been involved in a strike before, you may not know how it actually works. Hopefully, this article will clear up any questions.
A union or labor strike occurs when unionized workers collectively agree to stop working in order to gain a concession from an employer. The key term in this definition is “collectively.” A strike and a related picket are both concerted activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act. In order for the strike to be protected, it has to be a “concerted activity,” meaning it has to be done collectively by a majority of the union members and be endorsed by the union. A single worker cannot decide to stay home from work for a week and call it a strike. That is not a collective activity and, therefore, is not protected - you will be fired for this.
Typically, strikes arise out of a breakdown in contract negotiations, grievances that are not addressed, or a unilateral change in working conditions. Strikes can also arise from allegations of unsafe working conditions or unfair labor practices that violate state and federal labor laws. As I said earlier, workers that strike are protected and generally will not be fired for going on strike. However, the company is not required to pay an employee while on strike, and striking employees are not eligible for unemployment.
A strike is a union tactic designed to force the company into meeting its demands. The idea is that the company cannot function without workers; thus, management is pressured to cave. Yet the union is not the only entity to have some leverage. The company can also engage in a protected, concerted activity called a “lockout.” This is where the company locks out or prevents the union workers from coming to work—without pay and benefits, of course—and hires replacement workers. This tactic is designed to get the union to cave and meet management’s demands. Again, this is also a protected, concerted activity that must be endorsed by the company management. A disgruntled company supervisor cannot lock out a certain employee or shift on their own. That would be illegal, and the supervisor would face discipline, and the company could be liable for damages.
With that said, public sector employees in Connecticut cannot strike. The Municipal Employees Relations Act, the Teachers Negotiations Act, and the State Employees Relations Act all prohibit public sector workers from striking.
In the end, strikes can be dicey. There are rules that need to be followed and contracts to be reviewed before a strike can be planned. Furthermore, the underlying dispute may not be resolved by striking. If you are in a private sector union and are thinking of striking, please consult with an attorney experienced in these matters. If you have questions on strikes or need some advice on whether a strike is right for your union, give us a call. We are here to help.