7 Ways to Prevent Strikes in Manufacturing and Industry

Workers on strike in picket line

Strikes can be expensive and exhausting for everyone involved. As manufacturing margins grow thinner and competition becomes more intense in an increasingly digitized industrial landscape, businesses both at home and abroad are on the lookout for the best methods of preventing work stoppages.

Many manufacturers first look to establish internal policies that will prevent strikes and aid in mediating disputes before they become major issues. But strikes can’t always be avoided.

Last year, the number of U.S. workers involved in work stoppages — which include both lockouts and strikes — was the highest it’s been since 1986.

There were 20 major strikes in 2018, up from just seven in 2017. The longest major work stoppage last year involved National Grid and United Steelworkers Local 12003 and 12012, resulting in a total of 156,000 days idle.

However, there are far fewer major work stoppages now than there were in years past. For example, in 1985, there were 54 major work stoppages, while 2009 saw just five.

But still, companies across a range of different sectors must consider the possibility of stoppages, laying out policies that will ensure workers feel safe, appreciated, and fairly compensated, while also being ready to act should a stoppage occur.

The smartest organizations follow a set of best practices designed to keep workers content so the threat of a walkout never arises in the first place.

But when strike prevention fails and work stoppages do arise, it’s crucial to have a solid plan of action and a go-to list of possible solutions for strikes within your organization.

Below are 12 easy tips to help your company navigate these complex negotiations and conversations.

How to Resolve a Strike

1. Bridge the worker-management divide.

A few years back, former United Auto Workers President Bob King told Thomas that it was in a company’s best interest to discard the traditional, rigid demarcation between management and labor.

His advising still holds true; this outdated model can lead to resentment among workers and leave employees feeling that they have no say in management decisions. Better business-process management technology and organizational structures can go a long way in removing these barriers.

2. Practice empathy.

Some people make great executives but are unlikely to create effective resolutions in labor disputes. If labor unions sense that management simply doesn’t care, they may take a similar stance, leading to time- and money-wasting stalemates.

Organizations that practice empathy and keep their finger on the pulse of their workers are much more likely to be successful in bringing divides and creating solutions that work for everyone involved. Trained mediators can also play an integral role in helping to solve complex or heated disputes.

3. Maintain a positive attitude.

Approaching a potential strike as a problem to be solved, rather than a battle to be won, will help companies begin negotiations effectively. Wayne Ranick, director of communications for United Steel Workers (USW) International, told Thomas that workers want to be respected for the contributions they make to the company’s overall success.

What they don't want is to be considered a “bottom-line cost” when they are the ones creating the actual product. Arrogant attitudes from management can easily stir resentment and discontent.

4. Allow for worker autonomy.

Advanced technologies can be extremely helpful in ensuring work continues at the expected quality and quantity levels without relying on micromanagement. As King noted, workers prefer to feel that they are in control of their day-to-day jobs.

In a healthy working environment, employees take initiative to excel in order to bring about a sense of personal accomplishment; if they simply fear punishment or expect disrespectful behavior, they aren’t likely to push past the bare minimum required.

It’s also important to keep in mind that employees don’t work for money only. They also work for what the iconic psychologist Abraham Maslow called “self-actualization” — the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and skills. Helping your employees achieve this or least helping them work toward it can go a long way in boosting overall employee satisfaction.

5. Provide employees with the information they need.

When entering into labor disputes, many employees will assume that they are getting a significantly worse deal than their peers in similar industries.

But if this is not the case — if your company’s pay and benefits package are in fact competitive within the industry — it’s important to communicate this honestly, providing relevant information and data when possible.

Avoid being defensive, though, and approach this in a clear, professional manner. One of the best ways to end a strike is to listen first, gather the information you need, and then come back with potential solutions. Avoiding hasty decisions will benefit your business in the long run.

6. Consider appearances.

Perks like executive dining rooms, giant offices, and luxurious company cars are now considered old-fashioned excesses — and are often a source of worker resentment. In fact, one of the best strategies that businesses can adopt to avoid industrial action is often the easiest: engaging with workers.

There are regular reports of Silicon Valley CEOs working out of cubicles to be closer to employees, and many higher-ups stress the importance of getting on the front lines at their businesses. CEOS at some companies, such as Netflix, have touted the importance of engaging closely with their teams.

“I found I was rarely using my cubicle, and I just had no need for it,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told The New York Times in 2016. “It is better for me to be meeting people all around the building.”

7. Consider employee safety.

Workers who see their employers are doing everything possible to keep the staff safe and healthy feel more valued than workers who see evidence that they are on the losing side of a cost-benefit analysis. The prevention of strike and lockout sometimes comes down to the basics — instilling workers with the feeling that they are respected.

If there is a need to cut costs, this is never the place to do it.

“There must be an ongoing process that monitors safety conditions and a response program in place when something is discovered that can cause an injury, illness or death,” Ranick told Thomas.

The Importance of Knowing How to Prevent Strikes

The best solutions to strikes make workers feel like they have a voice in the workplace. If there is a problem, they want to be heard, they want to know there is a process in place to resolve it. Keeping these 12 tips in mind as you navigate potential or existing work stoppages will help ensure you know how to handle an employee strike — without risking your company’s bottom line, resources, and much-needed labor and talent.

This article was originally written by Tracey Schelmetic in 2013 and was updated by Helen Carey in 2019.

Image Credit: Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock.com

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