The New Age of Strikebreaking

NOT more than a decade ago employers hired replacements for strikers very rarely. There was a social stigma in being a strikebreaker or patronizing a struck establishment. But that time is passing. The four major strikes of 1989-90 - at Eastern Airlines, Pittston Coal, the regional phone companies, and Greyhound buslines - illustrate the new atmosphere. Workers contemplating going on strike should be prepared for the possibility that their employer will replace them with strikebreakers, that their dispute will be long and bitter, and that they could lose their jobs.

These perils are present in the Greyhound strike. Because the dispute concerns economic factors, the company can legally hire permanent replacements, feign negotiations, and bust the union. However, strikebreakers, scattered around the nation's roads, are vulnerable to random acts of violence. Greyhound has filed a $30 million racketeering lawsuit, accusing the union of conspiring to incite violence.

At Eastern Airlines and Pittston, also, new work forces were hired to join those workers who had refused to walk off the job. These two strikes were bitter (Eastern's strike continues) because strikebreakers prolong the disputes and threaten the employment of strikers and the bargaining status of their unions.

The strikebreakers at the telephone companies were mostly supervisors and transferred workers who were never intended to be permanent replacements. This was made possible by the industry's high degree of automation. Telephone executives' willingness to maintain service with available skilled labor helped them to achieve at least a partial victory at the bargaining table.

New attitudes toward strikebreaking can be traced to the Reagan administration's crushing of the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981, with the dismissal of 12,000 employees and the dismantling of their union. Reagan sent a clear signal to American management that it is appropriate to replace striking workers.

The Bureau of National Affairs, a private group, in a survey of collective bargaining objectives in 1990, revealed that 77 percent of employers said that they would replace the work force if struck, or would consider doing so.

Also, the public has become less tolerant of strikers' demands. Recall that during the last football strike the average fan complained about the low quality of play rather than the presence of strikebreakers. A 1988 Gallop poll showed that only 51 percent of respondents believed that most strikes by unions were justified, and 71 percent believed that unions often made excessive demands on employers.

Aware of low public support and employers' willingness to replace strikers, unions have become more discriminating in their use of the strike weapon. ``No contract, no work'' is no longer a guiding principle.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of annual work stoppages (strikes involving 1,000 or more workers) has fallen to its lowest level since 1947. In 1988, only 40 major work stoppages occurred, almost one-fifth the number in 1980, and up to one-tenth the annual number in the 1960s and 1970s. Some claim that these figures signal the start of an era of less conflictual labor relations. However, there's little evidence of change in the attitudes of the negotiating parties. Unions recognize that the strike is no longer a fearsome weapon and should be used only under extreme circumstances.

If unions are more cautious, management is not. The four big strikes of 1989 show that management will use strikebreakers during the following scenarios:

When it can be done with supervisory or transferred workers, as in the telephone strike.

When management believes that the future of the company is at stake if operations cannot be continued profitably during the strike, as with Eastern Airlines.

When the employer is under extreme competitive pressure, maintains extensive operations in other industries that are not affected by the strike, and knows that strikebreakers can be readily recruited from a large pool of unemployed or underemployed workers, as with Pittston Coal.

When management sees an opportunity to tighten operations, reduce long-run costs and switch to a nonunion work force, as with Greyhound.

Unions can either try to strengthen the strike weapon or find alternatives. One option is to lobby for legislation that prohibits the use of strikebreakers (as in Quebec) or prohibits the permanent replacement of strikers (found throughout Canada). But labor would find few supporters for such measures in Congress. A more fruitful approach might be to experiment with substitutes for strikes, such as having employees remain at their workplace but slowing down by ``working to rule,'' or organizing consumer boycotts.

It's wrong to assume that the unions' strike weapon has become entirely ineffective because of the use of strikebreakers. This certainly isn't the case at firms where strikers cannot be replaced because of their skills and large numbers, and where a continuing dispute would cut deeply into profits. The recent strike at Boeing is a prime example.

But for many American workers, the strike has become a risky venture, to be attempted only at the last extreme.

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