Labor Unions

Now, let's look at why unions exist, how they are structured, and how the collective bargaining process works.

When Negotiations Break Down

At times, labor and management can't resolve their differences through collective bargaining or formal grievance procedures. When this happens, each side may resort to a variety of tactics to win support for its positions and force the opposition to agree to its demands.

Union Tactics

The tactics available to the union include striking, picketing, and boycotting. When they go on strike, workers walk away from their jobs and refuse to return until the issue at hand has been resolved. As undergraduates at Yale discovered when they arrived on campus in fall 2003, the effects of a strike can engulf parties other than employers and strikers: with four thousand dining room workers on strike, students had to scramble to find food at local minimarkets. The strike – the ninth at the school since 1968 – lasted twenty-three days, and in the end, the workers got what they wanted: better pension plans.

Though a strike sends a strong message to management, it also has consequences for workers, who don't get paid when they're on strike. Unions often ease the financial pressure on strikers by providing cash payments. (Some unionized workers, by the way, don't have the right to strike. Strikes by federal employees, such as air-traffic controllers, are illegal because they jeopardize the public interest.)

When you see workers parading with signs outside a factory or an office building (or even a school), they're probably picketing. The purpose of picketing is informative – to tell people that a workforce is on strike or to publicize some management practice that's unacceptable to the union. In addition, because other union workers typically won't cross picket lines, marchers can interrupt the daily activities of the targeted organization. How would you like to show up for classes to find faculty picketing outside the classroom building? In April 2001, faculty at the University of Hawaii, unhappy about salaries, went on strike for thirteen days. Initially, many students cheerfully headed for the beach to work on their tans, but before long, many more – particularly graduating seniors – began to worry about finishing the semester with the credits they needed to keep their lives on schedule".

The final tactic available to unions is boycotting, in which union workers refuse to buy a company's products and try to get other people to follow suit. The tactic is often used by the AFL-CIO, which maintains a national "Don't Buy or Patronize" boycott list. In 2003, for example, at the request of two affiliates, the Actor's Equity Association and the American Federation of Musicians, the AFL-CIO added the road show of the Broadway musical Miss Saigon to the list. Why? The unions objected to the use of nonunion performers who worked for particularly low wages and to the use of a "virtual orchestra," an electronic apparatus that can replace a live orchestra with software-generated orchestral accompaniment.

Management Tactics

Management doesn't sit by passively, especially if the company has a position to defend or a message to get out. One available tactic is the lockout – closing the workplace to workers – though it's rarely used because it's legal only when unionized workers pose a credible threat to the employer's financial viability. Another tactic is replacing striking workers with strikebreakers – nonunion workers who are willing to cross picket lines to replace strikers. Though the law prohibits companies from permanently replacing striking workers, it's often possible for a company to get a court injunction that allows it to bring in replacement workers.

Lockout tactics were used in the 2011 labor dispute between the National Football League (NFL) and the National Football League Players Association when club owners and players failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. Prior to the 2011 season, the owners imposed a lockout, which prevented the players from practicing in team training facilities. Both sides had their demands: The players wanted a greater percentage of the revenues, which the owners were against. The owners wanted the players to play two additional season games, which the players were against. With the season drawing closer, an agreement was finally reached in July 2011 bringing the 130-day lockout to an end and ensuring that the 2011 football season would begin on time.