On February 1, the United Steelworkers (USW) instigated a strike at several oil refineries around the country, a first since the 1980s. After contract negotiations deteriorated between the union and Shell Oil, thousands of USW’s members went on strike, which is still ongoing.
Unions have every right to use strikes as a tactic if they cannot reach a contract. Whether or not the action is warranted in this case is up for debate. Prior to calling for a strike, USW leadership had rejected seven contract offers from management.
However, no matter the reasons, not every member appreciates taking a hiatus from a paying gig. That is exactly what is happening with this strike.
A number of workers have decided to cross picket lines and remain on duty. For example, at the Deer Park refinery in Texas, more than 20 percent of about 800 union workers went back to work.
Workers crossing a picket line should not come as a surprise because strikes impose hardships on all parties involved, but employees in particular. While unions have strike funds in order to subsidize the loss of wages, most pay workers “far less than 50 percent of the wages lost during a strike.”
According to a report, it is unlikely workers who are participating in the pickets are receiving anywhere near 50 percent of their regular pay despite the USW sitting on a strike fund of $350 million:
“They’re giving us gift cards of around $100 a week for groceries if you’re picketing,” said one worker with nine years experience at the Golden Eagle refinery. “If you want them to help with some of your bills you have to bring them to a committee which decides if you need the help. It’s demeaning having to go to a meeting, hat-in-hand, begging the union for money that we’ve been paying into the strike fund for years.
“What about all the workers who paid their union dues and retired without ever taking part in a strike? Where’d all that money go?”
In response to growing discontent among membership and workers crossing the picket lines, a number of USW locals allegedly engaged in abusive tactics against the workers that just wanted to keep working and receive a paycheck. As Oil Online reports:
The charge alleges that USW Local 13-227 union officials are resorting to harassing, coercing, and threatening workers for refusing to abandon their jobs. Over the course of several meetings, a USW Local 13-227 union official has threatened workers who continue to work during the strike with job termination and other retaliation. Further, USW Local 13-227 union officials have allowed a union Facebook page to be used to communicate threats against workers who continue to work during the strike, and against employees who are contemplating returning to work. Last week, Foundation attorneys also assisted Joseph Smith of Friendswood, Texas in filing a federal charge against the USW Local 13-1 union on similar grounds. At Smith’s plant in Deer Park, roughly 150 of the approximately 800-large workforce have continued to work during the strike, with many resigning their membership in the USW Local 13-1 union, as is their right under federal labor law and Texas’ popular Right to Work law. As the stream of workers resigning union membership and returning to work grows every day, it was reported that USW Local 13-1 union officials turned off their fax machine in an attempt to stop workers from exercising their right to resign and return to work.
To protect workers from these union tactics and ensure strikes are supported by workers, Congress should consider reform that makes strike votes more democratic. The Employee Rights Act (ERA) would do just that.
Currently, union constitutions and bylaws determine how strikes are authorized. For the most part, only members in good standing may participate in such a vote. Since unions represent members and non-members alike, all workers in a bargaining unit should have a say in strike authorization votes.
The ERA would increase worker rights by granting all employees represented by a union the right to vote by secret ballot on whether to authorize a strike. In addition, majority support would be required before a union boss orders a strike.
A poll conducted by the Center for Union Facts shows that this is a popular proposal among union members and the public. Eighty-four percent of non-union households were strongly/somewhat supportive. Eighty-eight percent of union households were strongly/somewhat supportive.
With the Obama administration increasingly granting privilege to labor unions at the expense of worker rights, it is imperative for Congress to take up legislation like the ERA that restores the balance of power in labor relations and increases worker freedom.