The Real Implications of Being on Strike

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Onlookers responded negatively to Verizon’s (Stock Quote: VZ) announcement that  it will stop providing healthcare benefits to striking workers if they don’t return to work by the end of the month, but the truth is they could have legally stopped paying those benefits as soon as the strike started.

Federal law does give employees the right to refuse to work in an attempt to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with their employer, but it doesn’t entitle them to much while that bargaining takes place.

According to John Hancock, a Detroit-based employment attorney with Butzel Long, companies don’t have to pay workers while a strike is taking place and can rescind benefits while the employee refuses to work. Additionally, employees who initiate a strike aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, as those are awarded only when a person is involuntarily laid off or fired. And a refusal to work, however collective it may or may not be, is considered a voluntary termination.

It’s also important to note that a strike doesn’t guarantee its participants will get the wages or hours that they are looking for.

“Employers are obliged to listen, but they don’t have to act,” Hancock says.

According to Ann C. Hodges, a professor of Law at the University of Richmond, companies also aren’t required, in most cases, to hold your job for you while you refuse to work. While they can’t formally terminate you, they can choose to replace you – which many companies do by hiring temporary workers – and aren’t obligated, barring a major violation during negotiations, to give you back that job if it’s no longer available once the strike ends.

(The one spot of good news here? You are permitted, barring any clause in your contract that expressely forbids it, to seek out alternate employment while a strike or a lockout takes place, as Boston Celtics player Delonte West did recently when he put an application in at Home Depot to ride out the current NBA lockout.)

These are many of the reasons why even though technically any group of two or more employees can initiate a strike, such action is typically tied to unions – which were formed, in essence, so that employees could have collective bargaining power and use both positive and negative reinforcement to get members on the picket lines. 

For instance, Hodges says, while members aren’t legally obligated to go on strike, unions generally take disciplinary action against those who don’t go on strike. There are laws in place that limit these disciplinary actions and you can avoid them if you rescind your membership in that union, but that can have ramifications when you look for employment later on so most members elect to band together.

Conversely, unions tend to offer strike benefits, including health care or some type of stipend, to their members while the strike is playing out.

Still, Hodges points out, strike benefits aren’t comparable to normal pay.

Hancock explains that many companies are inclined to negotiate if the strike involves enough of their employees as they don’t want to lose a plethora of skilled workers, since it takes time (and money) to train replacement employees.  But even so, these terms are why strikes are relatively rare.

“It’s a huge risk,” Hodge says. “That’s why we don’t see many strikes. What it is that [employees] are fighting for has to be really worth it. “

As such, those not in a union who find themselves in the middle of a collective coup should step back and analyze the situation before they decide how they personally wish to proceed.

“It’s obviously not the best job market out there,” Samantha Zupan, a spokesperson for Glassdoor.com says. “You don’t want to leap without knowing what you’re getting yourself into. It’s about getting as much information as you can to make the best choice for your career path.”

Zupan says employees who find their jobs in this or other versions of job limbo need to open up the lines of communication with both their coworkers and their employers before they take decisive action.

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