On April 13, 36,000 Verizon workers went on strike, making it one of the largest strikes in recent U.S. history. The strike has become increasingly contentious, with reports of sabotaged equipment and picketing workers calling for the boycott of Verizon products and services. In light of this strike, many employers may be wondering what they can do if their workers strike.
While state laws vary, federal law applies to private sector employers throughout the country, and prohibits them from discriminating against an employee for joining or attempting to join a union. It does not prohibit an employer from voicing its opinions as to why employees should not join a union or go on strike. It also does not prevent an employer from prohibiting union-organizing activities during work time.
An employer cannot fire a striking employee just because that employee is on strike or is picketing. The employer can fire a striking employee if that employee violates a company policy or breaks the law. For example, the striking Verizon employees who damaged Verizon equipment can be fired. Striking employees who prevent customers from entering a Verizon store can also be fired. However, employees who are peacefully picketing in front of a Verizon store cannot be fired.
Employers also cannot approach a particular striking employee and offer to provide that employee with benefits (i.e. increased pay, more vacation time, bonuses, etc.) if he stops striking. The employer must deal with the striking employees as a unit.
An employer does not have to shut down when its employees are on strike. An employer may hire replacement workers to fill the jobs of striking employees. Verizon has done just this, hiring 10,000 replacement workers to keep its operations running. Once the strike ends, an employer does not have to fire these replacement workers. However, the employer cannot fire the striking workers either. If the replacement workers take the jobs of the striking workers, the employer must keep the striking workers on a recall list, and must give these striking workers the first opportunity to fill open jobs.
If an employee is fired for going on strike, he is entitled to back pay, which is the pay that he would have received from the time he was out of work to the time that he found a new job. He may also be entitled to front pay, which is pay that the employee would have received if he had not been fired from his job and has not found a new job or has found a new job that does not pay as well as the job he was illegally fired from. The employee may also be entitled to reinstatement to the job he was illegally fired from, and possibly punitive damages if the employer seriously violated the law.
As noted above, state and local law may add additional requirements as to how employers deal with striking workers. Also, most states have laws governing striking public sector employees. In Illinois, this law is the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.
Employers should contact an experienced attorney for information about how a strike may affect their operations.