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Make Security an Ally In Strike Situations

January 1, 1995
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Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Labor Relations, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article
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In any strike-planning situation, companies are well advised to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Strikes, by their very nature, are adversarial. They often are accompanied by disruptions in service and product delivery, and sometimes even violence. And although HR professionals usually oversee functions other than security, they still need to be aware of how it will impact their company's contingent operations. "HR should be in the forefront of promoting those kinds of discussions," says Jim Levine, senior vice president of Vance International, a protection service firm based in Oakton, Virginia. "There's not one thing that a company should dismiss as not going to happen," he says.

Although most strikes occur over contract issues, some may not even be related to negotiations. A union could have other reasons for calling a labor action. For example, the union could be attempting to organize a competitor's facility 20 miles away. By striking, it would gain visibility in the eyes of the non-union employees it wants to organize. Or, a union could be negotiating a contract at another company and want to use the striking employees as an example of the union's muscle. "There could be a hidden agenda. Strikes don't always have logical reasons for happening," says Levine.

Regardless of the circumstances, strikes require anticipation, planning and meticulous security precautions. Levine says that companies should be careful about who they hire for security. Those with previous strike experience will provide the best reassurance that violence will be avoided. Some companies, he says, decide to utilize their own personnel. Others may hire local, off-duty police or local guard companies. But Levine cautions against the latter because the personnel could very well be related to the striking employees. "[Their] own family members, neighbors or friends could be working in the facility. It could be real tough for Johnny, the security, to look the other way if a buddy [or relative] comes up and says, 'Maybe at 2 a.m., you need to go have a coffee break.' And the next thing you know, the company has suffered a million dollars worth of damage because Johnny wasn't around when the problems happened. When you get into a labor dispute, you need specialized services."

During a strike, he says, the role of security is twofold: giving managers and non-striking employees the peace of mind that they can go to work without being hurt; and providing a level of evidence gathering to document any strike-related misconduct or illegal activity on the part of union employees. "Evidence gathering is definitely an HR concern," says Levine, adding that the threat of identification averts disruptive and violent activity. One of the more common practices, he explains, is for strikers to throw down welded nails on the road with their points sticking up. The intent is to stop the movement of personnel, raw material or finished products. "If you can do that by flattening the tires of a vehicle, they've succeeded," says Levine. "Unfortunately, the [agitators] often are indiscriminate and take out a school bus with innocent people. Then, the community suffers."

In order to avert such mischief, during one coal strike, Vance International photographers took 60,000 pictures and collected thousands of hours of videotapes. The evidence was used in court against the mineworkers union that ended up owing $64 million in fines, according to Levine. "It reaffirms that evidence gathering is the most critical part of strike security," he says.

In addition to perimeter security and evidence gathering, hired security should also provide protection for key executives and their families. The service can include escort service to and from work or round-the-clock protection for the executive's family at their home. "Sometimes, there's picketing at the home, late-night phone calls, bomb threats and drive-bys," he says.

But the good news is that firms like Vance International corroborate what labor analysts are observing: Over the years, unions have gotten more sensitive about what they should and shouldn't do. Strikes, after all, are emotional events. "They deal with people's lives," says Levine.

Personnel Journal, January 1995, Vol. 74, No. 1, p. 58.

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