LIMA — This sort of thing just doesn’t happen anymore.
Labor negotiations today rarely result in strikes, let alone one that’s not about salaries or health benefits, and one that has passed the 100-day mark with seemingly little progress being made, labor relations experts said.
But that is what the community has seen in United Steel Workers union Local 624’s strike at Husky Lima Refinery.
How rare is a strike these days?
“Over the last 20 years or so, less than 1 percent of labor negotiations in the country have resulted in a strike,” said John Russo, a Youngstown State University professor specializing in labor relations.
And, the longer this goes on, the uglier it gets, and will continue, if and when workers return to their jobs, experts said.
“There is a type of resentment that continues after these strikes, and it’s often a major impact on productivity. Morale remains low; employees feel like they’ve been abused,” Russo said. “Working people develop their own concepts of fairness and justice.”
After negotiating earlier this year, the two sides could not reach a new agreement before the contract expired April 15. They continued talking with a rolling 24-hour extension of the old agreement until the union gave a notice to strike. It did so May 25. The union is striking over issues of safety, working conditions and use of personal time.
Two dynamics will be at play: raw, wary relationships between workers and managers, and just as difficult relationships between those who stayed on strike and those who crossed the picket line. Those who returned to work are accessible targets for frustrated and angry strikers. When they are side by side again, a good bit of shunning occurs, Russo said.
Shunning or some kind of cold war could be the best to hope for.
“There will be plenty of tension between those people,” said Lee Adler, who teaches at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “It’s very consistent with the kinds of stresses and stressors that operate on every human being on strike. That gets played out, they return to work, often with some pretty unpleasant confrontations. There are often very sharp verbal and other disagreements.”
Adler and Russo both said they find the noneconomic nature of the strike curious. They both said they believe one or both sides are concerned about something they are not sharing with the community.
“Workers wouldn’t stay out of work for that long, historically. It’s unusual and quite significant,” said Adler, an attorney who has represented unions in bargaining. “It’s interesting why the union feels so strongly about this, in a time of economic distress. People who withhold work do so at risk, and they’re not likely to do so over small matters. It must be something that means a lot to them, or frightens them, to take that position. Workers know how good those jobs are. They understand the economics as well as anyone.”
Local 624 President Mike Edelbrock has said the union at the refinery is the only United Steel Workers local on strike currently in the country.
Russo said the strike is “out of character now” with the United Steel Workers, which across the country has maintained labor standards and engaged in conciliatory bargaining and not been on strike.
“It’s uncertain to me why the pattern would change at Husky, unless there are some underlying issues. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal going on there, quality-of-life issues should be relatively easily dealt with,” Russo said. “There have got to be some other underlying issues that both parties are unwilling to talk about.”
With the strike lasting as long as it has, the experts say it is anyone’s guess as to how long it could continue.
“Why strikes occur, why the get resolved — we don’t know the answer to those things, because often the dynamics are so interior. Some of the dynamics can be seen, but some of them can’t,” Adler said. “It’s very hard to scrutinize why a lack of resolution triumphs. So really it’s anyone’s guess how much longer that will go.”
Especially in situations with a capital intensive industry, employers feel like they have the upper hand, Russo said.
“With no noticeable changes in output, there is a game sort of played by employers, the politics of postponement and evasion,” Russo said. “They can keep running like they are for a long time.”
Husky has said salaried employees and those who have crossed the picket line are running the refinery, which is experiencing normal operations.
“Companies always say that,” Adler said. “I don’t ever remember a company that didn’t say they didn’t need their workers. They’re doing just fine without the workforce. That kind of statement, it’s a self-evident truth. Then why have them? They might be able to maintain certain levels of production and maintenance, but the stress and strain on people there is enormous.”