The Reputational Harm Of A Strike: Even Worse Than Short-Term Effects

by | Jul 10, 2023 | Auto Manufacturing, Bargaining/Negotiations, Hospitality, Labor Relations Ink, Manufacturing, SEIU, Strikes, UAW, Union Organizing, Unionized Company, Unions

Years of so-called “Striketober” headlines proved greatly exaggerated by media coverage. Yet a simmering summer of labor tensions could brew high-profile strikes.

Unions are greasing the press wheels, too. Upcoming UAW contract negotiations with the Detroit Big Three already dominate the news. At the same time, the Teamsters have threatened a conflict-filled summer and launched a #HotUnionSummer hashtag for extra flavor. 

Healthcare’s ongoing plague of strikes shows no signs of losing momentum. Recently, this led to some particularly messy fallout at a Texas hospital, where failed contract negotiations led to a one-day nurses’ strike. This walkout didn’t end as planned when they returned to work and learned of a further three-day lockout period. 

Cue the media coverage of hospital security guards telling nurses that they were not allowed to come back to work yet, and you can see where warding off this strike would have been better for both employer and workers. The hospital was in an unwinnable situation because it couldn’t leave gaps in necessary patient care. That left little choice but to hire temp nurses, who must be contracted for several consecutive days, so striking nurses lost out on those wages.

Only the union benefitted (by harming the hospital’s reputation), but that might not have been the case if more open communication between employer and workers could have warded off a strike. What can an employer do to avoid such a media firestorm?

Ideally, don’t wait for that moment to open the lines of communication: This is, of course, much easier said than done, but it rings true. How one responds to strife is a question easier answered before the situation enters crisis mode. A union already has the advantage if one waits until the media calls. 

Well-crafted responses to the press can also make the difference between losing long-term business and experiencing an unpleasant hiccup. Yet many headaches could be avoided by proactively handling internal strife before conflict erupts.

Effective internal communication can mitigate the need for forward-facing PR: The majority of worker concerns truly can be resolved through direct and open communication. From a worker’s POV, feeling their concerns are valued by leadership is priceless. If a strike is already in motion, one can also bet that internal communication shall be scrutinized during and after the fact.

Additionally, the case of Starbucks has been a canary in a coal mine. The coffeehouse giant still endures a widespread Workers United drive and the NLRB’s strong-arm tactics. It’s also not hard to conclude that ex-CEO Howard Schultz’s responses while on the Senate hot seat did not win over baristas who already felt unheard by their employer. 

Incoming CEO Laxman Narasimhan was greeted by strikes at 100 cafes. He responded by committing to open communication and working regular barista shifts alongside front liners. His work is cut out for him, but hopefully, he can shift the internal tide.

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