Magazine article Workforce Management

Walking out on Wages

Magazine article Workforce Management

Walking out on Wages

Article excerpt

Production goes on during a "virtual" strike, so the suffering hits only those directly involved-labor and management.


SERIOUS LABOR STRIFE hurts everybody involved in the organization-labor, management, suppliers, customers, stockholders. What to do about the pain, however, is easy: Keep everybody out of the fight except labor and management by instituting a "virtual" strike, in which only labor and management suffer.

In a virtual strike, worker wages and management salaries, not to mention company profits, go into a kitty from which neither side gets anything back unless they settle within a certain period of time. Production goes on during a virtual strike, so the suffering hits only those directly involved-and things get hot indeed if they don't settle quickly. For everybody else, life goes on as usual.

There's really nothing new about the virtual strike. Known as the non-stoppage strike before computers made everything virtual, the technique enabled the U.S. Navy to put an end to a strike at a valve plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, during World War II. The Navy simply ordered the company to turn its receipts over to the Navy itself, along with the wages it would otherwise have paid to its workers, effectively turning a traditional strike into a virtual one.

Italy uses the virtual strike in its transport industry. In 1999, Italian pilots and flight attendants staged a virtual strike against Meridiana Airlines, wearing white bows on their sleeves to signal their participation and telling passengers that the action would not interrupt service. The airline, meanwhile, donated its revenues to charity, including the wages it would have paid to the cabin crews. In 2000, the Italian transport union scored a public relations coup when it donated 100 million lire forfeited in a virtual strike by 300 pilots to a children's hospital to buy medical equipment. Israel's National Labor Court allows the use of virtual strikes as well, though with less notable results so far.

In the U.S., the virtual strike seems to become a topic of discussion every time labor strife hits professional sports: the National Hockey League in 1994 and 2004 and Major League Baseball in 1995 and 2002. The idea surfaced in the 1970s as an option to settle labor unrest among U.S. dockworkers, and it often attracts attention in strikes involving essential public services including schools, hospitals, police protection and firefighting.

Which is not to say that labor and management in the United States embrace the idea.

For one thing, both sides must agree in advance to the limitations of a virtual strike, and individual managers-who, unlike union members, don't lose income during traditional strikes-naturally resist the idea.

For another, virtual strikes don't have a history of success in the U.S., so labor tends to resist the idea too. In 1960, after a three-day walkout by bus drivers in Miami, both sides agreed to turn the dispute into a virtual strike. The drivers went back to work for no pay, and riders got free service. After another four days, however, the bus company found that riders were giving drivers tips, and it ordered the buses off the streets. The strike lasted another 33 days.

More recently, child care workers in Wisconsin staged something like a one-day virtual strike in 2002 to protest wages and to lobby for government support. …

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