In the United States, employees have the right to strike without facing repercussions like termination or harassment from employers for doing so. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 granted American workers the right to strike and outlined the conditions under which a labor strike is legal.

When a strike happens, it slows or completely halts a company’s production. In the same manner, strikes among government employees and nonprofit workers can grind their organizations’ daily activities to a halt, potentially causing a disruption for all the people who rely on these organizations’ services. Business and organizational leaders can take proactive steps to prevent strikes among their employees, which can in turn prevent service disruptions and add to their credibility as leaders.

Understand the Types of Strikes 

Not all strikes are companywide picketing demonstrations. There are many different types of strikes, each of which is designed to communicate the importance of employees to their employers’ day-to-day operations. Many strikes are organized by specific unions, and only members of those unions participate in them. When all workers in an industry or region strike together regardless of their union affiliation, it is known as a general strike.

A union strike can spark a sympathy strike, which is a strike where workers in other unions strike to show solidarity with the group seeking changes to their working conditions. For example, a teachers' strike might encourage a school’s custodial staff and bus drivers to strike until the teachers’ needs are met.

Some types of strikes are less visible to the outside world than the typical image of employees picketing and protesting. These types of strikes are sometimes known as "partial" or "lesser" strikes and include actions like:

  • Sick-outs. In a sick-out, all employees use their sick days at the same time, leaving the workplace virtually empty.

  • Slow-downs. In a slow-down strike, employees report to work as normal but perform their work at a slow, methodical pace that slows down productivity.

  • Sit-downs. With a sit-down strike, employees report to work but refuse to perform work-related tasks.

Reasons for Strikes

Many worker strikes are over illegal and unethical practices in the workplace. These include but are not limited to:

  • Unsafe working conditions
  • Stagnant wages
  • Hostile workplace cultures
  • Poor benefits
  • Mistreatment of workers
  • Management’s failure to acknowledge employees’ needs
  • Wage and hour violations 

Follow All Employee Protection Laws

The Fair Labor Standards Act exists to ensure employees are properly compensated for their time spent working. The Occupational Safety and Health Act protects employees from health and safety hazards in the workplace, and the Civil Rights Act protects employees and job applicants from facing discrimination in hiring and at work.

Other laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act protect employees’ right to accommodations for their health-related needs, like recuperation after giving birth and wheelchair-accessible facilities. Additionally, employees who report their employers’ unethical and illegal actions to industry regulators, government agencies, the press and upper management of their companies are covered by a variety of laws designed specifically to protect whistleblowers’ rights.

Complying with employee protection laws is one way a company can prevent a strike. This includes complying with the National Labor Relations Act, which states that an employer:

  • Must reinstate employees who went on strike to protest unfair labor practices.
  • Cannot terminate employees who strike to protest economic misconduct.

Anticipate Workers’ Needs and Concerns 

One important way a business leader can prevent strikes is to anticipate her employees’ needs and potential gripes. For example, if she knows her company provides a less-comprehensive health benefits plan than other employers in the same industry, she can anticipate this issue arising during her discussions with union leaders. Even when employers cannot fix employees’ problems immediately, acknowledging the problems and publicly discussing ways to resolve them can keep employees from striking.

Business leaders can understand their teams’ needs by meeting with department heads regularly. When employees are part of a union, a leader can meet with a union representative to discuss the employees’ working conditions and ways the company can improve upon them. In many cases, open communication between business leaders and employee advocates is key to preventing strikes.

Create a Strike Contingency Plan

Among the many ways to end a strike, creating a solution to strike plan is one of the most effective. This type of plan is also known as a strike contingency plan. When an employer faces an unlawful strike, such as one where striking employees engage in violence, the employer may terminate the employees and does not have to comply with any of the requirements imposed by the National Labor Relations Act. When a strike does fall within this act’s definition of a lawful strike, the employer’s strike contingency plan must comply with federal law.

Under federal law, employers may hire replacement employees while their regular workers are on strike. Depending on the reason for the strike, the employer may be required to reinstate the striking employees or simply keep them employed in some capacity. With this in mind, a strategy for recruiting replacement employees should be part of a strike contingency plan. Other considerations to include in this plan are:

  • Training nonstriking employees on how to engage with the strike 
  • Hiring and training security personnel 
  • Stockpiling materials and finished goods
  • A communication plan to tell customers about the strike and delay in service
  • Operational plans during the strike

Ways to End a Strike

Employees going on strike does not mean their employer is a failure in any way. Labor forces are dynamic, and employees are a vital part of any company. Because of this, a key part of being a successful business leader is knowing how to keep ongoing strikes from becoming more severe and knowing effective ways to end a strike. Ending a strike requires communication, cooperation and concessions from leaders on both sides.

Some demands can be met immediately, even if the company cannot meet them 100%. An example of this is responding to a strike over low wages by increasing wages as much as the company can afford to increase them, even if that means falling short of the employees’ original goal increase. Other demands require more complex, long-term solutions that alter the company’s organizational structure and operational policies. Examples of these include:

  • Creating an anonymous sexual harassment hotline;

  • Improving employee health care benefits;

  • Instituting yearly cost-of-living raises;

  • Restructuring the company hierarchy;

  • Removing individuals who have committed illegal and unethical actions, like engaging in discriminatory hiring practices;

  • Purchasing new safety equipment and training employees on how to use it;

  • Altering working hours to ensure employees have sufficient breaks and reasonable workdays; 

  • Compensating employees for wages they did not earn due to misclassification, incorrect record keeping or denial of overtime pay.

When a strike is organized by union leaders, organizational leaders can meet with union leaders to brainstorm solutions to the problems cited as the cause of the strike. Similarly, when a strike is not a union action, an organization’s leader can meet with the employees who organized the strike or even with the entire group to discuss potential solutions and create an action plan for them.