(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Labor Ok, so now we've got a full-fledged lockout on the docks. (At least the troops haven't been called in to scab yet! See here for my earlier post on strikes, lockouts, and the outrageousness of military scabbing). The companies say that they are reacting to a slowdown by labor -- and, while such allegations are often denied by labor, in this case it seems that (if you can trust the newspapers, including the article linked above) labor was avowedly doing various things to slow down work.

Two lessons about labor law emerge so far:

(1) By the Administration's refusal (so far) to invoke Taft-Hartley to stop this lockout (see my earlier post for explanation), we know -- if logic has any place in the world anymore -- that, even in times of almost-war, it's not a national emergency when the docks are shut down for a few days. Let's remember this, if -- in the near or not-so-near future -- we ever see a STRIKE, as contrasted to a lockout, on the docks. In that case, under the "good for the goose" principle, early resort to Taft-Hartley would simply be a display of favoritism towards management.

(2) Now, about the slowdown. The real lesson here is this. Among the things that the union has avowedly done to slow work down, according to the article linked above and other news reports, is a "work to rule" strategy. In such a strategy, there is a concerted effort to OBEY all safety and other rules promulgated by the company. If the signs in the plant (to take a hypothetical) say "don't drive the forklift more than 2 mph", then that's what workers do in such a strategy -- even though in normal operations that rule is routinely violated. There are, in all major industrial operations, a zillion such rules that are self-servingly put in place by management and that management nonetheless expects and wants employees to violate. These rules-that-are-meant-to-be-violated serve various purposes: foremost among them are (1) giving management an excuse to fire people whom it wants to fire, for the putative reason that they violated any of the zillion rules; and (2) giving management a plausible-on-paper defense in any safety-related lawsuit or administrative inquiry. But -- as shown by the "work to rule" slowdown technique (what some management lawyers angrily call "the inside game") -- the real deal is that management neither wants, nor can it stand, actual compliance with those rules. So, next time you hear of somebody being fired for violating a safety rule -- or hear that OSHA is a busy-body bureaucracy -- remember how the dock companies reacted when workers actually started obeying the written and posted rules.

posted by sam 7:41 AM 0 comments


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