Sometimes people want less pay. Once upon a time a group of union workers walked out in a wildcat strike rather than disrupt their preferred work-life balance by accepting undesirable jobs that carried higher wages. It showed that even when both labor and management clearly understand the wishes of workers, legal barriers and internal politics can complicate mutual efforts to preserve the optimum preferred employee value proposition.
Long ago, a massive chain of corner stores whose identity was a household name in North America for most of the Twentieth Century had essentially sex-segregated labor contracts covering the union workers at its world distribution center. Many of the warehouse workers were elderly women with decades of seniority who performed light manual packing duties, stuffing boxes with small items. Male central distribution center workers operated forklifts, did heavy labor, packed railroad boxcars and unloaded trucks. They operated under separate labor contracts that did not permit the women to apply their seniority to the “male” jobs. Most of the women were quite happy with their steady work, relatively high hourly wages and the opportunity to be laid off every summer to spend vacation time with their grandkids. They didn’t mind being ineligible for the male warehouse jobs that paid more but required onerous heavy labor under worse working conditions. Who would want to suffer hot humid Southern summers working outdoors and lifting heavy items in dirty boxcars? Well, some people did.
A few women wanted access to the “male” forklift and boxcar jobs. They filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against both sides, protesting the sex-segregated labor contracts. They easily won their EEOC case. Both the union and the company ended up jointly required by federal court order to unify the sexist separate labor agreements into a single unified-seniority contract. That meant that, instead of being permitted to stay home during the hot sticky summer, granny was forced to bump a sweaty boxcar loader with lower seniority and assume that nasty “male” job. Enough “little old ladies” objected to the unified labor contract terms to unite for an unauthorized (hence, “wildcat strike”) work stoppage. Despite the insistence of union officials that they must accept reassignment, they preferred taking the summer off to sweating in boxcars for higher pay.
The company stopped the strike by “caving in” and reverting to the old sexist contract arrangements that pleased the majority of the union workers. That seemed bad for both union and management, since they were mutually vulnerable to substantial federal court fines for any refusal to abide by the terms of the order that struck down the split contracts and insisted on a single unified one.
It was terrible for the union, because they were forced to defend a subsequent grievance filed against the company (by one of the younger women who wanted to unload boxcars) for reverting to the now-illegal contract which most of the union membership preferred. The company proceeded to deny the union any satisfaction through the rest of the grievance steps until the issue was brought to arbitration (the standard solution specified by all the labor contracts). The union unwillingly defended the unpopular contract that forced grannies to load boxcars, while the company “rolled over” in the arbitration, submitting a pitifully weak defense for its illegal position denying women the higher pay for jobs most of them didn’t want. The arbitrator issued an extremely clear and blunt decision supporting the union’s unpopular position and ridiculing the dumb company’s feeble attempts to retain the old popular but gender-biased separate labor contracts.
Both the union and the company were now off the hook. The union officials could honestly insist that they were legally required to defend the grievance and now were doubly ordered to accept the unpopular single-seniority gender-neutral contract. The company also got what it wanted: an end to the internecine warfare among union members that undercut organizational efficiency as well as a blow against the union culture that had previously forced the employer to support sexist and illegal procedures.
Such real-life situations help compensation specialists realize that pay is not the highest priority in the lives of many workers. Even when money seems to dominate attention, not all rewards jingle.
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. After over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review and will express his opinion on almost anything.
Creative Commons Photo "Stone Knit Mills Workers on Strike in Cleveland" by Kheel Center, Cornell University