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Setting up a strike game plan.

Setting up a STRIKE --GAME PLAN--

EVERYONE THOUGHT IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN.

For weeks leading up to union contract negotiations, conversations began and ended with, "Of course we'll get a signed contract." It was almost a given, by union and non-union employees alike.

Then, on August 6, in the early morning hours, more than 14,000 employees from Bell of Pennsylvania walked off the job, leaving only 4,000 managers and some 500 non-represented clerical personnel to maintain telephone services for millions of customers who--each month--generate 1.2 million contacts and require four million bills.

It was a strike.

While not an authority on strike communication, I planned for, and lived through one. In my role of directing employee communication, I learned a number of lessons I'd like to share.

LESSON 1

Develop a communication plan with cool heads in a rational environment, about four months or so before contract expiration. A strike has three distinct phases: pre-strike, strike and post-strike. Plan communication for each one.

Objectives might look like this:

Pre-Strike

* Educate on issues, but don't divulge bargaining details. * Inform management and non-union employees on "mechanics" (strike assignment, training, reporting procedures, salary treatment, paycheck delivery, etc.).

Strike

* Keep morale and spirits up for employees working 12- to 14-hour days. * Thank employees. * Keep them updated on negotiations.

Post-Strike

* Thank employees--all of them. * Educate on contract. * Build teamwork.

Four months may seem a long planning period, but believe me, strike communication needs to start shortly after that. Like an exercise program, to avoid a major strain, strike communication needs to provide employees a warm-up and a cool-down period.

LESSON 2

Hire or establish an emergency coordinator who will help plan how to handle special job actions.

Be prepared to address any type of job action, which may include:

* Sickout--union members call in sick. * Slowdown--union members report to work, but "slow down" productivity. * Sitdown--union members actually sit down on the job. * Vandalism or sabotage--intentionally destructive acts.

We faced mass picketing, where striking workers blocked all entrances to our headquarters building. An emergency coordinator can help with advanced communication planning and preparations for issues like this.

LESSON 3

To accomplish objectives, analyze target audiences ... all of them. It's easy to overlook a segment.

Some internal audiences to consider:

* Management--General: These employees replace striking workers. Most communication is targeted to them. * Management--Executive: Determine ahead this group's needs for updates, status reports and such. * Union: As much as six months prior to contract expiration, every word in corporate publications will be scrutinized for significance. Put messages in, or comb them out, depending on corporate negotiations goals. * Non-Represented Technical Employees, Non-Striking Union Employees, or Replacement Workers: When sending employees communication during the strike, avoid the possible faux pas of a "Dear Manager" salutation. Not all strike replacements may be managers. * Sales Employees: While not spokespersons, these employees may need a special communication on how to handle questions from customers. * Labor Relations Negotiators: Negotiators usually provide communicators with the status on talks in progress, but remember to return the favor by passing them feedback from employees or media.

After determining target audiences, develop key messages tailored to those audiences, for each phase of the strike. Then set up strategies to deliver the messages, identifying specific activities or media, including:

* The vehicles or distribution channels for information, * Who on the communication staff is responsible, * Timeline, * Cost (necessary if beyond the usual, e.g. hiring video crews or free-lancers).

When using vendors, suppliers and free-lancers during a strike, determine ahead of time whether they will cross a union's picket line. The most artfully crafted communication piece won't achieve a thing if the printer's delivery crew won't deliver it.

LESSON 4

Get the message out--fast! In a strike, electronic communication to employees is superior to print because of immediacy. Don't worry if each person doesn't receive a personal copy of a communication. Interest is so high, once the message arrives at a location, employees will spread it around.

My rating for distribution vehicles during a strike would be:

BEST: Electronic/immediate Call-in line; E-mail; broadcast voice mail; possibly satellite.

NEXT: Electronic/more set-up Fax; video or teleconference, if a network is set up.

LAST: Print/most set-up Regular publications; letters to homes; bulletin board programs.

LESSON 5

The day before contract expiration, encourage employees scheduled for strike duty to wrap up loose ends of business and take personal effects, as necessary. This not only makes good business sense, it prevents the communication staff from becoming a message service.

Once daylight hit and our strike was on, I answered 42 calls in five hours from employees who wanted me to do something for them ... send them something in their desk, give a message to someone calling in, etc. We could have used a full-time clerk to handle the requests!

LESSON 6

Plan scheduling relief, sharing of interesting diversions for employees.

As strikes wear on, employees wear down. The novelty is gone; work is grueling. No one wants to work weekends, holidays and especially Sunday mornings. To keep morale up when staffing the communication function, try to get volunteers to handle the tough scheduling times. (We had some officers volunteer for Sunday morning.) Also, encourage diversions for the troops in the field. We helped promote ideas from groups which ran contests, made up poems, brought in party food, toys for breaks--anything to boost flagging spirits!

LESSON 7

Determine all components and vehicles required to distribute information, and have every piece available before the strike starts.

Little things are not easy to come by during a strike. For example, we decided to send a letter of thanks to employees' homes. We found we needed postage advances (and the payroll personnel to process them were on strike), signatures of officers (who were out visiting the troops), labels, officer stationery, envelopes, logos, photos. Avoid frustration ... plan ahead!

LESSON 8

Build teamwork by working with the union(s) on who will provide settlement information to employees.

We agreed to let the union tell its membership the terms of the contract, while we gave the information to our managers. This was viewed as a win-win situation, and started off the new contract period with some management/union cooperation.

LESSON 9

To build teamwork after the strike, let individual managers handle the "welcome back."

This is a very trickly period. * Union members may resent thanks going to managers who took over union jobs, and were paid well during the strike. * Management may resent "welcoming back" union personnel who may have been disruptive or abusive. Therefore, it's best to let managers in the local sites handle team building.

Many of our management groups were given sendoff parties at their strike locations. In fact, some got two or even three send-offs, which brings me to my last lesson.

LESSON 10

It's not over until you see the whites of the union members' eyes, as they do their regular jobs.

I assumed the contract would be signed, and the strike would be over. Simple? Not so ... especially if there is more than one union involved.

What happens if one union settles, but the other is on strike? In some instances, the union with the contract may honor the striking union's pickets, keeping both off the job. Also, even after the contract is signed, there may be a settlement agreement, allowing union workers a few days off before having to report to work. Better not call employees replacing strikers off the job too quickly!

Finally, after the strike concludes, perform a critique on the entire experience. What worked well? What didn't? What could be done better?

Then, the next time everyone is sure there won't be a strike, whip out those notes, and at least one person will be prepared!

Kerry Berk, ABC, is director of employee communications for Bell of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles on layoffs and Bell of Pennsylvania
Author:Berk, Kerry M.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Words:1301
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