The Lincoln Education Association (LEA), the union that represents teachers at Lincoln Public Schools, moved quickly and clearly to discourage a rumored mass sick out by teachers in Lincoln late last month. The sick out was meant to protest working conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Walking off-the-job in mass or mass call-ins without union approval or without a union period is sometimes known as a “wildcat strike.” But while the LEA was correct in stating a coordinated sick out by teachers is illegal in Nebraska, most private sector employees have the right to walk off the job due to safety conditions under certain circumstances.
When are wildcat strikes permissible?
Wildcat strikes are permissible under the National Labor Relations Act, the Labor Management Relations Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act. While the standards for what is permissible vary by law, a worker contemplating organizing a mass walkout should be able to show a serious and imminent harm from working conditions. Employees in unionized workplaces actually may have less ability to organize wildcat strikes as labor law discourages that practice in unionized workplaces.
Individual refusal to do an unsafe job
The Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act could protect an individual employee from retaliation for refusing unsafe work or opposing unsafe working conditions. Arguably, the act would also protect organizers of wildcat strikes. In some cases, reporting a workers’ compensation injury can also fall within the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act. While workers also common law protections against workers’ compensation retaliation, bringing the case under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act can entitle workers to awards of attorney fees and front pay not available in common law cases
The spread of strikes and sickouts
Mike Elk of Payday Report has written extensively about strikes and other work stoppages related to COVID-19. One of these labor actions includes a sick out by teachers in Boise, Idaho. Unfortunately, workers don’t have a lot of good options to protect themselves from unsafe conditions related to COVID-19. OSHA has been criticized for lax enforcement. Workers’ compensation laws aren’t designed to compensate workers for infectious diseases, even assuming those laws cover infectious disease at all. Finally, even though workers’ compensation is an inadequate remedy for COVID-19, the so-called exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation usually prevents workers from bringing cases directly against their employers about working conditions.
If you have a union, get involved in your union
Some workers are still fortunate enough to enjoy union representation. If you are one of those workers, join your union and get involved in your union. Unions make the workplace more democratic and allow for employee input, but unions work best when workers get involved. One of my pet peeves is listening to clients or potential clients telling me “the union doesn’t do anything.” Some unions are better than others, but even a weak union gives most employees better benefits and more job protections than they would be entitled to otherwise as an at-will employee.
Public sector labor law reform in Nebraska?
Public sector employees cannot strike in Nebraska. Nebraska law is clear on that issue unlike more ambiguous laws in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona that had teacher strikes in 2018. Nebraska law also holds teachers and other employees can’t engage in work slow downs or sickouts. In fact it is a crime to even advocate or advise public sector employees on workplace strikes and slowdowns and to support strike funds. While Nebraska laws on public sector strikes may be vulnerable to some First Amendment challenges, public sector strikes and work slowdowns remain a very risky proposition for participants.
So will Nebraska reform public sector labor law to harmonize with federal law or to make it less punitive towards public sector workers protesting unsafe working conditions? I think that’s a doubtful proposition. The rules of the Nebraska Unicameral require broad support for legislation. For example, expanded protections for essential workers were killed by what amounts to a filibuster by a bloc of right-wing senators.
Nebraska is also one of the few states that hasn’t adopted charter schools which are opposed by teachers’ unions. I’m not sure that the Nebraska State Education Association, the union representing teachers in Nebraska, would want to risk alienating support for public schools with proposals that could seem radical to many Nebraskans, including teachers.
But ultimately increased labor militancy among teachers and other public sector workers could help preserve the role of bargaining for public sector employees. In 2011, some in the business community sought to weaken public sector unions. That effort ultimately failed. I think a newly energized labor movement among teachers makes it more likely that future efforts to weaken public sector unions in Nebraska will fail as well.