Sometimes workers have to take a risk for the greater good

A number of memorable strikes occurred in my mining career. One resulted from a perceived infraction of the union contract. This incident involved one miner not receiving a half hour overtime to which he felt entitled. This strike lasted seven days. Being a more experienced miner than in a previous strike, I administered an informal survey of the sentiments of my fellow shift mates. I found out that most of them wanted to work as I did. This gave me the courage to make a stand.

Each day prior to our scheduled shift, a strike meeting was held in the shower room. I made my move at the seventh of these meetings. After a repeat of the previous meeting’s conversations, I stood up on the bench next to my basket, which was a signal that I wanted the floor. This action drew the attention of the union president and the rest of the miners.

“What are we out for,” I asked

As usual, the president responded, “I don’t know.” He feared any supportive statement of the strike could result in his dismissal from the mine or a law suit for lost productivity by the mine owner.

I continued my questioning, “Is there a grievance filed?” We all knew the answer was no. After a short discussion on the matter with those present, I declared my intentions.

“I can’t afford to lose $50 a day. I’m here to earn a living for my family just like you. I say we go to work and file a grievance and let it go through the contractual system.”

I expected my peers would be supportive. I stepped off the bench and dropped my clothes basket. From the corner of my eye, I watched the movement of the other miners with hope. First, Ray, the roof bolter who worked on the other side of my machine, moved to his basket and dropped it. Several others followed. Finally, Scotty, a huge miner who was respected for his size, moved toward his basket and dropped it. I felt as though the tide had turned. Soon, however, I realized that Scotty was the last to join our righteous ranks. We walked to the elevator ramp to report for work. Some of the miners in the room gave us dirty looks but no one said anything. We were scared but beyond the point of no return. The ensuing shift was fraught with worry.

When the shift was over, I left the shower room to find two tires flattened and a mirror ripped off my new Fiat. A couple of other guys found two of their tires had been sliced in the sidewall with a hawk billed knife. It was not a productive night’s work. Half of the next shift worked and the entire following shift returned to work, ending the strike.

Wildcat strikes were illegal and against the union contract. I understood wildcat strikes had a long history in the mining community and at times served an important role. However, in my day some of these strikes were conducted for very small purposes. I believed the issues of some wildcat strikes would be better served if addressed through the grievance process.

By making my stand on principle, I put myself at risk. In the case described, my actions eventually ended the strike. Sometimes followers need to step onto the bench and say what they think. Otherwise, cultural inertia can result in ineffective and unnecessary behaviors.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Web site, or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.