It can get crowded around the bargaining table in a labor dispute. Each side will likely bring multiple negotiators, and they may have lawyers and accountants tagging along. There might be a mediator in the room. Then you need to find some space for other unions, other businesses, media, politicians, customers. ...
Wait a minute. How did all these other people get in here?
Some were invited in by the direct participants. Some invited themselves. A few involuntarily found themselves part of the proceedings.
Such is the case in the continuing standoff between the operator of a downtown Tacoma grocery store and a union that has been picketing the retailer over its non-union status. That situation – chronicled by the The News Tribune’s Kathleen Cooper in today’s newspaper – illustrates the complexity of management-labor relations.
The narrative is rarely as straightforward as “greedy business owner vs. noble workers trying to defend everyone’s standard of living” or “noble job-generating business owner vs. greedy union bosses,” and it rarely involves just the parties directly involved. Others, all with their own interests, agendas, influences and alliances, not only watch the discussions, they believe they have a stake in them, and thus should have a say.
In the case of the Tacoma grocery store, the list of additional players includes city officials who are hoping a grocery store will help spur downtown redevelopment. While many of them might normally align with labor politically, they’re also conscious of the fragility of those redevelopment efforts and worried that other potential tenants downtown will look at the picketing and say, “I’ve got better places to be.”
Also observing are other grocers, including nearby competitors with unionized workforces and retailers whose employees don’t work under a union contract. Not only are they watching what the direct participants are doing, they’re watching each other and the politicians to see how they get involved.
They’re also watching the public, which is hearing conflicting messages about its role: “Shop here and help support this business and downtown” vs. “Don’t shop here if you want to support workers at other retailers that do operate with contracts with their employees.”
While it’s a vivid illustration of the principles, the Tacoma grocery store story is hardly the only local labor-relations dispute rife with complications generated by multiple constituencies.
Waste Management’s dispute with its union, for example, was not just a simple matter of two parties disagreeing on the terms of a new contract. Also in the mix were the local governments that contract with Waste Management, whose leaders were torn between maintaining alliances with labor and knowing what they’ll be hearing from taxpayers when a new contract with higher wages has to be priced into bills for garbage collection.
And there are the consumers, whose own thoughts about the merits of the arguments on either side were increasingly obscured by the mounds of garbage, recyclables and yard waste fermenting in the heat of overflowing containers.
In the matter of Boeing negotiations – had you forgotten there was still a big contract to negotiate? – SPEEA, representing engineers and technical workers, has publicly signaled its unhappiness with Boeing’s pension proposal and the lack of a full contract offer from the company (the current pact expires Oct. 6).
Looming over those negotiations are the contract extension the Machinists negotiated without a strike and all those in the public and private sector with an interest in aerospace who want to maintain labor peace in this region.
Given how many people want to get involved, it’s a wonder any high-profile dispute gets resolved. Yet they usually are, once enough people lose interest or figure they got what they wanted. So if you want in, pull up a chair and get comfortable. This could take a while.Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.