Monday, May 20, 2024
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CEO Journal

Uncovering the Catalysts: Why Labor Strikes Are Rocking So Many Industries Today

Merel van der Lei

In 2023, strikes have dominated global headlines, spanning actors and writers to postal workers. Many employees, especially frontline workers, are demanding better working conditions and pay. Here, we’ll discuss the underlying reasons for this growing trend in strikes and how leaders can best prevent and respond to these crises, namely by bridging the gap between management and frontline employees.

The last twelve months have seen an astonishing number of labor strikes. In September 2023 alone, the U.K. lost approximately 229,000 working days due to labor disputes. In the U.S., 4.1 million days were lost in August 2023. Strikes impact a wide range of industries and companies of all shapes and sizes, but businesses that employ frontline workers face particular scrutiny.

From the hallowed studios of Hollywood and the mighty motor manufacturing industry to the high-flying airlines and the large logistics businesses, employees are demanding a better quality of life, more equitable compensation, and, perhaps most importantly, to be treated as people rather than business assets.

Why Are Workers Striking So Much This Year?

There is a disconnect between top management and frontline employees that is sparking conflict and the need to strike. Many factors — economic, structural, and interpersonal — are getting in the way of leadership connecting with employees in meaningful ways.

Why are workers striking? One major reason for an increase in labor strikes is an increase in the disparity between top earnings and wages on the frontline. Take Hollywood strikes, for example. For every million or billion dollars earned by a production house, there are many writers and actors having trouble paying their mortgages.

Economic factors such as inflation, high living costs, and the post-pandemic world add fuel to this fire and make discrepancies seem even more unfair. Employees often feel that their wages are not keeping up with the rising cost of living.

However, disputes about pay are not the only impetus for strikes. Lack of empowerment, lack of involvement in decision-making, dissatisfaction with leadership, anxiety around job security, disintegrating work-life balance, and breakdowns in communication are just some of the conditions pushing employees to join the picket lines.

All these factors contribute to an unstable relationship between management and the frontline, but the trouble continues after conflict emerges. Many companies are ill-prepared to have healthy, effective discussions and have not adequately considered how to practice crisis management in the workplace.

A business’s crisis communication strategy is a crucial element in managing labor disputes effectively. Labor disputes often have complex origins, and to truly solve them and improve employee engagement, it will be critical to address crises in a way that fosters trust and transparency.

How Can Organizations Effectively Bridge the Gap Between Management and Frontline Employees?

In the complex tapestry of today’s workplace, one thread stands out as indispensable: the relationship between management and frontline employees. And yet, the prevalence of labor strikes in 2023 suggests that this dynamic has become fraught with challenges and conflicts.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Forward-thinking companies understand the importance of maintaining a strong bond between management and employees, and they have learned that there are measurable ways of building a more inclusive and collaborative environment where strikes are less likely to happen.

  1. Practice clear and transparent communication.
    This comes first because it is arguably the most important bonding tool, but it can be hard to practice in real time. Frontline workers often feel disconnected from top management, and to become more engaged, they need to know more about the company’s goals, strategies, and the decisions that affect them. They also need to be able to express their own goals, concerns, and ideas in safety and confidence. Setting up regular two-way channels of communication can help employees feel safe and appreciated, as well as help identify issues before they escalate into major conflicts.
  2. Offer regular conflict resolution training.
    You don’t have to do conflict resolution alone; there are experts who can help you manage conflict in your workplace before it becomes debilitating. Conflict resolution and mediation training offers a safe space for managers and employees to learn about potential issues, air disagreements, and practice respectful communication. Conflict prevention workshops can also be a good chance to spend dedicated time refreshing communication strategies and nurturing workplace relationships. These can be particularly beneficial during times of tension or change.
  3. Make a continuous commitment to safety.
    Health and safety are always a top concern for frontline workers and a major contributing factor to strikes, especially in industries with high-risk elements such as healthcare and construction. In October 2023, more than 75,000 workers at healthcare organization Kaiser Permanente went on strikes, representing the largest labor action of healthcare workers in U.S. history. The reason? Unsafe working conditions due to staff shortages. The bottom line is that employees who don’t feel safe cannot hope to perform well at work, so management must prioritize and invest in robust health and safety protocols, equipment, and training.
  4. Involve employees in decision-making.
    According to a 2023 report, 65% of corporate leaders believe they are practicing effective communication, but only 35% of frontline workers agree. There is a clear disconnect here between management and the frontline. Start to bridge this gap by involving employees in decision-making processes, especially those that impact them directly. Employees who feel involved and in control of their own career path will develop a stronger sense of ownership over their work. You could also encourage participation in committees, task forces, or suggestion programs to make people feel heard and valued.
  5. Use digital tools to practice effective business crisis communication.
    Digital tools can help in resolving labor disputes and creating a more positive and productive working environment. A comprehensive digital platform can provide a centralized hub for real-time updates, announcements, and information dissemination, helping to minimize misunderstandings and keep everyone on the same page. Moreover, these platforms often include features like discussion forums and chat functionalities that allow employees to express their concerns and provide feedback, a two-way means to resolve issues before they escalate. Data analytics can help management assess employee sentiment, identify pain points, and make informed decisions based on employee morale.
  6. Put thought into professional development.
    Providing opportunities for skill development and career advancement can boost employee morale. When employees see an exciting, fulfilling future within your organization, they are less likely to consider striking. You could consider establishing mentorship programs to connect management and frontline employees — this can help break down barriers and foster understanding between different levels of the organization — or providing opportunities for skills-based training based on workers’ personal career goals.
  7. Ensure fair compensation.
    Pay gaps are a big culprit of the current labor strikes in 2023. In S&P 500 companies, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 186-to-1 in 2022, so you can understand why employees might feel hard done by. Making a commitment to fair compensation can go a long way toward calming the waters at work. Frontline employees, especially in a tough economic climate, seek financial stability for their families and fair recognition for their hard work. They will strike or quit if they perceive they’re being compensated unfairly or their pay isn’t competitive within the industry. Regular salary reviews and bonuses or incentives based on performance can address this need, as can clear, well-defined policies around pay.

The surge in strikes underscores the need for effective communication strategies pre- and post-conflict. Companies must bridge the gap with frontline employees, emphasizing transparent, empathetic communication and management visibility. Acknowledging and learning from strike-related challenges is crucial for fostering a collaborative and safe workplace.

The current labor strikes of 2023 are wreaking havoc across several countries and putting a strain relationship between management and employees, leaders will need to start prioritizing their businesses’ crisis communication. Thankfully, there are many ways of doing that and tools that can help.

Written by Merel van der Lei.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Journal - Uncovering the Catalysts: Why Labor Strikes Are Rocking So Many Industries Today
Merel van der Lei
Merel van der Lei is the CEO of Wyzetalk, a leading digital employee experience platform that enables communication and improves engagement for frontline and non-desk workers.

Merel van der Lei is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.