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NLRB Ruling Boosts Greyhound Strikers : Labor: Decision undermines company's tactic of hiring strikebreakers. Drivers will likely offer to return to work and continue negotiations.

May 16, 1990|BOB BAKER | TIMES LABOR WRITER

The National Labor Relations Board's decision to file a complaint classifying the 11-week Greyhound bus strike as an unfair-labor-practices dispute, rather than simply a strike over wages, is a crucial strategic victory for the company's 9,000 strikers.

However, it remained unclear Tuesday whether the labor board's decision--announced in Washington on Monday by the agency's general counsel--will hasten settlement of the stalemated strike. Greyhound officials said they will appeal the NLRB complaint before an administrative law judge and, if necessary, in the federal courts.

The NLRB decision clearly undermines Greyhound's primary tactic of permanently replacing strikers with strikebreakers, a practice that is increasingly common in American industrial relations but has rarely been attempted on so large a scale.

Federal labor law gives special protection to workers who are found to have struck in protest of employer negotiating practices, as opposed to wages and benefits. The law guarantees that these workers can return to their jobs when the strike ends.

The NLRB decision also creates a new financial risk for Greyhound, which recently reported losses of $56 million in the first quarter of 1990 and may have to file for protection from creditors under federal bankruptcy laws if it cannot renegotiate its loan payment schedule.

"It clearly shifts the momentum from the employer to the union," said Charles Craypo, a Notre Dame University collective bargaining expert.

"I'm really elated," said Edward M. Strait, president of the Amalgamated Council of Greyhound Locals, which represents the striking drivers and office and maintenance workers.

"We weren't exactly ecstatic," said Greyhound spokesman George Graveley.

The first impact of the complaint--which alleges that Greyhound unilaterally implemented contract changes last March before negotiations formally reached an impasse--could come as early as next week. The union is likely to offer to return to work under the terms of its old contract while bargaining continues, Strait said.

That offer is intended to exploit the additional protection now afforded the Greyhound strikers.

Federal labor law says that when workers in an unfair-labor-practices case offer to return to work, the employer must give them back their jobs. Greyhound, which has hired 2,700 replacement drivers and eliminated 2,000 other driving jobs, has in past weeks contended that only a few hundred positions remain for strikers who want to come back.

Greyhound would have to make a difficult choice: take the drivers back and fire the replacements, or refuse the union's offer, figuring that it could overturn the unfair-labor-practices complaint on appeal.

The risk to Greyhound in refusing the union's offer is financial. If the NLRB complaint were upheld, Greyhound would be liable to pay back wages to strikers from the time that they first offered to return to work. That could cost Greyhound more than $10 million a month.

Greyhound workers, whose wages had been cut substantially in two previous contracts, struck on March 2 after the company turned down a union proposal it deemed too expensive. Greyhound said it wanted to tie an increase in the drivers' per-mile wages to increased company profits.

Greyhound claims to be running most of its routes now and says revenues are 65% to 75% of pre-strike levels. However, because of strike-related losses, the company missed a $5-million lease payment April 30, and a $9.8-million interest payment on some loans. Because of the missed interest payment, Standard & Poor's Corp. downgraded its investment rating on some of Greyhound's "senior notes."

Greyhound late last month initiated a series of meetings with lenders, creditors and suppliers aimed at restructuring credit agreements and extending payments on both its publicly held debt and bills owed to suppliers. The company also laid off 170 of its headquarters and administrative employees in Dallas.

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