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Labor attorney weighs in on Johnson Controls strike

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York County workers for Johnson Controls Inc. have been on strike for nearly three weeks.
York County workers for Johnson Controls Inc. have been on strike for nearly three weeks. - (Photo / )

Large, heavily-publicized strikes by workers at manufacturing plants usually produce plenty of headlines – but the results can sometimes leave workers wondering if a strike is really the best option.

That’s according to a York attorney who specializes in labor and employment law.

The attorney, Christine Nentwig, is watching the current strike by members of UAW Local 1872 against Johnson Controls Inc. at Johnson Controls' South Richland Avenue facility near York.

Nentwig, a management-side labor and employment attorney with York-based CGA Law Firm, emphasized that strikes historically have been an effective tool used by workers to win rights in the workplace over the years.

But while she's not privy to the negotiations between Johnson Controls, which makes HVAC equipment for buildings, among other products, and the union, which has about 165 members at the Spring Garden Township facility, she said talking often leads these days to a better result for the union.

The strike at Johnson Controls began three weeks ago this coming Monday.

UAW Local 1872 is seeking a two-year contract for workers at the company's test facility and a three-year contract for those who work in manufacturing, Dave Stauch, Local 1872's president, told the York Daily Record newspaper. Johnson Controls has proposed a four-year contract and a five year-contract respectively, Stauch also told the newspaper.

Picketers at the JCI facility declined to discuss the strike with a Business Journal reporter, referring interview requests to Stauch. Efforts to reach the Local 1872 president and other union leaders in recent weeks have not been successful.

A Johnson Controls spokesman, Ryan Nolan, issued a pair of statements regarding the strike.

Late Friday afternoon, a statement said employees at the facility have rejected a tentative contract agreement Johnson Controls reached with a United Auto Workers bargaining committee.

"Our contract offer included a competitive wage and benefits package. We remain hopeful our employees will return to work. In the meantime, the plant remains open with no disruption to our customers," it said.

In an earlier statement, the company said, "This action has no impact on our other facilities, and we do not anticipate any negative effects on customers. We look forward to a quick resolution and getting employees back to work as quickly as possible."

Johnson Controls is in the process of opening a $162 million Applied Development & Engineering Center with 460 jobs in Hopewell Township, near Shrewsbury, it said.

The center is opening in two phases, with the first having opened early this year and the second in mid-2018, company officials have said, adding that they plan to continue with other operations at the Spring Garden Township facility.

An attorney's view

Two strikes in York County that people remember were at Caterpillar Inc.'s manufacturing site and at Harley-Davidson, both in Springettsbury Township. Following the strikes, the two companies saw a plant closure (at Caterpillar) and thousands of jobs lost.

"In both cases, the outcome was certainly not what the union or employees were hoping for," said Nentwig, who has more than 20 years of combined experience as a labor and employment attorney.

"While every situation is different, I have to believe that these local strikes and their outcomes have made workers really think about whether a strike is the best option, or whether continuing to bargain will be more effective – and for what it's worth, I think continuing to bargain is almost always the better option, since once there is a work stoppage, I think it leads everyone to become even more entrenched, and (it) often does long-term damage to the employer-employee relationship.

"Obviously, companies like Caterpillar, Harley and (Johnson Controls) are publicly traded companies that answer to shareholders. They also have the ability to shift work to other facilities.

"So if they are getting pressure from the workforce, feel they are being forced to make significant concessions in bargaining, or are going through the disruption and cost of a strike – this invariably impacts the profitability assessment of the facility, which can lead to a loss of production and even closure.

"So while (a) strike is a legal tool that unions can use to advance the interests of their members, in many cases it can end up having the opposite effect, which in most cases should encourage them to consider working harder to reach agreement through bargaining," she added.

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David O'Connor

David O'Connor

Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @DaveOC_CPBJ.

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