Wildcat strike – definition and meaning

A wildcat strike, sometimes known as a wildcat strike action, a quickie strike, or an outlaw strike, is a sudden, unexpected strike in which there is no warning by the striking workers and no official support by the union leadership. It is an unannounced illegal (in most cases) industrial stoppage by a section of unionized workers in which there has been no following of the proper procedure for going on strike.

In most countries, the employer can legally dismiss the workers involved in a wildcat strike, and sometimes even sue their trade union for damages.

The main difference between a regular strike and a wildcat strike is that the former is legal while the latter is usually not. If the trade union calls for a strike, and the procedures leading to it have adhered to labor or employment legislation, it is a legal action.

Wildcat StrikeA wildcat strike is a strike undertaken by workers without the union leadership’s support, authorization, or approval. The strike is unexpected and – in most cases –  illegal. People involved in such strikes risk losing their jobs.

According to FindLaw.ca:

“A wildcat strike is a strike by workers that has not been approved by their union. It may be started while a union contract is still valid or even while the union is negotiating for benefits for workers.”

“The latter is problematic as it can catch union managers off-guard and cause problems with the negotiating process between the union and the employer.”

Why participate in a wildcat strike?

As wildcat strikes are technically illegal, most workers try to avoid them. You may wonder why any worker in his or her right mind would choose to become involved in an illegal activity that could result in dismissal.

Wildcat strikes are usually done in desperation, especially when the workers feel that neither their employers their union are listening to their complaint.

Some workers may agree to take part in a very short, unannounced wildcat strike when the intention is to make a point. Perhaps, for example, both the employer and the union are ignoring some serious safety issues.

Sometimes union recognition of a strike is complicated. In the year-long 1984-1985 British miners’ strike, the national executive supported the strike, however, many council areas regarded the industrial stoppage as unofficial. As most ballots at area level showed that the majority of voters were against the strike, no ballot was ever taken at a nationwide level.

Adrienne Rich - Wildcat Strike quoteAdrienne Cecile Rich (1929–2012) was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She is credited with bringing the oppression of women and lesbians in the latter half of the 20th century to the forefront of poetic discourse. (Image: adapted from Wikipedia)

Wildcat strike legislation in the US

In the United States, wildcat strikes have been considered illegal since 1935. Trade unions have the power to bargain collectively on behalf of their worker-members and call for strike action demanding concessions from employers.

Under the 1935 NLRA (National Labor Relations Act), federal courts have ruled that wildcat strikes are illegal, and that employers have the right to dismiss workers who participate in them.

American workers can, however, formerly request that the National Labor Relations Board sever their association with their trade union, if they believe that the union is not properly representing their interests.

If those workers – the ones who have ended their association with their union – go on a wildcat strike, it cannot be deemed an illegal action.

Wildcat strike legislation in the UK

Wildcate strikes have been illegal in the UK since the early 1980s. UK-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) says that wildcat strikes in Britain are technically illegal.

Any British worker who participates in such a strike loses the protection of the law and his or her employment contract.

IWW adds that this does not mean that a wildcat striker will be automatically fired, since this is done at the discretion of the employer.

IWW writes:

“There have been many instances of wildcat strikes being effective and getting changes made very fast. This is a tactical decision that only you and your fellow workers can make.”

Wildcat strike legislation in the Canada

In Canada, wildcat strikes are illegal. In March 2012, ground employees working for Air Canada suddenly and unexpectedly walked off the job – went on a wildcat strike – at Toronto Pearson International Airport. On March 23rd, more than eighty-four flights were cancelled, while another eighty were delayed.

The ground staff walked out after three workers had been suspended for heckling Lisa Raitt, Canada’s Labour Minister.

Following this incident, Air Canada experienced several industrial relations problems with its unions.

Regarding that wildcat strike, the Labour Minister’s office wrote: “Employees could face fines of up to $1,000 a day and the union could face fines of up to $100,000 a day.”

Video – Wildcat Strike Air Canada

This Global News video reported on the Air Canada wildcat strike that caused chaos for travelers at the country’s largest airport in March, 2012.