Suppose, just suppose that working conditions in your place of employment have deteriorated to such a state that they have become almost unbearable? Depending on your line of work, there could be a myriad of underlying reasons for this unfortunate situation.

Maybe it’s something to do with sanitary conditions, maybe it’s an unsafe working environment, maybe it’s the long hours for little pay, or maybe, just maybe, it’s management calling for a reduction in salary or benefits or other concessions on behalf of the workers for the “good” of the company.

Now let’s suppose that you belong to a labor union and that you or your representatives have taken your gripes and complaints to the powers that be and held what seems like endless arbitration meetings in order to reach some kind of compromise. For whatever reason, your demands can’t be met and your reasons for stating them seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe they are, in fact, unreasonable and would bankrupt the hands that feeds you or maybe it’s just management wanting to maintain the status quo.

In a last ditch effort before calling for a full blown strike, many unions have staged a more informal process as a way to get managements attention. It’s called a “sick out”.

A sick out entails workers in large numbers simultaneously calling in sick on short notice and disrupting the daily goings on of the company. It usually occurs during peak times of business as to cause as much disruption as possible.

There are many purposes behind workers staging a sick out but two main points come to mind. First of all it’s a sign of solidarity amongst the workers and a warning to management that they should take their complaints seriously and also for management to get a glimpse of the ramifications of a long term strike.

Secondly, by staging a sick out, the workers don’t have to admit to their bosses that they been involved in a union action. Unlike a traditional strike, sick outs usually last only a day or two. Upon the workers return, they have little excuse to offer other than that they were “sick”. It’s up to management connect the dots and to see where they might lead.

There have been many sick outs staged over the years and although the union leaders and their members will almost certainly deny it was an organized action, it’s usually quite transparent to a casual observer.

The most recent one to make the news came over the Christmas holidays when workers for US Airways called in sick en masse. Approximately 540 of them including baggage handlers and ticket agents dialed in and the result was chaos for thousands and thousands of travelers. Combined that situation with weather problems and you have the makings of many, many disgruntled customers.

There’s probably a whole school of debate over whether staging such an action is effective. In the long run, I think it’s a question of whether or not the customers who are most likely to be affected by a sick out are more sympathetic to your cause or that the inconvenience they experienced will cause them to seek others who can provide the same service.

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