Sympathy Strike Law and Legal Definition

A sympathy strike is when one union strikes in support for another involved in a dispute, even though the first union has no disagreement with the employer. It is a labor strike that started by workers in one industry and supported by workers in a separate but related industry.

Some courts have held that a sympathy strike or walkout is not in violation of a no strike clause in an employment contract. A refusal to work by one worker or group of workers to support the efforts of another group of strikers is a sympathy strike. Honoring a picket line is the most common form of sympathy strike. A worker who honors a picket line at his or her primary place of employment has the same rights as the pickets.

Some legal considerations include:

  • A worker who honors an illegal picket line is engaged in unprotected activity and may be subject to discipline by the employer.
  • Workers who honor legal primary pickets at their place of employment may be replaced but not disciplined. A worker who honors a primary, economic picket may be permanently replaced.
  • The rights of workers who honor "stranger" picket lines are not as clearly defined. Refusal to cross a legal picket line at a facility other than that of the worker is recognized as protected activity by the Board and courts.
  • Disciplining a worker in retaliation for honoring a stranger picket line is an unfair labor practice. However, disciplinary action against a stranger sympathy striker may be upheld if the employer establishes a legitimate or compelling business justification for taking such disciplinary action.
  • Workers covered by the Taft-Hartley Act who honor a picket line of exempted workers are engaged in unprotected activity.
  • The right of railroad workers to honor a picket line is regulated by the Railway Labor Act, not Taft-Hartley.

In an important decision, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 1985 that the right to engage in a sympathy strike can be waived by a general no-strike clause in a collective bargaining agreement. After the Board's position was rejected by the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Board adopted a case-by-case test requiring a more specific analysis of the no-strike clause, its relationship to the contractual arbitration clause, and the past practices of the parties to determine whether the no-strike clause protects or prohibits sympathy strikes.