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Is it legal to fire striking workers?

The weakening of the American union has made labor strikes less common than they once were -- but they do still happen. Amazon warehouse employees, for example, recently staged a brief walkout in protest over what they said were unsafe working conditions. They were urging Amazon's leadership to shut a Staten Island warehouse down and clean it after one of the employees became sick with a highly contagious disease that they feared could infect others.

It didn't take long for Amazon to respond -- but it wasn't in the way that workers had hoped. Instead of agreeing to their demands, Amazon promptly fired the employee who led the walkout.

How is that legal? Typically, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects the rights of employees to mount a lawful work strike. It prohibits employers from firing striking workers simply for exercising their legal rights.

It's important to note, however, that only legal strikes are protected. A strike can be illegal when:

  • The strike is violent or destructive.
  • Striking workers prevent customers and other workers from entering the building.
  • The employees have a no-strike clause in their contracts or work agreements.
  • The strike is trying to force an employer to do something illegal or unfair (like firing all the nonunion employees).

Striking employees also have to obey other lawful company policies to remain protected. In the case of the Amazon employee, for example, Amazon justified its action by claiming that the fired employee was in repeat violation of a "stay-at-home" order that was already in place to protect other employees from potential harm. If true, the company may be able to justify their actions.

It's wise to know your rights -- and your limitations -- before you participate in a strike. If you face retaliation after a legal strike, however, it may be time to seek legal representation.

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