Everyone seems to know about employer lockouts in the National Football League (and, now that the union referees have been allowed to resume officiating games, attention has turned to the National Hockey League). But Steven Greenhouse warned back in January about a more general upsurge in employer lockouts.
America’s unionized workers, buffeted by layoffs and stagnating wages, face another phenomenon that is increasingly throwing them on the defensive: lockouts.
From the Cooper Tire factory in Findlay, Ohio, to a country club in Southern California and sugar beet processing plants in North Dakota, employers are turning to lockouts to press their unionized workers to grant concessions after contract negotiations deadlock. . .
“This is a sign of increased employer militancy,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard of. Now, not only are employers increasingly on the offensive and trying to call the shots in bargaining, but they’re backing that up with action — in the form of lockouts.”
The number of major work stoppages has, in fact, increased in the past few years.
However, since the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not distinguish between worker-initiated strikes and employer lockouts, the overall number masks a fundamental change: while the number of strikes has declined to just one-sixth the annual level of two decades ago, lockouts have grown to represent a record percentage of the nation’s work stoppages.
Dave Jamieson explains,
In one high-profile case, more than 1,000 workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union have been locked out of their jobs with sugar beet processor American Crystal Sugar for over a year in North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. Members of Congress have finally weighed in, trying to pressure the company to come to the table and put union members back to work.
A lockout is different from a strike. In a lockout, the workers do not choose to walk off the job in protest. Instead, they are forced off the job by management as a negotiating tactic. Deprived of a paycheck, workers are more likely to scale back their demands or accept concessions at the bargaining table, management believes.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said lockouts have historically been used by companies going “on the offensive,” trying to leverage hard economic times or workplace trends.
“In general, it’s safe to say lockouts take place more frequently when management has the upper hand,” Lichtenstein said. “There are a lot of lockouts when wages or conditions are stagnant or going down and management thinks they can do more of that.”
I wonder if the public’s criticisms of the NFL lockout will generate support for all the workers who are being locked out in the midst of the Second Great Depression by increasingly militant employers.