OPINION | Lock-outs: Employers abandon good faith collective bargaining

The new year began with continuing lock-outs for American Crystal Sugar workers, for musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and for the players of the National Hockey League.

The four-month NHL lock-out came to an end January 12.

But for workers at American Crystal Sugar — members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union — their employer now has locked them out for 17 months, since August 1, 2011.

Can you imagine how you and your family would survive 17 months locked-out from your job?

Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra — members of the Twin Cities Musicians Union — have been locked-out since October 1, 2012, three months and counting.

What are these lock-outs all about?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps both strikes and lock-outs together as “work stoppages.” But as you may know, strikes and lock-outs are fundamentally different.

In a strike, workers decide to withhold their labor from their employer.

In a lock-out, employers decide to deny workers the opportunity to work.

This distinction is lost to many members of the public, for whom the sight of workers with picket signs means only one thing: workers on strike.

Indeed, if you’ve been talking with friends and family in recent months, you probably needed to correct them if they referred to the Crystal Sugar or Twin Cities orchestra labor disputes as “strikes.”

National news media reporting on the American Crystal Sugar lock-out have noted that the number of lock-outs in the U.S. have been rising, while the number of strikes have been declining. 2011 saw 17 lockouts nationwide.

The increased use of lock-outs by employers nationwide and here in Minnesota sets dangerous precedents.

In a lock-out, the employer has chosen to abandon a good faith effort at collective bargaining to settle a new union contract. The employer in a lock-out is saying, “it’s my way or the highway.”

I fear that lock-outs may become the new tool of choice when employers nowadays already can use every anti-union tactic in their toolbox with little repercussion from the National Labor Relations Board or state or local officials.

For employers, the lock-out gives them the power to decide if, when, and how long workers and their families will suffer. In a lock-out, the employer says “you come to my terms or you stay out of work.”

Tbe locked-out workers aren’t the only ones affected. They can’t pay their mortgages. They cut back on buying groceries and other goods and services. Families and children lose their health insurance. A lock-out impacts the entire community.

In the case of the Minnesota Orchestra lock-out, two community leaders who serve on the orchestra board are its chair, Jon R. Campbell, who is an executive at Wells Fargo Bank, and Richard K. Davis, CEO of U.S. Bancorp, who is leading the negotiations with the Musicians Union.

These two men, pillars of the community, serve on numerous charitable boards and yet are deliberately hurting the community where they live and work by denying workers the ability to make a living.

As the Labor Review went to press, the Commerce Committee in the Minnesota House planned a public hearing January 23 on the recent and ongoing lock-outs in Minnesota. Let’s work with the legislature to devise protections for workers experiencing a lock-out. Let’s also find ways to hold employers accountable for the impacts a lock-out imposes on workers, communities, and the state.

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Lockouts

Mr. McCarthy,

As president of the MN Regional Labor Federation - AFL-CIO, your position about the differences between strikes and lockouts may be biased.

 Your contention that there is  moral difference, or even  practical difference is disingenuous at best.   In every business relationship there are multiple constituents, including employees, management, customers, investors, suppliers, not to mention indirect constituents (families of these people, community groups, etc.).  Generally speaking, each of these direct constituents has the right to decide whether, or not, to  make their services or opportunities available to the others, to what extent they will be available and on what terms.  In the case of unions, the group negotiates a contract with the employer.  The contract has specific terms for working conditions and a well defined and public end date to the contract.  In your essay you say: 

 "In a strike, workers decide to withhold their labor from their employer"    and

 "In a lock-out, employers decide to deny workers the opportunity to work."

 You then add "In a lock-out, the employer has chosen to abandon a good faith effort at collective bargaining to settle a new union contract. The employer in a lock-out is saying, “it’s my way or the highway.”

 How do you make the jump that the employer has abandoned "good faith" yet striking workers have not.  Good Faith, especially in the realm of labor negotiations, means that each party has to meet and negotiate at reasonable times with willingness to reach agreement on matters within the scope of representation.  It does not mean that either party is required to make a particular concession or agree to any proposal.  And, in the real world it means that either side can decide to take a position the other won't agree to.  If that happens it is not a breach of good faith, it is simply a situation in which a group, employer or union, disagree on where a line should be drawn.

 While you are clearly coming from the union side, can you explain why only the union should be allowed to withhold their services?  You already have the force of law on your side.  among other things, you can walk off the job for any reason and the employer can not hire permanent replacements.  You can also call on unrelated worker groups to join your strike in support of your goals.  Other than tilting the table even more in your favor,  how does impinging the rights of other constituents seem like a rational position for the rest of us to support?

Clarification

D. Harris,


While you make fine and correct arguments here, one point does require clarification. While in certain types of strikes (over working conditions) permanent replacement workers cannot be hired, in economic strikes federal law does allow the hiring of permanent replacement workers.


In addition, many union workers cannot just walk off their jobs at any time and be protected in doing so since contracts often will contain a No Strike clause if management has been smart about it in the bargaining process.


But your points on how unbalanced the article is in its union bias regarding lockouts as horribly unfair while strikes are are down right righteous are right dead on.

Employee Choices

A locked-out employee is hardly the helpless victim as portrayed by this article. They have choices as well. Specifically:


1: Get over your union pride, vote to accept the contract and return to work as protected by federal law. Permanent replacement workers cannot be hired during a lockout and union workers get their jobs back when they accept the final contract offer no matter how long it takes.


2: Quit the union and cross the picket line to work during the lockout. Americal Crystal Sugar is paying its replacement workers what they offered the union workers and the current replacement workers are happy to work under those terms. Perhaps the union has been somewhat unreasonable here under 21st century realities and there's nobody else in the union left to return to your job afterwards so you stay employed after the lockout ends.


3: Get a job somewhere else. Nobody every said that your union job at the sugar mill was the only job in the world. Get off your duff and go find something better. If you can't, then maybe that final contract offer wasn't so bad at after all.


Locked out workers are only helpless victims as long as they insist on seeing themselves as such.