OPINION | The Lockout: Management’s latest weapon


Music-loving and hockey-loving Minnesotans find themselves holding tickets to non-events these days. The management of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, along with the management of the National Hockey League, have joined the management of the American Crystal Sugar Company in Moorhead in locking out their employees. What in the world is going on? We Minnesotans suddenly have front row seats to the unfolding drama of 21st century labor-management relations.

We might not appreciate or enjoy this drama, but a brief history lesson can – hopefully – help us learn from it.

Almost thirty five years ago Doug Fraser, then the President of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW), decried the initial volley in a “one-sided class war.” He was upset that Chrysler’s management, which had turned to the federal government for a bail-out, was demanding that its workers grant major wage, benefit, and work-rule concessions. His ire was further stoked by Congress’ failure, despite Democratic control of both houses and the White House, to pass legislation to strengthen the fraying National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

By the time Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter’s effort to win a second term and the Republicans swept to control of the Congress, the NLRA seemed headed to history’s dustbin and Chrysler workers had accepted reductions in wages and benefits, more “flexible” work rules and job descriptions, and the creation of a “second tier” of newly hired employees, women and men who would do the same work as those already employed but would never earn the same compensation.

The “one-sided class war” unfolded with stunning rapidity. In the summer of 1981, Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers (PATCO) who had gone on strike. He argued that, as federal public employees whose work was critical to public safety, they did not have a right to strike. When they refused to return to work, they were fired and replaced.

Four years later, here in Minnesota, Hormel “permanently replaced” more than 1500 meat-packing workers who had struck against management’s demand that they accept a 23% wage cut and major changes in work rules. Hormel also fired hundreds of workers at the Nebraska and Iowa plants who had honored the Austin strikers’ picket lines. Over the next decade, Chicago and Detroit newspaper workers, from printing pressmen to journalists, TWA flight attendants, papermaking workers from Maine to Wisconsin, Caterpillar manufacturing workers and corn syrup processing workers at A.E. Staley in Peoria and Decatur found that going on strike was tantamount to pinning a sign on their backs reading “REPLACE ME!”

As the U.S. government, corporations and other key participants in the global economy abandoned Keynesianism for “neoliberalism,” in which cheapening all costs – raw materials, energy, taxes, regulations, and, especially, labor – became the central focus, employers and their consultants sought to sweep unions out of their way. One powerful weapon they employed was the little used 1938 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as “Mackay Radio: an employer, in an “economic strike,” could hire strikebreakers and keep them on after the strike was over.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the number of large strikes (defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as involving more than 1,000 workers) plummeted, as did the unionized percentage of the workforce. In 1980, there were 187 large strikes, but only 44 in 1990, 39 in 2000, and 11 in 2010. The percentage of the non-agricultural workforce in unions fell from 23% in 1980 to 15% in 1990, 13% in 2000, and little more than 10% in 2010. Although labor productivity more than doubled over this same period, wages for all wage-earning workers, union and non-union alike, fell in real dollars. Here, in the ever-deepening weakness of unions, lay the roots for the growing inequality in the United States, whose consequences were so starkly revealed in the “Great Recession” which began in 2007 and continues to this day.

But even this heightened inequality – now the most extreme of any advanced industrial country in the world – has not satisfied the contemporary barons of industry and their legal and financial minions. Whether they are driven by greed or need, they continue to promote the neoliberal agenda of cheapening all costs, particularly labor costs. In the public sector, as we saw in Wisconsin and an increasing number of states, this has meant demands for wage and benefit cuts, workforce reductions, workload increases, and, ultimately, an attack on public sector workers’ very rights to collective bargaining and union representation.

In the private sector, we have seen increased calls for “right to work” laws (22 states already have them), which would diminish union power even more than it is already, a ballot initiative in California which would ban unions from using members’ dues for political purposes, and, across the country, the locking out of unionized workers so that management can impose new terms of employment.

In the past two years, management lockouts have taken place in a wide range of industries. They seem particularly attractive to the big bosses in sports and entertainment, who have used them against players in the National Basketball Association (2011-2012) and the National Hockey League (2012-2013), and referees in the National Football League (2012), and against professional musicians in the Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Louisville symphonies. When Sotheby’s Auction House in New York City locked out its art handlers, the workers responded – effectively – with the creative tactic of dressing up as bidders and making speeches about labor justice in the midst of auctions.

With much less public fanfare, the management of Super Mom’s bakeries here in the Twin Cities locked out its twenty-two unionized drivers for a week in late August; the two sides reached a quick settlement. In New York City, ConEd’s four week lockout of 8500 workers ended in late July due to the intervention of Governor Cuomo and the fear of impending summer thunderstorms. While lockouts do not allow management to threaten to permanently replace workers, their greater resources have typically enabled them to outlast and pressure their employees to accept sweeping concessions in wages, benefits, and work rules.

Management has placed changes of such order on the table in Minnesota’s on-going lockouts. In the National Hockey League, management has demanded that players not only accept a smaller share of revenues and term limits on contracts, but that they give up salary arbitration and change the rules which govern access to free agency. This would radically circumscribe players’ rights within professional hockey.

At American Crystal Sugar in northwestern Minnesota, management has demanded their 1300 workers absorb a substantial share of their health benefits cost, allow management to make work assignments without respect for workers’ seniority, and allow management to hire temporary and contract workers whenever and for whatever work assignments they want. Workers have said that these changes would amount to yielding any voice in the workplace and any job security. Three times workers have voted overwhelmingly to reject the contract proposal, the last time after fifteen months of being locked out, without a pay check and, now, for many, without the unemployment benefits they had been able to collect for awhile. Still, at a margin of 80-90%, the workers have refused to accept management’s draconian terms.

Management at the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has made similarly sweeping demands – pay cuts of 30% or more and reductions in the size of the orchestra. Insisting that giving in to such demands would allow a radical deterioration in the quality of the music performed, as some orchestra members would abandon our community for other opportunities and the overall richness and complexity of the sound would be diminished with a smaller orchestra, the musicians on both sides of the Mississippi River have held firm. Management has refused the musicians’ requests to examine the organizations’ finances and their offers to continue to perform under the terms of the old contract while they continue to negotiate. Instead, they have locked the musicians out and canceled a number of concerts.

The sugar workers and the musicians are taking their cases to the public, with increased creativity and determination. The national AFL-CIO has declared a nationwide boycott of American Crystal Sugar and all its products. In only two weeks, more than 40,000 individuals signed on electronically to support that boycott. Those of us who remember the grape and lettuce boycotts which supported the United Farm Workers’ Union in the 1970s recall the lively and productive conversations that leafleters and picketers had with consumers outside super markets.

Like the Occupy movement of last year, such conversations could impact the national dialogue about economic inequality and the ways to raise – together – the fortunes of the “99%.” Meanwhile, the Minnesota Orchestra and SPCO musicians are holding free community concerts, out of doors, in parks, and in new spaces (the Macalester College athletic fieldhouse was recently one), reaching not only their established audience but connecting with a wider public with beautifully performed music and ideas about unions and economic justice. Unionized workers’ responses to these challenges might not only benefit them, but might also raise the awareness of working women and men who have been sliding backwards economically for far too long.

We just might jump out of our front row seats and on to the stage itself – and make history as well as learn from it.

Peter Rachleff is a professor of History at Macalester College, and Minnesota 2020 contributor.