News & Events

The lockout: breaking the union, breaking the middle class

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
April/May 2012 Edition

By Tom Breslin
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

What do players from the National Basketball Association and the National Football League have in common with the employees of Sotheby’s Auctions, the New York City Opera, a country club in Southern California, tire workers in Ohio, and sugar beet processing workers in North Dakota and Minnesota?

At first glance, you would likely say nothing. After all, what could bind this seemingly disparate group of workers together? Their jobs are so dissimilar, and their incomes are wildly different.

Yet they do have at least one thing in common: their respective employers locked all of them out in the past year.

Lockout 101
The “lockout”—once almost unheard of—is a tactic used more frequently these days by managers as they pressure unions to concede during the bargaining process. It is, in many ways, equivalent to the employees’ right to strike. The message from management in a lockout situation is, “Don’t come back until you’re ready to accept my offer.”

Ironically, as the frequency of lockouts has increased, the frequency of strikes has declined considerably. The number of strikes is currently one-sixth of what it was 20 years ago. This is due to a number of factors, including the growth of public sector unions—where strikes are often prohibited—and the corresponding decline in private sector unions. Additionally, the state of today’s economy likely makes the prospect of a strike that much more intimidating for the typical unionized worker.

That has not stopped aggressive employers who view a decreased willingness to strike as the perfect opportunity to force contract concessions from unions, sometimes even in the face of healthy profits.

The living, breathing lockout
One of the strongest examples of a current-day lockout is the plight of 1,300 workers at American Crystal Sugar Company. These dedicated, long-term employees were locked out of five plants in the upper Midwest after contract talks bogged down over the employer’s demands related to health insurance costs and sub-contracting. These workers have been out since August 2011 and there is no sign of a return to work in the near future.

Similarly, workers at several Cooper Tire plants were locked out for 13 weeks before accepting a contract proposal in late February. The new agreement calls for, among other concessions, a multi-tiered wage plan and the possibility of bringing in “student workers” at a flat wage rate with no benefits.

In health care, we have seen numerous employers lock out registered nurses for three or more days following one-day strikes. This is because the employer (i.e., the hospital) hires “temporary nurses” (i.e., scabs) via hiring agencies that require scabs work a minimum number of days. So if scabs are already paid to work, why let the union nurses return?

Some on the management side think they should take the offensive and try to force unions into concessions at a time when unionized workers are unlikely to take to the picket line. Add to that the fact that striking workers perceive that they get little support from political allies and the public, which greatly contributes to today’s atmosphere of “be lucky you have a job at all.”

And so concessions ensue … on issues like health insurance, multi-tiered wage scales, the elimination of defined benefit pension plans, and other benefits unions worked hard for over the years.

The real point here is that this new wave of employer lockouts is just another weapon used against workers and their unions. This is simply the most recent step taken by employers to seize the momentum and try to break unions.

Breaking the union
Recall last year’s all-out assault on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states across the country. Since then, 40 states, including Massachusetts, have had legislation introduced to limit—or eliminate—collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Many believe that the driving force behind the current wave of anti-union legislation and the related tactics, like the increased use of lockouts, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by the infamous Koch brothers (the billionaire oil magnates and Tea Party funders). ALEC has produced anti-union state-level legislation that uses a take-no-prisoners approach to breaking unions. As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stated at a recent ALEC meeting at an exclusive resort in Arizona, “… compromising with unions is bogus.” ALEC is attempting to put the goals of corporate America ahead of the public and, frankly, it is succeeding.

This approach is not limited to the U.S. Even in countries where a larger percentage of the workforce is unionized and where attitudes toward unions are more favorable, lockouts have become more frequent.

  • In Canada, Rio Tinto Alcan locked out 800 workers in Quebec. The multi-national Rio Tinto, whose assets have been valued at $80 billion and whose profits in 2010 totaled $14 billion, owns Alcan.
  • Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of heavy equipment, has locked out Canadian auto workers in Ontario. Caterpillar’s profits last year increased 44 percent. Yet it is calling for wage cuts of up to 50 percent, the elimination of a defined benefit pension plan and cuts to other core benefits.
  • Employer lockouts have become so common in Australia that the government is considering amending its labor relations statutes to address the issue.

Fighting back
So, in the face of employer lockouts and general attacks on unions in both the public and private sector, what do we do?

I believe that MNA members need to respond on a number of levels. Organizationally, we continue to do what we have done in the past:

  • Continue to push the agenda of registered nurses and health care professionals
  • Aggressively advocate for patients
  • Continue to be the voice of health care in the commonwealth

On a larger scale, we need to advocate for all workers who need our help. We need to support striking workers—as we did for the Verizon workers last summer—and those who face increased hostility from employers. We also need to push a new national agenda that elevates the needs of everyday citizens above those of wealthy corporations and their boards of directors. The damage they have done to the economy needs to be reversed and those responsible need to be held accountable.

In short, the principles and goals of the NNU/MNA’s “Main Street Contract” need to be pushed to ensure that the middle class, now on the verge of extinction, can survive and thrive.

Tony St. Michel, one of the locked out workers from Crystal Sugar, recently talked about how he had been able to support a wife and three children with his wages and benefits. “We didn’t live like kings, but we could afford what we needed, had good health care, good education for the kids,” he said. “If you kill the union and put an end to that, you put the whole (Red River) valley down the tubes.”

If the Crystal Sugar Company can put the Red River Valley down the tubes, is it a stretch to think that ALEC, Fortune 500 boards of directors and their Wall Street allies with their anti-union agenda can put the entire American middle class down the tubes? It is not a stretch at all.

How will we, the 99 percent, respond?