Why So Many Lockouts? Means, Motive, and Opportunity

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It has been an eventful year in labor relations: attacks on the NLRB, controversial ballot initiatives, strikes at Hostess and elsewhere, and, most recently, an attempt to push through controversial right-to-work legislation in Michigan. But to me, the most striking trend (sorry for the pun) is the continued heightened use of lockouts. A lockout is an employer-initiated work stoppage that stems from a failure to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. Unlike a strike, locked out workers cannot be permanently replaced so they are entitled to their jobs when the lockout ends. Being able to use permanent strike replacements had been seen as a major employer advantage, so why the increase in lockouts? It comes to down to means, motive, and opportunity.

At first glance, the ongoing and recent lockouts might look dissimilar--professional football referees, professional hockey players, orchestra musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and elsewhere, and sugar-processing workers from American Crystal Sugar. But dig deeper and we can see that in all of these cases, employers are particularly vulnerable at particular points in time--the playoffs in the professional sports, the concert season for orchestras, harvesting time for sugar beets. Rather than being caught in a strike at an especially vulnerable time--as happened to the baseball owners in 1994 when the lucrative World Series was cancelled--employers are using lockouts to preempt strikes and control the timing of when a work stoppage occurs.

I think this is an important motivation, but by itself, timing cannot explain the sharp increase in lockout activity over the past two years or so because the same was true 5, 10, and 25 years ago. So what's different now? For starters, the global financial crisis. This provides both motive and opportunity. Motive in that employers perceive intense competitive pressure. But again, this is hard to fully accept in many cases--the labor costs of football referees are probably the size of rounding error in the financial statements of the nearly $10 billion a year business of the NFL, and the NHL owners and players face little competition except each other.

So this brings us to opportunity and means. The global financial crisis and the anti-labor / anti-worker political environment provides a ripe opportunity for employers to wrest concessions from their workers. And increased publicity around lockouts has highlighted lockouts as a viable means of pursuing these concessions. In the 1980s, Phelps Dodge demonstrated that it was possible to win a long strike using permanent strike replacements, and many companies followed suit as awareness of this tactic spread. I believe we are witnessing the same thing today with lockouts. Other lockouts have revealed this as a means that other companies can try for themselves.

Unfortunately, this trend is clearly not good for workers, and it's questionable at best for employers--the NHL might very well lose an entire season and with it, many fans, while profits at American Crystal Sugar are down by nearly 30 percent. Hopefully 2013 will bring an end to these lockouts, and a renewed attempt at crafting more productive labor relations strategies. For that, there should always be means, motive, and opportunity.

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Whither Work? is a blog about work created by John Budd. I am a professor of Work and Organizations in the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and the author of several books including The Thought of Work. Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWBudd.