The Employer Strikes Back

Becki Jacobson, 48, has worked as a process technician at American Crystal Sugar Company in Minnesota since she was 18. Eight months ago, she showed up for work, but the company refused to let her start her shift. 

Like 1,300 other members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco & Grain Millers union (BCTGM) at American Crystal Sugar, Jacobson wasn’t fired.  She was locked out.  Crystal Sugar is wielding a powerful weapon against its workers: Its right to deny them work for refusing a worse contract after their existing one expired. Jacobson and her co-workers are left with a choice. They can hold out while non-union workers do their jobs, make huge concessions, or dissolve the union.

When union negotiations began last May, the beet-processing company asked for major concessions on health-care benefits. They also proposed getting rid of outsourcing protections. Crystal took a hard line. “Every time we went to negotiate,” says Jacobson, “the company refused our proposals and kept going back to their first and final offer.”  In July, workers voted to reject the proposed contract by a vote of over 96 percent.  The same month, Crystal made employees train non-union workers in how to do their jobs.  The day after their union contract expired, the company told its union workers not to work.

A lockout is like an Ayn Rand fantasy for managers: Rather than let workers strike, companies stop letting them come to work.  But business often continues with non-unionized replacement workers.  By law, management can’t permanently replace the workers it has locked out.  But when a union contract expires, your boss can demand huge concessions and then lock you out without pay until you accept them. While strikes are in decline in the United States, lockouts are on the rise.  There were at least 17 last year.

Clark University Professor Gary Chaison says that the increase in lockouts shows “the extent to which employers have taken a stance of not just doing well in bargaining, but getting rid of the union in bargaining.”  Chaison says that even threatening a lockout is “usually enough to get [unions] to agree to far more in bargaining than they would.”    

Five months into the Crystal Sugar lockout, BCTGM offered the company major concessions. Jacobson says her union’s proposed concessions totaled $30 million and included accepting the worse healthcare plan the company had demanded. Local union president John Riskey told the AP that the proposal “went farther than what our members really wanted to.” But Crystal Sugar called the offer a “publicity stunt” and refused to settle a contract or end the lockout.

“They plainly want to break the union,” says Jacobson.  “There’s no other reason.  We made record profits for that company for the last five years.” She cites an audio recording in which Crystal Sugar CEO Dave Berg, at a November shareholder conference, compares the union contract to a friend’s cancer tumor.  “We have to treat the disease,” said Berg, “and that’s what we’re doing here.”  Three months into the lockout, Berg told shareholders that he and other company executives “mapped this out a long time ago … At some point that tumor’s got to come out.  That’s what we’re doing.”

In February, locked out workers from Crystal Sugar teamed up with employees of Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, who had also been locked out, for a thousand-mile bus trip from Fargo, North Dakota to Findley, Ohio.  This “Journey for Justice” was organized by the BCTGM and the United Steelworkers (USW) as an attempt to embarrass both employers and draw attention to the workers’ increasingly common predicament.

Midway through the “Journey for Justice,” Cooper Tire workers reached an agreement with management, allowing employees to to return to work under a new contract.  Members ratified the contract by a 2-to-1 vote. But it came at a steep price.  The new contract maintains a two-tier wage system, shifts more health-care costs to employees, and replaces defined-benefit pensions with 401(k)s for workers hired since 2009. Linda Jones, one of the Cooper Tire workers on the Fargo to Findley trip, told In These Times that she would vote against it the deal.  “It hurts the young people.  It’s a great contract for me, but it’s bad for the other workers.”

USW Local 207L President Rodney Nelson says the union “accomplished a lot” relative to what management had sought, but acknowledges the agreement offered more concessions than union members would have liked. “The contract keeps us divided,” he says.    

The Crystal Sugar lockout is still ongoing, but both cases illustrate that if a company would rather crush the union than negotiate a contract, the law offers workers little protection.  That means that the task facing unions renegotiating contracts will look more and more like what faces workers struggling to win a union in the first place: break the company’s will to crush the union.  

Fighting a lockout can look a lot like fighting to win union recognition. That can mean industrial action like workers disrupting production or marching on their boss.  It can mean comprehensive campaigns that target a company’s consumers, media image, growth ambitions, or political aims.  The risks and costs of such tactics increase the temptation for some unions to take an easier path: to entice companies into co-existence instead, through political assistance or deep concessions.

The more companies succeed at running their business and maintain their image during a lockout, the longer they can hold out. “If the public will patronize businesses that are locking out employees…” says Chaison, “then lockouts will be effective, and employers will use them.”  So the “Journey for Justice,” which brought workers from different unions together to cross the country shaming their employers and appealing to the public, may become a much more common sight.  Other locked out workers could turn to mass demonstrations or civil disobedience.

Across the United States, there are union workplaces that are just one emboldened employer away from an existential crisis.  As a former union organizer, I worked in a few of them— workplaces where unionization is sustained more by inertia than by struggle, where management and members both see the union as a third party that provides services rather as a workers’ movement that puts up a fight.  Come contract time, such workplaces are particularly ripe for employers to lock workers out until they give up their union status or their union benefits.

Since completing the “Journey for Justice,” Jacobson has gone with other locked-out workers to meet with members of Congress, to ask for help from members of other unions, and to picket Crystal Sugar’s presentation at the International Sugar Beet Show.  “Until this lockout started,” says Jacobson, “I haven’t been active at all” in the union.  “I guess I’ve really never seen a reason to be.”  Now, she says, “I really see what corporate greed is all about, and what they’re trying to do to us, and I decided I had to step up to the plate and take action.”  Jacobson says many of her co-workers have been similarly inspired.  Even so, she says, “I really don’t know how this is going to end.”

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