The New York Times reported recently that companies are using lockouts more frequently against their unionized employees to force the employees’ hand in negotiations. American Crystal Sugar, the nation’s largest sugar beet processor, locked out its 1,300 workers last summer. That year the company was making record profits, but still demanded that their employees pay for a larger percentage of their health coverage and accept more outsourcing among other demands. The employees rejected these demands, given the record profits, and the company responded by locking them out. The company then attracted non-union replacement workers with higher pay and negotiations have not succeeded since. Many workers believe this is a poorly veiled attempt to break the union, though the company denies this claim.
“This is a sign of increased employer militancy,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard of. Now, not only are employers increasingly on the offensive and trying to call the shots in bargaining, but they’re backing that up with action — in the form of lockouts.”
Two decades ago there were 6 times more strikes by unionized employees, but while strikes have sharply declined last year, at least 17 companies used lockouts against their employees. Hopefully this trend will change and soon; the last thing workers need in a down economy is the threat of a lockout hanging over their heads.