If you're looking for evidence of just how confident, militant, and insufferably arrogant companies have become in recent years, look no further than the phenomenon of the lockout. A lockout is where a company closes its doors, refusing to allow its union employees to return to work until they accede to company demands -- demands that typically call for staggering cuts in wages and benefits.
Unlike strikes, which are a universally recognized form of protest, lockouts are a universally recognized form of extortion. A lockout is an unambiguous threat, an ultimatum. Management figuratively places a gun to the employees' heads and says, Take it or leave it.
There was a time not long ago when strikes were a regular part of the American economic landscape, and when, conversely, lockouts were about as scarce as rain in July. In fact, lockouts were all but unheard of. But given that the business world has been recalibrated -- and given the availability of replacement workers, part-timers and temps, coupled with the weakening of state and federal labor laws -- strikes are now relatively uncommon, and, in a reversal, lockouts have become management's new weapon of choice.
One of the uglier incidents occurred recently at Caterpillars' London, Ontario, facility. After the membership refused company demands that they accept a whopping 55-percent wage cut, plus the elimination of the pension plan (along with other take-aways), the plant's 465 production workers were abruptly locked out. No further negotiating, no compromises, no mediation; the company went directly to lockout mode. Then, after a 6-week lockout, Caterpillar announced it was shutting the plant down for good, and that everyone had lost their jobs. That's what we politely meant by businesses "recalibrating."
Strikes have always had a decidedly schizoid nature, being both dreaded and embraced, glorified and vilified. Traditionally, strikes occurred when workers reached the point in contract negotiations where the company steadfastly refused to budge, and the workers were willing to take the next step. They shut the place down and walked off the job, thereby depriving the company of the ability to make a profit off their labor. In theory, they sacrifice their own short-term economic well-being (by no longer earning a wage or receiving benefits) for a longer-term good.
Because the stakes are so high, strikes have always been rightly regarded as scary, monumental undertakings. While some have been successful, many -- perhaps most -- have not. But successful or not, strikes need to be recognized as labor's only real weapon. Depriving management of the opportunity to make money is the only bullet in the chamber. Indeed, everything else is a form of theater. Other than striking, what's a union going to do to get the management's attention -- threaten to stand on the front lawn and scream insults through a megaphone?
Here's a true story. In 1983 I was part of a union negotiating team that called a strike against a major manufacturing company, an action that put more than 700 men and women out on the street. It was a chaotic scene. Even though we got a 96-percent strike authorization vote prior to the shutdown, once the real thing happened, and the hammer dropped, people were understandably frightened and anxious. The strike lasted 57 days.
Looking to nip any problems in the bud, we immediately contacted the company's HR rep and made clear our views regarding people crossing the picket line. Although we were a tight local, and didn't anticipate scabs, you never know what people will do in a crisis. We warned the company that if they allowed scabs to cross, we would be forced to place full-page ads in local newspapers, exposing the company's greed and stubbornness, and calling them bad names.
They didn't take our peremptory salvo well. The strike was barely four hours old, and tensions were already running high. They told us to shut up, mind our own business, and not presume to lecture them on how to run their operation, thank you very much. But they also told us they had no intention of allowing people to cross over, fearing that it would create more problems than it solved. We believed them.
But, after a couple of weeks, a handful of our guys tried to cross. They approached at night (it was a 24-hour operation) at one of the entrances with the fewest pickets, and asked to be allowed inside. When the company refused, it occurred to them that being denied entry might very well constitute a "lockout." While it was a known fact that strikers weren't entitled to unemployment benefits, wouldn't "locked-out" employees be eligible?
They went down to the unemployment office and made their case. They told the duty officer that even though their union had called a strike, they themselves wished to continue working, but the company wouldn't let them. "Doesn't that mean that this is a lockout and not a strike?" they asked eagerly. The duty officer seemed puzzled. She thought about it a moment and answered: "What's a lockout?" True story.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com