Lockouts are a standard technique which has a long history as a technique to break strikes. Traditionally, the lockout was preceded by a large build-up of inventory - so that the company could out-wait the strikers. The strikers fought back by having a Union fund to help them last long enough to cause the company to lose profits - so that the company would be forced to weight the trade-off of higher wages vs. less profit. These are different times. There is no reason to think that the same Union techniques will work. Companies are multi-national and have many plants. Companies often own offshore plants or offshore "competitors" which will increase their profit. So modern techniques must recognize this reality.
Steelworkers in six states spent this Labor Day picketing the gates of a dozen Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI) specialty mills. These 2,200 Steelworkers are not on strike. They never even took a strike vote to threaten a walkout. ATI locked them out of their jobs. ATI threw them out of the mills on Aug. 15 even though the Steelworkers clearly told the corporation that they were willing to work – that they wanted to work – while negotiating a new labor agreement. ATI locked out workers to force them to accept massive benefit cuts. Just one year ago, however, it handed its top management team raises of up to 70 percent, so that the top five executives pulled down more than $19 million.
A lockout like this is a weapon increasingly deployed by corporations to injure workers, families and communities. And corporations are doing it even as workers engage in significantly fewer strikes. The growing use of lockouts to force workers to accept corporate demands demonstrates that the already powerful – corporations – have secured even more might in their relationship with workers. Corporations’ power in the United States has suppressed labor unions and contributed significantly to wage stagnation and income inequality.
Corporations are using lockouts to try to take even more from workers. That’s what the Minnesota company American Crystal Sugar did. It was earning record profits, yet demanded concessions from workers. When the 1,300 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union said they wanted a fair share of the wealth that their labor had created, the company locked them out on Aug. 1, 2011.
American Crystal Sugar contracted Strom Engineering to find replacement workers. That’s the same company ATI hired in an attempt replace its hardworking, highly-skilled Steelworkers. American Crystal Sugar paid the inexperienced replacement workers more than it did its veteran workers – just as ATI is doing. They’re willing to do that because their goal is eventually to kill the union. In Minnesota, after 22 months locked out, a slim majority of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union members voted to accept the concessions American Crystal Sugar demanded. That seemed to give the company what it wanted – the ability to more easily stuff into the fists of executives all the sweet profits produced by the hands of labor.
Labor is not down for the count. Thousands of Steelworkers rallied in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Burns Harbor last week, demanding fair contracts from ATI, U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal.
Larry Curry, 61, drove from Maple Heights, Ohio, to Pittsburgh to join the Steelworkers’ rally last week. The retiree from ArcelorMittal said he was making a stand. He explained, “The corporations are getting greedier and greedier. They want to give us peanuts. If we continue like this, with them cutting everything, we can’t take care of our families.”
Carl LeDonne, 48, a Teamster, joined the Steelworker rally because he felt he had to defend unions against the current corporate assault on labor. “We can’t give away what my dad’s generation fought and died for,” he said as he marched on Grant Street. “They are coming after all of us. Today it is the Steelworkers under attack, tomorrow it is my union. They want to destroy all unions and force people to work for $2 an hour, 80 hours a week”
Eric Martin, 45, of Fombell, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, marched in the rally because he believes the ATI lockout specifically, and lockouts in general, are attacks on workers. “Corporations are trying to break anyone who they think is standing in their way. I am standing with my brothers in this struggle,” he said.
At the rally David McCall, Director of USW District 1, held aloft 7-year-old Marlee Grinage, daughter of Steelworker Jaimee Grinage. “This is what this fight is all about,” McCall said. “It is about a decent future for our children!”