Lockouts

Lockouts December 16, 2021

Kellogg has used the lockout tactic before. In October 2013 the cereal company locked out its 220 Memphis employees. Issues included mandatory overtime and benefits. The situation remained until August 2014 when a federal judge ruled that in this case the tactic was illegal. The judge ordered that employees be brought back on the job with no penalty. Now Kellogg has locked out 1,400 employees at four plants. The main issue is a two-tier pay scale—newcomers get less; as old timers retire the total wage and benefit expense decreases.

Employers who use the lockout tactic claim that it gives them leverage in negotiations. To stay on the legal side during a lockout employers must in public say that the door to negotiations is always open. A lockout is becoming a popular maneuver.

In 2011 the NFL locked out its players for 18 weeks. The NBA had a five month lockout the same year. In 2012 the New York City Opera locked out its performers. The Minnesota Orchestra did the same the following year. Also in 2013 Crystal Sugar in Minnesota locked out 1,300 employees. In 2015 Allegheny Technologies, a steel firm, locked out 2,200. And in 2018 National Grid, a Massachusetts gas company, had a lockout of 1,200. To all of us in the Hot Stove League the most pressing labor-management disagreement these days involves the lockout of baseball players.

The lockout tactic is foolish without the threat of permanent replacement workers. On its own a lockout doesn’t make sense because a company would go out of business if it didn’t allow workers to come to the job site. Sometimes the threat of replacements is implied. In the current Kellogg dispute ownership makes the threat explicit.

Catholic doctrine has something to say about both lockouts and permanent replacements. First, however, here’s what our doctrine does not say. Catholicism gives general, abstract guidance on what constitutes a just wage and acceptable benefits. Catholicism does not endorse the specifics of any employer’s contract proposal in any given situation. Catholicism does not endorse the specifics of a union’s counter-proposal. (This applies, by the way, even if the employer is a bishop and the employees are gravediggers or janitors or teachers.)
Catholicism says that negotiation (which depending on circumstances can be smooth or hardball) is crucial. Totalitarianism (total corporate, total state or total both) is not conducive to a healthy society and holy people. There must be some form of negotiation, some form of democracy. Collective negotiation is the countervailing force that holds off totalitarian impulses. Catholicism strongly asserts that employees have a natural right and duty to meaningfully participate in the design and the benefits of work in some measure.

A lockout and its threats break faith with an acceptable negotiation process. Cardinal John O’Connor (1920-2000) of New York testified in 1990 to our U.S. Senate Committee on Labor. He introduced himself as a citizen and an employer. He also said that as a bishop he is a mandated moral teacher. The context was a dispute at the Daily News in New York City. Ownership threatened permanent replacements.

“It is useless to speak glowingly” about rights if either “management or labor bargains in bad faith,” O’Connor said. “In the case of management [it is] a charade of collective bargaining and a mockery [for management] with foreknowledge…to permanently replace workers who strike.” In 1999 O’Connor repeated Catholic principle, writing to nurses: “I remain strongly committed to a policy of no permanent replacements.”

O’Connor’s use of the phrase moral foreknowledge is important. A company that threatens the use of so-called permanent replacements knows the tactic is not an end in itself. Whatever the outcome of the lockout/permanent replacement gambit might be, its real purpose is to end possible negotiations and soon enough to bust the union.

To conclude on a positive note it is worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of contract negotiations are completed without any job action whatsoever. Yes, some posturing occurs; some swearing perhaps. But day-in-and-out negotiations are not newsworthy because nothing dramatic occurs outside the bargaining room and apart from the employee’s vote.

Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

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