How Rich Executives Extract Concessions From Workers -- While Playing the Good Guy in Public
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When a contract expires and the union and the company bargain over a new one, there are a few possibilities. In the majority of cases, after negotiation, they come to an agreement, in all likelihood involving compromises on both sides. If they can't reach an agreement, a strike by workers is a possible outcome—but one that's declining in frequency, "just one-sixth the annual level of two decades ago," Steven Greenhouse reports. Another outcome, or perhaps cause, of stalled negotiations is becoming more common, though: The lockout, which has:
... grown to represent a record percentage of the nation’s work stoppages, according to Bloomberg BNA, a Bloomberg subsidiary that provides information to lawyers and labor relations experts. Last year, at least 17 employers imposed lockouts, telling their workers not to show up until they were willing to accept management’s contract offer.
We've seen it in both the NFL and the NBA in the past year, of course. But in many cases, companies lock out workers who are struggling even to stay in the middle class, because they won't give up the things that might put them in the middle class. Companies lock out workers to get them to give up their pensions, to pay more for health care, to accept pay cuts, to sacrifice job security. They rely on no one noticing (besides the workers, for whom their contempt is already clear), and on any public notice the lockouts do gain assigning blame at least equally to the workers—after all, shouldn't they feel lucky just to have jobs, and be willing to make whatever concessions management demands? As Charles Pierce wrote of the NBA lockout:
[L]ockouts are, and will always be, things willed into being exclusively by management. They are not natural phenomena. They are never truly unavoidable. They don't "just happen," and they certainly do not occur because "both sides" are at fault. Lockouts occur when management believes that unions are too strong, and they occur when management believes that unions are too weak, and they occur when management doesn't want a union to exist at all. Lockouts are not devices of economic correction. That's just a byproduct. Lockouts are attempts by management to exercise control over their workers. Period.
That's what's on the rise: Management attempting to exercise control over their workers—in a brutal display of power. Give in to us or lose your paycheck right now.
Greenhouse focuses on the American Crystal Sugar lockout, which has now stretched to six months. "With American Crystal earning record profits before the lockout, the workers strongly opposed its push for concessions," he writes. Management "denies that it is seeking to break the union." But this is the company whose CEO compared a union contract to cancer, saying "At some point that tumor's got to come out. That's what we're doing." As for the significant costs of the lockout, including the cost of hiring replacement workers and dealing with accidents resulting from having inexperienced replacement workers doing tasks that require experience and skill, the CEO presented those as an investment.
As you'd expect, this is devastating the lives of 1,300 locked out workers, who have gone without paychecks for months because—it bears repeating—they wouldn't just cave when a hugely profitable company demanded that they accept benefit cuts and allow it to outsource jobs.
Nursing home workers in Connecticut are in the second month of a similar struggle, having been locked out shortly before Christmas. HealthBridge Management demanded that the workers at the West River Health Care Center in Milford accept a pension freeze, with new hires not getting any pension; pay $1,500 for individual health insurance up to $7,300 for family coverage; lose their paid lunch breaks; accept cuts on sick days and holidays and overtime pay. In addition to those direct hits at workers' wages and benefits, HealthBridge was demanding they make enormous concessions on job security and stability, giving up guaranteed hours so that a full-time worker could be made part-time with no notice or recourse, hours and shifts could be changed without notice or negotiation, allowing management to cut staffing levels to the bare minimum. (Workers report that those staffing levels have already been cut, from "six nursing assistants for each floor of 60 residents" under previous ownership to "five, and sometimes four" under current ownership.) HealthBridge touted a 12 percent pay raise they were offering in exchange for all of this—but that doesn't come close to covering the benefit cuts, let alone the loss of job security.