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Lockouts gain momentum as Minnesota employers seek upper hand

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Smaller work groups, such as the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, now find themselves part of the lockout landscape.

Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is still a potent force in the political arena, but several labor union members have been locked out of their workplaces by employers who show little fear of a public backlash.

Minnesota Wild hockey phenomenon Zach Parise has been unable to pack fans into the Xcel Energy Center because of the National Hockey League lockout.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians unanimously rejected a contract offer Wednesday, so management on Thursday canceled concerts through the end of the year. There aren’t any signs that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra or Minnesota Orchestra are close to ending their labor-management disputes.

Meanwhile, American Crystal Sugar workers have resorted to having their children scold company management on a video, because the 15-month lockout in the Red River Valley has devastated many families.

“We are in a period where we are moving towards an increased level of lockouts,” John Budd, a University of Minnesota professor of work and organizations, said in a MinnPost interview.

“There is the potential for this to be the start of a significant trend,” Budd said, citing the willingness of some employers to use the lockout strategy in challenging economic times.

Controlling timing

Labor unions attempt to time strikes when they can inflict the most financial harm, so employers will be forced to make better contract offers and seek a quick end to a strike.

“With a lockout, management is in control of the timing of the dispute,” Budd said, which reduces labor’s leverage.

In the political world, Minnesota historically has been considered a labor state, but only 15.1 percent of Minnesota workers belonged to labor unions last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, the union membership rate is 11.8 percent.

Those numbers are important because the vast majority of Americans don’t think about private sector unions on a regular basis, although Budd pointed out that conservative activists have spent a lot of time attacking public sector unions.

We’ve watched Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and public sector employees engage in intense combat across the border, and we’ve seen Republican Minnesota legislators decrying the amount of tax dollars going to fund public employee salaries.

But the region’s long labor lockout of 1,300 American Crystal workers has largely gone unnoticed by most Minnesotans, particularly those living in the Twin Cities.

It hasn’t been on people’s radar screens because they don’t see it affecting their lives. Most of the sugar sold by American Crystal is not marketed under the American Crystal brand, so a recent union effort to wage a consumer boycott likely will have a limited impact on the company’s financial standing.

Major work stoppages, whether they are lockouts or strikes, have been quite rare in the United States in the past decade. The federal government reported that there were only 19 strikes and lockouts in 2011 that involved work groups of 1,000 or more.

Smaller work groups

Now we see smaller work groups, such as the Twin Cities musicians, that are part of the lockout landscape. Budd observed that most union employers have tried to avoid lockouts because of the risks involved to their businesses. However, he said the outcome of some of the high-profile lockouts could have a cascading effect in union workplaces. When top executives see a successful lockout, he said they have more awareness of the techniques and are more prone to imitate the strategy.

While most people don’t pay much attention to labor disputes in factories and processing plants such as American Crystal, the lockouts in the entertainment sphere are capturing their interest.

Fans are upset they can’t watch Wild hockey and arts patrons are unhappy they can’t go to concerts. These lockouts affect their personal lives.

One high-profile lockout that was settled recently involved the National Football League. Referees got a deal they could accept after fans were in an uproar over bad calls by replacements.

The American Crystal workers aren’t in the entertainment industry, so they may be locked out for another long winter.

Fedor can be reached at

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/02/2012 - 10:35 am.

    Two Minnesota lockouts

    don’t demonstrate a great deal of momentum, particularly when one of them has gone on for 15 months.

  2. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 11/02/2012 - 10:47 am.

    Important point not mentioned–replacement workers.

    The screaming would be very clear if all the beet farmers were forced to eat the losses because they could not sell anything they grew unless they switched to corn or another grown commodity. Then they would not need anyone to process anything. But they just hire replacement workers–and continue to make a profit processing their sugar beets.

  3. Submitted by mark wallek on 11/02/2012 - 11:05 am.

    A real Problem.

    The demise of unions is nothing less than tragic. At the same time, unions can attribute their current position to the systemic complacency and corruption that are hallmarks of the union heyday. The modern marketing machine has perpetuated this image beyond it’s feasibility, but then the marketing machine is like that lady who sells her services to the highest bidder with no allegiance to anything other than the payola. The unions are responsible for thier current situation, but americans have lost sight of their necessary contribution to livability. Think these few lockouts are going to be it? No way. Think that the members of the orchestra need to make more than a survival level wage? The business of sport is just too rotten to touch, but the dynamics are the same. I just don’t care if six and seven figure folks get more or not. Realistically, they have more than enough. With all the manufacturing we’ve farmed out to save a dollar for the corps, we have concerns now that defense is compromised due to shoddy, or even sabotaged foreign made components. These parts were manufactured by non union workers who could be wearing diapers rather than being given breaks.There is no doubt that the middle class was far far better off in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and that corps and banks excesses were held in check by regulations that had teeth. A barber could support a family of six on a barbers salary, and a dollar had value. Today, life is cheap and discardable. “Money products” promise wealth without effort. And the country clearly is all the worse off for it. Unions may be dying like the vets of WWII, and once gone, like the vets, nobody alive will be able to remember the worthwhile contribution made. We’ll just have the spin doctors to write history, the way the corps want it. So tragic.

    • Submitted by Thierry Carlson on 11/02/2012 - 08:46 pm.

      We will remember

      >> nobody alive will be able to remember the worthwhile contribution made << Ah, but today we have the internet (at least for now) to remind us, in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra at least, that the 1% in Minnesota weren't always the way they are today. For example, an excerpt from "Remembering Kenneth Dayton" by Marisa Helms and Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio [2003]: The Minnesota Orchestra was Kenneth N. Dayton's [1922-2003] favorite cause. He worked with the organization for more than 60 years. He and his wife Judy donated $2 million in the early 1970s to help build Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Dayton even wrote a "design philosophy" for the building that encouraged a sense of dignity, simplicity and eye-satisfying proportion. In 1994, he and his wife gave $15 million to the orchestra's endowment. Minnesota Orchestral Association president [at that time] David Hyslop says the Daytons never sought public recognition for their generosity. "They are the single biggest benefactors that we've ever had, and it was done with no fanfare," says Hyslop. "You notice it is not called Dayton Hall, and Dayton this and Dayton that, like many people around the country." "He believed in justice, very strongly, and wasn't preachy about it -- just demonstrated it. He believed in treating people with fairness and respect," [Josie] Johnson says.

  4. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 11/02/2012 - 02:48 pm.

    I think it’s a bit much to put all the blame for the union’s demise on their own complacency and corruption. A priority of the corporate world has long been to get rid of the union powers that were established in the New Deal. They have been orchestrating a systematic attack on unions ever since. As with many other issues, their well-funded ability to sway public opinion has played a huge part in getting their way with collective bargaining, etc. Sadly, it may take the deterioration of worker’s rights to the point of revolution. History repeating itself once again.

    • Submitted by mark wallek on 11/04/2012 - 04:49 pm.

      Lost faith

      It was the unions complacency and systemic corruption that did begin the demise. Of course the corps have always hated unions and wanted them gone. People, on the other hand, believed in the unions until they could not anymore. The Teamsters, the AFL-CIO, and the other large entities became rotten and betrayed the workers when officers enriched themselves and defended workes who needed firing as a common practice. Yes, unions were under attack always, that’s how organized crime weasled it’s way in in the first place. But at the end of the day, unions helped the process of their own demise, and that is truely tragic. All the guys who fought on the streets of Chicago did so for nothing, from todays point of view.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/02/2012 - 09:46 pm.

    Buy A Ticket To See Ziggy?

    How many people buy tickets to see billionaire sports owners? I’m pretty sure people want to see people who are the top performers, at the Ordway or the socialist, tax-payer built Metrodome or Xcel. Professional sports teams rarely declare bankruptcy. After the last NHL lockout Wild ticket prices didn’t decline a penny. Where did the labor savings go? This is the 3rd or 4th lock out in a row for the NHL. Most pro athletes don’t get the huge multi-year $100 million contracts. Most careers are just a few years. They aren’t on food stamps, but the owners (whose profits are private and expenses are socialized) are light years ahead financially. What would your reaction be if your employer tried to cut your wages by 5% every 3 or 4 years?

    A career can end on any play, even during a practice. Owners make millions year in and year out. They aren’t fighting to lower your ticket prices. They just want more.

  6. Submitted by peter delong on 11/02/2012 - 11:20 pm.

    if the business owners and corporate elite can havethe right to

    organizing instituional response to labor costs, laborers must have the same right to organize. Unions are organization of of laborers bonded together to increase their power in order to compete in the free marketof corporatized power.Yes Sean hannity is right this is MArxism. Union of the mid 20th century beurcratized to compete with the oligarchies and monoploies; they adopted the insitutional strucutres of neo-liberal corporate capitalist growth technocrats (think “John Gault”) and sold out most notably in the excessof those corrupt labor unions in Chcago and other rust belt boom towns. But the Teamsters are not Union heroes… They are Union spolied brats and we need unions of consious workers to remember that life is more than about what you do its more about who you are.

    Lockouts are as wrong as Walmart’s right to not pay a air wage is wrong for Amercian Family Values.

  7. Submitted by John D Sens on 11/03/2012 - 07:54 am.

    Current unemployment figures count

    With the exception of a few highly skilled and talented employees, it is difficult for workers to enter into hard-nosed negotiations with successful employers. It seems obvious now that American Crystal is producing sugar with replacement workers at a rate that is good enough that the company does not feel compelled to cave in to union demands. The fact is that we have a relatively high percentage of unemployment, and workers are not hard to find. Comparison with earlier years is not convincing because the times were different. In American Crystal Sugar plants, the number of employees is only a fraction of what it was a couple of decades ago. There are only about 1300 union employees for the plants. Given the population of the affected geographic area, that isn’t a large number. For many nonunion workers, the contract offered by AMC looks great, and as a result the union lost the public relations battle. I disagree that the unions lost when the courts ruled that employers could hire replacement workers. Otherwise any strike would shut the employer down. That would give the union almost dictatorial power. It seems closer to balanced the way it is.

  8. Submitted by Eric Carrig on 11/04/2012 - 07:51 pm.

    How to organize

    The point about being to use the internet to help organize is a god one. If it was easy to pick the issues that matter most — organizing labor for example — develop VIABLE solutions to challenges (like lack of bargaining power), vote for the strategies we prefer, and use the process to hold representatives accountable for implementing winning solutions, perhaps a new labor dynamic could emerge. @10,, deserves a look. It could be the first step.

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