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Lockouts gain momentum as Minnesota employers seek upper hand

Employers show little fear of a public backlash with recent labor lockouts.

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

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.

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“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.

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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 lfedor@minnpost.com.