Just what's behind this increase in lockouts?

  • Article by: SHAR KNUTSON
  • Updated: October 11, 2012 - 4:52 AM

Just what's behind this increase in lockouts?

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With American Crystal Sugar Co.'s lockout of 1,300 union employees in its 11th month workers will take another vote that's scheduled June 23, on the same contract they soundly rejected last year. Union workers picketed in front of the main gate for Crystal Sugar in Crookston Minn as out of state non unioin workers arrived to replace local union workers.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Lockout. It's a word that football, hockey, basketball and now the Minnesota Orchestra have put into mainstream discussion.

First, let's be clear what a lockout is: It's the opposite of a strike. The employer withholds work in order to gain concessions from workers.

Lockouts are growing in frequency. Sotheby's auction house locked out art handlers. Cooper Tire did the same to its workers. Drivers for SuperMom's bakery in the Twin Cities were recently locked out for two weeks. One of the most egregious examples is in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota, where 1,300 skilled, highly trained workers who turn beets into sugar have been locked out for nearly 15 months by their already profitable employer -- American Crystal Sugar.

Lockouts have not been very common in the past, because usually businesses would prefer to keep operating and getting the value of workers' labor. But in the current economic climate, even profitable enterprises are seeking to wrangle a few extra dollars out of workers.

But these lockouts have real consequences. There are the obvious ones we can see publicly. In the NFL, millions of viewers saw replacement referees blow call after call. The NHL season is in jeopardy of being canceled once again. Now, Orchestra Hall, a major Twin Cities attraction, has fallen silent.

Some lockout consequences, while not necessarily obvious, are even more painful. In the Red River Valley, the casualties have included homes and marriages.

Crystal Sugar's farmer-shareholders haven't been spared pain, either. Shareholders have typically been paid about the same per ton of sugar beets -- or more -- as shareholders in the nearby Minn-Dak Sugar Cooperative. But this year, Crystal Sugar has estimated a beet payment of $59 per ton, while Minn-Dak's latest estimate is for a payment of $74.05 per ton. At the same time, executive pay is up. In the past three years, the top four officers saw their total compensation increase upwards of 34 percent, with CEO Dave Berg seeing a whopping 52 percent increase between 2009 and 2011.

This trend represents an overreach on the part of employers. The response of fans to the NFL referee conflict is a great example of how the average American sees this issue. We are not sympathetic to rich people deciding that they want to rewrite the rules of the game when they are already winning. Nor are we sympathetic to corporate executives mismanaging their shareholders' investment and rewarding themselves with a raise.

The attacks on public-sector collective bargaining rights are similar. Most Americans continue to believe that we all benefit when workers get some say in their jobs. Just look to the overturning of restrictions on collective bargaining in Ohio, and the overwhelming support by public-school parents for the Chicago teachers' strike.

Why does this support persist despite high unemployment and decreasing union density? It's because most of us know that nobody cares more about the quality of the work than workers themselves. It's true for referees, hockey players, musicians, teachers and technicians in a sugar-beet factory.

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Shar Knutson is president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, a labor federation of more than 3,000 local unions that represent more than 300,000 working people.

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