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Published September 29 2012

In labor disputes, management’s leverage on rise

FARGO – Once upon a time, Bruce Byars says, the notion of booting employees off the job in a lockout was so rare it was closer to myth than reality.

“They were kind of this white elephant you hear about but never happened,” the associate professor of business at the University of North Dakota said.

Today, the tactic is a well-honed weapon in the corporate arsenal, readily deployed against everyone from sugar beet processors to professional hockey players. The National Football League ended a lockout with officials last week; the

Minnesota Orchestra could start one against its musicians this week.

Byars and other labor relations experts say the lockout’s transition from rarity to regularity has come amid a broad-based power shift that favors employers over employees.

“It seems that management is getting much more aggressive,” said Byars, a practicing labor lawyer. “We’ve never seen so many lockouts before.”

He attributed part of the change to the current makeup of the National Labor Relations Board, a key governing body in labor disputes. The board is appointed by the president, and the board is currently heavy on members appointed by Republican administrations, which tend to favor management over unions, he said.

He also said the economic slowdown of the past decade has given employers the upper hand in the labor market and emboldened them to bring heavy-hitting strategies like the lockout to the bargaining table.

Jane Pettinger, a human resources consultant and an adjunct professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said companies have an easier time negotiating the ill effects of lockouts – chiefly, finding and training competent replacement workers – during hard times.

“It’s easier to hire replacement workers when people are hungry,” she said.

Lockouts are still a risk for management. Experienced and skilled workers are hard to replace, and turning to fill-ins almost always means a drop in productivity.

In the case of the NFL officials, that meant blunders that played out in a very public stage. Behind closed doors, Byars said, American Crystal “basically ran into the same problem” – less efficient processing, more accidents, more fires and lower profits as a consequence.

He said management’s goal is to weather the storm better and longer than the regular workers it locked out.

“If they’re willing to take the hit for a year or two, then you can train your own replacements,” he said.

He also said companies are increasingly eager to reset expensive benefits like health care and retirement plans and are willing to use lockouts to do so. That’s been the case in the Crystal lockout, where health care costs and seniority issues, not wages, have been sticking points.

She also cautioned that in spite of a spate of recent high-profile lockouts, many in professional sports, most labor issues still are resolved without a work stoppage.

And while strikes have fallen over the past few decades, they’re still far more common than lockouts, said Charles Stevens, a professor of human resources management at North Dakota State University.

Of the 19 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers that were initiated in 2011, just three were lockouts. The rest were strikes.

He said both types of work stoppages serve the same purpose: leverage.

“It’s just their way of getting what they want at the bargaining table,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502