It used to be that when unions were in a stalemate during their contract negotiations with employers, they could use their "weapon of last resort," a strike, to fight for an improved agreement.
But in recent years, especially during the economic crisis, the number of strikes has plummeted. In the decade, 1970-1980, there were 269 work stoppages, involving 1,000 or more workers. In contrast, in 2010, there were only 11 strikes (that may even include lockouts), a drop of 90 percent. In 2009, only 5 big strikes took place.
There are ample reasons for the sharp decline in work stoppages. Workers are reluctant to strike because it would mean a loss in pay, especially if the strike might last weeks or months. They are also fearful that if they walked off the job, their employer would hire workers to replace them.
Union leaders are reluctant about calling strikes, because it is too risky. If they lose a strike, they may be ousted from their position in the next union election.
The labor-management landscape changed dramatically when employers re-discovered how lockouts can be used to compel unions to make concessions in wages, benefits and working conditions.
The lockout scenario is simple enough. Employers shut out their workers from the workplace and won't allow them to return to their jobs unless the union agrees to a series of givebacks. Employers can continue their lockouts indefinitely, with replacements they hire to keep their operations on track, until the union is forced to surrender to their demands.
The lockout tactic is coming into vogue among companies with unionized employees. Last year, more than 17 employers imposed lockouts, telling their employees not to show up for work unless they agreed to accept the company's last offer, that contained givebacks.
American Crystal Sugar, the nation's largest beet sugar processor, has locked out its 1,300 employees from its five plants in North Dakota for more than 5 months, since Aug. 1. But how long can the workers hold out without surrendering to employer demands?
Most Americans know about lockouts from the sports world. The National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) suffered long lockouts that drastically cut their playing seasons. Even the New York City Opera and its singers had to endure a week-long lockout before a settlement could be reached with management.
How Should Labor Deal with the Threat to Its Very Survival?
Lockouts are not the only problem that organized labor is facing. There are dozens of anti-labor bills in a score of Republican-controlled state legislatures that are designed to paralyze union activity. It is becoming clear that unless the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have plans to fight the many-sided corporate attacks, their very survival may be
Top labor leaders, at least publicly, do not appear upset about the growth of lockouts or the other corporate attacks on unions. In the past half year, there has hardly been much mention and even less discussion, about how to meet the attacks by rightwing Republicans and their corporate allies. This has resulted in demoralizing union membership and made recruiting new members even more difficult.