What happens when your boss goes on strike? In a labor landscape where union membership has dwindled to record lows, the boss’s analogous form of work stoppage has ascended as capital’s weapon of choice. Time to revisit whether companies deserve “equal” rights to “down their tools,” when the tools belong to the oppressor?
The lockout is, essentially, a work stoppage initiated by the employer: the boss applies pressure to workers in a labor dispute by suspending operations. The power dynamics of blocking workers from their jobs, however, play out differently than a worker-led uprising. The Century Foundation (TCF) analyzed trends in labor lockouts and concluded that firms inherently wield dramatically more leverage over workers—that is, that lockouts are more damaging to workers than strikes are to employers—due to sheer volume of political and economic clout, beyond the bargaining table.
One practical legal difference between lockouts and strikes, rooted in the Depression-Era National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), is a somewhat arcane provision: striking workers may be replaced with permanent workers. But locked-out workers can only be replaced with temporary workers. This appears to be a way to balance leverage between management and workers. But in 2016, what happens when a lockout drags on indefinitely and the temporary staff becomes a de facto new workforce?
But TCF analyst Moshe Marvit argues that the modern-day lockout is far from a tit-for-tat battle, as the Supreme Court might have envisioned in 1965 when ruling that the strike and lockout represented equal “weapons of industrial warfare.” This is a false equivalence in an age when companies can often afford to make a long-term calculation to continue a lockout indefinitely, rearranging its operations to cannibalize workers, shore up its finances, and potentially use limitless access to “permatemp” non-union labor. Sure, scabs may be met with public backlash and cost more initially to recruit and train, but bosses can likely afford to milk the clock as workers eat through unemployment benefits and grow demoralized, and public attention fades.
The court’s eye-for-an-eye logic ignores that there’s a zero-sum game being played for as long as the employer can put sustained pressure on a union. And dominant corporations like ConEd or the NBA can wield massive power, virtually indefinitely, in the wider workforce and political world.
According to the NLRB’s overview of the NLRA, a company “engaged in good-faith bargaining…may lock out the represented employees,” but it is illegal when “motivated by hostility toward the union.”