Tuesday, January 24, 2012

So Depressing! Part 2: Lockouts

When I opened my copy of the New York Times yesterday, my eyes immediately jumped to a front-page article titled "More Lockouts as Companies Battle Unions."  The article notes the recent employment (pun intended) of the lockout, not only in professional sports, but also in such diverse industries as manufacturers (Cooper Tire) and the arts (the New York City Opera).

Continued in the Business section, the article observes that the use of the lockout was "once a rarity," and goes on on to highlight the ongoing dispute between American Crystal Sugar, based in Moorhead, Minnesota, and its unionized workers.  Since the lockout began on August 1st of last year, the company has hired 900 replacement workers to keep its sugar beet plants running.  Thanks to Federal regulations, unlike 19th century Robber Barons, American Crystal cannot make make scabs permanent hires.  However, these regulations may not be enough to save the 1,300 workers struggling without paychecks in a depressed economy.

A locked-out worker walks by an American Crystal plant.
As the lockout drags into its seventh month, the locked-out workers are sinking into financial ruin.  Many have defaulted or will soon default on their mortgages; many bills and insurance policies have not been paid. Layoffs are starting in other sectors, like education.  In this war of attrition, the company has the upper hand.  How long can these people hold on before, like the Carnegie Steel workers in 1893, they are forced to give up and try to move on?  The economic ripple effect of the lockout is spreading through the Red River Valley. I ask you, who is benefiting from this situation?  Replacement workers, union members, public workers, taxpayers?  Not.
Pickets on the line at American Crystal in the January cold.
Sugar workers in default on their mortgages are not being thrown into the street by sheriff's deputies, as they were in 1892 Homestead--at least not yet.  But nationwide, we've witnessed homeowners, deep in debt on properties bought during the housing bubble, kicked out by the same banks that caused the crash in the first place, banks bailed out by American taxpayers.  Then, maddeningly, those banks put the house up for sale at a price below what the dispossessed owner owed.  Crazy, crazy.      
As in all of these company vs. labor disputes, the two sides have very different perspectives.  Labor attorney Robert Batterman (metaphorical name?),who represents companies, declared that "the pendulum has swung too far toward the unions, and in these tight economic times employers are looking for givebacks."  But according to union member Paul Woinarowicz, the lockout is "just another way of trying to break the union." As in 1892 Homestead, the Red River Valley community has been torn apart by the pitting of worker against worker. As Woinarowicz put it, "[Being locked out] was just like a knife stuck in your heart."

Members of the Pennsylvania militia on patrol in Homestead, securing the mill for replacement workers, 1892.
In an ironic twist, it turns out that American Crystal Sugar is a co-op, formed in 1973 when growers bought out a corporation founded in the 1890s.  Co-ops have long enjoyed the image of the "Little Guys" banding together to get free of "The Man."  However, some co-ops have become huge companies, with boards of directors far removed from the workers toiling in their plants.  These company executives and boards have their eyes on the bottom line, just as do those in same roles in corporations.   
During the Homestead lockout, anarchists came to town to urge the workers to take over the mill.  The workers threw them into jail.  What the anarchists did not understand is that American workers did not want to run the company; they wanted decent pay and decent working conditions.  How ironic, then, that American Crystal actually is a company that was taken over by the farmers that the corporate company was kicking around.  Now they've been in charge for forty years, they are acting like the company they took over.
A Trygve Olson editorial cartoon.

American Crystal has spent a lot of cash keeping government subsidies flowing their way.  According to opensecrets.org, through the first years of this century, the co-op's PAC routinely spent between $300,000 and $600,000 each election cycle. Again, irony:  the same elite minority that want to keep their own tax percentage low are asking the rest of us taxpayers to keep subsidizing their profits. But alas for American Crystal, despite their efforts, it's virtually guaranteed that the government subsidies on sugar will be taken away in the next congressional session.  On top of that, a bad crop last year caused a drop of 39% in company profits.What to do?  Take a lesson from H.C. Frick and cut employees' earnings to shore up your bottom line.

Looking at nightmarish economic and political turmoil in the nation and world, it's tempting to give into despair. However, throwing in the towel never changed anything for the better. Take to heart the message of Mother Jones, champion of the Little Guy: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."
Mother Jones exhorts workers to stand up for their rights.

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