11.24.2014
  • United States

Accumulation by Lockout

Companies are increasingly turning to lockouts to break labor. How should unions respond?

Rusty padlock and chain on gates of closed automobile plant

Last October, amid contract negotiations at its Memphis, Tennessee cereal factory, Kellogg’s escalated tactics and locked out the plant’s 220 employees. For 295 days, workers maintained a symbolic picket line in front of the plant, waiting for a judge’s order to return them to work. That order finally came in August.

The story of the Memphis lockout is a vivid demonstration of global capitalist forces at work in a local community. It is also instructive in examining the state of the US labor movement more broadly — particularly how it has chosen to respond to ferocious attacks from employers.

The use of lockouts as a tool of accumulation is on the rise in the US and around the advanced capitalist world, and labor has at times been unable to effectively respond. The Kellogg’s lockout only came to an end as the result of a judge’s order — and workers still do not have a contract.

At the same time, employers risk tarnishing their own brand with such an escalation. Even those not typically inclined to support unions often see the “employer’s strike” as an unfair move, an affront to workers who just want to work. “The public tends to side with workers during lockouts,” labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner says, adding that “it hurts workers a lot, but it’s a tactic that can blow up in the employer’s face.”

The Memphis lockout also caused an increase in class consciousness among workers. Prior to the lockout, the union local was not a part of class struggles in Memphis. Now, it is rare to see a protest without Kellogg’s workers. Throughout the lockout, I heard worker after worker, in person and on the local’s Facebook page, angrily describe the betrayal they felt at the hands of their employer. For workers lulled into thinking of their employer as benevolent, lockouts are a brutal dispeller.

The State of the City

Memphis is a majority-black city, and a very poor city. A full 63% of Memphians are black, and the city has the third highest unemployment rate of any large metropolitan area in the country, at 8.9%. But this statistic masks the racialized nature of unemployment: a 2010 study found that only 53.2% of black males had jobs.

Black workers are also overrepresented in low-wage workforces. In addition, a 2013 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that mean wages in Memphis were 11% below the national average.

Poverty rates are extremely high. A 2013 fact sheet showed that the poverty rate in Memphis is 28.3%, compared to 15.9% nationally. The black poverty rate in Memphis is 33.6%; nationally it is 28.1%. The child poverty rate is a shocking 44.3%, compared to 22.6% nationally. And, as the report states, “in 2012, Memphis achieved the dubious honor of having the highest overall and child. . . poverty rate among” major metropolitan areas.

Given these high unemployment rates, poverty rates, and low average wages, the $28.72 hourly wage at Kellogg’s Memphis facility stands out. Also significant is the composition of the workforce: 60% black, 70% male. This caused many Memphians to view the lockout as an attack on black middle-class jobs. For some, the lockout harkened back to the 1980s, when plants owned by Firestone and International Harvester plant — both major employers of black men — closed down within a year of each other.

The history of Memphis labor struggles is also key to understanding the lockout. Memphis is infamous as the city where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing in solidarity with striking sanitation workers. The 1968 sanitation strike was important not just as a labor action, but because it represented the merging of the labor and civil rights movements. Sanitation workers famously carried signs reading “I Am a Man” — signaling that they were not just protesting economic conditions, but the overt and casual racism of supervisors, who routinely addressed black male workers as “boy.”

The significance of this cannot be overstated in a city where paternalistic white politicians ruled for decades, and where black people still face endemic racism and poverty. No picket line or labor action is complete without “I Am a Man” signs. Striking fast food workers, one of the most vibrant labor struggles in the city, routinely reference the strong labor history of the city.

Less well known, but also important, are the public sector strikes of 1978. Firefighters, teachers, and sanitation workers all struck that year, leading to the expansion of bargaining rights to city workers. Three years ago, the state stripped workers of those rights, the result of an emboldened right wing and decreased militancy from public-sector unions.

Even though many of the unions representing these workers have lost their fighting spirit, many of their members haven’t. This year, sanitation workers walked out to protest unsafe working conditions, and teachers crowded school board meetings to protest mass firings and budget cuts. These actions, while not opposed by union leadership, were not organized by them.

University workers are also organizing with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) in a local chapter called United Campus Workers (UCW-CWA). UCW-CWA is a minority social movement union, with over 1,200 workers paying dues despite not having bargaining rights. Members form the backbone of much of the labor left in Memphis, and are often key figures in other demonstrations and strikes.

Striking fast-food workers, spontaneous actions led by rank-and-file workers, a strong union presence at the University of Memphis, and numerous community organizations (like the Bus Riders Union and the Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality) all point to a potentially explosive situation. When sanitation workers struck in 1968, the ruling class was caught off guard by their determination and the solidarity within the black community. A similar situation might exist in Memphis today.

An Anti-Union Company

The lockout was only the latest in a global series of anti-union actions by Kellogg’s.

Over the last decade, Kellogg’s has shifted production from union facilities in the developed world to non-union facilities in the developing world. According to Kevin Bradshaw, the president of the Bakery, Confectioners, Tobacco, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) local that represents the Memphis workers, Kellogg’s has shifted 58 million pounds of production from Memphis to other facilities, including a non-union factory in Mexico. (The Memphis plant has the capacity to produce 220 million pounds per year.) In 1996, there were 800 workers at the Memphis facility. It’s down to 220 today.

In addition to production shifting to Mexico, much of the work has become automated. This simultaneous decrease in local production and increase in automation has reduced workers’ bargaining power, both through the threat of further job cuts and a reduction in the number of people available to engage in collective action.

In a December 2013 press release, Kellogg’s announced that as part of its effort to “optimize its global manufacturing network,” it was closing a unionized plant in Australia, increasing production in a Thai factory, and closing a facility in London, Ontario represented by BCTGM. Production from London is being shifted to a nonunion factory in Bellville, Canada. The London plant, also a BCTGM shop, is set to close down in December.

The Lockout

In contract negotiations, Kellogg’s demanded the right to hire more part-time workers and to give management more control over hours — what the union termed “casualization” of the workforce. The union didn’t even accept the legitimacy of bargaining over these issues locally. They contended these matters were covered by a national contract, which expires in 2015.

From day one of the lockout, BCTGM maintained a regular picket line at the Kellogg’s plant. The picket line was symbolic at best, however. Hiring replacement workers (i.e., scabs) is permitted under US law, even during lockouts. So between six to ten workers held signs in front of a union motor home. Workers signed up for weekly shifts on the picket line, and stood through bitter ice storms and humid Memphis heat, drawing strength from regular community support. One or more workers frequently held signs on the bridge over the railroad tracks for the benefit of scabs working below.

But even though regular honks from passing cars signaled support for the workers, production continued unabated inside the facility. Buses delivered scabs for each shift in an entrance not visible from the picket line.

The union framed the lockout as a civil rights struggle, tapping into the historical struggles of black people and working people in Memphis. At a rally in January, numerous speakers compared the lockout to the Civil Rights Movement, invoking not just the 1968 sanitation workers strike, but also their first time voting, or sitting in at lunch counters. Nearly one hundred locked-out workers marched in a Martin Luther King Day parade, where the local president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called for a boycott of Kellogg’s products.

The union also used other tactics, including rallying at the Kellogg’s shareholders’ meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan, enlisting the support of federal legislators, and ironically submitting a $15 million dollar grant request to the Kellogg Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Kellogg’s, to support locked-out workers.

A characteristic “corporate campaign” or “comprehensive campaign,” the union’s approach was designed to go above and beyond leveraging workplace power. In a corporate campaign, a union uses a variety of tactics including public pressure, political pressure, and investment strategies to fight a company. These campaigns have been deployed by a variety of unions in a wide assortment of industries, with varying degrees of success. (Without “creative, escalating internal tactics” by the members of a union, a corporate campaign is less effective.)

Regardless, it was clear the union was hoping the courts would work in their favor and order Kellogg’s to end the lockout. I heard this several times from workers on the picket line, and it was repeated over and over on a Facebook group created by the union.

While union members were surprised by the abruptness and aggressiveness of the lockout, it was hardly unprecedented for BCTGM. Just six months before the Kellogg’s lockout, a twenty-month lockout at an American Crystal sugar beet processing plant in northern Minnesota ended after union members finally approved a contract proposal they had previously voted down four times.

BCTGM was well aware of the industrial implications of the Memphis lockout. Bradshaw told me, “General Mills has already called our international president and said, ‘What are you doing about Kellogg?’ He’s thinking if Kellogg can do it, they can, too.”

While BCTGM Local 252G did not undergo an evolution in terms of strategy and tactics, workers did experience a transformation in class consciousness. The act of sticking together and seeing an unmitigated assault from their employers has been radicalizing.

The local also created the Coalition for Organizational Protection of People and Equal Rights (COPPER) to bring together civil rights groups, sympathetic officials, and labor unions, which has in some ways come to resemble a local Jobs with Justice. Bradshaw is now on the board of the local workers center (Workers Interfaith Network) and in the leadership of the Central Labor Council. No protest or labor coalitional meeting is complete without Kellogg’s workers.

Confronting Lockouts

Emboldened by the weak status of the US labor movement, employers have increasingly turned to lockouts: in the last twenty years, the tactic has nearly doubled in use. Workers confront a globalized capitalist system in which trade unions are weaker, labor is precarious, and capital can flee. These were all apparent in the Memphis lockout — union-busting, increased management control, and outsourcing.

Yet it was also a process of radicalization for many workers. As scholar and activist Marta Harnecker notes in her book on the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, struggle is the most important education for workers. Employers are constantly on the hunt for new ways to decrease the cost of labor, and lockouts can be an important tool in the class war toolbox. But in the long term, the employing class may decide that forcibly preventing employees from working just creates more militancy.

In addition, employers have learned that lockouts have some significant downsides. If a company locks out its workers and then hires scabs, for instance, it can’t promise the scabs long-term employment — as much as it might want the lockout to continue. When the locked-out workers return to work and the scabs are let go, both sets of workers would be able to sue the company for unfair labor practices. During lockouts, unions also don’t have to rely exclusively on their strike fund: workers are typically eligible for unemployment benefits.

In fact, Bronfenbrenner argues lockouts are often a defensive action. “The main reason employers use them is because they’re afraid that a strike will accomplish even more,” she says. “They figure it’s better when they control the playing field.”

What is unclear from the Memphis lockout, however, is how unions should respond. The use of creative corporate campaign tactics isn’t always sufficient. BCTGM used a similar set of tactics in the American Crystal Sugar lockout, only to find themselves accepting the same contract they had rejected before the twenty-month lockout.

Depending on the judicial system for deliverance is also problematic. Aside from its capacity to demobilize — and its intrinsically conservative character — relying on the legal apparatus doesn’t build worker power for future struggles.

Many observers of trade unions advocate more militant direct action instead. Robert Brenner and Suzi Weissmann recently analyzed a fight led by Local 21 of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU), Local 21 in Longview, Washington.

Local 21 faced an existential crisis when the Export Grain Terminal began construction on a massive new facility they planned to operate without the usual rules of an ILWU contract (namely, a hiring hall run by the union). Local 21 organized direct actions, including blocking and overturning trains bringing grain into their facilities. Brenner and Weismann write that these tactics worked for months, until their International forced through a deal the workers didn’t want.

It’s not clear, though, whether increased worker militancy by itself can resolve lockouts any faster. Locked-out art handlers at Sotheby’s partnered with Occupy Wall Street and used disruptive, militant tactics. While they ultimately won pay raises and maintained health and retirement benefits, this only came after a bitter ten-month lockout.

And in fairness to BCTGM, it is extremely difficult to imagine a proper response, given the aggressiveness of Kellogg’s and the fact that they are not simply facing a recalcitrant employer; BCTGM is also facing down a global set of economic forces, many of which are beyond the control of Kellogg’s.

One can imagine the militant tactics Kellogg’s workers could have employed in response to the lockout: sit-ins, blocking the entrance of the factory to prevent scabs from coming in to work, blockading trains from bringing raw ingredients or leaving with finished product. The combination of militant worker activity and creative corporate campaign tactics are one potential way forward.

But while the locked-out employees have returned to work in Memphis, the struggle for Kellogg’s workers locally and nationally is not over. Memphis workers still have to bargain a contract. Kellogg’s workers in Omaha, Nebraska began local negotiations in May and Lancaster, Pennsylvania workers in September. That still leaves bargaining for the national contract, which covers four US facilities and begins next October.

It remains to be seen whether BCTGM will mobilize its membership, and if they do, how effective it will be. They may simply hope that Kellogg’s takes a more conciliatory approach.

In any event, Memphis is now home to over two hundred workers who feel betrayed by their employer and better understand the brutal reality of capital accumulation. If that apparent betrayal leads to a consolidation of working-class power, the last pages of this lockout — and future lockouts — may yet be written by workers.