More Lockouts as Companies Battle Unions

America’s unionized workers, buffeted by layoffs and stagnating wages, face another phenomenon that is increasingly throwing them on the defensive: lockouts.

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From the Cooper Tire and Rubber factory in Findlay, Ohio, to a country club in Southern California, and sugar beet processing plants in North Dakota, employers are turning to lockouts to press their unionized workers to grant concessions after contract negotiations deadlock. Even the New York City Opera locked out its orchestra and singers for more than a week before settling the dispute last Wednesday.

Many Americans know about the highly publicized lockouts in professional sports — such as last year’s 130-day lockout by the National Football League and the 161-day lockout by the National Basketball Association — but lockouts, once a rarity, have been used in less visible industries as well.

“This is a sign of increased employer militancy,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard of. Now, not only are employers increasingly on the offensive and trying to call the shots in bargaining, but they’re backing that up with action — in the form of lockouts.”

The number of strikes has declined to just one-sixth the annual level of two decades ago. That is largely because labor unions’ ranks have declined and because many workers worry that if they strike they will lose pay and might also lose their jobs to permanent replacement workers.

Lockouts, on the other hand, have grown to represent a record percentage of the nation’s work stoppages, according to Bloomberg BNA, a Bloomberg subsidiary that provides information to lawyers and labor relations experts. Last year, at least 17 employers imposed lockouts, telling their workers not to show up until they were willing to accept management’s contract offer.

Perhaps nowhere is the battle more pitched than at American Crystal Sugar, the nation’s largest sugar beet processor.

Last summer, contract negotiations bogged down, with the company insisting that its workers agree to higher payments for health coverage, more outsourcing and many other concessions. Shortly after the 1,300 unionized workers — spread among five plants in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa — voted overwhelmingly to reject those demands, the company locked them out and hired replacement workers.

That was on Aug. 1, more than five months ago. Since then, the workers and their families have been scrounging to make ends meet. Some face foreclosure and utility disconnection notices.

American Crystal has hired more than 900 replacement workers to keep its plants running. Federal law allows employers to hire such workers during a lockout, although they cannot permanently replace regular employees. Employers can pay the replacements lower wages, although as is the case with American Crystal, the companies sometimes need to offer higher wages and help pay for housing to attract replacements.

With many private-sector labor unions growing smaller and weaker, and with public-sector unions under attack in numerous states, some employers think the time is ideal to use lockouts, a forceful approach they were once reluctant to use.

Many employers, though, say they have little choice.

Robert Batterman, a labor lawyer who represents employers, said whether it was the NFL or Sotheby’s, which locked out 43 art handlers in Manhattan last July, “the pendulum has swung too far toward the employees, and the employers are looking in these tight economic times to get givebacks.”

“Employers,” he continued, “are using lockouts because unions are reluctant to do what the employers consider reasonable in terms of compromising. Employers are looking to reset their collective bargaining relations.”

After being out of work since Aug. 1, Paul Woinarowicz, a warehouse foreman employed at American Crystal for 34 years, sees another rationale for lockouts.

“It’s just another way of trying to break the union,” said Mr. Woinarowicz, a member of the bakery and confectionery workers union. “People here in the Red River Valley are really mad at American Crystal. It was just like a knife stuck in your heart.”

With American Crystal earning record profits before the lockout, the workers strongly opposed its push for concessions. Woinarowicz noted that the company’s most recent quarterly report showed a sharp decline in production and profits — a development the workers said showed the lockout was taking a toll. American Crystal said the drop was due to a smaller sugar beet crop and higher operating costs.

American Crystal accuses union negotiators of being inflexible and denies that it is seeking to break the union. For many employers, lockouts have proved highly successful. Last July 17, Armstrong World Industries locked out 260 workers at its ceiling tile plant in Marietta, Pa., after they rejected the company’s offer as stingy on pensions and health coverage.

After being locked out for five months, the workers accepted a contract only slightly different from the one they had originally voted down. Union officials said the workers knew Armstrong had the upper hand.

There have been several recent lockouts at hospitals, often after nurses engaged in a one-day walkout. To hire replacement nurses from a staffing company, hospitals often have to commit to hiring them for at least a week, so a one-day nurses’ strike is often followed by a four-day lockout. But at some health-care facilities, like West River nursing home in Milford, Conn., where management locked out 100 workers on Dec. 13, companies see lockouts as a way to wrest concessions and set an example for workers at their other facilities.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, said the football, hockey, and basketball leagues ordered lockouts in recent years for a clear reason — to gain leverage in negotiations.

“The lockout is designed to put you at a distinct disadvantage,” he said, saying it places huge pressures on players who typically have short professional careers. The National Hockey League’s lockout of 2004-5 canceled an entire season.

Mr. Smith said, “A lot of players have careers of two or three years, and you might get a player who asks, ‘At what point is this fight worth one-third of my career?’ ”

For Jeannie Madsen, a lab technician at American Crystal, the lockout has meant strains for her and her fiancé, also a worker there. With her former husband also locked out and suspending child-support payments, she said she could not afford new school clothes and shoes for her children and had to stop paying her daughter’s orthodontist bills. She said Wells Fargo would soon foreclose on her home.

“What’s most upsetting is that it’s affecting the lives of many innocent children,” she said.

The sides are holding occasional negotiations, but remain deadlocked.

Madsen said the company was continually putting up barriers to a settlement, essentially pressing the workers to surrender. Company officials did not return phone messages, but Brian Ingulsrud, the company’s vice president for administration, wrote in an editorial for a Fargo newspaper that “American Crystal Sugar remains committed to good-faith negotiations.”