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Lockouts: Not just for sports anymore

In the heat of the NBA lockout, I was pursuing a story about the role of race in the talks. Fascinating stuff that almost nobody will discuss on the record! On one side of the bargaining table almost everyone is white, and on the other side of the table almost everybody is black. And that's just a tiny part of the story.

I did all kinds of interviews and learned a ton, although the lockout ended before I could really tell it all. Those involved acknowledged, however, that the dynamic was a rich one.

But not nearly as rich as something else. One guy in the talks said that race wasn't nearly as big a factor as ... Scott Walker.

If you're like me, you hear that name and think: Come again?

Walker is, for now, the governor of Wisconsin, but he's facing a likely recall election. And it's a nasty fight sprung from an old-school management vs. labor war that started with unions weakening for decades, as described then by Hendrick Hertzberg in The New Yorker:

Organized labor’s catastrophic decline has paralleled—and, to a disputed but indisputably substantial degree, precipitated—an equally dramatic rise in economic inequality. In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. Now they’re getting close to half. The top one per cent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich—the top one-tenth of the top one per cent, which is to say the top one-thousandth—have been the biggest winners of all. What is always called their “compensation” (wage workers lucky enough to have a job simply get paid) has quadrupled.

Over the same period, the composition of the labor movement, as it still defiantly styles itself, has radically changed. A few weeks ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, for the first time, more union members are government workers, not private-sector employees. The Times quoted an official of the United States Chamber of Commerce as pronouncing himself “a little bit shocked,” and he wasn’t the only one. Yet this development has nothing to do with some imagined spike in public-sector unionism. It is entirely a function of the collapse of organized labor in the private sector. For the past four decades, the portion of the public workforce belonging to unions has held remarkably steady, at a little more than one in three. In the private sector, just one worker in fifteen carries a union card.

The causes of the disparity are many and mostly familiar, the hollowing out of American manufacturing notable among them. Unlike factories, government agencies cannot be relocated to China. Nor can government agencies flout the (notoriously weak) labor laws with the insouciance of private employers, many of whom, guided by anti-union “consultants,” regard it as their fiduciary responsibility to fire troublesome workers illegally now and, in the rare cases where a worker tries to get justice, pay a trivial fine years later. In short, union-busting has traditionally been a matter for private business. But this winter it has suddenly gone public, and its weapon is not flouting laws but making them.

Last Friday—in the wee hours of morning, after two weeks of tumult and protest demonstrations—Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill that is breathtaking in its fealty to the ideology of the far right. The bill, dictated by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, strips the state’s employees of their half-century-old right to bargain collectively—except over base pay, which can never be increased above inflation without a public referendum. It makes union dues purely voluntary and prohibits their collection via paycheck deduction. It requires the unions to face a certification vote every year—and, to get recertified, a union must win a majority of all employees, not just a majority of those voting.

What does all this have to do with NBA players and their lockout? One explanation I heard was pretty simple: Nationwide, business leaders sensed it was a weak moment for labor, and for unions. The workers, even the rich ones like NBA players, face a shortage of good alternative jobs. Walking away forever was daunting. Walking away even for a little while was painful. Unions were ill-prepared to whether big, long lockouts and had no choice but to make concessions if demanded of them.

Knowing that, business owners, including NBA business owners, wanted to press their advantage and make colossal demands, to win concessions they would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Look at that Scott Walker example. Read the rest of the article -- it's not just about getting workers to work for less. It's about changing the law to take the muscle out of unions forever, or at least until the law changes again.

In the NBA, Stern talked similarly about a "reset." The ideal reset, in the eyes of many owners, would have been a hard cap, which they failed to get this time. But they did win a major reduction in player pay even as the league enters a golden period, not to mention aggressive new ways to limit spending.

By this way of thinking, the lockout was not really all that complicated. It was just owners sensing the opportunity was now to make a deal with favorable long-term implications. (Bring on the longest collective bargaining agreement in NBA history!)

In Monday's New York Times, Steven Greenhouse adds support to this theory, reporting that lockouts have quickly gone from incredibly rare to surprisingly common. A record percentage of work stoppages are now because of lockouts, as opposed to strikes. In addition to the NFL and NBA, there have been lockouts recently at the Cooper Tire factory, the New York City Opera, American Crystal Sugar, Sotheby's, Armstrong World Industries and elsewhere. And the issues sound familiar to anyone who followed the NBA lockout:

Robert Batterman, a labor lawyer who represents employers, said whether it was the N.F.L. 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 Sugar 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. ...

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.

Forget, for a moment, the idea that anyone was right in the NBA lockout. Maybe everybody was! Maybe nobody! And just consider, instead, the enormous hassles and heartache it caused for all involved. And then realize that the conditions that bred that lockout are all around us. Scary thought if, like most people, you value harmony between workers and owners.