Learning From A Lockout

At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year at Long Island University, all 400 members of the faculty union at Long Island University (LIU) were stopped from coming to work on the Brooklyn, NY campus. The administration also cut off their health insurance and email accounts and refused them access to their offices. The event was timed to take place three days after the union contract expired. A few days earlier, the faculty had overwhelmingly voted to reject a new contract, and the faculty senate had voted for a no-confidence statement concerning the university president.

Barred from Working

The administration had put in place a “lockout.” A lockout is a temporary, employer initiated work stoppage. In 1965, the Supreme Court decision in “American Ship Building Co. v Labor Board, 380 U.S. 300” said an employer could lock out employees “for the sole purpose of bringing economic pressure to bear in support of his legitimate economic position.” The Supreme Court decision finalized your right to lockout employees when a contract expires, when a union indicates it wants employees to return to work from a strike without a contract or when the employer discovers evidence the union is conducting an “inside campaign.” The purpose of the lockout is to bring pressure on employees when there is a labor dispute by barring them from working and getting paid. The lockout equalizes the exertion of pressure by giving the employer the power to suspend workers versus the employees’ right to strike.

The National Labor Relations Act (section 8(a)(3)) says you cannot lockout employees because they support unions, but you can lock them out should they strike. During a lockout, you can hire temporary employees to continue operations. You cannot permanently replace locked-out employees if they want to return to work when a lockout ends because that would interfere with their protected rights. Once the lockout is over, the employees must be reinstated per Laidlaw Corp., 171 NLRB 1366 (1968).

However, there is frequently a legal battle over who gets their jobs back and whether they get back pay because there might be extenuating circumstances. For example, employees conducted a work slowdown or refused to return to work (effectively a strike). A court may determine the employee activities were illegal, so they are not entitled to rehiring. If an employer is determined to have conducted unfair labor practices before or during a lockout, such as ending contract bargaining too soon, the lockout may be considered unlawful.

Turning a Lockout into a Social Cause

Needless to say, the LIU faculty were surprised and furious when they were banned from campus. Historically, lockouts had taken place in manufacturing plants, but not at a university. This lockout was particularly risky because of the potential of bad public relations since the university must please students, parents and donors to maintain economic viability. Lockouts can be public relations disasters.

The LIU lockout ended in 12 days when the Long Island Faculty Federation, an affiliation of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), agreed to a mediator to resolve new contract issues. In the meantime, the union agreed to work under the rules of the expired contract. Not all lockouts end so quickly. Honeywell’s lockout of members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) began May 2016 and ended nine months later when a new five-year contract was signed.

The responses to the LIU lockout are of interest to you as an employer because they reflect the willingness of younger people to get actively involved in union issues, even when they aren’t union members. Students held a mass walkout to protest the lockout, standing with faculty on the edge of the campus. The LIU students were joined by students from the City University of New York, and many used social media to post a stream of complaints after the lockout began. Students created protest artwork, wrote letters of complaint and chanted outside the gate.

Power of Language

LIU’s faculty used words like “horribly betrayed,” “terrifying,” “blindsided,” “sabotage” and “outrage” to express their feelings. One professor said the community is a union town and local people are union supporters. Another said the university administrators “see us as replaceable cogs in a machine, not as valued professionals.” Another said, the young people “were fighting for social justice and feeling the empowerment that happens when you fight as a collective.”

The willingness of the students and community to join the protest and use social media is a teachable moment. Union members make effective use of language to incite negative emotions – anger, sense of injustice, unfairness, righteousness and fear for self and family. Millennials see events like lockouts as an opportunity for social justice activism. Once, people who were not affected by a strike or lockout would say, “This is between the union and the business.” That isn’t true today.

Lockouts have been used effectively, but it is incumbent on the organization to follow through once a lockout ends. That includes honest contract negotiation as well as pinpointing and remedying the reasons a lockout was deemed necessary. Remedies will vary. You may need to develop your leaders so they are more equipped to engage employees. Perhaps your organization’s culture needs to be more positive, or you need to communicate and reinforce your organization’s policies on unions to employees without rancor or your organization’s grievance process is faulty.

No One Truly Benefits Over the Long-Term

Employees should understand that lockouts benefit no one. Their place of employment is economically threatened, and they will only be able to collect unemployment rather than wages. There are right and wrong ways to get a union out of your organization. Lockouts, while useful, fall under the “wrong” category, along with strikes, because they may permanently harm employer-employee relationships.

The best strategy is to union proof the organization through employee engagement and the development of effective leaders. If your workforce is already unionized, it requires a carefully developed strategy to get rid of a union without harming your company’s brand or reputation. There’s no employer who wants to see community members or employees on TV, social media and the internet calling management heartless betrayers. You also have the power of language – the power to develop an engaged workforce.

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