Workers at American Crystal Sugar remain locked out after four months—and a recording of company CEO Dave Berg speaking to shareholders on Nov. 7 demonstrates very clearly what the workers are up against.
Berg describes a friend who was feeling unwell and, after going to the doctor, had a 21-pound tumor removed. He continues:
I’m not saying a labor contract is cancer, but it affects you, it will drag you backward, you can’t do what you need to do. And I’m not saying we’re trying to get rid of the labor contract, we are not about union-busting. Take that one home with you, we are not about union-busting, but we can’t let the labor contract make us sick for ever and ever and ever. We have to treat the disease and that’s what we’re doing here.
(The recording was made available by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union.)
I don't know about you, but speaking for me, when the CEO of a company that has locked out its workers and hired replacement workers despite safety problems starts off with "I'm not saying a labor contract is cancer" in the midst of comparing his company's labor contract to cancer, his subsequent claim that "we are not about union-busting" starts to feel a little disingenuous. Particularly when in the same speech he returns to the cancer analogy, saying "At some point that tumor's got to come out. That's what we're doing" and referring to the money the lockout was costing the company as an investment.
Writing about the NBA lockout, Charles Pierce nailed it:
[L]ockouts are, and will always be, things willed into being exclusively by management. They are not natural phenomena. They are never truly unavoidable. They don't "just happen," and they certainly do not occur because "both sides" are at fault. Lockouts occur when management believes that unions are too strong, and they occur when management believes that unions are too weak, and they occur when management doesn't want a union to exist at all. Lockouts are not devices of economic correction. That's just a byproduct. Lockouts are attempts by management to exercise control over their workers. Period.
Illustrating how applicable Pierce's analysis is to the American Crystal Sugar lockout, one worker writes, in a letter to the editor of the Crookston Times:
Look at what this tumor did for the company last year, a record year for the company. The beet payment for the 2010 crop was $73.02 per ton. The union was a part of that record. [...]
We offered to continue to work under the old contract with a no strike provision until management and the union could reach an agreement instead we were given a final offer that everyone on both sides knew would be voted down.
Lockouts are this year's hot trend in labor relations, and it's clear why. Just as Govs. Scott Walker and John Kasich went on the offensive against the public workers of Wisconsin and Ohio, many companies and professional sports leagues are taking advantage of a bad economy to preemptively blow up bargaining relationships with their workers and unions. It's not just about rolling back wages, benefits, and working conditions for their workers; it's about fundamentally shifting the balance of power even more in favor of the wealthiest and most powerful than it already was. As American Crystal Sugar's Dave Berg said, to them it's an investment: spend now to break the union for the future. It's not just or even mostly about paying less for health care benefits and wages—it's about stripping workers of the ability to even fight effectively for improvements.