For Unions, Sometimes a Lockout Is Better Than a Strike

Last year 2,200 United Steelworkers members were locked out at Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI) for six months. Photo: USW

For many private sector employers, the lockout has become the offensive weapon of choice.

Last year’s second-biggest private sector work stoppage, for instance, wasn’t a strike. It was the lockout of 2,200 United Steelworkers members at Allegheny Technologies Incorporated (ATI).

Lockouts are forced by employers, not called by unions. Too often unions are caught unprepared and lockouts end badly for our side.

But with careful planning and a little jujitsu, workers can turn a lockout to their advantage. In fact, sometimes it’s even better than striking.


The attack usually goes like this: The employer constructs a bargaining platform full of concessions. Company negotiators are intransigent at the table, making only minor moves, driving towards impasse.

As the contract expiration date nears, the company makes a dramatic show of hiring outside contractors to do the work. Members are pushed to work extra hours to build inventory. Often members do their jobs with replacement workers already standing by, observing the work process.

Armed security guards, dogs, and even helicopters may be brought in to protect and transport the scabs —all providing a show of force designed to shock and awe the workforce.

If the union doesn’t give in to the company’s demands, and does not walk out on strike after the contract expires, the employer chains the gates and locks out the workforce.

Management may fully realize that it can’t get production up to pre-walkout levels. Still, the boss counts on starving and scaring the workers into submission.

As the lockout drags on, the employer will force repeated votes on the concessionary agreement. Gradually the employer whittles away at union support. Members slowly drop away. Eventually they vote to accept the bad deal.

This scenario has played out far too often, at companies like American Crystal Sugar in Minnesota or Honeywell in Illinois. But it doesn’t have to go that way.


What should you do when it looks like a lockout is on the way?

First of all, no union should wait until a lockout is imminent to start preparing. With plenty of lead time before the contract expiration date, the union should make the same preparations it would to get ready for a worker-initiated strike:

  • Members refuse to work overtime to build inventories or accounts.
  • Workers put away savings for a long, economically trying dispute.
  • The union reaches out to the community and to other unions for solidarity.
  • The union analyzes the company’s customers and suppliers to find points of leverage.
  • Members are trained to recognize and document the company’s unfair labor practices.

All these steps serve the cause, whether the workers walk out or are locked out. There are no legal tricks to avoid these painstaking preparations.

The story of ATI is a good example. Before the lockout, although the workers sometimes worked 60-70 hours per week to stock specialty steel in the warehouse, they also meticulously documented all the company’s unfair labor practices.

Later, this paid off. When workers are locked out and they can prove an unfair labor practice, the company is sometimes on the hook for back pay. The big price tag became a point of leverage to push ATI back to the bargaining table.

Once the steelworkers were forced into the street, they developed a program to reach out to their community. They distributed window signs to sympathetic small businesses and yard signs to neighbors.



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Small businesses and restaurants started feeding the locked-out workers, so that it was not even necessary to open the kitchen at the union hall. The union also set up an internal sustaining support network.

These steps enabled the workers to come through the lockout without suffering the most obnoxious of the 144 concessions that ATI was proposing.


In certain situations getting locked out can even be a positive for the union. Compared to a strike, there are cases where a lockout gives you tactical advantages.

One such example was at the Rio Tinto strip mine in Boron, California, where the workers effectively turned a lockout to their benefit.

In September 2009, contract negotiations between Rio Tinto and Longshore (ILWU) Local 30 in the Mojave Desert were going nowhere. The employer wanted to rewrite the contract completely, destroy years of economic gains and job protections, and render the union worthless.

The employer had planned ahead, timing its tough bargaining in hopes that the union would walk out during the holiday season, a traditional time for cleaning and retooling the mining/processing facility. At this time of year, a strike would have little or no impact on production—and could cost the workers their holiday pay.

The boss was trying to provoke a strike, but the union didn’t take the bait. Instead, workers decided to let their contract lapse in January and work without one.

Leaders were trained up on the “inside game,” learning how to create chaos in the workplace through marches on the boss and grievance strikes.

Fed up with paying its workforce to strike on the job, on February 1 the employer locked them out. Ten weeks later, the workers returned to work, having stopped the vast majority of the concessions Rio Tinto was seeking.


How did they win? The union’s careful preparation was crucial. In addition, the lockout gave the workers several advantages over a strike:

  • Unemployment insurance payments: Under California law, the locked-out workers qualified for weekly unemployment benefits. These benefits supplemented the extensive food and emergency bill payment funds that the union collected and distributed based on need.
  • Employer-enforced solidarity: The employer has to lock out everyone. Unlike in a strike, the company may not legally allow individuals from the bargaining unit to return on their own.
  • Moral high ground: The workers wanted to work—but they had been locked out by a greedy multinational. There were no picket signs at the gates, only banners and chants demanding to return to work. The media picked up this message.

Breaking the lockout at Rio Tinto became a cause célèbre for the labor movement in Los Angeles County. The L.A. County Federation of Labor played an important role in galvanizing swarming solidarity to this struggle. All the union affiliates of the Fed were called on to “swarm” to the lockout and aid the Rio Tinto workers.

At one point a caravan of cars and trucks left Dodgers Stadium and journeyed 80 miles out into the Mojave Desert—carrying food and family supplies, but more than that, a message of solidarity.

Ultimately the workers proved that they were prepared to outlast Rio Tinto. This, combined with the campaign’s other pressure points, helped force the employer back to the table.

The bottom line is, unions in tough contract battles should get started early in preparing to win. Whether you’re expecting a strike or lockout, the steps are similar—and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Union-busting law firms pass around the same employer playbook.

Our side has rich experience in preparation. Ask for advice and help from combatants who’ve been through a strike or a lockout and emerged victorious.

Peter Olney is the retired organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. For more, read his New Labor Forum article “Battle in the Mojave: Lessons from the Rio Tinto Lockout” at and check out the movie “Locked Out” by Joan Sekler at

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #449, August 2016. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.