LOCKOUT, in management-labor relations, is the tactical action of the employer in refusing work to unionized and/or organizing employees and either forcing them to leave the workplace, while hiring replacement workers, or closing down production altogether. The goal is to force the unionized employees into making concessions. Employers have utilized the lockout numerous times since the 1870s, although the 1947 Labor-Management Relations Act (see Taft-Hartley Act) and subsequent rulings by both the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the courts have imposed some legal restrictions on use of this tactic. Under the law, employers may use the lockout to protect their companies against economic injury and/or to protect themselves at the bargaining table.
Striving for recognition and collectively bargained contracts, unions in many industries during the last third of the nineteenth century struggled intensely with employers across the nation, many of whom had formed antiunion trade associations. Trying to gain advantage in negotiations with companies that belonged to multi-employer trade associations, unions on occasion organized whipsaw strikes, targeting one or more of the employers in such groups for strikes organized specifically to pressure the companies suffering economic losses to appeal to all employers in the respective trade associations to yield to union demands at the bargaining table. Employers developed an arsenal of counter-strategies, including the lockout, to break the whipsaw strikes.
In the common-law tradition, employers were assumed to have virtual autonomy in conducting their businesses, except when constrained by contracts with unions. The persistent efforts of workers in many industries, from iron and steel to railroads, to organize unions prompted employers during the post–Civil War era into the twentieth century to use the lockout. Thus, after locking out workers affiliated with the Knights of Labor during spring 1886, the Chicago-based McCormack Harvester Company hired 300 replacement workers who were guarded by a force of 350 to 500 police officers. Most spectacularly, a strike against Carnegie Steel at Homestead, Pennsylvania, erupted in 1892 when management refused to renegotiate a three-year contract with the Amalgamated Association of Steel and Iron Workers and locked out all employees. Blood flowed when hundreds of Pinkerton guards and 8,000 state militia soldiers tried to escort "scabs" (strikebreakers) past 10,000 striking workers and into the plant.
Legislation enacted during the mid-twentieth century attempted to defuse such labor strife, through institutionalizing the principles of industrial relations that legally sanctioned negotiation and enforcement of contractual rights and responsibilities of management and labor. Accordingly, passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1936 affirmed workers' rights both to organize unions and to negotiate and enforce contracts through their exclusive Collective Bargaining agents. Though it broke new ground in protecting workers' rights to unionize, the NLRA did not address the lockout. The Taft-Hartley Act, however, did establish particular parameters governing the legality of the lockout. The act prohibits use of either strikes or lockouts to force modification of contracts prior to expiration, and it instructs the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to press for negotiated settlements before strikes or lockouts are utilized by either party. Other provisions authorize the president to impose a sixty-day "cooling-off" period in case of stalled collective bargaining negotiations heading toward strikes or lockouts that threaten to become national emergencies.
In findings of the NLRB and the rulings of the federal circuit courts as well as various state courts, the right of employers to use the lockout has been upheld. Moreover, decisions in three cases heard in the U.S. Supreme Court—NLRB v. Truck Drivers Local 449 (1957), NLRB v. Brown (1965), and American Ship Building Co. v. NLRB (1965)—have affirmed the constitutionality of the lockout.
Gregory, Charles O., and Harold A. Katz. Labor and the Law. 3d ed. New York and London: Norton, 1979.
Peterson, Florence. Strikes in the United States, 1880–1936.
United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bulletin 651. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1938.
Wolff, Leon. Lockout, The Story of the Homestead Strike of 1892: A Study of Violence, Unionism, and the Carnegie Steel Empire. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
lock·out / ˈläkˌout/ • n. 1. the exclusion of employees by their employer from their place of work until certain terms are agreed to. 2. a device used to ensure that machines remain inoperable while repairs or adjustments are made.
Employer's withholding of work from employees in order to gain concession from them; it is the employers' counterpart of the employee's strike. Refusal by the employer to furnish available work to its regular employees, whether refusal is motivated by the employer's desire to protect itself against economic injury, by its desire to protect itself at the bargaining table, or by both.