The lockout isn't over


Oh, not the NFL refs -- they're back (and overly active, at least in the 4th quarter of last night's Eagles-Giants game). But now what are we going to do about all of the blown calls and the unbearable delays in the corn processing industry?

Each week in Muscatine, Iowa, Tony Newton and his friends watch the trucks haul grain out of the local corn-processing plant, trying to gauge production at the Grain Processing Corp.

The reason for their curiosity? Newton and his fellow labor union members are plant employees who've been locked out of their jobs for years in a labor dispute with the company. By seeing how many trucks leave the plant, the idled workers get a vague sense of how their replacements are faring.

"Sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes it's a little," said Newton, a 26-year veteran at the plant and president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 86D. "We see what they're putting out as far as production goes, and it can't be what it once was."

The lockout of NFL referees that ended this week may have felt like an eternity to football fans, particularly fans of the Green Bay Packers, which lost a game Monday night thanks to a blown call by replacement officials. But the referee work stoppage only ate into three weeks of the season before the league and the referees' union struck a deal. It's quite a different story in Muscatine, where Grain Processing Corp. employees from the union local have been locked out since August 2008.

If only people had a couple of hundred clams riding on the outcome of the processing of a bushel of corn. (Last week, I took Karo syrup and the under...what was I thinking?) As the article on the Huffington Post notes, the workers in Muscatine, Iowa, are hardly unique -- at least 17 U.S. companies locked out their union employees last year, in an effort to get lower wages, pension givebacks or other concessions. But the lockout of the NFL refs was that incredibly rare case in which the American public actually noticed, and cared.

What gives?

As this excellent op-ed in the New York Times points out, it's all about the divergences between "talent" and "labor":

As late as the early 20th century, capital brutally suppressed labor and ground down wages to subsistence levels. But labor fought back, aided by Congress, which passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The act paved the way for big increases in unionized labor wages, and union participation tripled.

Inevitably, capital fought back. Through the 1970s, owners moved jobs to Sun Belt right-to-work states. They automated, outsourced and worked to diminish the power of unions. When Ronald Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981, it was a clear signal: labor had finally been forced to capitulate entirely.

But around this time, a dangerous new adversary to capital emerged: talent. Talent, in contrast to the more generic labor, is highly skilled and portable. And in the 1970s, talent began to flex its muscles. In Hollywood, artists demanded “percentage deals” rather than straight compensation (see George Lucas’s profit share on the “Star Wars” films). On Wall Street, investment managers demanded 20 percent of the upside on top of the traditional 2 percent of assets under management. In executive suites, C.E.O.’s accrued stock-based compensation so that they could share the upside with the capitalists. And, in 1975, baseball players won free agency, which led to the explosion of athlete salaries across professional sports.

Generally, capital was not amused. Yet capital capitulated because this was a different kind of labor, with unique, specialized skills that consumers want and need. Replacement air traffic controllers were O.K.; but not replacement N.F.L. players, or a replacement Harrison Ford.

So there's the disparity. Workers can do better for themselves, even sometimes win (gulp) a labor dispute -- but only if they redefine themselves as "talent"...and thus essential. In the NFL situation, the league gambled that fans would agree that the refs were little more than common labor, easily replaced by your neighborhood real estate agent, when three weeks of lousy, muddled play proved that, well, hey, whaddya know, those refs are pretty talented after all.

The truth is, though, a lot more workers are "talented" than just the NFL refs. Although there were also some major differences from what happened in pro football, the striking schoolteachers in Chicago were surprisingly successful at bringing the coversation back to the good work they do in a classroom, and in the end most Windy City parents agreed with them. (Who knows, it might even be hard to publish a newspaper without experienced, dedicated journalists.) I do think we need to bring the focus back to workers' talents, and that certainly includes my brothers-and-sisters-in-arms in the corn processing industry.

It's crazy, I know, but maybe the pendulum is finally swinging back a little. In strictly economic terms, there was no better time for America than the years from 1945-1970 -- when the worker at least had a seat at the table.

Why can't us?