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labor Heartbreaking and Hidden: The Lockout Offensive by Employers

Employers use lockouts to weaken unions. Lockouts sabotage the functioning of the union-management relationship, and they undermine standard and secure jobs in favour of more precariousness. Lockouts are also sometimes used to shift production from one plant or country to another, as well as to close unionized plants.

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The famous Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith once concluded “If it is not counted, it tends not to be noticed.” This is certainly true for lockouts. Surprisingly, the data on work stoppages in Canada are some of the best in the world.

And so, with some digging, it is possible to expose the truths about lockouts: while “greedy” workers on strike are often blamed by the media for labour disruptions, statistics expose the increasingly aggressive use of lock-outs by Canadian employers. Employment and Social Development Canada started collecting information on lockouts in 1976. From that year through 2015, it recorded 2,141 lockouts. These lockouts represented 12.6 per cent of all work stoppages, involved almost 7.3 per cent of those workers engaged in stoppages, and represented 24.6 per cent of work days lost.1

Traditionally a lockout, whereby an employer temporarily closes their business to try to compel employees to accept certain conditions, is understood as a defensive response to worker militancy. More and more, though, employers are using lockouts to enforce concessions and weaken unions. Lockouts sabotage the functioning of the union-management relationship, and they undermine standard and secure jobs in favour of more precariousness. Lockouts are also sometimes used to shift production from one plant or country to another, as well as to close unionized plants.

The majority of lockouts are in the private sector (87 per cent between 1976 and 2015). However, in the public sector, employers have now adopted lock-out strategies in nursing homes in the care sector, orchestras in the arts sector, and universities in the education sector, to name just a few.

Between 1960 and 2015, there were over 25,000 work stoppages in Canada, involving more than 14.5 million workers. Almost 900,000 working days were lost. But from 2005 to 2015, the balance of strikes and lockouts began shifting, with more workdays and workers involved in lockouts rather than strikes. And, guess what: lockouts tend to be longer than strikes.



In 2013, there were 58 lockouts across Canada. Of those, 35 were at car dealerships in Québec. The workers — mechanics, service advisors, car washers and parts persons — were represented by the Syndicat Democratic des Employees de Garage du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean (SDEG-CSD). The lockouts, which began in March 2013 and were settled only by special legislation in January 2016, constituted the longest labour dispute in Québec’s history. Despite some strike pay, the accumulated debt totaled $6.1 million, the equivalent of about $25,000 per worker!2

Management had tried to impose a new contract that would limit hours of work, create a new part time class of worker and incorporate a clause that would allow the employer to hire non-union workers.3  The final agreement included significant wage increases and a work schedule which involves alternating a working week of 40 hours over five days with a week of 32 hours over four days, an average of 36 hours per week. Georges Bouchard, president of the union commented: “What happens here will also happen elsewhere in Québec. We serve as a test run for employers, eager to fill their pockets by sabotaging working conditions and causing job losses.”4

Since 1977, Québec has not allowed the use of replacement workers during stoppages. It might be expected that anti-scab legislation would discourage employers from invoking lockouts, since they are unable to hire replacement workers. However, Québec has the highest number of lockouts of any province, the most work days lost to lockouts, and the most workers involved in lockouts. In fact, 60 per cent of work days lost to lockouts were in Québec and almost 47 per cent of workers involved in lockouts were from that single province. A disproportionate number of Québec lockouts occurred during the negotiation of a first agreement and resulted in firm closures. Of the 1,322 Québec lockouts, 548 (41 per cent) were ended by special legislatin



Perhaps counter-intuitively, lockouts occur not only in the private sector but also in the public sector. From 1976 to 2015, almost 13 per cent of all lockouts happened in the public sector (a total of 270). In fact, 31 per cent of all workers (232,347) involved in lockouts were in the public sector

The two most significant public-sector lockouts in Canada between 1976 and 2015 were the following: In 1980, 75,500 education workers from various unions in Québec were locked out from January 25 to February 25. Workers “returned to work,” which indicates that no agreement was reached but the lockout was suspended. In 2011, 48,000 postal workers were locked out from June 14 to June 27. They were legislated back to work. Within that 39-year span, the 270 lockouts in the public sector were largely clustered in three industries: Public Administration (78), Educational Services (65), and Health Care and Social Assistance (60).

Public Administration

Of the 78 public-sector lockouts in public administration, 43 were in Québec.

Educational Services

Of the 65 public-sector lockouts in Educational Services, 21 involved lockouts of teachers in Ontario.

Health Care and Social Assistance

Of the 60 public-sector lockouts in health care and social assistance, 54 involved fewer than 100 workers.

[Three examples of public-sector lockouts in health care involving more than 175 workers can be found in the sidebar Selected Lockouts in Health Care and Social Assistance Involving More Than 175 Workers.]


A cluster of lockouts in the continuing care industry in Alberta is instructive. Monterey Place is a seniors’ home owned by Triple A Living Communities in Calgary and organized by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE). The lockout began on June 26, 2012, and ended on April 5, 2013. The 91 workers were locked out for 194 workdays before an agreement was finally reached.

The two sides began bargaining in late May 2011. Central to the dispute were wages below industry standard. AUPE pointed out that “Licensed Practical Nurses are paid 26 per cent less, while Health Care Aides are 35 per cent below standard. Support services workers, like cooks and laundry staff, are paid as much as 38 per cent below standard.”

AUPE Vice-President Karen Weiers commented: “What’s particularly outrageous is that the owners, Triple A Living Communities, receive government funding to pay nursing staff at rates equal to what Alberta Health Services pays. Instead, they pay lower wages and keep the difference. This corporation is improving its bottom line on the backs of its hardworking staff.”5

The new contract included an increase in hourly rates of up to 44 per cent for health-care aides, up to 40 per cent for LPNs, and as much as 20 per cent for other support staff.

Aspen Ridge, a care facility in Red Deer (Alberta) organized by AUPE, is owned and operated by Symphony Senior, a private, for-profit operator from Ontario. The staff of the seniors’ home joined AUPE in March 2011 and had been trying to negotiate a first contract for eighteen months. A strike was called on January 28, 2013, to which the employer responded with an immediate lockout. Replacement workers were used during the conflict. The 130 employees were locked out until February 4 when an agreement was reached with substantial increases including an 18.4 per cent wage increase for licensed practical nurses, a 38.3 per cent increase for health care aides, and a 17.2 to 18.2 per cent increase for support workers.

The union indicated that these increases brought wages in line with industry standards.6 During the Aspen Ridge conflict, the employer demanded the right to “remove a worker without cause,” what AUPE President Guy Smith characterized as “a CEO’s demand to roll back the most basic of labour rights by 100 years.

“This is what happens when you turn health care into an industry. This is what happens when long-term care becomes part of a Bay Street real estate investment portfolio … It’s a fundamental principle that in unionized workplaces, employees accused of wrong-doing get the labour equivalent of their day in court. In all my life I never imagined we would be fighting to defend that right in the 21st century.”7

The demand for termination without cause was not included in the final settlement.

As the lockout unfolded, it also became clear that Symphony Senior had relied on low-waged, nonunionized workers to make its profit on the beds funded by Alberta Health Services (AHS). During this conflict, Symphony announced it would cancel its funding contract with AHS for 49 beds and convert the beds to private spaces. CEO Lisa Brush indicated that “AUPE’s push for wage increases means the AHS contract no longer makes financial sense.”8

At both Monterey Place and Aspen Ridge, the facilities are operated by private companies using public funds, and in both cases, workers were paid significantly less than for similar jobs in the public sector. The workers at both facilities were predominantly immigrant women. Both lockouts were characterized by considerable picket-line violence. For example, in the Monterey lockout, AUPE reported that picketers were struck by replacement workers on four separate occasions, and that security guards assaulted two male employees of AUPE.9 The guards face two charges each of assault. At the time of writing, the case is still before the courts.10

Unpacking the Stories of Some Canadian Lockouts


Lockouts are a vehicle for what labour historian Gary Chaison calls “ultra-concession bargaining.” Unlike concession bargaining which includes wage freezes and cuts, two-tiered wage systems, the duration of collective bargaining agreements, health care benefits, pensions, and work rules, an additional motive of ultra-concession bargaining is “to weaken and displace unions”.11

Caterpillar (2012)

The 2012 lockout in London, Ontario, at Electro-Motive Canada (EMC), owned by the American heavy equipment giant Caterpillar Inc., was shaped by the ultra-concession bargaining of a multinational corporation intent on breaking unions.

Despite EMC being profitable, and the federal government giving Caterpillar tax breaks to purchase the company in 2010, in 2011 the company demanded a 55 per cent wage cut, elimination of the pension plan, and a 50 per cent reduction in benefits. Ninety seven per cent of the 465 members of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) voted on December 30 for strike action. On January 1, 2012, before they could take any strike action, the workers were locked out.

On February 1, the plant was closed. Production was likely moved to Indiana, which had offered lucrative incentives. “The London plant closing is not an isolated event. It is part of a coordinated attack across North America on unions and wages.”12 Rod Woof, a former Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) worker who, along with more than 600 others, lost his job when the plant closed, said at the time: “Things are pretty dire right now. I am not working. I have been doing odd jobs on the side, but that’s about it… I am scraping by, but I’d rather do this than make $15 an hour for Caterpillar … I never, at any time, thought we should have taken the deal.”13


Lockouts are an employer strategy for casualizing a unionized workforce and increasing the precarity of work. In fact, where casualization of the labour force is already widespread, the number of lockouts has decreased. For example, hundreds of lockouts occurred in Spain in the 1970s. Labour law professor Wilfredo Sanguineti Raymond claims that the deregulation of work which fostered a massive use of part-time and temporary contracts has made lockouts unnecessary.14

CBC (2005)

In July 2005, after 15 months of unsuccessful negotiations, members of the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) voted 87.3 per cent in favour of giving their bargaining team a strike mandate. The workers never exercised their right to strike, since the CBC locked out 5,500 employees on August 15, 2005. The lockout ended on October 3, 2005.

Both sides of the dispute agreed that the lockout was primarily about contract work. In the final settlement, ratified by 88 per cent of union members, management agreed to cap the number of fixed-term contract workers at 9.5 per cent of the number of permanent workers.15

This offensive lockout was initiated by management with the express purpose of casualizing a unionized workforce. Arnold Amber, president of the guild’s CBC Branch Executive Council commented: “This is definitely a management lockout that didn’t have to happen … In six and a half years, there have been five work stoppages involving four different unions, the last three caused by management-imposed lockouts. The Canadian Media Guild’s estimate is that more than 250,000 person-days have been lost in the disputes.”16

Telus (2005)

The 2005 lockout of 12,500 Telus workers in British Columbia and Alberta also highlights employer aggression. Telus is a leading national telecommunications company in Canada with $10.3 billion in annual revenue. Following four and half years of failed contract talks, familiar themes emerged during the lockout: increasing precarity, intimidation and refusal to bargain; imposition of the terms of the collective agreement; the hiring of professional strike breakers (via the AFI International Group)17; and the contracting out of work to call centres in India and the Philippines in order to reduce the unionized workforce.

Telus also hired replacement workers. Although under the BC Labour Code, it is illegal to hire replacement workers, Telus falls under federal jurisdiction. Since 1999, the Canada Labour Code allows employers to hire replacement workers “only if doing so does not undermine the union.”

Telus claimed that they were hiring replacement workers to keep up with customer demand.18

On April 12, 2005, Telus made its “last offer” to the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU). In May, Telus invoked what they called “soft lockout measures” which included suspending grievance and arbitration activities as well as the operation of several joint union/management committees; suspending the scheduling of Accumulated Time Off and Personal Days Off; suspending payment for the first day of absence for sickness; deferring all wage-progression increases; and freezing vacation entitlements at then-current levels.19 The union responded with an overtime ban and work-to-rule campaign.20 In July, Telus unilaterally imposed the contract that had been turned down by the union. In response, the workers went on strike. The lockout was finally settled after almost three months, although the workers turned down the first settlement negotiated by the union.

Despite this disgraceful scenario, Telus argued that the workers went on strike. The workers insisted that Telus locked them out.21 The Telus dispute demonstrates the apparently permeable boundaries between strike and lockout. At the same time, the aggressive employer tactics detailed above suggest that lockout best captures the nature of the dispute


Lockouts are used by multinational corporations to intimidate workers into accepting significant concessions, and to justify the movement of production to low-wage countries. Multinationals also try to circumvent international conventions on labour rights, and treat workers differently depending on the country in which they work.

IKEA (2013)

IKEA has over 200 stores in 31 countries, employing over 75,000 people and generating over $12 billion in sales annually. In 1961, it moved production to Soviet Poland to minimize labour costs. Founded by one of the world’s richest men, Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA is a multinational corporation which has been accused of labour-rights violations in many countries including the United States, Turkey, Russia, France, Italy and Ireland. In a recent scandal, IKEA admitted that East German political prisoners had been used to make its goods for as long as three decades.22 It is also revealing that IKEA supports LabourWatch, a Canadian anti-union organization of employers and law firms, one of whose major goals is to decertify unions.

The 17-month lockout of 350 IKEA workers in Richmond, British Columbia, began in May 2013 and ended in June of 2014. The unionized workers (Teamsters Local 213) belong to one of only two unionized IKEA stores in Canada. The major issues in the lockout related to employer demands for concessions: first, a two-tier wage structure — the very system that these workers had successfully resisted in a 2006 strike; and second, the demand to raise the minimum hours for full benefits from 20 per week to 24 per week.23 “IKEA is holding 300 families hostage. The company is refusing to let us return to work until we surrender many of our rights. It is unconscionable that this multi-billion dollar corporation has locked us out of our jobs. Why has IKEA hired notoriously anti-union lawyers to sit at the bargaining table in Canada and pretend to negotiate while our families suffer at Christmas time?” said Keith Austin, an IKEA employee for 27 years.24

A 2013 International Fact-Finding Commission on the lockout by UNI Global Union found that IKEA Richmond’s management had adopted “a radical antiworker agenda that opposes unionization and encourages union decertification.”25 Peter Lövkvist, general secretary of the Nordic Transport Federation and chair of the Commission commented: “IKEA has clearly violated its own code of conduct, as well as international labor standards. Locking out and intimidating workers, and hiring lawyers with histories of attacking workers and unions — behavior I witnessed personally in Canada — none of this is acceptable … In Sweden, IKEA would never treat its workers this way or disobey international conventions on labor rights.”26


Evidence suggests the convergence of interests, and in some cases outright collusion and complicity, between and among employers and governments. In fact, in Canada, since 1982, federal and provincial governments have passed a total of 216 laws that have restricted, suspended or denied collective bargaining rights for Canadian workers.27

Canada Post (2011)

During eight months of collective bargaining negotiations, Canada Post management demanded “unprecedented” concessions, including two-tier benefits, a 26 per cent reduction in the starting salary, a defined contribution pension for new hires, and replacement of the sick-leave plan with a short-term disability plan for all employees.28 On June 2, 2011, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), which had not been on strike since 1997, initiated a series of rotating stoppages across Canada.

On June 14, a day when only 23 CUPW members were participating in a rotating strike, Canada Post Corporation (CPC) imposed a nation-wide lockout of 48,000 postal workers which stopped the delivery and processing of all mail. The federal government claimed that the labour disruption was causing major economic damage, and only one day later, on June 15, announced it would introduce back-to-work legislation which included final offer selection (FOS).

A single arbitrator, unilaterally appointed by the government, was empowered to select one offer or the other in its entirety. The backto-work settlement (Bill C-6) imposed wage increases lower than the employer’s last offer. Gayle Bossenberry, then vice-president of CUPW commented. “It’s the Harper government stripping workers’ rights away for free collective bargaining.”29

During the two weeks prior to the adoption of Bill C-6, the national lockout continued with the exception of one day: On June 20, postal workers delivered pension and social-assistance cheques nation-wide as part of a union-initiated agreement which had been negotiated in March of 2011 with Canada Post.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations agency responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards, ruled that “the back-to-work legislation imposed on Canadian postal workers in June 2011 was unjustified, as postal services do not constitute essential services.”30

CUPW challenged the constitutionality of legislation, and in April 2016, Ontario Superior Court Justice Stephen E. Firestone declared that the Conservative legislation “violates the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression” under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sections 2d) and 2b), and that it is “unconstitutional and of no force and effect.”31 An important victory for all Canadian workers!

Most countries do not collect information on lockouts. As a result, the increased use of offensive lockouts by employers is hidden from sight. As Galbraith said, not counted, not noticed! In the few countries that do differentiate between strikes and lockouts, notably Australia, Germany and India, similar patternsemerge: an increasing proportion of stoppage days linked to lockouts, and the tendency for lockouts to be longer than strikes. This article has highlighted the anger, risk, struggle and solidarity involved in the lockout experience, and revealed patterns of employer aggression, intimidation and anti-unionism. The individual case studies and lockout lists included in this article only scratch the surface of the more than 2100 Canadian lockouts since 1976.

[Linda Briskin has been a feminist and union activist for more than fifty years. She is recently retired from teaching at York University. Her commitment to social justice has framed her scholarship and inspired her teaching.]

[For tables, footnotes and acknowledgements, please check the original article from Our Times]