In dispute of the ‘labor dispute’

In a year of professional sports lockouts, teacher strikes, and disappearing Twinkies, we’ve heard a lot about the “labor dispute.” The phrase implies unreasonable labor demands and stalled collective bargaining negotiations and has frequently provided cover for businesses that have failed to adapt to changing economic conditions. The Hostess bankruptcy is the latest example of workers bearing the blame for years of bad management and myopic business strategy. The language used to describe these events is indicative of the vilification of workers —from Detroit, to Irving, Texas, to Washington, D.C. Yet, in so many of these cases, labor is neither the provocateur nor the problem.

When Hostess executives (who recently treated themselves to 30–300 percent pay increases) proposed a plan to slash employee compensation by 30 percent, it wasn’t in response to labor demands. When the workers refused to accept management’s proposed compensation cuts, it was resistance to extortion, not a labor dispute. Employees sticking together to protect the compensation they’d earned, following recent sacrifices to the tune of at least $110 million, wasn’t “big labor” picking a fight or wanting more. To call a cynical attempt by revolving-door management to push through massive pay cuts, protected by multiple rounds of bankruptcy litigation, a labor dispute is uninformed and unfair.

Similarly, when the NFL, a $9 billion business, tried to squeeze its 120 on-field referees out of pension contributions and gain the right to bench them without pay after a performance they deemed subpar, it was called a labor dispute. When the NHL owners, who pull in a combined $3.3 billion a year in revenue, decided they wanted to claw back 8 percent more from player salaries, despite having muscled through a contract favorable to owners in 2004, it was called a labor dispute. When teachers in Chicago refused to have their pay become subject to demonstrably ineffective measures of performance, people lamented the labor dispute.

I think it’s time we come up with a new phrase to describe what’s really going on here. Don’t we need a more accurate way to refer to demands by executives for worker concessions and pay cuts? If an employer decided to save money by cutting off the heat in their factory this winter—save for the executive suite, of course—and employees refused to work in freezing conditions, would we call it a labor dispute?

In case after case, we’ve seen powerful managers of profitable and struggling enterprises alike attempt to execute the “CEO shakedown.”

Let’s call it what it is when the well-compensated executives of a floundering bakery, who are currently asking for a $1.8 million dollar liquidation bonus, attempt to force their employees to accept massive pay cuts: a CEO shakedown. And when the wealthy owners of highly-profitable professional sports teams decide they want a bigger piece of the pie, they are holding both players and fans hostage in a CEO shakedown.

As events like these continue to unfold in an economic and political climate that has significantly eroded workers’ rights, let’s find a better way to tell it like it is.