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Manufacturing precarity: a case study of the Grain Processing Corporation/United Food and Commercial Workers Local 86D Lockout in Muscatine, Iowa




Gabriel, Jacqulyn S., author
Murray, Douglas, advisor
Carolan, Michael, committee member
Taylor, Peter Leigh, committee member
Stevis, Dimitris, committee member

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On August 22, 2008, approximately 360 workers were locked out of their jobs at Grain Processing Corporation (GPC) in Muscatine, Iowa, after the company and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 86D failed to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement at the expiration of their existing agreement. This study examines the GPC/UFCW lockout within the context of the growth of precarious employment in the United States. Using this labor dispute as a case study, it illustrates how lockouts are implicated in the generation of precarious employment and how workers and unions respond when confronted with employment precarity. This study suggests that the steady decline in union membership, density, and collective bargaining power in U.S. manufacturing over the last several decades has placed those manufacturing workers who are still covered by collective bargaining agreements at risk of their employers initiating lockouts as a means to displace and replace them and their jobs with more precarious forms of employment. Indeed, by locking out its bargaining unit employees and replacing them with workers hired through a temporary employment agency, GPC was able to effectively take around 360 relatively well-paid, permanent, unionized manufacturing jobs and turn them into precarious jobs. In doing so, the company also rendered some 360 workers precarious. Thus, in addition to demonstrating how GPC was able to deploy a lockout to achieve precarious employment relations, this study examines how the locked out workers and their union responded to the precarious position they were placed in as a result of the labor dispute. This study draws on data gathered primarily through in-depth interviews with a sample consisting of 62 of the approximately 360 locked out workers roughly five and a half years into the GPC/UFCW labor dispute. It summarizes, describes, analyzes, and explains these workers’ experiences both prior to and following the lockout. In doing so, it highlights both the negative and positive effects of the labor dispute from the perspective of those workers who experienced it firsthand. For instance, it reveals a number of difficulties these workers faced as a result of being locked out of their jobs. Yet, it also reveals that most of these workers experienced a rather remarkable “recovery” after ultimately being displaced from their jobs at GPC as a result of the lockout. In fact, the majority of workers in this study who sought reemployment after being locked out by the company were able to secure jobs that were comparable, and in most cases superior, to their jobs at GPC in terms of wages, benefits, and working conditions. I use an inductive approach to analyze and conceptualize the factors that contributed to these workers’ “recovery” from the lockout. This analysis shows that the most important factors in explaining the relatively positive outcome of the labor dispute for a significant number of workers in this study was their social capital and human capital coupled with a favorable local labor market. Overall, this study contributes a worker-centered account of the changing nature and quality of employment relations in the United States. It also contributes to our understanding and analysis of how employment precarity is being generated and how workers and unions are responding to employers’ efforts aimed at achieving precarious employment relations.


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