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Across the Midwest, unions are breaking through in a way they haven’t in decades

Workers from traditionally unionized industries are being joined by people employed in a wide range of fields usually not associated with organized labor.
Yunyi Dai
Special to The Midwest Newsroom
Workers from traditionally unionized industries are being joined by people employed in a wide range of fields usually not associated with organized labor.

Union members and labor experts agree that a collective sense of job insecurity and frustration over wages and working conditions are driving activity in the region.

Before he was a law professor, Michael Duff was a union member. He worked as a fleet service agent who loaded bags and freight, and drove large catering trucks for a major airline. He was also the first Black shop steward of his union, Teamsters Local 732.

In 1988, hundreds of members walked off the job to protest what they considered the unfair firing of a coworker.

“That was my first exposure as a younger person of the emotion, the raw power of when workers decide, ‘We're walking off the job. Go ahead and try to stop us right?’ And that energy, that feeling is something that I've never forgotten,” said Duff, an attorney who now teaches labor law at Saint Louis University.

That feeling Duff remembers seems to be spreading, as workers not usually associated with organized labor start unionizing and long-standing unions flex their bargaining muscles.

Duff said while union membership is nowhere near its heyday in the 1950s, he has observed an uptick in interest and activity in the past five years.

“If somebody is saying the activity that's going on right now and that we’ve seen since 2018 or 2019 is increasing, I'm inclined to agree,” Duff said. But, he added, it’s important to consider the historical perspective.

Michael Duff, who used to be a Teamster, now teaches labor law at St. Louis University.
Katie Long
Katie Long Photography
Michael Duff, who used to be a Teamster, now teaches labor law at St. Louis University.

“In 2022, which is the last year for which we have a full set of data, there were 23 major work stoppages (of 1,000 or more workers),” he said. “That sounds like a lot, right? The year that I graduated from high school, 1977, there were 300.”

Unions have faced headwinds since their glory days in the 1950s, when 1 in 3 U.S. workers was in a union. Today, 1 in 10 people in the workforce is part of a union.

Among the challenges to organized labor’s clout and approval are right-to-work laws, which give states the authority to determine whether workers have to join a labor union to get or keep a job. Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska are right-to-work states. Missouri voters rejected a right-to-work law in 2018.

Aside from the ways employers can try to undermine union clout, the assumption that workers could strike better deals for wages and benefits independently remains strong in the U.S.

Duff said that the availability of credit reinforced a collective notion of financial security.

“By and large what happened was that people thought they didn't need a union because they could get easy money,” Duff said.

While high-profile labor actions like the recent United Auto Workers (UAW) strikes and nationwide unionizing by Starbucks baristas may give the impression of growth, the reality is that organized labor is not seeing a major influx of new union members.

"Employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act are afforded certain rights to join together to improve their wages and working conditions, with or without a union."
National Labor Relations Board

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that in 2022, 14.3 million wage and salary workers belonged to unions, an increase of about 2% from 2021. However, the 2022 number of union members as a percent of the workforce is about 10% is the lowest on record. In 1983, by comparison, the union membership rate was 20.1% and there were 17.7 million union workers.

The picture is not very different in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska, where union membership rates grew slightly from 2021 to 2022.

The decade from 2012 to 2022 showed significant growth in union membership for Kansas and Nebraska, and a decrease in membership for Iowa.

Sirisha Naidu, who teaches economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said even slight gains are signs of renewed life for unions.

“In the Great Recession we saw that everything could disappear,” she said. “And in the pandemic, particularly if you were an essential worker, you were being asked to put your life on the line to keep your job. And yet you are not getting paid as much.”

Sirisha Naidu teaches economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Sirisha Naidu
Sirisha Naidu teaches economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Naidu and Duff agreed that a sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the economy and jobs has pushed baristas, restaurant workers and even pharmacy staff to organize, protest and strike. Nurses, cereal company employees and auto workers across the Midwest are doing the same.

This, even at a time when unemployment is low.

“That sense of precarity is being pushed up the socioeconomic ladder right? So, all of a sudden, people who never thought they would be in an uncertain employment situation are in that situation,” Duff said.

Winning ways?

This fall’s coordinated UAW strikes in Missouri, Ohio and Michigan, sent a strong signal to workers, whether or not they were in unions.

After the UAW’s six-week campaign, negotiators secured pay increases for autoworkers, among other concessions. UAW leaders and allies touted the deal reached between the union and the Big Three automakers as a major victory, even historic.

“I think that's an exaggeration,” Duff said. “But I do think it was historic in the sense that if the union movement could not fight back in the context of a historically unionized automobile industry, that would have taken us to a new low.”

Naidu said the auto worker’s deal was bigger than its actual terms. It showed, she said, that organized labor can still rally its troops, bring big corporations to the bargaining table and get at least some of what they are asking for.

“The fact that UAW was able to show up united? I think that was quite a feat to pull off,” she said, adding that the gains will benefit the entire automotive workforce, including non-union employees.

A passing car waves American flags in support of striking United Auto Workers on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Wentzville, Mo.
Brian Munoz
A passing car waves American flags in support of striking United Auto Workers on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Wentzville, Mo.

“I would definitely classify it as a big win,” said Jake Rosenfeld, who teaches political and economic determinants of inequality at Washington University in St. Louis.

He said research on strike activity over the last few decades suggests that they rarely end up succeeding. A “successful” strike, he said, is one that merely restores what the workers used to have under the expired contract.

“That’s not what we saw here,” said Rosenfeld, who authored a book on organized labor’s decline. “Instead, we saw a proactive strike aimed to win substantial improvements over the prior contract, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Cereal strike

The UAW strikes were perhaps the highest profile labor actions in the Midwest in recent years, but there have been other notable actions and victories.

In October 2021, about 1,400 workers at Kellogg’s plants in four states walked off the job after a year-long showdown at the bargaining table. The dispute involved a variety of issues, but the most contentious was a “two-tiered” system that paid workers hired after 2015 at a lower scale than "legacy" employees.

Kenneth Merritt, a packing machine operator for the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha, saw it all from the inside as president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) Local 50G.

Union member Kenneth Merritt of Omaha, Nebraska took part in negotiations between workers and Kellogg’s from 2020 to 2021.
Kenneth Merritt
Union member Kenneth Merritt of Omaha, Nebraska took part in negotiations between workers and Kellogg’s from 2020 to 2021.

“I was part of the team that was negotiating for our union with the company,” Merritt said.

The negotiations aimed to agree on a five-year contract in 12 months or less. That didn’t happen.

“It was a tough year. It was a tough 12 months,” Merritt said. “We were hoping that we could come up with something that was amicable for both of us and the company. And that time expired. The next day we were on strike.”

While on strike, Merritt and other union leaders kept the 500 or so Kellogg’s workers at the Omaha plant informed about the negotiations. Helping them better understand the process, Merritt said, allowed the union to keep a united front.

“A lot of our union members didn't know exactly how the process went, but as that year transpired, they became very energized,” Merritt said.

The 11-week strike ended in December 2021. A union spokesperson said the collective bargaining agreement meant there would be "no permanent two-tiered system." The union also said it secured a pledge of no plant closings through October 2026 and "a clear path to regular full-time employment" for some workers.

“The strike was really about protecting and making sure that the people that come in behind us, new hires and people that want to come into the company and become a union member, that they were going to be treated fairly and given a fair wage,” Merritt said.

Kellogg’s released a statement saying, “the ratified deal furthers our employees' leading wages and benefits, with immediate, across-the-board wage increases and enhanced benefits for all."

“A union lets workers know that somebody is really fighting for your well-being. Someone is there to fight for me when I need my voice heard. And that is what, to me, that is what the union is,” Merritt said.

Safety and dignity

While wages and benefits often make headlines in labor disputes, unions have other key priorities.

“Workplace safety has always been rated higher than any other concern of working people on the job,” Duff said. “It could be something as fundamental as ‘I don't want to die. I don't want to die in the coal mine. I don't want to die of COVID.’”

“People are asking for a more humane kind of treatment in the work that they perform, and to be offered dignity in some way,” Naidu said.

In June 2023, Members of National Nurses United staged a strike at Ascencion’s Christi St. Francis Hospital in Wichita, Kansas.
National Nurses United
In June 2023, Members of National Nurses United staged a strike at Ascencion’s Christi St. Francis Hospital in Wichita, Kansas.

In June 2023, more than 2,000 nurses working for Ascension health care system in Wichita, Kansas, and Austin, Texas, staged a one-day strike over safe staffing, equipment shortages and patient safety. Represented by National Nurses United (NNU), the union members said their patients were being shortchanged by management.

“When our patients are being held in the ER for such a long amount of time,” said Shelly Rader, an Ascension nurse in Wichita. “Sometimes more than a day, waiting to be admitted. Emotions start to get high.”

The one-day strike came as NNU members in Kansas and Texas were negotiating their first union contracts. When the group announced a second day-long strike planned for Dec. 6, Ascension leadership told nurses they would be locked out for three days afterward.

“Management is floating nurses all over the hospital without regard to their competencies or clinical specialties,” said Marvin Ruckle, another Wichita Ascension nurse, when the second strike was announced.

NNU members proceeded with the Dec. 6 strike to bring attention to the safety issues they’ve been asking management to remedy since June, and Ascension followed through on the lockout.

“Ascension said it would “continue to bargain in good faith with NNU to come to a mutually beneficial agreement on initial contracts,” and is “committed to not canceling any scheduled bargaining dates.”

Barista nation

There’s a simple reason workers unionize, according to barista Luis Aispuro.

“A bad manager is the best organizer,” he said

This is what spurred him to lead the charge to unionize a Starbucks branch in Iowa City, Iowa, in early 2023. Frustrated by a revolving door of managers, scheduling and pay, baristas at his store had been talking about unionizing since 2020. This year, Aispuro decided to move the process forward and connect with Starbucks Workers United, the central organizing body for workers.

Starbucks baristas may be the most visible example of a new worker cohort seeking to unionize on a national scale. Workers at the coffee shop chain have staged strikes and protests across the country. To date, more than 8,000 workers at over 360 Starbucks stores in at least 40 states have voted to unionize. Starbucks Workers United is seeking enhanced health and safety measures and a base pay of $20 an hour, among a range of other demands.

Regional barista union organizing dates:

Luis Aispuro led the charge to unionize the Starbucks store where he works in Iowa City, Iowa.
Luis Aispuro
Luis Aispuro led the charge to unionize the Starbucks store where he works in Iowa City, Iowa.

Forming a union is no easy feat. Once organizers build support from workers and connect with a union to affiliate with, there’s an election among potential members on whether to move forward. After that, the group may require certification from the National Labor Relations Board.

Aispuro said the vote at his Iowa City store was unanimous: 25-0 in favor of unionizing.

After its first strike, the Iowa City Starbucks baristas saw results: The company brought in a new manager who, Aispuro said, is doing a good job.

After strikes in Iowa City and around the country on Red Cup Day (Nov. 16), Starbucks gave managers and supervisors the ability to turn off the mobile ordering system during busy periods to ease the strain on baristas.

According to a number of workplace demography tracking websites, most Starbucks baristas are between the ages of 20 and 30. These workers have grown up and come of age in the shadow of the Great Recession, global warming and the pandemic, Naidu said, so it’s no surprise they would seek job protections through unionization.

“They have not seen anything different, right? They have entered this world seeing a society that seems pretty devastated. And you can't convince them that there is something better,” she said.

“Nobody gave us the weekend. Workers had to fight for it.”
Luis Aispuro, union organizer

People born in the mid-1990s and later differ from their elders in their perception of organized labor, too, Naidu said. Gone is the outdated perception of union members as disgruntled workers who are looking to stir things up. In fact, the number of people in the U.S. who approve of labor unions has been climbing steadily since 2010, according to research from Gallup.

“Union is not such a dirty word in our region right now,” Naidu said.

Aispuro, a recent college graduate, said there’s no downside to being a union member.

“Better working conditions. Better pay. Fewer hours,” Aispuro said. “The workers just get a bigger slice of the pie. You should get paid what you're owed because wages have stagnated over the last 20, 30 years.”

Hustle and gig

Duff said the next labor battleground is the gig economy, in which workers sign agreements with companies like Uber, Instacart and DoorDash. As independent contractors, they do not have the status as actual employees under labor laws.

Today more than 30% of workers in the United States are part of the gig economy.

The gig economy—also called sharing economy or access economy—is activity where people earn income providing on-demand work, services or goods.

“If non-employees go out on strike, if they protest, they’re not protected by labor law,” Duff said.

“Every time you about some kind of work being gigified, it's a withdrawal of workers from the scope of employment legislation.”

State law varies when it comes to how gig workers are classified. California had a short-lived measure requiring employers to convert gig workers into employees. Also in that state, two workers sued a package delivery service when it tried to convert employees into independent contractors. In 2022, the U.S. Labor Department introduced a proposal that would make it more likely for millions of independent contractors to be classified as employees.

“If there's really a struggle between a union and an employer, a union has the right to strike,” Duff said. “In the gig economy, you’ve got a bunch of workers, and they’re not employees. They don’t have the right to strike.”

This story comes from The Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Holly Edgell is the managing editor of the Midwest Newsroom, a public radio collaboration among NPR member stations in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. Based in St. Louis, she has more than 25 years experience as a journalist and journalism education. You can contact Holly at hollyedgell@kcur.org.
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