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People raise their fists during a rally this month for striking workers who are part of the United Auto Workers union at United Auto Workers’ Local 551 headquarters on the South Side.

People raise their fists during a rally this month for striking workers who are part of the United Auto Workers union at United Auto Workers’ Local 551 headquarters on the South Side.

Pat Nabong

Unions push to represent more workers, but organized labor’s share of jobs is declining

The American workplace is seeing a collision of competing interests in Chicago and across the country.

It’s happening in traditional labor strongholds like manufacturing and in service-sector jobs not known for rebellious workers — mostly with the involvement of a union.

It’s most apparent in high-profile disputes such as the ongoing United Auto Workers’ surgical strike against certain plants of Ford, GM and Stellantis, including Ford’s factory on the South Side.

Prominent examples include the nearly five-month Hollywood writers’ strike and the Teamsters’ tense stare-down with United Parcel Service that produced a deal before its Aug. 1 strike deadline that union leaders called historic. Health care giant Kaiser Permanente settled a three-day strike that idled about 75,000 workers, mostly on the West Coast.

Other disputes have had an impact in Chicago. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, best known for representing government workers, rallied staff at Chicago museums and cultural institutions, winning representation votes like a bowler knocking down tenpins.

Organizing and mobilizing have gone on throughout the Chicago area with nurses and other health care employees, graduate teaching assistants, cannabis store crews, baristas and retail associates.

Workers sense that trends are at their backs, said Pasquale Gianni, an attorney for the Teamsters Joint Council 25, which represents about 100,000 people across northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. For one thing there’s an economy with low unemployment — 3.8% nationally and 4.1% in Illinois — and about 1.5 job openings for every available worker, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Pasquale Gianni, an attorney for Teamsters Joint Council 25.

Pasquale Gianni, an attorney for Teamsters Joint Council 25.

Ashlee Rezin

“With all the strikes, it’s shown a shift in the balance of power,” Gianni said. “Sometimes, you need to pull a strike once in a while. It makes companies more serious about coming to the table.”

Gallup’s annual poll of Americans’ attitudes toward organized labor show about two-thirds of respondents view unions positively, a level last seen around 1970.

“The public is in favor of working people taking a great step forward,” Gianni said.

‘Terms and conditions’

The National Labor Relations Board has seen its business boom. The federal agency has two main jobs: oversee workplace votes that decide whether a union has bargaining rights and adjudicate charges of labor law violations.

The agency recorded 2,594 petitions for union representation in its latest fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, a 58% increase from 2021. The number of unfair labor practices charges has grown steadily.

Michael Sullivan, a Chicago attorney with the firm Goldberg Kohn, said he sees “some permanence” in the data pointing to more labor activism.

“This will continue because young people are more focused on the terms and conditions of employment, and rightly so,” he said.

Sullivan, who advises employers, said companies need to focus on workplace issues.

“We counsel employers that this trend is real, it’s not a flash in the pan,” he said.

Managers, he said, “should be cognizant and self-critical without waiting until somebody comes in from the outside and tells workers they need third-party representation.”

For all the sound and fury on the labor front, its net effect is unknown. Unions’ overall share of the workforce was 10.1% in 2022 and declining, about half the rate of 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That percentage is swelled by union predominance in government work. In the private sector, the share of union jobs was 6% in 2022.

The number of union members overall has grown but not as fast as jobs in the rest of the economy.

“It takes a lot of new members to raise the union density,” said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Challenges with organizing

The new age poses challenges for anxious employees and groups that would speak for them. Experts said much of the recent organizing is driven by younger workers in jobs that are relatively low-paid and tenuous. They have enthusiasm but need education about how to organize and what unions can and cannot do.

In some cases, workers have presented grievances to management without protection from a union.

A largely immigrant workforce at the El Milagro tortilla company chose the independent route to win raises and better schedules, but they still lack security of a union contract.

Some Amazon employees in Chicago and elsewhere have tried that with limited success. A target for Teamsters organizing, Amazon has posed a particular challenge, Gianni said. Its warehouse employees have high turnover and are under steady surveillance by a company with vast resources for fighting, he said.

Others in the pro-labor camp wonder why it’s taken so long for workers to become combative. Elliott Gorn, professor of American urban history at Loyola University Chicago, pointed to data showing the growing disparity between groups at the highest and lowest income scales.

As company profits and CEO salaries balloon, many workers have been pushed to an economic edge. Gorn said the pandemic worsened economic inequality.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to work from home,” but not everyone can do that, especially people who deal directly with the public, he said.

Employers have been caught flatfooted by the labor push, Gorn said, but much of U.S. labor law is on their side.

“Business has had decades to learn how to resist unionization,” he said.

Unions historically have hurt their own cause with corruption and leadership “sclerosis,” Gorn said.

The final test isn’t whether fired-up workers stage protests and walkouts but whether they can win strong contracts.

It’s a hard lesson Starbucks workers have learned in a fight that’s now two years old against a resistant employer.

Win or lose, Bruno said unions will continue attracting worker interest.

“The disquiet we’re seeing is likely going to make them respond to an institution that gives them power and voice,” he said.

One Chicago labor fight scored a breakthrough win, another has hit a wall

As many employers seek to avoid pensions at all costs, concessions workers at the United Center demanded one along with other improved benefits — and got it.

Tawanda Murray, who describes herself as a strong union leader for Unite Here Local 1, outside her home in Humboldt Park.

Tawanda Murray, who describes herself as a strong union leader for Unite Here Local 1, outside her home in Humboldt Park.

Pat Nabong

When workers won’t toe the company line, there are risks and rewards. Two recent examples stand out from a period of labor combativeness around Chicago.

On the reward side, an often overlooked workforce claimed a surprising victory when it won a new contract last spring. The people who operate concessions at the West Side’s United Center used a strike threat timed around the arena hosting the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament to secure a new, two-year contract.

It included higher wages and better health insurance — standard stuff. But there also was something brand new — a pension, the old-fashioned guarantee of benefits in retirement.

For years, companies have shunned pensions as a ruinous long-term liability. The United Auto Workers have listed restoration of pensions scrapped years ago as a principal demand in its strike against the Detroit Three automakers, which started Sept. 15.

So how did the concessions workers, members of Unite Here Local 1, manage it?

“We banded together as a workforce,” said Tawanda Murray, a member of the union’s negotiating committee. “We all said we need it. Social Security is not enough to sustain the quality of life. Nobody should feel like they are just working paycheck to paycheck.”

Murray said many workers have spent decades at the United Center. She’s been working there for 28 years. During bargaining, the workers got employer Levy, which is part of Compass Group, to contribute to a plan that the union and company oversee. Employees will be vested after five years, according to Murray, who said benefits will be based on job tenure and hours worked.

“It was very hard to get. Going in, it was, ‘No, no, no,’ ” she said. “But we wanted our wage increase. We wanted to improve the 401(k). We wanted it all. And we said, ‘Give us something for our sacrifice.’ ”

Levy executives did not return requests for comment.

Pensions are a benefit enjoyed mostly by state and local government workers. Only 15% of workers in private industry had access to a traditional pension in 2022, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Asked what advice she’d offer to other unions, Murray said, “Please get your employees on board so they can fight. We did that, and we changed the industry standard.”

But another story illustrates the risk of employee activism. Starbucks baristas have been involved in a union campaign since 2021 that has drawn national attention because coffee shops were uncharted labor territory.

Employees organized rallies and short strikes in Chicago and elsewhere. But they have yet to get a single contract with management as the union has been bogged down in fighting Starbucks’ labor disruption tactics across the country.

Pasquale Gianni, an attorney for Teamsters Joint Council 25.

Pasquale Gianni, an attorney for Teamsters Joint Council 25.

Ashlee Rezin

The campaign by Workers United, which is part of the Service Employees International Union, opted for union elections on a store-by-store basis. Experts said the “small shop” strategy — rather than organizing by geographic region — made it easier to win union certification votes but harder to get the company to sit for innumerable bargaining sessions.

At Starbucks’ Chicago Reserve Roastery on North Michigan Avenue, the union lost a certification vote in August. With more than 200 workers, it’s the chain’s largest location in the world.

The National Labor Relations Board said it has issued 105 complaints against Starbucks or an affiliate involving 369 charges of unfair labor practices, many involving illegal threats and firings. One case involved a store in Hyde Park.

The NLRB said its cases against Starbucks include a charge of refusal to bargain with 242 stores across the country. Union and Starbucks executives did not respond to requests for comment.

More Perfect Union, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, says that, as of Sept. 29, 360 workers at Starbucks stores in 42 states — of the company’s 9,000 stores nationwide — have voted for union membership, and those at 82 have voted it down.

In the Chicago area, the organization said that crews at 17 locations unionized and five voted against the union.

U.S. labor laws don’t always help protect workers

The country’s labor employment standards are viewed as less worker-friendly than those in other countries, but people still have protections when advocating for better treatment on the job.

Members of the Unite Here Local 1 picket outside the United Center demanding better wages and benefits for concession workers in March.

Members of the Unite Here Local 1 picket outside the United Center demanding better wages and benefits for concession workers in March.

Anthony Vazquez

Few people in the workplace are inclined to raise complaints about job conditions or bring other grievances to managers. And labor laws don’t exactly encourage that.

Federal labor laws protect workers against firing or other retaliation for organizing, supporting a union or advocating for change — activities broadly called “protected concerted activity.”

Employers are not supposed to fire, discipline, threaten or aggressively question workers about such matters. The U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board are among the agencies set up to enforce laws about workplace activism, whistleblowing, safety concerns and other matters.

President Joe Biden has described himself as the most pro-union chief executive in the nation’s history. The Labor Department has followed up by advocating for people to join unions and creating the website with information about organizing rights and what unions do.

More background on a worker’s organizing rights is available from the AFL-CIO and the websites of many individual unions. Arise Chicago, a worker center supported by religious organizations, has an online guidebook covering labor laws in different settings, with special attention to the rights of immigrants in the workforce.

But most experts agree that, by international standards, the United States isn’t particularly labor-friendly. The Organization of American States said in a report that “the labor laws of the United States are not overly protective of the worker” when compared with those in Latin America, the Caribbean and Western Europe.

Set against the federal protection is the doctrine of at-will employment that applies in 49 states, including what’s regarded as pro-labor Illinois. At-will means a boss can fire someone for any reason or no reason at all. The only state that limits at-will is Montana.

There are exceptions, such as for discrimination or when a union contract sets its own rules for worker punishment.

At-will is a holdover from ideas about free movement in the labor market, with perhaps a heavy dose of American self-reliance mixed in. Advocates say it’s also supposed to assure that a non-contractual worker can quit at any time.

Last year, Illinois voters narrowly adopted a constitutional amendment to strengthen employees’ rights. It forbids right-to-work rules in the private sector, which let people avoid paying union dues at places covered by collective bargaining. But it doesn’t roll back at-will employment for everybody else.

Two years ago, some Illinois lawmakers proposed an end to at will but the idea went nowhere. It got little support from organized labor, a powerful lobbying force.

The Illinois AFL-CIO said it has preferred to press for more limited reforms, such as a law for paid leave that takes effect next year and another that protects temporary workers.

“We are continually fighting to protect workers from abusive work environments and arbitrary firings,” according to a written statement from the group.

Others say organized labor wants at-will conditions to stand because a union contract with job security is an inducement to organize.

“It’s a differentiator for the unions,” said Michael Sullivan, a Chicago attorney with the firm Goldberg Kohn who advises employers in labor disputes.

It generally takes a worker election to get union representation in a workplace, a process that NLRB oversees. Critics contend that employers can stretch out the time before an election occurs, allowing managers to ramp up an anti-union push.

Companies often have “captive audience” meetings to fight a union drive — sessions during work time that staff members are required to attend. Companies defend the practice as free speech. But last year the NLRB’s general counsel wrote a memo saying such meetings are inherently intimidating and should be closely regulated. The agency’s board has yet to rule on the issue.

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