Collage of picket signs and union posters
Andjela Padejski / WBEZ

Chicago is (still) a union town

Workers are filing more organizing petitions than any time in the last decade.

Andjela Padejski / WBEZ
Collage of picket signs and union posters
Andjela Padejski / WBEZ

Chicago is (still) a union town

Workers are filing more organizing petitions than any time in the last decade.

Andjela Padejski / WBEZ
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Chicagoans are organizing their workplaces at a rate the city hasn’t seen in more than a decade.

Baristas, cannabis dispensary workers, museum docents and others are organizing, striking and fighting for better working conditions.

This year is on track to have the most petitions for union elections filed in the last 12 years. Petitioning for an election is one of the first steps in the process to certify a union with the National Labor Relations Board.

So far in 2022, filings in Chicago have increased 45% over the same period last year, according to NLRB data. Starbucks workers filed eight of this year’s 32 petitions.

NLRB union petitions are only one measure of labor organizing. When petition campaigns are successful, unions still need to win elections and contracts. And policy initiatives, like the passage of a city ordinance requiring written contracts for domestic workers, also happen outside of NLRB processes. Still, petitions are still a good indicator of union activity, according to labor researchers.

In 2022 alone, workers at Starbucks, Dill Pickle Food Co-Op, Howard Brown Health, Intelligentsia Coffee, WTTW, Victory Gardens Theater, Zen Leaf and more have all filed petitions for union elections. Several of those groups have already won their elections.

“The last two years have been the best time for organizing in the history of my career, and I’ve been doing this since ’89,” said James Glimco, president of Teamsters Local 777 in Chicago.

Labor Day and the legacy of Pullman

It remains to be seen how the current trend toward unionization will play out over time. But Chicago has a long history of organizing for worker rights.

It even had a hand in creating Labor Day.

In the summer of 1894, half of the nation’s railway traffic was brought to a sudden halt by workers in Chicago.

Over 4,000 Pullman workers walked out on the job, protesting wage cuts, layoffs and rising rents in a company town owned entirely by the Pullman Palace Car Company, just south of Chicago.

The strike soon turned violent, and state militia and federal troops were dispatched to stop the rioting. Hundreds of railcars were destroyed. National Guardsmen fired into a mob, leaving 30 dead and many more wounded.

News of the deadly Pullman strike and boycott sent shockwaves across the country and reached the halls of Congress, leading to the designation of Labor Day as a national holiday to appease angry labor activists.

“It was a major, epic, labor conflict and Chicago was at the epicenter of it,” said Jeff Schuhrke, a former lecturer in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “[President] Grover Cleveland and Congress, to kind of threw a bone to the working class, said, ‘we’re going to create a new holiday called Labor Day.’”

The Great Railways Strikes, Chicago, Illinois, 1894. Drawing depicts the first meat train leaving the Chicago Stock Yards under escort of the United States Cavalry.
A drawing by G.W. Peters, reproduced in Harper’s Weekly, July 28, 1894, depicting the first meat train leaving the Chicago Stock Yards under escort of the United States Cavalry. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-022862

Workers are fed up

Today, Glimco and other labor advocates attribute the buildup of momentum to the surge in interest in unions from young people and workers of all ages being fed up with rising inequities laid bare by the pandemic.

Public approval of unions is at the highest it’s ever been since 1965. According to a Gallup poll released in August, 71% of Americans now approve of unions, up from 64% before the pandemic.

“Really one of the biggest things was COVID,” said Andrea Villanueva, a retention in care specialist at Howard Brown Health, a nonprofit LGBTQ health care provider, “and in the midst of [COVID], everyone at Howard Brown watched our CEO get a massive raise, while everyone else’s wages remained stagnant.”

Howard Brown Health’s President and CEO, David Ernesto Munar, was paid 44% more in 2020 than the previous year, according to a ProPublica database of nonprofit IRS form 990 filings.

“We’ve seen things get worse not only for ourselves and fellow workers, but all the patients we serve,” said Villanueva, who works with patients living with HIV. “[We] just got fed up and decided the only way to keep Howard Brown accountable to the mission statement it says it holds itself to is by unionizing.”

In June, Howard Brown Health workers filed a petition for an election and voted near-unanimously in August in favor of unionizing, making it one of the largest healthcare unions in the city with over 480 members in its bargaining unit.

Labor organizing can also spread quickly from one workplace to the next, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. When one group of workers wins a union, it inspires another group to know that it’s possible for them too, she said.

That’s what happened for David Perez and his coworkers at Zen Leaf, a cannabis dispensary in Pilsen. He and his coworkers had felt overworked and understaffed throughout the pandemic, but the breaking point came last year when their mid-shift breaks were completely taken away.

“People deserve time to themselves, we don’t need to be sitting there in an assembly line,” he said.

Perez was one of the first people to suggest a union for his store. “I found out one of our sister stores [in Lombard, Illinois] had unionized, and that pushed me more to go find out how it was done,” he said.

In August, more than 90%of votes at Zen Leaf were in favor of a union, just a few months after two Zen Leaf employees claimed they were fired for their organizing efforts.

The city of big shoulders

Union organizing is on the rise nationally, but New York City and Chicago are among the top cities, with a staggering volume of new union petitions filed this year.

The size of a city’s population doesn’t necessarily correlate with the number of union petitions either. Los Angeles, with a population over a million more than Chicago, trails behind in new union petitions.

Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner, who has studied union organizing trends for more than 30 years, isn’t surprised that Chicago is at the top of the list for cities with the most union petitions.

“Chicago is a solid union town, it’s been that way for a long time,” she said.

Powerful public sector unions, unions that include health care workers and service workers, warehouse worker organizing and gig worker organizing all have deep roots in Chicago, she explained.

The existence of established unions and labor organizers make it easier for new unions as well.

“Whenever a new group of workers in Chicago decides to go on strike or to form a union, they get a lot of support from the existing labor movement here,” said Schuhrke, formerly of U of I.

Non-nurse staff at Howard Brown Health who voted to join the expanded union this year got a lot of support from the Illinois Nurses Association, which unionized nurses at Howard Brown in 2018, said Lindsey Martin, a behavioral health consultant at Howard Brown Health.

“The support from the community has been wonderful,” said Martin. “The response from patients has been great. Aldermen have reached out and offered their support and vocalized it on social media.”

Organizing that starts in Chicago sometimes also spreads to other places around the country. In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union strike set off a wave of teacher strikes across the country, including in places where it’s illegal for public sector employees to strike, like West Virginia, said Bronfenbrenner.

On the other hand, some simply believe unions are just part of the city’s DNA.

“Chicago is a city of big shoulders,” said Glimco. “I think we fight harder for our members in Chicago than other parts of the country, which might make people mad, but that’s the tradition in Chicago I see, and I think that’s why people want to organize Chicago.”

A turning point for labor? It’s still too early to tell

Although the recent spike in union activity has generated a lot of attention, union membership has been on the decline for decades.

Between 1983 and 2021, the share of Americans that are part of unions was nearly halved, from 20% to 10%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The last few years of labor activity offer a glimmer of hope for a struggling labor movement, but whether the recent pandemic-fueled upsurge in organizing activity will stick, researchers say it’s still too early to tell.

“It has the potential to be a turning point,” said Schuhrke. “What we’ve seen so far are several thousand workers organizing, it would need to be several million.”

The real indicator of a turning point, Schuhrke added, will be when newly formed workplace unions can start winning contracts with their employers, a process often fraught with challenges for workers.

After a union election is won, employers can drag out contract negotiations. It takes an average of 465 days, or about 15 months, to sign a first contract after winning a union, a delay that’s getting longer and longer, according to a recent analysis of Bloomberg Law’s labor data.

Advocates are also concerned that the NLRB, the federal agency tasked with processing new union filings and investigating unfair labor practices, will struggle to handle the surge in union activity due to its underfunding. Since 2014, the agency’s field staff has been cut by 37% and requests to increase its budget have continuously been blocked since then.

Despite the challenges ahead, there are reasons to hope for policy-level changes. In Illinois, if passed, a constitutional amendment on the November ballot would enshrine the right to collective bargaining and prohibit Illinois from passing “right-to-work” laws that weaken unions by allowing employees to opt out of joining the union or paying dues, but still be covered by the union contract.

As for workers and advocates themselves, many remain hopeful, some even confident. Glimco, whose union includes the newly organized Zen Leaf workers, is already busy organizing more cannabis workers in Illinois.

“Right now, we’re just trying to keep up with the demand because we have a lot of people calling in telling us they want to organize,” he said.

He’s confident that the Pilsen Zen Leaf workers will get a contract within six months or less.

“When you have people behind you, you get things done.”

Amy Qin is WBEZ’s data reporter. Follow her @amyqin12. Charmaine Runes is WBEZ’s data/visuals reporter. Follow her @maerunes.