Are Unions Back?

Credit: Sander Gusinow

How a newly engaged workforce, high cost of living, and social media brought struggling labor unions surging back to life.

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“Stronger Together” read a purple and white banner held aloft by the Supporters of Service Employees National Union (SEIU) 503, as they streamed across Portland State University’s campus this week.

Members and friends of the union marched and chanted in support of its vote to authorize a strike if Oregon’s state universities did not reach an agreement with the union in one week.

One in six union employees qualify for food stamps, and among the demands is a 1% annual cost of living increase.

And the SEIU 503 is not the only union taking its demands to the picket line.

Citing employee harassment and misconduct on the part of Fred Meyer, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 cancelled all contract extensions with Fred Meyer parent company Kroger, and called for a boycott of the grocery store chain after allegations surfaced of managers threatening and harassing union members with ambush meetings where they discouraged union membership.

The boycott ended when the union reached a tentative agreement with Kroger gorcery employers.

UFCW is in the middle of contract negations with Kroger, demanding pay equity and cost of living increases to support members suffering from homelessness.

Last but not least, 80,000 workers represented by at least 300 unions reached a tentative agreement after a dispute with Kaiser Permanente. Despite raising patient premiums and paying its CEO $16 million a year, the health care company reduced worker wages and staff, leading to problems springing from understaffed medical facilities.

Leading up to the agreement, a strike was authorized by a union vote with 98% approval. Had the strike gone through, it would have been the largest strike in the U.S. since the United Parcel Service walk-out of 1997.

According to Meg Niemi, president of SEIU Local 49, which represents many Kaiser Permanente workers in Oregon, it was the large size of the coalition that caused Kaiser Permanente to put a generous offer on the bargaining table.

The agreement as it stands would see Kaiser Permanente invest $130 million in employee training programs to help workers adapt to new technologies, as well give employees annual cost of living wage increases.

Niemi says the strength of a union comes down to its leadership, and credits the enthusiasm of young employees in leadership roles as being vital to the coalition’s success.

“Fundamentally, it all comes down to cultivating a strong set of leaders,” she explains. “Plenty of [our success] came from new people, young people, who were really willing to step up, even if being in a union was a new experience for them.”

The numbers support Niemi’s observation.

Millennial and Gen Z respondents, the most-employed generations, are also the one most likely to show unions love. Nearly 70% of employees aged between 18 and 29 hold a positive view of labor unions, according to Pew Research Center. Forty-six percent hold a positive view of corporations.

Across all demographics, support of unions held strong at 64%.

As younger workers take over the workforce, they have brought a fondness for organized labor, as well as social media and internet savviness, with them. Given the strong amount of public support and the rapid information sharing offered by the internet, one union striking can quickly inspire others to do the same.

“Social media has offered huge potential to get information out very quickly,” says Kelley McAllister, communications director of UFCW Local 555. She adds unions have embraced technology in a variety of ways, including texting services and email.

“Everyone is used to instantaneous updates now,” she says.

McAllister agrees that public opinion has certainly shifted towards unions, but that inequities and harsh economic realities of the modern economy are the true drivers of renewed union action.

“The economic conditions for many of our members are very bad. We have so many homeless members, so many members on food stamps, so we are pushing for cost of living increases,” she says.

The cost of living has increased in Oregon and elsewhere. Despite the strong economy, McAllister says plenty of members must work multiple lower-wage jobs to make ends meet, or face homelessness.

“It’s like that old joke where the person says: ‘The economy must be doing well because there are so many jobs, and I know because I have three of them.’ If you’re
at job where you’re working 40 hours a week, you should be making enough to feed your kids and pay your rent.”

Additionally, McAllister said that a survey on behalf of the union found strong evidence of gender inequality. “We are also looking at pay equity, because we discovered there was inequality between men and women being slotted into higher and lower paying departments.”

With so much union activity, and union success, you’d be forgiven for thinking unions are booming. Only 11% of employees report being represented by a labor union, down from 23% in 1983.

Partially, this has to do with a shifting economy in the U.S. Manufacturing jobs have declined and service jobs, which are much less likely to unionize, have become a greater share of the labor market.

But the labor market, at least in Oregon, is extremely tight. As the state reaches almost full employment, a company’s fear of labor unions is easy to understand, and some companies have taken aggressive action to thwart organized labor.

Modern union-busting tactics revolve around creating dissension and distrust among members. Niemi detailed “divide and conquer” strategies revolving around employers trying to get union chapters expelled from the coalition, negotiating generously with unions that did choose to leave, and targeting union leaders personally with attacks via company communication channels.

But while some corporations have chosen the path of most-resistance when it comes to unions, other job creators have chosen to make welcoming unions part of their culture.

The Portland Diamond Project, a group of investors seeking to bring a major league baseball team to Portland, signed an historic agreement with union Oregon AFL-CIO, one that promises employees full and uninhibited access to unionization.

This “harmony agreement” is unprecedented. Normally, a labor agreement at this stage would only involve construction workers, but the agreement between the Portland Diamond Project and the AFL-CIO applies to workers after the stadium is built.

“Portland is a union town,” says John McIsaac, who handles communications for the Portland Diamond Project. “Just like we’re going to meet with neighborhood associations and rotary clubs and interest groups, we’re getting out in front of things with organized labor as well.”

True, the Portland Diamond Project has been innovative. It has promised to be the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum-Certified professional sports stadium in the country.

For McIsaac, however, the collaboration with labor unions can contribute just as much to efficiency as it can good karma. “The idea is if you pay people a living wage, they can live close to the facility they’re working in,” he says.

As the labor market tightens, attracting young talent has become a priority for employers. Much like offering sustainability initiatives and workplace wellness, a company that makes collaboration with unions part of their DNA, could hold a recruitment edge over its rivals.

That is to say, the historic agreement could serve as a blueprint for other companies to follow.

“It works for us,” says McIsaac. “I hope others can follow suit.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the end of the Fred Meyer boycott as of September 28, 2019.

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