Roaring Back

How an engaged, media-savvy millennial workforce has brought labor unions back into the spotlight and racked up contract victories.

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Shoppers at a Fred Meyer in Northeast Portland probably weren’t expecting to be part of a flash mob on Sept. 13, 2019, as they did their evening shopping, nor to be a part of a labor union’s fight to secure what they considered equitable pay.

Workers dressed as World War II cultural icon Rosie the Riveter sang “Respect” by Aretha Franklin inside the store.

The video was widely distributed, and the incident was reported by KOIN 6, a local news outlet.

A flash mob is a group of people who meet and spontaneously break into song and dance in a public place.

Flash mobs are social media darlings and often go on to achieve viral video success. For employees of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, however, this particular flash mob had a purpose.

The demonstration was meant to draw attention to the union’s fight for equal gender pay among departmental employees in grocery stores.

Kelley McAllister, communications director of UFCW Local 555, and her communications team. Photo: Jason Kaplan 

Pay equity was part of contract negotiations between UFCW Local 555 and retail employers, including Kroger Foods, Fred Meyer’s parent company.

Disagreement between the union and Fred Meyer led the UFCW Local 555, supported by the Oregon AFL-CIO, to stage a boycott of the superstore chain.

The video is a symptom of something larger happening in the labor movement. A new generation of motivated millennials have joined labor unions, and they’ve brought social media savvy, strong organizational skills and a passion for equality with them.

Union support is highest among young people. Nearly 70% of employees aged between 18 and 29 hold a positive view of labor unions, according to Pew Research Center.

With their help, unions are back on the upswing. Despite low numbers — only 16% of Oregon employees are part of a union — a string of contract wins have brought labor unions roaring back into the spotlight.

The flash-mob tactic at Fred Meyer proved effective. It ended when a tentative agreement was ratified by the union on Oct. 11.

The 2019 agreement was a win for the union. It addressed structural issues that made it difficult for female employees to change departments, as well as provided cost-of- living increases.

“Finally having a fair process to change departments not only gives me financial freedom [due to resulting wage increases] but emotional freedom, because I feel more respected at work,” says Ann Poff, a 22-year deli worker at Safeway, in a statement issued by the union declaring successful negotiations.

The communications director of UFCW Local 555, poses in front of their logo. Photo: Jason Kaplan 

UFCW Local 555 wasn’t the only Oregon labor union to rack up a big victory this year.

The Service Employees National Union (SEIU) 503, which represents state university campus employees, reached a contract settlement Sept. 28, 2019, which the union hailed as a “major milestone.”

The agreement included the largest cost-of-living adjustment in more than a decade and established a paid-leave bank for days off due to bad weather.

Additionally, Oregon and Washington health care workers joined 80,000 employees represented by at least 300 unions in a vote to strike against Kaiser Permanente on Aug. 27, 2019.

After the strike was authorized by the union by a 98% margin, Kaiser reached an agreement with the coalition on Oct. 9, which established a $130 million workforce development program, as well as cost-of- living increases.

Since the agreement was finalized, the voted-upon strike against Kaiser never actually happened. If it had, it would have been the largest strike in the U.S. since the United Parcel Service walkout of 1997.

According to Meg Niemi, president of SEIU Local 49, which represented many Oregon health care workers during contract negotiations with Kaiser Permanente, the strength of a union comes down to its leadership.

Niemi 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 says. “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.”

Niemi says millennial workers, as well as workers generally, are more aware of the vast disparity between what corporate higher-ups earn compared with employees.

“They see the CEO of Kaiser making $16 million and the company making $3.2 billion in the first quarter, and then they see their benefits being reduced,” she says.

This September Graham Trainor was elected president of the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a federation of unions. Trainor is not a millennial himself.

He refers to himself as a “cusper,” a term to describe those on the border of the millennial generation and Generation X.

Still, the new president says the millennial engagement is here to stay and part of a renaissance in the labor movement.

He views the millennial cohort as one with ideals of engagement and public action, and one that has been misled about their economic prospects.

Recently-eleted president of the Oregon AFL-CIO Graham Trainor. Photo: Jason Kaplan 

“There are young workers who were told one thing about their economic prospects when they went off to college and are now struggling under a mountain of student debt,” says Trainor. “They’re fed up, and they are looking around and they see the labor movement fighting for them.”

In 2017, 76% of new union members were under 35 years old. Trainor says millennial employees have not only energized union action but also changed the labor movement’s values to reflect their own.

“I don’t know if 20 years ago the labor movement would have introduced legislation protecting workers who face sexual harassment on the job. I think it’s because we have younger women in positions of power within our movement,” says Trainor.

The 2019 Oregon AFL-CIO convention, at which Trainor was elected, was the first ever to hold a panel on the use of preferred gender pronouns.

“Sometimes when you think of unions, you think of older white men, but we have more of a demographic and age mix than you might expect,” says Kelley McAllister, communications director of UFCW Local 555. “Our second biggest demographic is workers under 20.”

The social media era has allowed unions to have more solidarity with one another, either by direct contact or by sharing each other’s posts and updates on social media, says McAllister.

“Sharing posts is great not only because it shows solidarity but because it has the opportunity to reach and connect more labor advocates,” she says.

Kelly McAllistair, communications director of UFCW Local 555. Photo: Jason Kaplan 

While McAllister agrees young employees were vital to the success of the UFCW Local 555 negotiations, she say the reality of Oregon’s high cost of living was as much a driver of union action as young workers’ engagement.

“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 [pushed] for cost of living increases,” she says.

Despite the strong economy and corporations posting record profits, McAllister says plenty of members have to work multiple lower-wage jobs to make ends meet.

“One thing we brought up over and over in negotiations was that one good job should be enough,” says McAllister. “If you’re working hard 40 hours a week, you should be able to make enough to feed your kids and pay your rent.”

The new contract negotiated by members of UFCW Local 555 gave some workers wage increases that are double or more than triple what previous contracts provided.

As wins for labor unions continue to mount, employers have found ways to retaliate.

According to McAllister, Fred Meyer held captive audience meetings, a tactic in which employers call workers in for meetings to discourage them from taking part in union activity, a charge the superstore chain denies.

Plenty of [our success] came from new people, young people who were really willing to step up, even if being in an union was a new experience for them.”

-Meg Miemi, President of SEIU Local 49

Other businesses have shown a combative streak against resurgent unions.

When the International Association of Machinists (IAM) circulated materials to Delta Airlines employees about unionization, the airline launched an online and print campaign of their own, punctuated by flyers with ideas of what else an employee could spend their union membership dues on if they didn’t join.

The company said it respects its employees’ decision to “decide if a union is right for them,” and that its campaign is only intended to give employees the facts about what union membership can do for them, according to an official statement.

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 a unique agreement with the Oregon AFL-CIO, one that promises employees at its potential stadium 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.

“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,” says John McIsaac, who handles communications for the Portland Diamond Project.

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

As the labor market tightens, and Oregon approaches full employment, attracting young talent has become a priority for employers. And many young, talented employees want access to unions.

Much like offering sustainability initiatives and workplace wellness, a company that makes collaboration with unions part of its DNA could hold a recruitment edge over its rivals.

The Portland Diamond Project’s agreement could serve as a blueprint for other companies to follow.

So what’s next for labor unions? Trainor says there are more workers in Oregon who are not part of unions who could be, including journalists and fast-food employees.

Employees at Vancouver, Washington-based The Columbian newspaper began to form a union on Sept. 30, 2019. The new union is comprised of reporters, photographers, copy editors, page designers and editorial assistants.

Trainor says his organization has a responsibility to support workers who take part in newer economies, who he says are being taken advantage of by employers.

“I’m thinking about the person driving for Uber and Lyft, delivering for Grubhub and Postmates, who is misclassified as an independent contractor from our perspective,” says Trainor. “We helped the City of Portland form an advisory committee to give these workers classified as independent contractors a voice in their conditions.”

The independent contractors are by definition not employees, which makes their prospects for unionization slim. But Trainor says that you don’t need to form a union to be a part of the labor movement.

Oregon AFL-CIO president Graham Trainor says unions still have a ways to go representing workers in the new gig economy. Photo: Jason Kaplan 

“We believe we represent all working people,” he says, “whether they’re part of a union or not.”

Of course, nothing motivates employees like seeing unions achieve their goals. After a long membership drive this year, employees at four Burgerville restaurants in Portland unionized and went on strike for a $5-an-hour wage increase.

Unionization is uncommon in the fast-food industry. But for this younger, pro-union workforce, with organizational savvy and a willingness to go on strike, the old hurdles were not insurmountable. For the Oregon AFL-CIO, it is welcome news and could be a sign of things to come.

“This historic organizing campaign has captured the hearts and imagination of unions and workers across the country,” says Trainor.

The union represents only 12% of Burgerville’s workforce, but the Pacific Northwest fast-food chain held talks with the new union. The strike ended on Oct. 27, 2019, after lasting only a few days. The parties agreed to wage renegotiations.

“As a 58-year-old company, we’ve seen a lot of changes in the Pacific Northwest,” says Hillary Barbour, director of strategic initiatives at Burgerville, who cited rising cost of living and transportation as challenges facing all employees in the region.

“We want to lead conversations with other employers and with unions about how we can grow together and give back to the community,” she says.

“Our commitment is to build a business model for the future. We want to be around for the next 58 years.”

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