Unions push companies while workers remain scarce



Union leaders are pushing to increase their ranks and secure gains for their members as workers demand more from their employers and companies grapple with labor shortages and booming supply chains.

Union officials said workers are motivated by continued frustration with their hours, wages and health concerns as some have held frontline jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, employees pushed for higher wages, increased benefits, safer workplaces and more staff.

“There is a new activism there. I think it’s an opportunity for work.

– James P. Hoffa, President of the Teamsters

“There is a new activism out there,” said James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, which represents 1.4 million workers, from auto workers in Detroit to delivery drivers. parcel. “I think this is an opportunity for the job.”

In recent months, many companies, responding to the tight labor market for low-wage workers, have increased wages, offering signing bonuses and improved benefits to stay competitive. Union critics have warned that work stoppages and efforts to influence labor policy could push up prices for consumers and slow production, potentially stifling the U.S. economic recovery.

“Business and unions should work together to get the economy back on track,” said Kristen Swearingen, chair of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, an organization of industry groups including the US Chamber of Commerce. Work stoppages could end up costing jobs and hurting small businesses, the coalition said.

Earlier this month, during the company’s earnings call, the CEO of food giant Conagra Brands Inc.

was asked by analysts about concerns over the strikes.

“It’s a tight job market, and it takes a lot of ingenuity, creativity and effort to attract and retain employees,” replied Sean Connolly, the CEO, adding, “So we always try to cultivate the as loud as possible. relations with our employees … And I feel good about where we are now, but it’s – it’s undeniable, it’s a daily routine.

Marcel Debruge, a corporate labor relations lawyer, said companies were facing increased employee frustration. But he believes many companies are redoubling their efforts to be responsive and that employees might not turn to unions in part because workers now have other means, such as social media, to voice their grievances and get earnings. “I don’t believe that a new day has dawned for organized labor,” he said.

Union membership, especially in the private sector, has been in decline for decades. Job growth has slowed in sectors such as manufacturing, transportation and utilities, which are generally more unionized than health care and other services. Some manufacturers have set up new factories in southern states where unions are generally less common.

Union members made up 10.8% of the U.S. workforce last year, a higher proportion than in 2019, but down from a peak of 20.1% in 1983, the first year for which the Ministry of Labor has comparable data.

Union leaders said now is the time to strengthen their ranks amid worker shortages, the pandemic and the fact that a pro-Labor president is in the White House. Rob Hill, vice president and organization director of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents janitors and airport workers, said he expects the union of around 175,000 members Signs double the number of new members this year than it did in 2020, which was around 4,000. workers’ interest in the union, he said.

The Teamsters union said it was responding to an unprecedented volume of demands for union training in workplaces across the country, and Mr Hoffa cited organizing efforts or contracts for the first time in Illinois cannabis dispensaries, food distribution warehouses, and Las Vegas casinos.

Jonas Loeb, communications director for the International Theater Employees Alliance, which has 150,000 members, said the union is actively recruiting workers for live events across the country. A stampede of concerts and other scheduled events as pandemic restrictions relax further strain employees, Loeb said.

This weekend, the film and television industry narrowly avoided a production shutdown after the stage workers’ union reached a tentative deal with studios and streaming services over the demands of workers.

All the efforts of the workers were not crowned with success. Amazon.com employees at an Alabama warehouse voted in April not to unionize, and a separate 2018 effort to organize Amazon’s Whole Foods Market workers also failed.

Pro-union workers at the Alabama warehouse this year said the organization could help raise wages and provide a more manageable pace of work. Amazon fired back, promoting his salary and benefits of $ 15 an hour and highlighting the cost of paying union dues. About 71% of warehouse workers who voted voted against unionization, citing concerns about job security, the cost of paying dues and fears that unionization will do little to improve wages and social benefits. The union leading the effort is seeking a second vote.

Strikers outside a Mondelez International facility in Portland, Oregon in August.


Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa United States / Reuters

The unions argued that their membership would increase if current labor laws were revised to more severely punish employers who illegally thwart union organizing efforts. Republicans and business groups said such changes would limit workers’ ability to freely choose to join a union.

Some union officials and labor researchers said there was an emotional component to current union actions. Frustration persists among some workers at having been forced to work long hours during the pandemic, they said, and a sense of injustice as some companies reap big profits from a recovering economy.

Robert Bruno, professor of labor relations and employment at the University of Illinois, said last week’s strike against Deere took place despite the equipment company’s proposed contract which included higher wages, bonuses and improved retirement benefits, suggesting that workers’ frustrations extend beyond money.

“The workers are angry,” Bruno said.

Deere said he was working to resolve the concerns of his strikers and aimed to maintain operations.

Michelle Back, who worked throughout the pandemic at a pharmacy and often left her young autistic son at home, said she was determined to push back what she sees as insufficient proposals for pay increases and advantages in contract negotiations by his employer.

“We were health heroes just a few months ago,” said Ms. Back, who represents pharmacy workers in negotiations and has served for decades as a liaison between employees and management. When she gets a chance to vote to authorize a strike later this month, she said, she will vote yes.

Write to Jesse Newman at jesse.newman@wsj.com

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