Unions look for momentum as more workers get fed up

Labor organizing efforts pick up in some sectors, but some workers prefer to go it alone when presenting demands to the boss.

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Art Institute employees seeking union representation hold a rally at the museum in November.

Art Institute employees seeking union representation hold a rally at the museum in November.

Jason Beeferman/Sun-Times file

Scores of job titles are in demand these days due to the labor shortage. To that long list, you might add the job of union organizer — troublemaker in the eyes of many employers.

The American workplace is restless. With labor at a premium, staffers are getting more assertive than they’ve been in decades. Unionized workers at Nabisco, Deere, Kellogg and Sysco were among those who struck last year to get better deals. Staffers at other places, such as Starbucks, are trying to organize unions.

One such effort that’s garnered attention here involves the Art Institute of Chicago. The National Labor Relations Board is expected this week to tally mailed-in ballots that will decide if about 600 workers at the museum and its school will join a union.

Still other places have less formal campaigns going on, their workers pressing demands on key issues without direct union involvement. These efforts take advantage of federal law barring employer retaliation against workers involved in “concerted activity,” coordinated behavior that calls attention to job-related issues.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Chicago Enterprise

Amazon workers have been doing this, but the company’s size makes it tempting for unions, too. The Teamsters have publicly identified the online retailer as an organizing target. Sources said the Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union have started contacting workers in Illinois, where Amazon now employs 36,000 people. The retail union lost a representation vote at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, but the NLRB has called for a new election because of alleged intimidation by the company.

Representatives of those unions declined to comment on campaigns here, which isn’t surprising. Organizing drives try for secrecy on a par with counterintelligence operations. Why tell employers about your intentions?

Don Villar, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said local organizing has picked up after sustaining a blow early in the pandemic. Citing union representation petitions filed with the NLRB, Villar said organizers have been busy at health care enterprises, charter schools and cannabis growers and shops. In the burgeoning warehouse sector, union and worker rights organizations have improved outreach to temporary workers, he said.

“A lot of our unions were suspicious of temp workers as being part of the ‘race to the bottom’ [on wages],” Villar said. “We’ve come to realize these workers need to be educated about and understand what we’ve been fighting for.” The CFL has an ownership stake in the Sun-Times.

It would be hard, however, to conclude we’ve hit a turning point in union influence. Organized labor’s share of the private sector workforce has been sliding for decades and, as last measured by the U.S. Labor Department, stood at 6.3% in 2020. It topped 20% in the 1970s. Last year’s data is due to be issued Jan. 20.

The saving grace for unions has been their strength with government workers. Villar said public-sector unions are branching out to organize nonprofits. The Art Institute campaign by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is one example.

The AFL-CIO cites surveys showing people are positive about unions, but organizers know workers can be a tough crowd to win over. It often starts with fear of employer retaliation, despite what the law says. When the target is lower-wage workers such as at Amazon, the heavy turnover of a young staff hurts organizing.

Another complication is that even if workers are militant, some want to challenge the boss as an independent group. The tactic can have limited success. Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of the faith-based labor rights group Arise Chicago, said it has helped workers get concessions in many such cases.

These campaigns are issue-specific and don’t yield the security of a union contract. But they can have an impact. Amazon workers in Chicago filed a complaint with the labor board that led to a broad order last month giving the company’s employees more flexibility to organize.

One change required Amazon to drop a rule saying workers could not be on-site more than 15 minutes before or after their shifts. The company allegedly wanted to prevent subversive conversations in parking lots or break rooms. As for union affiliation, Amazon worker Ted Miin, an organizer of the ad hoc group, said, “We are our own union, and we’re not seeking to be recruited by anybody.”

To longtime labor activists, that sounds naïve. The biggest drawback of mobilizing without union backup, said labor lawyer Robert Bloch, “is that it takes resources to keep everyone informed and organized, to respond to employer tactics, negotiate contracts and settle grievances. Tremendous resources make all of that possible.”

As for anybody trying to organize a company as wealthy as Amazon, “I think they’ll find it’s a tough row to hoe,” said Bloch, whose clients have included the Teamsters and the Chicago Teachers Union.

He could say that about a lot of situations. For a union organizer, the job is seldom easy or done.

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