From movie sets to manufacturing facilities, unions push businesses as workers become scarce

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Union leaders press to increase their ranks and secure profits for their members as workers demand more from their employers and companies grapple with labor shortages and tangled supply chains.

Union officials said workers were motivated by ongoing frustration with their working hours, salary and concern for their health as some were on the front lines during the Covid-19 pandemic. Employees have pushed for higher wages, expanded benefits, safer jobs and additional staff this year.

“There’s a new militancy out there. I think it’s an opportunity for the workers. ‘”


– James P. Hoffa, Teamster President

“There’s a new militancy out there,” said James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 1.4 million workers, from auto workers in Detroit to package deliverers. “I think it’s an opportunity for work.”

In recent months, in response to the tight labor market for low-wage workers, many companies have raised wages, offered contractual bonuses and improved social benefits in order to remain competitive. Union critics have warned that the work stoppages and efforts to influence labor policies could drive up prices for consumers and slow production, potentially stifling the recovery of the US economy.

“Businesses and unions should work together to get the economy back on track,” said Kristen Swearingen, chairman of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, an organization of industrial groups including the US Chamber of Commerce. Work stoppages could cost jobs and harm small businesses, the coalition said.

Earlier this month, the chief executive officer of the food giant Conagra Brands Inc.

was asked by analysts about concerns about strikes.

“It’s a tight job market and it takes a lot of ingenuity, creativity and effort to attract and retain people,” said Sean Connolly, CEO, adding, “So of course we always try to cultivate the strongest.” Relationships with our employees. … And I feel good where we are right now, but it’s – there’s no denying it, it’s a daily challenge. ”

Marcel Debruge, corporate labor law attorney, said companies are facing increased frustration among employees. However, he believes that many companies are stepping up their efforts to respond to the response and that workers may not turn to the unions, partly because workers now have other ways to express complaints and make a profit, e.g. . “I don’t think it’s a new day for organized labor,” he said.

Union membership, particularly in the private sector, has been declining for decades. Employment growth has slowed in industries such as manufacturing, transportation and utilities, which tend to be more unionized than healthcare and other services. Some manufacturers have set up new plants in southern states, where unions are usually less common.

Union members made up 10.8% of the U.S. workforce last year, a higher proportion than in 2019 but less than in 1983, the earliest year for which the Department of Labor had comparable data, at 20.1%.

Labor leaders said it is time to build their ranks due to labor shortages, pandemic battles and because there is a worker-friendly President in the White House. Rob Hill, vice president and organizational director of Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents janitors and airport workers, said he expected the 175,000-strong union to recruit twice as many new members this year as it did in 2020, up from around 4,000. Concerns about compensation, health insurance and paid time off are fueling workers’ interest in the union, he said.

The Teamsters union said it is handling an unprecedented number of union formation applications in jobs across the country, and Mr Hoffa cited organizing efforts or first-time contracts in Illinois cannabis dispensaries, grocery stores and casinos in Las Vegas.

Jonas Loeb, communications director for the 150,000-member International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said the union is actively recruiting people for live events across the country. An onslaught of concerts and other events planned as part of the easing of the pandemic restrictions puts more strain on employees, Loeb said.

That weekend, the film and television industry narrowly avoided a suspension of production after the stage workers union reached a preliminary agreement with studios and streaming services on workers’ demands.

Not all of the workers’ efforts have been successful. Amazon.com employees at an Alabama warehouse voted not to unionize in April, and a separate 2018 attempt to organize workers at Amazon’s Whole Foods Market also failed.

Union-friendly workers at the Alabama camp said this year organizing could help raise wages and allow for a more reasonable pace of work. Amazon pushed back, promoting its $ 15 hourly wages and benefits, and highlighting the cost of paying union dues. About 71% of warehouse workers who voted voted against organizing, citing concerns about job security, the cost of paying dues and concerns that organizing would not do much to improve wages and benefits . The leading union wants a second vote.

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


Photo:

Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa USA / Reuters

Unions have argued that if current labor laws were revised to more severely punish employers who illegally thwart organizing efforts, membership would increase. Republicans and corporate groups said such changes would limit workers’ freedom to choose whether to join a union.

Some union officials and labor researchers said that current union action has an emotional component. Some workers remain frustrated at having to work long hours during the pandemic and a sense of injustice as some companies are making big profits from a recovering economy.

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

“The workers are angry,” said Bruno.

Deere has said it is working to resolve the concerns of its striking workers and keep its operations going.

Michelle Back, who worked at a pharmacy throughout the pandemic and often left her young, autistic son at home, said she was determined to fight back what she believed to be inadequate proposals for wage increases and benefits in her employer’s contract negotiations.

“We were heroes in the healthcare sector months ago,” said Ms. Back. When she was given the opportunity to authorize a strike later that month, she said she would vote yes.

Write to Jesse Newman at [email protected]

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