There has been a surge in union activism, including strikes and organizing efforts, in the last year that is being driven by factors that go far beyond pay rates and benefit packages.
A presidential panel that reviewed that labor dispute recommended that the two sides agree to a five-year contract that includes an immediate 14% raise, back pay starting in 2020 and a 24% salary increase over the course of the contract. That’s less than the 31% in raises over five years the union is seeking, but more than the 17% previously offered by rail management.
That it was enough for some unions to agree to tentative deals, but not unions representing more than 90,000 workers, including those who make up two-person crews on freight trains. They seem poised to strike unless Congress acts to keep them on the job.
“We’re not going to sit here and argue about [wages] or health care. We are beyond that,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the union that represents drivers, one of two workers on the freight trains along with the engineer.
Unions say conditions at work are driving thousands of workers to quit jobs they previously would have held throughout their careers, creating untenable conditions for remaining workers. Changing those work rules, including the on-call requirement, is the main demand.
“The word has gotten out that these jobs are not attractive because of the way they treat workers,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the union that represents engineers. “Employees have said, ‘I’ve had enough.'”
Non-economic issues driving other strikes
And it is not only the railways that have reached this breaking point.
“We are not on strike for our wages. We are fighting for the ability to have a say in our profession and work-life balance,” said Mary Turner, a Covid ICU nurse and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, the union fighting the strike. .
Alexis Petrakis, a member of the union bargaining committee and a child therapist at Kaiser for the past three years, said she had never been in a union before and did not expect to go on strike this time. But he said poor quality of care and the company’s inability to schedule visits for new patients for up to six weeks due to staffing issues have pushed him and her co-workers out.
“Being away from my patients is heartbreaking. But again, they were receiving inadequate care,” Petrakis said. “The curtain is lifting on this broken system. It needs to change now. I’m doing everything I can to better move his care forward.”
Organizing also raises concerns in the workplace
Complaints about working conditions, safety and quality of life issues are not just causing strikes. They are also driving an increase in organizing efforts.
These non-economic problems may seem unique a today, but they were behind the very foundation of the American labor movement a century ago.
Employees fighting for safer working conditions and quality-of-life issues like weekends off, holidays, paid vacations, and a 40-hour week helped unions establish a foothold in the US. and led to its growth in the first half of the 20th century.
Beyond the impact it had on the workforce at large, concerns about working conditions have resulted in increased union activism.
There have been 263 strikes so far this year, according to a Cornell University database, up 84% from the same period last year.
And there have been 826 workplace union elections from January to July this year, 45% more than the number held in the same period in 2021, according to data from the National Labor Relations Board, which monitors voting. The unions’ 70% success rate on those votes is much better than the 42% in the first seven months of 2021.
Those surges in activity would never have happened without non-economic issues being front and center, according to union officials.
“That is definitely what is driving the voice of workers across the country. It’s not just about pocketbook problems,” said Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. “They want their voices to be heard. They’re working horrendous hours. Workers are realizing their bosses don’t respect their voice, they don’t respect them.”
Experts agree that unions are seeing new success because of workers’ anger over non-economic issues.
“Unions succeed when they are based on things that workers care about,” said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s school of industrial and labor relations.
“The scheduling, the health and safety concerns, are very important.,” he added. “There is certainly an opportunity for the unions there.”
And experts say these problems are a good sign that unions will continue to grow stronger in the future.
“The rise in importance of non-economic issues … suggests a renaissance in the labor movement,” said Todd Vachon, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “The economic demand for labor will be up and down. The more comprehensive the demands that labor brings to the table, the better they can weather changes in the business economic cycle.”