Why Workers Are Turning to Unions

Yves here. A short answer to the headline might be, “The same reason laborers invented unions in the first place: they are tired of being screwed by management and know the only hope of changing that is working together.”

The question now is whether newer unions, particularly ones for gig workers (even if they are local in established unions) can avoid the pitfalls that have given older unions a bad name, even with union workers overall clearly getting a better deal in pay and other protections than non-union employees. One is that union leaders often reach a pay and status level so that the come to identify more with management than then rank and file. Second is corruption, which we see among many of the California public employee unions via CalPERS. It’s almost impossible to get a board seat without union backing (see the fierce and arguably illegal campaigns against pro-transparency and accountability board members JJ Jelincic and Margaret Brown). Yet the board toadies to CalPERS’ incompetent management, to beneficiary harm (CalPERS had the worst returns of any sizable public pension fund for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2021 and its shabby returns this year may be just as bad relative to peers). Normally one wonders what sexual favors were exchanged for this to happen, but the currency at CalPERS is CalPERS-paid overseas junkets for board members (which neither Jelincic nor Brown were even offered, not that they would have taken them, but presumably as punishment for not playing nice with the staff).

It’s also good to see this article get a dig in, whether by accident or design, at the American Red Cross, which has gone from a respected charity to an executive grifting operation. One of many disgraceful incidents was Hurricane Sandy. American Red Cross used the disaster as a fundraising opportunity, yet was nowhere to be seen in Sandy-related relief operations. By contrast, Occupy Sandy did a bang-up job.

A key tidbit in this article is that unions are rising in public esteem. The result of rising precarity?

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

Amy Dennett long endured understaffing, low pay and indifferent bosses in her job at the American Red Cross in Asheville, North Carolina.

But she decided she’d had enough when management’s failure to provide basic resources forced her and her coworkers to build, jury-rig and dig into their own pockets for items needed to operate the blood donation center.

Dennett helped lead a union drive in 2020, resulting in the group’s vote to join the United Steelworkers (USW), and the 24 workers gained raises, greatly improved health care and much-needed equipment even before signing their first contract.

More and more workers like Dennett are realizing that unions fight for them every day, providing a path forward even in tumultuous times like a pandemic.

Gallup surveyed Americans on their confidence in 16 U.S. institutions ranging from the Supreme Court to television news. Over the past year, Gallup found, Americans’ confidence fell in all of them except one—organized labor.

“That doesn’t surprise me. We’re supposed to have faith in our elected officials and other leaders. But it’s a lot easier for a worker to have faith in the guy standing next to them than a guy in some other place you’ve never met who’s supposed to represent you,” Dennett said of the findings, noting that unions helped workers during the pandemic while many of the 16 institutions failed or exploited them.

With the help of a lone Democrat, for example, the Republicans in Congress killed legislation that would have expanded struggling families’ access to education, health care and child care.

Some banks socked borrowers with illegal late fees and charges despite their enrollment in a pandemic program temporarily pausing mortgage payments, compounding the homeowners’ hardships.

Corporations jacked up prices on food and other essentials, raking in ever-higher profits on the backs of working Americans. And tech companies like Amazon and Apple tried to beat back workers’ fights for better wages and working conditions.

In stark contrast to all of this, unions stepped up during the pandemic because their members needed them more than ever. They not only empowered workers to secure the personal protective equipment, paid sick leave and affordable health care they needed to safeguard their families but also continued winning the raises and benefits essential for years to come.

Those successes drove Americans’ support for unions to record levels and unleashed a wave of organizing drives among workers who put their lives on the line to keep companies operating during the pandemic.

“These workers have figured out, ‘Hey, I’m essential. I deserve to make enough to pay my bills,’” Dennett said, noting the USW “absolutely changed the dynamic” in her workplace.

Once “blatantly ignored,” she said, workers now have a seat at the table. And no longer do Dennett and her coworkers have to build their own organizers for tape and Band-Aids or scrounge parts for items like television assemblies.

“We ended up with the equipment that we need,” explained Dennett, a collection specialist, noting her coworkers now have quality computer carts like the one she had to buy for herself a couple of years ago.

The USW also represents Red Cross workers in Alabama and Georgia. When a cost-of-living analysis revealed the urgent need for raises in some of those locations, Dennett and her underpaid colleagues also received pay bumps, even before completing their first contract.

Workers’ demand for union representation cuts across all economic sectors, from manufacturing and retail to emerging clean industries and professional sports.

Players in the new United States Football League (USFL) recently voted to join the USW to ensure adequate housing, meals and health care, among other essentials, and to guard against the kinds of nightmares that followed the collapse of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.

That league folded overnight, stranding players in the cities where they were playing.

“There was no transportation home,” explained Kenneth Farrow, president of the United Football Players Association, which advocates for USFL players.

Farrow said the Alliance players got kicked out of their hotels, had to fund their own flights and rental cars and got stuck with ongoing medical expenses for game-related injuries. “There have been quite a few ugly situations,” he said, explaining why the USFL players wanted a union.

Besides fighting for better wages and working conditions, unions confront favoritism and discrimination when no one else will.

With the support of other unions, USW Local 7600 took a stand last year on behalf of thousands of members working at Kaiser Permanente health care facilities in the Inland Empire area of Southern California.

The union challenged Kaiser’s practice of paying those workers, many of them people of color, significantly lower wages than their counterparts performing the same jobs at the health care giant’s locations elsewhere. Some of the Inland Empire workers made 30 percent less than peers in Los Angeles and Orange County.

Kaiser tried to blame the pay gaps on a higher cost of living in Los Angeles, an excuse that fell flat with the USW members.

“I’m from LA. It’s not that much higher,” said LaTrice Benson, an anesthesia technician affected by the disparities.

In the end, Kaiser agreed to commit millions to closing wage gaps for the USW members as well as workers represented by other unions.

“It means the world to me and my colleagues,” Benson said. “We’re sincerely thankful for our union.”

Dennett sees the growing appreciation for organized labor even among the blood donors she works with every day. When she tells them she joined a union, she often gets the same response: “Congratulations.”

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar


    One weakness that the article makes evident, unintentionally, is that workers should be organized more along the lines of craft and industry. It makes sense to join a union, but how can the Steelworkers keep their focus when we read here that the union now encompasses anesthetists, blood-bank paramedics, plus football players?

    On the other hand, the radical history of the USW keeps them creative, doesn’t it.

    Yet unions still struggle with “right to work” laws, a lack of interest and support in Congress, Taft-Hartley and other such oppression, continuing betrayal by the Democratic Party, and sheer propaganda.

    The progress of “right to work” laws brings to my mind how the legal landscape post-Roe may end up–and it’s a disaster.

    The parallel with the current situation with access to birth control and abortion means that the sooner the groups go into a coalition, the better. Union health plans may be the way to protect reproductive rights–but the upper-middle-class feminists in charge of what remains of the pro-choice movement are not likely to go to unions for help. Another case of divide and conquer.

    1. Polar Socialist

      workers should be organized more along the lines of craft and industry

      In the world I live in, the workers are organized by the craft and industry, or more precisely by the industry of employer they are negotiating with.

      But then again, in my world collective bargaining has been the default since WW2, and labor union one joins is usually the one which negotiated the terms in the contract you sign with the employer.

  2. Watt4Bob

    Organized Labor has the same vulnerability as any other IDPOL silo, their leadership gets bought off with incomes that turn them into useless PMC members.

    Any organization set up to improve the material well-being of a particular group can be neutered in this manner.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      One way to minimize the chances of that happening is to bar union leadership from earning more than the highest-paid worker under contract. This lessens the gap between worker and leadership, and provides an incentive for electeds to struggle for better wages.

      The United Electrical Workers (UE), one of the founding unions in the CIO and still an independent rank and file union, has always operated with such by-laws.

        1. Michael Fiorillo

          Yes, and their survival back then against McCarthyism and poaching from other unions, including one (IUE) that was explicitly established to destroy them, was quite a heroic feat. As for their radicalism, indeed: UE came out against US involvement in Vietnam in 1964!

      1. Carla

        “One way to minimize the chances of [corruption] is to bar union leadership from earning more than the highest-paid worker under contract. This lessens the gap between worker and leadership, and provides an incentive for electeds to struggle for better wages.”

        I really, really hope Chris Smalls and the other Amazon organizers, as well as all the folks organizing at Starbucks, learn about the United Electrical Workers’ by-laws and incorporate similar provisions while setting up their own unions’ operating rules. Brilliant and essential.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      weren’t a lot of non-neutered union leaderships persecuted out of unions during the whole McCarthy-HUAC period? Thereby creating the leadership vacuum which could be filled by neuterable leaders? Or am I wrong?

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        You are mostly right. With the exception of outliers like UE and the West Coast longshore workers (Harry Bridges, Presente!), the Old, CPUSA-dominated, Left was effectively purged from the labor movement. The UAW had a Left opposition that retained power in few locals, but that became increasingly vestigial.

  3. seabos84

    I’ve included a link to some union stuff I put together 8 +/- years ago. My ideas are based upon my experiences in the Seattle Education Association & Washington Education Association. I was ‘elected’ as a building (later association) rep for the 2009-2010 year, my 5th year of teaching high school math, at a school of 1200 +/- & 70% FRL, my 3rd career, and I was 49 years old.

    There were 2 sets of too common problems. One set was founded in the processes of how people were elected or chosen, and how actions for the membership were chosen. A second set of problems was founded in the lame “organizing” of the time, which was kind of stuck in electronic shoe boxes filled with electronic 3*5 cards.


    As an FYI – I’m most likely retired this year. Yawn. The processes and the organizing actually improved, due to COVID.

    I could never quite figure out how to NOT be grouchy old white guy, full of sound of fury. IMNHO, while there were definitely the communication problems you get between boys & girls, and us white peeps & the BIPOC peeps, and the old farts VS. the trained on the latest greatest unfunded mandate failure,

    The Key Central I$$ue for NOT moving the ball with respect to our working conditions / maximizing help for kids without re$ource$, that Key Issue was $ocial Cla$$. Too many teachers come from the top 25 and 50% of household income, they really haven’t a clue how brutal the job market is. They’re just poverty tourists when it comes to the life of those in the bottom 25 or 75 percentiles of housing income, and how your health care access is a joke, your housing options are a joke, your retirement options are just wall street approved 401(C)asino.

    1. digi_owl

      “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach”.

      It seems like all of “academia”, from kindergarten on up, is filled with poverty tourists.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Is this to say that the only reason someone would want to “teach” in a “school” is because they realize they cannot “do” anything anywhere in any “non-school” setting? Is this how we are being invited to view “teachers”?

  4. Alice X

    The I.W.W. is dead.

    Long live the I.W.W.!

    There was a dark reason for Capital under Wilson to crush them. Capital was terrified of one big union.

    It still exists but only as a shadow of its former self, yet that could change?


    1. Return of the Bride of Joe Biden

      I’m a card carrying member.

      An injury to one is an injury to all.


  5. Verifyfirst

    I hate to be a downer, but I will be very surprised if there is ever a single Starbucks or Amazon or Chipotle etc. contract signed from this boomlet of elections. It’s child’s play for these employers to wait out these high turnover employees.

    The one thing the national unions can offer a new unit that affiliates is the initial legal experience and resources (which it is hard to do without), but other than that, the new units can expect to be completely co-opted and swallowed up by the national. But going as an independent is highly unlikely to succeed against these companies.

    The only thing I can see working is basically direct action of various sorts–compel recognition and bargaining, make it impossible for them to do business. In a tight labor market, maybe have a chance?
    Obviously consumer/community support would help in inflicting costs on the companies, but these companies are such monopolies, there are not many substitutes. And I would not bet much on the American consumer/community, though if a wave of successful organizing/contracts did get rolling, it would spread like a virus, as it did in the 1930’s at the end of which even three teenage girls working in a candy shop would venture to organize. Of course, a few charismatic leaders would help a lot!

    Organizing Ford (for example) took many years and workers and supervisors were murdered on the job. I saw a display case once of homemade weapons workers carried at Ford–vicious looking shanks and knives, even a grenade.

    To quote Frederick Douglass:

    “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

    “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

  6. Lexx

    ‘The question now is whether newer unions, particularly ones for gig workers (even if they are local in established unions) can avoid the pitfalls that have given older unions a bad name, even with union workers overall clearly getting a better deal in pay and other protections than non-union employees…

    …A key tidbit in this article is that unions are rising in public esteem. The result of rising precarity?’

    What Malcolm Gladwell would call ‘a tipping point’? I’ve been waiting for it for 15 years since that technician I was talking with hissed ‘Union dues!’ at me. She was applying moisturizer and it was like a special effects Grand Canyon had just formed between us. It got real quiet in that little room, and I thought ‘okay, this needs a little more time’. (You would think 40 years of neoliberalism would be plenty?!)

    Now ‘Union dues!’ are starting to look like a good investment, instead of a shakedown.

    1. JBird4049

      It is not stupidity or short sightedness that had too many people against unions. It might seem like that, but the propaganda campaign against unions has been very, very effective and has been helped by corrupt union leadership. It is only now that people are starting to see through the lies and realize why they need unions. It also helps when their union “leadership” has been shown to be turncoats just like the Democratic leaders.

  7. Gitta

    Another foible of unions is their promoting affirmative action against white employees seeking to move up into management. My experience with that made me lose all sympathy for labor unions, while I still support workers’ rights.

  8. johnnyme

    The local IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) union has had a large billboard up for quite a while in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis that says:

    “Give yourself a $30,000+/year bonus. Organize your workplace.”

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