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Published in Manufacturing

Union workers gain leverage in labor market altered by pandemic

BY Sunday, November 21, 2021 06:30pm

Against the backdrop of several high-profile, nationwide labor disputes, many local unions are seeing an uptick in interest from independent workers.

“There are a lot more people reaching out to various labor organizations just wanting to know what the process would look like,” said Ryan Bennett, business agent for Local 174 of the West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Union. “They’re wondering: ‘What would it mean if we were to have a union here or what would it mean if I joined your union — how would it make my life different?’”

COURTESY PHOTO

In an economic era with virtually every industry facing staffing shortages and trying to find ways to lure new talent, unions are using it as an opportunity to show workers the power and importance of a unified voice.

At the same time, unions and their workers are finding more leverage as employers become more desperate for talent.

While the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to these dynamics, Bennett said that a day of reckoning for employers has been a long time coming.

“We’ve seen a lot of these various organizations pick away at their workforces — long hours, reducing break times, reducing health benefits — just chipping away,” Bennett said. “At some point, enough has to be enough and you have to stick up for what you believe is in the best interests of your membership. 

“You’re seeing record profits from a lot of these companies that are currently out on strike. It doesn’t bode well when your CEO is getting a huge pay increase and you have a two-tier wage system causing the person next to you to work for damn near starvation wages.”

Bennett’s Local 174 does more than just ensure fair pay and safe work environments for its membership. Bennett’s union is home to a U.S. Department of Labor-certified apprenticeship program with 120 apprentices who attend a class once every other week. 

The union also offers journeyman training and a variety of other courses to allow their membership to upskill. The union also handles its health and wellness benefits in house, which gave it the opportunity to provide unemployment benefits for members when they were unexpectedly laid off in the early stages of the pandemic.

Bennett scoffs at the suggestion of a labor shortage as he routinely receives 300 applicants for the apprenticeship program each year.

“We’ve fought against this misnomer of a labor shortage really since the last recession,” Bennett said. “They’ve been beating that drum about not being able to find the workers.”

Bennett’s membership works alongside non-union professionals out in the field, readily offering to provide them with the same protections.

“We try to reach out to those workers and say, ‘Hey, let us know if we can ever be of service,’” Bennett said. “We’ve had an uptick of people reaching out and had some success stories organizing from the bottom up.”

Perfect storm

Nationwide union strikes at Battle Creek-based food manufacturer The Kellogg Co. and agriculture machinery and equipment manufacturer Deere & Co., among others, have thrust unions in the spotlight as of late.

The more than 10,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) members who were on strike at John Deere scored a victory last week when both sides reached a deal, ending a strike that had persisted since Oct. 14. The six-year agreement provided a 10-percent increase in wages this year and 20 percent over the life of the contract.

However, negotiations at Kellogg’s have been less fruitful. 

When asked to comment on the current status of negotiations, or the company’s level of confidence in striking a deal, Kellogg’s referred MiBiz to kelloggsnegotiations.com, a website created to provide updates on the labor dispute.

Roughly 1,400 Kellogg’s employees — represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union — have been on strike since Oct. 5. Contract negotiations fell through in early November.

Satish Deshpande, dean of Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business, said the pandemic has created a perfect storm that falls in favor of labor unions.

“If you are part of organized labor, this is one of the best opportunities you’ve had in decades to improve membership,” Deshpande said. “There is a demand for your members, your members are unhappy with their employers, and their employers have products to sell.”

Deshpande said labor shortages have stemmed from a variety of COVID-related dynamics. Not only have many workers quit their jobs in search of better pay, but parents — primarily women — were hamstrung by a lack of available child care. Aging workers also took the opportunity to retire.

Meanwhile, a variety of supply chain issues point to the fact that workers are desperately needed.

“What you have is a big shortage of labor, which pushes wage demands,” Deshpande said. “If you are unionized, that certainly gives the union a lot of power to ask for more. The market is demanding more and more stuff. There are a lot of incentives for employers to pay more so they can sell more.”

This is why unions are outspoken when asking for what they say is their fair share and holding the line when they don’t get it.

“They’re going to ask for what they can get,” Deshpande said. “If you look at some of the demands out there, these are things that they would have accepted by now if things were normal, but they’re kind of pushing.”

More for everyone

John Cakmakci helps represent roughly 29,000 workers across Michigan as president of United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 951. The union represents workers at companies like Meijer, Rite Aid, Kroger and Harding’s.

Similar to union leaders in other sectors, Cakmakci has received an influx of calls from workers who are burned out from working in labor-strapped grocery stores and distribution centers.

“One thing we’re finding is that we’re getting all sorts of calls from people because employers can work people beyond eight hours,” Cakmakci said. “Under union contracts, you get time-and-a-half to pay after eight hours. That issue has caused us to be inundated with calls from people saying they have to work 12 to 14 hours straight.” 

Cakmakci also identified wage compression as another issue causing conflict in the industry. This is when a new hire is brought in and, because of enhanced post-COVID wages, is paid nearly the same wages as a senior employee.

“(Employers) want to talk about the starting wage. Clearly we want to talk about that, too, but also for the senior people,” Cakmakci said. “It’s an opportunity for everyone to get a bit more.”

Above all else, Cakmakci’s primary concern for his leadership comes from the general public.

“I think my biggest concern is the way customers treat people,” he said. “Just the general public … and the disrespect we’ve had to put up with, it’s disgusting in my mind.”

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