In the last couple of weeks we have seen some things happen in labor-management relations that we would like to discuss. Depending on your viewpoint, some are good and others not.
While union membership has been stagnant, the benefits of unions for workers are evident. The decline in union membership may have begun to turn around, and so had public perception of unions. CNBC reports union membership increased slightly from 10.3% in 2019 to 10.8% in 2020. While this is only about half of the 20.1% level in 1983, it may indicate the start of a new trend.
One reason for this is seen as union members have held onto their jobs at higher rates than non-union members. “There’s some evidence that unions did a good job at protecting their members from layoffs, compared with the non-union sectors,” says John Logan, a U.S. labor historian at San Francisco State University.
The benefits to workers for being part of a union are reflected in the wage differential between union and nonunion workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that on average, in 2019, union workers earned roughly $1,095 per week, while nonunion workers earned closer to $892. This extrapolates to nonunion workers making just 81 cents for every dollar union workers earn.
Beyond just earnings, another benefit to union members has been increased attention to health and safety conditions impacting workers.
Interest in unions has been steadily rising among workers. According to survey research by MIT’s Tom Kochan, the share of non-union U.S. workers who would vote to join one jumped from 32% in 1995 to 48% in 2017.
“The labor movement has shown signs of life in recent years,” Logan says. “Plenty of inspiring stories, such as domestic workers, car wash workers, online media workers and more.”
Another factor is the growing wealth inequality and increased public perception of the problems it creates. Contributing to this is President Biden’s promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”
These factors have contributed to a growth of interest in union representation from workers in one major area.
The battle for Amazon workers continues. We have reported on the efforts of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to organize workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. CNBC reports the National Labor Relations Board denied Amazon’s request to block mail-in voting in the union representation election.
Amazon filed a request to have the election held in-person instead of by mail, citing errors in the NLRB’s definition of what constitutes a coronavirus outbreak. The NLRB said Amazon’s appeal raised “no substantial issues warranting review.”
The 6,000 workers began casting their ballots earlier this month, with the vote continuing until March 29.
Amazon has actively opposed this election just as they have previous efforts to organize workers. The company hired the same anti-union law firm they used at a Delaware facility in 2014, the last major union effort at Amazon. CNBC notes “Amazon has also set up a website to advertise its position on the Alabama warehouse union drive, urging workers to ‘do it without dues,’ referring to the cost of membership when joining a union. They have also held mandatory meeting for workers about the “evils” of unions, distributed flyers throughout the facility and sent text messages in that time.”
Not lost in all of this is the NLRB ruling favorable to the union and workers. This has not been the pattern in the last four years, and we hope for a more even-handed approach in the future.
Unfortunately, not all of the news this week has been good for workers.
Kroger closes two California stores rather than pay $4 per hour hazard pay. This bonus would have lasted for 120 days and reflected the increase hazards faced by store employees. While Kroger paid employees a bonus of $2 per hour this spring and offered employees $100 if they got the COVID vaccine, in this case they decided they would rather close the stores than pay this benefit.
You might assume the company has struggled financially during the pandemic making it difficult to pay the workers. This, however, is not the case. During the 3rd quarter in 2020, the company earned $2.9 billion in profits, compared to $1.7 billion in the same quarter in 2019.
According to the pro-labor Policy Matters Ohio, Kroger CEO and Trump supporter Rodney McMullin took home $21 million in 2019. At the same meeting where he announced his frontline workers would lose their extra $2 hero pay, he stated he would not take a pay cut.
Policy Matters Ohio researcher Michael Shields said, “Kroger cutting hazard pay in the midst of a pandemic that has increased its profits underscores the disconnect between the value frontline workers are creating for their employers, and what they’re taking home as pay. This is not about skills or economic value, it’s about power, and Kroger’s actions are a great case in point.”
Closing a store can have impacts on the community besides the loss of wages. I shop at Kroger because it is the closest supermarket to my home. The next closest store is also a Kroger. Individuals with limited access to transportation could have difficulty being able to get to a store to buy food, particularly low-income and elderly people.
We hope Kroger will reconsider their decision for the good of employees and the community. In Central Ohio, the company has had a good relationship with the union, and we hope this balance will be maintained.
We see the beginnings of changes, some positive and some negative, in matters involving workers. We hope the positive trends will continue as cooperative labor-management relationships are built and maintained.