From Starbucks baristas in Iowa City to Grinnell college student workers, workers in Iowa—and across the US—are forming workplace unions at a pace we haven’t seen in decades.
Maybe it’s the reality of low wages of workers versus the astronomical pay and stock packages of CEOs. Maybe the pandemic laid bare the differences between what mattered to workers and what mattered (or didn’t) to their bosses. Maybe social media has amplified and rejuvenated a movement that had been languishing since the 1980s.
It could also be the perks of union membership. Workers in a union see 10% higher wages than their non-union counterparts, gains that are even higher for Black (17.3%) and Latino (23.1%) workers.
Whatever the reasons, solidarity is now a vibe. And it’s spreading to Iowa.
What happened to unions?
From the first recorded strike of New York tailors protesting their wages being cut in 1768 and shoemakers forming the first union (the amazingly-named Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers) in 1794, the history of labor in the US is a long and fraught one.
The high point for labor was probably 1935, when Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act, protecting the right of workers to organize into unions to improve their wages and working conditions. But since the 1960s, union membership has shrunk dramatically.
Today, fewer workers than ever count themselves as part of a union: Membership has fallen to just 14 million workers in the US, or 10.3% of the working population, where it used to be nearly a third of all workers. And it’s particularly true in Iowa, where a little more than 6% of workers are union members, compared to more than a quarter of workers as late as 1972.
But there’s reason to believe that’s starting to change.
Strikes, union organizing are on the rise
First, while not many Americans belong to a union, they’re really starting to like the idea.
Gallup’s annual poll asking whether people approved of unions “has been trending upward in recent years, and is now at its highest point in more than half a century,” Gallup announced last August, something they found to be true across the political spectrum.
Workers are also seeing the benefits of belonging to a union more than ever before.
Established unions such as the United Auto Workers have won gains, and 10% raises, for thousands of workers after high-profile strikes at places like John Deere. That’s spread to others, including an ongoing strike at Case NH in Burlington and even at smaller workplaces, like King’s Ready Mix in Cedar Rapids.
That’s spurred other workers to start unions in Iowa: Workers at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah are organizing, and Grinnell College’s workers were the first in the country to organize all undergraduate student workers.
Not every union effort results in a union, of course. In May, workers with Glen-Gary Corporation in Sergeant Bluff overwhelmingly lost an effort to unionize, with just four workers voting in favor and 26 against, according to the National Labor Relations Board.
Organizing may be contagious. But because union membership has been in decline for so long, younger workers may not automatically know how to go about it. Here’s how to start, from veteran organizers and Iowa workers deep in the process themselves.
What are you organizing for?
Since unions have become less common, most people have no idea why they’re important, or what they’re for. Start by having conversations with your coworkers about what they want. When was the last time they got a raise? Do they routinely work overtime? Are their hours so variable they feel like they’re being taken advantage of?
“A lot of it is about who’s favoring another person, and if they are treating Person A the same as they’re treating Person B,” said Pete Hird, secretary of the Iowa Federation of Labor, who helped organize workers at hotels in eastern Iowa in recent years. “I think, no matter what workplace you’re in, that’s kind of the case.”
Most people have these thoughts, but think they can’t do anything about it—their bosses hold all the cards. Explaining how a workplace union takes back that power can give them hope, said Ben Murry, a field director for the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
“A union is about institutional change and empowering people,” he said. “With a union, a person in any line of work can sit at a table with some of the most powerful corporations with the highest-paid attorneys in the world and be equals. How else can you get that kind of respect and dignity in modern-day America?”
If you’re not sure how to begin, established unions can help you get started, said Maxim Baru, communications officer with the Industrial Workers of the World.
“Our organizers will work with people—who themselves become organizers in virtue of their efforts—through the A-Z of getting a union at the job,” Baru said. “There is typically nothing astoundingly novel in the initial process.”
Keep it on the down-low
Maybe you’re lucky, your bosses will voluntarily recognize your union. But if you aren’t sure if your bosses are receptive to that or will actively fight it, organizers say it’s a good idea to keep your organizing activity away from the spotlight.
“While it’s illegal to fire someone for organizing, it’s also legal for an employer to fire you without cause, and you have to prove they were fired for organizing,” said Murry.
That’s very common during organizing drives, even though it’s illegal under federal law, especially in Iowa and other “right to work” states where employees can be fired much more easily. It’s also why organizers say it’s important to work through them for the best chance of success, offering plenty of guides online for how to get started.
“Missteps can make the process feel dirty or dangerous to coworkers, and can sometimes lead to an atmosphere of insurmountable tension between supporters and opponents of unionizing,” Baru said.
Jenn Ripp, who was fired from Seed Savers in what she says was retaliation for trying to form a union there, said it’s important to reassure coworkers that the fight is worth it.
“It’s safe to join a union, even if they’re being told the opposite,” Ripp said. “We want these to be good jobs in our community, and to have those good jobs we need a good employer.”
Talk to ALL of your coworkers, not just some
Maybe several people you work close to are jazzed about organizing, but people on a different shift or in a different department aren’t, or don’t even know what you’re trying to do. Organizing is like campaigning–your goal is to reach as many people as you can and find out if your campaign will be successful.
“You must be absolutely sure where they stand,” Murry said. “Are they a supporter, are they opposed, or do they fall in the middle? One of the fastest ways to end an organizing drive is making assumptions.”
Keir Hichens, who helped organize Grinnell College workers, said those conversations alerted him to previously unknown problems in different departments. Problems included supervisors failing to enforce COVID-19 safety rules and student workers regularly hearing racist and transphobic remarks. Listening and responding to all of those issues made workers much more likely to sign on.
“We’ve done the organizing, we knocked every door on campus twice in the past 6 months, we did one-on-ones with hundreds of student workers, so we all knew where we were,” Hichens said. “This is a union of, by and for student workers, so there (was) really no doubt in our minds that, if the election was gonna happen, that we would win.”
Learn about your rights, and tell others
Under federal law, you’re allowed to talk to your coworkers about working conditions, wages, and organizing a workplace. You can also generally wear things like T-shirts and pro-union buttons, and ask your coworkers to sign a card saying they are in favor of a union (though that’s not an official vote, which takes place later).
As long as you’re on a break from work and using non-work areas, such as a break room or a parking lot, your employer cannot prohibit this by law.
But there are also things a union-averse employer will do to try to shut down activity, including holding “mandatory meetings” that illegally force workers to sit through anti-union meetings, and spying on workers to scare them into not talking with one another.
Carly Matthew, another organizer also fired from Seed Savers, said she underestimated the lengths her company would go to stop the formation of a union.
“I’m surprised at how aggressively they have taken on some pretty typical union-busting tactics: Hosting all-staff meetings, making people afraid of the unions,” she said. “The firings were a bit of a surprise as well.”
They’ll also use their money: Amazon spent $54 million in 2021 trying to stop the Amazon Labor Union.
But that union won in New York despite it all. Seed Savers organizers haven’t been deterred, either, with Ripp and Matthew continuing the fight from outside.
“Don’t buy into the company’s bullshit,” Murry said. “Educate your coworkers early on about employer union-busting tactics.”
By Amie Rivers
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