A growing number of workers in Madison and around the country have moved to unionize or picket as they push for higher wages, better working conditions, improved benefits and a better work-life balance.
That movement, as businesses scramble to attract and retain talent, is part of a new “zeitgeist” and resurgence around unionization spurred by the pandemic, said Michael Childers, UW-Madison professor of in the Department of Labor Education.
A history professor and the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University told the Washington Post something similar last March: that immense student debt, wages that haven’t kept up with the cost of living and the economic fallout of the health crisis have sparked a fire, in young adults especially, to unionize.
“Workers are expecting more from their workplace,” Childers said. “I don’t see that stopping anytime soon (amid a) tight labor market. People are resigning in record numbers. Workers aren’t dumb. They see the writing on the wall.”
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Workers unionize to “sit down with their employer as an equal,” he explained. Unions, by definition, allow for the collective bargaining of compensation rates, schedules, benefits, leave, retirement plans and more.
Critics of unions say such organizations inhibit economic growth and even hurt taxpayers, according to a February Wisconsin Policy Forum report. And some companies say unions are an unneeded third party between employers and workers.
Last December, 12 contract workers who test video games for bugs at Middleton developer Raven Software were laid off by parent company Activision Blizzard, which prompted not only five weeks of walkouts but a contentious unionization effort that has lasted for months. The Game Workers Alliance, if they are able to unionize, would represent roughly 30 Raven contractors.
Four Starbucks locations in Madison have joined a national effort among coffee chain workers to unionize — around 300 plus stores and counting are mobilizing across the U.S. And some of those workers from one of the city locations, including another in Plover looking to unionize, have recently faced terminations.
Unionized workers for both construction company Trachte Building Systems in Sun Prairie and Madison’s CUNA Mutual Group have announced efforts to picket outside of their workplaces within the last few weeks as they negotiate new labor contracts with their employers.
That momentum falls in line with national trends the National Labor Relations Board recently reported, as well as union approval ratings published by Gallup in September 2021.
The number of unionization petitions has increased 57% so far in 2022 to 1,174, up from 748 in the first half of last year, according to data from the NLRB. At the same time, what the NLRB calls unfair labor practice charges have increased 14%, from 7,255 to 8,254 in 2022.
The public’s approval of unions is the highest it has been since 1965 (when it was 72%), with 68% of Gallup poll respondents having voiced their favorable views last fall. In 2009, the unionization approval rating was just 48%.
“We are at a pivotal point in history for the American worker, and we are seeing people saying we have had enough,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Stephanie Bloomingdale said. “We definitely expect this unionization push to increase as more workers join together.”
‘Less hiring, less growth’
But not all look at unions with such high regard — the state has some of the lowest unionization numbers in the country, especially after Republicans took control of state government in 2010. They restricted public sector unions via 2011 Act 10 and made private union membership voluntary, by passing what is known as a “right-to-work” law.
In 2000, 17.8% of all Wisconsin workers were members of a union — the 10th-largest concentration in the country, according to the Policy Forum report. But last year, that percentage fell to 7.9%, putting Wisconsin below the national average of 10.3%.
Employers tend to discourage unionization among workers for various reasons.
“A union uses its bargaining power to raise wages above the market wage — the wage for non-unionized workers,” said Kim Ruhl, UW-Madison economics professor and associate director of the conservative Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy. “High labor costs will be passed along, at least in part, to consumers as high prices, decreasing the sales of the firm. Between higher costs and lower sales, the business will likely see its profit decrease.”
Unionized workers may be better off, he said, but higher unionized wages can lead to “less hiring, less production and less growth” for a business.
“The more nuanced effect is the tendency toward wage equalization within the union,” Ruhl said. “The employer loses some flexibility to pay high-performing workers more and low-performing workers less.
“This makes it harder for a unionized employer to hire and retain its very best workers. Unions may protect low-performing workers, too.”
Raven workers gear up for election
On Monday, around 30 Raven Software workers will participate in a union election through the NLRB to be able to bargain with Activision Blizzard for “wages, benefits and bonuses that are competitive and reflect the skill and importance” of employees who test video games for glitches, the Game Workers Alliance said in an email.
Launched in 1990, Raven Software creates several video games under Activision Blizzard, including the profitable Call of Duty franchise. Activision Blizzard, which was bought by technology giant Microsoft for almost $70 billion earlier this year, acquired Raven Software in 1997 for $12 million. Raven has roughly 350 employees.
The move to unionize comes not only after the layoffs that occurred last winter, but complaints about low pay and excessive overtime, the Alliance said.
Elections occur when, after a majority of workers sign unionization cards, an employer fails to voluntarily recognize the unionization effort, said acting director and press secretary for the NLRB Kayla Blado in January. Unionizing workers must then petition with the NLRB, which sent ballots out to Raven Software workers in April, for an election.
Activision Blizzard recently appealed the NLRB’s election decision. The company said in January it provided improved pay, benefits and professional opportunities to employees, in addition to extended paid time off and access to medical benefits.
About the appeal, Activision Blizzard said “while we respect the NLRB process, we are disappointed that a decision that could significantly impact the future of our entire studio will be made by fewer than 10% of Raven employees.”
Starbucks employees get fired
Last December, a Buffalo Starbucks location became the “first among 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the U.S. to vote to unionize,” the Washington Post reported. Many of the organizers are women and nonbinary people, with women making up 70% of the coffee chain’s workforce, according to the Starbucks website.
Now, 311 Starbucks locations have moved to unionize, according to data compiled by UnionElections.org, most with an organization known as Workers United, which has been around since 1910 and has 50,000 members nationwide, including many restaurants.
Four of those Starbucks are in Fitchburg, Madison and Monona, including three stores filing to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1473, which represents grocery workers in Wisconsin and Illinois. They join locations across Wisconsin, including in Plover, Milwaukee and Appleton.
Just within this last week, a union organizer at the Plover Starbucks was fired. And four workers at a Dane County Starbucks location have faced terminations as well, according to a Monday statement from the UFCWU. The union did not specify at which Starbucks that occurred. That comes as Starbucks said earlier this month that it plans to increase wages and training for employees not involved in unions.
Both Workers United and UFCWU Local 1473 called the firings unjust. They both say workers generally want higher wages, better workplace safety, consistent scheduling and safe staffing ratios. UFCWU filed a complaint with the NLRB earlier this week to contest the firings, said president Jake Bailey.
“This is a shameful and blatant attempt to undermine the work of these employees who were leaders in the fight to change Starbucks for the better,” he said.
Starbucks did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the firings, as well as the company’s overall response to workers’ unionization efforts. But the company recently told the Washington Post in March that “we don’t believe a union is necessary at Starbucks and we don’t need a third party to get in between the relationship between us as partners.”
Local unions picket for new contracts
Around 30 Trachte Building Systems workers stood outside their Sun Prairie building Wednesday after a week of picketing to negotiate a labor agreement with their employer that doesn’t mandate overtime, among other asks, like pay increases. Trachte, which is employee-owned, has 247 staff members.
Calling picketing a “nuclear option,” Curt Buttke, organizer for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Local 565, said more than 105 union members have been negotiating with Trachte on a new labor agreement since their last four-year contract expired in April. The old contract required Trachte to meet with the union to discuss overtime.
“They aren’t willing to meet with us,” Buttke said Wednesday morning, adding that the strike will continue until a meeting is had, and that SMART Local 565 has been around since 1965, representing thousands of members. Many workers put in 10-hour days, he said.
In an email, Trachte director of human resources Brianne Arnold said the last meeting was held April 22.
“Mandatory OT is common in union and non-union work environments to manage fluctuations in business and to meet customer demand,” she said. “We were able to continue operating during the COVID pandemic and utilized mandatory OT in order to battle supply chain issues and labor disruptions as our teammates dealt with exposure, childcare issues, and illness.”
Over at CUNA Mutual Group, 450 workers represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 39 have been picketing outside the Mineral Point Road building since the beginning of May for a new labor contract. The organization has been around since 1945. The workers want higher wages that keep up with inflation rates. And more pickets are planned, said OPIEU president and business manager Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvihill.
CUNA Mutual Group declined to comment on specific negotiation terms, but confirmed the company remains in talks with the union and looks forward to an agreement. CUNA Mutual Group has 4,100 employees overall, with 1,600 in Madison.
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