Why Labor Unions Are Increasing Influence

Unions have found their mojo and public approval is climbing. What's behind it?

As negotiations entered their second month, Mike Pietros felt his optimism fade and his anger build. Pietros, fifty-three, had worked for Stop and Shop since 1998, when he was hired as a part-time meat cutter who floated from store to store. In twenty-one years, the North Providence resident had worked his way up to a meat manager’s position at the Cumberland store, and he now sat on the bargaining team for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union hammering out the terms of the next contract.

The grocery chain’s corporate parent, Ahold Delhaize, had posted a $2 billion profit in 2018, but its offers were paltry. The Netherlands-based company had proposed a small wage increase, but also a rise in workers’ health care premiums, and reductions to holiday pay and to pension benefits for new full-timers. The UFCW saw this fundamentally as a pay cut, and an attempt to create a two-tiered employee system. By the time the old contract expired on February 23, their respective positions had hardened.

“We were just treading water, and I started to get upset,” Pietros says. “The company was not taking us too seriously, but without us, they don’t have a company. We are the ones who take care of the people. The customers come in to see us, not the people in corporate. We had to send the company a message.”


Illustration by Brendan Totten.

More than six weeks later, Ahold voted to increase the company’s dividend by more than 11 percent. The next day, April 11, at 1 p.m., 31,000 deli workers, baggers, cashiers, butchers, fishmongers, janitors and stockers walked out of 240 Stop and Shop locations across New England.

Last year saw the most American workers go out on strike since 1986. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 there were twenty major work stoppages – the highest since 2007 — involving 485,000 workers. Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia, where the nation’s lowest-paid teachers hadn’t had an across-the-board raise since 2014, saw wildcat teacher strikes. Marriott hotel workers walked out for better wages and benefits while the company reported profits in 2017 of $3.2 billion. In Rhode Island, healthcare workers at Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence represented by United Nurses and Allied Professionals Local 5098 struck for three days last July.

Labor leaders and historians agree that worker militancy is rising. “I think there’s a lot of very positive things happening locally and nationally, and the amount of organic activity demonstrated across the board is indicative of the fact that people have reached the point of: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not taking it anymore,” says George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. “People see the importance of labor. At the end of the day, unions are the major countervailing force to corporations and the power structure. If we aren’t able to fight back, who is going to do it in the workplace?”

Indeed, approval of unionized labor is rising, according to the latest poll from Gallup. In 2018, 62 percent of Americans approved of today’s labor unions, up from 56 percent in 2016. The high was 75 percent in the mid-1950s; union approval hasn’t been above 60 percent since 2003.

UFCW Union Local 328 Secretary-Treasurer Domenic Pontarelli, who ran the Stop and Shop strike, saw it first-hand. Spring brought its typical heartbreak to Rhode Island, as Stop and Shop workers picked up their picket signs. For the eleven days on the line, it seemed like fifteen of them were cold, wet and windy. But if the weather was against them, the public offered its unqualified support – delivering horn honks, coffee and sandwiches.

“The company went from doing $250,000 a day to $5,000 a day,” Pontarelli says. “The customers stayed away, and that was a tribute to the workers. As a trade unionist, that support was something to see. That was the greatest feeling — everybody stuck together.”

The unionization rate peaked in 1954, with 35 percent of wage earners. In 2018, 14.7 million belonged to a union — 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that is why, says Massachusetts Jobs with Justice Co-Executive Director, Gillian Mason, the overwhelming public support for the Stop and Shop strikers was “pretty amazing when union density is so low and many people don’t have family and friends in unions.”

Many stake the decline of the labor movement to the August 1981 confrontation between President Ronald Reagan and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Reagan, who once led a strike as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, fired 11,000 air traffic controllers after a two-day walkout, temporarily grounding flights. The effect on the labor movement was more enduring. Reagan imposed a lifetime re-hiring ban (later lifted), Federal Labor Relations Authority de-certified PATCO and work stoppages fell from 2,400 from 1977-1986, to 404 from 1987-1996, to 143 from 2007-2016.

But Lane Windham, associate director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor, argues that labor’s strength began to wane in the 1970s, as the U.S. transitioned from an industrial-based economy to a financially based economy. Germany and Japan, now recovered from World War II, began to compete with the U.S., where employers reacted by squeezing workers, and fissuring – spinning off fulltime positions to contractors and sub-contractors — the workplace.

“They stepped back from being a provider of social welfare, and as part of that, employers began to bend and break labor laws on a whole new level. They closed the door on organizing and made bargaining much harder,” Windham says. “The federal government weakened it by failing to enforce labor laws, and Reagan just normalized it. This is also a time when you begin to see deregulation and privatization as companies try to profit in the new global paradigm.”

With labor’s main leverage gone, the average worker’s real (inflation-adjusted) wages have not advanced in forty-five years — 1973’s $4.03-an-hour wage rate has the same purchasing power as the $23.68-an-hour wage rate of today. Since the turn of the century, the highest-paid workers in the highest tenth percentile accrued the most real pay gains — nearly 16 percent, while the lowest tenth saw a rise of 4.3 percent, according to Pew Research Center. Sluggish wage growth is another factor in union activism.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick in the membership of the building trades,” says Justin Kelley, head of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 195 of District Council 11. “And the number of people applying for membership exceeds our ability to put people to work.”

Rhode Island unions also saw victories in the General Assembly. Despite the strident opposition of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, a package of bills that keep in place the pay and benefits of expired municipal employee and teachers’ contracts until a new agreement is reached, and others requiring firefighters to be paid time and a half after an “average” forty-two-hour work week, passed handily in both chambers this session.

“Cities and towns have a balancing act to fund community programs while not increasing taxes. Every time the General Assembly mandates a new component of labor law, it ties the hands of the cities and towns,” says the League’s executive director, Brian Daniels. “Costs keep rising and as it gets harder and harder to get concessions, our members are getting concerned how they will solve these problems.”

And yet, “there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of labor,” says University of Rhode Island associate professor and labor historian, Erik Loomis. “The Supreme Court is going to continue to rule against anything that helps organized labor. One thing that unites the GOP is their hatred of unions. We may be facing a situation where the courts, like one hundred years ago, rule against anything unions are able to do successfully. There is little reason to believe worker militancy is going to decline, especially with the inevitability of a recession at some point.”

For example, in June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned forty years of precedent. It ruled that the so-called agency fees that public-sector non-union members, who are nonetheless part of a collective bargaining unit, pay to unions violated the First Amendment right to free speech. The decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was expected to be a blow to public sector unions — which represent nearly 40 percent of organized labor. It didn’t turn out that way for the Rhode Island National Teachers Association’s Rhode Island chapter.

“We haven’t lost any and we actually gained a little,” says NEARI President Larry Purtill. “We had a few people paying agency fees, and several of those people converted to full-time membership.”

The Stop and Shop strike ended on Easter Sunday, with a tentative three-year contract that included wage raises, instead of bonuses, and preserved the current health care and retirement benefits, and time-and-a-half pay on Sunday for current employees. It had been the largest strike in the chain’s history and the largest in the retail sector since 2003. Its lessons were big, too.

“I didn’t know what to expect at first ­— it was new territory,” Pietros says. “But I believe it showed that the public is on the side of the working class, and if we stick together as a team, we can get anything done.”