This Labor Day, Unions Are Getting More Attention In Illinois

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ILLINOIS — As Labor Day approaches, Illinois remains a strong union-heavy state, although the percentage of state residents represented by unions has actually gone down over the past year. In Illinois, about 752,000 people — or 13.9 percent of the working population — are members of unions.

Nationally, about 10.3 percent of U.S. workers were union members in 2021, down from 10.8 percent the year before, and in line with pre-pandemic union membership numbers. The U.S.labor movement has been in decline since 1983 when 20 percent of U.S. workers were union members.

But by the time the year is over, 2022 could tell a different story.

Find out what’s happening in Across Illinoiswith free, real-time updates from Patch.

Employers saw an uptick in labor organizing in the three quarters of the federal fiscal year 2022 as U.S. workers seek higher pay, better benefits, and safer workplaces, contributing to what analysts say is one of the largest labor movements in decades.

From Oct. 1 to June 30, the number of union representation petitions filed increased 56 percent, up to 1,935 from 1,240 during the same period in the 2021 fiscal year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency charged with enforcing U.S. labor law.

Find out what’s happening in Across Illinoiswith free, real-time updates from Patch.

During the same nine-month period in the current fiscal year, complaints about unfair labor practices increased 14.5 percent, to 13,106 from 11,451 in the same fiscal year 2021 period.

In the Chicago region, a number of complaints have been recently filed, including by members of the Chicago Teachers Union at the Chicago High School for the Arts, by the Levy Group of workers at Wrigley Field, the Amity Packing Company, by the Hilton Suites on the Magnificent Mile as well as by other groups representing unions from around Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting labor shortage have been driving factors in the newfound interest in labor unions.

An estimated 47 million Americans quit their jobs ahead of the typical retirement age in 2021 in what has been called the “Great Resignation,” upending the relationship between workers and the labor market. Another 20 percent were expected to leave the workforce early in 2022, according to some estimates.

Workers in hundreds of local Starbucks stores, Amazon warehouse employees, Google fiber contractors, and even strippers are unionizing. Not only that, unions’ picketing power strengthened during the Great Resignation with 169 labor strikes — the most in any year since 2012, according to Bloomberg Law.

Striking workers represented a range of industries, from food manufacturers like Frito-lay, Nabisco, and Kellogg’s to auto and equipment makers like Volvo and John Deere to universities, hospitals, airports, and carpenters. Workers at a number of fast-food and retail chains have staged short-term strikes and sickouts.

“I’ve been traveling a lot to picket lines all over the country in the last couple of months, been in so many different states and across all industries. But the one thing that’s been really consistent is the sentiment of the working people who are out there taking the risks is that they are absolutely fed up,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, America’s biggest union, told The Guardian last year.

Part of the rub?

Workers in certain industries were classified as “essential” and required to report to work during the early days of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, but felt “disposable” when they demanded better conditions, Shuler said.

“Those are the folks that really made the sacrifices and the whole time, they were told that they were essential,” she said. “Then they go to the bargaining table, and they’re basically disposable because the companies continued to profit through the pandemic and then say, ‘Thanks, but we’re not going to compensate you, we’re not going to protect you, we’re not going to value and reward you for making those sacrifices.’ ”

Strikes are continuing in 2022. Among them are frontline health care workers, whose demands for better pay and safe working conditions come as hospitals struggle with the recruitment and retention issues driven by burnout.

Hundreds of nurses at University of Wisconsin Health voted to go on strike in early September as they push for unionization.

“We’re striking to put an end to the vicious cycle of understaffing and burnout and to win a union voice, so we can protect the health of our patients and each other,” Tami Burns, a registered nurse who has worked at UW Health since 2017, said in a news release announcing the strike.

The nurses there haven’t officially unionized, but more than 1,500 of them have signed cards saying they want one. In June, the state’s attorney general issued an opinion saying the nurses employed by the health system have the right to unionize.

In general, Bloomberg Law said, striking workers have more leverage now than in the past to affect better working conditions and pay because they’re harder to replace in an era of low unemployment.

All of this is occurring as support for labor unions increases among Americans.


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September 2, 2022 at 09:26AM

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