Unions eye long term as pandemic weighs on members

Labor advocates see COVID-19 as evidence of union members' benefits

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, shown here speaking to reporters in February, says success at getting preferred candidates elected has brought benefits to members. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, shown here speaking to reporters in February, says success at getting preferred candidates elected has brought benefits to members. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 17, 2020 at 5:30am

“I’m incredibly optimistic,” said Donald “D.” Taylor, unexpectedly.

As president of Unite Here International, Taylor watched the coronavirus outbreak shutter the casinos and hotels where most of his members worked, putting 98 percent of them out of work. It will take two or three years before the industries rebound.

With 80 percent of his 307,000 members still out of work and not paying dues, Taylor had to lay off organizers and force early retirements — cuts copied by the union’s local chapters.

So why is Taylor optimistic? “Look at when the labor movement grew at its greatest: It was during the Depression,” he said. “We’re making long-term plans.”

COVID-19 has been a tale of two economies. Workers have been decimated: Tens of millions have lost jobs, and millions more have seen their hours cut. But Wall Street has recovered from its March crash, with the S&P 500 hitting a record high in August. It has deepened already massive economic disparities, leading union leaders like Taylor to expect a wave of outraged workers eager to organize and revitalize the labor movement after decades of decline.

“The stark inequality — that has even gotten worse — if we take advantage of it, will produce the kind of results that got produced almost a century ago,” said Taylor. “And it’s up to us to do that.”

The pandemic has thrown 50 million people out of work at least temporarily, with the losses falling mostly among those earning the least. Federal Reserve economists estimate that 35 percent of the lowest-paid workers lost jobs as of mid-April, compared with just 9 percent of the highest-paid. Meanwhile, many lower-wage employees who kept their jobs have faced a higher risk of catching COVID-19 because they are unable to work from home like many white-collar professionals.

“This will be the spur for a wave of union organizing,” said Bob Creamer, a political strategist at Democracy Partners.

Public opinion of unions improved in the years that followed the Great Recession. According to Gallup, 64 percent of Americans approved of unions in 2019, and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey in 2017 found that 48 percent of unorganized workers would join a union if they could, up from just one-third two decades earlier.

Like Taylor, Creamer likens this economic moment to the 1930s, calling the coronavirus pandemic “a crisis that really shines a light on why being in the union is so important.”

Creamer expects the coming election to usher in another parallel to the New Deal era: pro-labor Democrats taking control of the White House and Congress because of the pandemic and the historic economic crisis.

“Those two factors could collide to bring together a renaissance of growth of labor union representation in the United States over the next decade,” he said.

Union membership rates began to grow rapidly toward the end of the Great Depression and after passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, jumping from 7.6 percent of workers in 1934 to 15.1 percent in 1937. It peaked in 1954, when 34.8 percent of all wage and salary workers were represented. The numbers have decreased since the 1970s, falling to 10.3 percent in 2019, and only 6.2 percent of private sector workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Automation, offshoring, outsourcing and state right-to-work laws contributed to the decline. Academics at Harvard University found that union membership drops by 5 percent to 10 percent in states that enact right-to-work statutes, which allow employees covered by union contracts to skip out on paying membership dues.

Some unions had been bucking downward trends in recent years. A wave of teacher strikes in 2018 led to pay increases in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Virginia and West Virginia. Unite Here added more than 60,000 members in the five years before 2020. But then the pandemic forced the hospitality industry to close overnight.

Taylor says out-of-work waiters and maids have already bombarded his union with inquiries about organizing. “Obviously, they have to go back to work before you can organize them,” he said.

In the meantime, Unite Here is staying in touch, helping them apply for unemployment insurance and find other support, like food banks. “You always remember who helps you in time of need,” Taylor said. “They’re desperate — most employers in our industry treated them like an old pair of shoes, just discard them.”

At the same time, unions are hawking their value to would-be members by touting what they’ve done during this ongoing epidemic.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 bought each of its 35,000 members face masks, plus 30,000 face shields, said its president, Wendell Young IV. Early in the pandemic, Local 1776 convinced meatpacking facilities to immediately close a plant in the Philadelphia suburbs after a worker tested positive for COVID-19.

“That led to other plants closing at the same time,” Young said. “We are the only place in the nation where that happened. That’s because of cooperation with the company to send everyone home with pay and benefits until we could figure out how to reopen them safely.”

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada, pointed to a recently passed Nevada law that imposed health and safety measures on casinos and hotels, including free COVID-19 testing and paid time off for exposed workers in quarantine, in exchange for a liability shield from lawsuits.

“The bill protects the members and their families, but not only them — it covers all hospitality workers, from the Bellagio to the Motel 6,” Argüello-Kline said. “We represent 60,000 workers, but now we have 280,000 workers that will be protected under this bill.”

CWU 226, an affiliate of Unite Here, managed to get those worker protections because of their electoral successes in recent years: Their get-out-the-vote efforts helped Democrats win the governorship and control of the state Legislature.

The labor leaders interviewed by CQ Roll Call said they expect to be able to replicate those successes in Nevada on a national scale in November. And that, in turn, will lead to pro-labor policies that will let them take advantage of the high levels of worker discontentment and union popularity.

Still, Taylor — the optimist — refused to make a prediction about what will actually happen.

“I don’t know. I mean, on Feb. 1 we were celebrating organizing 22,000 new people. I said, ‘There is no limit to what we can do! There’s never been a better time!’ Six weeks later, everything shut down,” he said. “So I have no crystal ball.”