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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Steven Greenhouse

Focus organizing drives on workers without college degrees, US unions told

Joe Biden speaks at a union training facility in Accokeek, Maryland, in April.
Joe Biden speaks at a union training facility in Accokeek, Maryland, in April. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Union supporters have had plenty to applaud with regard to organizing college- educated workers, notching up dozens of unionization victories involving graduate students, adjunct professors, journalists, nurses and workers at museums, non-profits and video-game companies.

But some labor supporters who laud these victories are warning that something is awry, that there isn’t nearly enough unionization of non-college-educated, lower-paid workers, whether factory workers or fast-food workers.

“It’s great to have a union upsurge among anybody, but the strongest segment of the labor force which is unionizing seems to be people who have had some college or are college-educated,” said Michael Kazin, an expert on social movements at Georgetown University. “The bulk of the labor force did not go to college. They’re arguably the ones that need unions the most.”

Kazin said that if unions are serious about building a fairer economy, they need to do more to organize workers without college degrees. “There needs to be a dramatic breakthrough at a place like Walmart or some auto plant in the south,” he said.

There are, of course, campaigns to unionize blue-collar and lower-paid workers, the best-known example being last year’s unionization victory at Amazon’s 8,300-employee warehouse on Staten Island. Several unions, including the Teamsters, Unite Here and the Service Employees International Union, are mounting and steadily winning union drives for blue-collar workers.

In March, the Teamsters unionized more than 50 truck drivers in North Carolina at US Foods, a food service company, while Unite Here unionized 300 cafeteria workers last fall at William and Mary College in Virginia. Even though union victories in the south are difficult and unusual, the unionization victories for educated workers are getting more media and attention, whether it’s 3,800 graduate student workers at MIT unionizing or workers at the Art Institute of Chicago voting 142 to 44 to unionize or workers at Activision Blizzard in Albany, New York, voting 14 to 0 to unionize.

Union campaigns have spread like wildfire from university to university, museum to museum and newsroom to newsroom as those workers often get the union bug through social media or from friends at universities or museums that just unionized. Unionization has also spread rapidly among Starbucks, where many workers and are in college or have been to college.

In contrast, unionization hasn’t taken off nearly as rapidly at many blue-collar, lower-paid workplaces. No other Chipotle restaurant has unionized since workers in Lansing, Michigan, voted last August to make theirs the nation’s first unionized Chipotle. Only one Amazon warehouse is unionized in the US, just two Apple stores and four Trader Joe’s. Those companies have mounted fierce anti-union counterattacks to slow and they hope stop the spread.

Chris Rosell, the Teamsters’ organizing director, says one reason unionization of blue-collar workers often doesn’t catch fire is that it’s frequently easier for anti-union consultants to scare and deter those workers. “Blue-collar workers often aren’t as educated about this union-busting stuff,” he said. “They could be more susceptible to these kinds of tactics.”

Rosell said the Teamsters often run elaborate campaigns that seek to inoculate workers from the pressures and propaganda from anti-union consultants. He said the Teamsters’ president, Sean O’Brien, hopes to double the union’s membership and focus organizing on such area trucking, warehouses and sanitation work.

Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs with Justice, a labor rights group, says it’s often harder to unionize blue-collar workers because they tend to have less economic security than educated workers and have greater fear of what will happen to them if they’re retaliated against, perhaps getting fired, for seeking to unionize. “Retaliation for blue-collar workers means they often have to find another job immediately to avoid being homeless, while white-collar workers might have more money saved up,” Smiley said.

For such reasons, Smiley said, “it takes longer to get a majority of workers to get excited in blue-collar workplaces,” She added that this means unions need to provide “a greater level of resources to offset the instability and fear of retaliation” that blue-collar workers face.

“I want higher-wage sector workers to continue organizing–anyone who wants a union should get a union,” she said. “The intervention I would argue for is that we need to figure out more ways to invest in sustaining blue-collar workers who want to stick their necks out and unionize.”

Labor leaders talk plenty of their ambitions to unionize new semiconductor plants and electric vehicle battery plants, but just one EV battery plant, Ultium Cells in Warren, Ohio, has unionized, in a 710-to-16 vote last December. The United Auto Workers has vowed to unionize more such battery plants.

“Just because we’re not seeing many wins yet in blue-collar doesn’t mean things aren’t happening ” said Cindy Estrada, a former UAW vice-president who was recently named director of the AFL-CIO’s Center for Transformational Organizing. “There’s a lot of stuff happening on the ground. I’m excited about this moment.” That center will seek to spearhead and coordinate large, more innovative unionization campaigns.

Estrada voiced confidence that her center will work with various unions to organize thousands of workers in new jobs created by the infrastructure act, the Chips Act to encourage semiconductor production in the US, and the climate-change provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. “We’re looking at how do we capture this moment right now when federal dollars are subsidizing whole industries,” Estrada said. She talked of “sectoral strategies” to unionize electric bus factories and battery plants as well as workers modernizing the electric grid and making schools more energy-efficient.

“We have this narrative about manufacturing that it’s going to rebuild the middle class,” Estrada said. “That’s not going to happen unless workers have democracy in the workplace and an ability to bargain.”

With regard to unionizing lower-paid workers, Victor Narro, a UCLA professor of labor studies, says far more efforts should be undertaken to unionize fast-food, warehouse and car wash workers. “We missed the opportunity to go deep and broad in those industries,” Narro said. “We need to still try to figure out strategies for them.”

He said unions should run more campaigns like SEIU’s highly successful Justice for Jantitors effort, which unionized over 100,000 janitors in 29 cities, often using citywide efforts that targeted not just cleaning contractors, but wealthy building owners.

Narro acknowledged that lower-wage, less educated workers are often more reluctant to stick their necks out and fight for a union. “They live on the balance,” he said. “They’re fearful of retaliation. We have to figure out how to have good strong laws to stop retaliation.”

Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown, said it was difficult to know for certain whether there is far more organizing of educated workers than blue-collar workers. “It’s hard to pin down how much of this is our perception of what’s happening on the ground,” McCartin said. (The white-collar efforts usually get more media attention.) “There are a lot of efforts going on among Amazon warehouse workers in different parts of the country. While there’s no new breakthrough, that work is going on.”

Richard Bensinger, a former AFL-CIO organizing director who helps oversee the Starbucks unionization campaign, said the various campaigns often reinforce and encourage other efforts: “Workers I talked to at a factory in Buffalo told me they were inspired by what’s happened at Starbucks.”

Bensinger said that whether for white-collar workers or blue-collar ones, “unionizing involves risk-taking”.

“There should be a lot more organizing activity right now,” he said. “My advice is to dig deep and spend money. We have to take advantage of this moment. This should be a springboard to massively more organizing. We should listen to what workers are telling us – this is a moment in history to organize.”

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