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Workers ring in Labor Day as advantage shifts to employers during pandemic, recession
LABOR DAY 2020

Workers ring in Labor Day as advantage shifts to employers during pandemic, recession

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BRIDGETON — After 28 years with Unite Here Local 74, president Kevin McNatt will be retiring at the end of the month.

It wasn’t the 63-year-old’s plan, but he was close to retirement, and wanted to help cut costs at a union that represented 3,500 workers in industries hit hardest by the coronavirus: casinos, hotels, sports stadiums and convention centers.

Thousands of its members have been furloughed or laid off, and union dues have been devastated.

“We’re gonna have to sell our building and we’re gonna be merging — a lot of locals around the country are doing it, merging together to cut overhead,” McNatt said. “That’s the only way we can survive.”

As workers and the labor unions that represent many of them take their annual day of celebration Monday, momentum is shifting in the employers’ favor. The years of tight labor markets, finally producing sustained wage gains and giving workers more leverage to organize, are over.

“The best organizing tool is a scarcity of workers,” said Doug Swanson, who runs the University of Missouri-St. Louis’s labor studies program. “The power dynamic shifts. That’s certainly what we saw before the pandemic when the unemployment rate was at record lows.”

In recent months, unemployment around the country hit levels not seen since the Great Depression as vast swaths of the economy shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. Though it’s begun inching down — unemployment in the St. Louis metro area fell to 7.8% in July after reaching 11.6% in April and May — it’s still at levels similar to those of the Great Recession.

Unions have endured a systemic decline in recent decades. And workers are less likely to take the risk to organize a union when jobs are harder to find, said Pat White, president of the St. Louis Labor Council.

“If they feel like they’re doing OK and their neighbor’s been looking for a job for six months, they don’t want to mess up the apple cart,” White said. “It’s going to be harder to get people to take that chance.”

The nation has seen a groundswell of collective action over the last few months, from meatpacking plants to Amazon warehouses, as non-unionized workers demanded COVID-19 safety measures, among other things.

But demand for representation doesn’t often lead to unionization, even in the best of times.

“Translating demand for a union among anxious, underpaid and unprotected workers into actual union representation is an enormous uphill battle in normal times,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a Washington University sociology professor who studies inequality and labor unions.

Now, during the pandemic, when the National Labor Relations Board suspended union elections for a few weeks, and where organizers are severely limited in contacting and meeting with workers, an uphill battle is even steeper, he said.

Rosenfeld pointed out that amid continued decline in union representation in much of the country, one of the most “aggressive, innovative” unions in recent years, Unite Here, has been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus.

McNatt, the retiring head of the local Unite Here office, said the national union set a goal of adding 50,000 members during its 2014 convention, which it achieved. At its national convention last year, it set a goal to add 100,000 more members over the next five years.

“We were well on our way to getting there,” McNatt said. “Until this.”

Local 74 will still have a St. Louis presence, but perhaps its organizers and officers will have to work remotely and answer to a Midwest office, he said. There’s no timeline for the local’s sale of its Bridgeton building or when it will merge with other Midwest locals to save on overhead. But that’s the direction coming down from the head office.

“The bottom line is the membership has to be taken care of, so we have to do whatever we can to take care of the membership,” McNatt said.

Not all unions have been hammered by the pandemic. Construction unions here haven’t been as affected because job sites didn’t shut down like they did in cities such as New York and Boston. And some industries, such as grocery stores, have seen sales boom as consumers buy their food from the store rather than restaurants.

That has Dave Cook, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, pushing unionized grocers Schnucks, Dierbergs and Straub’s to reinstate a hazard pay bonus of a couple dollars an hour, something the companies did in the early months of the pandemic but stopped in recent months. While everyone was told to work from home, grocery workers had to do the opposite, Cook said. They’re taking the risks and should share some of the reward, he argues.

“These workers are still working harder than they ever have under a very stressful situation,” Cook said. “We are still having positive tests in our stores almost daily. Several, multiple times a week. And that’s a scary situation.”

The companies have taken steps to protect workers, obtaining masks and adding plexiglass dividers to checkout lanes, actions the UFCW pushed for. And the union relaxed some of its membership rules, allowing management to work in union jobs and extending the time before new hires have to join the union, to give the grocery stores as much flexibility as possible during the crisis.

“This is not about maximizing dues membership right now,” Cook said. “This is about working in partnership.”

White, at the St. Louis Labor Council, said there could be potential at hospitals and assisted living centers to organize more nurses and health care workers. Only St. Louis University Hospital has unionized nurses in the region, and nurses have been on the front lines working long hours with sick COVID-19 patients everywhere.

There is some movement in the sector. Nurses, aides, cooks and other workers at Riverview Care Center in south St. Louis recently filed a petition with the NLRB to unionize with the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Missouri to unionize. They say Riverview Care management fired eight employees in retaliation, illustrating the difficulty organizers face.

Perhaps the goodwill many people expressed — with nightly noise-making rituals, “thank you health care workers” yard signs and even military flyovers — could be translated into organizing or improvements in wages and working conditions for many industries. But Swanson, the UMSL labor studies director, said Americans have a history of quickly forgetting that appreciation, especially when their taxes pay the salaries.

“How quickly will we forget that when it comes time for the teachers to negotiate a wage adjustment?” he said. “We loved our police and firefighters after 9/11. But within two years, when it came time to renegotiate contracts, they were just greedy, lazy public employees again. It will be interesting to see if that kind of amnesia develops again.”

White said organizing is likely to move to the back burner until the pandemic passes. In the meantime, he and other unions are focusing on helping out-of-work members pay their bills through a fund they have with the United Way and rallying for public policy that will help all workers, such as the HEROES Act stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate that would reinstate the $600 weekly unemployment supplement.

“That stuff’s going to be more important, trying to just keep the folks that have been out — some of them since as early as March — to keep folks that have been out of work for that long, to keep their head above water, that’s really our main goal right now,” White said.

White-collar middle-income workers in many industries are struggling, too. Companies are using COVID-19 as “convenient cover” for retaliatory firings and layoffs, said Sarah Swatosh, a plaintiffs lawyer focused on employment law at Sedey Harper Westhoff in St. Louis. She’s getting calls, she said, from workers alleging they were fired after rebuffing sexual harassment. And she said companies have used layoffs to cut older workers.

“People who are older, it takes them longer to find a job and it is a lot, lot harder,” Swatosh said.

Perhaps the new appreciation among the public for essential, front-line workers and those without jobs will translate into new momentum for labor, said McNatt, the Unite Here president. His union, while battered, will be back when the pandemic passes, organizing the lower-income service workers hit hardest by COVID-19. Hopefully, people see the difference unions make.

“The people that weren’t covered by unions,” he said, “those are the ones that got hit the hardest.”

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