Chicago — Labor notched some big wins last year in its efforts to beef up its ranks. Organizers vow to continue that push this year on signature items such as raising the minimum wage, but business groups are equally adamant about pushing back.
Also on the horizon: Talks between the United Auto Workers and U.S. automakers are expected to begin in mid-2015, with the union vowing to bridge the gap between top-paid and lower-paid workers.
Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director at the AFL-CIO, said it’s an ideal time to organize because the economy has improved some but not enough. Workers are reflecting on their workplaces and their wages and mustering the courage to demand raises and other benefits.
“It’s going to be an exciting year,” said Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas.
With more than 93,000 members, Kelleher’s union is one of the largest Midwest locals of the Service Employees International Union and a force behind Chicago’s minimum wage increase approved by the City Council in December.
The debate over the minimum wage comes as cities and states across the country enact laws to boost the earnings of the lowest-paid workers amid concerns about widening income inequality. Some 20 states and Washington, D.C., raised their minimum wages to $8 to $10 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
Many demonstrations calling for higher wages have been orchestrated by the Fight for $15 campaign, funded by SEIU. Scores of protests in major cities last year called for higher wages for fast-food, retail, in-home care and airport workers. The movement expects to add to that list adjunct professors, who are considered part-time workers, earn low wages and do not have benefits.
But the effort will continue to focus on wages of fast-food workers. The protests have been held outside restaurants, particularly McDonald’s locations. Some workers at those protests have filed unfair labor chargers with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the burger giant of retaliating against them.
The Fight for $15 campaign is among several organizing efforts targeting employees such as fast-food and temporary workers who traditionally have been difficult to organize because of high turnover rates. Other campaigns have sought to organize warehouse workers, carwash workers and art movers.
Then there is the widely publicized move by the College Athletes Players Association and the United Steelworkers to unionize Northwestern University football players.
The players voted in April on whether to unionize, but the results of the election have yet to be announced. The votes were sealed, pending a decision by the NLRB on an earlier ruling by a regional director that held players could be considered university employees and could unionize. The timing of the NLRB’s decision is uncertain.
Meanwhile, anti-union groups have successfully pushed for laws that would allow workers represented by a union to avoid paying union dues or fees. So called right-to-work legislation has been adopted by 24 states.