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2022 – the ‘year of the union’ in Louisville

Unions are alive and well in Kentucky’s largest city – and not just at factories

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Union rally in Louisville (photo provided by SEIU)

Tim Morris wonders if 2022 might go down in Louisville history as the year of the union.

“More and more workers are realizing that they won’t get the wages, benefits, health care, and protection on the job they deserve without a union,” said Morris, executive director of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council.

Workers at coffee shops, a bookstore, and a pizzeria have unionized. So have truck drivers, public defenders, and newsroom staffers at the Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s largest newspaper.

In addition, a union election has been set for Jan. 11 at Sunergos coffee, and a union drive has started at Trader Joe’s grocery.

Louisville is part of a nationwide union resurgence. “It’s been a banner year for workers coming together to form unions,” according to a joint statement from AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond. “More than 43,000 workers across the country organized their workplaces this year. And those tangible results are getting noticed – a record 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions, up from 64% before the pandemic. People are seeing firsthand how the power of a union job can change our lives and our communities. And they want to be a part of this movement. It’s something that inspires us every single day.”

Here’s where employees have voted for unions in the Bluegrass State’s largest city, according to Morris.

●  Three Starbucks stores, including one across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Ind. A union drive is underway at another Louisville store. (Starbucks Workers United)

●  All 17 Heine Brothers coffee stores (National Conference of Firemen and Oilers 32BJ/Service Employees International Union of Kentucky)

●  Half-Price Books (United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227)

●  Public defenders (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 369)

●  The Courier-Journal (Courier Journal Guild-The News Guild-Communications Workers of America Local 34070)

●  Sysco drivers in Louisville (Teamsters Local 89)

Management at Pizza Lupo voluntarily recognized Restaurant Workers United after a majority of employees signed union cards. In contrast, management at the Courier-Journal, owned by Gannett, the giant media corporation,  wouldn’t recognize the Guild after its members said they had the votes to unionize, Spectrum News 1 reported. “It’s a shame they’d rather waste the company’s time and money than voluntarily recognize the supermajority of the newsroom who supports the union,” the Guild replied. (The staffers voted 22-4 for the union.)

Pro-union employees at Sunergos want to join 32BJ.Those at Trader Joe's hope to affiliate with Trader Joe's United.

Louisville also reflects a significant rise in food and beverage workers who are unionizing. Writing in Bon Appetite, Nico Avalle suggested they’re joining unions for multiple reasons. “The rising gap between executive pay and employees’ wages is a good place to start, particularly in one of the few industries where subminimum wages are allowed. The public perception of unions also may have something to do with the recent surge in organizing – more Americans have a positive view of unions than they have had in decades."

She added: “We have to talk about the coronavirus too. Hospitality remains one of the industries most affected by COVID-19. At the pandemic’s worst, when thousands of Americans were dying per day, restaurant workers faced one of the highest mortality rates in any industry. Since 2020 many service workers have left the restaurant industry altogether, citing burnout and chronic understaffing as their reasons for finding work elsewhere.

“Over the past few years, while Americans have been happy to praise restaurant workers as ‘essential’ to the economy, we’ve also effectively forced them into working in person while many of us have been able to stay home. And although outdoor dining has become popular, few necessary protections for workers have become permanent — whether in the form of improved ventilation or other risk prevention tools — as Saahil Desai reports in The Atlantic."

Morris pointed out that the federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009 when it increased to $7.25.

“If anybody believes that is a credible wage, they are living in a very different decade, and a very different country,” he said. “The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and the cost of living, so workers are realizing the only way you get better wages is to band together and stand together and form a union.”

Many workers in restaurants and coffee shops are young and don’t come from union families. “But union density is greater in Louisville than in any other Kentucky city,” Morris said. “So these non-union workers can look around and see union workers at places like Ford, JBS, UPS, and GE making great wages and enjoying great healthcare and retirement benefits.

“They know there is no way in heck that they’ll get any of this without a union.”

But he said opting for a union does not guarantee that management will promptly begin contract negotiations. Companies that resisted unionization often “illegally bend labor law and drag their feet.”

Morris pledged that Louisville unions will continue to stand in solidarity with the workers seeking a union. “If there’s an action, we’ll be there,” Morris said. “These workers really appreciate that and the support of members of the public. It means a lot to them.”

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