Union membership in Minnesota is at its highest level in 14 years, with a surge in organizing efforts over the past two years led by retail but encompassing employers across industries. Trader Joe's downtown Minneapolis became the latest union shop on Friday.
Safety and wage issues brought to the forefront during the pandemic are a big reason, union organizers and experts said. But so is the severe labor shortage and a pro-union Biden administration.
"We've seen two years of growth. Minnesota's union density is the highest it has been in a decade," said Minnesota AFL-CIO spokesman Chris Shields. "Barring a recession or economic downturn, it's likely we'll continue to see some modest growth."
While no one knows if the momentum will last, there are more votes scheduled in coming months.
Safety was the big reason for an organizing effort at Trader Joe's in downtown Minneapolis, which became the second in the 530-strong grocery chain to unionize after Hadley, Mass. The vote for a unit covering the 75 workers was 55-5.
Long hours, insufficient staff, excessive turnover and wages that lag behind neighboring hospitals and clinics were among the reasons cited by workers at Planned Parenthood Minnesota and Iowa, who joined SEIU Healthcare last month.
Several Starbucks in Minnesota have unionized, following a national organizing movement. Select Half Price Books and Peace Coffee locations also are now unionized.
Beyond the retail outlets, bargaining units have formed at the Minnesota Historical Society, Abbott Northwestern Hospital and the Guthrie Theater Foundation. After the Minnesota United FC Soccer franchise refused to voluntarily recognize a union in July, the team's 35-member video film crew petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election to join the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees.
Representation still is down from its high in 1992, when 22% of working Minnesotans were in unions. But unions now represent 16% of Minnesota's workforce, up from 13.7% in 2019, according to the Minnesota AFL-CIO.
"Nationally, in 2021 and 2022, we are in the most favorable conditions for workers to organize in many decades. Culturally, economically and politically we are at a high point," said Aaron Sojourner, senior researcher at W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. "Workers have not had [this kind of] leverage in the labor market for a long time."
Sojourner recently noted, along with colleagues, that huge swells in union activity have the potential to impact the broader U.S. economy by increasing wages, boosting unemployment benefits, narrowing wage inequities within a company and sometimes decreasing corporate profits.
The number of Minnesota union members rose 4.5% between 2020 and 2021 to 416,000, the highest in 14 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Trader Joe's workers said their organizing effort came after a number of troubling incidents, including a gunshot victim falling into the store, drunk customers causing upheaval and the towering boxes of fruit that fell on one employee. Employees made repeated requests for safety training that they say went unheeded.
Plus, they've had sexual harassment problems, big pay gaps between new and long-time workers and cuts to retirement benefits, said Sarah Beth Ryther, who has worked there for a year.
"Safety is a serious issue at our store. It was the impetus for our first conversations about unionizing" in Minneapolis, Ryther said. "We love our neighborhood, love our community and are so happy to be in the heart of the city. But we believe that we need more training to interact with some of the situations that we face every day."
Trader Joe's officials said in an e-mail that they will immediately begin negotiating a contract, even though they are "concerned by how this new rigid legal relationship will impact Trader Joe's culture." The company said it offers crew members "a package of pay, benefits and working conditions that are among the best in the grocery business."
Labor experts don't know if the upswing in union activity in small retail shops and other outlets will last. But for now, momentum appears to be building.
Look at Starbucks organizing efforts. A Buffalo, N.Y., store formed a union in December 2021, and eight months later, employees at more than 200 stores followed suit.
They have asked for better pay, scheduling, training and benefits.
Starbucks officials say they respect employees' rights to organize but insist that unions aren't needed for workers to get better pay and benefits.
"We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country," Starbucks officials said in a statement. "From the beginning, we've been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed."
Not all union efforts have been successful.
While five Starbucks stores in the Twin Cities joined SEIU's Workers United, employees at two local stores, one in Eden Prairie and another in Minneapolis, voted against forming a union.
Nationally, Amazon's unionizing efforts have been slower to spread with recent election losses in New York City and Alabama, and a series of employee walk-outs in Shakopee largely going nowhere.
Even so, store clerks and food prep workers at stores from REI and Chipotle to Apple have joined unions, as well as a group of Google Fiber workers in Kansas City, 600 Google workers in Silicon Valley and Activision Blizzard gaming employees in Wisconsin.
Half Price Books workers unionized after citing a host of problems involving the pandemic, poor communication, seemingly unfair layoff and recall practices, along with shortened hours that left workers struggling.
Shields, with the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said the pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for workers about what was important in life.
"Workers are sick of having to cobble together multiple jobs just to make ends meet while sacrificing precious time with families" under less than optimal conditions, Shields said. "They see organizing as a way to improve their workplaces and their lives."
Younger workers are driving most organizing efforts in Minnesota.
"This is a generation that was told if they played by the rules and worked hard, they could have a prosperous life. Instead, many young workers are saddled with massive student debt and jobs that can't sustain a family," Shields said. "Instead of accepting the cards they've been dealt, they're organizing."