Complaints to a key federal agency are up significantly in Minnesota as union activity this year increased in almost every industry.
From protracted contract talks to picket lines, walkouts and strikes, workers were more vocal this year, leaving onlookers to ponder if 2024 will be as heated.
The activity isn't just in Minnesota. The United Auto Workers talks with the big U.S. carmakers, as well as the writers and actors unions with studios, are frosty. Unfair labor complaints against Starbucks and Amazon have been filed nationwide.
In Minnesota, the 374 complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during the last 10 months already surpassed the number filed during all of fiscal 2022. Last year's 352 complaints were up 41% over 2018 and 2019 levels.
"We're seeing more and more workers raising their voices about what they're experiencing in the workplace," said Nicole Blissenbach, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which regulates worksites.
The tight labor market has contributed to the activity.
"It does kind of shift the balance of power and influence between the employee and the employer," Blissenbach said.
Hand in hand with the increase in worker complaints came a big uptick in unionization activity. While there were 44 petitions to form new unions registered with the NLRB in fiscal 2018 and 39 in fiscal 2019, there were 80 last year and 55 so far this year.
Don't expect the tension to dim, said employment attorney Mark Nelson at Spencer Fane. About 70% of his clients are employers with labor issues.
The "why" rests in the continuing disconnect between management and workers, plus pandemic-induced return-to-work battles, Nelson said.
"I know law firms and other professional organizations are fighting battles [or] having challenges getting people to come back to the office five days a week," he said. "Well, that results in unfair labor practice complaints and organizing activities."
The political climate also stimulates activity, Nelson said, noting that the NLRB's general counsel has an "aggressive agenda to help workers."
The Biden administration also has spoken out in favor of worker rights, and the Minnesota Legislature passed new worker protections in its most recent session.
The combined efforts have emboldened Minnesota workers to take action.
On Aug. 11, more than 550 family doctors, nurses and physicians' assistants at Allina Health notified the NLRB of their intent to join the Doctors Council, a division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). If approved, the move could create one of the largest private-sector physicians unions in the country, spanning various sites statewide and parts of Wisconsin.
Separately on Aug. 14, Allina Health doctors and practitioners at Mercy and Unity hospitals filed an NLRB complaint saying managers attempted to intimidate physicians over bargaining activities.
The physicians unionized in March after a three-year "perfect storm," said Dr. Alia Sharif, an internal medicine doctor at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids.
She said staffing shortages continue and physicians' pay was cut 5%, but administrators received bonuses. The union also says the hospital did not properly notify them they were eligible for paid sick leave as mandated by the government.
"We have been subjected to nonstop, anti-union meetings, emails and posters telling us how bad it was that we physicians wanted to unionize," Sharif said. "They were really trying to shame us over this desire to unionize. It's been a very hostile environment."
That is why the union filed an unfair practice complaint, she said.
Despite employer denials, similar complaints have echoed across the state.
In St. Cloud, Sysco Western Minnesota workers earlier this month filed a complaint that the company surveilled and threatened employees pursuing collective bargaining.
Last month, the United Steelworkers, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International workers accused Maplewood-based 3M of unilaterally modifying contracts without consent.
In April, members of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters picketed the 3536 Nicollet Avenue apartment construction site in Minneapolis to protest how some Yellow Tree subcontractors were paying their workers. The same union filed complaints with the NLRB and state and also picketed other job sites last year in Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Arden Hills and five construction sites in Wisconsin.
Carpenters union spokesman Richard Kolodziejski said he expects more activity in 2024.
The picket signs come out when "we have information that tells us that they are not paying area standards wages and benefits," Kolodziejski said.
Several new state laws that strengthen workers rights could swap picket signs for lawsuits. For example, effective Aug. 1, property owners and general contractors are now liable for wage theft committed by their subcontractors on construction sites.
As far as new laws go, "this is the big one," Kolodziejski said. "This is the bill that does hold developers and owners accountable for wage theft on their job sites. I think we will have a really good case right away."
Merle Payne, co-director of the workers rights group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), said the new law already is motivating the low-wage construction-worker members it helps to protest at job sites and march on developers' offices.
The nonprofit has declared a Week of Action starting Sept. 7.
"We will take this to the public," Payne said.
Other new state mandates either require or will require employers to provide workers sick leave, lactation rooms, pregnancy accommodations and better ergonomic conditions. There are new worker protections for meat and poultry processers. In January 2026, Minnesota's new Paid Family and Medical Leave Act takes effect.
Blissenbach, who leads Minnesota's Labor and Industry, is hiring 30 to 50 more workers to educate employers and employees about the new laws and to investigate fresh complaints.
"We're really excited about the legislation that came out of this last [legislative] session," Blissenbach said. "We know that it will help increase worker voice in the workplace, which is always important."
Some labor leaders say stronger laws and the flood of employee actions to date may slow labor actions in 2024 for a few industries.
Employers watching the "huge strikes" by Hollywood writers and actors and near misses, like the 340,000 UPS workers and 15,000 Minnesota nurses who threatened to walk out, "has actually created a set of conditions where a lot of employers are motivated to reach [labor] agreements" as quickly as possible, said Phillip Cryan, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.
In the last few months, new three-year labor agreements were reached with many Twin Cities hospitals including Allina, M Health Fairview, North Memorial, Park Nicollet, Methodist and Children's Hospitals in both cities, he said.
The contracts were notable because many were negotiated "more than six months in advance of the expiration of the prior contracts," Cryan said. "Some employers have read these signals correctly about worker militancy and readiness to strike and have said, 'You know what? We are going to give you some big raises and we are going to show more respect.'"