By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
Prominent media coverage of recent coordinated protests by workers targeting Twin Cities fast food outlets, Walmart and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport might give the impression of unions on the rise in Minnesota.
Despite a “Week of Action” pickets in December, federal government labor statistics reveal a decade of decline for union membership here and nationwide.
“The representation from the union isn’t good,” said Sharon Kohser, a nurse at Fairview Clinics in Burnsville, who helped lead a recent effort to sever ties with Service Employee International Union Local 113. “I’ve been part of that union for 20 years, I’ve been a steward. It’s not worth spending the money on it when they don’t help you get what you need and when they don’t listen to you and don’t support you.”
Minnesota went from 414,000 union members in 2003 to 362,000 in 2013, a decline from 17 percent to 14.3 percent of the state’s workforce. Nationally, some 11.2 percent of workers belonged to a union in 2013, according to the most recent available figures.
“Overall, I think their position is much, much weaker than it used to be and employees are not adverse to crossing picket lines in the way they used to be,” said Doug Seaton, a Twin Cities attorney who represents employers in labor disputes. “There are many more people operating non-union, even in industries like construction, where they have been traditionally strong. And in manufacturing, it’s almost every instance when a firm changes hands, there’s at least a serious issue about whether the union will survive those transactions.”
Some 185,000 Minnesotans or 8.4 percent of the private sector workforce, belong to unions. Nearly as many, 177,000 Minnesotans or 53.1 percent, of public sector employees affiliate with unions.
Union representatives didn’t respond to Watchdog Minnesota Bureau inquiries. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 website, however, ticks off a list of accomplishments over the past decade, from winning contract battles to fighting government shutdowns to expanding collective bargaining rights.
“We’ve chosen to grow in the face of a raging anti-union storm,” states AFSCME executive director Elliot Seide with other union leaders on the website. “We’ve focused on goals that benefit all working people, whether they are union members or not. Our Raise the Wage Coalition is proof that we can lift all boats when labor, faith, and community groups join forces with common purpose.”
Unions’ emphasis on minimum wage and workplace issues under the banner of “15 Now” and “Week of Action” signals a change in tactics, according to the federal government’s top regional labor relations official.
“What unions would say about that is, they’re not specifically focused on organizing the employees in these circumstances to represent them at this point in time,” said Marlin Osthus, National Labor Relations Board regional director. “They might have that long term goal, but their immediate effort is to assist these employees with just improving their terms and conditions of employment.”
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees made inroads last year by organizing crews for the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports Net North. Adjunct faculty at Hamline University overwhelmingly voted to become SEIU members, while their counterparts at the University of St. Thomas did not.
Alumacraft Boat employees in St. Peter, however, overwhelming rejected the International Brotherhood of Teamers Local 120, while Coca Cola workers in Moorhead voted to decertify the Teamsters Local 120 and go it alone.
Overall, organized labor lost 18 out of the 34 private sector union elections in Minnesota held in fiscal year 2014. Nationally, unions prevail in 63 percent of private sector organizing contests.
“I don’t think it means much that unions win 63 percent of certification elections because those elections only occur if a union wants them to occur,” said Bill Messenger, an attorney for the National Right to Work Foundation. “It is interesting that unions still lose 37 percent of elections that they ask for.”
To be sure, unions win the vast majority of public employee labor elections overseen by the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services. Yet state experts say an increasing number of those elections pits union against union to represent public employees, and fewer attempts to form new bargaining units.
The number of public employee union elections has spiked by about 30 percent since 2011 with a new union, the Minnesota Public Employees Association, aggressively organizing mostly police and sheriff department essential employees.
“MnPEA came on strong and began challenging incumbent elections and that spurred other challenges by Teamsters and AFSCME and LELS (Law Enforcement Labor Services of Minnesota) against each other to try and keep units they already had,” said Janet Johnson of the Bureau of Mediation Services in an email.
Even the biggest public employee union election victory in state history came with a caveat. SEIU won a polarizing union vote to represent 27,000 Minnesotans who provide home-based assistance to family members and others with special needs through government subsidies.
Yet a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling excludes workers from being compelled to pay union dues or fair share fees. And the constitutionality of the controversial law allowing unionization of home care workers remains on appeal in federal court.
“Despite every obstacle put in our way, we stuck to our promise to keep fighting until we were able to exercise our democratic right to let home care workers decide for themselves whether to form a union,” said Sumer Spika, a St. Paul home care worker at a news conference announcing the results.
While most union elections require a simple majority of votes cast, it takes a majority of all eligible union voters to eliminate a collective bargaining unit. So even though nurses voted 57 to 19 end representation by SEIU Healthcare Minnesota last June, the union won because opponents needed 81 votes to win a majority of the 160 eligible voters. Some were critical of the NLRB’s role in the process.
“The national labor board made us feel like they were trying to support the union rather than help us,” said Sharon Kohser, who filed an unsuccessful challenge to the outcome. “Their whole process was lengthy, cumbersome and antiquated.”
“I can see where from her perspective we gave it short shrift,” said Marlin Osthus, the NLRB regional director. “From my perspective, we did what we were supposed to do, which is promptly resolve questions.”