Heightened unionization activity creates challenges for CT employers
By Harriet Jones, Hartford Business Journal Contributor
Anthony Lepore said when he began organizing school bus drivers 20 years ago, their working conditions were tough.
“For the longest time it was just pretty much a throwaway job. They were probably one of the lowest-paid service providers in any field, anywhere,” said Lepore, the secretary treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters, local 671 in Bloomfield.
“They were around minimum wage to $10 an hour,” he added. “They received no sick time, no bereavement pay, no health care, no retirement, any of that stuff. So we really started from the bottom up.”
Just in the last two months, Lepore’s union has announced organizing three more bus yard teams – bus monitors and mechanics at First Student in Manchester, and monitors and drivers at the same company’s New Britain operation. Overall, the Teamsters now represent some 2,300 school bus workers in the state, at 42 different locations – about a quarter of the total workforce.
A Gallup poll taken this summer showed that public approval of unions stands at 71%. That’s the highest the polling organization has measured since the mid-1960s. And while union membership has been on an overall downward trend for decades, 2022 has proved to be unusually strong for union organizing and recruitment.
An analysis by Bloomberg Law shows that nationally by the mid-point of this year, unions had won more than 640 representation elections that went before the National Labor Relations Board, by far the highest total since 2005.
The surge in union interest presents challenges for Connecticut businesses.
The percentage of workers who belong to a union in the state has typically run above the national average, in part because of Connecticut’s labor laws and traditionally strong organizing in the state’s advanced manufacturing base.
In 2021, 14.6% of the state’s 1.5 million workers — or about 223,000 people — were union members, and 16.3% of the state’s labor force was represented by unions, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But this year interest is demonstrably extending beyond union strongholds, with organizing campaigns succeeding among employees as diverse as school bus drivers, Starbucks baristas and university student workers.
In June, employees at a Starbucks at Corbins Corner in West Hartford became the first in the state to vote to unionize, joining a national wave of worker organizing at the coffee chain. A location in Vernon followed in July.
Travis Glenney, who’s been working at the West Hartford store for more than a decade, was one of those who voted to unionize.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back is the COVID situation,” he said. “A lot of the employees felt that they were not being treated with the respect that we deserved.”
He said while Starbucks has committed to raise its starting wage to $15 an hour, that’s not a living wage for more expensive parts of the country like Connecticut.
AFL-CIO Secretary General Ed Hawthorne confirms that the fluidity of the labor market in the COVID era has reinforced the need for organizing for some workers.
“We all remember the Great Resignation,” he said. “So, people quit their job, they got another job, and they realized it was the same as the last job they just quit. In order to make the job better, they need a voice. And that’s why we’re seeing the uptick at the interest in unions.”
Meanwhile, challenging times in higher education have prompted organizing on college campuses, including student workers at Wesleyan University in Middletown and Yale in New Haven.
Connecticut labor advocates this year also saw long-sought success at the legislative level, finally managing to pass so-called captive audience legislation after more than a decade of trying. The statute specifies that an employer cannot compel an employee to attend a meeting where union organizing is discussed. Union leaders see this as a powerful tool to protect their organizing efforts.
But there are already questions over the law. The Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) is one of the plaintiffs in a suit challenging the new statute.
“The federal government has very clearly weighed in on unionizing matters,” said CBIA CEO Chris DiPentima. “The Connecticut law is in conflict with the federal law.”
Under both the federal statute and new state law, employees have the right to leave any meeting called by an employer to discuss labor organizing. But under federal law, if they leave the meeting they no longer get paid for their time, while under the Connecticut version, the employee continues to get paid.
DiPentima said the Connecticut law is also too vague about other topics that can be governed under the concept of captive audience, including politics and religion.
“In this world where employers are trying to do more around a better understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion, part of the training includes talking about everyone being from diverse religious backgrounds and embracing that,” he said. “Does an employee perceive that as being religious in nature, and then get up and leave that really important training?”
But there are warning signs for the potential success of the lawsuit.
National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, an appointee of President Joe Biden, has issued a memo saying she believes captive audience meetings held by employers are in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, a stance that would move interpretation of the federal statute toward Connecticut’s position.
“I think employers would be wise in Connecticut to see what’s going on nationally,” said Jarad Lucan, co-chair of the labor employment and education group at Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin.
But Lucan said he does believe there’s a lot still to be decided as the Connecticut statute is implemented.
“There are some questions left open about whether or not you can force someone to come and talk about, say, a safety issue in the workplace that might relate to legislation,” he said. “I think those are things that are going to have to get played out.”
Lucan has advice for employers who may wish to quell organizing within their workforce.
“Obviously it’s up to each employer whether or not they’re fine with a union or not,” he said. “For those that aren’t, we need to look at how can you make the workplace as positive an experience for your employees as possible.”
He said paying attention to wages and other concerns will signal to employees that there’s no need for a third party to dictate workplace conditions.
“If you want to make sure you’re doing the right things to be competitive with other states that might have less pro-union legislation, you want to be able to show you’re that employer that does do the right things,” Lucan said.
“Many of our members are unionized facilities,” added CBIA’s DiPentima. “Some of them have very great relationships with the unions and the facilities perform very well. I don’t think businesses are anti-union or pro-union. It just depends on the union mindset, the union culture – if they’re really looking to work with management to grow the facility so that the facility can prosper.”
And often, he said, it can come down to the bottom line.
“Sometimes with a lot of the rules that come in with collective bargaining with the union, it’s a challenge to be cost competitive at a global level,” DiPentima said. “If you’ve got only a certain number of people who can drive a forklift and they’re not available, but no one else under the union rules is allowed to come over and use a forklift, that really ties the hands of the employer.”