'It's a human rights issue': The year of Minnesota strikes and union organizing

People hold picket signs as they strike
Nurses begin picketing outside Children’s Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis on Monday, Sept. 12. Minnesota nurses are just one of many unionized groups working toward fairer wages and better conditions.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Nurses in the Twin Cities and Duluth this past week used the threat of an end-of-year strike to get a new contract with more pay and changes in their workplace. Railway workers also almost went on strike this fall. And, earlier this year, Minnesota teachers walked off the job.

It’s been a year of strike headlines. And also a year for new unions. Petitions to form a union were up 53 percent in 2022 compared to last year. In 2022, workers organized a union at the first Amazon warehouse, the first Apple store, at more than 250 Starbucks stores across the country and here at the Minnesota Historical Society.

So, what’s behind all the union activity?  

MPR News host Angela Davis talks to a labor journalist and a labor historian about how more workers are turning to collective bargaining in our tight labor market to deal with inflation, low staffing and growing discontent with workplace demands and income inequality. 

Guests: 

  • William Jones is a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. He studies and writes about organized labor, unions, racial inequality and the history of the Civil Rights movement.  

  • Lauren Kaori Gurley is the labor reporter for The Washington Post. She previously covered labor and tech for Vice's Motherboard.   

Why are we seeing more efforts to unionize and strikes?

William Jones: I think I see sort of two groups of workers gaining visibility for their union activity. One is the younger workers that we've seen sort of turning to the union movement in ways that we haven't seen before. Starbucks workers, Amazon workers, workers at places that had not previously been unionized. But then we see another group of workers like the railway workers, the nurses, teachers who have actually been unionized for a long time, and have a practice of collective bargaining.

MPR News is Member Supported

What does that mean? The news, analysis and community conversation found here is funded by donations from individuals. Make a gift of any amount during the Winter Member Drive to support this resource for everyone.

Lauren Kaori Gurley: So I think what we're really seeing is a change in the public perception of unions. This year, Gallup did a poll that recorded that 71 percent of Americans now approve of labor unions, this is the highest met that they've measured since they started collecting this data in 1965. During the pandemic a lot of workers risked their lives, they died on the line in grocery stores, just on the front lines working. While people at the top of their companies were raking in record profits. During the pandemic, a lot of these inequalities were highlighted.

A top issue has been paid sick leave, why is that?

Lauren Kaori Gurley: Rail workers don’t receive a single paid sick day, it's very unbelievable. I think it's an issue that a lot of people in the public sympathize with, especially during a pandemic. I think across the board, sick days have become very important. I think, with the rail workers in particular, I would note that these sick days were sort of symbolic in a way. They're sort of a stand in for the degrading share of working conditions and severe understaffing and grueling schedules that have been implemented by the railroads under a business model called preschedule.

What makes a strong union and what makes a weak union?

William Jones: Unions are democratic organizations, right. So they reflect the interests and the will of their members to the degree to which their members are organized and sort of active. I think there's long standing tension within the union movement between sort of servicing and protecting the interests of the workers who belong to the union and trying to provide them with sort of day-to-day services. I think you see this particularly in long-established unions, where you see people sort of satisfied with the day-to-day actions and what they have. And then people belonging to the same unions who are frustrated that the union doesn't go out fight for more things. When you see unions changing, it's a matter of sort of a militant minority within the union, organizing and often taking leadership of the union and pointing the union in a more militant direction.

Your Stories

Ami from the Minnesota Historical Society

We won our election last November, and we've been bargaining since June. So we're fighting for our first contract. We want a strong contract. And we've got a rally coming up on Saturday to support that. Nearly half of our workers are currently paid less than a living wage. It’s unacceptable, unsustainable, especially for folks who have dedicated years, in some cases, decades to working at MNHS, and are still being paid entry level wages.

Patti, a Minnesota nurse

Our contract started negotiating in March, and we've had like, 38 sessions in my bargaining unit. Our leaders would come for five minutes, they'd leave for four hours, they'd come back for 10 minutes, they'd leave for another couple hours. So we would sit all day waiting for negotiations to happen. So those kinds of things kind of disheartened the worker. We're not moving forward. There's no answers. Today, we meet a lot, but nothing is happening.

John from Minneapolis

For rail workers, you know, it's working conditions, they sit by the phone and have to wait on them, to dictate to them what their schedule is, how can you have a personal life? How can you take care of your family? How can you take care of yourself? It’s more than just getting seven days of sick leave. I think that it's a human rights issue.

Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS. 

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.