Amy Dennett long endured understaffing, low pay and indifferent bosses in her job at the American Red Cross in Asheville, North Carolina.
But she decided she’d had enough when management’s failure to provide basic resources forced her and her coworkers to build, jury-rig and dig into their own pockets for items needed to operate the blood donation center.
Dennett helped lead a union drive in 2020, resulting in the group’s vote to join the United Steelworkers (USW), and the 24 workers gained raises, greatly improved health care and much-needed equipment even before signing their first contract.
More and more workers like Dennett are realizing that unions fight for them every day, providing a path forward even in tumultuous times like a pandemic.
Gallup surveyed Americans on their confidence in 16 U.S. institutions ranging from the Supreme Court to television news. Over the past year, Gallup found, Americans’ confidence fell in all of them except one—organized labor.
“That doesn’t surprise me. We’re supposed to have faith in our elected officials and other leaders. But it’s a lot easier for a worker to have faith in the guy standing next to them than a guy in some other place you’ve never met who’s supposed to represent you,” Dennett said of the findings, noting that unions helped workers during the pandemic while many of the 16 institutions failed or exploited them.
Corporations jacked up prices on food and other essentials, raking in ever-higher profits on the backs of working Americans. And tech companies like Amazon and Apple tried to beat back workers’ fights for better wages and working conditions.
In stark contrast to all of this, unions stepped up during the pandemic because their members needed them more than ever. They not only empowered workers to secure the personal protective equipment, paid sick leave and affordable health care they needed to safeguard their families but also continued winning the raises and benefits essential for years to come.
Those successes drove Americans’ support for unions to record levels and unleashed a wave of organizing drives among workers who put their lives on the line to keep companies operating during the pandemic.
“These workers have figured out, ‘Hey, I’m essential. I deserve to make enough to pay my bills,’” Dennett said, noting the USW “absolutely changed the dynamic” in her workplace.
Once “blatantly ignored,” she said, workers now have a seat at the table. And no longer do Dennett and her coworkers have to build their own organizers for tape and Band-Aids or scrounge parts for items like television assemblies.
“We ended up with the equipment that we need,” explained Dennett, a collection specialist, noting her coworkers now have quality computer carts like the one she had to buy for herself a couple of years ago.
The USW also represents Red Cross workers in Alabama and Georgia. When a cost-of-living analysis revealed the urgent need for raises in some of those locations, Dennett and her underpaid colleagues also received pay bumps, even before completing their first contract.
Workers’ demand for union representation cuts across all economic sectors, from manufacturing and retail to emerging clean industries and professional sports.
Players in the new United States Football League (USFL) recently voted to join the USW to ensure adequate housing, meals and health care, among other essentials, and to guard against the kinds of nightmares that followed the collapse of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.
That league folded overnight, stranding players in the cities where they were playing.
“There was no transportation home,” explained Kenneth Farrow, president of the United Football Players Association, which advocates for USFL players.
Farrow said the Alliance players got kicked out of their hotels, had to fund their own flights and rental cars and got stuck with ongoing medical expenses for game-related injuries. “There have been quite a few ugly situations,” he said, explaining why the USFL players wanted a union.
Besides fighting for better wages and working conditions, unions confront favoritism and discrimination when no one else will.
With the support of other unions, USW Local 7600 took a stand last year on behalf of thousands of members working at Kaiser Permanente health care facilities in the Inland Empire area of Southern California.
The union challenged Kaiser’s practice of paying those workers, many of them people of color, significantly lower wages than their counterparts performing the same jobs at the health care giant’s locations elsewhere. Some of the Inland Empire workers made 30 percent less than peers in Los Angeles and Orange County.
Kaiser tried to blame the pay gaps on a higher cost of living in Los Angeles, an excuse that fell flat with the USW members.
“I’m from LA. It’s not that much higher,” said LaTrice Benson, an anesthesia technician affected by the disparities.
In the end, Kaiser agreed to commit millions to closing wage gaps for the USW members as well as workers represented by other unions.
“It means the world to me and my colleagues,” Benson said. “We’re sincerely thankful for our union.”
Dennett sees the growing appreciation for organized labor even among the blood donors she works with every day. When she tells them she joined a union, she often gets the same response: “Congratulations.”
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.