Minnesota employers seeing ‘renewed interest’ in labor unions this year

There’s been a lot of recent union activity around the Twin Cities and across the country.

Just this year, Minneapolis teachers and Minnesota nurses walked off the job, and other industries – most recently the railway workers – averted potential strikes.

William Jones, a professor of history with the University of Minnesota, points to a "renewed interest" in labor unions.

"It's not a mistake that we're seeing strikes by teachers, by nurses – people who were on the front lines of fighting the pandemic and dealing with the pandemic, people who could not just stay home during the pandemic," Jones said.

With their three days on the picket lines, Minnesota nurses drew national attention to the conditions they say they're facing at work.

"I think that their leverage is different than it was before, and I hope that we understand them better than before as a result of the strike as well," said Dr. Timothy Sielaff, an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

Sielaff has worked both as a surgeon and hospital executive. He said only time will tell what happens next following the nurses’ strike, but if real change doesn't happen inside the hospitals, future strikes are inevitable.

"There were terribly hurt feelings and long-standing issues after the 2016 strike, and the system didn't change. The system stayed about the same," Sielaff said.

He points to the railroad strike being averted, and said though the circumstances are different, the rail negotiations could serve as a model of how to resolve issues of burnout.

But these are far from the only industries exercising their right to organize. Starbucks, for example, now has six union shops in Minnesota. Starbucks baristas have unionized in St. Paul, Minneapolis, St. Anthony, Bloomington, Edina and Roseville.

"In 2010, we saw the lowest ever public approval of unions. It was the lowest it's been ever, and now just 20 years later, we're at close to the high," Jones said.

An August Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans support labor unions - the highest level since 1965.

Jones said the pandemic highlighted the difficultly and the dangers of many essential jobs, and also the lack of respect many workers feel from their employers.

Though the tightening of the labor market has given workers more bargaining power, Jones said the law remains stacked against workers.

"Both with the railway workers and the nurses, they couldn't just declare a strike, they had to declare the ‘intent to strike.’ They had to wait a certain amount of time before they actually went on strike. Their strike had to be limited in time," Jones said.