PHOENIX-Times are tough for labor unions. They may have seen a small increase in enrollment last year-the first in 25 years-but that was almost entirely attributed to new federal, state, and city hires rather than private sector employees deciding to organize or join an existing union. Overall, membership is in steep decline. While union workers made up 20 percent of the national job force in the early 1980s, today that number has dropped to just 12.4 percent, with some experts pinning the cause on a mistrust of union representation among young professionals.
Big labor's efforts to revitalize private sector unionization, such as the so-called "card check" bill that would do away with secret ballots and force businesses to abide by federal arbiters' decisions when an agreement can't be reached, appear to be alienating the public. Gallup's most recent survey found that only 48 percent of Americans approve of unions, an all-time low that is down from 59 percent a year ago. More alarming perhaps for labor leaders, the portion of the population saying that unions hurt the economy rather than help it has risen from about a third in 2006 to more than half today.
A barely averted strike against two major Arizona grocery chains earlier this month may serve as a prototype for problems organized labor faces nationally. Not only was much of the shopping public not supportive of Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99's decision to call a walkout, neither were many of its own members. And they weren't shy about voicing their opposition.
Hundreds of Fry's and Safeway employees rallied on Nov. 10 to protest their representatives' decision to reject the grocery stores' previous offer before bringing it to a full vote. And while Local 99's leaders were readying picket signs and training picket captains in case an agreement wasn't reached, these in-house voices of dissent were at a park carrying their own signs, chanting, "No strike, no strike."
Such opposition within union ranks is unusual, according to experts like labor attorney Christopher Mason. Mason told The Arizona Republic he believes pressure from members made the union as eager to reach an agreement as the grocery chains. At press time, neither union nor store representatives would divulge the details of the last-minute settlement reached on Nov. 13, but Mason speculated that given "internal unrest and wobbly community support," it may only have taken a token concession to compel the union to bring things to a quick and quiet end.
The most serious point of contention between the two sides was an issue that's increasingly associated with big labor nationwide: health insurance. Until now Fry's and Safeway, both owned by the Cincinnati-based Kroger company, haven't required employees to shoulder any of the premiums for what some on Capitol Hill would call a "Cadillac" insurance plan.
Safeway checker Christine Carroll describes her Blue Cross/Blue Shield coverage, which extends to her three children for no additional cost, as "fantastic," adding, "I have a really small deductible and most of the time I have low or no co-pays. I'm a cancer survivor and have to take 15 different prescriptions and on most of them I pay zero."
The stores' September proposal sought to change that, asking employees to help them weather recent retail downturns by kicking in $20 a month for individual coverage, $40 a month for couples, and $60 a month for families. Union spokeswoman Ellen Adreder said that was too much to expect, and certainly some members supported that sentiment.
Lisa Aguilar, a Tucson clerk who has worked for Safeway for 16 years, said that after losing full-time status and her Sunday time-and-a-half pay, there was "no way" she was going to contribute to her health premiums. "The department managers continue to get their bonuses and it's not fair," she said before asking, "Why do we who make the money for the company have to give up so much? When do they get their bonuses reduced or taken away? When do they have to give something up?"
But many other members saw the situation differently. Fry's employee Sean Owen told the Republic that he was willing to pay the premiums because "everybody pays something for health care in this day and age." Carroll agreed, calling "very fair" the proposed fees. "We're lucky that we haven't had to pay anything for our health insurance up to this point. I mean, everyone else I know, they have to pay so much it's not even funny," she added.
High unemployment rates also may have been a factor in reaching an agreement, taking a major weapon out of the union's arsenal. Having put the call out for employees to replace those who chose to strike, Safeway was able to immediately hire 2,500 temporary workers while Fry's said it had 6,100 ready to step in. Spokespeople for both chains reported receiving thousands more applications, and local news stations showed jobless people lining up for hours outside the stores' doors for a chance at a paycheck during the holidays. As one Fry's employee put it, "The economy sucks and our jobs are replaceable. This [was] not the right time to strike."
And though an agreement was ultimately reached and a work stoppage avoided, the standoff has left the union's rolls lighter than when it started. Fry's employee Kim Cress withdrew her membership after 18 years, citing demands that were out of touch given the current economic climate. "I can't believe the union calling for a strike in this economy," she said.
Christine Carroll, a member for 10 years, is joining her and says that the union's true colors came out during the past month. "We [Carroll and fellow co-workers] called and requested that they come visit our store, but all they did was send someone to drop off propaganda that was pro-strike. No one actually wanted to talk to us, so that was very disappointing."
She then describes how her attempts at resigning were met: "I went on to the national labor board's web site and found out that you can withdraw from a union by contacting them via registered mail and that's what I'm planning doing," she says. "I first tried calling my union to get a withdrawal form and basically was told to kiss off. They were nasty. It was upsetting."
When asked to specify how her representatives were nasty, Carroll declines to answer, but her evasion lends credence to those who argue that the card check bill would enable labor leaders to intimidate and bully workers into unionizing. "The union is strong and kind of scary, to be honest," she says, "I'm a little worried about retaliation."