Union victories could spark new blue collar power in the Bluegrass

Labor is cool again

November 21, 2023 5:30 am

Workers stand in a line on strike outside the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, Oct. 18, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

Is it possible that blue collar Kentucky workers could finally be reaching a turning point in the long slide in their standard of living? If so, history may credit the victories in the now-ratified new contracts of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Teamsters.

After decades of stagnant wages and eroding job quality, these two unions won significant gains in negotiations with the Big Three automakers and United Parcel Service (UPS), respectively. While not everything workers hoped for was secured, the final ratified agreements contain substantial wage increases, including dramatic gains for part-time, temporary and lower-paid workers, improved working conditions, and even influence over plant closings and investments.

These wins come after years of forced concessions in union contracts and weakening economic security. Numerous public policy decisions have beat workers down and driven billionaire incomes up, from trade deals and deregulation to loophole-ridden labor laws and so-called right to work.

But things are changing rapidly. Labor is cool again and unions are popular, with organizing reaching even graduate students and Starbucks employees. And the new leadership of unions like the Teamsters and the UAW are raising the bar on what workers should expect and demand.

What is bringing about this potential renaissance? Discontent over growing inequality and a broken economy for most workers has been bubbling for decades. Federal pandemic stimulus and industrial policies are creating record-low unemployment, which allows workers to take greater risk knowing other jobs are out there. At the same time, unions like the Teamsters and UAW have emerged stronger after internal reform efforts.

And it’s right here in the commonwealth where these victories could bear their biggest fruit. The state’s central location has made Kentucky a key home to auto manufacturing and logistics, the primary UAW and Teamsters industries. While most people think of blue collar jobs as being in terminal decline, these sectors have been growing rapidly in the Bluegrass.

More than 137,000 Kentuckians work in transportation and warehousing, growth of 165% since 1990. And 68,000 work in auto and truck manufacturing, up 113%. In comparison, all Kentucky non-farm employment increased only 38% over the same time period. The state reports that unionized Ford and UPS are now our two biggest employers.

And the next two biggest? Amazon and Toyota. They operate in the same industries as UPS and Ford, but are non-union. For now.

UAW President Shawn Fain (Ken Coleman/Michigan Advance)

The improvements UAW and Teamsters members won are rippling out to other employers, whose workers are taking notice. When Toyota announced a big raise right after the UAW tentative agreement was reached, auto worker president Shawn Fain called it the “UAW bump,” quipping that it stands for “U Are Welcome.” Axios quotes UAW staff reporting, “’We’ve had a tremendous amount of calls coming in from Toyota workers wanting to unionize in Kentucky.” Likewise, there are active Amazon warehouse organizing efforts all over the country.

In the mid-20th century, one-third of U. S. workers were union members compared to only 10% today. At that bigger scale, unions wielded significant political power and were also part of workers’ everyday lives, sponsoring sports leagues and social activities. When my father-in-law — a member of his teachers’ union — died recently, we found he’d kept and protected the union cards of both his father, a coal miner, and his mother, a hospital cafeteria worker.

There may be nothing more potentially transformative than the reawakened idea that workers should have a voice in their jobs and in broader society.

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