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Unions feel positive vibe on Labor Day

Minnesota's organized labor movement is encouraged by recent developments.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Cool jazz notes wafted through the air Monday afternoon at the Minnesota AFL-CIO Pavilion at the State Fair. Cornbread Harris, a 95-year-old entertainer, sat at the keyboard playing and singing blues songs, but Minnesota's labor movement is feeling upbeat on this Labor Day.

"I feel the labor movement is stronger now than before and we'll keep pushing forward to make it even better here," Octavio Chung, of the Laborers International Union of North America, or LIUNA, told KARE.

He was staffing a fair booth with fellow LIUNA member Lucas Franco, who said his members have been busy because of all the public and private construction projects in the state.

"Our benches are thin, and our members have an extraordinary amount of work, from wind and solar projects in southern Minnesota, the Line 3 Pipeline, road and bridge work," Franco remarked.

"So, our membership is working. Our union is strong."

The crowds that lined the State Fair parade route Monday cheered for the union members who marched under the auspices of the St. Paul Labor Federation. That's consistent with polling, showing most Americans have a generally positive feeling about unions, even though most of them don't belong to one.

According to a recent US Bureau of Labor Statistics report less than 11 percent of American workers are members of unions, compared to 35 percent at the peak of labor membership in the 1950s. In Minnesota, 16 percent of workers belong to union after peaking at 37 percent in 1964.

The rate of union membership in private sector employees is typically lower than it is for the public sector, which includes teachers and government workers.

But Minnesota's organized labor movement sees hopeful signs in recent developments in the retail sector. The downtown Minneapolis Trader Joe's store, two Starbucks coffee stores, the Peace Coffee company, and Half Price Book Stores have all had successful unionization efforts in the past year.

Some say the surge in unionization is due to the fact that a new generation of workers have higher expectations when it comes to their schedules and working conditions.

"We get caught up in wages and this feeling that’s the only thing worth negotiating, but especially in the current workforce, the demands now involve what an actual day looks like, what a work setting looks like," James Westin of the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW, told KARE.

"We spend the majority of our time in our daily lives at work. Why can’t it be a place that I want it to be? Why can’t I have more say than just having the people at the top telling me this is how it is?"

The Upper Midwest had been a union stronghold for many decades because much of the nation's manufacturing occurred in the Great Lakes states like Minnesota.  But the nation's economy underwent seismic changes in the 1970s and 1980s, that put a dent in unionization efforts.

National and international companies moved manufacturing operations to other countries or to southern states without a strong union presence, in order to cut labor costs. That was done both to keep up with shareholders' earnings expectations and to survive the price competition from over overseas manufacturers.

The coming strike by the Minnesota Nurses Association against several hospital groups will be another test of the power of essential workers to move the needle in contract negotiations. The MNA asserts nurses should have more of a voice in determining minimum staffing levels, as a matter of safety for both providers and patients.

Some politicians and contractors want to scrap Minnesota's prevailing wage law, which requires that state-funded construction projects pay the average wage in the area where it's being built. Those prevailing wages are higher than minimum wage because so much of the work is being done by companies that employ union workers.

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