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November 2020

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Gallup: A Majority of Americans Support Unions

A recent Gallup poll shows a majority of Americans still believe in the power of collective bargaining.

"This shows that, once again, working people believe in their right to have a voice on the job," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "It's not a fringe notion, it's mainstream. People can see that there's power in a union."

According to the polling organization's annual Labor Day poll, 65% of Americans approve of unions, the highest it's been since 2003. Gallup also noted that public support has been steadily rising from a low point of 40% in 2008 during the Great Recession.

Gallup began tracking union sentiment in 1936, the beginning of the modern labor movement, and found support at 72%. It peaked at 75% in the mid-1950s. And while collective bargaining support has tended to drop during times of economic unrest, the report notes that this has not been the case this time around. With millions of Americans out of work due to the coronavirus and unemployment at a near-record high, the current data, collected from July 30 to Aug. 12, seems to be bucking that trend. In fact, support is slightly higher than as it was last year.

It's possible that the tumultuousness and uncertainty of the pandemic are driving positive union sentiment, or at least worker activism. The early days of the outbreak were filled with stories of workers in hospitals, grocery stores and other places that couldn't shut down going without basic personal protective equipment. With lives literally at risk, many took to the streets and picket lines to fight for their right to a safe work environment.

"[Our] pandemic led to the strike, and the strike led to this opportunity to organize workers all over this country," said Instacart worker Ryan Hartson to The Guardian. "No question the pandemic has opened up a whole new dynamic in the labor movement."

Looking at political parties, Democrats showed the most support, at 83%, followed by 64% of independents and 45% of Republicans. While the degree has varied over time, such polarization has existed since Gallup began tracking it in 2001.

In The American Prospect, labor reporter Harold Meyerson noted the discrepancy between the Republican rank and file and their elected officials.

"It's that Republican number that should interest us the most, because nothing so reveals the gap between the GOP rank and file — which, as we all know, includes a large share of working-class whites — and Republican elected officials. While 45% of the Republican base favors unions, not even 4.5% of Republicans in office do," Meyerson wrote.

The poll's findings align with similar results from recent years. In 2018, Pew found that a majority of people view the role of unions positively. And in that same year, MIT Sloan researchers found that almost half of nonunionized workers said they would join a union if given the opportunity.

"As we always say, every IBEW member can be an organizer, and numbers like these prove that the time is ripe to grow our ranks and offer the incredible power of a union to even more working people," Stephenson said. "Now's the time to get to work."


Support for Unions has been polarized since Gallup began tracking it in 2001.

Credit: Gallup

How Unions Help Workers During the Coronavirus — and How Employers Cripple Those Efforts

Recent reports from the Economic Policy Institute show how unions help working people during times like the coronavirus pandemic — and how they're hobbled from doing more by anti-worker policies and practices.

Studies have shown time and time again that unions are good for working people, both those covered by a collective bargaining agreement and the workforce as whole. This is particularly true in terms of wages, benefits and working conditions like safety and having a voice on the job. This year, the coronavirus has shown just how vital these basic rights are to a healthy society and economy. And most people would join a union if they could. But anti-worker policies have made it increasingly difficult to do so, leaving far too many Americans voiceless and at real risk.

"Now, more than ever, we need strong labor laws to protect working people from the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic," said Lynn Rhinehart, EPI senior fellow. "We need policymakers to use their power to halt and reverse the four-decades-old trend of rising inequality, while also creating meaningful reforms that help workers organize unions."

Rhinehart is a co-author of the report, "Why unions are good for workers — especially in a crisis like COVID-19," which assesses the situation for workers during the ongoing pandemic and calls for policies that would boost worker rights, safety and wages. The study notes that unionized workers have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, paid sick time and a say in the terms of furloughs or work-share arrangements to save jobs.

For workers considered essential, many have been forced to work without protective gear, have no access to paid sick leave, and when they have spoken up about health and safety concerns, they've been fired. Without such basic protections, thousands have contracted the virus and many have died.

Unfortunately, far too many employers are shirking their responsibility to their employees if not outright crushing attempts at collective action. Among the report's policy proposals to empower working families is passage of the PRO Act, which IBEW members helped pass in the House of Representatives. The legislation would strengthen the ability of private-sector workers to form unions by increasing penalties against employers for violating the National Labor Relations Act as well as for those who fire workers for organizing. It would also ban captive-audience meetings, where workers are forced to listen to anti-union messaging and override right-to-work laws, among other actions. The Pro Act was introduced in the Senate but has been blocked by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

EPI catalogued the many nefarious actions of unscrupulous employers to keep unions out in its report, Fear at Work, where it looked at different unionization drives to illustrate what employer opposition campaigns often do to keep their workers voiceless. It notes that companies collectively spend $340 million a year on "union avoidance" consultants who teach them how to exploit weaknesses in labor law to scare workers out of exercising their legal right to collective bargaining.

"The importance of unions has been even further heightened by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the national protests around racial justice," said Lola Loustaunau, research fellow at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center and co-author of the report. "Unionization has helped bring living wages to once low-wage jobs in industries such as health care and is a key tool for closing racial wage gaps. Congress must ensure workers have a meaningful right to organize and bargain collectively."

The report notes a 2017 survey that found only a fraction, less than 1%, of those who say they'd join a union were able to actually do so. This is largely due to the rampant intimidation by employers and other avoidance tactics, both legal and illegal, but paltry fines and other insignificant penalties offer little deterrence.

EPI also cited a national survey that asked workers who had been through an election to name "the most important reason people voted against union representation." The single most common response was management pressure, including fear of job loss.

At a time when workers across the country are walking out of warehouses, meat processing plants, offices and countless other jobs to demand their right to safety and respect, such employer behavior has become a dangerous impediment.

"The coronavirus has laid bare just how far we've gotten from protecting our working families," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "No one should have to choose between getting sick — or getting their family members sick — and getting a paycheck. We need to do better, and we need our elected officials to have the political will to make it happen."


Recent reports detail how unionization helps workers during times like the coronavirus pandemic — and how employers keep blocking those organizing efforts.

Stephenson: Union Jobs,
Baseload Power Key to New Energy Economy

A low-carbon future requires more than investment in renewable energies, it demands good jobs backed by strong labor standards and the inclusion of baseload sources for grid security, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson told members of Congress in September.

"Supporting traditional baseload generation and reducing greenhouse gases are not mutually exclusive," he said, testifying a virtual hearing before the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.

Democrats called the hearing to explore how federal action on climate change can revive the economy and benefit American workers.

"An ambitious recovery effort focused on climate action will give us the tools to build back better and stronger, and create millions of new, good-paying jobs," said Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the subcommittee.

Stephenson, one of four witnesses invited to speak, told the panel that IBEW members "are already working on the front lines of climate change."

"We are proud to be building and maintaining new, zero-carbon power generation sources, from large-scale solar installations in the desert of California to offshore wind farms off the coast of Rhode Island," he said, adding that inside wireman are retrofitting older buildings for energy efficiency, and that utility linemen nationwide are being deployed to Western and Gulf states in the aftermath of the devastating fires and hurricanes.

"The climate crisis is real and urgent and poses a threat to our nation's long-term prosperity," Stephenson said, calling for urgent but responsible federal action.

"The IBEW supports Congress developing a stimulus plan that would create over a million family-supporting, union-friendly jobs to rebuild our nation's infrastructure, lower greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change," he said.

He laid out three essential elements in any federal plan: labor rights, baseload generation and advanced manufacturing.

"For our members and all workers, it is critical that Congress attach strong labor standards to future low-carbon stimulus legislation," he said, specifying prevailing wages, project labor agreements and a mandate that employers respect their workers' right to join a union.

"These are some of the best policy tools available to ensure the green economy will create family-supporting jobs and provide equity for all workers," he said.

Stephenson explained that baseload sources, including coal, gas and nuclear power, can't be abandoned, urging robust federal investment in carbon capture and advanced nuclear technology to lower emissions while ensuring grid reliability and preserving jobs.

Asked specifically about the future of nuclear power, he called it "a huge piece of the puzzle."

"Nuclear is zero-emissions, and with current facilities and the new next generation of nuclear, it's a great opportunity to make sure we have a reliable clean baseload when the wind's not blowing and the sun's not shining," Stephenson said.

He said the IBEW also views a low-carbon economy "as America's best opportunity to reinvigorate our manufacturing sector," as long as Congress acts to support green-industry jobs before the sector is fully dominated by China and other foreign competitors.

The hearing was among a series of public forums this fall where Stephenson has addressed energy policy in the context of union jobs and gold-standard apprenticeships like the IBEW's that are training an expert and diverse workforce to be ready to adapt to change.

At a virtual roundtable in Wisconsin, he invited two members to join him. PV installer and instructor Julie Brazeau of Stevens Point, Wis., Local 388, talked about the exponential growth of opportunities in the solar market.

"For many years we didn't see jobs," Brazeau said. "It's really exciting to see the market open up now and the jobs materializing. There are wonderful opportunities for all kinds of skills, from material handlers to highly skilled electricians that are going to connect these systems to the grid."

Journeyman lineman Brady Weiss, assistant business manager of Eau Claire, Wis., Local 953, said some area energy employers are ahead of the national curve in investing in wind and solar — as well as Wisconsin's bounty of hydroelectricity that provides affordable power and more.

At the same time, he said, they're protecting the reliability of the grid. "Our focus is to do it in a responsible manner so that when people turn on the light switch, the lights come on, the power continues to flow, manufacturers are able to operate and we're able to sustain life and business."


International President Lonnie R. Stephenson testifies before U.S. House members at a virtual hearing about jobs and new energy.

Labor Department Proposes
New Pro‑Employer Rule on Gig Workers

A proposed Labor Department rule aims to change the standards for determining who is an independent contractor, or gig worker, making it easier for working people to be denied the benefits of full employment.

"This rule only serves to help unscrupulous employers at the expense of working people," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "And to do so at a time of such economic uncertainty is particularly egregious."

The proposed rule, announced Sept. 22, sets a framework to determine whether someone is an independent contractor or a full-fledged employee. If they're considered a contractor, companies don't have to pay for protections like health care, paid time off, overtime or a share of Social Security taxes, or contribute to unemployment insurance and provide workers' compensation.

The proposal is an interpretive rule, not a regulation with the force of law. But it could still have significant influence if it were finalized. And it's a more employer-biased interpretation of employee status than what was applied during the Obama administration.

The proposed rule adopts an "economic reality" test for determining who qualifies as an independent contractor. The two main factors are that the worker must be in business for themselves and not economically dependent on the employer for work. It also factors in the degree of control someone has over their job and whether their earnings come from their initiative or by simply earning a wage.

If needed, the department said it would look at additional "guideposts" for clarification, like how much skill the work requires, and whether the relationship between the worker and company is permanent or temporary.

"It's certainly a narrowing of the test," Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel of the National Employment Law Project, told The New York Times. "Employers know the rules. Workers know the rules. Employers just don't like where the lines are between employee and independent contractor. There really isn't very much confusion."

The proposal will be subject to a 30-day comment period once it's published in the Federal Register.

Bloomberg Law noted that DOL leadership is making it a priority to finalize the regulation before the end of President Trump's term on Jan. 20, a timeline it called "unusually short for a rule that would have ramifications throughout the economy."

"DOL brass and other administration officials consider the rulemaking as an opportunity to solidify Trump's workplace policy legacy by responding to efforts certain Democratic-run states have made to widen the legal definition of an employee," the article stated.

One of those states is California, which passed Assembly Bill 5 in 2019 with help from IBEW members and others in the labor movement. It applies a more rigid test for determining when a worker can be classified as an independent contractor. Companies including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates opposed the legislation and are backing an initiative in the Golden State, on the ballot this month, to exempt gig drivers — the backbone of their businesses.

The number of people considered gig workers or contractors has been growing over the last few decades, meaning more people are working without basic protections. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the shortcomings of such a system. In fact, gig and self-employed workers were deemed eligible, for the first time, for unemployment funds in the stimulus bill passed in March to deal with the surge of out-of-work Americans from the virus.

"The core problem is that for many years employers have been restructuring business models to shift risks to workers — risks for unemployment, risk for injury, risks for slowdowns," Jenny R. Yang, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a former member of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told the Washington Post. "Workers individually are not in a position to bear the risk. ... So this creates more uncertainty and ultimately threatens to further lower working conditions for more workers if it is finalized."


The Department of Labor, led by Secretary Eugene Scalia, has proposed a new rule that could leave millions of contract and gig workers without basic employment protections.