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Unions perk up locally

A Starbucks store and SPS workers take steps toward unionization

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Local employees in the education and food service industries are among recent participants in a national unionization movement gaining attention this year.

Union membership among Springfield Public Schools employees has risen in recent months. Three employee groups have organized or are in the process of doing so by month’s end, according to Springfield National Education Association officials. The employees will join the district’s six other organized employee groups, most of which have been established for years, said Springfield NEA President Laura Mullins.

Eight of the nine groups will be represented by the Springfield NEA, which assists employees in collective bargaining with the district over pay, benefits and working conditions. The ninth group – bus drivers and aides – is represented by Teamsters Local 245.

SPS spokesperson Teresa Bledsoe said at this point about 70% of the district’s 4,000 employees participate in collective bargaining. She said by the next school year, almost all employees, save for some administrative and professional staff, will have union representation.  

The two newest groups that have voted and worked with the State Board of Mediation to form this year represent employees including paraprofessionals, interpreters, speech-language therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, social workers and school psychologists. A third new group, representing nutrition services employees, is scheduled to vote at the end of the month, she said. If the group votes to unionize, it will be formed with the mediation board in the fall.

“It’s just really hard to do anything in the summer,” Mullins said of the challenge to unionize in between school years. “The State Board of Mediation uses their SPS work email to communicate with them.”

There are five previously established groups represented by the Springfield NEA:

  • Teachers, librarians and counselors;
  • School nurses;
  • Secretarial/clerical workers;
  • Maintenance, custodial and supply center employees; and
  • School police and dispatchers.

In process
While union representation for SPS employees is on the rise, some employees at a local Starbucks Corp. (Nasdaq: SBUX) store are just starting the process.

Mari Orrego, an organizer with the Chicago and Midwest Joint Board of Workers United, said employees at the 631 S. Glenstone Ave. store filed paperwork June 16 for a National Labor Relations Board election. The employees are organizing with Workers United, and a vote by the NLRB on the unionization filing is likely coming in two to three months, Orrego said.

The store would be the first Starbucks in the Springfield area to unionize, organizers say.

Located at Glenstone Avenue and Cherry Street, the store has 28 employees, with an “overwhelming majority” in support of organizing through the Starbucks Workers United movement, she added.

Johnie Tindle, a barista and former shift supervisor at the store who has been a Starbucks employee for nearly five years, said the move is prompted by a communication gap between the corporation and employees at the service level.

“The main reason our store decided to push for unionization is that we simply did not feel heard from Starbucks corporate at all,” Tindle said. “We feel like there’s a huge disconnect.”

Specific concerns cited by Tindle include short-staffed shifts – the line sometimes will back up onto Glenstone Avenue, for instance – and “not getting hours we need to make ends meet.”

Data at UnionElections.org indicates more than 100 Starbucks stores have unionized nationwide.

Reached via email, a Starbucks corporate spokesperson said, “We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores, as we always do across the country. From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”

Starbucks isn’t the only major U.S. company to see recent unionization action. Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) also have experienced activity. A Maryland Apple store became the first outlet of the company to unionize earlier this month, while in April an Amazon facility in Staten Island, New York, was the first of its kind to form a union.

Amazon operates a fulfillment and distribution center in Republic and a delivery facility in Springfield, but officials with the e-commerce company say they’re unaware of any local union activity at either location.

“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement via email. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Membership decline
Despite the recent high-profile unionization moves, year-over-year union membership was down nationally and statewide in 2021, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined 241,000 last year to 14 million, and the union membership rate was 10.3%, down from 10.8% in 2020. Missouri had 235,000 union members last year, a 9% membership rate. That’s down from a year prior of 238,000 and 9.4%, respectively.

Jason Mendenhall, president and business manager of Heavy Construction Laborers’ Union Local 663, said roadblocks to union membership are founded in the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, which involves a time-consuming process that takes at least 90 days to complete. He said in that period companies have been known to fire or intimidate workers seeking to join a union. That can lead to unionization being voted down by employees out of fear.

“I have never been through an NLRB election or that 90-day process from submitting (union authorization) cards to my election date where one, if not multiple people, weren’t fired,” he said, noting he’s been part of the process roughly 15 times in his 35-year career at the union, which represents over 1,700 workers in Missouri.

Despite low national and state union member totals, Mendenhall is still bullish on membership participation turning around as more workers gravitate toward financial stability in today’s challenging economic times.

“You’re going to see a continued and sustained uptick in interest in union membership, especially if the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act can be amended to be more worker-friendly,” he said.

Meeting goals
Mullins, who also works part-time as a teacher at Pershing Middle School, is in the middle of a two-year term as Springfield NEA president. She worked as part of the union negotiation team for three years prior to being elected to her leadership role.

“We bring a lot of insight and voice to what the jobs entail. We bring that to the surface,” she said of negotiations with the school district. “We make sure they’re appreciated. That’s a main piece during negotiations as you get to share what the employees experience and the struggles they’re having. It’s an opportunity to solve a lot of problems, not just financial.”

The financial component of negotiations was successful, as the district agreed to a 2022-23 budget allocation increase of $12.7 million for employee salary and benefits. It guarantees that no SPS salary schedule has a starting wage below $14 per hour, according to an email the district sent June 16 to parents. The school board approved the compensation plan and budget at its June 21 meeting.

Starting pay for teachers will increase this fall to $41,544, up $1,598 from last year. All employees are set to receive a cost-of-living increase of 3% or higher, with teachers getting 4%. Mullins said the pay increases came after months of collective bargaining work.

Springfield NEA has nearly 1,000 members, up from roughly 800 when Mullins started as president.

“It’s been a goal of mine from the get-go,” she said of boosting SPS employee representation. “I believe that everyone should have equal opportunity to share their voice.” •

Digital Editor Geoff Pickle contributed. 

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