The recent history of the organized labor movement has been dismal. In the 1960s, 33% of all American workers were members of labor and trade unions; today, that number has dropped to 10%. Although union membership in the public sector remains relatively strong at 36% nationwide, private sector union membership is at its lowest level since the labor movement began over a century ago.
The good news is that after a half-century of declines, union membership is again on the rise – and food service workers in Indiana are leading the way.
The primary reason for this reversal is the economic shift that has been taking place since the Reagan Administration. Since the introduction of “trickle-down” economic policy, the well-paying manufacturing jobs that were the mainstay of America’s middle class have been disappearing, being replaced by low-wage service sector jobs. While the top 2% have never had it so well, making larger and larger incomes on the backs of service workers, the rest of America find it almost impossible to make a decent living without having to work two or three jobs. They have been working for minimum wage without any benefits and job security for years while their employers have been getting richer and richer on their labors. Understandably, they are sick and tired of it.
One face of this push-back by low-wage service workers is the “Fight For $15” movement, which seeks to raise the national minimum wage. In Indiana however, a group of employees who work for a highly successful food service corporation are taking the next step by demanding collective bargaining.
Aramark, a company that provides food and dining services to a range of businesses, school districts, airports and other organizations as well as service workers uniforms, enjoyed revenues of almost $14.5 billion last year. It has also been involved in numerous scandals over the years about labor practices and business ethics. The company has been guilty of firing workers for reporting health violations or filing complaints with EEOC, paying less than minimum wage and wage theft.
Last week after a long, covert campaign, 120 Aramark employees working at an Eli Lilly and Co. facility in Avon, Indiana, signed up for Unite Here Local 23 in Indianapolis. Unite Here was founded in 2009 in order to represent airport workers. Since Local 23 was established in 2010, it has seen membership increase by 400% – bucking Indiana’s statewide trend of declining union membership.
Marquita Walker, a professor of labor studies at Perdue University, points out that “Because we’ve turned into a service economy…there’s a focus on trying to organize as many service workers as possible.” It’s a good idea, she adds, “because they don’t make as much as the building trades once did.”
But for those who work in service jobs, it’s not just about better wages and working conditions. Doris Jones, a custodian at Eli Lilly and member of SEIU, summed it up in one word: “Respect.” Speaking to a local newspaper, she points out the incredible contempt expressed to service workers by white-collar executives. “We’re all trying to get through this work with a little bit of respect.”