With new construction projects and fresh organizing, Minnesota union membership in 2021 grew to its highest level in 14 years, seemingly bucking a national trend that has seen memberships bouncing close to 40-year lows.
The number of Minnesota workers belonging to a union swelled slightly last year — from 398,000 to 416,000, or 16% of all workers, according to data released by the U.S. Labor Department last week.
It's also a big bump from 2019 when only 364,000 Minnesota workers, or 13.7%, were union members. Union organizers attribute the uptick to increased organizing and big infrastructure projects like the $3 billion Enbridge pipeline built across northern Minnesota.
"Through a combination of workers organizing unions at their workplace and others flocking to union jobs ... working people across Minnesota stood up in 2021 and demanded a voice on the job, better pay and benefits, and safer workplaces," said Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.
Minnesota leaders also expect union growth to continue in 2022. Economists note, though, that national trends are not looking as good despite activism last year that saw strikes at companies such as Kellogg's and John Deere — and the first successful drives at other companies such as Starbucks.
Nationally, union membership fell in 2021 by 241,000 to 14 million, or 10.3% of all U.S. workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report. It was a return to the rate seen in 2019.
"The decline of union membership in 2021 is a wake-up call to lawmakers that we must reform our broken labor law," said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute. "As a result of decades of relentless attacks on the right to organize, the current unionization rate is well under what it was roughly 40 years ago."
In 1983, the U.S. had 17.7 million union workers and a union membership rate of 20.1%. Union participation in Minnesota stood at 23% that year, the first in which the government began tracking comparable data nationwide.
In a conference call last week, Shierholz noted that union shops tend to have better employee wages and benefits. In 2021, union workers earned a median $1,169 a week vs. $975 for non-union shops.
The report also found that union activity was far from consistent.
Hawaii and New York had the highest representation of union activity in 2021, with 22% of all workers in both states being bound by collective bargaining contracts. South Carolina and North Carolina had the weakest representation with just 1.7% and 2.6%, respectively.
Minnesota proved somewhere in the middle.
Even so, Minnesota union leaders pointed to new organizing efforts as proof of a continued need for representation.
Since Labor Day, the health care sector saw 10% growth in union membership through active organizing, said SEIU Healthcare Minnesota President Jamie Gulley.
"That is going to continue," Gulley said. "Health care workers going into year three of the pandemic do not feel that they have been supported by their employers."
Officials with Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) of Minnesota and North Dakota and Minnesota AFL-CIO credited the growth to pressures COVID-19 exacted on the health care industry; a rise in state and federal funds aimed at the heavily unionized construction trades; and the "Great Resignation," which saw many Minnesotans flee non-union jobs for higher-paying union jobs.
Organizing efforts included health care workers at Fairview and Allina health systems and nursing homes.
Workers at Half Price Books in Coon Rapids, Roseville, St. Paul and St. Louis Park also formed a union.
Plus, construction projects from Rochester to the Iron Range employed more union trades workers.
Minnesota union membership benefited from the March passage of President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and November's passage of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, said Gulley and other AFL-CIO officials.
Both acts should continue to shuffle billions into Minnesota's highly unionized construction sector, they said. LIUNA of Minnesota and North Dakota is expecting membership to grow because of this and is currently completing an expansion of a training center in Hugo, said Liz Xiong, spokeswoman for LIUNA.
The Enbridge pipeline project and the completion of the massive Interstate 35 project in the Twin Cities both contributed to an increase in membership that went from 12,802 at the beginning of the year to 13,424 in October, she said.
All 18 locals in the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades organization in the northeastern part of the state are adding apprentices, journeymen and other trades professionals, said Mike Syversrud, president of the group.
For example, there are $100 million worth of road and bridge work in Itasca County, a new hotel, hockey rink and bumper car event center in Virginia, plus three new schools in Eveleth and Virginia, and the $900 million Vision Northland Hospital being built by Essentia Health in Duluth.
Vision Northland alone calls for 5,600 construction jobs and almost all are union posts.
"I don't know of a single trade this year that has not been busy," Syversrud said. "We have all been scrambling to find more workers."
The Labor Department found unionizing activities were prevalent nationwide. It cited organizing drives for nurses, journalists, graduate students, baristas as well as successful strikes by taxi drivers in New York and by 10,000 John Deere factory workers in Illinois and Iowa.
While organizing efforts failed at Amazon facilities in New York and Alabama, they succeeded at Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y, at Half Price Books in Minnesota and of 400 Google engineers in Silicon Valley.
"Despite the decline in union membership and the growing gap between the demand for and the availability of union membership, workers continued to exercise their right to form unions and bargain collectively in 2021," the report said.