In October, 85 mental health coordinators at Abbott Northwestern Hospital voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
In all, about 500 health care workers at Allina Health and Fairview Health have joined Minnesota SEIU, the biggest surge for the union's health care branch in nearly a decade.
Nationwide, workers have made strides toward union representation from Amazon to Starbucks. Unorganized workers held demonstrations against McDonald's, Netflix and Google in October.
Dubbed "Striketober" by mobilizers, thousands of unionized workers, including those at Kellogg Co. and John Deere, walked off the job, demanding better hours after accepting changes to help out during the pandemic.
Fellow nurses — members of the Minnesota Nurses Association who work at Abbott Northwestern-WestHealth campus in Plymouth — held a three-day strike earlier this month over fair pay for holiday work and benefit levels.
The mental health coordinators who organized say they are short-staffed and overworked. The union certification was driven partly by temporary pay freezes and benefit cuts to save money during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been assaults by distraught patients and heightened stress during the pandemic.
Allina Health, parent of Abbott Northwestern, said it "values our employees and recognizes the critical services they provide to the community. We respect the decision of our senior mental health coordinators and will engage with the union to bargain over terms that demonstrate our commitment to our employees, patients and communities."
Katey Sierra, a five-year mental health worker, said management has neglected her colleagues, whom she called "heroes."
"We work directly with patients in crisis," Sierra said. "We do therapeutic interventions with patients coping with all kinds of issues. And the pandemic is hard on everyone's mental health.
"We work all hours, days and nights, depending upon patient and staffing needs," said Sierra, who added most colleagues are paid $20 to $25 an hour and have four-year degrees.
It is yet to be seen whether the new push for unionization — and the grassroots activism leading to the strikes — will lead to greater union representation.
U.S. walkouts have plummeted from nearly 3 million Americans participating in major work stoppages in 1952 to just 27,000 last year, Bloomberg reported. Only 10.8% of the U.S. workforce belonged to unions last year — which is down from a peak of 34.8% in 1954, according to Pew Research Center.
Yet the pandemic — and the economic stresses from supply shortages to a shift in product demand — has at least caused a short-term shift. Helping labor organizers is the worker shortage. At the end of October, there were 10.4 million job openings, with only 7.7 million available workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kate LeMay, a senior mental health coordinator at Allina, said: "We care about our patients and we feel devalued. Our goal is to have SEIU ... improve communication with our managers. We don't have a contract. Like the nurses union.''
John Budd, who has followed work and organizations at the University of Minnesota business school for 30 years, said the worker uprising is widespread, from meatpackers to nonprofits, such as Audubon Society to the University of Pittsburgh faculty.
"COVID highlighted the risks people are taking at work and sacrifices some are making for workers," Budd said. "It started with health care workers and meatpackers, who have miserable, incredibly dangerous positions. Food service and retail workers felt voiceless and powerless. Teachers and professors have all felt powerless, pushed into classrooms under conditions they haven't been able to control."
And the racial reckoning after the police killing of George Floyd has caused more workers to look at race and class-inequality issues.
"People read stories about who makes decisions and who gets left out ... about increased wealth for millionaires and billionaires at the same time," Budd said. "That has fueled the fire."
Meanwhile, the wages of the working class have been stagnant while executive compensation swelled for decades.
Tom VanHeuvelen, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and David Brady, professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, wrote earlier this month in Business Insider about their study that found living in a state where organized labor is "relatively strong" helps lower the likelihood of poverty, based on poverty and unionization rates from 1975 through 2015. Union gains tend to benefit other workers in raising wages and improving benefits, they found.
Additionally, the tight labor market of late has resulted in companies, including Target and Starbucks, to raise minimum wages to $15 or more, depending upon local market conditions. Still, Starbucks workers told the New York Times the company was pushing back on union efforts in Buffalo, N.Y.
Jane McAlevey, a senior policy fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Detroit Free Press the pandemic simply paused momentum that had been building in 2018. That was the year teachers striking in West Virginia over pay and health care costs led teachers in other states to launch similar actions.
It also has helped re-energize workers toward strikes as a tool against inequity, McAlevey said.
"I think the pandemic has really ripped the sort of blinders off about that fact that all of these employers don't care at all about their workers," McAlevey said.
More than 100,000 workers have approved work stoppages around the country, according to Bloomberg.
Deere & Co. employees, who launched a 10,000-person strike Oct. 14, cited the mandatory overtime that can stretch their shifts to 12 hours.
At Kellogg Co., the union went on strike this month after decrying the toll of seven-day workweeks that had kept cereal flowing to stuck-at-home customers during the pandemic.
And at Frito-Lay Inc., workers over the summer challenged what they called suicide shifts: being made to leave late and return early, with only eight hours of turnaround time. They went back to work after the company offered a contract with better wages and a guaranteed day off each week.
Nabisco workers also gained a better contract after striking this year.
Still, Jarrett Skorup, a spokesman for the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, disputed the notion that unions are gaining an advantage and said strikes are counterproductive.
"I think strikes from private sector unions are often shortsighted and one of many reasons that businesses resist unionization since they are another, often unnecessary, added cost of doing business," he told the Free Press. "These costs are a key reason manufacturing has moved, over the years, from states with a strong union presence to states with a weaker union presence."
Includes reporting from Bloomberg and the Detroit Free Press.