mark pazniokas /

Bridget Bradley changed her name to Bertha when she came to the United States. It was a move that always perplexed her family. But a “Bridget” was also a catch-all term for Irish maids, and my grandmother Bertha, who found work as a domestic employee, was a proud woman. I imagine she wanted to differentiate herself.

Christina Kelly, my other grandmother, also immigrated to the United States and labored as a housekeeper at a pool club. These women worked in a service industry that left them subject to the quirks of their employers, lacking almost any workplace protections. The next generation fared better, however, often held aloft by an organization that guarded them from the bosses’ whims — the union.

For my parents, aunts, and uncles, the teachers’, plumbers’, and firefighters’ unions helped secure the healthcare, retirement benefits, and paid sick leave that saw them through difficult times. Indeed, for many Americans, unions are what turned the United States into the middle-class country it has believed itself to be. 

While globalization and the rightward march of politics largely hollowed out union representation, change looms on the horizon. Union elections have spread across the country, coming to Connecticut and bringing with them the hope to restrain our growing inequities.

Liam Brennan

Union membership peaked in the mid-20th Century, a period political scientists call the “Great Compression.” It was a time when income inequality fell and a larger portion of the population earned middle-income wages. Over 33% of workers belonged to a union in 1955. By 2021, only 10.3% of American workers did. According to Gallup, public support for unions also declined over that time, dropping from a high of over 70% in the 1950s and 60s to below 50% in 2009.

This coincided with a loss in manufacturing jobs, which peaked in the 1970s and have fallen to pre-World War II levels in recent years. As unions declined in membership and lost power, taxes were relaxed on the wealthiest Americans and income inequality grew. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the bottom 50% of taxpayers earned around 20% of the national income; by 2014, their share of the national income had dropped to just over 12%. Meanwhile, during that same time, the top 1% of went from earning just over 12% to taking home more than 20%.

When adjusted for inflation, the hourly earnings for non-management private-sector workers were essentially the same in 2018 as they were in 1978, while they have grown tremendously for upper income earners. By almost every measure, economic inequality has ballooned and union membership has declined.

Until 2022.

In the first half of this year, workers at over 1,400 work places have filed union petitions with the National Labor Relations Board, a 69% increase from the year before. Moreover, when the question of unionization is put to the workers, unions have been winning over three-quarters of the votes — the highest win rate since the turn of the century. Some 71% of Americans now say that they support unions, the largest share since 1965. And workers are clocking in wins at big name companies like Amazon, Chiptole, Trader Joe’s, and Starbucks.

Travis Glenney-Tegtmeier is an employee at the Corbin’s Corner Starbucks in West Hartford, one of the two Connecticut locations that voted to unionize this year. “COVID was a bit of a turning point,” he told me. After closing down when the pandemic first started, Starbucks reopened early on with limited staff on site. As waves of illness swept the country, there were workers in his Starbucks who were at elevated risks for COVID or who lived with higher-risk family members. Certain customers didn’t care. “Some customers would come in and just kind of flaunt any [safety] requirements we had,” Glenney-Tegtmeier said. But there was nothing the employees could do about it. “It was concerning that it didn’t seem like the company really cared enough to give us the authority to say you have to leave right now if you don’t follow the rules.”

Ed Hawthorne, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, sees a direct link between pandemic safety concerns and the renewed interest in unions. “Really, when unions just started forming, it wasn’t just about pay, it was about coming home safe at night,” Hawthorne said. “It was about safety in the workplace.” The same dynamic is at play today. While the virus was killing Americans in droves, workers could not rely on their employers to keep them safe. “The essential workers who went out there working during the pandemic, they were treated as expendable by the employer.”

“People are sick and tired of being treated as a number on a spreadsheet,” Hawthorne argued.

“It feels like you are not being taken advantage of anymore,” AJ Colella said of his decision to vote for unionization at the Graduate Hotel in New Haven. Colella is a senior houseman at the hotel and has seen concrete benefits from his union, Unite Here, and the newly negotiated contract.

Prior to the union, many workers were earning around $14 a hour. By 2024, all workers will receive a $5 per hour raise and non-tipped workers will make at least $20 an hour. For the first time, workers will have a pension and be eligible for time-and-a-half overtime if they work more than nine hours in a day. In 2023, the employer will start paying 75% of the premium for a no-deductible healthcare plan, increasing to 80% coverage by 2025.

“The union was life changing for me,” Colella said. It also helps others out as well. “It paves the way for you and people after you to change the culture and the amount of respect and dignity that workers can expect.” Indeed, Colella maintains that other employers would benefit from following the lead of the Graduate Hotel owners, who immediately recognized the workers union and quickly worked with it to negotiate a contract. “The Graduate saw that they can benefit from happier workers who are treated with respect,” he said. “I would like other employers to use the Graduate as an example of how to handle workers when they do this.”

The power of collective bargaining has even spread from traditional workers to other sectors of the local economy. Graduate students, teachers and researchers at Yale recently filed over 3,000 authorization cards for a union election. Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors and thus ineligible to form a labor union. Nonetheless, some have come together to form Connecticut Drivers United, a non-profit designed to use their collective power to fight for better working conditions. In a similar vein, tenants living in various apartment homes around the state have bound together to form tenants unions in order to improve living conditions. New Haven recently became the first city to recognize tenants unions under local law.

Collective bargaining is, in essence, all aimed at living conditions — whether it is the conditions of employment workers can expect, or the conditions of homes residents can expect. These recent successes reminded me of a conversation I had in my 20s when I waited tables in a couple of Irish pubs around the state. My colleagues and I would often talk about the state of the economy, our employment, healthcare or the lack thereof. One day, one of my coworkers raised the prospect that perhaps we were expecting too much. “Maybe we are wrong,” he said. “Can we really expect the working class to be middle class?”

“Yes,” unions say. “Yes, we can.”

Liam Brennan is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.