Daniel Golodner would have lost his job when he was sick if it weren’t for unions. As an expert on labor, he thinks the reason unions are striking now is clear.
BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—No longer is it “Striketober” for Kellogg’s employees and members of the local Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers Union (BCTGM). As another day passes, they’ve taken their labor strike outside the cereal company’s Battle Creek headquarters past the one month mark. And others have joined them.
“We’re having the ‘Autumn of Discontent,’” said Daniel Golodner, a labor archivist at Wayne State University’s Reuther Library.
Unions and strikes are nothing new in the state of Michigan. In fact, Detroit is known as the crucible of labor, and the Reuther Library is the biggest labor archive in the country. The legacy of labor continues today.
As on the west side of the state, factory workers strike for legacy benefits and pay upon the expiry of their contract, on the east side of the state, McDonald’s employees went on strike for higher pay and to protest hostile working conditions.
On Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press reported that nurses at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing would consider striking, and on Wednesday, they protested during an “informational picket.” Over the summer, Michiganders witnessed a spate of strikes as well.
Golodner’s very familiar with the inner workings of labor and unions. He comes from a labor family, and at his last university, he spent four years getting together a union before he succeeded.
The ingredients in this labor cocktail of displeasure aren’t surprising, Golodner said. Wages have remained stagnant and workers have been thrust to the front lines working during a dangerous pandemic. Unionization is in the air.
Right to Work Laws Face Off Against Unions
In 2013, the Republican-controlled state legislature under Gov. Rick Snyder, also a Republican, passed “Freedom to Work” legislation that effectively stripped unions of much of their funding base. “Right to work” laws mean that employees don’t have to sign up for union memberships or pay dues in order to secure jobs.
Yet in states with these laws in place, which started in the South in the ‘40s and ‘50s and have since come north, non-union members still reap the benefits of labor negotiations when unions are present in the workforce.
With the presence of unions lurking, other workplaces without organization also tend to increase their pay and benefits to remain competitive for potential employers and to avoid grizzly labor negotiations.
Golodner said that it’s difficult to study the exact impact of right-to-work laws on unionization. Union membership increased by 500,000 in 2020, but in certain circumstances, right-to-work laws do effectively suffocate labor organization. State to state, too many confounding variables exist to measure the direct impact.
“Usually when unions are strong, other industries keep up or do better to try to keep unions out,” Golodner said.
Golodner, who’s been an archivist since 1997, is a believer in unions. At Wayne State, he’s a part of the faculty and staff union.
On one occasion, he missed out on months of work after falling seriously ill. The union helped get him and his family through, with his contract still being paid for a period of time, and his union-bargained health care footed the bill, which was more than $100,000. When he returned, that same job was there for him.
“My job was waiting for me because I was guaranteed a job,” Golodner said. “Non-union shop, I don’t think I’d still have a job.”
Unions aren’t just a presence in the workplace, Golodner said; they’re also community pillars. Months before the strike, BTCGM Local 3G helped distribute food to local food banks.
Many Michigan families have union roots that they hold dear. Golodner’s father, for example, worked in D.C., lobbying for miners before establishing more white-collar departments within the AFL-CIO.
Growing up, Golodner wouldn’t eat grapes, famously an industry that head-butted with labor.
In Battle Creek, many non-union families have stopped by to support the strikers. On social media, #BoycottKelloggs has gained traction.
“Euphoric is actually the word that I’ve used because it’s really amazing… the amount of people that we have coming out supporting us,” said Trevor Bidelman, president of BCTGM Local 3G, as quoted by the Battle Creek Enquirer.
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The State’s Intertwined History With Unions
In the 1930s, Michigan became a union state overnight, Golodner said. After the Magna Carta of unions was signed, also known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, people signed up left and right to protect their workplace rights.
Companies, dogmatic in existing power dynamics, didn’t want to give too much.
Laborers hit a breaking point in Flint in 1936. Auto workers at the General Motors plant had been planning a sit-down protest to stop production until GM recognized the union. The workers wanted to renegotiate their contract for better safety and minimum wages, but when the protest landed, they were met with venomous opposition.
Police corked tear gas canisters to try to get the protesters out. In response, the wives of those protesting inside broke the plant’s windows. Over several months, the scene turned violent.
At a boiling point of the events, President Franklin Roosevelt urged GM to recognize the union, and eventually the two sides met at the bargaining table and reached a deal, forever legitimizing the United Auto Workers.
Back to the Front Lines
Since that time, conditions for labor have improved. But it’s important to note that much of that progress, on issues such as benefits and workplace safety, has been pushed because of the tireless work of unions.
“The unions created the middle class in America,” Golodner said.
But recently, anti-labor laws and the stagnation of wages have resulted in high-pressure frustrations from much of the working class, Golodner said. The minimum wage has not been increased since 2009.
Golodner said people don’t have to be in unions to make a tangible impact on the labor movement.
He’s had friends ship supplies and donate to those on strike in Battle Creek, who have been without a contract as the company has brought in temporary workers hired to replace union members, sometimes known as “scabs.” Some have driven to Battle Creek to stand with them at the picket lines. Others have written letters to the corporation and politicians.
But what everyone can do that’s most powerful, he says, is be a conscientious consumer.
“You have to take a little bite out of the corporations’ bank,” Golodner said.