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Q&A: Support for labor unions is on the rise. A local union president and labor historian weigh in.

Public support for labor unions in the U.S. is at a 57-year high according to a new Gallup poll.

Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of labor unions — up from 68% last year. Union support also is up from 64% before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is the highest the polling firm has recorded since 1965.

Support for unions was highest in the 1950s, according to the Gallup, when three in four Americans approved of labor organizations.

As the community marks the Labor Day holiday weekend, WGLT spoke with Mike Matejka, a longtime local labor historian, and Chuck Carver, president of AFSCME Local 1110, the union that represents certain service workers at Illinois State University.

Following is that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Matejka: You know, when you look at what people think of labor unions, it really is at an all-time high in national polling. I think what's transitioned over the years, part of it, is realizing how important people are — what we call the essential workers who have been essential all along. The grocery store clerk, the nurse, the people who maintain your water system — those are people that make our everyday life possible.

I think, for the past 20-30 years, we've been fixated on CEOs, and who's the biggest millionaire, and forgetting that wages for the average person have stagnated. Now, I think the pandemic opened up eyes to people that, 'If my life's going to be different, either I become part of... the great replacement where people leave work and run out and find another job, or I stay where I'm at and I organize for better conditions. That's what we're seeing across the country at Amazon, Starbucks, and multiple other places where people are saying things have got to change. And they're looking to union organization to be that instrument.

If public perception does in fact, go up, does it change how people react to the union or, or to you as a worker?

Carver: Well, I know most of them are completely into it. As soon as they get here, they're all ready to sign. Beforehand, we would have to go through and show them everything. Now, they've already got it in their head, what they want to do, and how they want to do it when they get here. And you're right, it is at an all-time high. So, the people that we do get in, there's no issue signing them. They've come to realize that if you join the union, you're gonna get higher pay, you're gonna get better benefits. And then when you all come together, you're going to be heard as one voice instead of multiple voices.

Does it help also, when you as a union have a victory? Like you recently did make people like, 'Okay, yeah, I'll pay those dues, it seems to be paying off.'

Carver: It does make a difference. The thing is to keep them going. We'll never be fine where we're at, because we always want to be better.

I feel like with political movements, we do see like an ebb and flow and of backlash. Is there any anticipation of like a drop in interest or a drop of support or anything for labor in general?

Carver: Our economy has changed. We're not industrial America. Now, we're more of a service economy. It's kind of taken people 25-30 years to catch up and to say, 'Hey, service workers deserve decent conditions too.' There will be people — if the Amazon workers, if the Starbuck workers are not successful — other folks may look at and say, 'All right, is that the road, I want to go down?' But if those workers are able to bring some better conditions with those large corporations, then I think you'll find other people looking at their workplace and saying, 'Okay, is organizing the union something for me?'

I think the other big missing piece is people knowing their rights. I often hear from people, 'Boy, I sure would like a union here. But my boss would never allow it.' It's not the boss's choice; it's the workers choice. The National Labor Relations Act sets up a democratic process for people to vote if they want union representation. And that law was passed to actually encourage people and give them a vehicle for organization. But I don't think many people are aware that it is their right to organize under law.

Even to this day, it still can be a dirty word in some corporate settings.

Matejka: Oh, yeah. I mean, if you stop and think about it, the other root of the issue is power. If there's a union, there's a democratic countervailing force that says, 'No, you can't do this to people.' If there is no worker organization, then — not all employers, but some — employers will try to push people. And oftentimes when you talk to workers, sometimes it's not as much wages and hours, as it is how they're treated, how they're scheduled. Particularly in the restaurant, food industry.

You know, am I going to work tomorrow? Well, I don't know, I may work tomorrow, but then I may get three days off, but then I work three days solid on a different shift. And unless you've got a way to have an instrument to speak up in that situation, say, let's have some consistency and scheduling. Let's respect people's time. People will continue to be abused in that kind of system

We think about one of the main issues with warping pay, but it's also an environment issue and I think you mentioned it's also a human dignity issue? Could you speak a little bit more about how the labor movement kind of emphasizes dignity?

Matejka: Well, and that's key: To be seen as a person with rights is very important. Sometimes, we joke that the best organizer is a bad boss because if people are being abused, and people are not being treated, right, even if people are being spoken to, in a demeaning way, people say, 'Okay, I want a way back. I want to stand up and have my voice and my dignity, represented here and be treated with respect.' So often, that is very, very critical; people will say, it's often not so much about the wages and the hours — that's very important — but they have to be recognized as a contributing part of whatever enterprise they're in.

Carver: The biggest thing for me would be to hear that 'thank you' every now and then. 'Thank you for what you do. Thank you for being out there doing what you do through the pandemic, through it all.' We are the front line out here. That was what we wanted to hear more than anything to begin with, was thank you. We still have not heard that.

You still have not?

Carver: No. It's a big thing for me. It doesn't sound the same. if I come up to Mike and go, 'Thank you, Mike,' when your boss should be the one coming up, or your supervisors. Little things like that. That's getting into the dignity stuff of it. Money and wages ain't always everything. If somebody truthfully loves their job, they're going to stay with their job until they hit that breaking point. A lot of times, that breaking point is: You're here every single day when everybody else was sitting at home and you didn't get one.

When you have this public sentiment going up, does that result in more union membership? Do the numbers back that public sentiment up?

Matejka: It's been interesting to watch this past year folks like the bakery workers at Kellogg's, the General Motors workers, folks that stood up and stood out —you're starting to see an upsurge. It's not necessarily I think, reflecting in membership numbers completely yet. Again, to use an example like Starbucks, Starbucks workers are voting across the country to get a union. That doesn't mean they have a contract yet. To really get to that, let's say statistical status, you know, they're going to need to get a contract. The other thing we're seeing locally here is a great need for construction trade workers.

Is there less interest in some of these positions? Just like, when you think about young people coming in do they just not see themselves in that field?

Matejka: I'm sure older generations don't complain about these kids that don't know how to work. I'll tell you one of the biggest challenges that I've heard from employers is, number one, show up. Show up on time, and leave your cell phone in your car, because you do not need to be checking your phone, when you're on the clock, working. But again, that's a changing society and a changing technology, too.

Carver: I was just thinking when you said that how many people do a TikTok video when they're serving somebody.

So where do we go from here?

Matejka: Well, I think one very immediate thing is the Workers Rights Amendment, which will be on the ballot in November — it's first thing on the ballot. It would make Illinois the first state in the union to put into the state constitution that workers have a right to organize a union and the state cannot pass laws to curtail those rights. Getting the word out on that... that's very important. So, I think one critical thing in the immediate future will be passing that constitutional referendum on Nov. 8. And the other thing, too, the union economy is constantly changing, so the labor movement has to change, too.

You have to adapt to new workers, new styles of work. But the basic message of giving people a voice, bringing people together as a group, and giving them a voice in their work ... whether it's a hospital, whether it's a post office, whether it's Illinois State University, whether it's a construction site. That's the real basic thing that a labor union represents.

Carver: Even from a student all the way up to management. A 'thank you' every now and then will go a long ways out here. No matter if it's in a dining center, the buildings service worker, the grounds guy cutting the grass, the auto mechanics for the cars that are being driven, the golf course and how nice they keep that, the laundry being done — tell them thank you. We're at every point of this campus, we're in every building on this campus. You can't miss us.

Doesn't your button say that?

Carver: Yes. My button says, 'The university works because we do.'

NPR contributed to this report.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.