2023 may be more about labor unions in the North Bay

Local business trends for 2023

The first week of the year, the Business Journal offers insights from local experts on what’s on the horizon for the local economy.

Labor experts expect people frustrated with their employers are going to fight for better pay and benefits In 2023, as well as improved working conditions by trying to form unions.

“The question for 2023 is as more workers organize and stand up for their rights, will companies do the right thing and listen to or fight against their own workers?” said Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs With Justice. The organization is a coalition of more than 30 labor and community organizations in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.

Rumblings in the North Bay

Petaluma-based Amy’s Kitchen regularly made headlines last year when employees complained about the food manufacturer and the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, found three serious violations and 10 other infractions at its Santa Rosa facility nearly a year ago.

While employees made noise about forming a union, the talk never materialized into action.

The company continues to stand by its belief that is doing right by its nearly 650 employees, citing that it offers fair wages, pays $17,500 annually per employee in health care costs, promotes from within, and offers scholarships.

Amy's officials cite the fact that more than half of its Santa Rosa plant workers have been with the company for more than 10 years as evidence of employee satisfaction.

“We disagree it is not a good place to work. Tenure and turnover speak for itself,” Paul Schiefer, vice president of impact and communications at Amy’s, told the Business Journal. “We unconditionally respect employees’ right for a union. Thus far they have not chosen to.”

One of the largest industries in the North Bay, agriculture, specifically the wine business, has also come under scrutiny.

North Bay Labor Council is working with Jobs for Justice to help farm workers in the region when it comes to wages as well as safety during fire season. Last year the U.S. Department of Labor hit Vino Farms with a $21,257 penalty for paying 14 Sonoma County residents $55,000 less in wages than it did temporary ag workers.

NBLC this year plans to focus on fighting for livable wages in other industry sectors in Sonoma County.

“We think we might get some expansion to the airport, fairgrounds, and hopefully, some paid sick days,” Buckhorn said.

Why now?

Alper with North Bay Jobs with Justice attributes the local uptick in interest in unions to wages not keeping up with the cost of living, front line workers impacted by the pandemic being fed up, and farm workers feeling like they are being taken advantage of.

“We see owners of hotels, management companies of vineyards and wine companies are making profits, but it’s harder and harder for people doing the work to survive,” Alper said.

He also said momentum builds when local workers see the success of others even if it’s not in the North Bay. After all, the growing union movement is a nationwide phenomenon.

“Given the spike in case intake we are seeing in the field, we can expect even more cases to come before the board in fiscal year 2023," Lauren McFerran, National Labor Relations Board chairman, said in a statement.

But even if workers vote to form a union it doesn’t mean change is immediate. According to Bloomberg Law’s labor data, it takes on average of 409 days to get a contract in place.

Labor union facts and figures

• Union representation petitions increased 53% in fiscal 2022 (Oct. 1, 2021–Sept. 30, 2022), compared with fiscal 2021.

• The 2,510 petitions is the highest number since 2016. There were 1,638 petition the prior year.

• Unfair labor practice charges filed with NLRB increased 19% in the same period.

• In 2022, 71% of people in U.S. approved of labor unions.

• 40% of nonunion workers have some interest in joining one.

Source: National Labor Relations Board, Gallup Poll

Nationally, Amazon, Apple retailers, Chipotle, REI, Trader Joe’s and Starbucks all made headlines in 2022 with warehouse and store workers voting to form unions. However, with each store having to fight its own battle instead of it being a company-wide effort, the cumulative process is slow.

John Logan, professor and director of the Labor and Employment Studies Department at San Francisco State University said young people today feel abandoned by their employers. It started during the height of the pandemic, with the fervor growing.

“They heard companies saying they didn’t care if they lived or died. Companies were making billions of dollars, and in the case of Amazon, made tens of billions of dollars during the pandemic. But work became more stressful and dangerous. Many felt the only way you can have a fair and just workplace is to have an independent voice through a union and collective bargaining,” Logan told the Journal.

Logan added, “I do think something has fundamentally changed in the labor landscape and I think we will see tremendous labor activism in jobs and industries with young workers, especially with young workers with college degrees.”

Local business trends for 2023

The first week of the year, the Business Journal offers insights from local experts on what’s on the horizon for the local economy.

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