Washington state’s labor unions welcomed 65,000 new members in 2018 — putting the statewide total at 649,000 workers — and some local unions say that upward trend has reached Cowlitz County.
According to the Washington State Labor Council, union members now make up 20 percent of the state’s workforce, making Washington the third most unionized state in the country, behind Hawaii and New York.
“This is great news for all of Washington’s working families,” WSLC President Larry Brown said in a news release. “Union members earn more money, they boost our state and local economics and they lift working standards for everyone. These numbers show that, despite outdated and hostile labor laws that create obstacles to unionization, working people here in Washington continue to buck national trends and join together to negotiate a fair return for their work.”
Shawn Nyman, former president of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Labor Council and member of SEIU 925, said unions in Cowlitz County are seeing an upward “energy” after successful strikes and negotiations by teachers, secretaries and other union workers. Nyman said soon after teachers from the Longview School District conducted a strike for higher pay last fall, union members called in to offer their support and some brought their children into the local office to learn more about unions.
“The more politically active and aware of what’s happening with attack on workers, the more (workers) are likely to stick with the union,” Nyman said. “Because we knew threats were coming, we have been educating our members over the last several years ... At the the same time, these strikes are happening, and people are successfully bargaining; it was the perfect storm for us, in a good way.”
Nyman said she expects to see the rise in membership continue because local workers in both the public and private sectors can join. She said the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Labor Council has members from across the political spectrum, and she suspects other unions in the state are the same.
“There are issues that unite us, like workers’ rights and wages, and if we steer clear of divisive ones ... there are collective attacks on all workers.”
Tara McElligott, president of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Labor Council, also said she expects memberships to keep growing because of low wages and unions’ involvement with the middle class.
“I honestly believe we are on our way to another labor movement due to the lack of respect in the workplace and the wage disparity between the workers and corporations,” McElligott said. “We used to be able to buy a house, raise a family and live comfortably just working at the grocery store; today, that is next to impossible. ... Unions, historically, have been the working class’ protection and the lifeblood of the working class.”
McElligott, who also works at Emerald Kalama Chemical and is the chief shop steward and recording secretary for the International Chemical Workers Union, said that during her union’s 2017 contract negotiations, she brought new union members that are instrumentation and reliability technicians, electricians and the storeroom clerk at her company.
“Unions hold the standards for family wages and respect in the workplace, so seeing an uptick in workers joining a union is not surprising,” McElligott said.