May 31, 2022 - Business

New unions struggling with contracts


A Starbucks coffee shop in the Loop. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Workers at two Chicago Starbucks have joined the coffee chain's national labor movement by voting to unionize.

  • They're just the latest in a string of newly unionized workplaces at some of the city's most esteemed organizations.

Why it matters: In the town that created the modern-day labor movement, many historically progressive institutions are now in high-profile labor disputes that don't fit their public images, including:

🎤 The Second City: Workers at the liberal comedy theater already have unions for actors and technicians, but teachers voted to unionize in 2021. Negotiations with the new owners have dragged on for months.

🎨 School of the Art Institute of Chicago: Just this month, nontenured faculty started a push to unionize after staff organized in January. Tenured professors at private universities can't unionize.

📺 PBS station WTTW: Broadcast technicians walked out after negotiations failed at the public media company, and a new contract was approved after a 23-day strike.

🎼 Old Town School of Folk Music: Teachers gathered in Lincoln Square last week to sing and drum up support for contract negotiations that started in 2019.

  • "We marched to give moral support to our bargaining team," teacher Bill Brickey tells Axios.
  • "I've received four raises in 30 years."

What they're saying: "When we speak of an institution’s 'progressive' values, it's important to examine how they treat their employees," University of Illinois labor professor Robert Bruno tells Axios. "If employment relations are hostile, the institution's 'progressive' public face is just branding."

Of note: While historically the Chicago Tribune has not been liberal — in fact, it remained proudly union-free for more than a century — the paper has been negotiating a first contract with its recently formed union for over three years.

The intrigue: Bruno sees these long contract disputes as unusual and a bad sign for the unions.

  • "It's well outside the norm. Delay is an employer tactic. The longer the time to reach a deal, the less likely the union is to survive and the employees to work under a labor agreement."

Editor's note: This story was corrected to state that staff at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago unionized in January, not tenured teachers.


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