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As Union Activity Soars Nationwide, Arkansas Trails Behind

5 min read

Arkansas isn’t going to turn into a labor union stronghold any time soon.

State union officials watched recent national union votes with keen interest. Workers at 200 Starbucks stores and an Amazon warehouse have elected to join unions, and public approval of unions is at a near 60-year high.

Arkansas workers are interested, but translating interest into organized action is a long road, labor leaders say.

The National Labor Relations Board said 1,892 petitions for union representation were filed nationally in the first three quarters of 2022, a nearly 60% rise from a year earlier. 

“I wish I could say that the interest we’re having is the same as the interest nationally, but it’s not,” said Tim Nichols, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 868 in Little Rock, which has 3,000 members. “I think a lot of that is because of the labor history in Arkansas. Even with companies that we have existing collective bargaining agreements, there is a large portion of the employees who still chose not to join a union.”

A Gallup Poll report released this summer said that 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions, up from 68% the previous year. Both were the highest approval marks since 1965.

“A lot of people now are looking at unions in a favorable light and that includes, and I hate to use party identifiers, a lot of people who are typically Republican,” said Rick Halford, political director of the 11-state Southern States Millwrights Regional Council in Russellville, which has about 1,000 members in Arkansas. “They are looking at us in a different light: Labor unions aren’t that bad, they do stuff for the working families of Arkansas.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates Arkansas has 46,000 union members, some 4% of the state workforce. Another 5,000, or 0.5%, work at companies covered by a collectively bargained contract. 

Right to Work

Steve Gelios, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 2008 in Little Rock, said the main hurdle for Arkansas unions is that the state is one of 27 “right-to-work” states: By law, workers joining a company with a union are not made to join.

“There has been a tremendous uptick around the country in interest in unions … but in Arkansas? Not really,” Gelios said.

“It is just such a difficult environment in Arkansas. Unions are a dirty word,” he added. “On top of that, for years and years there has been a lot of emphasis on not allowing unions to come in and organize.” 

Arkansas has been a right-to-work state since 1944, and union officials said the cultural and societal biases are deeply ingrained. They believe that nonunion workers who get the benefits of a union contract without paying union dues have hampered the labor movement in Arkansas.

Gelios’ UFCW represents about 5,000 Arkansas workers at three Tyson Foods plants, Kroger stores and other grocery and food processors. A company like Tyson negotiates contracts at union shops, then uses that negotiated wage in other plants, he said.

Gelios called it a “smart move” to subvert union influence. Why join a union when the company is paying the same wage across the board?

“Employers intimidate employees that talk about unions,” Gelios said. “Even if there is some interest, employers are quick to put a squash on it.”

Tyson Foods, through a company spokesman, denied it intimidates employees, saying every employee “always has a voice.” It said it doesn’t set wages the way Gelios mentioned. 

“Wages are determined based on an analysis of the individual location, cost of living and other factors,” the company said. “We regularly review the wages and benefits we offer team members to ensure we are able to attract and retain team members.” 

Beneficial Partnership

Union membership nationally is a little more than 10% of the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Union officials insist that workers and employers both benefit from organized labor: Workers get better pay and pensions, and companies get a stable, more productive workforce.

ABF Freight, a subsidiary of ArcBest Corp. of Fort Smith, signed a 63-month agreement with the Teamsters in 2018, and the collective bargaining agreement is up for renegotiation next year. Publicly traded ArcBest reported record revenue and income for fiscal 2021 — of its $3.9 billion revenue, $2.6 billion was generated by ABF Freight, which reported $260.7 million in fiscal operating income.

ArcBest declined to comment on its union partnership but did release a statement. “However, we know our people are the heart of our success — customers regularly share with us how much they value their relationships with our drivers,” the statement said. “Our union workforce resides within ABF Freight, where we offer one of the best combined wage and benefits packages in the industry, which leads to strong employee retention.”

Nichols said the perception that unions don’t care about their employers is nonsense, because union members rely on those employers for jobs.

“It is incumbent upon us that not only are our members compensated fairly but, in order to maintain that, we have to make sure the company is successful as well,” Nichols said.

“Nobody in the union wants to cut somebody else’s pay, whether it is a CEO, CFO,” he continued. “We just want our members to share in the profits they create.  “We may be adversarial at a grievance hearing or during contract negotiations but, otherwise, we have a good relationship. Just here in Arkansas, for instance, we all had discussions early on during the pandemic to discuss safety concerns. I was really proud of how we were able to work with the employers in Arkansas during the pandemic.” 

Halford said while the pandemic may have enlightened companies on the importance of their workers, it also helped workers understand their value more. 

“I think that swung the pendulum a little bit, I really do,” Halford said. “They are starting to realize they do have a voice.”

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