Ardist Brown Jr., a concierge at a residential building in Lincoln Center and a 35 year union member, has been participating in labor organizing campaigns in New York City for decades. He tells potential new union members his story and hopes workers from all labor sectors will be inspired to organize.
“I believe that everyone should have this opportunity,” said Brown, adding that he wants people to know how “a kid from Harlem was able to find a good wage, get a job, good benefits and be able to start a family.”
Over the last year, union membership across the United States continues to decline, but it’s a different story in New York City. Private sector workers in New York are organizing at a rate nearly double that of those in Seattle, three times the rate in Boston, and five times in San Francisco and Los Angles, a new report from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Environment in Midtown found.
The spike in the city’s labor movement is linked to the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island, where nearly half of the 17,000 workers who have unionized citywide since 2021 are employed. But it’s not just Amazon. Museum workers, public defenders, and security guards are just some of the workers joining the movement.
“People are realizing how vulnerable they are against their employers and how those who are unionized have the best protection,” said Olga Brudastova, president of United Auto Workers Local 2110, which represents workers from numerous museums, universities, and cultural institutions.
From 2021 to 2022, the UAW added 1,639 new members, the third-highest growth in membership compared to other unions citywide, according to the CUNY report. And during that time period, the International Union of Journeymen and Allied Trades gained 2,251 new members, ranking second in terms of membership growth. The Amazon Labor Union topped the list, expanding by 8,325 members.
Collective bargaining agreements, otherwise known as union contracts, give workers the ability to negotiate wages, benefits and hours. Often, union membership ensures higher base pay and access to health insurance. It can can also set standards for work-life balance.
Brown is a member of 32BJ, which has more than 175,000 members nationwide and is headquartered in Chelsea. This union is an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union and represents workers in various roles including janitors, doormen and security guards.
Brown said that, through his union contract, which he signed in 1987, he gets free health care and is paid a livable wage, and his kids have access to scholarships.
“I’ve been able to live a good life and my family has been able to live a good life and we haven’t had to worry about some of the obstacles that some families face,” said Brown.
Years ago, Brown said he and his wife faced a custody battle over care of their niece after her mother died. He said the union covered their legal expenses for three years. Brown later won the case and his adopted daughter graduated from college this spring.
In the past year, newly organized members of unions in New York City, not including the Amazon Labor Union, represent 29% of New York City’s total private sector union workers, the CUNY report indicates.
There is “a renewed interest, a heightened level of activity, amongst private sector unionization that we haven’t seen for decades,” said Joey van der Naald, who co-authored the report. The reports states that the pandemic raised awareness of inequality in the labor force and the injustices of essential workers.
Nationwide, 14 million people are union members, including 639,000 who reside in New York City, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In August 2021, workers from the Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District organized under UAW Local 2110.
“There are just many more people who are aware of the circumstances that are oppressing them,” said Alexis Gudding, an inaugural member of the Whitney Museum Union. Gudding left the Whitney earlier this year but said that joining the union was a step in the right direction and a symbol of addressing social justice issues.
Currently, 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, according to a national Gallup poll published in August. That’s compared to a 48% approval rating in 2009, a nationwide low, but not far off from a national high of 75% in 1953.
“It is definitely a specific moment for unions, but this is the culmination of many years of organizing,” said Alexi Shalom, lead organizer for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys Local 2325.
Shalom explained that of the nine public defenders’ offices in New York City, all but one have unionized since 2018. UAW Local 2325 now represents approximately 500 of the 1,639 new members who have joined since last year. Shalom pointed to the nearly 1.5 million members who were part of UAW 60 years ago. He said that if every local chapter in the UAW places a greater emphasis on organizing, membership will be back there very soon.
While the CUNY data indicates a positive trend for the city’s organized labor movement, the New York Central Labor Council thinks union growth here is even more significant. “They fail to accurately reflect the strength of our city’s unionized workforce,” said Vincent Alvarez, President of the Council, said in a statement. Alvarez said that’s because the data is calculated based on where workers live, rather than where they work.
Despite current favorable conditions for unions, Shalom thinks there is still work to be done.
“It’s just a moment and I think the only obstacle is whether the labor movement is ready to step up and organize. And if we’re willing to do that, then this is going to be an explosion,” he said.