Region's logistics hub will be a focus of union organizing in the year ahead

The labor movement found its swagger in 2023, and the Greater Cincinnati region can expect to see more union organizing and even job actions in the year ahead.

With a growing presence in the rapidly expanding sector of logistics, transportation and e-commerce, the region is expected to be a focus of efforts to unionize workers in a sector of the economy that is seeing outsized profits posted by its biggest companies and a desire by its workers to share in those gains.

In a victory that was noted by union watchers around the country, the Teamsters successfully organized many of the workers at DHL’s sprawling hub at the airport in May. Six months later, the new union members carried out a strike that was settled in less than two weeks with increases in pay, better health insurance benefits, and improvements in worker safety.

It was the start of what is expected to be more union activity, not only at DHL, but at its larger rival Amazon, which also operates a major air hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

“This contract was important to get a foot in the door and to start showing people what unions are about,” says Nick Prather, an official for Teamsters Local 100, the new local union for DHL workers. “It’s a building block for the next contract.”

In May, the Teamsters local was officially certified as the bargaining agent for about 1,000 people who work at the DHL hub loading and unloading aircraft full of merchandise to be delivered to doorsteps around the country, spare parts for machinery, inventory for retailers, you name it. Once certified, the union set about trying to negotiate a contract for the workers. Come December, when no agreement was forthcoming, they called a strike during the company’s busiest time of the year. Twelve days later, an agreement was reached.

A year earlier, workers at Amazon’s air hub learned they would not be receiving a $2 an hour increase that they had been rewarded during the previous two holiday seasons as a bonus for working through the pandemic. At the same time, many were assigned mandatory overtime from Thanksgiving to Christmas, with only three weeks notice. That left workers scrambling to make new plans for child care, second jobs, and classes.

A group began meeting to discuss forming a union and decide what changes they wanted to achieve. They are now asking workers at the company’s largest air hub in the world to join them in creating a union.  “The only way to win any lasting change at Amazon would be by forming a union to fight for what we want,” the Amazon Labor Union says on its website.

The two efforts are happening as the labor movement rides a wave of high-profile successes. A six-week strike by the United Auto Workers at all of the Big Three American automakers resulted in significant wage increases on top of cost-of-living adjustments.  After workers ratified the agreements, UAW President Shawn Fein promised to take the fight to other companies. “Now, we take our strike muscle and our fighting spirit to the rest of the industries we represent, and to millions of nonunion workers ready to stand up and fight for a better way of life,” he said.

In August, UPS workers approved an agreement between their union, the Teamsters, and their employer that also included big gains in pay, and averted a threatened strike. “This is the template for how workers should be paid and protected nationwide, and nonunion companies like Amazon better pay attention,” Teamsters President Sean O’Brien said in a statement after the vote.

Even Hollywood was a target as unions representing writers and performers both went on lengthy strikes that ended with new contracts and pay gains.

But these headline-grabbing wins don’t necessarily mean a return to the golden age of organized labor. In 2022, only 10.1% of workers belonged to a union, the lowest percentage on record. “
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people are not in a union,” says Janet Harrah, director of Northern Kentucky University’s Center for Economic Analysis and Development. "Just one in 10 American workers are.”

While the actual number of union workers did grow from 2021 to 2022, the overall workforce grew much faster, resulting in a decrease in the rate of union membership. The percentage of workers in unions has been cut in half over the last 30 years.

But the experience of workers during the pandemic, when some were laid off and others were required to work despite fears of the Covid virus, combined with subsequent record profits by many big corporations, has sparked a renewed militancy among workers and unions, says Risa Lieberwitz, a professor of labor and employment law in the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  

“Workers saw just how insecure their jobs were,” she says. “There's been a realization that they need to join together to collectively assert their rights and to collectively fight for their needs, to share in the profits of the company, and to have their voices heard.”

Companies in the logistics sector in particular saw huge profits as online shopping and digital commerce suddenly expanded in the wake of the pandemic. Amazon profits grew 30% in 2021; DHL reported record profits; and UPS profits nearly doubled.

At the DHL hub in Northern Kentucky, starting pay before the new contract was about $20 an hour. The newly unionized workers will receive a $2-an-hour raise right away, and a total bump of $5 an hour by 2027, Prather says. The union also got the company to, in most cases, cover the entire cost of health insurance for employees, he says.

The company also agreed to a seniority system, so vacation scheduling, job bidding, and overtime are now based on length of service. “Those systems are now in place through seniority, not who the manager or supervisor likes,” he says. “Favoritism was the number-one complaint,” Prather says. “We got rid of favoritism through seniority.”

The local based its messaging on safety.  The unionized employees are ramp and tug workers who labor outside around the clock in all weather loading and unloading cargo from DHL’s planes and ferrying it to and from the warehouses where it’s sorted. The containers packed with freight can weigh several tons each. Prather said some of the tugs used to haul the merchandise came from Comair, a regional airline that went out of business more than 10 years ago.  “They felt their safety issues were not being taken seriously,” he says. “People want to come to work and feel like they won’t be impaled or damaged or possibly die.”

The new contract calls for the creation of a safety committee, comprised equally of members from the union and the company, and a process for bringing safety concerns to the attention of management. Workers will also have an easier time shutting down equipment that doesn’t work, or that a worker considers unsafe.
“It gives workers the voice and the power to address safety issues without fear of retaliation,” Prather says.

And that respect and dignity is at the core of the labor movement, says Lieberwitz.

Pay is certainly important, she says, “But we can also recognize that provisions for fairness and decency in the workplace matter just as much,” she says. “Workers, when they’re unionized, have a collective voice, they have chosen in a democratic process to unionize, and the union speaks for the workers with one voice and they can put the workers priorities on the table.”

The transportation and distribution sector of the economy will be ripe for future union efforts, Harrah says. “That's where the jobs are,” she says. “It’s among the fastest growing sectors of economy the last five years."

The Teamsters union will continue to organize DHL workers at the airport, Prather says. The next step is to seek union certification with the 1,800 or so employees there who work inside the warehouses sorting and processing packages, he said. “There’s an organizing team here on the ground that’s ready to try and organize them,” he says.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.