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Organized labor is having a moment. These Spirit contract workers hope to seize it

Machinists union (select).JPG
Daniel Caudill
(Photo illustration) The Machinists union is passing out authorization cards to employees of DB Schenker, a contract company that provides logistics work at Spirit AeroSystems. These cards authorize the Machinists to file for a union election.

With the renewed popularity of organized labor, Labor Day offers a time to reflect on advances won by labor unions and what they’re still fighting for today.

With union drives at Starbucks and other major corporations commanding headlines, recent polling shows Americans are more supportive of unions than they have been in decades — despite the fact that only 6% of private-sector workers are in a union.

And a recent report by Bloomberg Law indicates unions have won more elections in 2022 than in nearly 20 years. That’s due at least in part to hundreds of largely successful union drives at Starbucks, including one store in Wichita.

Shaun Junkins, an organizer with District 70 of the Machinists union, said he thinks the rise in support ultimately comes down to the pandemic and corporate greed.

“A CEO used to just make 30, or 40, or 50% more than a regular worker,” he said. “Now, it’s somewhere around 2 or 3,000 times higher than just a regular worker.”

The Machinists’ latest union drive is with about 120 employees at DB Schenker, a German-based company that provides contract work at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita.

Employees of DB Schenker say they want a union not only for better working conditions, but also for pay and benefits that compare more closely to the unionized Spirit employees they work alongside.

“Dignity is one that they’re really focused on, and respect,” he said.

One DB Schenker employee described the current workplace as “taxing.”

“Getting pulled around in five, six different directions at any given time,” he said. “Always feeling like there’s a rush.”

KMUW is not using the employee’s name to protect him from potential workplace retaliation.

Federal labor law protects a worker’s right to support a union drive, but Kansas has what’s called at-will employment. That means an employee can be fired for any reason that’s not illegal.

The employee said he hasn’t experienced anything that feels like retaliation, but he said he and his coworkers have been subject to captive audience meetings.

Those are meetings that take place during working hours, in which the employer shares anti-union talking points.

“Some of [my coworkers], they were pretty fearful. But others, it made them mad,” he said. “And they turned around and signed “A” cards because of that.”

Local lodge 839 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) sits across from Spirit facilities off of K-15. The union is trying to organize about 100 to 120 contract workers at Spirit who are employed by DB Schenker.
Daniel Caudill
Local lodge 839 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) sits across from Spirit facilities off of K-15. The union is trying to organize about 100 to 120 contract workers at Spirit who are employed by DB Schenker.

An “A” card, or authorization card, is one that workers fill out to show they want a union election. DB Schenker employees filed for their election on Wednesday.

The employee said he feels optimistic that his coworkers will ultimately vote to unionize. They’ll need more than 50% of the vote to do so.

The Machinists union has about 15,000 members across Kansas.

A spokesperson for DB Schenker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More work to do in the workplace

Junkins, the Machinists organizer, said labor unions are responsible for many of the work standards people take for granted today, like 40-hour work weeks and child labor laws.

And with unions currently having a moment of resurgence, he said organizers should connect with young workers and advocate for further changes in the workplace. That includes improvements to paid family and medical leave.

He also said rules around captive audience meetings, like the ones held by Schenker, create an unfair playing field.

“It’d only be fair if the union could come into the workplace and also tell the employees what the union can do and what they can’t do,” he said, “instead of having a company try to illustrate what a union is, when they have no clue of that.”

The general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has proposed captive audience meetings be outlawed.

Another Schenker employee told KMUW the union drive has been a great learning experience for her and her colleagues, helping them learn more about the NLRB and their rights as workers.

“More than anything, it’s education,” she said. “Educate yourself on what a union is and what it can do for you. I think that is so important.

“You are a buy, sell, trade product if you’re working for a company.”

Daniel Caudill is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. He was a reporter, photographer and digital content manager for The Derby Informer and an editor and reporter for The Sunflower. In the spring of 2020, Daniel helped cover the legislative session in Topeka as an intern for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @CaudillKMUW.