Like many cities across the Midwest, Indianapolis has seen large tracts within its borders decay into a kind of concrete desert. Take Shadeland Avenue, on the east side of town. Fifty years ago it was a six-lane corridor serving massive plants for RCA and Chrysler, along with multiple automobile-parts manufacturers. On this one street alone, there were more than ten thousand union jobs. Just north and east, off Interstate 69, the cities of Anderson and Muncie were filled with workers making products like Delco batteries, GM headlights, and Goodyear tires. But in the 1980s and ’90s, GM vacated Anderson, Chevrolet left Muncie, and Indianapolis itself lost more than twenty-eight thousand manufacturing jobs. Most of the plants on the Shadeland Avenue manufacturing corridor are long gone.
It’s not as if there are no jobs in Indianapolis today. The former manufacturing centers may lie quiet, but things are bustling at the food court of the downtown campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, known as IUPUI. Every weekday, thousands of undergrads and faculty members line up under brightly lit signs for Chick-fil-A, Papa John’s, Wild Greens, and Spotz, joined by students and staff from Indiana University schools of medicine and nursing, distinctive in their light-blue scrubs. Behind the counters, men and women fill orders and take payment at cash registers. Others wipe down tables out front or prepare food in back. Despite the name-brand restaurant signage and the lettering “IUPUI Food Service” on the workers’ black polo shirts and white chef jackets, they are actually employees of Chartwells, a division of the British corporation Compass Group, the world’s largest food-service management company.
James Meyers came to work here in August 2009. A stocky African-American man with a goatee, Meyers grew up on Indianapolis’s East side, the youngest of seven children and a product of Public School 103 and John Marshall High School. When his plans to join the military after graduation fell through, he drove tractor-trailers and dump trucks before switching to food service. He managed a kitchen at a nursing home for a while, and was a shift manager at Popeyes and KFC fast-food restaurants. In his late forties when he came to IUPUI, Meyers was hired as a prep cook. His task was to prepare vegetables for the various restaurants at the food court, and for the catering jobs and day-care center Chartwells also serves from this location.
The good news for Indiana is that there are plenty of jobs like Meyers’s. The bad news is that they do not pay anywhere near as well as the manufacturing jobs Indiana has lost. A recent report by the Indiana Institute for Working Families showed that the state’s employment growth since the recession has been dominated by low-paying jobs. This low-end growth reflects a trend occurring nationally, as our twenty-first-century economy continues to churn out jobs with limited benefits, no security, and rock-bottom wages. Indiana is feeling the pain more than most. U.S. Census Bureau data show that only two other states saw larger increases in income inequality in recent years.
These jobs place large burdens on the workers who have them, and it did not take long for Meyers to begin noticing problems in the IUPUI workplace. Some of his fellow cooks were making barely more than minimum wage, and the health insurance offered by Chartwells was so costly that no workers he knew were actually enrolled in the plan. Meyers and his colleagues were promised two breaks each shift, plus a thirty-minute lunch. But the kitchen was chronically understaffed, and the breaks rarely occurred. When his colleague in vegetable prep fell ill and had to leave work for several months, management refused to get Meyers some replacement help. Other colleagues, he discovered, were also working multiple roles without any increase in pay. When workers complained about problems like these, management told them to deal with it or look for another job.
Just as Meyers’s prep-cook duties finally began to stabilize, he was pulled aside by a Chartwells manager and ordered to switch jobs. The move took him to the front of the food court and offered more responsibilities—but no increase in pay. Meyers said he would prefer to stay in his cook role. He was told to accept the move or be fired. “I had trouble keeping my peace with that,” Meyers says.
But things would soon change. Sometime before this episode, Meyers and a handful of other Chartwells IUPUI workers had begun meeting with an organizer for the hospitality workers union UNITE HERE. The union’s Local 23 had already organized food-service workers at Indianapolis International Airport and had negotiated contracts with Chartwells at other locations around the country. Meyers was angry at the company for its treatment of him and his coworkers at IUPUI, but he had no previous experience with unions. He had his doubts. “I’d heard all kinds of things about unions, that they just want to take your money, and that unions are for lazy people,” he says. “So I was pretty reluctant.” But after many conversations with his coworkers and some soul-searching, Meyers decided he was in. He was tired of going from job to job in his life. “I just wanted my job to change,” he says. “I wanted to stay here and make this job better.”
In time, nearly three-quarters of the Chartwells IUPUI workers signed cards expressing their desire to join the union, and in September 2011, the union effort went public when a delegation of workers, joined by supportive IUPUI students and faculty, paid a visit to Chartwells management. The group of nearly thirty people gathered in the food court, and led by James Meyers, they walked to the manager’s office and knocked on the door. The manager—the same manager who had told Meyers to accept his transfer and extra duties or look for another job—opened the door, and his eyes widened. “He was very surprised, and he said to me, ‘Why do you have all these people here?’” Meyers recalls. “I said, ‘Because we want to have a union and all these people support what we are doing.’” Meyers smiles at the memory. “We finally got a chance to talk to him without him brushing us off. He had to listen this time.”
Soon after that show of solidarity, Chartwells agreed to recognize the union. Negotiations began over a contract, and at first things did not go well. The company’s initial offer proposed no raises at all for the first year, then just 10 cents an hour in year two. The workers rejected the offer and began wearing buttons to work that read, “RESPECT.” The company came back to the table, and eventually offered a contract that included annual pay raises, paid sick and vacation days, a 401(k) retirement plan, and recognition of seniority in transfers and overtime. As part of the offer, health insurance costs would be cut and guaranteed to decrease each year.
ON FEBRUARY 1, 2012, the IUPUI workers gathered to vote on the contract proposal. It was not the only union activity in Indianapolis that day. Less than a mile away, thousands of union members and supporters from across the Midwest had gathered in angry protest on the steps of the Indiana Statehouse. The occasion was the Indiana General Assembly’s consideration of “right to work” legislation, a law that allows workers to opt out of paying union fees even when they benefit from collective bargaining. For weeks, labor advocates had held rallies outside the building and in the hallways between the legislative chambers, chanting “Kill the bill” and singing “Solidarity Forever.” But the Indiana Senate ignored the clamor and passed the right-to-work law anyway. The vote paved the way for Indiana to become the twenty-third state in the United States to adopt the rule—and the first to do so in the country’s Rust Belt, where union-staffed manufacturing was once a dominant feature of the economy. The setback was just one of many blows inflicted on Indiana unions in recent decades. While as recently as 1989, one in every five Indiana workers belonged to a union, today barely 9 percent of the state’s workforce is unionized. In 2005, Indiana’s governor eliminated collective bargaining for state employees. Republicans hostile to union efforts currently have supermajorities of both houses of the Indiana General Assembly.
In such an environment, every victory is significant; as one Indianapolis-based organizer of service-sector workers says, “If we can win here, we can win anywhere.” As it happened, on the very day labor took it on the chin in the Indiana Senate’s right-to-work vote, the IUPUI workers voted overwhelmingly to approve their first-ever collective bargaining agreement. Soon afterward, James Meyers became a union shop steward, and half the staff signed up for the improved health insurance. They were thrilled with the wage increases, new benefits, and recognition for seniority. But for Meyers and many others, what meant the most was the intangible boost that came with finally being treated as a partner at the workplace. “I felt like I had won a million dollars,” Meyers said. “I got to tell the manager, ‘You are the boss, I understand that. But I am a man, too, and we can respect each other.’”
Meyers and his colleagues are not the only Indianapolis workers to feel the strength of a new union affiliation. At Marian University and Butler University, private colleges located on the North side of Indianapolis, maintenance and food-service workers for the contractor Aramark have won union recognition and first-ever contracts. At Marian, a Franciscan institution, workers were supported by clergy and lay people citing the church’s long history of support for living wages and workplace organizing. Indianapolis International Airport food-service workers also voted for UNITE HERE recognition and negotiated contracts with three companies staffing restaurants and stores. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been organizing local security guards and janitors for several years, and recently began organizing Indiana home health-care workers.
As is the case nationally, the Indianapolis efforts by low-wage workers go beyond the boundaries of traditional workplace organizing. The national “Fight for 15” campaign to raise the wages of fast-food and retail workers has included a lively presence in Indianapolis, with community supporters, union activists, and low-wage workers engaging in high-profile demonstrations. An energetic campaign for citizenship for undocumented immigrants, funded by the local Roman Catholic archdiocese and fueled in large part by the activism of Latino Catholics, is integrated into the low-wage workers’ campaigns. The first contracts earned by Indianapolis-area service-sector workers have not included remarkable increases in wages, but they do significantly increase access to benefits and enshrine seniority rights and grievance procedures that boost job security. Union members hope that these contracts reflect a traditional pattern in labor organizing, in which contracts are significantly improved in subsequent negotiations.
MANY ECONOMISTS, ACADEMICS, AND labor professionals share that optimism. In fact, they view service-sector workers like James Meyers as the future of the U.S. labor movement. As the weed-choked parking lots of abandoned Indiana factories sadly demonstrate, many manufacturing jobs have left the United States or been eliminated by automation. But washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, and caring for the housebound elderly cannot be outsourced to a Bangladeshi sweatshop, assembly-line robot, or overseas call center. And many of the employers of service-sector workers—including multinational hotel chains and food-service or building-cleaning companies—are earning healthy profits and can afford to pay better wages and provide better benefits. History, both nationally and in Indiana, suggests no reason why service-sector jobs cannot evolve into middle-class employment. Indeed, the region’s now-mourned manufacturing jobs were once characterized by back-breaking, low-wage work. Early- to mid-twentieth-century union activism transformed those jobs into careers that enabled workers to buy homes, send their kids to college, and join the American middle class. Can janitors, fry cooks, and health-care aides blaze the same path now?
The unions organizing these workers say yes. UNITE HERE points to significantly higher wages earned by its 270,000 unionized hospitality workers across the country, while SEIU makes similar claims for its 2 million-plus members. But in Indiana it has been a struggle. UNITE HERE’s eight-year campaign to organize the city’s hotel workers has not yet broken through. Some union activists have lost their jobs in the process, and Indianapolis remains one of the country’s largest cities without a single unionized hotel. The SEIU campaigns have had similarly mixed results. Most Indianapolis-area home-care workers, security guards, and janitors are not unionized, and most of those who are still receive low wages and limited benefits. The wage increases and benefit access negotiated by UNITE HERE for the airport and IUPUI workers are better than what the workers had before they organized, but some of those workers still struggle to make ends meet. And some of the “Fight for 15” leaders, who helped drive the conversation on living wages with their media-friendly one-day strikes, lost their jobs in the days and weeks after the TV cameras went away.
Yet all the organizing effort has led to undeniable improvement at several Indiana service-sector workplaces, including the IUPUI food court. A couple of months after the IUPUI contract was ratified, a Chartwells worker was moved into a higher classification job. Though the company’s contract with the union called for a pay increase of $1.50 an hour for that new role, the manager proposed just an extra 50 cents an hour. When James Meyers was told about the situation, he made plans to meet with the manager. A half-dozen fellow workers agreed to accompany him. By the time Meyers reached the office door, three times that number were behind him.
Meyers confronted the manager and demanded the full raise for the worker. The manager said he would look into it. Unsatisfied with that response, the group took a few turns marching around the office area before leaving, chanting “We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”
They did not have to return. The next day, the manager gave the transferred worker her full raise.
This article is adapted from Fran Quigley’s new book, If We Can Win Here: The New Front Lines of the Labor Movement (Cornell University Press).