union Photo by Camaron Stevenson

Along with job training, thousands of new union members across the state are earning better wages, investing in their communities, and getting involved in political activism.

Thousands of unionized workers and their families gathered together in west Phoenix this past weekend to celebrate a surge in membership and listen to their leaders layout plans for further growth.

Seven unions joined together at the Carpenters Local Union 1912 building in Phoenix for Solidarity Day, where the building was filled with vender booths, activities for kids, and plenty of opportunities for voter engagement.

In the last three years, there’s been a boost in union membership throughout the state. In 2017, the state had only 111,000 union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but now has the highest recorded membership in over a decade, with 174,000 reported members in 2019. Overall, however, union membership rates in Arizona have been below the U.S. average since 1989.

Frank Hawk, vice president for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said he has seen his union’s growth firsthand. Membership in Arizona’s carpenter union has more than doubled since 2017, from 1,622 to 3,499 members. And what’s more, demand for union labor has kept pace with membership. The union reports 5.7 million man-hours worked in 2019.

“Phoenix is a tough market. There’s no prevailing wage. It’s a right-to-work state, and there are constant attacks on organized labor,” Hawk said. “But last year, we had about a 30% growth in the local membership; we’ve doubled our work hours in the last five years.”

Hawk noted the expansion is due to a number of factors, including a need for skilled labor, a demand for higher wages, and bringing in immigrants who otherwise are taken advantage of. 

“I credit our success to being all-inclusive and bringing in immigrants. They’re out there working for some very poor wages. They’re being targeted and preyed upon – purposefully – because they have nowhere else to go,” Hawk said. “We need to help improve their lives if we want to improve everybody’s lives.”

Another change from years past is inclusivity with other unions. Previously, unions operated in silos, but now, representatives of every labor organization from the National Educators Association (NEA) to the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) were brought together in the spirit of solidarity. Booths were set up for voter registration, and attendees were reminded that political involvement was key to keeping organized labor strong.

Teachers worked the crowds with petitions for the Invest in Ed ballot initiative, and NEA Vice President Becky Pringle was greeted with roaring applause as she addressed the crowd.

“Thank you for joining us in our ‘Red for Ed’ movement,” Pringle said. “As you stand for justice, fairness, and democracy in labor, so too do we. We must work together to neutralize the attacks on organized labor.”

Elected officials also came out in support of building union strength throughout the state. Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego both came out to mingle with union members and their families, and to thank them for using their skills to build local communities. 

Speaking to the crowd, Penzone said that unions are a reminder of all the good that can be found in the state, and that his goal is to make their success – not the failures of the past – what people think about when Arizona is mentioned. 

“When we drive through this community, and we see the homes, and the schools, and everything that’s beautiful about Arizona, the one thing we should never be speaking about is pink underwear and tent city,” Penzon said. “And another thing we should never accept is anyone in uniform that goes out and targets people of color.”

Gallego expressed the need for skilled labor in Phoenix. The city has experienced explosive growth over the past decade, and is expected to bring in another one million residents by 2030. Gallego was emphatic that quality construction was vital to the success of Phoenix’s growth.

“Phoenix is literally the fastest-growing city in the United States. People want to be a part of this community,” Gallego said. “We need a strong construction workforce to be able to provide the jobs, the housing, the streets, and transportation infrastructure that our residents – both current and future – demand.”

But union leaders expressed concern that without proper wages, local membership would become stagnant as skilled workers move to regions with better pay. Pete Rodriguez, president of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said that no matter where one of their members worked, drywall weighed the same, and wages should match the work.

On average, non-union workers earn $0.81 for every dollar a union member makes. This translates to a weekly rate of $1,095, or $892 per week for workers who aren’t part of a union.

“We want to build leaders in the community. Our community wealth includes our families – it includes our schools, our universities. We’re a positive influence in every community that we’re in,” Rodriguez said. “The best of the best end up going to where the higher wages are. For the kid from Cortez High School, or from Maryvale to work close to home, he needs to earn a good living.”