Isaac Reese: Labor unions have a place in Utah

Whether it is Kennecott miners or Starbucks baristas, workers deserve a decent life.

When I saw that around 1,300 workers authorized a strike on March 25, before it was averted due to contract ratification at Utah’s Kennecott Copper Mine, I couldn’t help but think of my family’s roots.

My family were not pioneers. They came to Utah to be coal miners like many others. Each day they would risk their lives to dig up the black rock that would power towns far away from their new home in Scofield. Each day they would emerge from the earth, faces covered in soot, to go home and repeat the cycle again.

While some of my family would die in this cycle, others would eventually be able to have a union job. Something that provided them with a living income, job security and medical care. The same things that workers at Kennecott are ready to fight and strike for. Organized labor in Utah isn’t just limited to the traditional union professions, even Starbucks baristas in Cottonwood Heights are organizing for better working conditions.

In right-to-work states such as Utah, unions have a place, and their benefits far outweigh the propaganda that demonize them. Utah is the place for unions, both those with long histories like the ones at Kennecott and new ones like the wave of Starbucks unions that have finally reached Utah.

Both of these add to the labor legacy of Utah which includes songwriter Joe Hill, martyred by the state in 1915, and the birthplace of International Workers of the World leader “Big Bill” Haywood.

My family’s story of Finnish and Welsh coal miners is intertwined in this long Utah labor tapestry. My great-great-grandfather, Richard David Reese, died in the Scofield Mine Disaster on May 1, 1900. His son, my great-grandfather, Thomas Reese, escaped that mine disaster at the age of 18. At the time, it was the deadliest coal mining disaster in American history.

For my great-grandfather, this traumatic event pushed him to leave coal mining for work on the railroad where he could have a union job and a fair wage. His son went on to work for the railroad, serve in World War II and have a career as a unionized postal worker. To put himself through college, my father worked at UPS as a teamster. If it weren’t for unions, my family, coming out of a great tragedy, would have been shut out of the middle class over the next several generations.

“They just want to have respectable life,” said Brandon Dew, a union representative for workers at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Copper Mine to Fox13 News reporter Jenna Bree.

A “respectable life” is what unions gave my family. Things like owning a home, having access to affordable health care, education and taking family trips were in reach for them. And it wasn’t just my family. Workers who are under a union contract earn 10.2% more than non-unionized workers within the same occupational and educational demographics according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Unions also keep workers safe. When right-to-work laws are enacted there is an average 14% increase in occupational fatalities in comparison to areas without right-to-work laws. EPI also found that when unions are present, working people are less likely to be receiving government assistance for things like food and healthcare as unions have won them high wages and insurance in their union contract. These are just some of the economic freedoms that unions can unlock for entire communities.

The workers at Kennecott who rallied, and the organizing Starbucks baristas of Cottonwood Heights, are prime examples of why unions still matter and why the advocacy they provide for workers is so crucial. These workers deserve good-paying jobs that can provide all they need for a fulfilling, respectable life.

I am confident that, even in a right-to-work state, workers, unions and union organizers will still wake up and fight for more. They know their power, especially as they work together collectively.

Solidarity to all the union and non-union workers in Utah who strive for a better life for themselves and their families.

Isaac Reese

Isaac Reese is a University of Utah alumnus and received a graduate certificate in labor studies from the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.