(TNS) — It was the first week in March when the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers filed a petition for an election to unionize workers at Johns Manville, a manufacturing plant in McPherson. It had taken nearly a year, but a majority of workers were in support of the union, said Cornell Beard, directing business representative for IAMAW District Lodge 70 based in Wichita, Kan. (The union also represents workers at Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation in Wichita.)

Within two weeks, the National Labor Relations Board had suspended all Board-conducted elections, including the one for workers at Johns Manville, due to the coronavirus pandemic. After some back and forth, the NLRB eventually made it a mail-in election over June and July.

Beard believes restrictions on in-person gatherings and conversations, and the inability to hold a traditional election in early April, contributed to the union drive’s failure. Because organizing workers is most successful with face-to-face communication, labor leaders say, the pandemic has created a difficult situation for unions that want to offer support to workers but face new challenges.

COVID-19 safety concerns have led more Wichita workers to turn to outside support such as unions to seek answers and air complaints, multiple local labor leaders say. At the same time, the pandemic has hindered unions’ ability to organize workers through in-person connection, and some unions face financial difficulties from lack of dues caused by workers being furloughed or laid off.

The United Teachers of Wichita, which represents teachers in the Wichita district, has heard from new members who want to join because of concerns they have about the return to school, said Gabriel Costilla, vice president of UTW.

The union recently created a webpage for interested teachers to join online. While it will help in the short term during the pandemic, it’s a good tool for the union to have regardless, Costilla said, and has the potential to engage a wider range of teachers.

However, while digital sign-up has its advantages, it’s not typical of organizing.

“Usually I’d be going door to door and talking to people,” said Kimberly Howard, president of UTW. “Now that we’re all in our own classrooms and are doing in-service virtually, there’s not those conversations that I would have had as easily if we were all down in the cafeteria together.”

Worried About Virus Safety and Employment, Calls to Unions Poured In

Like many organizations, unions in Wichita had to adapt quickly to changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant connecting with members however they could, even if it’s not by the preferred method.

The Service Employees International Union represents Wichita school employees who are not teachers, such as paraprofessionals and custodians. Esau Freeman, business representative for SEIU Local 513, said the union typically hosts in-person meetings to update members on current events. They have snacks and refrigerators stuffed with soda and water, Freeman said. Now they’ve pivoted to Zoom.

Despite going virtual, the number of workers seeking information from SEIU has skyrocketed, Freeman said.

“We went from 24 people in person having dinner, to upwards of 150 to 300 members a meeting,” Freeman said. “The turnout was so good the first time we used Zoom that in the middle of the meeting, I had to go in and upgrade the account from 100 people to 300 people.”

“Then the next meeting, I had to jump from 300 people to 500 people because we had broken the 300 mark,” Freeman said.

Although attendance has fallen since the early days of the pandemic in March and April, it’s still well above pre-virus times, according to Freeman.

While more workers have sought support from unions, it doesn’t always translate into more dues-paying members. Kansas is a “right-to-work” state, which means the union is required to represent all workers in a collective bargaining agreement, even if those workers aren’t union members who pay dues or vote on contracts. Workers who are not union members, but are covered by the contract, can still turn to the union with questions and have done so throughout the pandemic.

Jeff Townsend, business manager for the Sheet Metal Workers Local 29 in Wichita, said he receives calls from workers every day seeking a new job opportunity. Building trades like the Sheet Metal Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Association Plumbers and Pipefitters face the task of connecting their members with new work through contractors at a time when unemployment remains high.

Brian Burnett, business manager for UA Local 441 in Wichita, said finding new job sites is one way a union can offer workers value when times are tough. His position has become more difficult, however, when new work is hard to come by and they can’t deliver as much as they would like.

Trade workers also lean on a union to help make sense of the most recent public health guidance, said Russell Kennedy, business manager for IBEW Local 271 in Wichita. Additionally, people have questions about how to apply for federal sick leave if they need to quarantine because they’ve been exposed to the virus.

Mike Thomas, organizer for UA Local 441, said the nature of his job has changed. Even while people need more help finding work or have questions, the pace of organizing has slowed.

Talking face-to-face will always be a better way to communicate with new and existing workers, he said, in the same way personal connection is a strategy door-to-door salesmen might use.

“It’s really gotta be done face to face,” Burnett said of the slowdown. “Organizing is like storytelling.”

In USD 259, the Wichita school district, the union always has specific events each year it organizes around, said Bill Mason, organizer for UTW. New teacher orientation and early enrollment in the spring usually remain the same year after year.

Now, the union suspects that organizing will be ongoing throughout the school year. Mason said he typically connects with teachers on specific issues or questions they have, and organizes around it. Right now, that topic is the coronavirus.

Contract Negotiations with Textron Aviation Offer New Ways to Communicate

Unions, like other organizations, aren’t immune from the effects of the recession. Beard, with the Machinists union, said they’ve so far been able to keep representatives on the ground at workplaces like Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation to respond to workers’ questions and concerns.

However, the thousands of workers who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic and from the fallout of the 737 Max grounding aren’t paying union dues when they don’t receive a paycheck.

Signing up new members is one way for the union to counteract those losses. Beard said District Lodge 70 has gained new members since March, balancing out some losses even from furloughs, which are temporary.

The Machinists union says it’s particularly important to organize and unify workers at Textron Aviation, Local 774, as the union and company negotiate a new contract. They say a stronger, more unified membership can help workers win a better contract.

The union’s current contract with Textron Aviation expires on Sept. 20. Members are seeking a better health care plan and a higher level of job security, meaning they want to ensure jobs remain in the U.S., union leaders said.

Also of significance is the length of the new contract. Beard said the union wants to return to a three-year contract rather than a six-year contract or longer. Members are likely to go on strike if the company proposes a contract that would last longer than three years, Beard said.

The pandemic has forced changes to how the union communicates with workers about ongoing negotiations too. Beard and other representatives have taken to using Facebook Live and YouTube video messages to broadcast updates with Textron Aviation members. The company also has a website for negotiations updates.

The Machinists union would typically hold in-person meetings, but has postponed those for now. It’s also working to find a location large enough for members to vote in-person on the newly-negotiated contract and still allow for social distancing.

Beard said he knows workers are anxious to receive updates on the contract negotiations, adding that they need to create even more virtual messages to answer questions from employees.

The majority of questions the Machinists union receives from aerospace workers and other manufacturing employees are about what to do if they need to quarantine because they’ve been exposed to the virus or have tested positive. People want to know whether or not they will be paid for the two weeks spent at home and away from work, Beard said.

Labor Leaders Focus on Long-Term Strategy, Engagement

Most local labor leaders are concentrating on making new members of workers they already represent in a union contract. But some experts say the pandemic presents an opportunity to organize non-union workplaces, too.

John Nave, executive vice president of the Kansas AFL-CIO, said organizers need to focus on a long-term strategy. The pandemic exposed existing issues with inequality and safety in a lot of workplaces, Nave said, and those issues won’t disappear when and if the pandemic does.

In the same vein, Nave said workers need to understand that forming a union won’t happen overnight. It takes people sticking together through any pushback from a company.

Workers at the ACLU of Kansas used solidarity to help push their union to recognition after they accused the nonprofit of union-busting tactics and hiring an anti-union law firm. The union is now dealing with what it says is retaliation for organizing after one worker was suspended.

As of Friday, the ACLU is one of six workplaces in the state to file new representation cases with the National Labor Relations Board in 2020.

Unions who file for elections with the NLRB aren’t all encompassing of new unionization activity across the state, however. For example, city solid waste workers in Lawrence voted to join the Teamsters Local 696 last month, but did not file for an election with the NLRB. Some NLRB elections are also held to add on workers to an existing union.

There isn’t one single path forward or plan for organizing workers during a pandemic, said Thomas, with the Plumbers and Pipefitters. Until there is a vaccine for the virus, connecting with workers will remain a challenge. The key, he said, is ensuring the unions can adapt and remain flexible as work and life continue to change.

Mason, with the United Teachers of Wichita, said his focus isn’t just on how to sign up new members, but on what it will take to get them to stay into the future. It’s not all about having more members, he said, but about engaging those existing members, too.

One way the teachers’ union does that, he said, is by offering professional development and growth opportunities.

“We want to invite all our members to become more involved, to not just see their membership as an insurance policy, but to engage and be active members in their buildings, to improve the lives of teachers and students,” Mason said.

But first, organizers continue to work around the challenges of gathering in person. Beard said when he meets a worker who is hesitant about joining a union, he talks with them about his own personal experiences and how they’ve changed him and his workplace for the better.

In his mind, that can make or break an employee’s decision.

“Workers who organize might be unhappy, but they want to make their workplace better,” Beard said. “They’re not leaving, they’re dedicated to it.”

©2020 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.