Labor Pains Gains: Idaho Union Leaders See Uptick in Engagement

"The more people we talk to, the more traction there is to get organized."


Each September for the last few decades, reporters assigned to write a Labor Day story have reached into a rather shallow bucket of cliches when chronicling the state of unions in Idaho. Sooner, rather than later, a writer inevitably dusts off the old chestnut, "labor pains," when referring to the status of union membership in the Gem State. But Idaho labor leaders say change is in the wind, as union membership is seeing an uptick for the first time in recent memory.

"It's getting better and better," said Joe Maloney, president of the Idaho AFL-CIO. "The more people we talk to, the more traction there is to get organized."

He credits two major factors, one painlessly obvious and the other painfully personal. The obvious element is inescapable in the Treasure Valley: an unprecedented construction boom, employing nearly every laborer within shouting distance. The personal factor has more to do with what happens when this boom ultimately goes bust.

"A lot of people my age are looking at their parents who can't retire because those parents have no pension, no benefits," said Maloney. "So, now a lot of young men and women who have to work two or three jobs and don't know how they're going to take care of Mom and Dad are recognizing labor unions aren't so bad. Those young workers are doing the math. That money that may come out of your paycheck for union dues? Well, now you've got solid benefits, a pension and a future for your own family. That's when you learn how strong a union is."

Maloney knows the scenario all too well. He's one of three siblings raised by a mother who held down a long list of jobs to put food on the table.

"It's happening to my mom. It's happening to too many moms and dads. They have nothing to retire on," he said. "When times are good, nobody's thinking about that. But the pendulum always swings back."

Leland Heinbach, president of Boise Central Trades and Labor Council, knows both sides of the pendulum, too. He followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps as a member of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local 296, in Boise.

"In the 1980s, things were tough all over. Every week, my dad would have to go down to the Labor Council food bank. Mom had to make just about any meal she could out of Top Ramen. Times were tough," said Heinbach. "The union pulled through. We all survived. Dad retired and bought a nice little winter home down south. Dad is 70 now, and he and mom are enjoying life. You better believe that's my goal, too."

America's history of unionized labor was written in blood. Prior to union protections, millions suffered back-breaking conditions, slogging through 12-hour workdays in hazardous environments. It wasn't unusual to see women in their ninth month of pregnancy working alongside children in garment factories. Violent crescendos followed in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In 1892, miners in northern Idaho went on strike against low wages, working and living conditions. When replacement workers—"scabs"—were brought in to break the strike, a small army of private agents was hired to infiltrate the union. The situation deteriorated, leaving several dead and wounded and as many as 600 arrested.

In 1894, the U.S Congress named the first Monday of September "Labor Day" to memorialize the past and celebrate the American workforce. Labor Day events will be held across Idaho in the days leading up to Monday, Sept. 4, and of course on the day itself. Boise's Municipal Park, recently renamed to honor Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, has been the scene of a Labor Day picnic for nearly 30 years. Even though the park is now limited to small gatherings and family reunions, the City of Boise has agreed to allow the Labor Day tradition to continue.

"We'll be there from noon to 3 p.m., just like every other Labor Day. People will bring canned goods and non-perishables so that we can, once more, restock our food bank," said Heinbach. "But something special will happen this year. We'll be announcing our plans for a workers' memorial site in the park, right off the Boise Greenbelt. We'll be showing off the spot on Labor Day."

There's another bit of Idaho labor history being celebrated.

"Take a look at that photo over there," said Maloney, pointing to a black-and-white photo hanging on the wall of his Boise office. "It's the first-annual gathering of the Idaho Federation of Labor in front of the Idaho State Capitol."

Union membership continued to grow in Idaho through most of the 20th century, peaking in 1993 when more than 10 percent of the Gem State workforce were union members, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that that union membership began to fall precipitously in the early part of this century, bottoming out at 4.7 percent. In 2017, Idaho counted 35,000 union members and another 7,000 workers as represented by a union on their main job, or covered by an employee association or contract.

Joe Maloney holds a photo of his grandfather (he called him 'Pops'), a longtime union official. - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • Joe Maloney holds a photo of his grandfather (he called him 'Pops'), a longtime union official.

Maloney said his job-site conversations with workers, union and non-union members alike, have triggered an enthusiasm for the future of unions in Idaho not seen in quite some time. But while it's his job to look forward, his motivation is still very personal.

"It's still about mom. And her dad. I called him 'Pops.' He was a union official in California. When I was growing up, he was a big union guy and he was always trying to talk to me about the future. I said, 'Whatever, Pops, whatever,'" said Maloney, stealing a glance at a desktop photo of his grandfather. "What he said then is still in my heart and soul today. It's about the future."