Dan O'Malley heads the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, Northeast Ohio’s largest labor organization. He is shown here in his office in Cleveland. Photo taken Dec. 21, 2022.
Dan O'Malley heads the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, Northeast Ohio’s largest labor organization. He is shown here in his office in Cleveland. Credit: Kayode Omoyosi for Signal Cleveland

Dan O’Malley has been executive secretary since 2020 of the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, Northeast Ohio’s largest labor organization. He heads an organization with more than 80,000 members representing about 150 local unions in Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties.

Signal Cleveland recently sat down with O’Malley to get his take on what’s in store for labor in 2023, both locally and nationally.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What impact do you believe the pandemic has had on the labor movement, especially organizing?

The pandemic caused this sort of awakening among a lot of workers. You’ve got folks who weren’t able to work from home. They weren’t able to dial it in. They had to go to work every day, even at the dawn of the pandemic, and risked catching Covid. They were being called heroes. I think there was a real opportunity to demonstrate how much their employers, and society in general, appreciate them. Instead, in many instances, they just got lip service. Employers were giving them a pizza party when they were asking for hazard pay.

These workers are looking to unions as a solution to that problem. So, we are seeing a lot of organizing in sectors like health care, retail and public sector jobs that were not unionized. We’re seeing sanitation workers, like those in Solon, organize. All the support staff at the Cuyahoga County public defender’s office just got a union.

It’s not just new union organizing, but you’re seeing a lot of real, more strict demands being made at the bargaining table as well. We’re going to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to give those workers the opportunity to have a voice in the workplace and to be able to demand what they’re worth, rather than beg for it.

Many credit the pandemic with increasing the organizing efforts of lower-wage workers, including those at Amazon and Starbucks. What’s the latest on organizing these workers in Greater Cleveland?

We’ve got Amazon workers and Starbucks workers who are calling us all the time. We strongly support unionizing Starbucks and Amazon.

Amazon workers are the folks who brought us our food and toilet paper and everything else during the pandemic. They just are not being treated the way they should.

When the Staten Island [,New York] Amazon workers voted in favor of unionizing, we were very proud. I reached out to Chris Smalls, who’s the president of that union, and we were one of the first stops on his tour. He came here last June and gave a great speech at the UAW hall in Brook Park. We had a packed house. We sort of were expecting 200 people. I think we had 400 show up.

We are committed to unionizing Amazon workers here. In terms of where we are in that process, we’re not ready to talk about that publicly.

We’re 5-0 with the Starbucks organizing here. Workers United, the union that’s organizing them, has been terrific. It’s been amazing to see. I sat in on some of those ballot counts. You’ve got this juxtaposition of a lawyer making $1,000 an hour in a $2,000 suit sitting there. You know, He’s getting his ass kicked by this 20-year-old barista, who’s sitting there with a headband on, saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ counting one ballot after another. Starbucks couldn’t break one single worker. Some of those were unanimous votes to join a union. It’s been really heartening to see. It highlights for me and really gives me hope that this, in fact, is the future of the labor movement.

Dan O'Malley, executive secretary of North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor. Photo taken Dec. 21, 2022.
Dan O’Malley, executive secretary of the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor. Credit: Kayode Omoyosi for Signal Cleveland

What are some of your priorities as head of the North Shore AFL-CIO?

We are at a critical moment in history at which the public approval of labor unions is nearing an all-time high, according to a 2022 Gallup poll [which found that Americans’ approval of labor unions is at its highest level since 1965]. We would be very foolish to not take advantage of that support by not focusing on workplace organizing. Again, it’s very hard, because the laws don’t match with that level of support. The deck is stacked against us. But we’ve also seen incredible success, nationally and locally.

We’ve actually seen a 15 percent growth in our membership since I took this job in 2020. We’ve had a number of new unions, including some Teamster locals, the flight attendants union, the locomotive engineers and a number of smaller suburban firefighter locals. The national Teamsters union isn’t affiliated with the national AFL-CIO, but some unions that are allowed to affiliate with us locally have done so. They are really seeing the importance and the power of solidarity and want to be a part of that.

I’m still very hopeful that this can be resolved without a strike. They’re prepared to do that, but nobody wants to ever go on strike.

Dan O’Malley, North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor

Our major focus is going to be on supporting our affiliates. We’ve got 150 affiliated unions. We’re not just organizing new union locals, but we also want to make sure that more and more existing locals join the North Shore AFL-CIO.

We want to make sure that we are communicating exactly what the interests of workers are to our elected officials. There’s an old saying of Walter Reuther, who was the longtime president of the United Auto Workers: “There’s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the bread box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.”

So, we need to make sure that we’re educating our members and mobilizing them to take action. We’re going to be really increasing our involvement in elections and supporting pro-worker candidates. We’re also going to be really pushing getting our own members to run for office. We now have north of 40 union members in local office, and we want to keep growing that number.

What do you think of the job Mayor Justin Bibb, whom the North Shore AFL-CIO endorsed, is doing? He has some strained relationships with unions, including Teamsters Local 507, representing garbage collection, snow plowing, road repair and other essential workers, who say they are prepared to strike in response to stalled contract negotiations.

He’s got a tough job. I think the mayor wants to, in many ways, change the culture of the city. It’s going to take them [Bibb and his administration] a long time to change the culture of that building [City Hall.] He is somebody who has been advocating for more transparency in city government. He’s somebody who’s advocating for more accountability. I think he wants to be more small “d” democratic about how things are done. I can give some examples of the ways that I can tell that he’s thinking about things differently.

The mayor supported the wage-theft ordinance that City Council passed 17-0. [The North Shore AFl-CIO and Guardians for Fair Work, a coalition of community, faith-based and labor organizations, helped draft the legislation.] He was all the way with us.

There have been some broader labor disputes in the community where the mayor has taken a stand on our side [including that the Cleveland International Film Festival use union projectionists.] I know that he turns to Sen. Sherrod Brown for guidance on these and many other issues. That’s really good. We have no better friend in government than Sherrod Brown.

In terms of the working conditions of Teamsters Local 507, these workers are fighting to uphold good safety and public health conditions for themselves and the residents of Cleveland. You really can’t dissect the two. We want to make sure that their wages are keeping up with high inflation and are competitive with the raises that workers are getting in other cities. We’re all the way with them. I’m still very hopeful that this can be resolved without a strike. They’re prepared to do that, but nobody wants to ever go on strike. Both sides are continuing to work hard, and, hopefully, we’ll see a resolution.

What are you expecting of incoming Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne, whom the North Shore AFL-CIO endorsed?

We supported Chris, even when the Democratic primary was thought to be contentious. We have a lot of confidence in Chris. We have thousands of people working down at the county delivering vital services to the most vulnerable members of our society. These workers deserve more than lip service. They deserve to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect. Most importantly, they deserve to be listened to. So when you’re talking about some of the crises that we’ve seen in human services, it’s the folks that are on the front lines, our members, that often are the ones that have the solutions. Yet not often enough, they do not have a seat at the table. So we want to make sure that Chris understands this, and we think he does. He wholeheartedly has stated that he agrees with AFSCME, which represents the social workers, and many others at the county have strongly supported our members being at the table in coming up with solutions.

We want to make sure that economic development projects are built union. It’s not just for the sake of our members. When you build something union, it is a guarantee that the workers are highly skilled–they have gone through a rigorous apprenticeship program. We’re certainly going to be stressing that with all of our elected officials.

Dan O'Malley, head of the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor with Louie, his dog rescued from a research lab. Photo taken Dec. 21, 2022
Dan O’Malley with Louie, his dog rescued from a research lab. Credit: Kayode Omoyosi for Signal Cleveland

Democrats, who have historically been allies of organized labor, no longer control the U.S. House of Representatives. What impact do you believe this will have on the labor movement?

We worked very hard and very strategically to get a lot done in the first two years of the Biden administration. That will continue. The infrastructure law that passed was probably the most bipartisan piece of major legislation that’s passed so far in the Biden administration. It will be tremendous for Northeast Ohio. There is going to be a lot of work for folks. But the law is also going to really have a great impact on our communities, including addressing our crumbling road infrastructure.

Certainly, we’re thrilled about the construction jobs, but permanent jobs will also be created. The Communication Workers of America are going to be needed for building the fiber optic networks and then servicing the new broadband expansion. Because of the law, a major investment in Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is going to be taking place. There are workers in the airline industry and at the airport who are going to really benefit from that.

The CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act) is going to help ancillary businesses here in Cuyahoga County that are going to be servicing those plants. That law was bipartisan. Public opinion played a role in both [laws] passing.

We have some major legislative priorities, like the PRO [Protecting the Right to Organize] Act. It is a piece of legislation that basically will modernize our century-old, archaic labor laws in this country, which just aren’t effective anymore at allowing people to unionize. It did pass the House, but it didn’t come up for a vote in the Senate.

We’ve got a situation where 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, according to the Gallup poll, yet only 11 percent of workers actually are in a union. That tells me that there are people who want to join a union who can’t, and it’s because we have so many barriers to unionizing.

Olivera Perkins, Economics Reporter

Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.