SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — From striking teachers and nurses to a threatened railroad strike, labor negotiations have taken center stage for Americans over the past week.

Thursday, President Joe Biden said a tentative deal was reached in ongoing railroad negotiations to divert a strike from taking place that would have upset the American supply-chain. Kooper Caraway, a Sioux Falls labor leader, explained that while a tentative agreement has been reached, all unions must agree otherwise the negotiation process begins again.

“The workers are not demanding ridiculous things; they were asking for some more paid sick days. So that if their direct family member is sick, you know, they don’t have to take, they don’t have to lose money to take care of their family member,” Caraway said.

Caraway is no stranger to labor as the president of the South Dakota Federation of Labor. While there aren’t any strikes happening in South Dakota at this time, Caraway said that the pandemic has driven people to support unions in higher numbers than in the past.

“The pandemic kind of laid bare what the priorities are of the wealthy elite, and the bosses and our society and really showed how they feel about us as working people,” Caraway said. “And working people didn’t like what they saw. You know, we were, we were called heroes one day, and then treated as expendable, as people whose health and safety are not priorities.”

When it comes to unions in South Dakota, Caraway says you can just look around and you’ll likely run into a union worker.

“You can’t walk a quarter mile in any direction of the KELOLAND studios in downtown Sioux Falls without running into a union shop, or a union member,” Caraway said. “The people who clean the streets outside, they’re all union members. The people who maintain the parking meters, they’re all union members…”

Unionization was at its peak across the country in the 1960s and 1970s with one in three Americans members of unions. Today, Caraway says that the number is closer to one in ten.

While union participation is lower than 50 years ago, Caraway said that younger workers of the Millennial and Gen Z generations tend to lean more pro-union than older generations.

“So, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen an increase in unionization, we’ve seen an increase in strikes in worker activity. You know, this time last year, there were zero unionized Starbucks locations across the country. And today, there’s over 200,” Caraway said.

A 2022 Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest it’s been since the 1950s when 3 out of 4 Americans approved of labor unions.

In South Dakota, union membership dropped .3% from 2020 to 2021 and is the lowest it’s been in recent years.

“If you look at the union density and union membership in all of these central region states, so this includes strong union states like Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, was the only state that over the last three-year period has increased and union density has increased steadily, slowly,” Caraway said.

While South Dakota is growing in terms of union density, Caraway said there’s still a way to go when it comes to workers’ rights in the state.

“In South Dakota, unfortunately, we have one of the lowest worker protections in in the country. So, we’re still at the bottom in the country when it comes to teacher pay, we’re at the bottom of the country when it comes to workplace safety,” Caraway said.

In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that when it came to fatal occupational injuries, South Dakota was above the national percentage for transportation incidents, falls/slips, and contact with objects and equipment.

While most workers are not members of unions, Caraway said that union membership negotations and strikes can benefit non-union members as employers work to remain competitive in wages and benefits.

“Higher wages for union workers often leads to higher wages for workers in the whole area,” Caraway said.

Over the past year, several national chains such as Starbucks and Amazon have undergone unionization. This week, the Major League Baseball Players Association recognized minor league players as union members.

Caraway stated that he believes the recent negotiations and strikes show that the power remains in the hands of the workers.

“And so, what we’re seeing is people in this country really losing faith in their boss’s ability to make sure that they’re taken care of, and they can take care of their families. They’re losing faith in their political institutions; they’re losing faith in some of the media institutions. But what they’re not losing faith in is each other and their unions,” Caraway said.