- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
The US labor movement seems to be stirring.
Amazon workers at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse known as JFK8 won a shocking union election last fall. Starbucks workers are racking up victory after victory in their cross-country organizing drive. The Teamsters’ new president, Sean O’Brien, is preaching an old-fashioned “class struggle” unionism that takes aim at what he calls the “white-collar crime syndicate known as corporate America.” Socialist militants are “salting” — taking jobs at Amazon, Starbucks, and elsewhere to try to unionize workplaces.
What’s driving this outbreak in militancy? What organizing lessons can we draw from recent months and the distant past? And how can we convert the current momentum into a lasting labor upsurge capable of transforming US politics?
In a recent live show of Jacobin Radio’s The Dig, host Daniel Denvir interviewed Rob Baril of SEIU 1199 NE, Luis Feliz Leon of Labor Notes, and Alex Press of Jacobin about the green shoots of the labor movement and why this critical moment calls for “some fearless motherfuckers.”
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Very few people took seriously the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which was formed by worker-organizer Chris Smalls and was unconnected to any union, before they won at JFK8. Does this challenge the conventional wisdom about the role that staff organizers from existing unions should or can play?
I wouldn’t start there, to be honest. I would start with the last fifteen years, which have been an absolute train wreck for working-class people, white, black, and brown. There is a certain element of chickens coming home to roost.
Look at the Great Recession and the way that we are now paying the bills for the bankers who wrecked our economy. Look at Black Lives Matter, which more than anything else, returns the dignity of working-class black folks to the work we do. During the pandemic, we saw essential workers sent out to die while billionaires were jetting off to space.
The message has been clear: organize or die. In terms of whether bureaucratic, dust-covered institutions that wouldn’t know how to fight if somebody was kicking them in the stomach can lead a movement of workers that changes this country . . . no. But we will need institutions that can marshal resources if we’re having a serious discussion about how to organize a movement of hundreds of millions of workers to have power in society.
At one of the rallies, when asked what it took to win at Amazon, Gerald Bryson said, “Some fearless motherfuckers.” I think that’s the spirit of what the labor movement needs.
At Labor Notes, we like to say that democracy is power. What we mean is not just that there’s power in numbers, but that there’s power in bringing a lot of brains together with the creativity and ingenuity that makes the labor movement strong.
The lesson is that if you have a core set of people willing to try things that more sober, experienced veterans of the labor movement would say is impossible, they might just win. It sounds cheesy as a statement, but with Amazon, people were not willing to try and lose.
When Bessemer started organizing, people were afraid that the loss would reverberate for years, that no one would ever try again. But like Luis, I’ve spoken to members of ALU who said they saw that loss and thought, “Well, if someone can try it in Alabama, why not try it in New York?”
I think it’s good that established unions have come to the ALU and asked what resources they can provide. That’s the sort of cooperation it will take for this to spread. ALU is spearheading efforts to spread this to other warehouses, but again, it’s going to need those resources, whether from the Teamsters or wherever else.
Why have companies like Amazon and Starbucks been so hard to organize? Is it because of how they run their companies and manage their workforce? Or is it because it has been hard in recent decades to organize any private sector company?
Amazon has a few fundamentals here. One is the high turnover rate: every few months it’s a whole new set of workers, on average.
Chris [Smalls] said that if you can last two years at Amazon, you can do anything, and that’s completely correct. It’s not just physically backbreaking labor or mentally draining; you’re constantly isolated. You’re dealing with repetitive tasks. People are constantly fired because of mistakes in the algorithms. There’s a core bit to Amazon’s model of churn and isolation that makes it very hard to build a foundation of the type which committed “salts” can help build.
It becomes reasonable to think that unions are under attack — by corporations and elected officials — and that you’ve got to conserve your resources. It becomes the sensible choice to not try to pick this fight right now.
But at the end of the day, Amazon keeps growing, and it undermines people’s working conditions in other sectors, too.
There has been a shift. When I went down to Alabama for the first election and talked to young workers in particular, they would speak about the unionization campaign on Amazon’s terms. They would say, “These are temporary jobs. I’ll be here maybe for a few months before I go back to school. I’m going to enroll in the military. I’m going to get another job.” At JFK, you saw a combination of salts and veterans, people that knew the warehouse in and out. That was key.
There’s Amazon, there’s Starbucks — something is in the air. We don’t know quite what it is, so I don’t want to overexplain or overstate things. But there’s definitely a shift where workers are demanding more.
After years of a pandemic that we’re still in, is there a well of pent-up anger and militancy that we’re going to see burst out in health care?
My union represents facilities like nursing homes where 50 percent of the resident population has died. Multiple coworkers are in facilities where we have a bargaining unit of a hundred people who have died, while the administrator comes in wearing a full hazmat suit and you don’t have a mask.
They’re furious. I’ve never been around people that angry. Folks will do things that were unimaginable a couple years ago.
We started doing civil disobedience, and the first time it was like pulling teeth; everybody was scared to do it. Most recently, we had one that we had to call off, and people were like, “Why are we doing that?” They were upset with us.
As Chris Smalls put it, if we do our work right, organizing can be kind of sexy.
Teachers had some of the most important pre-pandemic moments of labor militancy, from the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012 to Red for Ed in 2018. The pandemic put that on pause because teachers were in total crisis mode, but is there a well of militancy among teachers that is ready to burst forth?
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is the prime example of “bargaining for the common good,” as they call it. Teachers feel like they are looking out for not just themselves, but their students and community.
The pandemic functioned in a similar way for a lot of workers. Whether Amazon workers or food manufacturing workers or John Deere workers, they were conscripted into the narrative that they were essential, and that their continued willingness to work, with incredible health risks, was a sacrifice on behalf of the community and everybody in the United States.
We’re now seeing the effects of that. There’s not only this sense that if these workers are essential, their health is essential too. There’s also a sense that a collective experience happened — you and your coworkers went through something, and you were forced to think of each other. The bosses and the state did not intend to build these ties, where workers stay and fight on behalf of one another. But that’s what has happened.
We could go into other antecedents, whether it’s the [Bernie] Sanders campaign or Occupy, but as far as what’s changing and whether this is a moment that builds or is just an uptick that recedes like so many others in recent years, the pandemic is the skeleton key for unlocking what exactly is going on and what the stakes are.
I didn’t even mention another structural condition: tighter labor markets. When the state gives you a $1,600 check and more unemployment benefits, you have people who know they can find other jobs, and so there’s less to lose. There’s more confidence on behalf of the class.
Communist labor organizer William Z. Foster’s famous pamphlet, “Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry,” appears to be making the rounds recently. What do you think young labor radicals can learn and are learning from the 1930s labor insurgency?
Foster was very clear about one thing, which is that there’s a class war, and that workers need fighting organizations to not get steamrolled. In many sectors of the labor movement, that might actually be a controversial assertion. There are many people who hold important positions in the labor movement who think our role is to be like the fucking AARP.
Foster was clear that we had to do something different, and his plan involved building rank-and-file committees to build power in all of the key sectors of the US economy — toward the purpose not of “worker voice,” but industrial democracy. There was an idea there: workers actually had the ability to run a society. We’ve come a really long way from that.
I’ve settled lots of contracts where we fought hard to get a nickel raise — that was the best that we could do. But I think this is a different time. It is time to speak to what people need, and to be crystal clear that expecting change to come from who you vote for in November . . . we’ve got to do that, but change does not come through Congress or the White House. Change will come if we raise enough hell, and it’s time to do that.
How do you see these more rank-and-file-led operations and the established unions working together to bring this to scale? If this is a moment of momentum — and these momentum moments do tend to be powerful, yet perhaps not permanent — where does the structure-based organizing fit in?
We need to create new institutions, like ALU, but also tenant unions. We need a vibrant civic life that has been missing from this country for a very long time.
We need some other things to happen at the same time. That’s where the Teamsters come in. The UPS contract fight next year is going to be key. When the Teamsters fought UPS in 1997, they inspired the labor movement with their slogan: “Part-time America doesn’t work.” We need to have those kinds of victories that energize and galvanize people.
But there’s no real secret sauce here. I think the sauce is throwing spaghetti at the wall. Let’s see what sticks.
If we are doing our work well as unions, we’re in a constant process of stirring stuff up. Coordinating contract expirations so that you can do industry- or sector-wide strikes; engaging the maximum number of people at a focused point, so that there is some ability to leverage things out of employers and elected officials.
Thinking about Amazon — with something like a million workers across the country at God knows how many warehouses — I can’t see how we get where we need to get if we’re not coordinating. It’s going to be different locals, or different international unions. It’ll be folks with radical politics. It’ll be staff organizers.
To succeed, there has to be some amount of synergy, and that’s hard to achieve. But it is not impossible. This stuff is not rocket science. It’s just really hard.
You need everybody in. You need every UPS driver to be trained on how to talk to the Amazon driver that they’re constantly running into on the route. Things like that are key to what it would take to win.
There is a sense of urgency right now. There’s a tight labor market; if we get a sense from those up top making policy that what’s most important is cutting inflation, even if it means hurting low-wage workers, then these conditions change. People become much more concerned about getting fired for organizing a union. They don’t know if they can find a new job.
Starbucks is a model. Workers are seeing win after win elsewhere, and they’re saying, “You know what, I’m getting on board too.” The ALU is going to need the exact same thing to happen. People are going to have to see that even if they don’t win that first contract right now, this is a movement that’s spreading; there are masses of people backing them, including other unions. It’s crucial that that sense of seriousness exists right now.
How important is the new Teamsters leadership, and how important will the contract fight with UPS next year be for the labor movement as a whole?
The Teamsters are putting out a class-struggle unionism that has been gone from the scene for decades. So if they are going toe-to-toe with UPS, that is going to inspire other folks to take on other companies as well.
Amazon in Alabama would pull out an RWDSU [Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the union behind the organizing drive] contract and show it at the union-busting meetings. They obviously distorted things, but they would say, “Look at Peco Foods. They’re earning thirteen bucks an hour, you’re earning fifteen.”
The labor movement needs to take seriously bread-and-butter issues, because before we talk about industrial democracy, where we’re meeting workers at is: “How is this going to show up on my paycheck?” This is why ALU was smart to say: “We’re going to demand $30.” That was a conversation starter.
The Teamsters are raising expectations by taking on UPS — that’s why it’s so important for the labor movement.
Full respect to the importance of the UPS contract. But it’s not always just the bread-and-butter issues. We organized workers at a hospital affiliated with Yale forty years ago. I was a kid at the time, but one of the leaders of that chapter was a Red, a working-class Italian guy. He was maybe the only white worker in that shop. The rest were mostly from North Carolina, African American folks who had come up for opportunities.
Ray started talking about the time they won dental insurance, and a woman who had grown up in the Deep South and had lost all her teeth because she never had health insurance, came up and said: “These are my union teeth.”
There is so much that people aspire to, in terms of having dignity in their working lives and in their life around work. The paycheck thing isn’t the excitement. The excitement is, “I’d like to spend some time with my teenage kids, who I haven’t seen in ten days.”
We’ve got to capture that, because people want to live lives that are fulfilled and contain real dignity. We’ve taken a long step away from that as a movement for a lot of reasons, one of which is we don’t have any power. Another is that we just lack imagination sometimes.
It’s important to note that that’s what built the US labor movement in the first place: the fight for an eight-hour day.
A lot of people don’t have eight-hour days anymore. They don’t have weekends. A sense of what dignity looks like, what a livable life and a livable job look like: these things have been politicized by the conditions of the pandemic, where people felt the stakes were much higher and were asking, “Am I going to keep this job that is risking not only my health, but my time with my children and family?” A lot of people didn’t. They quit and left.
It’s a live question. This communalization, this thing we all went through in the past couple of years, provides an opening to think more broadly about what we’re willing to fight and strike over.
What role do you see salts and socialists playing in turning things around for the labor movement?
You need self-conscious socialist militants in any movement, and in terms of thinking creatively and expanding our horizons of what is possible, salts can help facilitate that. But it has to be worker-led. Salts to the background, workers to the forefront.
This ultimately means that you need really talented organizers. As people used to say, a good organizer organizes themselves out of a job. A good organizer is someone who facilitates the leadership of someone else or creates more leaders, as opposed to concentrating power in their own hands. Salts can play that role.
The Democratic Socialists of America, as well as the youth wing, YDSA, has a training for taking rank-and-file jobs in industries they think are strategically important, whether it’s nursing, health care, UPS, Starbucks, or Amazon.
This is an intentional entry into the workforce, or switch of careers, because you’re a socialist militant worker. It’s not that you’re a socialist, and then there are workers. You’re a twenty-two-year-old who just finished college and has a lot of debt, and you’re saying, “What job do I want to take? Well, I want to build a fighting labor movement, so I’m going to become a UPS driver.” That is key.
Not a ton of people are doing those programs, but they are laying the groundwork for something in the future. Especially at Starbucks, but at all kinds of companies, when you dig into the key person in a store or workplace who was arguing that the workers deserved better and weren’t affected by the boss’s arguments — often they were a diehard Sanders supporter, or they were involved in the George Floyd uprisings and had a sense of their own power and dignity.
A salt is just a person who has a willingness to fight. Those people are playing really important roles at all kinds of union campaigns right now.
We need committed fighters who understand that power on the job can change people’s lives. We need folks who are willing to root themselves in workplaces, in communities, in their relationship to their coworkers.
That can take some time. I also don’t think there’s a choice. We are heading to a place that is getting uglier and uglier for workers.
One of the great things about the labor movement is that it’s a place where, just based on having a workplace where people are trying to put food on the table, you’ve got Republicans, you’ve got people who are apolitical, you’ve got socialists. Forcing those folks to come together and work in the direction of having some power — it’s a place where you see people really change. That is an amazing process to be a part of.