- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
The last year saw a burst of working-class militancy and creativity across the United States. Union reform efforts long supported by left-wing groups like Labor Notes to make unions more democratic and militant have been paying off in the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters. Strikes in Hollywood grabbed national attention and became a referendum on corporate greed as exemplified by the studio heads. Workers have undertaken new experiments in organizing, whether through independent unions at corporations like Amazon and Trader Joe’s or creating new models of organizing at companies like Starbucks.
These promising developments, however, are taking place in the context of decades of decline for the labor movement, with union density still at historic lows. In an interview for Jacobin Radio podcast The Dig conducted last fall, Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht spoke with Jacobin staff writer Alex N. Press and labor scholar Eric Blanc about the year in strikes and union organizing and what it portends for labor’s future. (Since the conversation, the exciting movement in labor has continued with the UAW’s historic strike against the Big Three automakers and its announcement of a campaign to organize nonunion auto shops.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the state of the American labor movement today?
I would start with the thing that gets the most attention, which is the strikes that have happened or almost happened. According to the Cornell ILR School Labor Action Tracker, which is the newest tool that I think most accurately tracks strikes in the United States, there have been more than two hundred strikes in the US in 2023 so far, and those involved more than 320,000 workers [as of August 2023].
That is a significant increase over previous years. In 2021, there were only 116 strikes with 27,000 workers. So we’re talking about ten times as many workers striking.
Among the biggest ones was the SAG-AFTRA strike, because that union consists of 160,000 performers. UPS workers almost struck and were seriously preparing to do so; that would have been 340,000 workers. Then the other thing to keep on the horizon is that it looks like the United Auto Workers are barreling toward a strike in September — that’s 150,000 people.
Those are all very significant, because it’s not just numbers, but also, what part of the economy are these workers in? This is a lot of private sector workers. These are workers in core industrial sectors, UPS Teamsters and UAW autoworkers, as well as all kinds of other workers. We’ve seen thousands of Starbucks workers go on strike.
So it’s across the economy. I think that’s significant. It’s not only a matter of [the strikes] spreading and inspiring [other workers], but it’s also not where we’ve seen people going on the offensive in recent years — if we think back to Eric’s writing on the teacher strikes, that’s public sector workers.
Workers are often going on the offensive here. Some of the strikes are about clawing back concessions that they previously gave up in years past that were less favorable to labor — favorable, meaning that the tight labor market we’ve had in the latter part of the pandemic has created an atmosphere where workers feel the wind is at their backs and they can fight for more rather than just defending what they have.
In addition to the strikes, one of the most exciting stories of the last year-plus is the emergence of new organizing, oftentimes worker-led, oftentimes led by young radicals. We are seeing a significant number of new workers joining unions, and in large part that’s because workers themselves are taking the lead on these drives.
It’s not the case that most unions have made a turn toward new organizing. In fact, the big story the last year and a half and longer is the sheer number and quality of union wins despite the relative inertia of most national unions. It’s not just the quantity, but the quality. You’ve seen wins at Starbucks and Amazon. But then, maybe most spectacularly, there’s been a dramatic unionization wave over all of higher ed. [In August 2023], 88 percent of graduate student workers at Duke [University] voted for a union. This is the first breach of the South in higher education.
But you’ve seen other waves of unionization in smaller chains, which is new. Unlike at Starbucks, which is a massive employer, workers in some of the smaller chains, where they have an ability to organize everyone, have won. Colectivo, Intelligentsia, Seven Stars Bakery, and Burgerville workers are not just fighting and winning union elections, but they’re winning first contracts.
This poses the possibility of this organizing wave spreading. But ultimately, there’s going to be a need for far more resources being put toward new organizing that’s currently happening. This is the best moment for new organizing since the 1940s. You have an extremely tight labor market; you have the best National Labor Relations Board since 1937. Whether this moment is going to be seized or not is still an open question.
You’re both noting some of the positive aspects of the state of the labor movement today, with a newfound willingness on the part of many workers to go on strike and a number of exciting new organizing campaigns. It’s worth noting, though, that according to most of the traditional metrics we use to measure labor’s power, like percentage of the total workforce, union numbers remain quite low.
There’s a subjective factor here, and it’s born of desperation. There’s exciting momentum, and people are no longer as afraid of being fired or otherwise putting themselves at risk by doing new organizing or staying out on strike. But this was born of people during the pandemic having to work and risk their health and being kept in the dark about COVID among their coworkers and family members getting COVID from them and dying, and workers had to rely on one another.
I think everyone who is familiar with how unions work knew this would lead to new organizing, because you can’t put that back in the bottle once workers realize that they can only rely on each other and that there are very clear class lines between them and their boss. But again, that is born of desperation and death; this is a very early stage response to bottoming out.
I agree with Eric that we don’t know how far it will go or whether it will be seized. There are new contracts being won, but at other places, that’s not happening. Starbucks workers have not won any contracts; Trader Joe’s seems to have no intention of settling a contract; Amazon, no idea about how you get a contract.
We as a generation are almost going through the stages of a new union campaign together, where people are excited and they realize how to win a union campaign. But then the next step is, how do you get a contract? I think that’s an open question. That relies on the strength of the broader labor movement to force it, as well as the internal organization of those workers to force their employer to agree to a first contract.
It’s also the case that if we compare the organizing at Starbucks and Amazon to their equivalents in the ’30s, which was in auto and steel, those drives took years and decades. So the timeline through which we’re assessing the current drives underway is important, because otherwise it could be easy to downplay their significance in the short term.
I think a lot of union leaders, maybe behind the scenes, are saying that this could be a flash in the pan. There’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic at play there. Because if you think what’s going on right now is a flash in the pan as opposed to demonstrating the potential for something bigger, then you’re not going to go all in, you’re not going to try to seize the moment, you’re not going to put real resources into organizing.
There are other metrics we can use to try to assess how deep the potential is and how deep the anger is, and also how many workers want to unionize. I just looked at Google Trends, and you can look at search queries for “How do I form a union?” In 2022, it just dramatically explodes. Similarly, you can look at the amount of media attention being placed on unions, and starting in late 2021 but particularly in 2022, it explodes.
These on their own aren’t enough to turn things around for the labor movement, but they do give you a sense of what’s going on beneath the surface. And it’s hard for me to imagine a real labor explosion without there being hype. Sometimes, there’s a criticism of what’s going on right now: there’s too much hype on labor, it’s just hype, it’s a lot of smoke and no substance. But actually, you do need to hype it up a lot, because you need millions and millions of workers to see that they can form a union, to watch other workers forming a union.
The hype point makes me think of your piece, Alex, about union organizing at Trader Joe’s. You open with an anecdote from a worker, Maeg Yosef, who was watching the sitcom Superstore with her wife, and there’s a union drive plotline in the show. And she says to her wife, “We could do that,” and then they did. That hype aspect seems critical to the spreading of the idea throughout the culture that unionization is the solution to workers’ problems.
I love that story by that worker, Maeg Yosef, who is now the comms director for Trader Joe’s United. The average person in the United States has no experience with a union anymore. Often, the workers I speak to — even their parents have no experience with a union.
So there is this blockage as far as how you get your answer out to the millions [that unions are] the best tool for combating the danger and inequality and so on that plague the American working class. It’s part of why Starbucks was so significant, because this is a type of workplace, in the low-wage retail and food sector, that previously had very little new organizing and union representation, where all of a sudden, this thing that couldn’t be done was being done.
Eric mentioned the other independent coffee shops and different restaurants and smaller workplaces that have organized. Here in Brooklyn, Barboncino, a pizza place in Crown Heights, also unionized with Workers United, the union that is representing Starbucks workers. So this has a real knock-on effect. How do you convince someone to do something if they’ve never seen evidence that it can be done or that it’s worth doing?
I think it goes even deeper. I think most workers assume that jobs in this country are either union or not union. That’s still the overarching misconception, that you’re either in a union job or not, and it hasn’t breached the minds of most people that unions are formed by workers and there aren’t any inherently unorganizable workplaces.
One anecdote that’s come up in a lot of the interviews I’ve been doing is, for example, the sheer number of workers who have decided to unionize their workplace because they were watching a Twitch stream with Hasan Piker. You have a lot of people all of a sudden getting excited about labor and then deciding that because they did it there, I can do it here. That is such a powerful idea, and it’s the type of idea that has to spread for labor to turn things around.
What is your assessment of the Biden administration’s stance toward labor? Joe Biden has pitched himself as the most pro-labor president in history, which is an exaggeration to be sure. But despite a number of missteps and missed opportunities, some of which we will get into later, his presidency does seem to have been a pleasant surprise for the labor movement in some ways, especially given his history.
Overall, the record of the Biden administration is very mixed. To be honest, for understable reasons, our expectations in establishment Democrats are so low that he’s far exceeded certainly my expectations, and I think those of most other folks on the Left and even in the labor movement. Generally speaking, the labor policies of the administration have been the most significant, most progressive parts of the administration, in what otherwise has been an administration that has not very consistently sided with workers and oftentimes is taking stances against them.
The best example of Biden doing the wrong thing was his stance on the potential railway workers’ strike, in which he invoked very antidemocratic aspects of US labor law to essentially force railworkers to not strike. Workers ended up winning their demands for sick pay, but that was more because of pressure from below and from politicians like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and Bernie [Sanders], than it was because of the Biden administration.
The big story on Biden and labor, though, is that he did two crucial things that have made it a lot easier to organize. The first is, the Biden administration has run a very hot economy. That has created a tight labor market; we can’t underestimate how important that’s been for new organizing. Many workers I talk to say, “I felt like I could take the risk of organizing because if I get fired from this job, I can go get another job similar to it.” Over and over again, we see workers taking risks that they wouldn’t otherwise if there were higher unemployment.
The second thing is the NLRB. This is the best National Labor Relations Board we’ve had since 1937, when the Left started getting purged from it. Jennifer Abruzzo is amazingly militant — it’s hard to use another word. She’s going all out and has basically done more than anybody even thought was possible, to use the NLRB to carve out more space for workers to act on the federally recognized right to unionize.
To give two examples of what that looks like: the first is, I don’t think we would have a national Starbucks campaign if it wasn’t for this NLRB, because this board, unlike past Republican NLRBs, voted with the workers to allow for there to be store-by-store elections in Buffalo and other cities across the country. That meant there was space for the union to be able to start winning votes at stores, and to have the thing get contagious and viral in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if they had to win on a citywide level. Actually, a drive of Starbucks in New York in the early 2000s was basically quashed by the NLRB when it sided with the company against the workers.
Similarly, one of the crucial turning points in the Amazon organizing campaign at JFK8, was when the NLRB helped force the company to allow the workers to be able to organize out of their break room, which legitimized the effort of what was otherwise a very scrappy organizing drive. It gave them the space to talk to their coworkers that proved essential.
These two small examples give you a sense of the possibility for the state to intervene on the side of labor in a way that we can get a glimpse of having had in the 1930s. It’s happening to a partial extent today, despite the fact that the NLRB is very underfunded and still doesn’t have enough enforcement mechanisms. Oftentimes, liberals and progressives say, the reason to hold your nose and vote for Democrats for president is who they’re going to appoint to the Supreme Court. That might be true, but I think it’s much more the case for the NLRB. Who is going to get appointed to the next NLRB depends on who wins the 2024 elections, and that will be consequential for whether this labor uptick becomes an upsurge and whether it continues or gets quashed by a Republican administration.
I certainly agree, especially about Abruzzo. She’s only doing what the NLRB is tasked with doing, and yet no one has done that in a hundred years. She’s just following the rule of the law here.
That said, even the most aggressive, militant NLRB is still underfunded, and also just [provides] a slower process than workers need. We see at Starbucks workers constantly being fired, and otherwise the company is violating labor law. Yet there’s nothing the NLRB can really do to stop that. There’s very little as far as monetary and financial penalties for a company that could come through the NLRB, no matter how much the company is riding roughshod over the laws.
Similarly with the timeline for reinstating fired workers — we’re watching this play out with the workers, say, at Amazon. We have this NLRB that intervened in a very positive way early on, and yet the process is that Amazon can appeal every decision, and then appeal again, and then appeal again, and we’re talking about people’s lives here. This is several years that it will take to wind your way through the courts.
I wrote about Trader Joe’s, and it’s a similar thing. Every single, obvious violation of labor law takes several months to be ruled on, and then the company appeals. This is not a timeline that is realistic for workers, which goes to emphasize that we need the other piece: How do we actually have workers in motion themselves to enforce these things? You cannot win a contract at Amazon relying on the NLRB to tell Amazon to bargain with you. That’s never going to happen.
I would echo that the railroad workers’ strike catastrophe was a shameful thing that rightly is going to [cast a shadow on] the Biden administration’s policy on labor. There are other things too: OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has not been as gung-ho and aggressive on heat standards for indoor and outdoor workers. There’s been a question about misclassification; the Biden administration could be a lot more aggressive about classifying workers correctly, so that they’re not being considered independent contractors and denied their basic rights as workers. There’s always room for improvement, and I think it’s a clarifying moment for people as far as what you can and can’t rely on elected officials or the courts to do for you versus what you must do yourself.
I would go even further on the Biden question. One of the things that unions have been demanding of Biden, or at least the more militant unions, that he hasn’t done has been to take a forthright and proactive stand against the union busting that’s happening.
It’s not enough just to say, “I’m in support of unions.” If he were genuinely interested in trying to help Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, or Amazon workers get a contract, he could tell Howard Schultz, “I’m inviting you, CEO of Starbucks” — or whoever the CEOs of the other companies are — “I’m inviting you to the White House, and we’re going to hammer out a contract.” Past presidents have done that, and Biden has not used his bully pulpit to denounce the union busting. He has not used his policy powers to try to force some of these companies to the table.
Let’s get into some of the big fights of the past year. UPS narrowly averted a strike. Alex, you wrote a long profile of the Teamsters union in the lead-up to the vote to strike as well as the new leadership of that union, Sean O’Brien. Could you talk about the background of what’s gone on within the Teamsters union, why that strike in particular would have been so important, and why the UPS contract in general is so important? And where do things go from here?
Sean O’Brien was elected to leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters because of the debacle that happened during the prior contract negotiation. O’Brien was on the negotiating team; he was the lead negotiator against UPS.
The importance of this contract really can’t be overstated. It is the largest private sector contract in the United States — 350,000 people are covered under it. These are also workers that are central for the US economy. When there was a risk of a strike, the estimates were that 6 percent of US GDP moves through UPS trucks. These are workers with leverage, as we often say in the labor movement.
Negotiating this contract last round, the union was headed by Jimmy Hoffa’s son, and that guy forced through a contract that was lacking. It was very unusual in that because the Teamsters were led by this regime that had long been in power, the Hoffa legacy, it rarely has workers at this level capable of voting down a contract like the UPS contract. But that’s what they did with the last round — the majority of the votes were against ratifying this contract.
In large part, the issue that workers had with it was that it introduced a new tier of drivers. These would be drivers who are doing the same work as other UPS drivers, but by dint of when they were hired, they would get worse benefits and worse pay. This was really anathema for the workers, because they knew this would lead to resentment and was just unfair. But Hoffa Jr forced it through using an arcane clause in the Teamsters constitution.
That was pretty much the beginning of the end for him and his chosen successors and allies. Sean O’Brien broke with him over this. He got kicked off the bargaining team over his criticisms of Hoffa, and then announced he would run. He vowed to get the strongest contract that UPS workers have ever gotten, and I would say he did.
That is the context for this fight. It’s a sign of how much things have changed that there are people who are still very critical of what was won. Part-timers did not get the amount of money that they went in wanting. Part-timers [warehouse workers] are paid much less than UPS drivers, and they constitute the majority of the membership. In past contract fights, very little attention and priority was given to them, and in this fight, it was the issue that nearly led to a strike — UPS was not moving on the issue of part-time pay. The fact that people are saying, “We actually could have won more, and we think we were well placed to win a strike,” speaks to raised expectations and a willingness to fight.
It’s indicative of the moment we’re in that folks at UPS won a very good contract, I think, and nevertheless, there is a credible case that could be made — and that a lot of rank-and-filers and others have made — that a strike still might have been possible and necessary. Not so much to win a dramatically better contract, but in part because of the demonstration effect that that would have had for working-class people all across the country.
It depends on how you’re looking at the role of unions: if the role of unions is limited to winning better contracts, or whether you tie that fight to a broader class project in which you’re trying to inspire other workers and organize other workers, particularly at Amazon. There is something about a strike as opposed to just a contract campaign that has that galvanizing effect. That is a critical and tough dilemma. I don’t think there are easy answers, and I don’t think we should say, “Always strike.” But there is something about this moment that can go further than I think even some of the best trade unionists of the last decades have imagined.
Part of this gets at the limitations of trade unions in a capitalist society. The remit of a labor leader like Sean O’Brien is principally to win the best contract that he can for the Teamsters’ members. It’s very difficult for even left- or progressive-minded trade unionists to use their unions as battering rams for the entire class, especially around something like a contract negotiation — especially when, in the case of O’Brien, it was clear that the union had won a not-perfect but extremely strong contract for UPS workers.
But it’s hard not to think about what might have come out of a UPS strike if it could have had a catalytic effect on the entire American working class, given that when UPS workers go on strike, that means that there are picket lines in every zip code in the United States. It’s tough to think about the potential for what could have been accomplished had that strike happened and had a large number of other American workers taken notice and gone and done likewise in their own workplaces — especially given that one of the main tasks for the Teamsters right now is organizing the other, unorganized parts of the logistics industry, such as FedEx and especially Amazon. Alex, can you talk about how the Teamsters go from here to trying to organize the unorganized sectors of logistics?
The Teamsters have an Amazon division and a national campaign to start building ties with Amazon workers in seed union campaigns, and are otherwise organizing. If you’re a rank-and-file UPS driver and you go up to an Amazon worker with a contract in your hand that is very good and you say, “This is what we have with the union,” that is a much stronger argument than going with a contract that has tiers and part-timers who are paid less than they even make at Amazon in some cases. That’s not going to convince anyone that unions have value.
But the picket line is a place where those workers actually meet and they see, not just that you can strike or that you can unionize, but you can win stuff by doing things that your boss said you couldn’t do, which is basically what a strike is. So demonstrating power certainly would have been strong, and also would have significantly helped build the ties between these unorganized workers and the organized workers in the Teamsters.
That said, the Teamsters have been actively backing, at the shop-floor level, Amazon workers who are organizing, as well as legislatively pushing to either attach strings to new Amazon projects or stop Amazon from building certain things. The Teamsters have also been supporting bills that help Amazon workers, so I think we’ll keep seeing more of that.
New organizing in higher ed has happened across a number of unions and across the entire country. There were more academic strikes and new organizing drives in the last year than I think any of us could name off of the top of our heads. University of California engaged in a massive strike at the end of 2022; Eric, you yourself were on strike at Rutgers [University] for a bit. What do you think is going to come out of these organizing drives, which seem to be in large part a result of the proletarianization of higher education?
For a long time now, but particularly in recent years, higher education has been in a tremendous crisis. It’s hard to overstate how deep the crisis is.
The immediate spur for so much of its unionization is the background condition that there aren’t jobs at the end of the tunnel in the way there used to be. So it becomes less and less tenable for people to feel like they should just accept anything that the administration will throw at them because down the line they might get a tenure-track job. The conditions have changed so dramatically in higher ed that it’s forcing people to treat these jobs as a source of their livelihood.
It’s an open question what this means for the future of higher ed because there have been significant concessions made. But ultimately, there’s a contradiction between the neoliberal austerity model in higher ed and a robust trade unionism. So I think you’re going to have very hard fights over coming years. It’s going to require not just bottom-up organizing, but fighting to really transform the model of higher education, including through a dramatic refunding of these institutions in the public sector — because without more money, there is only so far that even the most militant unions can go.
We often see that the people at the heart of new unions in higher ed or who are on strike are also trying to think through these broader questions. Because as we often talk about with, say, nurses or teachers, they see themselves as the canary in the coal mine about this crisis in higher ed.
These workers are often the ones who are saying, the budget here is going to building a new athletic facility, or to coaches’ salaries, or to these stupid buildings that are decked out like WeWork or something — but meanwhile, adjuncts are making poverty pay. I think these workers are saying, if we want higher ed to serve educational purposes, rather than as an investment, property, and real estate vehicle, we are the ones who can best do that and lead those fights. There have been efforts to create coalitions that target that refunding at a federal level, reallocating federal funds to universities that might put more emphasis on education and pay better and offer more sustainable salaries.
We must mention [what happened] at West Virginia University, a decimation of a lot of the departments that are seen as unprofitable. Even though this is a flagship public institution, it’s eliminating entire departments, which means hundreds of jobs are being lost. That is what happens when there’s complete political and class control of the institutions of higher education in America.
That goes to show the depth of the crisis, that now students in West Virginia — one of the poorest states in the country — their vision has to have very limited horizons. You want to learn French? No, you don’t get to because you are from West Virginia. It’s really devastating for working-class people.
Starbucks and Amazon both seemed like huge breakthroughs when workers first started organizing at each of those respective companies. Workers at both Amazon and Starbucks have been subjected to flagrant union busting by their corporate heads. But both unions seem to be hitting walls in some ways, because of the limitations of US labor law, and potentially — certainly in the case of Amazon — because of conflict that has broken out within the unions themselves.
Eric, what is going on with Starbucks? The number of stores that have unionized is actually quite high at this point. But no one has negotiated a first union contract yet. Not through the fault of the union but because it is possible under US labor law for a corporation to drag things out. Is that going to change anytime soon? What would it take for that to change?
Organizing well over three hundred stores and wresting important material concessions from one of the biggest corporations in the world — and Starbucks has the sixth-largest workforce in the United States in the private sector — this is a major accomplishment. I don’t think we should start with the negative. Probably more than anything else, it’s inspired the new unionization wave in other industries. When you talk to workers in any industry who are trying to unionize, they say, “We saw Starbucks; we can do it too.”
So the overall story, despite the absence of a first contract, is a positive one. And I don’t think that it’s a realistic timeline to think that within two years of the first union drive at a corporation like Starbucks you would win a first contract, given how broken US labor law is. Again, it took years and decades to organize auto and steel. You probably need to have a similar timeline in your head when you’re thinking about what it’s going to take to organize Starbucks and Amazon. I would push back against this idea that because they haven’t won a first contract yet, this somehow shows an inherent limitation in the type of unionizing they’re doing, because no one else has an answer for how to organize these megacorporations.
That being said, it’s true that the momentum that you saw in early 2022, after Buffalo inspired everything, has dropped. But every week, you still see new stores unionizing. It’s pretty remarkable if you think about it, given the scorched-earth offensive by the heinous Starbucks apparatus and Howard Schultz to terrorize their workers. We could spend a whole episode just talking about the pain and suffering and tension and anxiety that corporate Starbucks and their union-busting lackeys have inflicted on very idealistic, mostly young workers trying to have a voice at work. The level of sheer horribleness, for lack of a better word, should be underscored.
I think that we need to keep on underscoring it if we’re going to help the Starbucks workers win, because a big part of helping them win is going to be not just what they are doing at the store-by-store level, but starting to organize broader community and customer support to put leverage on Starbucks. And Starbucks is vulnerable, because it has this nominally liberal or progressive brand that it cares very deeply about.
One of the exciting developments in 2023 was that at Cornell University, students organized for months doing occupations and sit-ins and direct action to push Starbucks off campus. That was in response to the illegal union busting in Ithaca, which was a hotbed of the unionization effort, to which Starbucks responded by illegally closing all of the stores. The students protested, and they succeeded in convincing Cornell to drop its contract with Starbucks. Now there are national efforts to try to replicate this on college campuses across the country.
I think this points to a way forward, which is to say that workers are going to keep on organizing, but they’re going to need the broader support of not just customers and students, but really the broader labor movement. Again, the labor movement as a whole has not been up to the task yet of seizing this moment and understanding that the Starbucks campaign in particular has stakes well beyond Starbucks. Because if the CEOs are able to smash the union and stop the momentum completely and prevent workers from ever getting a first contract, that’s going to send real chilling effects through the rest of the working class. And the type of union-busting techniques that Starbucks has put to the fore — for instance, denying unionized shops the same raises and benefits they give to the rest of the company, are being replicated quickly throughout the rest of the US economy.
It’s incredibly shortsighted when people don’t understand the stakes of particularly high-profile fights, Starbucks being the obvious one — probably the most important one. But also, going back to the Hollywood workers, we in the labor movement talk about contagion and spread, insofar as people win and try to win when they see others win. Your horizon and vision and sense of possibilities get increased when you see other workers going out and winning.
The opposite is also the case. We all talk about PATCO [the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] for a reason, when federal aircraft traffic controllers went on strike and then were permanently replaced and lost that strike. Permanent replacement becomes the mode of operating for every strike going forward. And it signaled [the beginning of] decades of decline for the US labor movement.
What about Amazon? It’s similar to Starbucks in the incredibly flagrant union busting that’s being carried out there. The union has hit a wall in many ways, it seems. Is there any hope for Amazon workers breaking through? Is there any way that labor law can help them get out of the mess that they are currently in, and at least win the first contract at JFK8, the one Amazon facility that has unionized thus far?
Not to be a broken record, but as Eric said, we have to think on timelines that are years here. I remember being at a Labor Notes conference five years ago or so, and some young workers were excited about the idea of helping organize Amazon, and people thought that was ridiculous. It was very clear to me that they were going to try it anyway. It took several years for any of those efforts to go public.
The Amazon Labor Union is the only one that has won an NLRB election, and that was at JFK8. But there are also many other efforts going on at Amazon warehouses.The first NLRB election petition that lost was at the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse where RWDSU [the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union], an established union, was trying to organize; there are also minority union efforts in a number of the delivery centers. There’s another independent union effort that I’ve written about in the South.
So when we think about Amazon, we have to envision the entire country dotted with these facilities, and there are varying stages of effort at every one at this point. That is a perspective to keep in mind when we put all the attention on JFK.
That said, the employer intransigence, and the difficulty the size and scale and high turnover presents for organizing an Amazon warehouse, creates immense pressure on the workers in the union. The employer won’t budge; they’re violating your rights. The NLRB might be as good as it’s ever been, but it still can’t stop Amazon from doing what it’s doing and can’t force it to negotiate a contract. Amazon has the money to just take fines as the NLRB keeps finding in the ALU’s favor.
The question becomes, how do you organize the workers themselves at the shop-floor level, shift by shift, department by department, to be able to have a fighting force that could then extrajudicially, not through the courts, force Amazon to bargain a first contract or otherwise grant concessions, to accept raises and accept better working conditions as the cost of them doing business with you as organized workers? That is an open question, but it’s very much in flux.
We’ve been talking about a number of unions that are under reformed leadership, that are taking a more democratic and militant approach to their unionism, as well as some of the new experiments that have kicked off among workers previously thought unorganizable, or using tactics that previously were not much used by the labor movement. All of this has happened at the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as the organization Labor Notes has grown massively. The conference last year in Chicago, which happens every two years, was huge, attended by over four thousand people. All of the most exciting currents in the labor movement were there.
The kind of militant, democratic unionism they have long fought for is clearly ascendant in at least some wings of the American labor movement. Labor Notes–style union leadership has taken over an increasing number of unions like the UAW and has played a key role in the UPS Teamsters and many other unions. Eric, can you talk about the impact that Labor Notes has had on this moment in the labor movement?
Going back to the ’70s, Labor Notes was a pretty embattled, relatively small core of leftists and allied union reformers, trying desperately to reform an extremely bureaucratic labor movement. It’s gone from a place of being forced out of the labor movement as a whole to playing a major role in the overall unionization uptick that we’re living in.
If you ask workers at Starbucks or at Amazon or in so many of the different recent unionization drives, or if you ask the workers who are trying to reform their unions, over and over again, as their reference points for what they’re reading, what conferences or workshops they’re going to, I hear two things. Jane McAlevey, to her credit, has also played a big role in helping bring back a more militant unionism for this new generation. But in particular Labor Notes has cohered the movement wing of the labor movement. If you were at the last conference, there was a sense of vitality and excitement that you don’t get if you go to your average union convention.
Most unions are still missing the moment despite extremely favorable conditions for turning things around. There are just decades of inertia, decades of losing. And it’s not that most unions are doing bad things. I think most unions are still on the whole good and are good things for their workers to have, even the bureaucratic ones.
But the potential for a revived labor movement is essentially what Labor Notes is pushing for: bottom-up, democratic unionism. We’re seeing in UAW, in particular, where a lot of Labor Notes folks are playing a role in the reform efforts, how much Labor Notes has become — at least in certain unions — a central part of the conversation. It’s hard to imagine this being the case even ten years ago.
Labor Notes is both a publication and also a movement-organizing institution. They hold organizing trainings on how to enforce your contract, the boring, tedious stuff; that is what building workplace power looks like. It’s been seeding this for a long time. Suddenly, it’s holding trainings, and they’re overflowing.
To kind of respond to the moment, you need the rank-and-file people on the shop floor to feel competent and capable and empowered to respond to the boss’s encroachment — at the micro level, as well as to push for broader changes and raise awareness about certain things that are going on, whether it’s flexibilization of workers in corporate consolidation or the removal of control from the shop floor, these trends that we’re seeing across industries and across the country. It starts with the workers being able to respond agilely to that, and that can’t happen without that rank-and-file empowerment or organization.
I also hear the Jane McAlevey thing; people read No Shortcuts like it’s the Bible. It is the jumping-off point, and then they go to a Labor Notes training. This is not everyone, but these are often the steps you hear. The Labor Notes slogan is “We’re putting the movement back in the labor movement.” It was often a joke: When? It’s not happening, I wish it was — but when is the labor movement going to start moving? Now it’s almost impossible to keep track of the movement. And often, when you trace the individual people at the center of new organizing campaigns or reform efforts, you’re going to find yourself at a Labor Notes training.
It’s a testament to the radicals who started the organization in the 1970s, who kept that vision and that politics and stayed on that path for half a century, and it has now paid off in enormous ways. If you were at the Labor Notes conference last year, you could see that, you could feel that, four-thousand-plus people there representing all kinds of wings in the labor movement where things are moving.
On the flip side, most unions still are stuck in an old way of approaching organizing. The union researcher Chris Bohner wrote several pieces for Jacobin, where he looked at the finances of many of the top unions and found that, despite the fact that unions are still incredibly weak, that the percentage of the US workforce that is unionized is at its lowest level in many decades, union finances are actually doing quite well. Many unions are quite flush with cash, they’ve clearly made wise investments with their members’ dues, and they’re not on the brink of financial collapse — far from it. This begs the question, why are these unions not using those financial resources to go all in on this moment and invest in new organizing drives in bold organizing experiments?
It drives me crazy. The thing that makes me craziest is the discrepancy between the resources that unions have and what is being done. It’s not that there’s nothing being done, but essentially, most unions are doing what they were doing before the pandemic, before the uptick, which is relatively low-scale, low-resource unionization.
When you talk to staff organizers, they’re just overwhelmed. The amount of resources being given to new organizing in particular is significantly lower than it was even ten years ago. There has been a relative decline in money going to new organizing; the number of new organizing staff has declined over the last ten years, even as the money has gone up.
Why is this the case? Part of it is that there is a real danger for certain layers of the union officialdom that bringing in new workers will upset the routines and positions that they have. It’s much easier to stay in office and keep things going with their day-to-day business rather than take real risks. And it is a real risk to try to use money to take on these big corporations. It’s worth underscoring that to put this money toward new organizing is not at all a surefire bet that you’re going to win, given how stacked labor laws are against unions and just how egregious the union busting is from these corporations.
It’s understandable that a lot of union leaders would say, “I’m not willing to take that risk.” So it really becomes incumbent on the workers themselves to push for new types of leadership with more leftist politics, with more risk-taking sensibilities, to move labor in another direction. I don’t think that we are going to convince most existing labor leaders to take that leap because it is a big leap, and there is no guarantee of success. But if labor continues to do what it’s been doing, the only possible result will be continued decline.
Part of the success of a project like Labor Notes seems to be a willingness on the part of some within the labor movement to try new approaches to organizing. There have been a number of exciting projects that have come out of the Left and the left wing of the labor movement. I’m thinking, for example, about the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which is a project between the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical Workers that responded to the crisis that many workers have found themselves in during the pandemic and has tried to establish a new model for worker organizing for the twenty-first century.
Eric, you’re working on a book that takes stock of some of these models that have been tried for the first time in recent years. Can you talk about your argument in that book, what distributed organizing is, and what it looks like? How might it transform the labor movement, particularly if some of these experiments that we have seen thus far are scaled up by unions and other kinds of left-wing groups?
For the last three decades or more, there’s been a debate in the labor movement about the relative importance of staff and resources versus more worker-led efforts. My book is sort of reopening this debate but looking at the rich experience we’ve had over the last few years. The core argument, and the core evidence we’ve seen from recent experience, is that only worker-led unionism has the possibility to win at scale.
Traditional — by which I mean more staff-intensive unionism — can win battles and often does and is doing amazing work in many places. I don’t mean to denigrate it, but because it’s so costly, because it takes so many resources to win in the way that unions as a whole are organizing today, we need to move toward more worker-led, worker-driven models. Because there’s no possibility to win at scale otherwise.
You can compare the dynamics today to the way they were in the 1930s, in which the question of scale was somewhat less important because unions and organizers could focus on a major plant like River Rouge auto plant in Detroit, you can focus on US Steel — you’re talking about plants of tens of thousands of workers, in which there’s tremendous concentration, both of numbers of workers and their economic centrality.
What you’ve had since the decline of Fordism, all across the United States, is the decentralization of industry. So you have lots and lots of scattered establishments, and it becomes much harder to organize by focusing on this or that strategically important workplace.
That becomes an inherent barrier to the type of unionism that most unions are practicing today. We have good estimates of how much it costs to organize the average worker in the private sector: it’s about $4,000 today to organize one new worker. Unions need to use the resources they have on new organizing — that’s true. But all of the resources are about $14 billion in liquid assets. According to Bohner, even if all of those were put toward new organizing, that would still be a relatively minor dent in union density.
So you need to be able to move toward new models. Instead of having a staff organizer intensively walk workers through the process, and then have a lot of researchers and negotiators, paid staff, driving the process forward, these new models are giving workers the tools and resources to lead these drives themselves. We’re talking about the Starbucks Workers United campaign, and the efforts of the NewsGuild, which has a member organizing program, in which explicitly the idea is that every single thing that staff organizers do should be taught to workers so that workers can then teach those skills to their coworkers and implement an action, and it becomes a real movement dynamic.
I think the best term we could use to describe this type of unionism is just “movement unionism,” because it gets at that worker-to-worker dynamic. We’ve seen that in higher ed — that’s been the mode of organizing in the tremendous grad student efforts. We also see it, as you mentioned, in the model of EWOC, the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, in which any worker across the country can call, sign up on a form online, and within forty-eight hours is going to get a call back and get help in organizing the workplace. It’s going to be on them to do it, but we’ll give them the tools and the resources and the organizing know-how so that they can take the initiative.
Only through these types of models can you try to start organizing millions of workers and not just thousands of workers. So that requires lots of mass trainings; it requires teaching people the basic methods that staff organizers have been using. Another form that we’ve seen this take is the trainings of Organizing for Power and the writings of Jane McAlevey that have directly passed on the lessons of tried-and-true organizing, which I think overall remain as relevant as ever, to tens of thousands of workers who then use these to organize their workplaces.
We’re seeing then that the models of the past are getting superseded by a more worker-driven dynamic. I think that’s made possible by two new factors. One is the radicalization of young workers. Millennials and Gen Z are overwhelmingly supportive of unions, and a lot of the most dynamic union drives in recent years have been led by young workers. There is a supply of workers willing to self-organize, do things like initiating a drive, do things like training other workers and organizing methods, taking decisive say over a campaign strategy that’s new, that goes even beyond a lot of the best rank-and-file intensive organizing up until recently.
So you have, on the one hand, young workers taking the lead. And then you have the rise in digital technologies, which lowers organizing costs pretty dramatically. If you don’t have to have an in-person conference but you can have a Zoom call, if you can have a viral Facebook page that helps organize a statewide strike in a place like West Virginia or Arizona, this gives a new amount of leverage for rank-and-file workers to not have to depend to the same extent on official union structures.
My argument here isn’t that union resources don’t matter. I think all of the conversation we’ve had up until now shows that they do matter, and we need the unions to make a turn to be able to scale up these types of efforts. But fortunately now, because of the new conditions we’re in, there are possibilities for organizing worker-to-worker unionism at scale. It’s only through that that we’re going to be able to organize the Amazons and the Starbucks. Starbucks has six thousand–plus workplaces, Amazon has one thousand–plus workplaces. You can’t get a majority of these workplaces cohered and organized with a staff-driven model.