[MUSIC]

jane coaston

It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.

Hi, Jane.

jane mcalevey

Hi, Jane.

jane coaston

This rarely happens to me. I don’t know if it happens to you because there aren’t that many Janes.

jane mcalevey

There are not. That’s true.

jane coaston

But when it does happen, I’m like, oh, this is what everyone named Katie must experience all the time.

jane mcalevey

Yeah.

jane coaston

So Jane, Liz, first and foremost, thank you so much for coming on the show.

jane mcalevey

Thanks for having us.

liz shuler

We’re excited.

jane coaston

You are two of the leading labor voices in the country right now. So I want to hear from you about, number one, how the Amazon labor union challenges the status quo for how workers organize and, number two, if you still see Democrats as the party of and for unions. And I know you’re familiar with each other, but let me do quick introductions for our audience.

Liz Shuler is the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a group of 57 labor unions that represent more than 12 million workers. Jane McAlevey is an organizer and campaign strategist who’s trained thousands of workers on how to organize at their jobs. She’s also the author most recently of “A Collective Bargain: Unions Organizing on the Fight for Democracy.” And Jane has a lot of critiques about how the big federations, like the A.F.L.-C.I.O., are not being strategic about bringing new workers into the fold.

So to be clear here, I’ve been in a union. I like unions. I think unions are good. At their peak, more than a third of employed workers in America were in a union, but those numbers have been going down. But while only 10 percent of American workers belong to a union, I think I’ve heard the word union more times in the last month than I did while I was in one. The biggest news being Amazon warehouse workers unionizing in Staten Island, but we’re also seeing Starbucks workers, delivery people in New York City, grocery workers in California. It’s spring, and the unions are busting out all over.

And I want to be clear here that this is not a debate about whether or not unions are good or bad, but what I think you disagree on is how unions should capitalize on this newfound energy in this conversation. So I want to know, where do we go from here? How do we move forward? Because, Jane, you’ve written entire books critiquing some of the ways that the big unions, like those under the A.F.L.-C.I.O., have gone about organizing.

The Amazon warehouse workers, they unionized on their own, not with an established network of unions. And some people are saying, that’s the new model. That’s what you have to do. And I’m referring to the Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island. So what do you think the big organizers are getting wrong here, if it seems like we’re in a moment where we can all move forward together?

jane mcalevey

Sure. What we saw at Amazon Staten Island, what we saw in that victory is a very bottom-up campaign led by what I identify in all of my books as what we call the informal, not easily identifiable organic leaders. The committee that ran the Staten Island Amazon election was, by definition, something I called an organic leader. And that means you’ve got a base of workers on the inside who hold the respect of their coworkers from whom the victory, frankly, emerges. And in any good union, that’s how victories emerge.

So the life work of good organizing is that our job is to teach the workers themselves what it’s going to take for them to build bottom-up power that can sustain the blows of the vicious union busters in this country. And my critique of most national unions is, they walked away from organizing. They just walked away from it. They’ve surrendered whole sectors of the economy. They were trying to cut deals with corporations that cut workers out to try and make things easier.

But the root of the crisis, I’m going to argue, is that the national unions and the national A.F.L.-C.I.O., for whom I worked for a number of years when I was young, are trying to mobilize for elections of a diminishing base. We simply lack the power. And it’s like, people used to say, ‘It’s the economy stupid.’ It’s the base stupid, in my argument. It’s, we have to organize more workers.

There is no more important imperative than actually expanding the universe from whom we then mobilize at election time. That’s the root of the problem. And if we don’t return to bottom-up organizing, we’re simply not going to have the political muscle to force Democrats and Republicans to do that which they must to honor the essential workers coming out of this pandemic.

jane coaston

OK, so Jane is differentiating between organizing and mobilizing. Organizing meaning finding and bringing in more people who are not already a part of your base, whereas mobilizing is encouraging people who are already pro-union and on your side to do something.

So, Liz, you’re the first woman to hold the office of president in the history of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.. You were elected in August of 2021. What do you think about what Jane said about the need to find organic leaders, about the way that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. will be working with those unions going forward?

The Amazon labor union didn’t spend that much money. Their outreach efforts were very different from, I think, other unionization efforts. And I’m curious as to what you took away from the Staten Island effort that could be successful in other places.

liz shuler

Absolutely, and our job at the federation, of course, is to be looking at the big picture, and what can we learn and replicate and scale up. Because we know that we are up against corporate power that is just growing by the day. We want to embrace experimentation. We want to innovate and try new things.

And you’re right about the failures because I think for a long time, it’s always been, oh, well, we had an organizing drive, and it was successful. Look what we did over here. And then, oh, by the way, this one failed. We’re not going to talk about that one. So we need to not be afraid to be open about what works and what doesn’t, and try new things without being afraid to fail.

And so that’s something that my hope is that we can learn from the Amazon labor union. A lot of their tactics were so old, they’re new, I guess, I might say. And we’ve evolved over time since our beginning in the labor movement. That’s, I think, what the origin of a labor movement is all about.

jane coaston

Well, Jane, it sounds to me like if all of this was taking place, unions would be being more successful than they are now. I mean, it seems like everybody likes unions right now. People are jazzed about them. So what’s gone wrong?

jane mcalevey

Frankly, unions are not putting the resources into organizing. And it’s been going on for 20 years at least. If you take the case of, for example, the Service Employees International Union, where I was once national deputy director for strategic campaigns, in some ways, one of the most important strategic sectors, right? There are what we call key strategic sectors right now. There were key strategic sectors in the 1930s. That was steel and coal and a whole series of growth industries.

We have strategic sectors today. We have had national unions walk away from acute care, which is hospitals, private sector organizing. And it’s never been taken seriously since. There are 5 million unorganized workers in the American hospital system alone. There’s little bits of organizing going on, but nothing like the scale that we saw. And it’s been a fundamental walk away from believing that workers themselves, with really good guidance, can actually win these kind of campaigns that we just saw on Staten Island.

And despite the rhetoric today — and I don’t mean rhetoric from Liz. I think Liz is new in her role and going to do her very best to try and rebuild this approach. But I think that there was a walkaway by most, not all, but by most of the national unions. There was a lack of faith—

jane coaston

Why do you think that happened?

jane mcalevey

So this has been a debate for a couple of decades, at least. I entered it probably two and a half decades ago when I began as an organizer and was consistently winning campaigns at a time when I was being told you can’t win that campaign over and over and over. This is unwinnable. OK, then, we’d win. Well, it’s hard work. It takes a very serious approach. It does take real resources.

And it takes a willingness by leaders to then be challenged by the results of organizing. I mean, that’s one stream of the critique, is that when a lot of organizing happens, you’re bringing a ton of workers into the organization. They may actually challenge what their leadership is doing. And that’s not comfortable for a lot of unions.

I think at a cynical level, I have been in rooms, many, too many rooms, where I have listened to national leaders say things about workers that made me want to run screaming out of the room, meaning they lost faith in the capacity of ordinary people to do the kind of work that I’ve seen workers for 25 years do in campaigns up into and including in the Staten Island Amazon factory.

So there was a shift from a worker bottom-up focus to a staff-led top-down corporate campaign, invest in researchers, invest in crashing share prices, invest in stockholder actions, invest in a bunch of stuff, which is, to me, as an organizer, all secondary. Where the money got shifted was to an army of staff, who themselves kind of thought that they replaced the ordinary workers as the agents of change. And that is the fundamental flaw that spills into failing to then have the power to push the political parties to do that which the working class in this country needs.

So it’s a constant cycle that is reinforcing. And it’s, we gotta put a finger in the dike or something in the spoke or whatever it is. We just got to get back to our base, which is real organizing. And then we have to do really great political education with them. So there are several things, but we can’t do it off a diminishing base.

liz shuler

You know, you would ask Jane about the mistakes of the traditional labor movement in the past. I think that we have to remember, too, our history, which everyone gets really bored and their eyes glaze over when I talk about history. But if you think about when unions were at their peak, and you talked about the numbers of people in unions — I think it was almost 30 percent of the workforce were in a union.

I think at some point, we got a little lazy, frankly. You know, the laws were on our side. We had an environment where people were joining unions and growing unions organically. And we were kind of riding a wave, so to speak. And so then people within the union focused more on bargaining and getting that better contract, and less on educating their members, keeping their members activated and informed and engaged.

And so then as the laws changed, because we know that that has eroded over time — it’s become more difficult to organize because corporations make it almost impossible, as we’ve seen in Bessemer. That is this the pull and push of building an institution, the union, and the movement part of unions, where you have people who are actively shaping and changing their workplaces and their unions.

jane coaston

But I think I want to —

liz shuler

So there’s that kind of push and pull.

jane coaston

I want to get to that point because I do think that, obviously, there’s been the corporate response to unionization, but I think that ties directly into the relationship big organizations like yours have with political parties. And I think we’ve seen that one of the challenges is that we have elected officials and candidates who run for office and talk about how they are very supportive of unions. Biden has said he wanted to be the most pro-labor president.

But then you see, you know, Jay Carney go from the Obama administration to Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs. There’s a tension here when you have companies that make all the right mouth noises, especially about kind of liberal bona fides, but then they actively work to bust unions.

liz shuler

Well, yeah, it is a tension in that we just saw recently with GSG, a firm that we found out was actually helping Amazon with their anti-union activities. You know, they’re associated with the Democratic Party. We said this is absolutely unacceptable, and we’re basically drawing a line saying that companies need to be thinking about — we need to consider, essentially, their corporate behavior when we’re engaging them in politics, right? So that we all have to be aligned with the same set of values.

You’re either standing with workers and believe in their freedom to come together collectively, or you don’t. So that’s what we generally do when we approach politics, is we’re looking at this through an issues lens, based on the positions that they take on bettering wages, standing up for improving the minimum wage, standing up for retirement security, making sure that workers have the right to come together collectively and form a union.

These are baseline issues that that is the lens through which we look, no matter if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, independent, Green Party, you name it. We look at the issues first. So it’s not that we’re aligned with the Democratic Party as a vestige of the party itself. It’s that Democrats generally support the issues that workers stand for more often. And that’s what’s beautiful about this movement we’re in, is that we have, at the grassroots level, the ability to have those debates and forge a path forward.

[MUSIC]

jane coaston

Part of the attention that unions are getting right now is partly because white collar workers are starting to join the movement, or have been joining the movement. I know that when I was at Vox, we unionized, and we unionized for very different reasons than folks who might be working at an Amazon warehouse might be unionizing than folks who, like my grandfather, was trying to unionize in West Virginia in the ‘40s. If workers are experiencing very differing forms of exploitation, is there a way to unite those movements? Is there a way to move forward together? Or are they just too different?

jane mcalevey

No. I mean, I think the process of collective bargaining, which I have to say, probably my most favorite thing on planet Earth is leading negotiations, and it’s often first contract negotiations because the workers have generally just formed a union. And I mean, I, for probably a decade, was very focused on acute care organizing, meaning hospital organizing. And the approach that we took, I think, was the correct one, which was, we did everything from registered nurses to housekeepers to dietary to everyone. We believed in a whole approach to the hospital and that, essentially, to heal the patient requires the whole hospital.

So the argument against that by the union busters, by everyone always trying to split the nurses from the rest of the workers was that the sets of issues were very different. And the truth is, what workers need to win a good collective agreement is power. More workers, more power. It’s a pretty simple equation when you actually get to, how do you win your contract? It’s not about being nice at the bargaining table. It’s about building sufficient power to get strike ready, to have what we call a credible strike threat, to be able to actually cause a crisis for the employer. I mean, when I’m doing collective bargaining, I have an approach that says every single worker is invited in the room. I walk in with hundreds of them. The first thing the employer tries to say is, well, we’ve got very different issues here, and they try and drag the whole thing out, you know, sort of endlessly. And I’ll say, look, we’ve got one of every kind of nurse in the room. We’ve got someone from dietary, housekeeping. Named the unit — we’ve got people from every shift.

We can break into separate rooms. We can do separate tables. We can not have everyone bored by discussing everyone’s little small issues. And we can get it all done in a day. So I’m never intimidated by having a very diverse set of workers at the bargaining table in negotiations because I say to the workers, we’re going to have so many of you in the room that we’re going to call their bluff and break into separate tables if we need to. Like, we know how to get this done quickly. Workers are smart, right? They actually get the work done.

jane coaston

Especially because in the majority of workplaces, no matter where you work, if the workers leave, you can’t do the thing anymore.

jane mcalevey

Exactly.

jane coaston

Just to give a quick explainer, very brief, because if you’re coming into this brand new to collective bargaining, essentially, collective bargaining is the negotiations between an employer and a group of employees aimed at coming up with a contract or an agreement about salaries, working conditions, benefits and other aspects of compensation and rights for workers [as defined by the A.F.L.-C.I.O.]. So my favorite example always is the N.F.L. The N.F.L. has a Players Association. It’s a very weak union, and I want it to be stronger. If you’re listening, N.F.L. Players Association, call me.

But every year, they have a negotiation process where they talk about things, like making sure that the fund for former N.F.L. players who might be dealing with the health issues that come from playing football are dealt with. And every year, the N.F.L. is so proud of its process. But that’s what bargaining looks like. It’s a back and forth, just in case anyone did not know what that meant.

But going back to Liz, so you said earlier that it doesn’t really matter who you’re negotiating with. It doesn’t matter what political party you’re negotiating with. But I think for a lot of people who are observing this debate, it seems to be that everyone wants to talk about how they’re pro-worker, but no one seems to agree on what that means. When we’re talking about whether it’s Democrat or Republicans, people want to claim that they are putting forward a pro-worker policy or something like that. When you are talking to politicians, and they say they are pro-worker what do you want them to mean by that?

liz shuler

Well, I think there’s some great examples coming out right now from the Biden administration. We’ve got a United States trade representative, Katherine Tai, who, thankfully, is coming from, you know, a depth of experience and really taking seriously this commitment to having a worker-centered trade approach. We know that in the past, this administration right before this one was not a friend to workers. But the Biden administration has made it a priority to look through the lens of working people.

And no matter if it’s a cabinet official, the regulatory process, the president himself using his bully pulpit to talk about what that means, I think we are seeing that in real time. And it has been made clear that workers’ rights should be embedded in that framework, not as a side agreement, not as lip service, but that it will be a baseline. There are many, many examples. They just did a worker empowerment task force, where they took all the federal agencies, got them around a table, and said, what can we do using the levers of the federal government to encourage —

jane coaston

Right, but Liz?

liz shuler

— more workers to organize unions?

jane coaston

Liz? Can I interrupt you for a second?

liz shuler

Yes.

jane coaston

Now I love a task force, but historically, any organization that says they’re going to put forward a task force, that tends to be kind of a, like, we’ll put together some recommendations. But I want to know from you, what do you —

liz shuler

The president committed to them. They already committed to implement, yes.

jane coaston

Committed to those recommendations, and can you talk just briefly about — because the president’s also supported Kellogg’s collective bargaining agreement in 2021. He supported the Employee Free Choice Act. But when it comes down to a worker or a group of workers who are at a chicken plant in Iowa where Covid has run rampant, what does this mean to them? What do these recommendations mean to them and their ability to actually organize and do things so that they can get paid and go home if they’re sick?

liz shuler

Well, I mean, the government obviously has some impact on this, of course, but really, it’s the employers that have the most impact. And I think government elected officials holding their feet to the fire is what we’re talking about here through policy, through regulation, and looking through workers’ lenses, the impact on real working people versus what a corporation can get away with. And the scales have been tilted far out of balance for way too long.

And that’s what this administration and this Congress are trying to get their arms around — pass bills that actually will impact the lives of working people. And we saw that with the American Rescue Plan. We saw that with the bipartisan infrastructure bill that just passed that it’s going to create millions of good paying jobs and put people to work with good career paths. But it’s only one part of the equation. We have the government, of course. We have corporations and their responsibility as employers.

But then we also have the workers and labor. And I think that’s where we started this conversation is, you know, workers coming together to create leverage, to have more power to influence and make the change that we’d like to see. And that’s where we are at this moment in the economy, especially coming out of the pandemic. Workers are saying enough’s enough of this broken system.

jane coaston

Jane, do you think that plan is going to work?

jane mcalevey

Sadly, no. It hasn’t worked since the 1960s. I mean, this is the basic problem and returning to why we need to do massive base expansion, a.k.a. real organizing. I mean, there’s several things going on here. I think there has been a failure on the part of the labor movement nationally, largely, to hold the Democratic Party accountable.

If you look at starting with Clinton in the Democratic Leadership Committee and Clinton walking in and passing NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement — which, frankly, did open up the dislocation of a lot of really good jobs in this country, and workers know that. So we had NAFTA under Clinton. We had a sort of belief under the Obama administration that demography is destiny. That just couldn’t be further from the truth in terms of looking at where people are voting. And then we have this tendency to forego real political education.

And let me just start with what Biden didn’t do, which he could have easily done, which would have been very significant, which was show up on the 10,000 workers strike line of the John Deere picket line. We had a strike playing out among white working class men, mostly, not only, but the base that Trump is contending for in key swing states. And the president never showed up on that picket line.

And I got to tell you, from a perspective of like how does the base, how do ordinary people come to distinguish the difference in these two political parties, showing up on some of the most important picket lines and doing what you can to help those workers win, not the behind the scenes stuff — there’s way too much behind the scenes stuff going on in this country right now. And it’s not working because it denies the fundamental political education that workers need to understand how and for whom to pull the lever when they walk into the voting booth.

So I’m excited about all the things that Liz mentioned. I just don’t have a lot of faith because the National Democratic Party walked away from the working class. They made an alliance with big business. And they have let their own most powerful base, which has historically been the Black church and organized labor, wither. And we are paying the price for it. So behind the scenes stuff is not working. It denies core political education for rank and file workers. And we need to hold them more accountable.

Unions need to primary — enter the Democratic primary fight and primary bad Democrats, which I say, as a target rich environment in this country, there’s way too many of them who are way too close to corporations. And that speaks to sort of a risk aversion that has been going on for 25 or 30 years, most of my adult life, in the trade union movement. And we’ve got to change that. We’ve got to hold people accountable to what it is they do, not what they promise at election time.

liz shuler

And if I could add to that, I think we are responsible for that. We need to be out educating people. And that’s one thing that we are gearing up for this election, is to get back to the grassroots level in the workplaces, face-to-face conversations to talk about the issues, and really listen to workers and hyper localize the approaches because some top-down pollster and research coming down from a national level is not going to work to open people’s ears and really start talking about what matters. It’s got to come from the grassroots level.

And so the labor movement is uniquely positioned with the infrastructure that we have with local unions and our federation, actually, in every state in the country with access to working people and workplaces across industries to be the place where we can bring people back together.

jane coaston

But I’m curious. I mean, you lead 12 million workers through your work. So what do you think is stopping what Jane is suggesting?

liz shuler

Well, in terms of holding politicians accountable, that is what we do. And at the local level, across different sectors and workers from all different industries and backgrounds and geographies come together and have those debates. They look at candidates’ records. And if you don’t vote on the issues that workers care about in the right way, that is when you start looking at primaries.

That is when you start running labor movement candidates, actually, working people who have decided to take on running for office themselves, because you know, if their elected officials aren’t reflective of the priorities and the issues that workers care about, then sometimes you got to run yourself. And so we’ve been investing in labor candidates all across the country as well. So it’s not, again, about Democrats, Republicans per se. It’s about the issues and absolutely holding people accountable, based on those set of issues.

jane coaston

Liz, I want to ask you, is the best case scenario that all workers are unionized? In other words, in a best case scenario, all workers have all the protections, and your job is kind of obsolete?

liz shuler

Wow, I would say yes, we want all workers to have a voice. And we think they should. This is about being able to control your own destiny, to be able to shape the workplace that you would like to see, to be able to come together and leverage and have more power. And in fact, this is a watershed moment. The system, as we know, isn’t working for people. And it’s been broken for a long time well before the pandemic. But the pandemic shone a light on just how many things are broken and the fact that people did make sacrifices to get us through and worked on the front lines and put their health at risk. And now they’re fed up, and they’re fired up.

jane coaston

Jane, what do you think? What’s your ultimate goal, that all workers are unionized?

jane mcalevey

Oh, heck yeah. I mean, there’s no question that the world would be a better place. Not just this country, right? We’ve got authoritarianism on the rise all over the world. I work with unions all over the world right now. And the through line between grotesque levels of inequality and arrogance and the resulting conclusion of strong men, strong state authoritarianism, is not just a threat in the United States, it’s a threat everywhere right now. I mean, the French elections are crazy right now. We’ve got Marine Le Pen, a hard right candidate, coming way too close in the elections. We just saw Orbán reelected in Hungary. We’ve got to take it on, or we’re heading in a very bad trend line.

jane coaston

Well, Liz, Jane, thank you so much.

liz shuler

Thank you so much.

jane mcalevey

Thank you.

liz shuler

It was an honor to be with you, Jane, as well, both Janes. [MUSIC]

jane coaston

Liz Shuler is president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a group of 57 labor unions that represent over 12 million workers. Jane McAlevey is an organizer and campaign strategist. Her most recent book is “A Collective Bargain: Unions Organizing in the Fight for Democracy.” And check out the piece, “The People United Must Fight Hard or Be Defeated,” by my colleague, Binyamin Appelbaum, about what unions face moving forward, published in The New York Times. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes.

We’ve also opened comments on this episode on our website. And now that you’ve made it through, I can actually encourage you to leave your own thoughts or debate with someone you disagree with. Be nice. I’ll be watching.

“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez and Vishakha Darbha; edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon; with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker; mixing by Pat McCusker; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker; audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi.

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