Marc Steiner: Good to have you all with us, and I’m Marc Steiner. We’re facing a pivotal moment for organized labor in this country. On the one hand, labor unions are at their lowest ebb in decades in terms of membership. But their power is bubbling up, bubbling just below the surface. The potential for union growth and power has never been greater. As our guest Rand Wilson points out in his article for Jacobin, we’re at a critical juncture. There are 450 collective bargaining agreements representing hundreds of thousands of workers set to expire in 2021.
Many of those workers are public sector workers and essential workers that have kept us going through this pandemic. So it’s a critical time. Can there be public solidarity with union workers given that reality? On top of that, a critical piece of legislation called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act or PRO Act will be up before Congress. In the midst of all this, workers are organizing at Amazon and in tech industries around the country, especially in the warehouse level for the potential being akin to the power of steel, auto, and industrial unions at the birth of the modern labor unions.
So there’s a lot going on with labor. So we’re about to have this conversation with Rand Wilson. Rand Wilson is a longtime union activist, and we’re going to explore the possibilities of the grand power of rising labor with him during the course of our conversation. He’s been labor organizing for decades and his chief of staff at the SEI Local 888 in Boston, who along with Peter Olney wrote this article that inspired this conversation today, from Jacobin, the article’s called, With Scores of Union Contracts Expiring 2021, Can This Be a Year of Mass Solidarity, and Rand joins us now to delve into all this more.
Rand Wilson: Great to be here, Marc.
Marc Steiner: Good to have you with us. So let’s just talk. Start with that, with this beginning thesis of your article, which is 450 contracts going up representing hundreds of thousands, 1.5 million workers, if I got the total right, adding them all up. Let’s talk about what that means. Where do you find yourselves now?
Rand Wilson: What Peter and I did was, we just analyzed these agreements and broke them down by sector and by geography and by union industry, just to see where we might see some of the, what I would call flashpoints in the class struggle. These are places where we might see large groups of workers facing their employer, and more than likely contending with this kind of neoliberal austerity agenda that is going to be part of the drum beat that’s coming from employers, both public and private. And in so many of these cases, workers will be looking to their union to defend their wages and working conditions. And in fact, looking for some dignity and respect, that’s long overdue to people who have been on the front lines as essential workers in this COVID pandemic. And believe me, there’s probably thousands more contracts that are expiring.
They’re just under 200 employees, so they didn’t come up in the data that we analyzed. But, there’s far more than a million and a half workers that will be facing their employers with expiring contracts in 2021, but we were able to analyze those agreements. And what we’re suggesting is just that, these are the places where we’re likely to see some class conflict occurring.
And, that’s an opportunity from the standpoint of, as an organizer, that’s an opportunity to draw people to the labor movement and to attract more workers to the dialogue and discussion and real meaningful relationship that workers have through collective bargaining with their employer, a real say in their wages and working conditions that all but 93% of the workers in the private sector and many workers in the public sector, they don’t have that voice with their employer. They don’t have a way of sitting down and talking about their wages and working conditions through their representatives in collective bargaining. And so we think that these contracts are an opportunity to attract and educate those people who are not yet union about the benefits of collective bargaining and how the union is so important to defend and improve your wages and working conditions.
Marc Steiner: So when you look at the reality, some of the polls I’ve been reading, talk about 50% of most private industry workers want unions, 65% of people in our country support labor unions. What we’re seeing is these agreements that are coming to the fore. So many of them also affect public employees, public health employees, hospital employees, teachers, the workers, the drivers in the postal service, drivers in the private parcel industry that have been working during this pandemic. And so the question is, we talked before we went on the air a little bit about the… It made me think about this, about the oil, chemical, atomic workers strike back in ’69 and how community members came out and really supported that union strike. And it was an intense strike. So it made me think of the… People have supported the teachers’ unions in Chicago, the places and their intense strikes and their work or actions.
So it’s about where we are right now and what that possibility looks like and how you even get to the point where you get this kind of mass movement solidarity among unions, but also being kind of community together with unions as they face this change. I mean, is there potential there? How do you see it performing?
Rand Wilson: One thing that unions are doing now, is as we go to the table, we’re beginning to frame our bargaining proposals around the public good. So what we’re doing is we’re increasingly linking the collective bargaining goals with the community’s goals and thinking strategically about how we can align those together, because that’s how the teachers gained support from their students and from the parents, is when they see that their interests are aligned. And as we do that, it’s easier to build public support. And you’re seeing those numbers of public approval of labor unions going up because of, I think unions are doing a better job at articulating just how the goals of collective bargaining of about staffing, health and safety, promotions, job security, investment decisions, all of that winds up being in the public interest, as well as in the interest of the workers, and now with the pandemic, health and safety issues. And in particular, we’re the canaries in the coal mine, and COVID is an occupational safety and health issue.
Marc Steiner: So, I mean when you look at these 450 contracts coming up and the millions of workers that could be affected by this and families and people affected by this, but how is it they are rolling out, because so many public workers are not allowed to strike, you’ve got some really essential workers here that have their contracts coming up, how do you think it’s going to play out? I mean, given that the union leadership nationwide is what it is, at the very top, and you have a bunch of unions are kind of upstarts. As we talked about [inaudible 00:08:07], seven of them went with Bernie Sanders. So how do you see this playing out there, both in terms of the internal struggle inside unions and what the workers themselves can do facing these labor agreements in a time of a tight economy, plus this kind of COVID. I mean, how do you see all those forces playing together and acting out?
Rand Wilson: So I think there’s a… You’ve mentioned a couple of different levels and each are kind of strategic. The most important actors in this drama will be the workers themselves. And, those workers are going to determine whether they’re going to fight back or concede to employer demands for austerity, are workers going to… And so union members ultimately make that decision with their level of involvement and their militancy is where that equation begins. And the union leaders have to respond to what the members want to do. In all of these agreements that are coming up in 2021, I can’t say where that’s going to happen, but those are the places where there’s an opportunity.
And, if people begin to talk about their contract negotiations in a way that aligns it with the public good, as I talked about earlier, that’s going to draw the community into those talks. There’s no bar for a teachers’ union to bring students and parents to the negotiating table. There’s no bar for a private sector union to bring health and safety experts or community health, public health officials to the table, for the discussions about contractual issues. And by sort of opening up this process, there’s an opportunity to showcase what collective bargaining is all about. And if in fact, a struggle ensues, whether it’s informational picketing or rallies or public leafleting, or perhaps even a work stoppage, then if you’ve laid the groundwork, I think what we’re going to see is a very positive response from the community. And so…
And there’s a political element to this as well, which is, if we open up the process and we’re more transparent about this, we can go to the elected officials at the community, state, federal level and say, “Hey, which side are you on? These people have been sacrificing during the pandemic. Are you going to side with corporate America? Or are you going to side with the workers in this struggle?” And by seeking that political support, we bring, as my co-author Peter Olney says, “We bring a political character to the struggle that’s incurring in these workplaces across America in 2021.” And so that’s why we call it a roadmap to the class struggle, but it’s ultimately the members that are going to decide.
Marc Steiner: So I was thinking, as I have read your article, I was reading the other articles you wrote with him on the Amazon workers who are organizing around the country at this moment. So I have two questions here before we finished with each other. One has to do with just that. I mean, when you think about the world we’re entering into now, this digital age, and you have all these essentially warehouse workers in the digital industry in Alabama, California, New York, across the country, Chicago organizing, in what I termed earlier as it may be the new auto worker, steel workers of the 21st centuries in terms of where industry is going in America. And how do you see that playing out and being part of this? And can there be cross solidarity around this for workers at the Amazon workers… Let me just stop there. How do you think this is going to play out?
Rand Wilson: Amazon is a behemoth. Amazon is the 21st century equivalent of auto and steel combined. And it’s a feature that is… It’s a platform that’s in thousands, millions of small businesses are relying on it. People rely on it now more than ever in the pandemic. And, you can call it a digital business, but it’s really not. It’s a logistics business. It’s no different than the combination of Sears and UPS. And there’s a huge tech workforce, that’s facilitating the innovation there. And there’s a huge warehouse and delivery workforce, that’s fulfilling the delivery of its product or the products that it’s the middleman for. It’s a logistics middleman between manufacturers, sellers and consumers.
I’m hopeful. We’re seeing, really, an uprising among Amazon workers. And now in Bessemer, Alabama, actual representation elections going to take place by a mail ballot this month. So, I mean, at least we expect it to. And there’s a huge outpouring of support already for the workers in Bessemer, as there have been in Staten Island and in St. Paul and Sacramento and other places around the country where Amazon workers have stood up and fought back. So to me, regardless of the outcome of the election in Bessemer, the struggle of Amazon workers is something that all of us can come together around and support those workers. And, if you know somebody that works at Amazon, talk with them about joining a union and how they can play a meaningful role in transforming these jobs from the gig economy, essentially throw-away jobs, where people are disrespected to jobs where they rightfully make a decent wage and have a measure of job security and a future that they can believe in.
Marc Steiner: And obviously what you just said, it actually is true. And probably that’s my last question here in our conversation today together. The Amazon drivers who drop off your, all your packages doing COVID, I have discovered in my conversations with them as they stop, and we talk across the yard that when you tell them that they support their union drive, their eyes light up. And I think the more workers see that people who are not in that union at that moment are supporting the work and believing that Amazon workers have a right to organize, that can change the nature of labor movement in this country, if they could win these struggles. I mean, this is critical. So I think that public supports you’re talking about for these workers, I mean, is part of the underpinning of the struggle.
Rand Wilson: Absolutely. If we only have a few more minutes, it’s important to recognize that the federal government and the Biden administration, hopefully Congress will come together to recognize that the driver for Amazon, or for DoorDash or Lyft or Uber, they’re not contractors, they’re workers, they’re employees. They should not be second class citizens. And we need to be very clear with government, right now is the time to clarify for Amazon and for the gig economy employers, that they’re misclassifying these workers as contractors and our organizing efforts have to say, “No, you are an employee of Amazon. You’re going to be part of this union.” Because, say in Bessemer, it’s the warehouse workers that are organizing because they’re actually classified as employees of Amazon, but the drivers that are coming in and out of that Amazon facility, they’re labeled contractors and they’re being denied the right to organize, and they’re being denied the benefits of being an employee.
Marc Steiner: So the very last thing is, I’ll let you go, and we will end this conversation, but you raised an issue. But at least for just a couple of minutes here, to respond to how you think the fight around the PRO Act, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which is going be coming before the house. And Democrats now control the Senate as well. Obama didn’t push a similar act when he was president, which I think helped them lose a lot. But, so what do you think that’s… I mean, how critical is that? [inaudible 00:18:02] this particular act could turn things over. It could change, it could stop the anti-labor legislation that has gone before it historically, how do you see that playing out?
Rand Wilson: Well, we’ll have to bring a couple of Republicans over to our side to win that. And I’m not sure that the prospects are really that good. I feel like the momentum is beginning to swell in support, but honestly, I think if its not done at the executive level by President Biden, and I’m not that hopeful for passage of anything, until we get either rid of the filibuster or have a Congress in 2022 that’s prepared to pass pro-labor legislation. I don’t see it in a 50-50 Senate, with the filibuster. But what’s really encouraging to me is to see the public support for it, the political support, at least among Democrats and I’m just really hopeful that President Biden will say, “I want you to join a union.”
Marc Steiner: That’d be critical. The struggle for that bill is important, whether it passes or not. This has been a great conversation Rand Wilson, I do appreciate you taking the time. I know you’re extremely busy and I look forward to many more conversations as we really support and explore the power of the union movement in our country. [inaudible 00:19:29]
Rand Wilson: Thank you, Marc. Great to meet you.
Marc Steiner: Been a pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. I’m glad you could join us. You see that scrolling across the bottom, firstname.lastname@example.org, please write to me. I want to hear about your labor struggles, your community struggles, what you’ve been fighting for, what is going on in your communities. We can talk about that together on the air and give us your sense of what you heard today. So please do that. So for The Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner, thanks for joining us, and take care.
With a new Democratic administration in place and so many union contracts about to expire, 2021 could be a major turning point in the labor movement. In this segment of “The Marc Steiner Show,” Marc is joined by longtime union organizer and Boston’s SEIU Local 888 Chief of Staff Rand Wilson to discuss how labor can seize this moment and turn 2021 into a year of mass solidarity.
Listen to the full podcast episodes of “The Marc Steiner Show.”