2021 has been a pivotal year for the labor movement. As we have covered extensively here at TRNN, through strikes, unionization campaigns, protest actions, and record numbers of people quitting their jobs, workers across sectors are showing a level of assertiveness and increased militancy that we haven’t seen in decades. How far will this “labor awakening” go? How do we harness the rank-and-file energy driving these actions and use it to build a more robust and powerful labor movement? And can that movement fuse with other struggles for social and economic change to be a formidable political force? These are the kinds of questions that members of Organizing Upgrade are asking on a daily basis—and, in many ways, our future depends on the answers we come up with.
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc welcomes back Alex Han, longtime labor organizer and new executive editor of Organizing Upgrade, to take stock of this year’s surge in labor militancy and to discuss the strategic steps that need to be taken to build labor power in the US, combat right-wing authoritarianism, and advance the cause of multiracial democracy. Alex Han has organized with unions, in the community, and in progressive politics for two decades. As a vice president of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, he helped tens of thousands of home-based healthcare and childcare workers unionize. He helped found United Working Families and he served on the national political team for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020. He has also worked with labor and community organizations around the country as part of the Bargaining for the Common Good network.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Monday and Thursday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Frank, Dwayne Gladden
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. There’s been a lot of [inaudible] right now. Workers are not only striking and threatening to strike, but organizing among workers in places like Starbucks and Walmart and other unorganized sectors is taking place as never before. And Real News has been covering these labor issues intensely over the last year. In part because of Editor-in-Chief Max Alvarez’s podcast Working People. And we here on The Steiner Show have been also covering labor and organizing. Last February, I talked to Boston’s SEIU Local 888 Chief of Staff Rand Wilson. He said then this would be a year of unprecedented labor action. And he was right. And today we continue these conversations but with Alex Han, who joined me as well in the past year, when he was vice president for SEIU. He’s now taken the position of executive director of Organizing Upgrade.
And together we’ll look at this year of labor organizing and strikes, and the rising power of labor, political and community organizing in our country. This is also a critical moment in our history and for our future, as the right wing rises in power and conservatives dominate in courts, and right wing state governments are taking hold. And they whittle away at all the labor, civil rights, that movements on the left have won in voting rights, labor power, and women’s rights and more. So we’re going to talk about the power of labor rising and what we face as organizers.
Now we, once again, as I said, we’ll talk with Alex Han. Before he was executive director of Organizing Upgrade, he was vice president of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, healthcare Illinois and Indiana. He helped organize tens of thousands of healthcare-based workers and childcare workers. He also helped found United Working Families, an independent political organization that has elected movement leaders across the country in city, state, and county offices. And also works in the national political team with Bernie Sanders. So once again, let me welcome Alex Han to The Marc Steiner Show. And it’s good to have you with us here.
Alex Han: Thanks, Marc. Always a pleasure to talk.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk about this, and I also should mention you worked in Bernie Sanders’s campaign. But let’s talk a bit about what’s really happening. People talk about, we’re in the midst of a Striketober and that strikes are taking off like never before. Though some people argue, there have been periods of time in our history when these kinds of strikes and labor actions have actually been as intense, maybe even greater in number. But something is happening here. So talk about, from your analysis, what is really taking place. Why are we seeing these pushes now and what they really mean?
Alex Han: Well, I think there’s a couple elements right now that are key to what we see in the uptick in worker militancy. I would say we’ve seen something that we haven’t seen in a couple decades, but really a level of strike activity that used to be normal in American daily life. And so if the least of what happens is if we up kind of the standard day-to-day level of worker action, I think that’s a huge step forward and a huge, positive step.
I think we’re also seeing, in a lot of the strikes that have happened over the last few months and a lot of the actions that individual workers have taken, what the press is calling the Great Resignation. I think we’ve seen a bottled up and pent-up energy and anger from the first year and a half of the pandemic. And so I think there are multiple strands of what feeds into this worker action and militancy. I think a big part of the question is how it expands, how it grows, and how it links up. Particularly from our perspective, I think, with other social movements and around other issues and in other ways, to really build powerful working people in a meaningful way over these next few…
Marc Steiner: So I don’t want to do this and sound pessimistic, because I try not to be pessimistic and try to really see what’s over the horizon. But let me try to help parse this out. I want you to help us parse this out. So we’re seeing with some cases worker unrest, I think, in this country because of the unprecedented profits that big business is making. And workers have not profited from that or the wages haven’t gone up, and their lives as workers has gotten worse in many ways. So there’s a push going on out there.
At the same time, we are seeing a rise in right wing power; 26 states are controlled by very right-wing parts of the Republican Party. And you are seeing a period of time when the right seems highly organized and mobilized. We saw Jan. 6 and kind of a heavily armed right wing that’s growing in this country. And as you see, even as I read Organizing Upgrade’s homepage, and talk about, we are also in this moment where the left in some ways… A lot’s going on, but it’s not organized and united. It [just appears] that way in a front against what’s rising. So talk about your taking over this new job here with Organizing Upgrade, that tries to unite these ideas and these movements, and what you see that prospect is and how that fight against the rising right’s going to take place.
Alex Han: I think one of the key things and one of the reasons I was excited to join Organizing Upgrade, I’ve spent most of the last 20 years as an organizer, mostly in the labor movement, you laid some of that out; independent, progressive, left politics; building community labor coalition. I think right now is a really critical moment for how our politics moves forward. And I think we’ve been in a situation, particularly for the last couple years, where 20 years ago, 30 years ago, we were talking about the end of… The kind of victory of “liberal democracy.” And right now history has been really speeding up the way that things happen, both in this country and around the globe. We’ve seen real big shifts in how the economy functions, we’ve seen cracks in how the global economy functions, particularly during the pandemic.
And I think it’s a moment when we really have to articulate… What we like to think of as Organizing Upgrade is a left progressive front. We have to figure out how to pull together. We’re not in a position politically to be the leading driver of a majority coalition in American politics. What we can do is be leading drivers of a fight back against right-wing authoritarianism, and to help create a front that can allow us to state the politics of what next. We are not going to win socialism in the next two years –
Marc Steiner: Oh, really? [laughs]
Alex Han: …We have to be thinking about the next five or 10 years. Yes, Marc, I don’t know if you realize that. And I think about a lot of this labor activity as being really important pieces of a big puzzle and a big structure that we have to put together. We’re driven by something very different than the right wing is, the people who fund the right wing. We have a very small group of people who have a very clear vision of how they want the world to function. What we’re trying to do is build democracy, and that is a much broader and messier operation than what the right wing has in store.
And so I think we can look to… I would actually want to point to a couple worker fights that are happening right now, where some really amazing things have happened over the last couple of days. At Kellogg’s, where we have over 1000 workers who make Kellogg’s cereal on strike, at I think five plants across the country. Workers voted down potential settlements going into the Christmas holiday that would continue to leave a second tier of workers behind. And that was something very clear in how those union members at Kellogg’s have articulated their fights. They have said we are not going to leave our younger coworkers behind in what was a two-tier system. Where workers in the plant who have been there for a long time get substantially better particular pension benefits and pay and health insurance than newer hirers. And that’s what a lot of these fights have been for, is to erase that two-tier. So while the company is saying, we’re going to start hiring permanent replacements, while workers are staring at a Christmas without a paycheck coming in and without being able to do what they normally might do for their families. They’ve said, no, we’re going to send this back and we’re staying out on strike. We’re going to stay out on strike until we’ve won for everybody.
That’s a really, I think, a relatively small group of workers, but a really enormously important fight, and a really important point of context there. I think today, we’ve seen student workers at Columbia who are organizing and who have been on strike who are under threat of mass replacement from their university administration in huge rallies in New York City, with a lot of labor and community allies.
And so you see these places where you have what you might think of as two very different groups of workers, right? Graduate workers at Columbia, cereal plant workers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Battle Creek, Michigan, and other small industrial cities around the country. But I think that these two fights right now can show us a little bit of what the hope for the near future is. Which is workers who, two years ago or three years ago, might have taken what they were given, might have stepped down after a threat like that from their employer, really ramping up their fights. And I think that’s a real inspiration for us, not just in labor, but in how we think about our policy.
Marc Steiner: So I’m curious how you see the movement coming together. One of the things that’s clear, to me at any rate, and I think I read on your website and other places is that the majority of people in America – The majority, it may not be a huge majority, but a majority of people in America – Oppose this right wing push in this country. They oppose what they’re seeing. The threat to democracy, but also the pushback on voting rights, which is getting really intense. We’ll see what the Supreme Court does around that and around the issues of women’s reproductive rights and more. So that is true, that it exists. The question is, how’s it come together? When you have Black Lives Matter, you have people standing up in the streets saying no to racism in this country. By the hundreds of thousands of people, in the streets. You see this move with labor unions, driving strikes and organizing in sectors that have not been organized before.
So the question is, how does that coalesce into a power that actually takes the muscle it has and uses it to, not just stop the right, but to build something new? And you’ve been involved in both union organizing and you’ve been involved in political work, working for Bernie Sanders’s campaign. And you’ve seen many more progressives and people on the left and progressives winning offices locally and nationally, in Congress and state legislatures and city councils. So talk about how you see, in terms of the work you’re doing, all that coming together, how does that happen? How do you build a movement that’s kind of cohesive, that actually confronts this?
Alex Han: I think one of the questions we have to tackle is not how to build a movement, but it’s what are the structures and what are the organizations that are actually necessary, and what’s the timing of how those things launch out, where do they come from? I don’t mean to kind of elude your question here, Marc.
Marc Steiner: That’s fine.
Alex Han: But I want to highlight another fight that kind of concluded in the last couple weeks, that I think starts to show us a bit of a path forward, which was a hunger strike in New York City led by The New York Taxi Workers Alliance. They’ve been in a long-term campaign. They’ve got a situation in which we have taxi drivers who, at the time they bought their medallion for their cab, those medallions were going for 800,000, 900,000, a million-plus dollars. And in the last 10 years with the rise of “rideshare” like Uber and Lyft, the value of a taxi medallion plummeted… And so you have these mostly immigrant workers who had really done the equivalent of a mortgage on a New York City home to be able to create their livelihood for their families in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.
You saw a crisis, a mental health crisis, a suicide [inaudible], in that workforce over the last several years as you see people with predatory loans. And so the Taxi Workers Alliance, which has been organizing taxi drivers for 25 years in New York City, as a part of their campaign to push the city to forgive and to reduce the debt and to cap it, went on a hunger strike in front of City Hall. That hunger strike was joined – And I think this is really key – By a set of state legislators in New York who have been elected by DSA, by other movements and kind of progressive organizations over the last several years. In some organizing spaces, there’s a word that’s very popular to use now, it’s co-governance. And it’s really, how do you think about taking elected officials who come from the movement, and working together? A lot of times that’s applied in, what’s the policy you can pass? But I think the reality is, co-governance is about how those elected officials are going to use their platform.
We saw state assembly member Zohran Mamdani, a DSA member from Queens, in one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the [inaudible], joining the strike, really strategizing together, and joining together with these workers. You saw support from a broad set of the progressive labor movement, and a huge victory that was won. I say that to say that, we have to think about these things in a structural way, and we have to understand the reality of what we’re dealing with, and how we’re going to move forward and actually win.
Again, the big victory is not there for tomorrow. We see this from some of the action in Congress around Build Back Better. The reality is we’re going to win what we have the power to win. Right now, we have more power politically on the left than did five years ago, certainly, an enormous amount more power. It’s not enough to come to the solution that we need. And so I do think, part of this is being able to take a step back and think of, what does it look like as we’re making progress that helps form the infrastructure and the organizations that can actually build us toward that majority.
Marc Steiner: I’m curious where you think the work that you do, that Organizing Upgrade does, or similar organizations have to do, where you go from here? I say this so there’s context. You can see that the majority of Americans, from every poll I’ve seen, support what we might call the progressive agenda, whether it is healthcare for all. They call it Medicare for All, but Medicare doesn’t do duck squat, so I call it healthcare for all. Actually covers everything you need. We look at healthcare for all, whether you are looking around at the questions around the environment and energy and our future of the planet. That more and more people who are not African American, not people of color, are supporting the anti-racist moves, to change the nature of this country. You see that changing. But the question is, how does it get organized, how does it coalesce? How do you build people around… To me, that’s the huge question to wrestle with.
Alex Han: And I do think there is something to… Again, having spent my career, my adult life organizing, in the trenches, building these coalitions, I actually do think there’s something really important about what you’re doing at The Real News, what we’re doing at Organizing Upgrade, there are layers of being able to both communicate what’s happening in our world and kind of interpret that for people. But I think that one of the real things about having a multilayered left media and progressive media is to be able to have places where strategy can be debated, is to have places where people who aren’t actually active in that work can be in the same spaces as people who are thinking and talking about it, and kind of figure out from there what are those strategies that are going to be necessary.
I don’t have an answer, I don’t. I think the organizational… If I did, as you can attest, maybe we could just go on vacation, a lot of us could get some rest. But I do think part of it is the desire from Organizing Upgrade to really be a part of developing a broader left and progressive media, and to connecting it more thoroughly with those movements and forces on the ground.
And I would also say, you’ve referenced the movement, that Black Lives Matter movement for Black lives a few times. None of us should lose sight of the fact that we did have the biggest street movement in American history last year. And none of us should lose sight of the fact that at the peak of that movement, we had a majority support among voting Americans for a lot of the issues that we face.
Now, that majority support is something that’s going to stretch back and forth different ways. It kind of befuddles me to think about people who talk about last year, and the [inaudible] of civilians. When what it did was kind of focus, here’s something that can happen, people are ready and prepared to take action around something. We do have to give it a little bit more structure, we have to give some more things for people to do, then we can enact and make progress. But I still take enormous inspiration from last summer’s uprising. And I think that it’s also a good reminder for a lot of us in the left and progressive movement that in the United States of America, change doesn’t happen unless it’s led by the civil rights movement of our time. And that’s true for the last 100 years. And I think that’s also a lens through which to look at the movement, the fight for reproductive healthcare as well.
Marc Steiner: So they’re very difficult tasks, but I think tasks that can be accomplished in some ways are, this taking the two things we’ve talked about. Which is that in the last year we’ve seen people in the streets protesting the murder of Black people and other people of color by police, and what that’s built. And the kind of interesting cross-racial unity that’s built in those demonstrations.
As somebody who spent his early years in the civil rights movement in the South with organizations allied with SNCC, I’ve never seen a time in our history in my lifetime where so many white people in this country are fighting against racism and are in the streets. That’s unprecedented. And also the labor movement, the organizing that’s taking place.
The question is how those things come together. How the folks are in the streets saying no to the racist substructure of the station and saying yes to a new world. All saying also, their cousins and their fathers and their uncles and their aunts and mothers are all working at Walmart and other stores that are being organized.
So the question is, how do those things come together to say, no, we can do this differently, and no, you can’t take this back. You can’t take us backwards, we’re going to push it forward. That, to me, seems to be…
Alex Han: I would point toward actually some of the… There’s a kind of framework of organizing that’s called bargaining for the common good. And it’s something that I worked on as a union leader at SEIU. It’s something I’ve done some work on for the last few years, but really what the theory is for labor and for broader movements is to say, how do we think about building coalitions that can use the leverage and power that labor has in the moment that’s mostly around when contracts are being bargained?
And when you have the ability to threaten to strike, I think as this develops, you have other points of leverage in power that labor unions can potentially have that other movements don’t have. And you have a structure inside labor that other movements don’t necessarily have. And so I actually do think that there is some real possibility. And how do you bring… Something that’s been a huge point of discussion is how do we bring racial justice issues, how do we bring those broader issues into our union points.
How do we bring all of these issues together at the points of greatest leverage, where we can actually win things that are transformative. We haven’t done things, I think, on a national scale. In part because that’s not the appropriate place to start, but I can point to examples of… In Connecticut, the SEIU Local that represents nursing homes and group home work in Connecticut, 1199, New England. A local with a real fighting militant democratic mission looked at their negotiations that… We need to actually expand the field of our fight and we need to think about how we are building a movement through our contract bargaining. It kind of came together in coalition with movements for Black lives, forces, immigrant rights groups, other kinds of statewide community organizations, and other unions that work in other sectors for their big bargaining last year.
They actually had a strike vote, they were about to go on strike. The governor threatened to send in the National Guard to actually staff the nursing home. What they ended up winning was an enormous wage increase, number one, for these underpaid workers. Many of whom are going to be making $21 an hour now at nursing homes, a huge increase. They’ve created linkages in those movements and kind of a coalition that’s trying to figure out its next step. And they won racial justice demands at work that had never really been imagined before.
They want a commitment from their employers to… One of their big issues in Connecticut, they have enormous racial disparity, they have geographic disparity. If you’re working at a nursing home you might be driving 20 miles to get to your nursing home. And there was, frankly, an issue of Black workers getting pulled over for driving while Black while they’re commuting to work, which is something that ends up impacting their employer. They want commitments from their employer to work with them to go to local governments where that was happening to advocate for different policies. And so I do think there are… That’s very small, right? That doesn’t get us to the bigger victory, but I do think that we have… We don’t have control over the bigger issues, we don’t have control over the possibility of an uprising last summer. What we can do is put some of the pieces in place that can help to give structure, and help to meet the [inaudible] when bigger challenges…
Marc Steiner: Let me just conclude this with really kind of exploring what you’re about to get into here with Organizing Upgrade as their executive director. You becoming vice president of the SEIU, in the work you were doing, and then working in Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Now you’re here. So what do you see as the work of Organizing Upgrade in all of this? And what you seem to be focusing on, and where you think that takes us?
Alex Han: I think the work is about building media, different kinds of content that can actually help to illustrate the need for that last progressive front that can help us build out that strategic debate. We’ve done things like having a symposium on a set of different issues that a lot of different organizers and thinkers give their opinion in response to a piece that we’ve put out. We’ve been doing a lot of content and writing about local campaigns on fighting back against right-wing school boards, around mask mandates, things like that.
I think that there is a real space for emerging those stories of effective organizing, and those stories that people can use as a guide for the work that they’re doing in their own location with that bigger strategic debate. And I do think this is a moment when we can think about relatively small strategic interventions in the bigger national picture, and can really play an outside role.
There are examples, certainly, of being able to, if you can elect one person to office, that gives you a wedge in the door to be able to do a lot more. And so I think we can take inspiration from a lot of different places and a lot of different things, particularly that’s happened over the last few years, that really make us think. We can take a web publication, we can take a universe of media that we all exist in together, and that these are places where some of these interventions can happen.
It’s frankly, in part, what the right wing has done successfully over the last several decades, right? And I think that our orientation is always to work on mass orientation. We always want to be organizing the biggest mass of people, but I think we can walk into them at the same time. And we can be working to organize the majority of the people, but we also have to have some strategic debates that aren’t going to include millions of people, but that can have an impact on them.
Marc Steiner: That’s really important. I think that we always have to remember that the right wing over the last 50 years has made this huge push from Lewis Powell to now, from his memos to now, in the early seventies. And their organizing techniques, where’d they learn them? From us. And so now it’s time for us to take back the mantle. This is our tradition.
Alex Han: I think that’s very true. I don’t know that it requires an amazing amount of brilliance to really look at the world, at how changes have happened, and at how the other side has developed their breadth. And to say, we’re not going to do the exact same thing. I’ve never been an advocate of trying to do that. But just saying, there are tactics and lessons that we can take. And I think yours is a good point, they took them from us in the first place. They took them from the CIO to the civil rights movement, the community organizing [inaudible]. They’ve taken a lot of them, and we can reclaim those.
Marc Steiner: So let me say congratulations to you as a new executive director of Organizing Upgrade, and congratulations to them for getting you to do that. And we look forward to many more conversations and collaborations down the road, and to making all this happen together. Alex, congratulations. And thanks once again for being with us.
Alex Han: All right, thanks Marc. Thanks for having me. Anytime.
Marc Steiner: And thank you all for joining us today. It’s great to have you with us as usual. And please, support us in our effort to bring the voices of activists like Alex Han here in the United States and from around the world onto the airwaves. You can do that by going to www.therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly donor. Become part of the future with us.
So once again, thank you all for joining us. It’s really been great to have you with us. And please let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at email@example.com and I’ll get right back to you. So for Dwayne Gladden, Stephen Frank, the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.