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We hosted another Working People live show, in collaboration with the Action Builder / Action Network team, on May 8 at the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress in Montréal. In this panel discussion, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Sarah Beth Ryther, employee-organizer with Trader Joe’s United in Minneapolis, and Josh Thole, former Major League Baseball player and current Minor League Special Assistant for the MLB Players Association, about what union organizing from the ground up looks like, and about how we can scale up our local organizing efforts and build the infrastructure to sustain nationwide campaigns.

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Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez:  All right, welcome everyone to this special live show edition of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network. Produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. So first and foremost, I wanted to thank the great folks at Action Builder Action Network for putting on this great event. Let’s give it up for them [applause]. I want to thank the CLC for hosting us as well. Let’s give it up [applause].  And give yourselves a round of applause for being here. Thank you all for coming. [Applause]

All right. Friends, comrades, fellow workers, it is so good to be here with all of you at the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labor Congress. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief at the Real News Network in Baltimore in the United States, and it is my great honor to not only thank all of you for the warm welcome we have received here in Montreal but to also say that we in the States stand in solidarity with our labor brothers, sisters, and siblings here in Canada. Growing up as a Mexican-American kid in Southern California, I always heard the same stereotypes about our neighbors to the north. That Canadians are overly polite even to a fault. 

Well, I say, tell that to the over 100,000 federal public service workers across the country who waged a historic strike. Tell that to the 55,000 education workers in Ontario who not only struck for a better contract last year, but who said hell no to Doug Ford and his Draconian attempts to strip workers rights. Tell that to the Punjabi immigrant student workers with the Naujawan Support Network who are uniting and organizing with their community in Brampton to fight wage theft, exploitation, and harassment with direct action. Sure, Canadians are polite, but working-class people everywhere know that we have never gotten and will never get the respect we deserve, the wages we deserve, the working conditions we deserve, or the world we deserve by simply asking politely. We’ve got to fight for it. And I don’t know about you, but I am pumped to be among so many fighters today [applause].

And rest assured we’ve got a hell of a fight in front of us. Every week at the Real News Network and for my podcast Working People, we talk with workers across the US and around the world. From teachers and Amazon workers to graduate students, strippers, and Hollywood screenwriters. From John Deere and Kellogg’s workers to coal miners in Alabama, hospitality workers, nonprofit workers, and journalists. We see and hear firsthand how many of us are fighting on different fronts in the same class war. A cost of living crisis is pummeling poor and working people around the globe right now. From call center workers in the Philippines and utility workers in France to service workers in the United States and public sector workers in the UK and Canada. Working people’s wages stagnate or decrease while the gas bills, grocery bills, and rent skyrocket.

The social safety net is being gutted while our governments spend countless trillions on tax breaks for the super-rich and endless wars fueled by a bloodthirsty, profit-hungry military-industrial complex. Workers are working longer and harder and producing tremendous wealth and record profits that are all being siphoned into the pockets of C-suite executives and their Wall Street shareholders. Let’s hiss and boo real quick [audience boos]. Everyone seems to be working more while our quality of life on and off the job declines. And all the while we are struggling to build a future for ourselves and our families as the future of our society, our species, and the planet we share is disappearing before our eyes as we continue to careen headfirst into the age of manmade climate catastrophe.

The struggles we face are many and the obstacles in our way are daunting but we have been here before. From Ancient Egypt to the antebellum Southern United States, working people have overthrown the shackles of slavery. We have risen up against the feudal lords and kings. We have fought the scourges of child labor and apartheid. We have fought and died on picket lines for the right to unionize and collectively bargain. Working people must always fight and that fight continues today. And I could not be more honored to be joined on this live show by two incredible fighters who are going to talk to us about what that fight looks like in their corners of the world. 

We have the great Sarah Beth Ryther of Trader Joe’s United. Let’s give it up for Sarah Beth [applause]. And we’ve got Josh Thole, former professional baseball player and minor league special assistant for the MLBPA [applause]. So without further ado, I want to bring our incredible guests in here today. And now normally on the show, Working People, every week I get to sit down and have one-on-one deep conversations with workers about their lives, how they came to be the people they are, their path to doing the work that they do, and so on and so forth. With these live shows, we’ve been doing a condensed version of that, focusing specifically on people’s organizing stories. Present company may be excluded, but I imagine most of us don’t grow up imagining we’re going to be labor organizers. So everyone has an interesting story there.

I wanted to start by asking our great panelists, Sarah Beth, we’ll start with you. If you could introduce yourself to the great audience we’ve got here and everyone watching and listening after the fact. Tell us a bit about your own personal path into organizing and about why you and your coworkers took that fateful step to say, I’m not going to quit, I’m not going to leave these problems for whoever walks in the door next, but I’m going to stand with my coworkers and do something about this. What were the key issues or conditions or concerns that led you individually to feel like something needed to change and to collectively determine that unionization was the pathway to making that change?

Sarah Beth Ryther:  So I started working in the Minneapolis store in August of 2021, and Minneapolis is a city right on the Mississippi River. It’s gorgeous, it has a lot of texture. And I had heard that Trader Joe’s was an amazing place to work, that it was seven steps above every other grocery store, that it was a corporation that treated its employees well, that it was a place where you could go and have a future. And in the industry, it was the gold standard. And I started working there and personally, I’m nosy. I am a compulsively curious person, and I also talk to everybody. And so as you do, when you start a new job, you make friends with people, you learn about their lives. You ask them, what did you have for breakfast today? What are your hopes and dreams? Having conversations not only about work but about folks’ lives.

And it struck me after a couple of months of working there that the conversations I was having were overwhelmingly negative when it came to our workplace. Folks were burned out. We were still in the middle of a pandemic at that point and frontline workers who had been forced to work in rough working conditions. Emotional labor when you’re a grocery store worker and you have to interact with folks who are maybe not having the best day, that had all pressed and pressed and pressed and pressed on my coworkers and that in combination with wages that were said to be much, much better than others in the industry, but were in reality not very much better. It created this environment of dissatisfaction and it was difficult to hear. It’s hard to hear when you’re making friends with somebody and they say very truthfully, they’re not complaining, they’re stating, it’s rough. I was late again today because my bus was late, and then I got written up for being late through no fault of my own.

And that for me was the catalyst to start thinking about how things could be different. And then in the winter of that year, there were a couple of scary events that highlighted safety issues. It was very apparent that these safety issues were the responsibility of the company at large. It’s not your managers, it’s not folks who are put in a scary position next to you, it’s the fault of policies from the very, very, very highest level that trickle down to make things unsafe for the individual worker. And so in December, we started talking about unionizing, and it was whispers. I didn’t know what a union was and somehow I had made it through most of my adulthood thus far, not interacting a lot with unions. 

We started together to ask our community. Minneapolis is a union-friendly town. There are lots and lots of union folks and it has a rich labor history. So we started asking people, can you tell me about unions? We invited organizers into my living room. We asked members of unions who weren’t even grocery store unions, can you tell us what it’s like to be a member of a union to be involved in this fight? And they told us. And so we gathered information and very quickly thereafter we said, hey, let’s do this. It’s going to be an experiment. We don’t know what we’re doing. That’s okay because we trust each other. Again, we ask each other questions, we hang out with each other outside of work. And that community base led us to stand together and say, we’re good at taking this on. We can together move towards a future that feels better for all of us through unionizing. [Applause]

Josh Thole:  Well, thank you, guys, again for attending, even though I told you to come here. I had all the faith in the world in you. Thank you, Sarah. I will say this, ours is a bit different. First and foremost, it was four Minor League Baseball players who did the organizing. So we knew coming into this, what in fact was important at the time. We knew that wages were so suppressed that that needed to change. Again, to Sarah’s point, it was four guys that had no idea what a union was either, how impactful it could be. So we had a lot of learning along the way as we were learning the organizing tactics going forward and anti-union campaigns that could be run against you and everything in between.

Before we started getting deep into the players and building out our leadership base, that was step one. Step two was then building our leadership base out. And that’s what we did. We were dispatched to reach out to 150 minor league affiliates. So all 30 Major League Baseball teams have five affiliates. We look at around 180 players across 30 organizations, so 30 times 180 is quite a reach. And in fact, how were we going to do this with such a small organizing group? So we broke up our turf appropriately and we started cold-calling guys and started to try to understand – Again, we knew the question to our answer, but we wanted to hear what it was like. I was a bit removed. I was a few years removed from Minor League Baseball. The other three organizers were a little closer, they had about two or three years removed as well. And we knew what was going to be the overarching issue, but having to build the leadership out one-by-one is what was going to be the challenging part. 

And we did that. We felt it was important to have one person to reach into every minor league clubhouse. So for example, if you take the Toronto Blue Jays, we need one guy at the complex in Dunedin. One guy in Dunedin, which is now the Low-A team, one guy in Vancouver, which is the High-A team, New Hampshire; the Double-A team, and Buffalo; the Triple-A team. We knew if we could conquer getting one “point of contact” is what we called them at the time so we had some reach and we had a response there. Because we knew it was going to be important for us to figure out what was important to them now: pay, grievance procedure, housing. The housing issue was resolved the year before, but we knew we had to make it better.

Advocates for minor leaguers made a big push, publicly, to get housing for minor league players in which Major League Baseball adhered to that and gave every player now, team housing. To shed a little light on that, when I was in the minor leagues, you went into a city and you had to fend for yourself. And for the folks that heard me downstairs, that’s how you save money. When you’re making $10,000 a year, you jammed as many folks into an apartment as you could and slept on floors and air mattresses. We have the leadership, we now know what’s important, and we now had to figure out how best to do this, and again, do it in secrecy a bit. Because there was a fear for these players that if their club found out what was going to happen, were they going to get released? Because everybody’s end game is to get to the major leagues. You don’t go into professional baseball to be a lifelong minor leaguer. That was important for us as organizers to know.

And we kept everything so tight and so under wraps for months and months and months on end and continued to build out our leadership and now we have more than one guy, now there’s two guys at each affiliate, and we continued to grow the tree, if you will. And then finding out, again, once we knew what the priorities were for these guys, we then went to the Players Association and effectively asked for their blessing and said, we need help with this. Here is the grand plan. There were talks leading up to this, but we knew that it was going to be important for the Major League Baseball players to support what the minor leaguers were doing, and they did that. So the organizing campaign was different from the aspect of what we knew going in and we did have quite a bit of support obviously from the 1200 major league members [applause].

Maximillian Alvarez:  And I want to ask us to give one more round of applause for the minor leaguers for actually getting to that point and for Sarah Beth and her coworkers for winning their union in their election. Let’s give it up [applause]. Because that is no small feat. And this is one of the things we talked about before this show. About how to make the conversation relevant, not only to folks in the US but beyond. Granted, it’s easy to look better than the US by comparison when our union density is hovering barely above 10%, but we know that in Canada, with y’all having around 30%, we still have a long way to go amidst all the challenges that I laid out in the introduction. I won’t rehash those again.

But as Sara Beth said, it’s so bonkers to me that we have these rights, purportedly, as democratic citizens in our respective countries, like the right to free speech or free assembly or practicing your religion, but to exercise your rights in the workplace is one of the few areas where you have to go through a Lord of the Rings-style saga. Where you could get fired at any point, your friends could get fired. Starbucks could shut your entire store down, and that’s in the unionization campaign. Then you still have the long trek to getting that first contract. So you’re being subject to captive audience meetings, relentless union busting. You, on top of that, are subjected to delays at the bargaining table, bad faith bargaining. I can’t count how many strikes are going on in the States right now where the bosses are effectively refusing to bargain in the hopes that they can delay, demoralize, and ultimately decertify the union. 

This is happening at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where journalists have been on strike for over 200 days now. Warrior Met Coal: that strike in Alabama is still technically ongoing, but Warrior Met Coal recently filed for a de-certification vote after workers’ waged the longest strike in Alabama state history. So this is the boss’s plan, is to smother and stifle our movement at any opportunity. And that is why it makes it that much more incredible that amidst all of that, you all and your coworkers still manage to reach the point that you’ve reached but of course, that struggle is still very much ongoing. And for folks working in the United States and Canada, I wanted to take the last turn around the table to try to talk about how we get over those obstacles and how we do so in a way that allows us to scale up. So not unionizing one shop or one warehouse, but doing so in a way that allows us to build across our industry or across our employer. 

So for people out there in the US and Canada and beyond who want to organize but don’t know where to start, or for people who are organizing but are having trouble keeping the momentum going, navigating unfair labor laws and relentless union busting, let’s talk about how Trader Joe’s United and the MLBPA have dealt with those issues. So what specific challenges have you all faced in your organizing efforts and how have you and your coworkers worked to overcome those challenges? And specifically, like I said, how have you been able to do that in a way that allows you to scale up, reaching so many different Minor League Baseball players, expanding from one to two to multiple Trader Joe’s stores, dozens even? What does that scaling up entail and how did tools like Action Builder help?

Sarah Beth Ryther:  For us, first and foremost, we are not going anywhere and that is our base standard principle that we are operating from and will continue to operate from. We’re here, which means that, slow and steady, we will get where we need to go eventually, as long as we have our vision, which is as many Trader Joe’s unionized as possible. As long as we have that vision on our horizon, there are folks all across the country who have reached out to us, every single state in the US that has a Trader Joe’s, there is somebody from that Trader Joe’s who has emailed us and said, we want to unionize. We have the same problems as you. Let’s go [applause].

And it’s interesting because all of those Trader Joe’s are not unionized, precisely because of what Max was saying. If our laws were different, if you had 50% of all the workers go to the National Labor Relations Board in the US and say, we want to unionize, we would have many, many, many, many, many stores unionize. But because the laws are not like that, and because we are facing union busting, all of the stores that we would like to unionize, probably have a lot longer timeline. And maybe one person from one store calls us now and says, I want to unionize, but I don’t have the capacity. We say, you’re planting the seed. Talk to your coworkers about unionizing. If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will eventually happen. The idea, the seed, is there. 

Social media can be a great equalizer. Folks being able to tell their story here, being able to use tools like Action Network in order to reach folks that you might not be able to reach in another way and make sure that you’re checking back with them. Making sure that you’re building and maintaining relationships that allow you to build large structures and large communities in each place. That is what will get us to that horizon, to that goal over a very long period of time. But it is that dedication and that basic understanding that together we can do better. [Applause]

Josh Thole: I’m going to break this into two parts. The first question that Max asked, for me, I’ll always go back to this. If you feel like you’re getting stuck and bogged down, I always reminded myself of this that it’s all about the players, all about the players. And I knew how badly they wanted it. When we asked our leaders and each affiliate, we sent them a spreadsheet and said, we need everybody’s email address and we’re going to tell you why we need the email address later. And they said, okay, done. And we got all of the email addresses because of the players. I didn’t go clubhouse to clubhouse begging these guys. I built so much trust and my counterparts did as well. We built so much trust with our leadership base that they knew when we said, go do X, they did it. And for me, that’s what kept me motivated. That’s what kept me going. Even when there were days when the leaders were like, don’t call me today, I don’t want to speak to you. I said, fine, no problem. Call me when you’re ready. Because those days happened and they happened more times than not.

Imagine a 142-game season and your main goal is to get to the major leagues and you have some union organizer blowing your phone up to go get a petition signed or fill out a list of 30 email addresses. That’s hard. It’s hard, especially if you took a 0-4 or gave up five runs. Having to navigate that piece of it was challenging. Before I called the guy, I knew exactly what that person did the night before, because I’ll be damned if I was going to call him when he gave up a walk-off homer. I wasn’t going to do it and the guys respected that. The guys respected that we knew when to push go. So to answer that question, for me, it was trust. Building trust, always going back to it. It’s about the workers. You know that the workers want it. You have to keep your heels dug in. And for the folks that have been doing this for a long, long time, I’m definitely not telling you anything that you don’t know. 

The second part of the question about the digital tools of Action Network and Action Builder. It was so important to us because we had movement. We would have 50 to 100 transactions on a daily basis. We needed to know if our leaders were moving from time to time. That was a piece that Action Builder helped us with, to navigate the transaction portal again. And we were inputting all of that manually, but it was important for us to have one space to know, okay, I need to call a team in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Who’s my guy there? And it made it so easy. From the Action Network piece, the ability to use this email address that we begged these guys. 

That’s why that was important for us because we needed to effectively do what I’ll call test runs. That’s what they were. We needed to know the priorities and what was important to these guys, but we needed to do test runs to see what the return rate was. And to watch an overwhelming amount on the priority surveys and spring training surveys and what have you, we were getting flooded with responses back. At that moment, we knew that this was going to work. Timing was going to have to be everything. But thanks to the tool, we definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it with a notebook and paper, much less an Excel spreadsheet given the 5,600 plus players to keep track of where all these guys were. [Applause]

Maximillian Alvarez:  So we got to wrap this up, and again, I encourage everyone to please come up and talk to our amazing panelists, share stories and strategies, and let’s keep this movement building because that’s what we’re all here for. And I wanted to end on that note. Because we are recording this, this is going to go out to folks who aren’t here at the CLC with us across Canada, the US, and beyond. And so I want to ask this question for them. For anyone who’s listening to this, who is maybe thinking about organizing in their workplace, but sees everything that the Starbucks workers are going through, the Amazon workers, what they’re going through. They see the union busting and they see how quickly the public can give up on them. 

And I remember something that a French train driver outside of Paris who is currently on a general strike with his coworkers across the country – Shout out to our fellow workers in comrades and France right now – [applause] An incredible Frenchman named Matthieu Bolle-Reddat, who I’ve interviewed a number of times on this show, said to me in a recent interview that the ultimate enemy that we face is the feeling of loneliness. When you were out on that picket line or after the initial story breaks that your store’s unionizing but then people move on to another story and the managers start turning on the screws and messing with people’s schedules and surveilling people and holding captive audience meetings. You can feel very lonely and isolated, and that’s the point. 

So I wanted to ask if you had any messages for folks who know that they’re going to face that and why they should press on. Things aren’t going to get better if we don’t do something about it. And also if you had any comments for people watching, listening, or here in the audience, about the importance of solidarity across campaigns, across stores, across industries, and ultimately, across national borders. Because with that solidarity, we can achieve anything. But I wanted to ask if you had any thoughts about how that solidarity has helped you all in your campaigns. So any final messages to folks who maybe want to organize right now but are worried about what they’re going to face and any final thoughts on the importance of solidarity in keeping these efforts going.

Sarah Beth Ryther:  What Josh was talking about with trust, is absolutely vital. And that leads to the relationships that you form when you’re organizing both in your workplace and in the larger community. For anyone who is feeling alone, this room is evidence that there are many, many, many folks out there who have individuals’ backs and have each organizing campaign’s back. As I said, I didn’t know anything about unions before I started organizing, and I was floored and humbled to discover the community that was in my city, that was around the world. The folks who I talked to nearly every day are in California, they’re in Massachusetts, they’re in Kentucky, states that are thousands of miles away from me. People that I didn’t know existed and who are amazing and phenomenal and who enrich my life every day.

And that loneliness and fear can be combated by forming those relationships, by keeping those relationships, by finding folks around you who are there, who exist adjacent to you, even though you might not know it, who will support you. And I would say, again, what I was talking about earlier,  reaching out to members of your community. It can be scary to cold call somebody or email someone, but folks in labor are friendly and organizers are always there, even if they’re in a different sector to help you out. So that’s what I would say.

Josh Thole:  Thanks, Sarah. That was very well said. I will echo one piece of it, and it’s probably easy to say, hard to do. But as much as you can, keep your foot on the gas. And this is the importance of building, constantly organizing even, in my opinion, now. We’re a union and we have 5,600 new minor league members, we’re still constantly organizing. So the more you can organize, the less you feel alone. And I say that because throughout the organizing drive when I started having those feelings – And there were days where you make 55 phone calls and not one person answers the phone – You feel lonely, but the more you can go back to the ones that you have built the trust in and the ones that you have organized, I always went back to those guys, even if it was to call the BS to make sure that we’re all moving on the right track.

Again, I know I say that and I know it’s hard to do, but from that perspective, what kept our train moving was the mindset of organize, organize. Keep building out your leadership as much as you can. And then as far as solidarity goes, internally we see it. To have 1200 Major League Baseball players say, yeah, we want these guys, we want 5,600 plus new members. That’s solidarity in itself. But what you see here, even in this room, everybody has everybody’s back and everybody in this world is pulling from the same end of the rope and it’s important. Again, I’m here, I get to see it. There are a lot of organizers that are not here that don’t get to see it.

But for anybody listening and watching, it’s important to know this room is filled. Downstairs, the room was filled with almost 3,000 people. The support that you have will always be there and that’s something to never forget. If you’re feeling lost, if you’re feeling lonely, know that there is somebody in the organizing and labor world that you can pick the phone up and call and you will have instant support.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Let’s give it up for our great panelists. All right, let’s go drink, that’s good. So we can call that a recording. We didn’t quite know if the acoustics were going to work for Q&A. I would say please, if you have questions come up, ask our amazing panelists, and thank you all so much for being here. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. Goodnight.

Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network, where we lift up the voices, stories, and struggles that you care about most. And we need your help to keep doing this work so please tap your screen now, subscribe, and donate to the Real News Network. Solidarity forever.

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Editor-in-Chief
Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
Follow: @maximillian_alv