At this very moment, 10,000 UAW members at John Deere are on strike in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas; 35,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente have authorized a strike; 1,400 workers at cereal giant Kellogg’s are on strike in Nebraska, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee; 1,100 coal miners in Alabama have been on strike since April; 800 nurses in Massachusetts have been on strike since March; and many other strikes and strike authorizations are also unfolding. On top of that, record numbers of US workers are voluntarily quitting their jobs, in what is being called the “Great Resignation.” Something is happening here. How should we understand this pivotal moment of labor strife? And what could this moment become if the working class gets more organized and more militant?
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc talks about Striketober, the “Great Resignation,” labor militancy, and the importance of bottom-up organizing with longtime labor organizer Alex Han. Han is a former union leader who has spent 20 years organizing in the labor movement; he is the Bargaining for the Common Good Fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Tuesday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Stephen Frank
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.
I think we’re in the midst of a seemingly historical moment. Worker militancy is seething across the country. We’ve had well over 169 strikes this year, from the John Deere workers striking, to IATSE, which is the Hollywood union, taking on the Hollywood bosses. The hospital workers at Kaiser Permanente and nurses across America are standing up, to name just a few. The surge was sparked by the militancy of teachers across America early this year, and as far back as 2011. So, as we watch the surge of the right wing, we’re also seeing a surge in union organizing and strikes that not only pushes against the power of capital and capitalists themselves, but threatens the right wing. Where might it go? What could it mean for the future of this nation and the future of labor?
Well, today we talk with Alex Han. He spent 20 years as a labor organizer, as a former union leader, and currently, he’s the Bargaining for the Common Good fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University.
Well, Alex, it’s great to have you with us. Welcome, glad you could join us.
Alex Han: All right. Thanks for having me, Marc.
Marc Steiner: Besides the introduction, this is a way of quick background for people listening to us right now. You’ve been involved in the union movement for a long time, and with different unions. Talk a bit about yourself for just a second.
Alex Han: Yeah. I’ve spent most of the last 20 years as an organizer, a staffer, and officer of the union. The bulk of it is with SEIU Healthcare, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas. My former local union, which I served as a vice president for many years, but have organized in a lot of different industries all across the country, and continue to do work with unions and groups of workers that are organizing and fighting. Right now, through my role with Bargaining for the Common Good Network, really working with unions and community organizations to figure out strategies to, just like the name says, to bargain for the common good. To talk about both campaigns that can, I think, take the leverage that unions have, particularly in contract negotiations, and win demands that are much broader than just for their membership.
Marc Steiner: So when you look at this moment we’re in, John Deere and Kellogg’s on strike, and steel workers in West Virginia are on strike, and Alabama coal miners, nurses in Massachusetts, whiskey makers in Kentucky, bus drivers in Reno, and the stuff that’s happening now with the vote in the UAW to directly elect their leaders. There’s a lot that is tumbling out at the moment, and some really important labor struggles at the moment. What do you think we’re in the midst of? I mean, I know some people have said part of this is COVID-driven. I read that this morning again, and it’s the workers leaving their jobs. But tell me what you think is going on? What’s your analysis about why this eruption, at this moment?
Alex Han: I mean, I think there’s a confluence, there’s a convergence of a lot of different factors. And I think part of the question in front of us is whether this is a moment, or whether this is in some ways a return to the amount of labor unrest that has existed at different points over the last 40 or 50 years. One of our challenges is that collectively, our memories are so short, and so we think of the last 10, 15, 20 years, and those have really been the nadir of big labor action and labor unrest around the country.
So part of the question again, is whether we’re looking at a spike in part as a result of coming out of a little bit of the COVID wave, the dissatisfaction that workers have, particularly thinking about these John Deere workers, Nabisco, Frito-Lay, workers that have spent so much, or Kellogg’s workers that have been forced to work double time, mandatory overtime, six and seven days a week for a year and a half, and are just at that breaking point. You see that, you mentioned those nurses in Massachusetts. There’s also 2000 nurses and hospital workers in Buffalo who have been on strike for several weeks. And so you see the dissatisfaction building up and I think coming out. But I do think, again, the big question is, is this going to be a momentary wave? Or is this a rising tide of labor action that’s going to be rolling out moving forward?
Marc Steiner: I mean, when you only have 10% or so of workers in this country unionized, which is a really low number, and people don’t see a lot of sustained organizing going on. We can talk about Bessemer in a minute and what that meant. So I mean, let’s talk about how far do you think this goes? I mean, people are pissed off. This morning I learned from my colleague Max Alvarez, he interviewed David Story, who is a machinist in Alabama, and this is a bit of what David Story said. He said, “This is a historic moment. There are many people quitting, it’s significant. There’s opportunities in the labor movement. People are dissatisfied. The only option is to leave, most people, not to stay and fight. Or is it to stay and fight?” I think that’s the question at the moment. I mean, so how does it all fit in to the organizing, or the lack of it?
Alex Han: I mean, I think the number was in August you had 3% of American workers quit their jobs, an unprecedented number. And I think there are, again this is linked in a couple ways to a convergence of the pandemic. I would say also, some of that we see having the barest social safety net gives workers, particularly in very difficult jobs in service industries, where a lot of people, the day-to-day work is so much harder and has gotten harder over the years with automation, and with technology that has really advanced employers’ ability to squeeze the most out of workers. And so you see, a child tax credit, a broad eviction moratorium, as spotty as that is, but you see a bare minimum of protections really giving millions of workers an ability to take action for themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not organized in most instances and so you see this as… Or it’s organized in a very ad hoc way, right.
I think we’ve all probably seen those pictures on social media, people putting up signs at their fast food restaurants, saying, we all quit, so we’re closed for the day. I think that’s something that I think we’ve seen and felt, and we’re seeing a reordering of that system. One of the questions is whether organization can grow that’s able to capture some of that discontent, and move that into a direction that gives workers actual leverage in a collective way.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about that for a moment. I mean, you had this interesting back and forth around the Bessemer strike in the nation. And the fellow, Ryan, who wrote the opposite of which—Not the opposite, but the other essay—Was talking about how the problem is, this is not … You can’t organize this on a mass scale, and the unions and the union leadership and unions are not doing their job, because it’s not worker based. I mean, how do you see this unfolding because I think [crosstalk] –
Alex Han: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.
Alex Han: Sorry to interrupt, Marc, but I do think –
Marc Steiner: That’s all right.
Alex Han: – I think a lot of this is about… If we think about the times that not just the labor movement has grown, but that worker’s bargaining power vis-a-vis their employers, broadly, has grown. Those things happen in moments of great upsurge and great broader volatility.
If we think about the Great Depression in the ’30s, If we think about the rise of public sector organizing in the ’60s and ’70s, those are on the heels of huge massive… And in some ways over the last year and a half, we’ve had a little bit of both of those eras happen all at once, right. We’ve had pandemic. We’ve had a fear of economic downturn that has actually forced the American government into a more Keynesian mode, where they’re willing to actually put money out there to help people survive. We’ve also seen the birth of a new civil rights movement last summer, and the greatest upsurge in street action in American history. Those things are happening at the same time. I mean, to me a lot of it is about not being prescriptive, and a lot of it is about the organizations that exist shifting themselves in ways… You can’t take a big bureaucracy that has hundreds of thousands of members who depend on that bureaucracy, like a labor union, who depend on that for their protections at work, for their benefits and the maintenance of all of that.
You can’t turn that on a dime. But one thing we can do is look for opportunities that shift all of our organizations that exist into a slightly more open position to that new organizing, that we can watch and help support workers develop new organizations. Things like an effort at Amazon warehouses around the country called Amazonians United, a very bottom-up workers in those warehouses developing committees in the shop.
And I think that none of us, we understand that none of the organizations or institutions are ideas we have right now is sufficient. If they were, then we would be in a more powerful position right now. But a lot of this is, how do we orient ourselves to a moment where big growth is possible? Number one, millions of people are willing to take action together at the same time.
Marc Steiner: Let me pick up on that, on a couple of things, and I’m asking you this question a couple of different ways. I mean, one, I never worked directly for a union but I did a lot of organizing, union organizing, in workplaces as a younger man. I remember, whether it was the teacher’s union or working in a warehouse and bringing the Teamsters in, it was the workers themselves, whether we were unloading boxes or whether we were teaching kids, that actually organized in place and brought the union in. As opposed to unions coming in top-down, not knowing what the hell is going on in the place they’re in, and stumbling all over the place. It seems to me in some ways, and you can correct me on this please, but in some ways it feels as if we have lost the ability and understanding of what it means to organize, and how to organize, to grow it back to where it was, let alone build it to be bigger than what it was.
Alex Han: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and I think that part of what we’ve seen over this last couple of years is also, it’s not directly tied to, but there’s a linkage to, say, the movement of militant teachers’ unions that has really grown over the last 10 years that had a rebirth really in Chicago, with the election of the new leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010, that led to the Chicago teachers strike in 2012. A really enormous and I think pivotal moment, as we look back, that really helped to inspire. I mean, that was a rank and file takeover. Rank and file teachers rising up to take over their union. And we see they were inspired by movements of the past as well, but I think that we’ve seen that activity develop and build.
And so, I think we have also organizations like Labor Notes which really also over the 10 years has seen an enormous growth in its reach and its ability to train a layer, mostly of union members, rank and file union members, in some ways to be prepared when opportunity comes. Training is not just you get trained to do a certain kind of campaign, so tomorrow you have to go out and do that campaign. Part of that has to be an understanding of what are the political conditions, what are the economic conditions, what are the conditions vis-a-vis an employer that allow for different tactics and strategies? But I think we’ve got, right now as opposed to 10 years ago, thousands and thousands more people who are, again, networked together in various ways. Some of them loose and some of them stronger.
I would also relate it, frankly, to the growth of things like the DSA, like the Movement for Black Lives, where I think a big focus of that is really turning people into organizers where they are. And I think we saw the fruit of some of that, again, last summer when we saw Black Lives… We saw demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd that happened in thousands of places around the country. I was watching that for myself in the Midwest, seeing some of these demonstrations pop up in places where you could not have imagined them pop up even just a few years before. And part of that is because so many more people have the tools to understand what they can do in a moment like that. I remember, I was tracking actions happening in what had been known even to this day as sundown towns, where people of color, particularly Black people, can’t find themselves after sundown. And we just saw these kind of movements against police brutality really have a reach into a lot of different places. So I think it’s true across the board.
Marc Steiner: So how do you see that? Let’s just take what you wrote about the other day and what we covered at Real News as well a bit, which was the Bessemer strike, union organizing in Alabama. And Amazon itself. Amazon is huge, and so there are people doing things in Amazon all across the country, though there doesn’t seem to be a very united coordination of that.
If you look at Amazon in some ways as… There are a few other folks in the digital world as well, but Amazon as the new Bethlehem Steel, the new General Motors, that is employing thousands and thousands of workers at crappy wages, terrible benefits, working their butts off. And so how do you take something like what happened at Bessemer, and turn that into victory and turn that into organizing in place that actually can build a national movement that takes on a place like Amazon? How does that happen?
Alex Han: Well, I think part of it, and I grew up in Michigan, so I always think of General Motors as the analogy.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. Yeah.
Alex Han: But I think if we look at that, we’ve got to look at the history of how General Motors was organized as well. Now people on the left may… You’ve heard of the sit-down strikes, the formation of the UAW, but there were decades of different organizing attempts before that, that failed. There was a [cadre] leadership developed. There were people who were fired. There was all sorts of different attempts to organize from different perspectives, from a trade union craft union perspective. There was organizing that was happening with a much more political context, a sharper socialist context. And I think all of those efforts helped lead up to building an ability and a resonance with workers to be able to advance that organizing in ’36, ’37 and beyond.
And so I think Amazon and a lot of these giants are no different. There are a lot of different efforts, and I don’t think that we can close the door to any of those efforts as long as they’re not working against each other. So you’ve had these broad community fights against the relocation of their headquarters, or the HQ2, several years ago. One of those big victories was in New York City, where community organizations, elected officials, some of labor, were able to band together to prevent Amazon’s HQ2 from landing with an enormous amount of taxpayer funding in New York City. So you have a lot of these different efforts. And I looked at Bessemer. Hey, look, I’m an organizer who has spent a lot of time working with workers who want to organize. It’s an extremely difficult task to organize a union in the workplace—
Marc Steiner: It is.
Alex Han: …Even in the best of circumstances. From my perspective, as I watched that campaign, in support of it in various different ways, are there critiques that you can lay on the campaign? Of course, there are. There are critiques I can make of anything that I’ve ever worked on. But you had a group of workers and a union that was really rooted in that community that were willing to take a big risk, and understand that they hadn’t figured out how to do it. I think one of the phrases I heard at the time was they felt like they’d grabbed a tiger by the tail, and part of that is you have to play out the string. You have to give workers who are involved and engaged the agency to push that, and I actually give those workers credit in this moment for helping to build a path toward where the John Deere workers are willing to walk off the job now, where you had this big push and we’ll see what happens with the theatrical and stage employees, around that potential Hollywood strike and that contract.
But I give those Bessemer workers a ton of credit for being willing to stand up and take a risk. That also was in the belly of the beast in the most… There was a New York Times live ticker during the vote count of that Amazon Bessemer union vote, and to have that amount of media attention laid onto the union organizing effort. And really starkly, I think, laying out the challenges of that effort I think are really, really important in the longer term.
Marc Steiner: So let me stay with Bessemer for just a minute. I mean, it was in Alabama. From the Times to the book Hammer and Hoe, that I’m sure you know.
Alex Han: Yes.
Marc Steiner: And other books about organizing in Alabama, it’s not the easiest place for a union to organize.
Alex Han: No.
Marc Steiner: It’s one of the hardest places in the country. And the vote was lopsided in terms of killing the union effort at that moment, right.
Alex Han: Right.
Marc Steiner: So, A, I’m just curious, very quickly, what do you think happened, and what do you learn from that? How do you build on that to make a stronger union effort in organizing workers at Amazon, no matter where they are?
Alex Han: Well, I mean, one thing that you saw, and I can’t remember exactly the number of ballots that Amazon challenged. But I will say that while the result looked lopsided from a pure numbers perspective, I believe they had challenged something on the order of 700 or 800 ballots. When the employer challenges a ballot, you can be pretty sure that that was going to be a vote for the union. And so the actual numbers, given who voted, are going to be significantly still lopsided but significantly less so than what was reported on. So that’s one of those… In any election you look at the employer’s challenge ballots. I mean, what it says for that effort inside that warehouse, I can’t say, and part of that is because of the enormous turnover that happens. I can say that I think it surfaced a level of organizing at Amazon warehouses around the country that was not visible. It allowed for linkages for others in the movement to try to figure out what was going on with Amazon organizing in their area, and I think it’s just leveled up and put a bigger spotlight on that.
I think Alabama is… And I think this is also somewhat of a misconception in progressive circles. This is the question of the South is an enormously complicated question that can never be reduced to, this is a place that’s hard for this and this is a place that’s easy for this. It works in so many dimensions. Because I think Alabama has also been historically the site of an enormous amount of labor militancy, and enormous amount of Black leadership expressed [through] labor militancy. It has been, at various points, a stronghold of the steel workers. It has been a stronghold of textile unionization, and really a battleground in a lot of those big fights, really until relatively recently. So, it’s an area that is where I think that possibility exists, that history exists, of really fighting militant unionism. I think in a different way, frankly, maybe than some non-right to work states where the tradition of unionism has veered much more clearly into complacency, and developing the status quo that leadership thinks works. [crosstalk ]
Marc Steiner: So do you think a cohesive national movement can be built, and do you think that’s important to have that built?
Alex Han: Around Amazon specifically or –
Marc Steiner: Around Amazon or any other union movement in general but I was just talking about Amazon.
Alex Han: I think so.
Marc Steiner: Yeah.
Alex Han: Yeah. I think so, and I think it requires workers who are in motion and in action and building power to be at the center of building that, which is really what industrial unionism was. It was what the rise of public sector unionism during and in the wake of the civil rights movement. Those were expressions of a set of workers who really needed to take the lead.
So when we look at the labor movement, we say, the labor movement should do this or that, a lot of those arguments, there’s a lot of truth. The labor movement should be thinking about X, Y or Z. But really I think one of the things we need to be thinking about is, how do we grow the labor movement? Because those people who are engaged in militant fights for organizing, who are engaged in those struggles, need to be in a position to take leadership in these organizations or in these national efforts to really shift the direction that they’re in. I say that having, again, been an organizer for a couple of decades. And in a lot of ways understanding very clearly what I don’t know, and being willing to take the leadership and the lead of people who are in motion and in those fights and living them day-to-day.
Marc Steiner: And inside the labor unions as well. I mean, you’re seeing, whether it’s the vote taking place in the UAW, allowing for direct vote by workers to elect leadership, or the battle inside the Teamsters at the moment with these two battling slates. With a very progressive left slate that has a lot of power, battling the old Hoffa slate I think for leadership of the Teamsters. These are also critical to what happens next.
Alex Han: They are, and I think the Teamsters example is so interesting because I think to a degree you also have… You’ve moved the Overton window inside that union has shifted, so that even what people think of as the old guard slate, they have to at the very least be running a message in the narrative that says, we want to go after Amazon. We want to do X, Y and Z, all of these things too. And I think that those things show where that conversation has moved.
We’ll see how the UAW referendum turns out. A lot of challenges ahead for the UAW, regardless. One thing I would say is, how does that question of democracy articulate itself in the need to organize manufacturers of electric vehicles? Which I think the UAW has attempted to some degree, but no success thus far.
And so, I think it’s interesting to think of that Teamsters election. It’s certainly not dominated by Amazon, but Amazon’s an undercurrent for so many Teamster members over those campaigns. And it would be interesting for me, hopefully with a successful conclusion of this strike at John Deere in the UAW. It would be really interesting to see that internal debate played out through the lens of, how are we going to organize in this industry which we know is growing, this piece of the industry that’s growing? What’s the competing vision to give agency and leadership to workers in the electric vehicle industry?
Marc Steiner: So I’m curious where you think this moment we see ourselves in with 4.7 million workers leaving their jobs, with, I think it was, the last I read, 169 strikes that have happened this year, with this, some very spontaneous, everything from IATSE in Hollywood to the stuff in Bessemer. What do you think this is indicative of? Where do you think this is leading, in terms of unions that really have to build their power? Which in many ways, as you know, will be built on organizing and the ability to organize.
Alex Han: Right. Right.
Marc Steiner: So talk about where you think this moment is and what is actually happening now? I know you’re not prescient. You have no crystal ball. But you’ve been in this business, you’ve been doing this a long time, so what do you think?
Alex Han: Yeah, I mean, I’m hopeful that what it’s leading toward is again a leveling up of the amount of day-to-day labor unrest that exists right now. A lot of people did a lot of work in my old union, the SEIU Healthcare, essentially to come to a place several years ago that said, we’re always going to have a strike on the table as an option. When we want to go talk about our bargaining or about this fight that’s happening in any place in the healthcare industry and the childcare industry, we’re going to start that conversation with the knowledge that a strike is on the table as one of our weapons. Which is something that, frankly, in a lot of labor had been set aside for a long time. There are things that we need to relearn and muscle memory that we need to learn.
So one thing I’m hopeful of is that we’ve again, leveled up the level of strike activity and [sharper] activity around the boss. But I do think some of it, again, it all goes to… And I say this about our work in Bargaining for the Common Good too. If we’re not leading to organizing for the common good, bargaining for the 9% or 10% of people who are left in unions, and that number may fluctuate. That’s a dead end regardless of how skilled that bargaining is, regardless of how big the fight is. If we don’t have the ability to take those fights and express them into new industries and new organizing, then I’m not sure where it leads us. I would actually, and if you’ll allow me the liberty to go back to 2012 again –
Marc Steiner: Sure. Sure.
Alex Han: …Which is a really important moment. The one thing that I point to frequently is to say, the Fight for $15, which was launched in Chicago in the summer and fall of 2012, would not have been a campaign without the strike of the Chicago Teachers Union in September of 2012. And I say that to say there were groups of workers across the Magnificent Mile, across downtown, restaurant and retail workers who were meeting in the City of Chicago to launch out an organizing campaign. Most of the workers were 19, 20, 22 years old. They were recent graduates of the Chicago Public Schools, and to see their teachers go on strike, not just for their own pay and benefits but to say, students’ learning conditions or teachers’ working conditions. To say, we need social workers and librarians. That we need supports for students who are facing really challenging conditions in their communities.
That lit off an enormous light bulb in a lot of people’s heads. We remember back to 2012 when it was a fight to get the Obama administration to propose a $10 minimum wage. And the fact that those workers came out of that fight, it was several weeks after the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, when workers decided on a $15 an hour demand, which was laughed at. The media in Chicago initially wouldn’t even cover it, or would barely cover it. But they started doing a set of strikes and actions, shutting down parts of downtown for days at a time, and it started to sink in. I say that to say, when I look at all of this strike activity, one of the things that we know, when a union goes on strike, that’s generally a defensive fight. It takes a lot of work to make that an offensive fight.
And even if it’s an offensive fight, which you could say a set of these John Deere workers, UAW members, they think of that as an offensive fight, but it’s really just defense being played two decades later. They’re trying to prevent a three tier system, and fight back against a two tier system. And so these are fundamentally defensive fights. A defensive fight is enormously important, but if it doesn’t help to build a movement that is going to go on the offense and open up space for new workers to organize, then again, it’s not… They’re important fights to have, but the resonance that they could have is much smaller.
Alex Han: So I always point to that 2012 to say, what are the fights that are happening now? Where are the places where workers are in motion or could be in motion, where they can take inspiration from these workers on the picket line at John Deere or at Kellogg’s? And that’s an open question to me, and something I’m really curious to figure out.
Marc Steiner: Well, that’s good. Seeing that I could continue this conversation we should continue there. I think that there’s so much to explore here but [what] happens to our future in terms of unions but… Also the tier system you mentioned that struck me because that is one of their tools to destroy workers’ rights, and people making a living, and destroy unions. The whole tier structure in businesses… And then when you raise the issue of organizing, just what does organizing mean? And how do you get that started in this 21st century, between the union organizers on the one hand, but training workers so they can organize inside their workplace, which is really where it happens, right?
Alex Han: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Marc Steiner: So there’s a lot of [crosstalk] –
Alex Han: I mean, we could talk about this forever and we should continue this conversation –
Marc Steiner: We should. Yes, we should.
Alex Han: This is exactly what I like to spend at least a chunk of my day talking about. But I do think there are again, there are ways that we can look to the past, whether recent past or further in the past, for some direct lessons. And those don’t outline exactly what we need to do going forward, but we can look at themes that come out of that and we can look at bigger narrative. There is something about a campaign, or a good organizer, or a good message, or a good picket sign. That doesn’t create the kind of waves in society that are going to help create the next upsurge in labor, that are going to help create the new labor movement. But again, I think it’s being prepared to be able to amplify and ride that wave and to help it continue moving forward, is the task for a lot of organizers right now.
Marc Steiner: Well, Alex Han, I hope this is just the beginning of our conversations and our collaborating on how we get these messages out and what we have to do as the unions have to rise up and we have to make a change. And I want to thank you so much for joining us today and thank you for your work.
Alex Han: All right. Thank you, Marc. It was great to be here.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. Please let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I promise I’ll get right back to you. And if you’ve not joined us yet, please go to www.therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly donor and become part of the future with us.
So for Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.