2021 was an energizing year for a labor movement that has had its back against the wall for a long time. From record numbers of American workers voluntarily quitting their jobs to publicly supported strikes and unionization drives in different sectors of the economy, more and more working people are taking action and standing up for themselves. But this is just the beginning—there’s still a lot of work to do, and 2022 will provide a crucial test for the labor movement and its supporters. In this special panel episode of Working People, originally published in November as a bonus episode for patrons, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez talks to three full-time union organizers—Puja Datta (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), Margaret McLaughlin (United University Professions), and Diana Hussein (UNITE HERE)—about what Striketober and 2021 in general have meant for the labor movement. They also discuss the day-to-day work of being a union organizer and what people around the country can do to build working-class power.

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Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez:        All right. Well, welcome everyone to another special bonus episode 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 supported entirely by amazing listeners like you.

So we’ve got a really special treat for you all today on the bonus feed. If you are watching the video version of this, hello. If you are listening to the audio version of this, just a little reminder that the video version is available for our amazing Patreon subscribers. You can find the link to that in the show notes.

But let’s see. We’ve got, as I said, a really exciting panel that we’ve convened here. I couldn’t be more excited about it. These are three amazing people who I’ve wanted to get on the show for a long time and I’m truly grateful to them for making the time to come on the show and talk to us. We’re going to get to know more about them, the vital work that they do. We’re going to talk about things like strike to striketober, strikesgiving, and just get a sense of this important moment in the labor movement, what these amazing people are seeing on the ground, what important worker struggles or issues listeners should be paying attention to. We’re going to dig into all of that. But right now why don’t we go around the table and introduce ourselves to the great viewers and listeners. So, Puja, why don’t you get us started?

Puja Datta:               Hello, fellow workers. My name is Puja Datta. I am the South Dakota labor representative and organizer for AFSCME Council 65. Or how I like to refer to myself, a foot soldier for the revolution. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Margaret McLaughlin:    All right. I’m Margaret McLaughlin. She/her pronouns. I am in Albany, New York. I’m a policy analyst with United University Professions. I was previously an international representative with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International.

Diana Hussein:               Hello, I’m Diana Hussein. I do communications. I hate introducing myself, but I do communications for UNITE HERE hospitality workers’ union. Been there about six years now.

Maximillian Alvarez:         Hell yeah. Well, Puja, Diana, Margaret, again, it’s really an honor to have you all on the show. If folks listening don’t know about you all and your work they need to remedy that yesterday. Obviously we’re going to be linking to your profiles and all that good stuff in the show notes.

But I actually wanted to take some of the elements of the standard Working People show and the bonus episodes that we do and fuse them together, because you three are… I love how you put it, Puja. You’re foot soldiers for the revolution. You’re out there doing the work day in, day out to build the organized labor movement, to talk to workers, to address their needs, to build worker power. A lot of that is really behind-the-scenes work that folks who are maybe seeing the headlines about these different strikes or who are maybe themselves feeling that fervor that we’re now seeing take shape in things like the “Great Resignation” and all that stuff. There’s a lot of things that you all do that are very vital to the labor movement that maybe a lot of folks don’t know about or see, or really know what your day entails.

So I was actually wondering if we could start by getting to know more about you three, how you got into doing the work that you do. Also, not that there’s such a thing as a typical week, but if you could give folks a sense of what being a professional organizer, being a professional foot soldier for the workers’ movement, the revolution, what that looks like on a day-to-day level.

Puja Datta:                               The way that I came into the movement is atypical, I think. I moved out of my house when I was 15. I didn’t go to college. I worked a bunch of low-paying blue collar, white collar jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head, to keep health insurance on, to make my body work. I think that’s a pretty typical story for most American workers. A thing that really happened to me during this time is that it radicalized me. I watched people around me get fired right and left for having to go home and take care of their sick children, for blowing their tires while coming into work. I really noticed that the CEOs at the companies that I was working for were still making millions and millions of dollars. But the people who were actually doing the work, who were actually the backbone of the people making this money, they were the ones getting fucked over, over and over and over.

To me, I thought, wow. That’s pretty crazy. How am I in this position, how are the rest of us in this position, how are we ever supposed to get out of this? What are we supposed to do to get this idea of the American dream that’s been sold to us? Which is a lie. The American dream is not a thing that most of us are ever going to be able to achieve.

So for me, I worked, like I said, in all these rank and file jobs particularly. I was like, what can I do to make the world a better place? At that time, Bernie Sanders was running in 2015. I was like, oh wow. Here’s a guy who’s actually talking about the problems in this country. Here’s a guy who’s talking about the corporations, the CEOs, the issues that are affecting working-class people. I threw myself into that. Never knocked a door before, never made a political call. I knocked doors over four states. I became a delegate. I just threw myself into the whole damn thing. Through that, I discovered the labor movement. I was like, oh, there’s a whole class and subdivision of things that we can do to help the workers of this country.

And so here I am six years later. I’ve worked at several different unions, I’ve done several different jobs. My passion is really organizing new members into the labor movement. That’s the most beautiful aspect of what we do, turning a worker from someone who’s subjugated by the boss, who feels powerless, to someone who has the ability to be like, actually, fuck you. I’m not going to take that. I’m going to fight back. I’m going to argue for myself. I’m going to advocate for the people I sit next to and work with every day, my work family, because we spend more time with our colleagues than we do anybody else in this world because that’s the nature of the capitalist hell hole that we live in. That is the reason why I was like, well, this is the way we’re going to fix things. This is the way we’re going to make things better. And here I am. I feel like I just talked a lot. I’m sorry.

Maximillian Alvarez:      No, that was great. I mean keep going. But I mean, well, let’s keep doing that. So, Margaret and Diana, if you could talk a bit about your path into labor organizing, into the movement, and then maybe we’ll go back around and talk about the things that you’ve been working on recently, what your work week looks like.

Margaret McLaughlin:       So I, similarly… I mean getting into the labor movement is… I feel like there are dozens and dozens of ways to get into it. I, like Puja, was very much activated by Bernie Sanders. Radicalized by my childhood. My dad was disabled. So we had to deal with a lot of insurance companies following us and stuff when I was a kid, very weird stuff. So I always had this class consciousness that they’re trying to squeeze as much as possible from the people that are making the very least while you see people riding around in jets going all over the exorbitant wealth, people going to Mars now.

I was a policy person prior to this. So I did progressive policy with a couple of organizations and budget analysis. So I was originally hired by the bakery workers to be a strategic campaigns coordinator. So it was a little bit of organizing, going to work sites and talking to people about what tactics the boss is using and seeing that as a larger picture, like maybe they were just bought by a hedge fund, trying to figure out from the line to the board room where the company’s weak points are, and later became a rep for them. So working on negotiations and also organizing.

Now I’m back with United University Professions, which represents SUNY schools and state hospitals in New York state, and doing policy here. So that is a lot of making sure that we pass a super wealth tax in New York state, making sure that we pass the New York Health Act. We can get into those specifics on where unions are with Medicare for All, but luckily my union has endorsed that and fights for it. So, yeah, unions do a lot of things. You can be a lawyer for a union. You can be an accountant for a union. You can be an organizer for a union. Yeah, so it’s a varied field within the field itself.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Hell yeah. Now we did an episode, I think it was at the beginning of this year, with Aaron Major from SUNY Albany with UUP. It was really, really fascinating, but it gave, I think, people a much more granular sense of what that labor side looks like in academia and something that we don’t often think about. We think of academia as the vaunted halls of learning where everyone has elbow patches and has good healthcare. [imitates buzzer sound] Not quite the case. But that’s really, really cool to hear. Diana, what about you? How’d you get into the movement?

Diana Hussein:               Well, I guess it’s not really all that sexy. I saw a job listing. But, really, if we take a step back, I, too, like Marge and Puja, have been radicalized by life experience. I’m sitting here trying to think of what exactly am I going to talk about? I’m like you know what? In organizing conversations you share your story. So we are all sharing our story. I’ll share a little bit of mine.

I grew up Arab in America. So my last name was Hussein before 9/11 happened. So stuff that you hear about happening to Brown people, especially Arabs and other people of color after 9/11, had been happening to me my entire 1990s, especially growing up and my first memories in America were during the Gulf War. So I’ve seen and experienced injustices, felt injustices. My parents, collectively, two parents, three wars they fled. My mom was born in Tanzania, had to flee a revolutionary war there, and then had to leave Lebanon in the late ’70s. My dad also had to leave Lebanon in the ’60s, both during war time.

It’s just been in my blood. As I get older – And I don’t know if this is an experience everybody’s having with their parents – But I’m experiencing this thing where I’m learning more about my father, especially because I was home with my parents during the pandemic. So we’d take these walks and I’d learn new things.

I learned my dad growing up was really into Arab socialism and this guy named Nasser. Apparently there’s this whole history, and he went and saw this guy speak in Syria. It’s just really funny, I had no idea. As I was getting into this work and really finding myself through this work I didn’t know all that. So apparently it’s in my blood. But, yeah, I had worked at a nonprofit for about a year in 2014. It’s this Arab American social services group. They had this arm of it that was a national advocacy group. I worked for the national advocacy group that was like a network of other nonprofits serving Arab Americans in their communities, too.

Structurally, it was similar to a union. However, for every reason that it was not like a union is the difference between nonprofits and unions. I thought I was getting into work serving my community, serving Muslims and Arabs. We launched a campaign to take on hate. It was this whole thing where I felt like, okay, I came from really the sports and entertainment world. There’s a whole backstory to that but that’s irrelevant right now. But I really at that point thought that’s how you do good work, is through a nonprofit, and it turned out it’s not. It’s very bureaucratic and you’re still beheld to money. You’re beheld to funders just as much as companies are beheld to their profit and bottom line.

But then when I was looking for a job after that it was really difficult. I’m from Michigan. I’m from the Detroit area. There weren’t really any communications jobs doing advocacy work which is what I thought I was looking for and how I referred to it at the time. Then I came across one, a job listing that seemed like it was that, but it wasn’t. I went to the website and I was like, did I write this copy here? It just spoke beautifully. It was about empowering a working class of predominantly women and people of color and immigrants. I’m like, this sounds awesome. What is this place? It’s a union called UNITE HERE.

Being from Detroit, you’d think I’d have a little bit more of a connection to the union movement at that time, but I didn’t. I was like I knew what labor was because I worked on Democratic campaigns and I knew labor was an important endorsement and important to have on your side. I knew what labor unions did. But really, if anything, I characterized them in this way where it was UAW, Auto Workers, and like a stereotype of who that is almost. And so, I never understood unions could be this thing that UNITE Here is and that it is like, really, I feel like I’m serving my community more through the work that we do by organizing Muslim and Arab members across the country. By far, I think we’re changing people’s lives more than some nonprofit can ever do.

No disrespect to nonprofits in general. But I just feel like I find my work more valuable in the labor movement because now I see… I mean in my union too. Our members, I would say, on average are in their 50s and 60s. I meet a lot of older members who have kids and grandkids. They’re Black and Brown and immigrants, and they remind me of my family. My dad’s a cab driver. My mom was a cleaner, now she can’t work. So I just feel really connected to the membership. I feel very, very connected to the movement as a whole. But I’m sitting here wearing this goofy UNITE HERE hat, but I am definitely proud of the union that I specifically get to work with and on staff.

And so, yeah, just talking about the three of us being staff people, I think, Puja, before we were on, not to take away what you were saying, that we are also workers, too. I think just listening to my sisters’ stories here, and some of it I wasn’t even aware of as much as I know and love these women that I’m on here with. But it’s really beautiful to hear that our stories are connected to the movement’s work, that we always talk about people who are doing it because they have no choice versus people who choose it. I think the three of us here can say we don’t feel like we have a choice.

Maximillian Alvarez:           Well, I mean that’s definitely something that I want us to circle back to because I think it’s something that we don’t talk enough about. I mean I think a lot of people, if they weren’t radicalized, were more activated with the Bernie Sanders campaign. There’s a lot of social movements going on in the country over the past decade. But that did seem to be a big inflection point for our generation. But I feel like the narrative has been like a lot of people got into political organizing. You got really into DSA, or I guess kind of like traditional politics-focused in the years after Bernie Sanders. Not like the four of us don’t follow that shit and aren’t involved in that shit. But there is just an interesting way in which the three of you, and I imagine many others, really, after that moment,4 got deeply invested in labor and really found that as the way to channel your energies. Like you said, you feel compelled to do something. That was the vehicle through which to do it and help people.

So I want to definitely get the three of your thoughts on that. But let’s pick up on that last point, Diana. Puja was saying before we got recording about that labor side of being a union staffer. I mean the work that you do that often goes either completely unacknowledged or goes completely misrepresented when people talk about union bosses and union bureaucrats and all that stuff. We have a very set cultural image of what working in a union looks like. I imagine it doesn’t look like what the three of you would describe to people. So could we talk a bit about, as workers and as organizers, what your weeks look like, what sort of work you do, what sort of campaigns you’re working on, and just give us a sense of the labor that you do that folks probably don’t know a whole lot about.

Puja Datta:                     The truth is we work our asses off. We work our asses off. Most of us work over 40 hours a week. Most of us work weekends. Most of us will wake up early to get on calls, to go visit workers. Most of us will stay up late to do the same things. At the end of the day most of us do labor work because we believe it’s the pathway to liberation. The way that we achieve that is by working, working, working to make that happen. I think a thing that folks on Twitter in particular sometimes don’t realize is that a lot of folks who work in the labor movement don’t have staff unions. A lot of us don’t have the own protections that we advocate for other people to have. I don’t want to talk about any of us on this call and our own staff unions or anything like that. But I have certainly been in roles before where I didn’t have one.

The expectations of you as a labor staffer, they’re high. We’re not the bureaucrats, we’re not the bosses. We’re the foot soldiers. We are the ones spending 30, 40 hours a week organizing. What does organizing mean? We’re talking to workers. We’re doing emotional labor. We’re essentially acting as therapists, as lawyers, as advocates, as activists, as political organizers. You wear so many different hats in the labor movement regardless of what your official title is. I think Diana can probably speak to this. How many picket lines have you been on even as a comms person? How many organizing campaigns have you actually been on and talked to workers in?

Diana Hussein:               How many am I on just currently right now?

Puja Datta:                      How many are you on right now? Yeah. So that’s the thing. I think a thing that maybe sometimes gets lost in the way that other people outside of the movement look at us, like we are actually on the ground doing the work. We’re working our asses off. We’re trying to make everything run, we’re trying to advocate for people. We’re trying to do the work of showing people that power is theirs to have, for them to advocate for themselves, for them to find and activate themselves. That is difficult. That’s difficult work. You have to feel competent. You have to feel assured. You have to know how to talk to people. You have to know how to understand what motivates people.

That’s the thing about organizing. I mean I know I’m getting off-topic here for what our day-to-day stuff looks like. But to me organizing is the lifeblood of the labor movement. It’s the lifeblood of what we do, talking to workers. That’s what I do every day. Every day I have probably 20, 25 different organizations with different workers, hearing their issues, talking to them about problems, talking to them about how to get other people engaged in the union movement, talking to them… I live and work in South Dakota. South Dakota is a historically right-to-work state. It’s been right-to-work since the ’40s. Most people here understand that it’s right-to-work. But what they think right-to-work means is at-will employment. They think that just because the state is right-to-work, even if you have a union, you’re going to get fired no matter what. That’s not what right-to-work means. Right-to-work just means you don’t have to pay union dues if there is a union present. That’s it.

But the level of education, of engagement, of mobilization, of just inspiring people and motivating people, these are the things that we do on a day-to-day basis that I think it’s hard work, first of all. It’s very difficult work. It’s hard because you have to feel inspired. You have to feel motivated. You have to feel like this work is the thing that is going to change the fucking world and you have to inspire other people to believe that, too. So I just spend most of my time doing that.

Margaret McLaughlin:       Yeah. To go back to your original question, Max. So different unions, different jobs have different workloads and schedules. When I was an organizer with the bakery workers, I was on 10 and twos, which means 10 days out, two days home, which equals to four nights a month at my house. I no longer work with the bakery workers, and I love them so much. I have so much love for the members and for my coworkers, but it is hard. It is hard to be gone, to be away from home that long, to be living out of hotel rooms. The three of us know dozens and dozens of people that have been doing it for years and years and it’s a way of life. You get used to it at a time.

But, yeah, it takes a lot out of you. It’s really difficult. The thing that I’ve faced, and I don’t mind talking about it here. I’m turning 32 and I want to have a child before I can’t have a child anymore, and I realized that my job prohibited me from being able to do that. And so, I wish that I could have kept that job because it was fantastic. I got to talk to dozens and dozens of people every day about making their lives better, coming together with their coworkers and demanding more from their bosses who are grinding them down, especially … Not especially. Every workplace is dealing with horrible abuses all the time.

But in food manufacturing specifically, the forced overtime situation, especially since the pandemic, has been really appalling to watch. The amount of hours that people are forced to work lest they be fired is nauseating. People are losing… You are not able to function properly at your job, especially on a production line like that with huge machines. But yet you also miss out on life. You miss out on graduations and weddings and funerals.

I felt so inspired by the people that are members of the baker workers union. I’m so, so grateful that those workers have been coming together and striking Nabisco over the summer and Kellogg’s still now, because these are multinational corporations that are trying to squeeze every single last cent out of these people. They’re demanding a fair wage, one, fair retirement, which they’ve given their entire lives and bodies to these companies, which they deserve. But also free time, a time to walk your dog. I felt so grateful to be a part of that.

Now I’m with a public sector union. So we get to negotiate with the state of New York, with the governor of New York. I’m coming in at an interesting time for that. I think that the new governor is going to be a little bit better than the last one.

Maximillian Alvarez:       Yeah. I mean you’re not kidding about the BCTGM workers. I mean some of whom we’ve had the honor to speak with on the show. We talked to Dan Osborne at the Kellogg’s picket line down in Omaha. We spoke with… So the Frito-Lay was BCTGM this summer as well. Because I remember speaking to a woman, Cheri Renfro, in Topeka, Kansas. She said something that still sticks with me, it still rattles around in my brain in a very horrifying way. But I mean I think she said something to the effect of like, when new hires come into the plant and the managers are showing them around and they’re describing to them what the job entails and all the amenities and whatnot, they’ll point to a visitation room. They’ll say, like, oh, if you’re working and you want your family to come in, and like, you can have your lunch there. You could have a break with them and see them.

Cheri Renfro was like that sounds nice at first, but then you stop and you’re like, where else have I heard that term? It’s like, oh, that’s what prisons have. Like, how the hell am I supposed to feel good that the one time I get to see my family awake is in this little visitation room when I’m working 12, 16 hours a day? I don’t know. The way that she put that just is never going to leave me, I think, but really just highlights what you’re saying, Margaret.

Diana, I didn’t want us to get too far without bringing you in here, but I wanted to ask. Puja was mentioning all the strikes that you’re involved in, all the campaigns that you’re involved in. So what does, I guess, a typical week look like for you?

Diana Hussein:                Oh boy. I think I can echo both Marge and Puja when I say that the role of a communications person in a union is just as overstretched and busy. There’s always a lot going on and a lot going on at once that you have to keep heads over tails about. But ultimately if I had to summarize exactly what the purpose of my role is, and that’s to support the organizing. So I work for the international unit here. I would be the person, whatever I could do to support a campaign, Puja’s, either her local, if Marge’s local needed help, I would support them, and especially if they had a campaign connected to a national fight.

Well, that entails a lot. And unions also have a lot of other things besides on-the-ground campaigns going on. There’s a lot of political work. For example, we’re just coming off of the election in Virginia, the governor’s race, which obviously is not all too fun to think about. It did not go in the way we were hoping. But it requires a lot of work to uplift the canvasing, the on-the-ground folks, our members that have given up everything to come knock doors in Northern Virginia for two and a half months. I’m on the ground to help support that in whatever I can, uplift their stories, share their actual experience out there, internal communications like keeping them in the loop of what’s being put out there in the media about them.

So it’s really ultimately how we can support the organizing, and how we do that is by uplifting our members’ stories. I’m trying to even think about what I had going on this week, because there’s a lot. So in the last week we had to respond to the infrastructure bill passing, for example. That involves some writing. HelloFresh. There’s some new anti-union content that’s coming out. Michael Sainato wrote a great piece in The Guardian about some of the injuries that are happening. And so, there’s a lot of digital work to make sure that stuff is put out on every channel possible, make sure that the workers are hearing about what’s put out there.

We’re also internal comms. There’s making sure the workers are hearing from each other while they’re doing this new organizing campaign. Another big thing that we’ve been trying to work on this year is putting a campaign out there about automatic daily housekeeping because it’s not exactly a centered corporate campaign. We are talking about Hilton since they’re the ones who have been most adamant about cutting automatic daily housekeeping.

But overall this is more of like a message, a kind of campaign that’s unique in the sense that we’re really just making sure people are aware that this is happening and what it actually means in terms of job cuts. 180,000 jobs are going to be cut without automatic daily housekeeping, and how people can help by requesting it. Just like putting that out there. If anyone right now is nodding their head, knowing what I’m talking about, it’s because we did a lot of work to make sure the right folks in the media were talking about this, making sure that folks on social media understood it, and responding to folks on social media who are experiencing it firsthand.

So there’s a lot of communications work that goes into even putting this informational message out there that, yes, your daily housekeeping is not going to happen every day unless you request it. Because of these cuts, 39% of all housekeeping jobs in America are going to be lost. It’s just part of our overall Come Back Stronger campaign which is just the fight to ensure just recovery for everybody. That’s really, if UNITE HERE had to put one category under what everything political, even HelloFresh, all of the campaigns that we have going on right now under one category, it’s [come back] union, because folks weren’t aware. I’m sure folks are, at one point, 98% of our membership was laid off at the peak of the shutdowns. Even now I think the last number that I heard was about 60% back.

So we’re still not fully there. It’s a hospitality industry. It’s among the hardest, if not the hardest hit, by the pandemic and it’s going to take a long time for recovery, but recovery is pending. And so, it’s important for us to figure out how to ensure that folks like our members, and even non-union members from really all industries, but particularly the hospitality industry, the things we’re fighting for right now impact union and non-union members alike, like recall rights through city ordinances and things like that.

Maximillian Alvarez:          One thing that I wanted to underline there, because it’s something that I’ve been meaning to shout on the show for a long time, but, yeah, just really thinking about the enormity of those job losses for UNITE HERE members is really staggering. It’s even more staggering when you think about the fact that with that many people out of work during a pandemic, still, from Georgia to Nevada, Joe Biden would not be president and the Democrats would not have staved off, momentarily, the Republicans that they were running against if it was not for UNITE HERE and its members. That does not get said enough, but it should.

Diana Hussein:                 Oh, I say it a lot. It’s so true, though. You can crunch the numbers and the margins were tight enough to say that the canvassing was a critical difference in Nevada. You could say it for Arizona. I mean you can maybe even look at it in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia in particular. You could say it in Georgia, part of that broader coalition in Georgia where the margins were so small that every single conversation with a single voter really, really counted. At the end of the day you could see it by how much they won by.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to achieve that again in Virginia. But I do just want to say something about that real quick in that Democrats need to really, really invest in canvassing, not like just fodder. Like we all say, canvassing wins. Everyone knows door knocking’s how to win. But actually valuing it the way you value ads, the way you value the millions and millions of dollars that you’re spending on ads. I do feel like if we’re going to even have a chance next year, and then if we’re going to even have a chance in 2024, we really need to understand how much of an impact that can really make and start investing, not just one month, two month. Invest early in canvassing. Invest early in having these conversations with people and invest a lot so nobody’s getting left behind, because it’s one of the biggest things we talked about in Georgia is that people didn’t feel like their votes counted. But all they needed is somebody to have a conversation with them and next thing you know they’re sending texts to their canvasser with selfies and their I voted stickers.

We saw that happening in Virginia. It just wasn’t enough. There were other factors that contributed to Virginia, of course. But on the ground, in the conversation we’re having, it did not reflect what the press, including national press, was covering about Virginia. Because at the end of the day the only way you’re going to truly understand what the people and the voters are going to be moved by is by talking to them and talking to them at their doors and not over the phone where it can seem more anonymous and they can hang up on you or never answer or whatever. But I just feel like Virginia should be a sign for Democrats in the way that not anyone is covering. It’s a sign that you need to invest in canvassing and invest now.

Puja Datta:                 A real lesson that the Democrats should be taking from the labor movement, to be honest.

Diana Hussein:               How many times can they have this lesson?

Maximillian Alvarez:        Yeah. The Democrats are nothing if not perpetually terrible at learning lessons. But there is an interesting, I think… There’s really important connective tissue there. Because I think it was Biden who said like, oh, in the face, because after the last general election, Republicans did what they always do. They go to the legislatures and they say, all right, let’s strip voting rights. Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again. It’s been happening in states all over the country. Democrats aren’t really doing shit about it. Their response is, oh, we’ll just out-organize and we’ll get people to the polls. Just from the folks that I’ve talked to in Michigan and Wisconsin and other states, they’re like, bro, we’re organizing our asses off. You can’t just put it all on us.

But to your point, Diana, it really takes a strategic and committed investment for people like yourselves and so many others to actually do that painstaking, exhausting work of knocking doors, talking to people, listening, not just saying hi and then running away. As you all were saying before, every conversation matters and it all takes a lot out of you. And so, yeah, if you’re just expecting people to just do that at the rate that we all need without any concerted investment we’re all in for a world of hurt, I think. But the connective tissue that I mentioned is, I feel like this was part of a lot of the hype or discourse about what’s going on in the labor movement right now.

When people feel excited about the strikes that they’re seeing or when they feel more needs to be happening they’ll say, we gotta organize. And everyone’s like, okay, what do you mean? What does that mean? What is the investment that it’s going to take? What does that actually look like? Who’s doing it? How are you learning from it? So I wanted to actually use that as a bridge to get your all’s take on what’s going on in the labor movement right now. Also, I need someone here to confirm that the term striketober did in fact originate in a group chat that you three are all in. So that’s the first question.

Margaret McLaughlin:        I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Diana Hussein:                   No.

Puja Datta:                       What group chat?

Diana Hussein:                   That sounds weird, I don’t know…

Puja Datta:                      Who would be in group chats? Weird.

Diana Hussein:                      [crosstalk].

Maximillian Alvarez:           Okay. So unfounded. Unfounded as of right now. But I guess, yeah, I wanted to ask what’s happening right now. I think a lot of people are excited, maybe. As I said, I’ve talked to tons of folks who have themselves quit their jobs or who have shown up to picket lines. They’re feeling excited. They’re seeing the different labor struggles that are going on. People are trying to build a narrative out of it. You all see on a day-to-day level what people are going through, what is and isn’t happening in different locales. So I guess I wanted to ask, if it’s not too broad of a question, what is your assessment on what’s been happening over the past couple of months? Is it a strike wave? What are you hearing from workers? What is the media maybe getting wrong about what’s going on right now? I don’t know. What are your thoughts on striketober and all of that?

Puja Datta:                      Workers are fed the fuck up, that’s what’s going on. regardless of what sector you’re in, regardless of what industry you’re in. The three topics we’re seeing over and over are healthcare, wages, time off, pensions – There are four topics – Those are the things that folks are mad about. These are the things that we need to be able to live sufficient, healthy lives in this country, and these are the things that most workers in this country do not have.

I live in South Dakota, as I’ve said, it’s the lowest union density state in the entire country. Over the last three years our rates of unionism, of new unions forming, have gone up, actually, in opposition to national trends. I personally just organized a new shop here in South Dakota, public sector workers, a shop of 15 highway workers, just two weeks ago. These are folks who are Trump-supporting white men. These are the people who the majority of our leftist folks say are not interested in unionism, are not interested in collectivism, are not interested in joining together and fighting for better. It’s untrue. We need to get over our prejudices about our fellow workers. We need to get over our weird feelings about what’s happening with everybody politically and understand that at the end of the day the thing that joins us all together is the fact that we rely on a paycheck to make our ends meet. That is a level of beauty and solidarity that cannot be overstated.

So that’s what’s happening. Folks are understanding that this is the thing that they are joined together by. The way that they’re going to make their lives better is by joining in solidarity with other folks and demanding and advocating more for themselves. There is no other way. We’ve seen it over and over and over. Folks are getting fired right and left. Bosses are unable to fill jobs because they’re just not paying people enough or giving people enough benefits or a reason to actually work anywhere. This is what’s happening in this country. It is a moment where people are looking at our material conditions, looking at our working conditions, looking at the fact that CEOs are somehow making more and more money, even in the face of this situation where 700,000 people in our country have died, and are still making enough money to jet themselves into space somehow.

They’re looking at that and they’re thinking, wow. There’s something really wrong here. There’s something that does not make sense. I’m working my ass off. I’m trying to do more and more and more each day. I am putting myself on the line and putting the health of myself, my family, my elderly family, my young family, folks who are fragile, like we’re putting everybody’s lives on the line so that the almighty dollar can continue doing what it’s doing.

People are like, what am I getting in return for that? A lot of folks are looking at this moment being like, I’m not getting enough. I’m not. Regardless of if they’re in unions or not. I think folks who are in unions have… Particularly let’s talk about one thing. As I said, I’m in South Dakota. My public sector workers out here do not have the right to strike. It is a misdemeanor for them to go on strike. This is the case for a lot of public sector workers around the country. It makes it 10 times more difficult for my folks to earn what they need to earn when you say, hey, if you go on strike… It’s a misdemeanor for me to mention the word strike to my workers. If you make it that hard for workers to utilize the one thing that we have to ensure that we get our needs in that, the ability to withhold our labor, it makes it very difficult to do so. So a lot of the strikes and stuff you’re seeing are actually in the private sector, folks who are governed by the National Labor Relations Board.

So that’s another thing I want folks to think about. When you think about the strike wave activity that’s going on, you’re only hearing about it really from a particular sector of workers, or particular industries of workers. But there’s a lot of other things happening in other industries, other sectors.

So it’s hard to say, I think, as of right now whether or not we are in an actual strike wave moment. It remains to be seen. I think the seeds of that are there. I think the seeds of change, the seeds of revolution, the seeds of desire to move and agitate are all there, but I don’t know that I would feel comfortable calling it a strike wave just yet.

Margaret McLaughlin:          Yeah. I agree with Puja. It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of our collective bargaining agreements. So in the private sector, the last round of negotiations for the bakery workers’ contracts, bosses were still talking about, oh, we haven’t recovered yet from 2008. We are still trying to get back on our feet. You have to take some concessions. The union members, they wanted to work with their employers. But now post-pandemic and seeing the amount of profit that these companies, especially grocery store companies, Nabisco, Kellogg’s, General Mills, all of these companies have made record profits through the pandemic because nobody’s going out to restaurants, or nobody did.

So it’s that feeling of like we gave you concessions. We gave you our bodies and our lives, and more. We gave you more out of the contract that we had prior. Now at the bargaining table, Kellogg’s, Nabisco, they’re trying to get out of the pension. They’re trying to cut healthcare, and cutting healthcare in a pandemic. It has made way more stark the differences between the people that work in these factories and the people that are running them, to the point where, like Puja said, there are Republican Trump supporters, libertarians that are like, this is fucked up and I’m pissed off. My manager’s busting my ass, forcing me to come in on Saturdays and Sundays. Now they’re trying to increase my healthcare by $200 a month. Fuck you.

But I also really quickly want to point out the younger generation that got activated by Bernie, maybe joined DSA. I’m very active in DSA and I do a lot of work with that. But a great example of a union that has a high density of young workers that are pretty left is IATSE. IATSE is still in the process of possibly approving this tentative agreement. But there’s a lot of talk in circles that the older generation is like, okay, healthcare stays the same in this TA. My pension’s not going away in this TA. We’re fine with it. We get a 54-hour rest period over the weekends. Fine. That’s good. But the younger workers, they want more.

I think that through a process of a lot of different factors, of Bernie bringing up the class divide and really hitting that nerve in the cultural consciousness, but also talking with your coworkers and talking with other people that are like-minded, maybe post-Bernie DSA member, and being like, you know what? This isn’t enough. 54 hours is not enough time to be off work in one week. That’s not a work week. That is time off. And a 10-hour, eight-hour turnaround at night. Especially in LA, you’re driving an hour and a half one way to your job site. And so, it’s really heartening to see younger people, younger union members, be aggressive with their employers and require more from them. I’m excited to see where that goes.

But then all of the non-unionized people in the United States, of which there’s like 90% of workers are non-union, that is where… We can’t call it a strike wave, but the mass resignation is a real thing. All three of us know lots and lots of people that have just had enough. If that’s the only way that you can exercise any amount of agency is to hit the bricks then that’s what people are doing. So, yeah, it’s not a strike wave in the traditional sense of when the teachers struck in West Virginia and Arizona, because that’s organized labor. That’s tens of thousands of people that work in the same place, have the same employer, doing the same thing in a concerted effort. But individual people who don’t have a contract with their employer through collective bargaining, exercising their right to say, fuck you, that’s pretty fucking cool, even if it’s not a strike wave.

Puja Datta:                      But may I point out that regardless of if you feel like you’re ready to resign, maybe consider organizing your workplace before you do that, because that is actually the real thing that’s going to cause change in this country. Feel free to reach out to any of us to make that happen.

Diana Hussein:                There’s a tweet going around, that little chart of the different search terms. Someone pointed out ‘how do you write a resignation letter’ has shot up in searches. The chart points out the trajectory even higher for people searching how to start a union.

But, yeah, so to your original question, Max, you mentioned how this stuff is getting covered is like really where my fascination as a comms person comes in, because when we talk about the Great Resignation we hear too about the so-called labor shortage. It’s a really frustrating narrative because it’s really hard to combat it with all the nuances of what it is to combat this narrative. And so doing communication work and interacting with media that’s covering the so-called labor shortage, you have to figure out how to talk to them in the way that it’s already framed. It’s really difficult because…

For example, you look at union hospitality jobs. People want to go back to work. They fought tooth and nail in certain cities for recall rights so they can be the first ones called back to go back to their work. So many of our members right now are sitting and waiting to go back to work. As these hotels are starting to fill the capacity, as things start picking back up and there’s just an old overload of work because they’re not calling. The staffing shortages have to do, but they’re not calling everybody back to work. Of course, these are specific union jobs that I’m talking about, but it just really speaks to the importance and the big key difference between what’s happening in this industry between union and non-union, where you hear about people quitting and people leaving the industry and staffing shortages happening. I’m sure all of us if we’ve tried to eat at a restaurant have experienced it where it’s just a much more busier feeling.

So I think that has everything to do with more so, as everybody’s pointed out oftentimes on this panel here, that it’s a shortage of good jobs that don’t pay poverty wages. I think that that’s why you’re seeing them report that some of these jobs are now averaging higher in wages in the hospitality industry. It’s like, yes, of course, that’s exactly what should be happening if you want to attract workers right now, because, to what Marge and Puja both have pointed out, workers are fed the fuck up. This is the moment. After just dealing with this trauma of this pandemic is going to, like, all bets are off. The fourth wall is down. It was already starting to crumble, but there’s no more pretending. This isn’t like The Muppet Show where we’re still going to look and see that there’s not someone holding the puppet up its ass. No, all bets are off. People are aware and they’re speaking up and they’re frustrated with this.

Why should they have to work these long hours and get paid nothing that they can be able to afford to make ends meet on? Why should they work twice as much? Why should they be doing eight jobs and being paid for their one job? Why should they have to take more than one job? One job should be enough. There, I drafted. I got it in there.

But, yes, one job should be enough. Now people are working several jobs at their one job and it’s tiring. They’re already exhausted. A lot of these are workers who have had to work through the pandemic. So they’re sick and tired of putting their lives on the line for these companies that are just trying to squeeze the blood out of them with every penny that they can get. We talked about CEOs and companies making money during the pandemic. You would think, as I’ve said, the devastation that hit the hospitality industry would’ve hurt the hotels. But the stock price is just, if not better, than it was before the pandemic. Hilton and Marriott both opened new hotels during the pandemic. It’s nutso out there that they’re trying to cut all of these jobs. You use an excuse of the pandemic to cut housekeeper jobs while they’re just making more and more money.

People are seeing it. They’re aware of it. I think it’s really important to get the coverage right on it. And it hasn’t always been. I think most of us probably noticed an initial shift in how the so-called labor shortage was covered. It went from only the manager’s perspective. I cannot count the number of times I saw a story in which it was only talking to a manager and how many quotes it was where the manager was asked, do you think you pay good enough wages? and the manager says yes, and yet there’s a labor shortage. That was literally the initial stories that were coming out when everyone was scratching their heads about why people haven’t gone back to work. That then triggered all of those Republicans passing whatever they needed to pass to ensure that they were cut off from the pandemic unemployment benefits, which was BS. I don’t even know how many studies came out that proved that to be untrue, that people still didn’t go rush and they still haven’t gone back, even though it’s been cut nationally. Still have not gone back to fill these jobs yet. I wonder what it is.

But I think what’s scary is the looming idea that maybe people’s savings are going to shrink up. If that’s the case, then I still don’t think people are going to be going back to these jobs. I think that people are extremely, extremely fed up. If the bosses don’t try to do something about it, then they’ll never be able to fulfill. They’ll see more and more closings in small little mom and pop restaurants. But that’s my train of thought.

Maximillian Alvarez:           Well, that train just plowed through the business class bullshit, I think, beautifully. So I mean I could genuinely talk to all three of you for hours, but I don’t want to take liberties with your time. I mean this has been so good and so great. I mean we’re going to have to release this episode publicly later on in the month. To our great Patreon subscribers, we are working double time to give you more great bonus content like this panel here. But the good people need to hear these three amazing women kicking ass in the labor movement. I think this is stuff that everyone needs to –

Diana Hussein:                 Kicking ass for the working class.

Maximillian Alvarez:            Kicking ass for the working class. Hey. I mean I think we’re going to have to release this publicly. Since we’re doing that, I was wondering if just with the few minutes that I have the three of you, if we could actually round out by… Take everything that we’ve been talking about. I know there are a lot of folks listening who want to know what they can do as workers to build power in their workplace or to express their own agency, like you were saying, and fight for better wages and better conditions.

I was wondering if I have three awesome organizers on a call, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you could tell our listeners what you would advise them to do or what they should look for. Also, there are a lot of people who reach out to us saying, hey, I heard that episode. How can I support the labor movement? What can I do to be a responsible booster of union messages? Or how do I discern what’s going to actually help workers, or when I’m distracting from that? So I guess if we could just maybe go back around the table one more time, if you all have any pieces of advice for workers who are listening to this or for folks who want to support the labor movement, what thoughts you would leave them with?

Puja Datta:              Oh my god. I know everybody knows what I’m going to say here. But form a fucking union at your workplace. That’s the thing that you can do to support the labor movement. That’s the thing that you can do to help everything. I know it’s hard. I know it sounds scary. You have some amount of protections in place. If you’re in the private sector the NLRB is a little bit stronger these days and is actually helping people with unfair labor practice charges and actually advocating for people who are being retaliated against for organizing activity.

So a thing that you should familiarize yourself with is Section 7A of the National Labor Relations Act, which is the part about protecting concerted activity on the job. Learn what concerted activity means. You have the right to advocate for yourself. You have the right to make complaints about your working environment. You have the right to have better and you have the right to be protected while you are advocating for yourself for these things.

A lot of folks talk about, how can I support other people on strikes? How can I support other unions? How can I support union members? You do it by forming and agitating and organizing within your own workplace. The only way we’re ever going to have real change in this country, the only way we’re ever going to fix the things that really desperately need to be fixed is by making sure that every worker that can do it, which is all of them, need to have just cause protections in a collective bargaining agreement. You need to have the ability to advocate for yourself.

You need to feel power. The real thing that changes when you become a union member from a non-union member is you have a deep understanding of power. You approach the boss differently. You approach politics differently. You approach the way you live your life differently because you understand how to wield power. That’s the thing that most workers in this country are… We are told we don’t have power. You don’t have the right to have these things. You need to just shut up and take it. You need to be grateful to have a job. Fuck that. You don’t need to be grateful for anything. You have power, you have agency, you have the ability to have better, and you need to make sure that you can do that.

Reach out to any of us. Reach out to anybody that works in the labor movement. Find resources. Look up a thing called the organizing one-on-one conversation on Google. Just Google it. That will teach you how to have organizing conversations with your coworkers. It can feel very scary to have this kind of conversation with your coworkers. But at the end of the day, look around. Everybody’s fed up. That’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time. Everybody’s feeling the pressure of the moment. Everybody’s feeling the agitation. All you have to do is provide a safe space for your people who you work with, who you know, who you have relationships with. Provide a safe space to have those conversations and you can make magic happen.

Margaret McLaughlin:      Yeah. Puja is 100% right as always. And really quick, Puja is the greatest organizer. I’ve seen her work. It’s miraculous. I don’t believe that a human being can be that good at something, but she’s truly the most incredible organizer I’ve ever met.

To build off of all of the incredible things that Puja just said, I think that, yeah, so many people… I know I have lots of people that drive for rideshare apps, for example. If you’ve done it a few times, if you are a driver on one of those apps, there is organizing going on around that and you should get in touch with Rideshare Drivers United. Look into that because everything that you do matters. It’s not like, oh yeah, I’m just going to do these drives on a Friday night just for some extra cash. Because you have that relationship with Uber or Lyft, you are, in our eyes, an employee. In the company’s eyes, you are an independent contractor. That’s something that we need to change and that’s something that you as a driver have agency to change. That is getting in touch with the unions that are working on that, the workers that are organizing around that. But also talking to other people. If you’re at a cafe and you’re talking to somebody, it’s like, oh yeah, I drive for Lyft, too. Talk to them about it.

Margaret McLaughlin:       But, yeah, to underline, becoming a labor organizer is not the way to fix this country. It’s not sexy. A lot of the time it’s not fun. It’s very fulfilling, yeah, a lot of the times, but it’s not the way… We all can’t be staff at a union. You’ve got to organize where you’re at.

I come out of the tenants organizing in DC. It’s the same thing as fighting against landlords. If you’re a tenant, you have an antagonistic relationship with the person that is providing you housing. It’s the same thing with your job. Even if you’re working at a warehouse, even if you’re working as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit, it all matters because every single person that we have in the labor movement as an organized member of the working class, the stronger we are against capital. That’s it. It’s quite a simple calculation. It’s a lot harder in practice.

Diana Hussein:                 I mean how on earth am I supposed to add on to any of that? I absolutely agree and echo both what Puja and Marge are saying. It starts with you. But I guess because there really isn’t anything to add on for that, I want to speak a little bit to what folks can do to help workers who are organizing and support them. I think it just starts first and foremost to listen to them. When there’s an organizing campaign going on or a union drive, workers have demands. When they involve the public, then that’s what you should pay attention to. Don’t listen to TikTok. Don’t listen to Twitter. Don’t listen to some viral tweet saying somebody’s on strike that’s not on strike.

Make sure that if you see something like that and it interests you to check out the original source. Check out whatever social media is coming from the workers or coming from a credible reporter like Jonah Furman reporting on it, because it’s really important. Things like that being misrepresented could scare the workers who are part of the organizing drive. It could cause the company to say, look, the union’s going to take you on strike. If you vote for the union that could backfire.

There’s also moments in which they’re going to really need you and you want to escalate to that moment with them. So it’s not necessary for you to jump into boycotting products either. It’s great that you are so eager to support workers and it’s awesome, but it’s really, really powerful when there is a moment in which workers call for a boycott that you and everyone else who’s willing to do that boycott is announcing it and is sharing that you’re doing that.

I think there’s other things you could do if you want to show support to the workers like reaching out and contacting the company, especially if you are a customer or a consumer of a company that’s under a union drive. Then that is all the power in the world to you to say, I’m disappointed. As a valued customer of yours, I am disappointed in your anti-union behavior, if that’s what’s happening. That is still as meaningful as if you were to drop your relationship or whatever because at least you’re doing something that… It does jab at them. In that way, you could save your willingness to do such a boycott for when the workers do call for a boycott. Then you can definitely support and post all about it if they ever go on strike, if it leads to that moment.

But the whole goal is to win the union. It’s to win a new contract. It’s to make sure you don’t have to go on strike. And so, there’s important moments in organizing campaigns where the workers do need folks and do need supporters and comrades on their side. I think the best advice to support them is to listen to them. If there’s a strike fund, maybe donating to that strike fund.

Puja Datta:             I have one last thing to say.

Maximillian Alvarez:          Okay. That was going to be my last question. I was like, does anyone have something they want to sneak on before I hit stop?

Puja Datta:                      All power and glory to the working class.

Margaret McLaughlin:       That’s right.

Diana Hussein:                    Spot on.

Maximillian Alvarez:        Beautiful.

Maximillian Alvarez

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