Karl Marx once observed that “equal rights” under the inequality of capitalism simply means the right of capitalists to exploit workers. Anyone who’s attempted to unionize their workplace has discovered the truth of this—as employers frequently stoop to unethical and dishonest measures to prevent workers from building collective power. Felix Allen, a Lowe’s union organizer based in New Orleans, speaks with The Real News about his experience organizing his workplace for fair pay.
Studio Production: Adam Coley, David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Hey everyone, Vince here. Just wanted to give everyone a heads up, a couple weeks after we recorded this interview with Felix, he was unfortunately fired. Now, Lowe’s says that it wasn’t a targeted firing for organizing but we all know what’s going on here. There’s still a lot of good applicable information out here for anybody looking to organize so without further ado, here’s our interview with Felix Allen.
What’s up everyone? My name is Vince Quiles. I’m the lead organizer from Home Depot, store 4112 in Philadelphia and today I have a very special guest. Lead organizer, Felix Allen from Lowe’s down in New Orleans. Felix, how are you today?
Doing good, Vince. How are you doing?
I’m doing well, man. Always get to talk to a buddy of mine. So really, really happy to talk to you today and speak on your guys’ efforts. So with that being said, can you just give us a little bit of background to yourself? What led you to organizing, and anything you feel pertinent to set the background for your story?
Yeah, well, I guess so I should start. I’m from North Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina, and I actually moved to New Orleans to be a musician. That’s what I went to school for and everything but I ended up moving here during the pandemic and decided to get a job at Lowe’s. Worked there for about eight months full-time during the pandemic and then moved to part-time as the music stuff started opening back up, but noticed a lot of problems there that I know Vince will relate to and we just sort of got the ball rolling with organizing, which I guess we’ll get into shortly.
Absolutely, and just to give people a little bit of background for the viewers watching this. Felix and I spoke back during the beginning of Home Depot’s organizing drive and so that was where we got connected and we really felt strongly pulled towards each other just because we’re both in that home improvement market and it’s a reminder of the fact that this is a solidarity based movement. This is about people reaching out across the different organizing campaigns, trying to get whatever information you can.
And so that’s where our history kind of starts. I mean, I remember you calling me way back when, I think I was driving to an AutoZone or something like that to pick up something from my car and I get a call from Louisiana, I’m like, “I wonder who this is?” And lo and behold, I hear your voice on the other side.
So with that being said, you had some struggles that you were going through, so if you can just elaborate on that so that the viewers can better understand.
So there was a lot going on at the store. I guess I started working there in December of 2020 and then I think it was maybe September 2022 when I called you but I had been organizing for a while before I got in touch with you and by the time I did get in touch with you, it felt like things were stagnating and seeing you all in Philadelphia filed a petition to unionize, it was kind of a shot in the arm for us.
But I think the thought first occurred to me about organizing probably in April of that year, April of last year, and I actually just jokingly out to a friend saying, “Hey, I found out you only need 30% of the signatures of folks at your store, whatever unit you’re trying to bargain for, to file for an NLRV election. Maybe I should unionize the Lowe’s.” And he was like, “Hell yeah, dude, you should totally go for it. I’m actually talking to the IWW right now about unionizing, the startup I’m working at.”
So it started out almost as a joke but he was actually encouraging about it. So as you know, there’s so much information you got to know about do you want to go with an established union? Do you want to be an independent union? And there’s so many little procedural things you don’t know about, but some local organizers inspired me and gave me some information. There was this group called the Louisiana Workers Council who I actually met. They were leafleting outside of the McDonald’s and I became friends with them and got started talking to workers and I was kind of like, “Hey, maybe I should do this at Lowe’s.”
So that’s how things started and all the problems we have over there are pretty much verbatim the same ones you’ve had at Home Depot, so when I saw the articles that you had, or the interviews that you had done about your struggles at Home Depot, I literally thought, “Man, that is exactly what I’m thinking about in Lowe’s.”
And I mean, can you illuminate us on some of those struggles? I mean, obviously from working at Home Depot, I know, but I think it’s important to speak on, right? Because even though we’re both in the home improvement sector, so the workload that we deal with is very similar, I still think, you would agree, that there are comparisons that can be drawn across the board because I’m sure as you were doing the leafleting with the workers over at McDonald’s, there were probably similar things that you talked about, whether it be under-staffing, whether it be pay.
So if you can just break us down a little bit on some of the things that you guys were personally facing in your store.
So I think for a lot of folks who was paid, it was pretty noticeable how people who had been working at Lowe’s for 16 years were getting paid less than folks who had just started. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s wrong at all that folks who just started are getting started at $15 an hour, or I guess now more it should be a livable wage. That’s absolutely what they should be getting paid.
But really when you see someone who’s a veteran, someone who trained me getting paid less than the dude who just started, that really drives home the point that we are just metrics and numbers to these people. They can talk all they want about how we’re a family but that’s not what families do. Families don’t fire people for being a couple minutes late a couple times, or I don’t know, for forgetting to clock out or something, which is probably an honest mistake.
So a lot of people noticed that. My personal experience was I had been there for about a year and a half. I was one of the only people certified on power equipment, so I was constantly having to stop what I was doing to go help other folks. And there’s nothing wrong with that but there’s so many demands we have and I was getting paid about, I think it was like $12.67 an hour at that point and I jokingly asked my supervisor, “Hey man, why aren’t they paying me more, bro?” Because everybody else was at $15 an hour and these were people who I was training.
And my supervisor was a cool dude so he put in for me to get a raise to at least $14 to at least get me closer but he doesn’t really have control over that. So he put in the raise, and that was nice of him but when I looked at the paycheck, it turned out that later on when I guess the higher up saw, they only gave me 21 cents. So that was like my, I guess, in that Michael Jordan documentary, he says, “I took that personally.” That was kind of my moment like that. I was like, “All right, so this is how you all are going to do us.”
So obviously pay is a big thing, as you know, under-staffing is a huge thing, and that’s not always necessarily something a union is going to take care of most but I think knowing that you have something and a grievance process to protect you, if the frustrations that result from under-staffing get to you, that can be a powerful thing.
So like you said, someone might come in with a list of things that they need in the plumbing department and they might have some… they might bring in a 500 year old archaic screw or something, and they expect you to find it on aisle 16. It’s like, I’m a merchandiser. I build the displays. I’m actually on a time crunch doing what I need to be doing, but there’s so few people in the store to help that I got to go through an entire list with someone.
So it’s like I want to help people but I mean, I have other people telling me I got to have this project done by the end of the day so it puts us in a difficult position. And a lot of customers are always frustrated, and I don’t blame them at all for being frustrated. I noticed before I started working there, I needed help finding the right kind of doorknob and it took me forever so I totally get it. But again, it drives home the point that these companies do not care about their customers. They do not care about their workers. They care only about their bottom line.
So yeah, two big things, and other things like folks getting fired for just little attendance issues and I mean, some people think it’s simple getting to… for me, it’s easy to get to my job on time because I have a car, I don’t have any kids, I got a pretty stable life but that’s not the case for everybody here. They’re taking care of their kids. A lot of people are maybe taking care of their parents or grandkids, and a lot of younger people don’t have cars or they’re getting rides from someone else, so you’re going to be late sometimes.
And again, they say, “We’re a family,” but I think family gives each other second chances so I find that claim rather dubious from the management.
You speak on something very important there where you talk about how you had people in middle management trying to come in, trying to help you out and in the end, they’re overridden by people who ultimately don’t understand your life, who don’t understand the things that you guys are going through and I mean, ultimately, that’s even the power in you being an organizer is because you’re there on the front lines every day. You’re dealing with the people, you’re seeing what’s going on and you’re trying to fight for them when ultimately all of these executives are doing is just fighting for corporate profits to just disseminate amongst themselves, disseminate amongst their shareholders, and in the end, people like yourself who are working, who are trying to do a good job, who are trying to do the best that they can and help the customers coming through the store as well as the customers who are shopping, are the ones that are left holding the bag.
And it’s something that’s extremely unfortunate and it’s the importance of doing what it is that you do, trying to organize there. And so with that, I know you had some fun with some of Lowe’s management, so please tell us a little bit about what it was like once you got your drive going, once you got your signatures and how it is that they responded.
So I guess I should back up a little bit. It was very tricky getting to the actual drive part. I got a lot of little training from some people including the IWW, which was helpful, and part of it was mapping out your workplace so I had tricks to find out how many people really work here, who knows who, that kind of thing. And a lot of it was at first figuring out that… The first just what are we going to do? Do people want to go with an established union? Do we want to try to go at it ourselves? How do we do it? So we reached out to people like the teamsters and various different established unions, and everybody was extremely generous with their time but eventually I think we decided, I think the best way… we think the best way to do this is go independent.
And so I reached out to you, you shared some important strategies that I think reinvigorated things for us, and we got our union drive going pretty quickly, and it was actually remarkable how easy it was. Even when you tell folks about things like dues, how easy it is to get them to understand. If you’re a worker and you work hard and people trust you, they’ll know you’re not running a pyramid scheme against them. Even if you’re talking about dues and you’re talking about things like, “Well, dues are part of the contract,” but you get to vote on the contract and no one is going to vote for a contract that leaves you with less than when you started out.
Which I guess leads us to some of the things that management were doing. One part of it was captive audience meetings, which were usually held when I wasn’t there because I was working, actually working part-time at that point. And they love to hammer home, as you know, dues. you’re going to have to pay $50 a month, you’re going to have to do blah, blah, blah. But of course they don’t tell you you’re going to get a raise that’s going to far outweigh the cost of any dues you might be paying.
So people recognized, a lot of folks recognized that what they’re coming at us with was bullshit but one thing I think management did that was effective for them was sending in a ton of managers from neighboring stores or ASMs, as they’re called, and they would just walk around and ask people questions, “How do you like the store?” And stuff like that, kind of putting on airs, pretending they really care what’s happening. But folks mostly got the idea that they were there to intimidate us. They were there to figure out who might have signed this petition.
So that scared a couple people off at least enough maybe to not want to stick their neck out. So that was effective on their part and I know you experienced that. I remember you saying it was hard to even have a conversation about sports or something with all those managers walking around. But yeah, that was part of it. I got followed around. I tried to do leafleting outside the store and they would always have managers finding a reason to be outside there and they would tell me to leave. They said they considered the parking lot a working area.
They kicked me out of the break room when I was off duty. Well, no, actually, they made all of my coworkers take their break in the training room instead of the break room so I couldn’t talk to them because since the training room is technically a work area.
So there’s all kinds of little ticky tack stuff like that. And of course, one thing I thought was funny, I see in the media, a lot of people talk about other countries being authoritarian or whatever. They’ll talk about China or North Korea or something and during this experience, I was experiencing some generational level gaslighting and like, “Dude, you want authoritarianism? Try starting a union in your workplace. We got a police state right here at home. You don’t have to look across the ocean for it. They’re watching us on camera 24/7.” So we had fun with it though.
Absolutely, and it’s something I think that’s so important to really put a pin in it and talk about, and something I try really hard to bring across to people when I’m trying to organize, whether it’s in the Home Depot that I worked in or talking to other people in different work environments, is you can see by the actions that you just described, these people aren’t special. They’re not overly smart. In the end, at least for where I come from growing up in Philadelphia, if you’re tough, if you’re big, you’re bad. You don’t run from the fight, you stand in front of it and you go toe to toe and you say, “No, we can hang. We can handle this.”
And to your point, whether it was in our effort over at Home Depot, clearly from the things that you just described constantly, they were trying to run away from that fight and it’s just one of those things again that I think really helps to show these people aren’t anything special. They don’t have anything special. To your point, they’re actually very authoritarian and in the end it’s crazy because it’s not like you’re coming from it from a bad angle. I mean, look at the things that you talked about that brought you to the point of organizing. It was from a place of caring, of compassion, and I’m sure that they probably have something similar to the value wheel that we had at Home Depot, and they talk about the inverted triangle.
But again, to something that you spoke on and something again that you showed is you didn’t just speak on different values, you stood up for it, you fought it, and what did they do? I remember you actually sending me the video of when you were handing out the leaflets and they were trying to kick you out of the parking lot, and it’s like, “Hey, why are you so afraid of Felix? What is so horrible about what he’s doing?”
I mean, you showed a little bit in what you’re talking about and the way that you were able to counteract the arguments with dues, because it’s like, crazy idea. If you actually sit down and have a humane conversation with people, they actually understand more than what they’re given credit for. I mean, it’s absolute insanity and to see, again, the lack of respect, the lack of regard that they have for individuals, and I would say good on you because I saw you keeping on that fight, keep on chugging along.
And I’m really curious to know, how did your coworkers view those efforts in conversations that you had with them? I’m sure some of them were probably afraid to talk to you about the organizing efforts, but I have to believe that some of them were coming up and commending you and giving you kudos.
So throughout, even before the drive, there were of course folks who were hesitant to get involved with organizing. That was a huge struggle. So a lot of folks had a lot more… it was a lot more of a risk for folks other than me, in some cases. I had something to fall back on and a lot of people were really taking care of their kids and they needed this job. They could not afford to lose this job.
But I found some folks who were willing to serve on an organizing committee with me, and they mostly did that behind the scenes, but their efforts were crucial, of course. But to your question, some people were just like, “Give me whatever I need to sign and I will sign it. I trust you.” Other people were hesitant because maybe they were about to… They said they were about to retire, they said they were about to get a new job, which is usually just an excuse saying, “I don’t want to get involved in something that might be troublesome.”
So that was a thing, but a lot of people were really ready to do stuff. Just you find out that really a yes usually means maybe, a maybe usually means no, particularly if you’re trying to get folks to meet outside of work, that can be really tricky. Even if you’re just trying to get them to meet out in the parking lot, it can be tough.
I set up one meeting where six to 10 people were supposed to be there and literally no one showed up. The texts started rolling in when we were 15 minutes before, “Hey, I’m not going to make it,” that kind of thing. So I was literally standing out there in the rain by myself. But then there are going to be high points too, like after we started the drive, I remember this one dude coming up to me and he shook my hand. He was like, “Bro, you got some balls, son,” and that kind of stuff. So he was like, “You are a real N-word, bro.” That kind of stuff.
And there were a couple old ladies who kept trying to buy me food and stuff, so that was cool, because they recognized exactly what was going on. They recognized that the response we were getting was because they were scared of what we’re doing, even though I’m like a barely five foot, 26 year old dude who can’t really grow a beard. They were sending all these managers in and eventually they gave us a raise. There are some other pretty minor concessions, but they recognize that organizing has power.
Absolutely, and that’s something that’s so big. Once workers are willing to use their leverage, that changes the whole landscape of things and I think it’s kind of funny when you look at it and you look at the situation that you described because it just shows Lowe’s took you guys for granted. They took all of the things that you brought to the table for granted and it wasn’t until you said, “All right, enough is enough.”
We’re dealing with things like wage compression in which people aren’t actually being valued the way that you guys say that you’re going to. You’re dealing with under-staffing that is preventing you from being able to adequately do your job in your instance in terms of setting up the displays you’re supposed to, but then also not really meeting the needs of the people who are shopping there.
And just something I think is so important for viewers to really understand when it comes to these big box hardware stores, I can at least speak from my experience in Philadelphia. One of the things that is the most infuriating for customers in these stores is that there would be small mom and pop hardware stores, electrical stores, and then these big box stores come in, they put them out of business. They make it so that they’re the only place you can go to get help on these things because that’s what they want to do is monopolize the market, corner of the market, and then they don’t even have a system in place to which people’s needs can actually adequately be met.
I don’t know if you ever do it, but I look a lot at different tweets to Home Depot and oh my goodness, you just see all of these things where it’s like people are like, “I’m waiting for forever. I got this crappy service. I got that crappy service.” And it’d be one thing if Lowe’s was this struggling company. They were barely making it. But I think I just read something about how your guys’ CEO made, what was it? Like $17 million last year? And that’s just the CEO that’s not even getting into board of directors and it’s just absolutely wild, man.
Yeah, they’re doing okay, let’s just put it that way. But yeah, I have seen some of that on the internet but I mean, you see it in the stores. The customers get frustrated and they’re going to take that out on us and again, I don’t blame them. I would be doing the same, I’m sure. But that has made me realize, like sometimes when I go to pick up a pizza from Domino’s, it’ll usually be late, so I’ll walk by the pickup window or whatever because the store is closed.
But I feel like I’ll be waiting forever and it is frustrating like, “Dude, I’m just trying to get this pizza and then go to sleep.” But working at Lowe’s made me realize there’s probably a good reason why it’s taking a long time. There are probably only two people in there trying to cook a thousand pizzas at one time, and that’s why it’s taken a long time. So that sort of keeps me in check.
It absolutely helps to shape perspective, I feel you on that. I’m the same way where I do my best to try and be as patient as possible because look, you always get a couple bad apples. People who aren’t the best for sure, that’s in any environment that you go to. But to your point, when you look at the systems in place and the way that they’re structured, it’s usually something little, it’s like an iceberg basically. You see the surface level problem and it’s really easy to hone in on that, but it’s actually this much, much deeper issue that to be honest, I mean, ultimately workers in the store don’t really have any say over.
To a large extent too, I’m sure you had people in your immediate management team within the building who probably wish that they could address these issues, but were never empowered to. And so in the end, again, it’s the workers and the customers who are left holding the bag while the shareholders walk away or the CEO walks away with $17 million dollars. That’s absolutely insane.
So I’m just curious to know. So you go through your drive, that’s the response you get. So how was it dealing with the NLRB? How did your guys drive finish off?
Oh, so that was a little bit frustrating. Well, let me qualify everything with everybody at the NLRB was extremely nice, extremely helpful. So what happened was on the petition cards, we handed out to sign, we hadn’t designated a name for our union because we hadn’t chosen a name for our union yet and I actually had called before I made the cards. I mean, this is a pretty ragtag effort. I printed the cards out at Office Depot, so it’s not like I’m the most official people ever, but I literally called an NLRB informational officer, and they told me exactly what I had put on the cards was totally fine, but once we had all the signatures and brought them in to the NLRB, and they were very kind when they helped me fill out the petition and everything, they were extremely helpful.
But a week later I got word, “All right, there’s a problem with the cards. They don’t have a name on them.” And the reason we hadn’t chosen a name yet was because we wanted to ask people what they thought the name should be, “Do you want it to be Lowe’s Workers United? Lowe’s Workers Union? Fuck Lowe’s, or anything like that?” And eventually we set it on Lowe’s Workers United, but it turned out being a problem because of some language in the NLRB manual and because of some issue that Lowe’s lawyers got a little bit lucky on that we were either going to have to withdraw or have our petition dismissed.
So I got with all the people and we said, “Let’s go ahead and withdraw and if we want to refile that, we can.” So that was frustrating and it goes to show you the government is not necessarily our friend. Supposedly the NLRB is supposed to be neutral, and I think they’re a lot better than they have been, but you can’t be neutral on a moving train. Being neutral when one side is Lowe’s and one side is 26 year old dude with not a ton of experience. You can’t be… Being neutral in that situation is not exactly neutral. You need to give the workers the benefit of the doubt.
Everybody knew what they were signing up for. It was a union started right there in the store and everybody knew that. So that was really frustrating. I mean, it just goes to show, I mean, that’s what the government is going to do. They’re not going to protect us, we have to protect ourselves. I remember President Biden said he was the most pro-union president in history, but he went on and decided to break a rail strike. So we got to look out for each other, no one’s going to save us.
And to your point, there’s been so much coverage here at the Real News Network on that, and it’s really important to look at what you’re saying there, in this sense. He goes, he breaks a rail strike, and then look at what happens in East Palestine, Ohio. It’s almost as if though the workers on the railroads were trying to warn about that.
But to your point, that’s something that is being made known here. Obviously something I know I personally say a lot to various people, especially during the organizing drive is, “Nobody’s going to come and save us here. We have to be proactive in our own salvation and this is how we do it is by trying to form a union. And the deck is going to be stack stacked against you but ultimately the question becomes are you going to relinquish yourself to the crappy working environment that you’re in, to the crappy life that you end up living because of the fact that these companies don’t give you what you’ve earned, what you deserve, or are you going to stand up and fight and make your case?”
And so with that, I’m just really curious to hear what’s next for you guys? How can people keep up with your fight with different things that you have going on?
Well, so we’re obviously going to run it back because that’s what we do. Who dat? As we say in New Orleans, but we got to focus on forming a stronger committee, think about how we can change our strategy to build something more durable than what we have, which was initially that first drive was a little bit of a Hail Mary. So obviously I don’t want to reveal too much in case the ops are watching, but we’re definitely going to keep organizing because there are a lot of bright and talented young folks who deserve respect.
Because that’s basically what it comes down to. There’s pay and there’s under under-staffing, but really when you wake up at 5:00 AM in the morning and then you got to go to work and deal with all this patronizing bullshit and just be talked to like you’re in fifth grade. It’s not just me. There are like 50, 60 year old folks getting talked to like they’re in the fifth grade. So I think for a lot of people, the bottom line is respect, and that’s why we’re going to keep fighting.
I filed several unfair labor practice charges, which are in the process of being addressed. So we’re not going to give up here and as you’ve experienced at Home Depot, a lot of folks are reaching out from across the country, whether it’s Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, they’re reaching out to organize with us, and I think that’s exactly what we need.
Absolutely, and so where can people keep up with your fight? I know you guys have a Twitter. Is there anything else?
We got a Twitter, I think it’s called like Lowe’sU_Nola or something, you’ll probably be able to find it, but there’s Instagram too, I guess. But our email is, let me actually, I got it written down somewhere. I don’t actually remember what the exact address is. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. If you Google and you see it on the Twitter, it’s probably up there too but we will get back to you.
I will give you my phone number, you can call me at all hours of the night and I might be asleep, but I’ll do my best. And I’m sure Vince would say the same, of course.
Absolutely, and what we can do too is make sure that we put all of that contact information in the bio of this video so that to your point, if anybody watching works at Lowe’s, so talk to Felix. He’s also a musician, if you want to talk to him about music as well. Please feel free to reach out. As we said at the beginning of this, this is a solidarity movement. That was how Felix and I connected, and through that, we’ve been able to build a strong relationship in which we’re able to support each other, and we want to do that for other people who want to try and make their work environment better.
So with that, my friend, greatly appreciate your time. Thank you for telling us your guys’ story, and I very much look forward to seeing what you do in the future.
Likewise, thanks for having me.
So there you guys have it. That was Felix from Lowe’s Workers United. And something that’s extremely important to consider, whether it’s looking at his organizing campaign, the organizing campaign that I was in at Home Depot. Even when you look at, for instance, Amazon with Bessemer, Alabama and these different drives that didn’t quite get it all the way across the finish line is even when you lose, you still win.
We talk a lot about wages, we talk about under-staffing, and these are definitely core issues in the fight that we’re engaged in, but the thing that’s important to remember most of all, is the concept of hard power. That’s why these companies react the way that they do because they understand just like the rest of us do, that there are two core components to any business, capital and labor and they absolutely are afraid of the fact that labor is starting to organize itself because once that happens, they lose their leverage.
So if you’re somebody that’s watching these interviews, you’re considering organizing in your workplace, you feel that fear, you feel that uncertainty of being able to get it done, please reach out. Reach out to people like myself, reach out to people like Felix because in the end, like we both said in this interview, nobody’s coming to save us. We’re going to have to save ourselves, but as long as we got each other’s back, nobody can stop us. Till the next one, guys.