The New State of Unions – The Assignment with Audie Cornish
During the pandemic, you probably heard a lot about the great resignation when millions of people quit their jobs. I was one of them. Well, after economists got another look at the job data, many were calling that period say 2021 to 2022. Something else: The Great Renegotiation. People quit their jobs for new ones. Many leveraged the tumultuous job market to demand more from their employers and were far less willing to put up with poor working conditions and abuse. So it’s no surprise that the number of workers strikes and work stoppages jumped.
Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts just became the very first in the country to officially unionize.
Workers are forming unions in industries and companies that haven’t seen them before.
They hope to unionize and if successful, they will be the second strip club in the U.S. to do so.
And some of these walkouts and strikes in union drives popped up in places that surprised even long time labor activist.
We thought Amazon was impenetrable even just four years ago. Now we know that’s not the case.
And we’re fueled by a new generation of workers who, raised in the era of low union participation, weren’t so eager to latch on to traditional, big labor.
They were like, Hey, you’re struggling. I see you’re struggling. Let me help you. And the workers were just like, Hold on, wait a minute. You don’t know anything about me. I don’t need your help. I can do this on my own.
So what can the larger unions learn from the tactics that cracked open Starbucks, Amazon and others? What can the new generation of activists learn from the old guard about sustaining a movement? I’m Audie CORNISH. And this is The Assignment. Now we aren’t ignoring the major strikes of the last few months. 15,000 nurses walked out of hospitals in Minnesota. Just the threat of rail workers striking drew the attention of President Biden in December. But the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, the Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts, the Starbucks in Buffalo and Memphis, all these shops organized themselves with workers who were in many cases very new to labor activism.
I thought it was only like blue collar workers were like the only ones that were allowed to unionize. I never even imagined or thought that baristas could unionize or any really fast food chain. Period.
This is Nabretta Harden, Starbucks union organizer in Tennessee. We’re going to hear more from her later. But first, I wanted a little context from someone inside the labor movement. How are they seeing this moment? Erica Smiley is a longtime organizer and activist and the executive director of Jobs with Justice. Just don’t call her big labor.
I wish I’m rather short to tell you the truth. But, you know, we are a national network of coalitions that work with community groups, faith organizations, unions, worker centers, but definitely to advance the ability of everyday people to organize and collectively bargain. And kind of all in the spirit of building a healthy democracy.
So there’s like this conversation going on right now about the labor activism professionals.
Let’s I mean right. That’s your full time job.
The functionaries, yeah. The paid people.
And the folks who have a full time job that they’re fighting for, the rights for. The smaller what you call shop to shop activists are not affiliated with any big union. They may be trying to unionize. What is big labor to you? What does that even mean?
Oh, it’s often a term used by the opposition to make workers look like a special interest group when it comes to demanding respect and rights. But I think part of the dynamic you’re getting at, which is more authentic, is the relationship between institutions and movements. So there’s the labor movement, which is very big, which includes people who are organizing for the first time, whether they have an affiliation or not, or an organization or not, and and includes members of existing unions who are trying to negotiate maybe not for the first time. And then there’s organized labor, which is kind of what you were laying out, where there are, you know, institutions that have won recognition, have the ability to negotiate standards on their job or in their industry. And then the leaders that, you know, make decisions based on that and interact in the world based on that.
And in fairness, pop culture has not been forgiving of the latter. Right. Like, I think Scorsese made like a couple of films just centered on the idea, yeah, that organized labor is corrupt and there’s some history there.
Yeah. I mean, every there’s always, like, some truth in every stereotype. So I don’t want to pretend like it’s this beautiful utopian thing. But what I will say is that those of us who’ve who study movements for a long time understand that there’s a a symbiotic relationship between a movement and institutions, and it’s often full of tension. But, you know, these institutions ultimately implement the victories of the movement that was before them. And so what we’re seeing now is an upsurge in a movement, a new movement of workers trying to figure out how to organize and essentially practice democracy at work and the current protocols and protections that were won previously in 1935, for example, don’t necessarily fit. And so I think we’ll see either institutions evolve to meet the need and and there will be new institutions that come out of it, but that the movement demand is still fairly broad and unified. It’ll be messy, always messy.
We’re going to get into the mess over the course of this. That’s what the show is about. But so one of the kind of ongoing, I think, media narratives around this is that these kind of rank and file groups that establish union drives or at least push or petition for certain rights in the workplace have wielded the sort of modern levers of technology in organizing in ways that have been innovative. So to give the example, Staten Island, as you said, Amazon Labor union, they collected enough union cards to be approved for election at two warehouses. They relied on basically workers, right? No professional organizers. They used a GoFund Me instead of dues. And, you know, they were spreading the word the way we spread the word about anything, you know, these days online and social networking. Did that feel like a different moment? Because the writing around. It was labor organizers here and their activists being quoted saying, oh, we needed to pay attention because they did something we haven’t been able to do against a company that professional organizers had not been able to make inroads against. Why was that a turning point?
Well, the truth of the matter is it was a reminder of what organizing actually is. I mean, I think as paid organizers or functionaries or institutions, however you want to describe those of us who who kind of do this full time, often get comfortable, get really used to the rules as they are, and just want to, you know, assume everything has to operate within that framework, forgetting that those rules were created because the previous ones were broken by regular, everyday people, just like the workers at Staten Island. And so the best union drives, even the biggest institutions of today started based on a similar effort like what we saw in Staten Island with people coming together using the technology of the day, raising money however they could in order to win recognition. And so it was a kind of a wake up call to get back to our roots in terms of what it means to have regular people talking to each other as opposed to just kind of the traditional paid staff way of getting to scale.
What are the standard rules, so to speak, when when you decide, I’m at work? Work is not working for me. We need some help. And you reach out to a big union. What are they going to say? Like, what are the suggestions going to be?
Well, I mean, the best of them will ask who else within your job site is with you and encourage the employee to actually, you know, ensure that they’re talking to others. And I think also there’s a little bit of a myth that the first step is that workers reach out to an existing union. Oftentimes, they actually know intuitively to just start talking to their own coworkers. And sometimes that’s where they get in trouble and that’s when they will reach out to an institution to help them understand their rights. The second step oftentimes is that then a union staff person, if that’s where the direction that workers go, will then support that committee of people and broadening and trying to talk to others. They’ll help map the shop floor and understand who else is with them and who else is not with them, and who are the leaders within the worksite that other people listen to and how to bring them all along. Those are the best campaigns because they really incentivize worker to worker organizing. I think on the flip side of that.
Yeah, worst case scenario.
The worst case scenario, right. You see. And force me to talk about the worst stuff. You got to air my dirty laundry man.
Just saying we’re going to do both.
You know, I think in the worst case scenario, those agreements are made between an existing union and a company with no worker involvement, either through a merger or through some kind of sweetheart deal where there’s just a conversation between a set of union officers or staff and an a company. And the danger to that for obvious reasons, is that the actual needs of the people in that worksite wouldn’t get addressed necessarily in that type of agreement.
So when people kind of in your line of work are worried about the ability to sustain this moment. What are the things you’re thinking about?
I think some of the biggest barriers are in trying to both protect the needs and expand on the the standards, or at least not to erode the standards of existing members who are really, you know, where the resources and power of the institutions come from. So, like, you know, if I were a union president, I want to make sure that the next contract I negotiate, if it doesn’t improve on wages and benefits and at least doesn’t roll them back, given the downward pressure that’s happening in nonunion segments of that industry. I think the other thing and again, as a Southerner and as a black person is really thinking about where union membership is the lowest. And we’re looking at, you know, the south and the southwest, where the majority of black and migrant people still live, according to the last census. And so, you know, this idea that you have to now invest in what could be a fairly high risk in terms of the political economy of those states, but in fact, is maybe one of the most militant bases of the labor movement. If you look traditionally about who has first stood in line to stick their necks out, to try to organize and win equality and when dignity. And so there’s a there’s a tension of how to, like, support that, invest in it. The organizing that would happen, say, in Bessemer, is very different than the organizing that happens in Staten Island. And we have to figure out how to support that and comfortably accept that risk.
I want to ask about one more area of tension, which is generational. Is there a progressive Gen Z kind of approach to what they want out of work? That comes into play or can create tensions in this environment of activism. We’ve had a labor movement that traditionally has been like, yes, worker conditions, but also wages, benefits, etc. And then you have a new generation that’s asking about diversity and inclusion, etc.. Do those things come into tension? Does that create a dynamic that is exploitable for corporations who are fighting unions?
Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s an understatement.
What kinds of tensions come up as a result? I mean, I can recall being in a union where some younger person would demand something and you would hear someone say, you know, we really can’t solve that entire problem right now. You know, like, we’re not going to solve racism in this negotiation. We’re just trying to claw back our cost of living increase.
And the other people, the younger people in the room being like, oh, you don’t get it like, but it looks visceral. It’s like really intense.
Visceral. Yeah. Now you’re describing like every household, every worksite. There’s this debate. There’s people who are like, We can’t do that. We’ve tried we tried it back in 1968. You know, I mean, there’s always a generational gap. I think the thing that’s interesting about this moment is that the younger people, or at least those because it’s not all young people, so it’s some of the older people, but they’re they’re a new generation taking to the streets. I’ll put it like that, whether they’re old or young in age. And the new generation taken to the streets today are the ones who are winning. And that’s saying something to those who have been naysayers historically. I think that’s the do your earlier question, the magic of this moment and why as anxiety producing as it can be for a lot of us is why it feels like we’re on the on the upsurge on a win.
I’m talking with organizer and activist Erica Smiley. After a quick break, we’ll be joined by a young organizer who helped unionize her Starbucks in Memphis. Hey there. Nabretta Harden, how are you?
Good. How are you? Sorry I’m late.
Nabretta Harden is a student and barista. And even if you don’t know her name, you know her work. She helped unionize her Starbucks in Memphis. She and her coworkers were dubbed the Memphis Seven. So, Nevada Harden, you’re only 23. I did not know that. And you are Starbucks Workers United Union leader and member of the Memphis Seven, which was a collective of workers who were unlawfully fired. A federal judge made Starbucks hire you back. How weird has it been being back at work?
Really weird. I was a little nervous just because there was such a high turnover rate in my store. Since I had been gone. I had been gone for like almost nine months. So when I came back, it was basically an entire different group of people and I have to get to know them all over again. So it was like it was a little awkward for me at first.
We brought in Nabretta Harden into the conversation because we wanted to hear what inspired her to act. A person with no prior experience in activism. What inspired her to try to unionize at a company that at one point seemed impervious to unions? Nabretta says part of it was the pandemic. Conditions at her store were bad, from COVID outbreaks to understaffed shifts, with only three people working open to close, all while trying to deliver coffee in under 50 seconds to every customer. When we contacted Starbucks for comment, the company denied the allegations. Moreover, Starbucks maintains that it has bargained in good faith and that its actions are grounded in established policies and that they’re in alignment with labor and employment laws. In fact, Starbucks is appealing the court’s order to reinstate Nabretta and the other fired workers. I asked Nabretta Hardin what prompted her to turn to unionizing specifically as a way to address what she saw as problems in her store. And she said she and her coworkers were inspired after seeing the first Starbucks unionize in Buffalo, New York. This was in December of 2021, and it was actually Nabretta’s shift supervisor who was the first to approach her about unionizing.
She came to me one day and was just like, Hey, you hear about like the Buffalo things? Of course, me not knowing — full time student — I’m like, No, I don’t know anything about that. What is that about? She, of course, you know, explained it to me as like, Hey, they’re just trying to do a lot of things that we are already thinking that we know our workers need. This person can benefit from this. And it’s hard to believe that these are things they are working for. Like, what do you think our store do that? And I was like, Oh, yeah, I think for sure my store is a huge family. So I’m like, We talk to each other all the time. We text each other. We have this mass group chat that we talk in every day for hours in. And I was like, Yeah, that’s easily doable. We have so many connections and relationship with these workers. I don’t think it’ll be very hard at all to convince them that this is something that could help them out in the long run.
How did they feel about that? We’ve heard some criticism here and there were people feel like, I don’t want a union organizer telling me what to do.
I think it’s different for the Starbucks campaign because the workers are like the organizers. We are the organizers. We’re the ones doing all the work. We do everything from start to finish. So everything that you see us doing, it’s 100% the workers. It’s not the union organization doing it, it’s the workers. So I don’t think they had like a really big issue because they knew me, they trusted me, they knew I was a worker. I had been working there for up to a year before I got fired. They knew they could trust me. They knew I had their backs and they in turn had my back. So they I believe they trusted me a lot on that.
I’m consumed. I’m still here.
I’m actually here on the show not just watching. Nabretta, you’re amazing.
Nabretta, this is Erica Smiley. She’s the executive director of Jobs with Justice and a longtime organizer and movement leader. The reason why Erica is looking at you with stars in her eyes is because we’ve been talking about the pros and cons versus being an internal versus an external organizer.
Look, let me just say, Nabretta is doing the real the real work. And when we’re talking about small, right, Like what Nabretta is defining is nimble, right. So when unions and institutions are at their best because Workers United is an existing union that is supporting the formation of Starbucks Workers United, right. And what she’s describing is a nimbleness where they’ve made a decision, where they are investing in new organizing and not just in existing contracts, and then at their best, again, making sure that the organizers are workers, that there’s not a false divide between leaders and organizers or workers and staff, and that is unions at their best. And that is a labor movement at its best. But the thing that I feel like is important here when we say small, right, is that there’s a small to get big, right? Because if Nebraska and her coworkers are successful around the country, Starbucks Workers United will be a giant membership union. Now, does that mean that they have to have a giant staff? Well, that’s the debatable, right? I don’t necessarily think they do. Nabretta’s argument says that they don’t necessarily need a huge staff that’s doing all kinds of things. But, you know, that’s a decision that the workers will ultimately make at that point. I mean, that’s a lot of workers at Starbucks around the country. It’s still very big.
Let’s talk growing pains, because I think Nabretta Hardin, you’ve you’ve obviously gone through one of them, which is at least according to a federal judge, retaliation from the company right in on unlawful firing.
So what are some of the other things you’re starting to deal with that you couldn’t have imagined when you first got involved with this work? Because Erica Smiley might have advice.
How are you going to set me up and put me on the spot like that?
Oh, this is the position of expertise is the place I’m putting you, Erica Smiley okay.
Yeah, but Nabretta I’m sure you’ve had some moments where you’re like, What have I gotten myself into? And in those moments, what are the things that trigger that thought?
Yeah, especially when I got fired. I was like, kind of. What did I get myself into? Like, I’ve never been fired from a job before. I have always been one of the best workers in whatever company I work in. And that’s just like, come from my family values. My family are very hard workers. They work multiple jobs. So when that happened, I was just like, What did I get myself into? Like, I’ve I’ve messed up my record. Like, this is going to go on my job thing. Like, this is this is going to, like, ruin me. But also I had to think about I wasn’t just doing this for myself. I was doing it for others. And so I kind of like struggle in that aspect.
Like you’re still trying to reckon the work with your identity.
Yeah, And like, just with my personal life, I have given a lot of my time and effort to the union campaign. So like, that’s something I did not expect When I started this, I thought I would have a pretty decent balance. I thought, Oh, I can like organize my store and like, do it kind of like locally, and that would be it. And I could still go to school and into work, not me knowing that it would blow up as big as it had nationally. And now I’m being called in to help with the national campaign instead of just like local in Memphis.
I’m enrapt. I mean, I could learn from you just as much, but you could be describing the same conversations that I had around the table, around the value. There’s value in work and working, and I think there’s a dominant narrative that makes it look like people who are out here demanding more fighting for the unions that they don’t like to work. There’s a lot of comments about your generation not liking to work, not wanting to work, but there’s so much value in work and I feel like that gets missed in a lot of these conversations. So I appreciate you lifting that up. One of the other things and this may or may not come as advice, but maybe just reflections on what you said is part of what you’re describing is the amount of work it takes to fight, to have dignity in work and to be respected, both, you know, in terms of compensation as well as the literal respect that you get on the on the job. And it takes a lot of time. And there really is often a generational divide as those who are younger or those who are, say, older and children have moved out, have more time to dedicate to this type of work as opposed to those who have active children in their house or taking care of senior relatives and things like that. And so it’s one of those things where it’s critical for our movement to be patient with those who might be slower to act, because losing their job means that their kids don’t eat for months at a time.
That’s a lot for someone who thought they would just be going to school and working at Starbucks.
Yeah, it sure is. God bless you.
It’s a long way from a latte, Nabretta. Am I mischaracterizing this?
No, I think you’re totally right. Where organizing does get hard is trying to find a way to accommodate everybody and where they are in their life. I mean, I experience that a lot, not just even locally, but nationally. You know, people’s family, their health, things happening with friends, just things happening with their life in general. And I mean, it affects how we organize and how they organize and seeing if they’re wanting to be active in the union and all if they want to just pull back completely all together. It’s definitely a big juggle to try to keep people engaged and active. Yeah.
And this is why we define like workers as whole people when we talk about organizing. Because you’re not just a worker, right? You have a life. You might be a Presbyterian, maybe you play soccer. I don’t know, like you have all of these identities and we want you to have dignified lives. Like this is why I said earlier in our conversation, Audie, like the purpose of organizing the purpose of movements isn’t just to win a particular issue or a particular right. It’s to win long term dignity, sustainability and the ability to engage in decision making for all aspects of your life forever. And so, you know, this may be exciting or this may be horrifying when I say this to you Nabretta, but like being a part of a movement is a lifetime commitment.
Yes. I’m starting to see that.
She just rolled her eyes.
Yeah. I’m starting to see that.
Like being a part of a church. You know, you might be more active some years than others, but winning, there’s always another thing to be won behind that first victory. And so we’re a long way from the society that our ancestors dreamed for us. And there are many different battlefields of that at work and at play. But unlike activists who can operate in fits and spurts, who just have to plan the next March or get to the next election, you know, organizers have to get through every single day with their coworkers and their neighbors and whatever. And to think about the issues every single day. And some days there’s alignment and some days there’s not. And that’s actually normal. And so when I talk about the movement as a mess and I say it’s messy, that’s the mess. And, you know, some will call it a beautiful mess. It depends on the day, if you ask me. But it’s a mess. But it’s critical for our shared sustainability.
That’s Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs with Justice. She joined us today from New Jersey. We also heard from Nabretta Hardin, Starbucks Workers United organizer and barista from Memphis, Tennessee.
That’s it for this episode of The Assignment. New episodes drop every Thursday, so please listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and a review.
One more thing. If you have an assignment for us, a story that you want to hear more about something that’s affecting your community, you can give us a call and leave us a voicemail at 202-854-8802 or record a voice memo on your phone and you can e-mail that to us at theassignmentCNN@gmail.com.
The assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Lori Galaretta. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel, Allison Park and Sonia Htoon. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Matt Martinez. Our editor is Rina Palta. Mixing and sound design by David Schulman. Dan Dzula is our technical director. Abbie Fentress Swanson is our executive producer. And special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish. Thank you for listening.
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