The State of the Unions

A group of people from various positions and experiences with labor unions and worker movements gathered to discuss the problems and potential of labor organizing today. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

LENA AFRIDI is trained in urban planning and has written about and organized around work, cities, and race for over 10 years. Her work has been featured in Al Jazeera, the Guardian, and Next City. Lena is a South Asian immigrant born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Queens, New York, where she still lives.

CHRISTINA FOX is an industrial social worker with over a decade of experience organizing community programs, and has spent the last few years at a migrant-labor organization. Christina is a mixed-race Dominican American from Southern California currently living in Brooklyn, New York.

FARAH KHIMJI is a labor-union researcher with experience in health care, construction, and airport-service-work sectors on the East Coast. A child of South-Asian immigrants, they were raised in North Texas and have been living and organizing in NYC for over 10 years. Farah is a founding collective member of LIES, a journal of materialist feminism.

LENA SOLOW is a sex educator and former retail worker currently employed as a staff representative and organizer at a union for nonprofit workers in NYC. She is an Ashkenazi Jew raised in Washington, DC, and living in Brooklyn, NY. Lena’s writing has appeared in Broadly and Teen Vogue, and she has been featured as one of NPR’s 50 Great Teachers.

FARAH KHIMJI. What is the current state of labor—jobs, unions & other organized workers, wages, policy, trends right now, and where do you see it headed in the future?

LENA AFRIDI. When we talk about jobs changing and the nature of work changing, we’re talking about a major shift in both the culture of work and how cities function, and it should force us to change how we organize and what tactics we use. The trend toward automation is not new, and automation itself is not why there are fewer good-paying jobs; there are fewer good-paying jobs because it is simply not in the interest of employers to create those kinds of jobs. In addition to the gig economy, a huge turn to subcontracting is probably the biggest shift in traditional employment. The massive influx of capital into cities, coupled with displacement pressures, creates a workforce that’s mostly based in service-sector work. All this creates a vulnerable workforce, susceptible to pressures ranging from wage theft, to intimidation based on documentation status by employers, to an inability to receive worker’s compensation if injured on the job, to housing instability. This destabilizes entire communities, predominantly Black communities and other communities of color.

Simultaneously, we see this neoliberal project of economic upgrading, a term coined by economist Rachel Meltzer. In an effort to “revitalize” neighborhoods and spur job growth, cities create giant economic-development projects. But jobs that are created as a result of economic upgrading end up going to gentrifiers, while longtime residents of neighborhoods that have been “upgraded” don’t get the new jobs popping up in the neighborhood. And the jobs that already existed and employed these residents disappear as long-standing employers are displaced. Residents then need to look outside their “upgraded communities” for new jobs for lower pay. Longtime residents of a neighborhood that experiences economic upgrading end up displaced or traveling farther from their homes to go to jobs that pay less. And this is a crucial but often missed moment where work, the city, and the carceral state all intersect.

We’re in a moment of major inequality and precarity. Though employment nationally is higher than we’ve seen in a while, the data is misleading, since it doesn’t count folks who’ve stopped looking for work, and it counts crappy jobs that force people into working long hours with little pay. More and more people are dependent on survival-economy work. Low-wage work and survival-economy work are increasingly criminalized, especially in areas that are quickly gentrifying. The policing of work can range from ticketing street vendors and intimidating them with threats of deportation, to stopping and frisking young Black people who commute long hours to service sector jobs, to arresting and killing people. I want us as organizers and as people thinking about work and labor to think about it in an abolitionist context.

LENA SOLOW. I’ve been thinking a lot about what seems like a broader awareness of and support for unions among my generation in the past couple years. I think a lot of that is because millennials are broke as shit, but also because there’s organizing focusing on industries with younger people that have a lot of turnover as places where unions would make sense, like new media and nonprofits. I also think people are realizing the need to focus on retail as a site of extreme exploitation of a huge part of the workforce. I was reading this NYT piece about retail workers and how people should respond to a store that employs hundreds closing down the same way people would’ve responded to a steel mill closing.

On the other hand, there’s so much work that doesn’t fall at all under the purview of a typical union organizing drive—sex work, domestic work, care work—all of these industries where people (mostly women and especially women of color) face a ton of abuse and exploitation (financial and otherwise) and aren’t going to be backed up by most unions. So I think some of the work for those of us inside unions is how do we get our workers and staff to see themselves in solidarity with all kinds of workers, and figure out how to take action that supports those industries that won’t otherwise be getting institutional union support.

LENA AFRIDI. I think the steel-mill analogy is really powerful. How do you think, based on what we’ve seen as the limitations of and failures of organized labor, unions should organize these shops? I’m also wondering how creating cross-worker solidarity within a union is influenced by what’s deemed “acceptable” work and what’s not—for example, selling sex toys vs. working at a grocery store. I think that there’s a prevailing attitude even within organized labor that some work is valuable and some is not. Is this something that came up for you all?

LENA SOLOW. During our campaign at Babeland there was also the Verizon strike, and I stopped by a Verizon store to talk to some workers outside. They were older women and I told them we were organizing at Babeland and there was definitely visible anxiety on their faces, but it was followed immediately by a huge amount of support. So that was a really cool and exciting moment of solidarity. The work at Babeland definitely pushes up close to sex work and pushes those boundaries of what’s acceptable for organizing.

Because of the transient nature of retail, people don’t always have the workplace connections they might otherwise have, so organizers have to really provide some of that structure to help people get and stay connected. We should also be organizing in a way that not only has people seeing the value for themselves but also pushes people politically—this brings up the importance of internal organizing and keeping people super engaged even once they have a contract. Unions have to see their work as both getting workers to advocate for their own workplaces but also building a movement of people who want to stand up for all other workers. There’s some good efforts in the union I work for now to do anti-racist training with workers all over, including many who work in very predominantly white spaces.

A lot of it too is about how unions can respond to demands they maybe didn’t realize were out there—like Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) changed their bathrooms to gender-neutral because of the Babeland campaign. When you look at discrimination against trans people at work, the numbers are just staggering, so if unions want to actually stand up for all workers they have to really tackle that.

Also, unions really need to grow our numbers. But we need to do it in a way that we’re building activists, not just dues payers. An activated 10 percent of the workforce could wield huge political power.

CHRISTINA FOX. You both touched on a few things that are central to my take on the current state of labor as well, particularly in construction. First, I want to raise the point that was made around gentrification as it has everything to do with the construction industry; I’ve seen workers who were evicted from their houses then go to work at the exact same site to build luxury apartments their wage could never afford them.

The subcontracting game has also entirely changed the labor market: A principal company takes on an entire contract, and instead of employing laborers directly, they will sell off the work in silos to subcontractors, who instead of hiring more laborers, often subcontract the work again and again. This dynamic cuts wages, drives down workplace conditions, and contributes to the precarity of the job. At this point so many workers couldn’t even tell you who their employer is or their real name, and so when they don’t get paid it’s really difficult to report. These employers are so emboldened by normalization of these shitty conditions that they will openly cut corners on wages and health and safety across the board. Labor laws are weak as is, are only getting weaker under this administration, and without enforcement are relatively irrelevant anyway. It’s been astounding to me how little the leadership of the trade unions in particular understand the subcontracting scheme and strategy.

LENA SOLOW. What are organizing tactics or strategies you wish union leadership would take for subcontracted workers? Like do you start with a legal route trying to get workers reclassified on W-2s? Do you need a lot more organizers than usual since you can’t just go into one workplace? I sometimes feel hopeless when I look at the “gig economy.”

CHRISTINA FOX. The “Big” unions seem to be stuck right now. While a worker center is fucked in the nonprofit industrial complex, we do have to center member leadership because we don’t have resources except for ourselves (which can be stupid exploitative, too). Unions on the other hand (particularly the trades) tend to be pretty ossified institutions that are more often than not super threatened by member leadership. Worker centers have so much work because there is a growing labor force that unions don’t want or don’t know how to organize. Even with worker centers, though, members will hit a ceiling where they realize their power is kind of a farce, siloed within the nonprofit context. The dope wildcat organizing tactics I watch workers come up with only get so far individually and have to connect to a larger union model. Plus our organization ended up in labor by chance based on our members’ needs, and so we aren’t experts on labor law like unions are—we’re pretty much self-taught. But when a worker center does look to collaborate with a union it almost always ends in disastrous culture and ideological clashes (Janice Fine’s 2006 book on workers centers has a great chapter on this), because workers come in with raw, self-organized power, and union organizers and leadership get all paternalistic and say, no you have to do it this way, and are often really ignorant of the workers’ needs.

I think big unions really need to work to look outside of their piece of pie and see the difference between the Union the entity and the actual practice of being in union, which workers outside of labor unions do every day.

LENA SOLOW. It’s interesting, because I’ve realized more and more how unique the Babeland experience was. We really maintained militancy throughout and beyond the contract campaign, and were organized around seeing the contract as a tool and ourselves as the union not as offshoots of the bureaucracy. RWDSU also does organizing with Center for Frontline Retail, which shows how important collaborating across unions and worker centers can be. I wish we did more of this, even as organizers, because I do think there’s stuff that’s useful that can come from the expertise you’re talking about from both groups. All kinds of organizers don’t always realize the high level of organizing it takes to keep people super engaged and taking action with or without a contract.

CHRISTINA FOX. I’m seeing a good third of labor unions right now holding the issue of immigration in their hands, knowing that they have to organize immigrant workers, but not knowing how. They need to learn from these workers exactly how they can get employed. Getting rid of E-Verify is a biggie. So is a company being willing to just pay the fine to the IRS because they like the worker and in some cases might be able to sponsor them.

That’s assuming that once inside, they keep organizing to change the institution itself, but I don’t know how much I really believe that’s possible. Otherwise they’ll just be miserable and excluded from the inside.

I do think the nonprofit perspective is needed considering how much labor organizing has turned into “service work” like we’ve said. It’s hurting the movement. And service work largely lacks any understanding of the worker and ultimately is designed to fail: It’s reactive and only responding to an urgent need that can be given a little attention and put aside for a bit but not fixed. Social services and social work really don’t ever look at the client’s identity as a worker either.

LENA AFRIDI. I’m interested in talking a little about good work versus bad work, which we touched on earlier when Lena Solow talked about the tensions in organizing Babeland. The rhetoric in the nonprofit world, which is sponsored by the state, is that everyone can have a “good job,” with the right skills and training and education. A good job is a tech job, or an IT job, or a job with career advancement built in. This is the route most cities and institutions take when considering the problem of underemployment and unemployment—throwing money into skills-building and training to get people “good jobs” rather than placing more value on all work. I think big labor also does this, by prioritizing some jobs over others and by pushing the career ladder. We should instead be taking measures to make workplaces safer for all people but in particular people of color, undocumented people, and queer people—big labor has failed to see the crucial importance of prioritizing these workers in particular. Measures to value all work would also include decriminalizing survival-economy work, including sex work, so all jobs can be good jobs that are valued in the same way until there’s an end to capitalist work.

FARAH KHIMJI. This reminds me about your earlier point about abolitionism, Lena. It would seem that a major shortfall of the current mainstream labor movement is lacking an abolitionist framework—both in the sense of the abolition of capitalism, of work as we know it, but also in the sense in which you first named it, referring to prison abolition. A 2015 Think Progress article estimated that California is saving anywhere from $80 million to $1 billion a year by using incarcerated firefighters. This is of course not the only example nor the only industry that uses prison labor in the U.S. What should organized workers, unionized or not, be doing about this? Are there any unions, besides the Industrial Workers of the World, that are reacting to the growing use of incarcerated labor with protest? What does an abolitionist labor movement look like, and how do we get there?

LENA AFRIDI. So much of our work is siloed and we’re always reacting in crisis mode, since we are in a moment of deep crisis. However, my hopes for the labor movement are that we get to a point where we can think beyond big unions, think about the way work impacts the spaces we inhabit, our communities and neighborhoods, and create solidarity between workers centers and workers who might not have access to resources provided by any sort of organized labor. This means organized labor working with tenant’s movements, with abolitionist movements, with anti-war movements, with the movement for queer liberation. The only way labor will survive is if our movements work together.

CHRISTINA FOX. As capitalism is present in every area of our lives (housing, incarceration, love), it survives by perpetuating a constantly evolving dominance. So to dismantle it would mean resistance in every space, and jobs are at the intersection of so many spaces. Jobs can be a means of survival, or posed as the key to success, or even a purpose/passion in life; all the while we’re getting trapped, squeezed, abused, robbed, displaced in all of the ways by the ruling 1 percent that profit. The trick is the collective agitation needed and sustained to mobilize all of the different movements. It will require an enormous amount of work to synthesize and decolonize people and ideas so that they can work together. It will require everyone to see and understand our work’s racist and classist underpinnings and be willing to act up collectively. And it requires us to take care of each other autonomously from elitist state forces (which we stay stuck in for our survival).