Strike Wave: Workers Flex Their Muscle in Tight Labor Market

Thousands of workers across the country are using their leverage to demand more.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

Since January, there have been nearly 300 strikes throughout the U.S. This week on Intercepted: a look at the labor movement in 2021. Last week, tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente health care workers announced that they will go on strike on November 15 if a collective bargaining agreement is not reached. If they take to the picket line, they will join hundreds of thousands of other workers nationwide who have used their labor power to demand better wages and working conditions in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. We hear from Kaiser Permanente workers, and then Labor Notes’ Jonah Furman joins The Intercept’s Washington Editor Nausicaa Renner to discuss this year’s strike wave, the continued strike at John Deere, and the political implications of 2021’s rise in labor activism.

[Introductory theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Nausicaa Renner: I’m Nausicaa Renner, Washington editor for The Intercept.

Fred Redmond: [Sounds of cheers and applause.] They picked the wrong site, they picked the wrong union, they picked the wrong time. If this is what Kaiser wants, if this is what they want, we will give them a fight! Healthcare workers in California are ready, and so is the entire labor movement! [Cheers.] We cannot let them divide us. We won’t let them sell out our future because you deserve better. Your patients deserve better.

NR: Last week, more than 30,000 healthcare workers working for Kaiser Permanente provided a ten-day notice to the company that on November 15 they would go on strike.

Serene Branson (CBS News): More than 90 percent of Kaiser Permanente’s U.S. workforce opted to authorize a strike, which could be the largest in the country so far this year.

Katherine Cook (KGW News): Last month, union members voted 96 percent in favor of striking

Sam Spangler (KHON2 News): Nearly 2,000 Kaiser Permanente workers here in Hawaii could be going on strike soon.

KC (KGW News): Unless something changes 3,400 Kaiser workers from Oregon and Washington will walk off the job along with workers from five other states.

NR: The plan for workers to strike comes after months of failed negotiations between healthcare worker unions and Kaiser, the national non-profit hospital behemoth.

FR: The labor movement has been fighting for equal pay for equal work since the beginning of time. It’s a fairly straightforward concept.

NR: And the weekend before they announced the strike, union workers marched in Southern California.

FR: [Cheers and applause from the strikers.] Brothers and sisters, let’s go forward and win! Solidarity today, solidarity tomorrow, and solidarity forever.

NR: The main point of contention during contract negotiations is a proposal by Kaiser to establish a two-tier wage system. What this means is future Kaiser workers will be paid less than current workers. The union is also demanding a 4 percent permanent increase in wages, while the company is only proposing 2 percent.

In a statement to The Intercept, Kaiser emphasized its appreciation for its essential workers during the pandemic and outlined a number of temporary benefits it had provided them. An updated proposal from Kaiser to workers still includes a second tier, with a significant pay cut. 

Kimberly Mullen: Well, we don’t want a two-tiered system, and they seem to be holding fast on that two-tier system with a reduction in pay and benefits for new employees that would be coming, which will ultimately divide us. And that’s an old union-busting technique of dividing and conquering.

NR: That’s Kimberly Mullen, a registered nurse with Kaiser Permanente in California.

KM: The challenge with the two-tier system is: When you have people doing the same work, for considerably different pay, it builds animosity towards union member against union member, it causes division, and sometimes it will affect care of patients, with the animosity: I don’t want to take care of that. I don’t want to do that. Why are they getting this assignment? Why am I getting that assignment? They’re getting paid more than I do — why don’t they do this, or that? It could cause internal strife among the union members.

[Musical interlude.]

FR: So brothers and sisters, this is not a company in financial crisis. So why is Kaiser acting like this, when it thrived — it thrived — during the pandemic? Because of you — working people, union people — they made money during the pandemic. Why? Because you go in every day, you take care of patients, you risk your own health and safety to do your job.

NR: Workers at the rally told The Intercept that in the past year and a half, they’ve worked long, difficult hours because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

KM: It has been scary, it has been challenging, I’ve been afraid of taking something home to my daughter. We have changes in PPE requirements. We have changes in rules every day. It’s been scary. 

And it’s been emotional, taking care of patients who have Covid, and being their only support system, not letting anyone else in. You cry with them behind a mask, and goggles, and PPE, and full gear. You hold their hand with a gloved hand and some distance, still being afraid but you need to be there emotionally for your patients who are dying and suffering, because we don’t allow their support system in. 

It’s been very emotional, is what I’ll say. [Begins crying.] And despite all of that, we come to work, and we endanger ourselves, and we’ve endangered our families and our loved ones, just so we can take care of the community. And to be offered something that would ultimately divide us and knock us down is quite insulting. And it’s like: While we’re saving the world, they’re planning our demise, and planning to divide and conquer us, while all we’re trying to do is save the world through this pandemic.

FR: Make no mistake about it, each and every one of you are indeed heroic. And you should be treated like heroes. [Cheers.] You should be compensated and respected like the heroes you are. All across the country, healthcare professionals are overworked, under-respected, and struggling — struggling to continue in a profession that they love.

NR: But with the new contract negotiations, they feel Kaiser is not treating them like heroes or like essential workers:

Doug Wong: During that entire time, they would tell us: OK, you’re a hero, thank you so much for giving — and whatnot.

NR: That’s Doug Wong, a physician assistant. He told us he would sometimes work 15- or 16-hour days at the peak of the pandemic.

DW: And when you get home and your kids say something like: Are you going to be home tomorrow? You feel like you are giving a part of yourself, and you feel like you’re giving everything you can to the community as a whole. And then to be told later on: Hey, thanks, but we’re not going to respect the same people who are coming after you, who are going to be giving the same thing.

NR: In the past year, Wong said he mostly worked in mental healthcare.

DW: Over the course of the pandemic, you see all sorts of things. And I spoke with people who lost seven family members, direct family members: mother, father, husband, and aunts, uncles, cousins — all in the course of two months. And doing this, over and over and over, you feel like you’re giving; you feel like you’re giving to the community. And you hope that that is respected by your employer. You hope they see what you give. And then it comes time to take a look at your contract, and they say: Hey thanks, but — no.

NR: Anger against employers and executives seems to be a common thread among many essential workers, who basically kept society running over the past 18 months.

In October, hospital workers in Buffalo, New York went on strike. This month, teachers in Scranton, Pennsylvania began to strike. Coal miners from Alabama have been striking for months. And last week, sanitation workers in New Orleans announced a strike.

KCTV5 News Newscaster: Frustrated Frito-Lay workers in Topeka continued to strike for higher wages and better working conditions. 

Fox13 Seattle Newscaster: Right now, take a look, local carpenters are on strike around our area, leaving some big construction sites empty. When they picket, they’re doing so for better pay this morning.

Priscilla Thompson (NBC News): Production of Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, and Corn Flakes hangs in the balance tonight after workers at all of the Kellogg’s company cereal plants walked off the job this week.

Terry Moran (Good Morning America): There is a new militant spirit in the American workforce. Workers want more and they’re willing to strike to get it.

NR: So far this year, we’ve seen almost 300 strikes, according to a database from Cornell University. That’s hundreds of thousands of workers refusing to labor, showing executives where the real power lies.

And it’s pretty clear why anger is rising among workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO earnings rose by nearly 19 percent during 2020. Profits soared — off the backs of workers.

Robert Frank (CNBC): Amazon now at $1 trillion. Bezos’ net worth is now close to $170 billion.

Forbes: Tesla CEO Elon Musk is officially the richest person ever with a net worth of $271.3 billion.

Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!): The combined wealth of the 657 billionaires in the country grew more than $1.3 trillion — nearly 45 percent — since the pandemic began.

NR: So with such high earnings, cutting wages, benefits, and staff feels like a slap in the face. 

Nick Eng: We’re being expected to do more with less.

Hannah Winchester: They could put any number in front of whatever percent raise they want to give us. But if they continue to try and divide us in the future, by offering this two-tier system, we will never take that.

Sarina Roher: They were calling us heroes. They were thanking us on a daily basis. And then as we enter this process, this is what you call thank you?

NR: That’s Nick Eng, a registered nurse, Hannah Winchester, a home-health physical therapist, and Sarina Roher, also a registered nurse.

HW: I think that we are one of many groups across the country, across the world that is finding their voice and saying: We must have input, and we must have control over our workplace. And you can no longer use us as your way to make money, without regard for our safety, without regard for our feelings, and without regard for us as humans. And I think that’s how it’s so incredible that we’re unified across so many different arenas, is that we have one common theme, and that’s that — we’re done. We know that we are the ones that must take that control back, and we must protect ourselves.

Unknown Speaker at Protest: You’ve got to continue to raise your voices as they are doing, all workers are doing, all across the country.

NE: In the broader context of workers going on strike, I’d say our fight is right up there with the fight of the workers at Nabisco, Kellogg’s, John Deere, IATSE workers, miners, and other healthcare workers — even teachers, of recent years. We may work in different industries, but when people tell their stories, they’re all very similar: people who control the capital of the companies — most, if not who all make seven, eight, maybe even sometimes nine-figure salaries — they’re telling their workers that they get too much. That the wages and benefits of the workers are too expensive, and it’s affecting the long-term success of the company. [Sighs.] And funny enough, those people never suggest that they should be the ones who take a pay cut for the good of the company. You know? [Laughs.]

NR: Although there have been other points in history when the labor movement was much more cohesive and militant, the recent wave of strikes and worker actions throughout the country is very significant.

[Musical interlude.]

NR: Over the course of nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, workers have faced enormous risks, including death, especially for those on the frontlines. The pandemic has intensified working class anger — anger that has been building up after decades of stagnating wages, cuts to benefits and protections, and multiple economic crises that have fallen on the shoulders of everyday people.

One fight that has placed renewed attention on the labor movement is the John Deere strike:

Bill: We wanted better pay. And retirement, for me, is the biggest thing. I’m not 20 years-old anymore, so it really puts in perspective that I want to retire some day.

NR: That’s Bill. He’s a worker with John Deere in one of their Iowa factories. He’s been working with the company for fifteen years, and asked us to use a different name for this podcast.

B: For years now, CEO pays have been going through the roof. Ours have been pretty stagnant, and a lot of us are living paycheck to paycheck, because we spend 80-90 percent of our wages every week on something. And we have daughters that are in college, and it’s scary to think what they’re going to have to go through when they’re older. So I’m willing to sit out as long as it takes, until we receive fair wages. 

I’m just proud to be standing strong with my union brothers and sisters, and I’m ready to sit out as long as it takes.

NR: Last week, while I was glued to election results rolling in from Virginia and New Jersey, my husband, right in the other room was also reporting — but on the John Deere union contract vote.

John Furman: On election night, John Deere workers, 10,000 of them, were voting on their second tentative agreement, as they call it — which is a union contract before it’s been voted on by the membership.

NR: That’s Jonah Furman, who also happens to be my husband. He’s a staff writer with Labor Notes, and he’s been closely reporting on many of these strikes. 

JF: And in a shocker to John Deere, the company, and I think also to the UAW, and also lots of John Deere workers, the contract was, for the second time in a row, rejected by the membership by a 55 percent vote.

NR: Jonah and I talked about the John Deere strike — how it connects to the broader pattern of strikes we’re seeing, and how it might affect national politics. Jonah began by telling me the history of the John Deere strike.

JF: They were on strike for something like 17 days before they got their second offer from the company. And then they have three more days between that and the vote. So on the three-week mark, essentially, they voted to continue the strike — keep going, keep trying to extract more concessions from John Deere.

NR: And what kind of concessions were they looking for?

JF: So the big picture on this strike has been about a few things. 

The first thing is the two-tier contract system at John Deere. Two-tier contracts are not totally uncommon in the union world, and they essentially mean: workers who are hired after a certain date make different wages, have different benefits, than workers who were hired before that date. It’s been a way that companies have cut labor costs by offering a contract to existing workers that in some way sells out future employees who don’t get a vote, obviously, on that contract because they don’t work there yet. 

So at John Deere, this was one of the first of the UAW contracts to go seriously two-tier. In 1997, workers voted for a contract that would eliminate health care benefits after retirement, would cut the pension basically by two-thirds, with lower wages and would lower health care benefits on the job for new workers. So John Deere workers have been working for, what, 24 years now, under a two-tier contract. And the big picture issue in this fight has been: We want to end the two-tier contract; John Deere is more profitable than it’s ever been; people are second- and third-generation Deere workers and remember that their parents used to make better money than they do today — they still enjoy post-retirement health care, full pensions. So the big picture was wanting to go back to a time when being a UAW member at John Deere meant a good job with a secure retirement. 

Added on top of that was the wage offer that John Deere came up with at the end of September, beginning of October, and that was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. They offered basically a 12 percent raise over six years, so if you add it up, it’s about 2 percent a year, at a time when the company is making more than they’ve ever made, and wages at Deere for decades have stagnated. So we’re looking at a contract where they’d be making what people were making at John Deere in the same dollar amount two decades ago, in 1997. 

And the last thing I would say is one of the other big motivating forces is not only did Deere want to maintain the two-tier system, but they actually wanted to introduce a new tier. And this was outrageous to members who had struggled under the two-tier post-’97/pre-’97 division— they wanted to eliminate pensions for all new hires, which some people referred to as a third tier, or creating a post-’21 Deere worker, which members found to be totally unacceptable.

[Musical sting.] 

NR: And so they rejected the first offer, which had the three tiers from Deere, and United Auto Workers had sanctioned that vote, and workers rejected it anyway. And then in the second offer, they rejected that, too. That got rid of the third tier. But now they just don’t want any tiers. 

So what happens now? I mean, they’ve been on strike for a little while. How are the families getting through this? Like, what do striking workers do when they’re out of work for this long? And what are they now expecting from the union and the company?

JF: So almost none of the workers at Deere today have struck the company. The last strike there was in 1986, and it lasted for five months — it became a lockout, meaning the workers were ready to go back and the company said: We don’t want you back yet. 

Some of these workers walked that picket line with their parents, but no one has struck Deere in the 21st century. And none of these workers in their working life have been through this experience. So some of it is unknown; some people are saying, maybe this is ’86-’87 again, where maybe we’re out for five months, maybe Deere tries to starve us out. 

Some people think it’ll be a matter of weeks until there’s a new deal. I mean, they rejected the first one; less than three weeks later, they got a second deal. Maybe in three more weeks, they’ll get a third deal. So there’s a lot of difference of opinion of what we can expect. John Deere came out with a statement saying that was our last, best, and final offer which is something that companies say in negotiations, which essentially means they don’t intend to meaningfully redo the deal. And some members think that means they’re just going to get the same deal back to them in two weeks, two months, just have to vote on it again and Deere will roll the dice, hoping they can get a majority. Some workers think that means they move a little bit of money around, but it’ll be superficial. But it’s a lot of speculation. So these members are bracing for a cold Iowa winter. And it’s a serious situation.

I talked to one member who said: Yeah, sure, they can starve us out — but he has 11 job offers this week. It’s a tight labor market, people want to hire people, and wages at Deere aren’t so high. You can go across town and make the same cash you were making at your John Deere job — you don’t have the benefits, you don’t have other things that come with a good union contract, but if it’s a matter of just keeping food on the table, there’s options for these workers, which means Deere has now less leverage, right? If you can’t starve them out in two weeks or two months, it’s not clear that if you just keep offering the same deal, will they ever accept it, you know? So it’s a stalemate now.

NR: And what is the impact that the workers are making on the company? I mean, part of the leverage that the workers have is that Deere — what were their profits last year? 

JF: $5.8 billion.

NR: $5.8 billion. And one image that you had mentioned to me a couple weeks ago is that the workers can make in a day one of these like super-tractors.

JF: Yeah. We’re talking about something like 12 or 14 facilities are the main hotbed of the strike. And they make a lot of different things. But we’re not really talking about lawn equipment. We’re talking about industrial tractors, harvesters, and combines.

One member I talked to for Labor Notes was telling me she’s the shop steward on a line that makes tractors — they finish 30 of them in a shift, and people are making $18-$20 an hour. So you do the math, and it’s, of course, true at every company that the workers aren’t making the full profits that the company is enjoying, but the gap here is just astounding.

Since the pandemic started, Deere stock price has more than doubled. Since John May, the CEO, entered that position, he got a 160 percent pay raise. Any way you slice it — Deere stockholders got a 17 percent dividend bump some months ago. So the financials are there for workers to make gains right now.

And the fact is, that’s not always the case. In the last contract 2015, it was all about cuts, because it was not a great time for the company. They had mass layoffs. So it wasn’t a great time to work at Deere. So people were willing to take a worse deal. Now, it’s almost the best Deere has ever been doing. I mean, it is financially the best Deere has ever been doing. And workers are aware of that. So they realize that right now you need to lock in whatever gains you’re going to make. There’s not going to be a time when there’s more money on the table.

John Deere has this euphemism called the customer service continuation plan, which is essentially their plan to break the strike. How you win a strike is you stop production for long enough that the company gets desperate and has to settle a better deal than they first gave you. How you win a strike as the company is you keep production going in some way that you can keep money flowing into the company. 

So when they rejected the second tentative agreement, the company said they were going into “phase two” of their plan to break the strike, which looks like it means bringing in replacement workers to some scale. Before that, their “phase one,” was essentially saying: We’re going to move our salaried workers who are not part of the union, we’re going to move them to the factory floor, to the warehouse, and just keep as much going as we can. Reports from inside where there were accidents, they were working people for six days a week, 12 hour days; people were driving hours to different facilities across the state. 

It was interesting. Some of them are like: Yeah, I was in the union before and then I went to the salaried side. Or: My dad was in the union, so I’ve been on our factory floor before. Some of them might be engineers, so they know the machines; a lot of them are — I mean, there’s people from IT who are now working in a warehouse looking for industrial parts for machines in John Deere’s largest warehouse and trying to ship them to dealers. 

People have been speculating, we better check the serial numbers for anything built in this time, because my dad’s a farmer, and I don’t want him buying a combine that was built by an accountant. 

The other thing about the salaried workers, it’s like these are not, for the most part, C-suite executives. These are people who last year went under basically a restructuring, which meant tons of layoffs and people being shifted into new jobs on the salary side that they never had before. People tell me that they haven’t seen more than 1 percent raise in the past 10 years. Different stats for different workers, but they share some serious sympathy with the UAW strikers, and the longer the strike goes, the longer these workers are working in these difficult conditions, and the worse conditions get, because they’re trying to ramp up production. It’s one thing to have to work in a warehouse, it’s another thing to have to work on an assembly line, and as Deere tries to survive the strike, tries to starve out the workers, they’re going to send more salaried people who are less qualified to do more of this work.

NR: And what about the rest of the labor movement right now? I mean, this feels like such a focal point, but there’s a couple of other fights that are happening that are worth mentioning.

JF: Kaiser is a really interesting example, because I think there’s a few ways that it really resonates here. 

One is the idea of the big strike, you know? The big strike could be back. 

Kaiser has seen more strikes than John Deere has, but Deere’s out for the first time in whatever that is — 35 years. Kaiser, some of these unions who are involved in the Kaiser fight, will be going out for the first time since the 1980s as well. So some of those unions involved haven’t struck in decades. And so that’s one way in which it’s really similar. It’s like you have these unions that have not flexed this muscle, and they have decided that now’s the time to do it. 

The other commonality in terms of the meat and potatoes of the contract is that Kaiser’s first offer was 1 percent a year for three years. So you’re talking about, I mean, let alone the 5 percent that the Deere workers rejected, but 1 percent a year for three years would not make up for the inflation of the past 12 months, let alone be anything like a raise that workers like these are looking for in a union contract.

NR: Right. It’s essentially a pay cut. 

JF: It’s a huge pay cut. I mean, with 1 percent a year for three years, you don’t even really have to do the persuasion of members that you’re going to be losing money on this contract. And actually Kaiser is scrambling to settle something it looks like, and they changed their offer to now it’s going to be, instead of 1 percent a year, 2 percent — which is just like, again, damning with faint praise.

This is part of the dynamic, too, is like you offer these workers this insult and it changes the whole game. A lot of the workers that John Deere said: If we got the second offer as the first offer from the company, we would have accepted. It would have been acceptable to us. But because we were so insulted by the way that they thought they could buy us for cheap, we’re not going to settle for some mediocre deal.

NR: So there’s a lot of anger that’s happening against employers.

JF: Oh, tons of anger. I mean, you know, if you want to look at it from the broader economic perspective, I think I’m quite persuaded by the idea that this is when the great resignation happens at union workplaces, right? You don’t just quit. 

Although there is talk of that — I mean, John Deere workers are now saying “I’m just never going back,” some of them. But for the most part, the function of the union is to say: We don’t have to quit. We can change what this job means.

But it’s the same dynamic. Alex Press likes to quote this worker she talked to, this EMT she talked to, who said to her: When you realize that your boss is willing to kill you, it changes things.

NR: So it’s not just workers who are in unions. I mean, union density is quite low in the country right now. The image that comes to mind for me when I’m thinking about the great resignation is those Sharpie-d flyers on the Dollar General storefronts that are like: Sorry, we don’t have enough staff today. We’re closed.

So what are you seeing in the broader labor market? What is in workers’ minds right now?

JF: I think the undertold story of a tight labor market — so when we talk about a tight labor market, what we mean is you can go find another job, and they can’t find someone else to take your job. So the difference between having nobody coming to the company’s job fair to fill in for you if you were to leave versus having one thousand people lined up at the door, that is a measure of your leverage as a worker. 

The thing I don’t think that people are talking about is like, Look, if you worked through the pandemic, if you experienced a tight labor market, from a job you stuck with, you also experienced serious understaffing and overwork. So not only are you working in a pandemic, but your conditions are getting worse and worse as time goes on. 

NR: And the companies are making record profits.

JF: Yes.

NR: And their stocks are soaring.

JF: Yeah. And this dynamic is not abstract for people who work at John Deere, or work at Kellogg’s, or work at these companies. We are in an entirely different moment from the financial crisis, of companies crying poverty and saying: To stay afloat, you’re going to have to tighten your belt. 

Right? And this is the line they’ve used — which isn’t true in austerity times, but is a joke in the good times.

NR: I want to ask you a little bit about the labor movement’s relationship to electoral politics, because a lot of Democrats support a $15 minimum wage. They support the PRO Act which is legislation, some of which is going to be included in the Build Back Better Act to improve NLRB rules around the creation of unions and grievances about unions. But on the other hand, it seems like the energy of the labor movement is, at this point, pretty alienated from the Democratic Party. 

How do you see that? I mean, is that how you look at it, or where do the workers that you’re talking to fall in terms of their involvement with national politics?

JF: Well, you know, the John Deere story is what I’ve covered most closely for Labor Notes. And I find it incredibly interesting that mostly where these workers live is Eastern Iowa. And as people know of the so-called pivot counties, those that voted for Obama twice and then flipped to Trump, and then were the subject of New York Times op eds for the past five years, that’s where those workers vote. I mean, they are the pivot counties. 

A lot of them are the working class voters of Eastern Iowa who flipped to Trump and the Democratic Party has wrung its hands about how to win them back. Now they’re all on strike. And the question is, on a national level, where are the Democrats on this issue? If you want to win these people back? And I don’t know how to characterize the National Democratic Party’s relationship to it except one of absence. Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary showed up to a picket line in Des Moines. That was a big deal. But he’s the Agriculture Secretary and former Governor of Iowa. Marty Walsh showed up to a picket line in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the first sitting labor secretary to walk a picket line, according to historians.

So that’s all great, but Joe Biden has essentially stayed vocally neutral on the whole thing, let alone anything sort of more innovative. Like, we have this huge infrastructure bill that is the main headline. John Deere is going to make so much money off of this bill when it goes through. 

NR: This is the bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

JF: Yes. So the bipartisan infrastructure bill, right? What would you do if you were about to pay the employer of 10,000 striking workers millions of dollars in contracts and knock-on effects from a huge infusion of cash? The fact that the national Democratic Party is not only not showing up on the picket line as much as they easily could, but it’s not even thinking about it as sort of a core issue for them. This is not the main part of their narrative. 

And, if anything, you can read quotes that anonymous White House officials have given to reporters. I saw one that said: This is not a historic level of strike activity. 

That was their take on things. Because they don’t want to play up anything about the supply chain, or any issues with getting people back to work, which is not a pro-worker view of what’s happening. So the crazy thing to me is if you’re the Democratic Party, and you’re obsessed with Eastern Iowa, working class voters who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, I cannot think of a single better group, a moment to talk about, talk to, support, be seen as an ally to, be seen as a champion of, the exact people you say you want to support — and it’s an easy layup, right? I mean, it’s just sitting there. Just say you stand with the UAW workers. Give a little lip service and do a little bit more, and you will have allies among these workers.

NR: I realize that I asked about the labor movement’s relationship to the Democratic Party, but I also wanted to get your thoughts on the labor movement and progressives.

You’re in the labor movement, you’re also a progressive person, you worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign, for instance. How do you see those two things mixing? What is the labor movement’s role in the progressive movement? Does it have a role, or how do you think it could be stronger?

JF: You look at the labor movement across the OECD countries or the most advanced capitalist countries. In almost every case, there’s a Labor Party that formed sometime in the late 19th century, early 20th century, and it’s essentially because you have these unions that fight for workplace rights, and conditions, and wages, and the bread-and-butter stuff of being someone who works for a living. 

But there’s inevitably things that go beyond your workplace, whether it’s social issues like unemployment when you don’t have a job, or if it’s that your whole industry is facing something that your one employer can’t fix across the board. So in every case, there’s always a political expression of the union movement, and in every other country, every other comparable country, there’s been a political party that forms on that basis. They call them labor parties. In the UK, it’s called Labour — literally, that’s their large social democratic party. In this country, our labor party, insofar as it exists at all, is submerged somewhere inside of the Democratic Party. Basically, it’s a junior partner, it’s a pinky toe of, it’s an appendage of, but the union movement doesn’t have its own independent expression in the United States politically, which is really complicated, because it means that the unions are in the same party that a lot of their bosses are. So they would be at different sides of the negotiating table for a union contract, where they’re at the same side of the table negotiating national politics. 

So progressives exist somewhere in that party with them. They’re often in the same wing, same corner of the Democratic Party, but often not. There’s mismatches all the time. 

The way labor has acted politically, has been to be a junior partner of the establishment of the Democrats, which means that often what their narrow, short-term interest is is to support what the party wants.

A great example is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the largest union in the AFL-CIO Labor Federation, came out saying: Let’s pass the infrastructure bill before we get a deal on reconciliation. This was a break with progressives on the inside baseball of this stuff. And what was so strange about it is that she’s the head of the American Federation of Teachers, very little of what her membership wants from these congressional acts is in the infrastructure piece that she was supporting. It’s much more in the reconciliation piece that she was arguably imperiling if you take the progressive strategy for it. And why would a teachers’ union president do that? Well, the best way to understand it is because she’s trying to act as part of the Democratic Party, not as part of the labor party. 

So progressives are occasionally, frequently, sometimes at odds with the unions as political actors. And part of it is also that the unions have, in a lot of cases, have gotten so small or so not present as parts of just the percentage of your constituency as a congressperson that’s union is much smaller. So Democrats still rely on endorsements and dollars from unions, but in terms of being in touch with actual union members who put those concerns in a clear way outside of the political apparatus of the tops of the labor movement. I don’t think progressives hear that much from rank-and-file union members. I don’t know how much The Squad is in touch with rank-and-file John Deere workers. And that would have been true decades ago that the progressive wing of the party is close to the UAW, and close to the members of the UAW, and in touch with those members as constituents of their district. Because the UAW has shrunk so much, because the union movement has shrunk so much, it’s less of a part of the daily political life of the progressive wing of the party. So there’s just a big disconnect here. 

Everything I’ve seen from the progressive wing of the Democrats is: Please, union members, come be involved, we want you to be our base, we wish you were our base, we wish our base was unionized. We’d love to make that happen. There’s big structural issues that have kept that disconnect alive, and how it expresses itself politically is, for the most part, labor and the progressives are in the same minority faction of the Democratic Party, occasionally at odds, occasionally aligned, but neither of them are big enough to team up and overcome the corporate influence of the party, let alone defeat the GOP.

[Musical sting.]

NR: And so at Labor Notes, you cover the UAW, the auto workers industry that’s going through a massive reckoning at the moment, especially with the mandate to create electric vehicles. And they have a referendum coming up. Can you talk about that?

JF: So the United Auto Workers have, for the past five years or so, been going through, at the national level, the top levels of the union, what has been called the biggest corruption scandal in union history with something like a dozen top officials having been convicted for things like taking money from employers to bargain worse contracts. 

This has all triggered the DOJ to step in and say: You all need a system to hold these top leaders accountable aside from us just convicting them. And following on the Teamsters example from the late 80s, they said: The mechanism for this is to take a vote on whether to move to direct elections for top officers. The idea being that repeatedly, for eight decades in the UAW, a small clique has controlled who runs the union at a national level. And they’re insulated through these mechanisms where members don’t get to vote on the top leaders of the Union. So you can bargain a bad contract, you can be found to be corrupt in some way, you can just not be responsive, and you never face a political consequence in the United Auto Workers. 

So right now, during the John Deere strike, United Auto Workers union members are voting on whether to switch to direct elections for top officers.

At the same time the Teamsters have their own internal election that, like I said, direct elections in the Teamsters was an advent of an anti-corruption intervention in the late 80s, they too are facing this question of are we going to change as a union after 23 years of the same leadership. There’s now people running for the top spots of the Teamsters union saying: We’re open to striking UPS in 2023, it would be the biggest strike of my lifetime. 

I think it’s part of a broader pattern, just like we talk about movements in the Democratic Party and in the GOP to shake up the status quo; like we talk about Occupy, social movements like Black Lives Matter, that are challenging the social and political status quo in this country, that stuff doesn’t end at the workplace store, or at the door of the union hall. And these movements, it’s not always in the same name or same shape. It’s not people always wearing Bernie shirts or Trump shirts. But this idea that the status quo has to change is alive in the unions. And this is a lot of what we cover at Labor Notes. So the question is, will this sort of anti-establishment feeling that we’ve seen in the country for the past 5-10 years, make its way deep enough into the labor movement to turn around the ship that has been sinking for 40 years?

NR: And how do you think that the labor movement and politics in the U.S. would change if there were more democratic unions?

JF: I think when you let union members run their own unions, from the bottom to top —

NR: Democracy is unpredictable. Yeah.

JF: Yes. Yes. It’s like, when people vote things happen that wouldn’t have happened if the people who run the world now had decided what should be next. So when the Teamsters first got direct elections in the late 80s, they instantly elected a reformer to the top leadership, and instantly led to two huge things: one that was the basis of the new leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995 that changed the federation, and the UPS strike in 1997, that was the biggest strike of our lifetimes. 

When you allow members to control the top slots in their unions, you tend to see things like concessions going in the other direction. When you have accountability for people who negotiate bad contracts, you tend to get better contracts. When you have accountability for people who won’t take members out on strike, even when they want to go on strike, you tend to see more strikes. So, of course, we don’t know what direction it would go. But something is broken in the labor movement. There’s a problem of not being able to organize new members, there is a problem of not being able to win more at the bargaining table, there’s a problem of not being able to engage the membership you have. Democracy is one huge antidote to a lot of those bad trends we’ve seen in the labor movement for decades.

NR: Jonah, thank you so much for joining me. 

JF: Thanks for having me.

[Musical sting.]

NR: John Deere told us they were proud of the offer they gave the UAW, and said they look forward to continuing discussions with the union.

[Credits music.]

NR: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Zach Young collected the audio at the healthcare workers’ rally. Truc Nguyen helped produce this episode. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Will Stanton mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

And I’m Nausicaa Renner.

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