What should I do to support Bessemer workers?

If you’re on any kind of labor-related news or social media sites these days, you know that the RWDSU has a union election happening at an Amazon worksite in Bessemer, Alabama, covering about 5,800 workers. This is an historic election, not just for its size, but because it is led by Black women workers in the South.

Over the weekend, calls for a boycott of Amazon began to surface, and quickly spread across labor Twitter and Facebook, leading the union to put out a statement on Sunday saying that they did not call for, nor endorse, a boycott.

I understand completely why the union did this, and I don’t think a hastily-organized boycott is ever a good idea–but I think it’s also a missed opportunity to ask their supporters around the US to stand with workers in Bessemer, against the enormous pressure that is being put on them to vote “no” by their boss, who is one of the richest (and therefore most powerful) people on earth.

A disclaimer: as far as I know, I don’t know anyone personally working on the organizing campaign in Alabama, and I am not throwing shade on anyone in the RWDSU. This campaign is extremely exciting and I have every hope that they will win.

But historically, many unions have asked for very limited support from other unions, or from members of the general public in organizing drives, and I wonder if it’s time for us to start reimagining what a corporate campaign could look like, in the 21st century.

We just went through a year where people around the country spent their evenings and weekends texting total strangers to get them to vote–for president, for US senate, in state legislative races and Congressional ones. In the age of COVID, Americans have learned to have persuasive conversations with each other without being in person. If we had an organized support team in the labor movement, could we relieve the pressure from some organizers locally? Imagine a team of volunteers that Hustled every Alabama Democratic voter from the November election to come to the Black Lives Matter/BAmazon car caravan they’re having this weekend? Or generated phone calls from community members to the local government officials, in response to the news that they’d changed the stoplight timing to prevent the union from contacting workers?

To me, the speed at which the boycott call spread across the internet demonstrates that people understand the historic importance of this election–and want to do anything they can to help the union win, to fight the power of America’s #1 corporate behemoth. We are in a moment where inequality is more exposed than ever before to the general public. We need a way to get them in this fight with us. We don’t seem to have any trouble asking union supporters to support labor-endorsed candidates or legislation–see the calls to support the PRO Act that are currently spreading across those same labor social media sites.

Most unions are wary of enlisting the help of outsiders in organizing drives not least due to their very real fear of being accused of being outsiders. That’s completely understandable. But if we want to build a movement that is for the whole working class, we have to figure out ways for the whole working class to participate–even if they can’t be in Bessemer right now. If we are successful in passing the PRO Act, we could be having campaigns as large as the BAmazon drive occur faster than we can handle them with existing union staff, right now–who is thinking about how to decentralize and disaggregate some of the organizing work supporting this?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this–if you haven’t yet joined the new HTU Slack instance, please jump in!

Why do we let our kids learn about work from bosses?

This post is a little more personal that my usual work on HtU. I struggled with whether to put it up here, or just write it somewhere else–but it seems to be more relevant to HtU readers than anyone else.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the activism of young people. I’m the mom of two teenagers, for one thing. I’ve been involved in some of the organizing work around the #fightfor15, in Philly, which is a movement largely made up of young workers. There’s the unprecedented wave of activism about gun violence that’s been sweeping the US, since the Parkland shooting that’s led up to today’s #marchforourlives. And finally, there’s the fact that I’m currently working on a campaign that involves retail workers, a group the media and elected officials constantly want to claim are “just students” or “just in entry-level jobs.” It’s made me conclude that we aren’t doing enough in the labor movement to teach kids, from the very beginning, how to stand up for themselves at work.

My daughter^ was a high school senior when she entered the formal workforce last year, through the kind of semi-crappy food service job that lots of us experience in our work lives. On her first day of training, the manager tried to convince her that she shouldn’t take breaks, even if she was legally allowed to take them. Of course, a young woman who has grown up with two parents that work in the economic justice movement isn’t going to buy that–but it made me wonder–where would she have learned it, if not from us? There isn’t ever a class that teaches you, “here’s what your rights at work are, even as a teenager, and how to assert them.*” Later on in that same job she experienced wage theft, and again, she pushed back on it (and eventually won the money)–but it was in the kind of situation where most people in their first job might think, “Oh, the boss says this is a rule I don’t understand, so I guess I’ll just go along with it–I’m new, and I don’t want to piss him/her off.”

In the waves of organizing around the Fight for 15, and Fair Scheduling, the messaging themes from low-wage employers & their political allies are focused on the fact that, for many middle-class white people, service jobs are just an entry to the workforce. They’re counting on the fact that people like me–educated, middle-class, middle-aged–will look back on their first jobs and think, “well, I survived that stupidness and now I’m successful, why can’t everyone do that?” They’re counting on our privilege to blind us to the reality of life for young people in the US today.

But they’re also doing something else. They’re also counting on those low-wage employers to teach kids (some of whom will grow to adults with ‘real’ jobs) that fighting the system doesn’t work. That your boss has power over you that should go unquestioned, even if it doesn’t seem fair, because that’s just how it is.

They’re counting on low-wage employers to indoctrinate teenagers into believing that wage exploitation is fair.

And that doesn’t just help fast food and big box retail employers keep control of their workforces–it helps all bosses keep control of their workforces.

If, in your very first job, you get told “you don’t deserve fairness,” do you start believing it about every job? If you experience wage theft in your first paycheck, and you don’t know what to do about it, where do you ever learn to fight it? If you’re told, when you’re sixteen, “oh, it doesn’t matter that the minimum wage hasn’t gone up in ten years, that’s not supposed to be enough money to live on” what do you do when you get into that ‘real’ job and don’t get a raise for ten years?

I’ve talked to a lot of young people in movements (not just the labor movement, but in other fights for social justice) about their struggles at work and around living with low-wage employment. Invariably, all of them have said to me some version of “nobody ever taught me anything about my rights, or how to do anything about it when I got screwed at work.” What that says to me is that my generation of organizers, and the generations before me, haven’t done enough thinking about the kinds of practical skills that young people can use to fight authority, whether they are in a union or not.

And let me be clear–I’m not talking about teaching labor history. There is, of course, a strain of thought in the labor movement that thinks we should focus on teaching people to be grateful for the things the labor movement won–things like the 8-hour day, and the minimum wage, and protection from child labor. Did I mention that I’m the parent of teenagers? Even the best of them are not always full of gratitude for the sacrifices of those who came before them.

We don’t need to teach kids what it was like to work for terrible employers in the early 1900s. They’re living it now. We need to teach them how to resist it in today’s terms, not by creating nostalgia for the fights of the 1930s.

So go out and find that group of kids who organized a walkout of their high school over gun violence, and talk to them about justice on the job. Go out and find the youth organizers fighting for education justice or #blacklivesmatter or immigration reform, and fund them to teach kids how to talk to their managers about scheduling problems while they do the rest of their work. Find that young organizer in your union or worker center, and let her build a youth committee–even if it isn’t going to lead to an immediate organizing drive. Think of it as your investment in fighting the boss in five years, or ten, or fifteen.

Because a sixteen year-old who learns that they have the power to say no to skipping breaks, in their first week as a barista, is going to grow up into the kind of member that every union wants. The seventeen-year-old stocking shelves in a big-box store who learns to appreciate the power of collective action, when the boss cuts their hours and the rest of the shift stands up and won’t let the boss get away with it, will someday be on your bargaining committee. And the eighteen year-old who fights for $15 while working at the dollar store is going to grow up to run your union someday.


^Thanks for letting me use your story!

*I did email the superintendent of her school to suggest that they add a section on labor rights to the school’s Financial Literacy class, which is required for all juniors. He agreed to do it, so we’ll see how that goes when my son gets there.

Who do you build solidarity with?

If the early Trump era has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t afford to be siloed in our work to build power for the precarious. The Administration, along with its allies in Congress, has proved that they are able to carry out multiple attacks on our hard-fought victories–sometimes within the span of a single day–even while managing a news cycle that seems to explode hourly with new signs of the president’s slipping grasp on reality.

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March (and of course, of the inauguration that preceded it), which kicked off a year of massive mobilization to demonstrations, hearings, town halls and rallies across movements. And of course, we’re also about to hit the 50-year anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, which is being revived for the 21st century by Rev. Barber and many others.

It’s got me thinking a lot about the concept of solidarity and how it is practiced (or sometimes just given lip service to), in the US–particularly for unions who, in earlier decades, fought the fights that brought the majority of their members into the middle class.

I’d challenge all of us to ask ourselves, our leaders, and our friends the following questions:

  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to enlist your middle-class members in the #fightfor15?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to educate your white members about why #blacklivesmatter, and to get them in the streets?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to recruit the men in your membership into fighting sexual harassment? And to understand why reproductive justice is an economic issue, as well as a health care one?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to confront your US citizen members with the need to defend the undocumented and the DACA-mented?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require that your abled members stand up for the disabled, on and off the job?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to press your straight members into fighting for LGBTQ rights?

For progressive, membership-based organizations, the practice of solidarity requires political education of the members. We won’t get to where we need to be until we start talking to our members about our analysis of power–how it is created and held, how we are complicit in it (some more than others), how we are going to fight it and win.

We can’t build a movement for economic justice unless we expand our concept of solidarity beyond the borders of our own organizations. Nor should we keep spouting the word “solidarity” without actually showing up to do the work that makes it real.

For the next year, at Hack the Union, I’m looking to highlight stories of solidarity-building–and in particular, to delve into the strategies that organizers are using, to build alliances across difference. If you know of an organization that’s doing great work in this arena, send me a tip.