Want to unionize your workplace? These worker-organizers have some advice.
We hosted another Working People live show on Feb. 22 in New York City, in collaboration with the Action Builder / Action Network team and The People’s Forum. In this panel discussion, introduced by Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls, Max speaks with worker-organizers from around the country about why they and their coworkers decided not to quit their jobs but to commit to improving their workplaces, what the day-to-day work of organizing looks like, and how you—yes, you—can get involved and help grow the labor movement. Panelists include: Vince Quiles of Home Depot Workers United in Philadelphia; Tafadar Sourov of Laborers Local 79 in NYC; Sarah Beth Ryther of Trader Joe’s United in Minneapolis; and Riley Fell of Starbucks Workers United in Baltimore.
Studio: The People’s Forum
Post-Production: David Hebden, Jules Taylor, Cameron Granadino
Additional links/info below…
- Vince’s Twitter page and TikTok
- Home Depot Workers United Twitter page
- Laborers Local 79 website, Twitter page, and Facebook page
- Trader Joe’s United website, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Trader Joe’s United Solidarity Fund
- Riley’s Instagram
- Starbucks Workers United website, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Action Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Action Builder website
- The People’s Forum website, Twitter page, and Facebook page
- Amazon Labor Union website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Working People, “Vince Quiles“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “He Tried to Organize Home Depot’s First Union. Now He’s Unemployed“
- Jeff Schuhrke & Sarah Beth Ryther, Jacobin, “Trader Joe’s Workers Have Won Their First Unions in America“
- Working People, “Alex P.“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “This NYC Construction Union Is Reaching Out to Undocumented and Non-Union Workers. The Bosses Don’t Like It“
- Working People, “New York Is a Union Town (w/ Chaz Rynkiewicz)“
Ashley Bishop, The Nation, “Immigrant Construction Workers Fight Back Against Exploitation“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “The Historic, Youthful, Rank-and-File Movement to Unionize Starbucks“
- Maximillian Alvarez, Breaking Points, “Starbucks Leads Corporate CRIME WAVE To Crush Union Workers
Permanent links below…
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive:freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Okay, cool. Hi everyone, my name is Mariah Brown. I am the Strategic Partnerships manager here at Action Network slash Action Builder. Thank you all for joining us for our second Build Power event. So, please give a round of applause to yourselves for coming out. Our Build Power events are highlighting organizing in the US right now. We have some amazing panelists that we would like to introduce you to. This event is made for you all to organize, get to know each other, hear some real stories, and inspire change. So I would like to introduce first our co-founder and executive director, Brian Young, and then he’ll kick us off after that. Thank you.
All right, thanks Mariah and, again, thanks to everybody for coming. I’ll be very brief because I’m the last person that most of you want to talk to and if you want to talk to me, I’m around if you’re one of the few that do. Just a quick thing about what these events are and who we are. A lot of people know the Action Network Tool and Action Builder Tool and we build technology, but we build technology in cooperation with the people using it and with the movement. We’re always non-profit, and the ideas that the technology is just a tool, it’s a means to an end and the technology is not enough. That is why we built collectively with people using the tools, because the programs and the technology is when real power gets built. So building power is what this event is about and the technology makes certain things possible, but they don’t make them happen. We’re here today to talk about making things happen. We have some great panelists coming up that will get introduced in a moment.
Again, thanks to Mariah for MCing and Martha Grant around here for putting all this together, and thanks to the People’s Forum for hosting us here today.
I said I’d be brief, and I’m looking for my friend Chris. He is going to be out here a second, so I’m going to keep talking just a little bit more. Just a little bit of history about Action Builder. We started out with Action Network. The first thing Action Network was ever used for and built for was actually the Black Friday strikes and protests against Walmart, if everyone remembers that. The day of action where you can adopt an event and a thing that we all do as a movement now, that was sort of the beginning of that and we built that with the people working on the campaign.
They were trying to think, “What can we do on Black Friday that can really give workers and their supporters a chance to rally together in a way that they owned their event instead of all just subsuming themselves to this big collective.” So we built that tool, really partnered a lot with unions and others to extend the technology, but always with that core in mind of local power being built by the people locally. People are using the tool Action Network to organize and having a bad experience because it’s not an organizing tool, it’s a mobilization tool and technology does what it does and it doesn’t do other things. So we partnered with AFLCIO a little bit with People’s Action to really build Action Builder as an organizing tool. Mobilization is a lot about reach, a lot about activating people, but leadership development really fostering trusting relationships within communities.
The core of organizing is what Action Builder was built for, and as we’re rolling it out, just continuing to have events like this to get people together to talk about organizing, to build the capacity of all of us around organizing throughout the movement. So we’re here, we did a small event in DC about a month ago. In a couple of months we’ll be in Atlanta, and we’re just trying to build up organizing in any way we can. So again, thank you. I see my friend Chris is out now, I see ya. And he is next, so I’ll turn it over. Needs no introduction.
Chris Smalls founder of Amazon Labor Union, just here from London.
What’s up everybody? Thank you all for having me. I’m sorry I’m a little lethargic, I’m in a different time zone, but I’m here now and I’m happy to see a lot of familiar faces, especially people that’s fighting a good fight. This is always good to come to this space, because we know this space is welcoming and we know this space brings a lot of energy. Actually, right before our election we had an event here, our first fundraiser for the ALU. So to have this surreal moment of being back up here with like-minded folks and people that is in the good battle with us is amazing. So, thank you for the support that we had from the beginning. Y’all know this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It’s going to be a long fight, and we all got to stay committed to the fight. I know everybody in this room is committed to the long haul. So, solidarity forever.
With that being said, we know solidarity is shared and expressed in different ways, but one thing about solidarity is showing up for one another and also expressing that solidarity doesn’t mean when you don’t agree with somebody you leave the fight, or you jump ship, or you stab somebody in the back, or you don’t want to organize anymore. Understand that solidarity means that you going to have to organize with people that may not have the same ideology of you, may not like the same politics, may not look alike, may not come from the same background, the same cloth, but understand when you’re talking about bringing people together, there’s only one enemy here. We know who that enemy is, right? It’s the 1% class. Jeff Bezos is definitely one, but there’s a whole bunch of them. There’s a whole bunch of them, and I can name all our CEOs. We know who they are, but they not the only ones.
There’s a system in place that’s been in there from the beginning of time, and that system’s not built for us. When I’m talking about us, I’m talking about workers in the working class. We’ve seen in this country for decades how unions and organized labor has been attacked, and we don’t have that money to counter that. We’re talking about companies that make trillions of dollars, are worth trillions of dollars,` and make billions of dollars a day off of our labor. So the only thing we can do, because really we’re the rich ones, is withhold our labor because, really, Jeff Bezos can’t come to the warehouse and pack a box. Howard Salt is not making no good coffee, I can tell you that. So understand who really has the power, who really is valuable and we haven’t been getting what we’ve been paid, our wages, our quality of life.
We’ve seen that in the pandemic. We’ve seen what this government’s been doing. We still continue to see that. When I left the White House, we saw what happened. Joe Biden gave 10 billion to Amazon and everybody was like, “Well Chris, why’d you go to the White House to shake his hand?” I’m like, “I wasn’t the only one there. I know there’s a lot of tension on me, but guess what? We all should be upset, because guess what? That was taxpayer dollars. That was everybody’s money, not just ours.” Understand that this fight is bigger than us. It’s about the community, and this starts at home.
The conversation’s going to be had with our family members, our loved ones, our neighbors. Let them know what they do when they support these companies. Tell them to stand in solidarity until they do better by us. Understand that this fight is bigger than us. It’s about our future, and the younger generation is definitely lead. What I mean by that is that this organizing that you have been seeing for the last year is unprecedented. You’ve never seen it before. It’s different, it’s unique, it’s new school, nut it’s necessary. When you’re talking about the 21st century and these tech companies, it’s different monsters, different animal. Once again, we don’t have the money to defeat that, but we do got one thing and that’s people’s power. Because when we fight back, we win. When we fight back.
When we fight back.
When we fight back.
And if we don’t get it?
Shut it down.
And if we don’t get it?
Shut it down.
And if we don’t get it?
Shut it down.
And if we. Don’t. Get. It.
Shut. It. Down.
Every damn time. Remind them who has the power and remind them why y’all in this fight. We are here for the long haul, y’all. There’s going to be dark days, going to be days of defeat, going to be days of doubt, going to be days when nobody want to talk to you, days when nobody sign the card. But be there. Be there for that worker when management get on their ass. I promise you it’s going to be a powerful conversation.
So thank you for having me. Let’s keep up the good fight. I stand with you guys, I got your back. I know you guys got ours. Solidarity forever, y’all. Power to the people.
Well, I don’t really have much to say after that. Thank you so much. Please get up for Chris Smalls again and our Executive Director, Brian Young.
So I would just like to give a brief bio of our host for this evening, Max Alvarez. Max is the Editor-in-chief of the Real News Network. He’s also the host of the Working People Podcast, which this will also be featured on, and the author of the new book, The Work of the Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and The Year The World Broke. So, please give it up for Max and the rest of our panelists.
Hell yeah. So who’s fired up after that? That’s what I’m talking about. Thank you so much, Mariah. Thank you Martha, thank you everyone at Action Builder. Thank you everyone at the People’s Forum. Absolutely love this space, please support them however you can. Thank you to Chris Smalls for jetting his ass in from London and doing this, we appreciate it. Our girl, Michelle [inaudible 00:11:33] from the ALU is here, too. Let’s give it up for the ALU one more time.
So, as Mariah said, we are going to be recording this as a Working People live show. So just a disclaimer to everyone, that will include the Q&A. You don’t have to speak if you don’t want to, you can always come up to us afterwards if you’re more comfortable with that, but loving the energy so far. Let’s keep that going. I’m going to start with a little introduction in a sec, but just wanted to keep the energy going and let y’all know a little bit about our incredible panel. We got my man Vince from Home Depot Workers United in Philly, let’s give it up for Vince. We got Taf from Laborers’ Local 79 here in New York City. Give it up for Taf. We got Sarah Beth from Trader Joe’s United out in Minnesota, let’s give it up. And we got Riley from Starbucks Workers United from my hometown in Baltimore. Thank you, Riley.
So they’re going to introduce themselves to y’all in a second, and I think we are all set to go. Just wanted to finally ask if you could please silence your cell phones if you haven’t already. Again, we are recording this. So with all that in mind, let’s get to the good stuff.
All right, well welcome everyone to this special live show of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and the Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. I am truly honored to be here with all of you at The People’s Forum here in New York. Absolutely love The People’s Forum, incredible place. Y’all should come here, support their work. We are here in collaboration with our friends at Action Builder and the Action Network for our second live show.
Listeners may remember that we hosted our first live show together with the folks at Action Builder at Busboys and Poets in Washington DC back in December where I got to talk with Michelle and Harry Marino, Michelle from the Amazon Labor Union, Harry Marino from the minor league baseball players. That was an incredible conversation that we got to have about two incredible organizing victories that we witnessed last year. We want to keep these conversations going, we want to bring folks together who are fighting that fight, who are carrying on the struggle in different workplaces, different industries, different states all across the country, and even beyond. Like we said, Chris was in the UK. UK is popping off right now. There are the RMT rail workers on strike, the NHS healthcare workers are on strike, higher ed workers are on strike, ambulance drivers are on strike. France is shutting down right now as workers take to the streets to fight against Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal bullshit, and their taking over of the country’s beloved pension system.
So workers everywhere are fighting the good fight, and we need to join that struggle however we can and support anyone who is fighting that fight. Every little bit helps, even if you’re just showing up to a picket line or donating to a strike fund. I was just down in Tribeca earlier today walking the picket line with the New York legal assistant group workers. They are a local of the UAW, they’ve been on strike for the past two days. Shout out to New York LAG, please support them however you can. Spread the word about that. I think, as Chris said, the really exciting thing about this moment, even though we know that the bosses, the 1%, the ruling class, the order givers in our society, they’re coming out of COVID 19 feeling like they’re the victims. Feeling like they have to take back what was stolen from them by having to give workers PPE, if they even did that.Or claiming that no one wants to work anymore because our government did the bare minimum of providing people with necessary assistance to survive a world shattering pandemic. Now the bosses are out there complaining that has made us lazy and we don’t want to work.
They’re really striking back, but I think what’s exciting is that the reinforcements are coming, and the people on this panel are living proof of that. The fire is burning all across this country and we have it within ourselves to keep that fire burning, and so that’s what we’re here to do today.
Normally on the show, I get to have one-on-one interviews with workers, we talk in depth about their lives, their jobs, their dreams, their struggles. In these live shows, we’re really going to focus in on the organizing side of people’s stories to give y’all more access to the folks on the front lines fighting that fight to learn about them, their coworkers, how they’re doing it, what they’re learning from their setbacks and failures and defeats, how we can replicate and build on their successes, how each of these struggles at Starbucks, Home Depot, in the construction industry, Trader Joe’s, how we can all learn from each other and how we can better come together as a labor movement to support one another.
So that’s what we’re really here to do. So with all that in mind, I’m going to shut up and I’m going to go around and ask our amazing panelists just to start off by quickly introducing yourself to the good audience, the good listeners, the good viewers, and then we’ll talk about some organizing.
So Vince, you’re up first.
Hello everyone. Thanks for having me tonight. My name’s Vince Quiles. I was a Home Depot employee, just got fired today.
Yeah, yeah. No, it’s all good though. It’s all good, the fight just evolves.
Lead organizer down in Philly, I guess also the interim President for Home Depot Workers United, the more national movement. Really, really, really great experience. It’s really awesome to be here inspired by some of the people, Michelle, Chris, as well as people from Starbucks Workers United. Very, very inspired by that.
What I would say, looking at our campaign, there’s definitely a lot that I want to speak tonight about what we learned from how things went down, where we fell short, but also to where to be inspired to continue fighting. I can at least say on the Home Depot front, they spend tens of millions of dollars trying to indoctrinate people to not vote for a union, and literally a handful of people with chips on their shoulder just going and talking shit every day, talking to people and just getting them riled up. We spent $0 on our campaign and we had the first union election at a Home Depot store ever. Shout out to the guys over n San Jose, the drivers that got their union election, but that wasn’t a store.
Just with that desire, with that passion, we were able to achieve as much as we were. So it’s really exciting to be in a room with people that match that energy, that helped to push that, to be with other people fighting that good fight and just saying, “Hey, let’s keep it going. Let’s keep banging.” That’s what we’re here for. We want all that smoke.
Hello everybody, thank you all for being here tonight. My name is Tafadar, you can call me Taf. And I am representing Laborers Local 79. So if you’re looking up here and you’re thinking “one thing is not like the others”, it’s not just because I have my laptop out, but it’s also because we happen to be an established union. I’m going to be talking to you guys a little bit about what we do. When it comes to construction, deadliest industry, it’s the cash cow for New York City. Whether you’re talking about the revenue that the city gets, the profits that Wall Street makes, the power that revenue has, et cetera, et cetera. It’s one of the most core strategic sectors of the economy, and the labor relations in it, that’s what we specialize in. We make sure that workers that are working in construction can go home at the end of the day, because it is a deadly industry like I mentioned.We make sure that people are making good wages and benefits to be able to sustain families and therefore sustain communities.
The exciting thing about Local 79 is when people think about construction unions, usually the first thing that comes to mind is pale, male, and stale. But we are actually one of the most diverse construction unions in the country. We’re 70% black and brown, we have the most women of any construction Local in New York City I believe. Our members live and work in the five boroughs for the most part. That makes us really unique, because in this city, if you grew up in this city and you went to its public schools, you kind of had a couple of walks in life ahead of you. If you had the opportunity, you could make it into college and maybe get out the hood that way and build a life for yourself, your family.
If not, you could work a blue collar job, you could do that with a high school degree, and construction is one of those fields that people do that. Our apprenticeship program is second to none in both its quality and the street cred that we have amongst the people in New York City, of low income communities. In between that, there’s a horrible gray area of poverty, and violence, and criminalization and mass incarceration. I really want to dig into the nitty-gritty of that, and what my union does to uplift workers that are somewhere in between being enfranchised through union membership and being caught in the trap of economic racism and the deadly jungle that is non-union construction in New York City. So, thank you again for being here.
Sarah Beth Ryther:
Hi guys. My name is Sarah Beth Ryther, and I’m an Employee Organizer at the Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis. Around this time last year, I would say that most of the folks that I work with in the Minneapolis store didn’t know what a union was or had a very shaky idea of what a union was or what a union could offer us as a collective and could offer all of us individually. In this past year, we have together grown to win our first union election. Yeah. Super, super excited. And become the second Trader Joe’s in the country to do that.
We’ve formed a union with the Hadley Massachusetts store and the Louisville Kentucky store, and we are just really, really, really stoked to be organizing across the country, very slowly and surely, and using our strategies to learn and also to teach other folks. I’m just so excited to be here and hear what everybody has to say about their campaigns and to learn more about the history of labor in general. Thanks.
Hi everybody, I’m Riley. I am an organizer with Starbucks Workers United. I’ve been with Starbucks for about a year and a half. I helped organize my store in Baltimore. We are one of the 170, and counting, union Starbucks stores. I’m currently based in Manhattan working around the financial district with different stores, trying to get people excited about the union. I’m really excited to be here to talk about everyone’s strategies and how we have achieved the amazing things that we have achieved. I want to share all of our tricks of the trade of how we organize. So thank you for having me.
All right. So as you guys can see, we’ve got a real kick-ass panel of folks here with a lot of amazing important stories to dig into. As I said at the top, there’s so much that we’re not going to be able to cover, but I imagine if you’re here you’ve been following along with a lot of these stories. I would say you can also check out other great coverage, Vince and I have actually done a Working People episode together, so if you want to know more about his backstory, go check that out. Did a Real News segment at the beginning of this year with Laborers Local 79, so you can check that out and hear more about the incredible organizing work they’re doing. Same with Starbucks Workers United. I was in the room when the first Starbucks store in Maryland voted to unionize the Charles Street store.
We all know about the incredible organizing there, and we all know about Howard Schultz and the corporations vicious illegal union busting, so we need to know what we can do to help fight back and to support everyone here. Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Home Depot, in the construction industry and beyond. Now, as I said, we want to kind of zero in on the organizing side of things. Since we can’t go in depth about your all’s like origin stories and long back stories, I want to just focus on a key moment for all of you, because this is something
Key moment for all of you, because this is something Vince and I were talking about in Philly a couple weeks ago when we were doing a video interview for the Real News. I feel like it’s the same for most of you, but for most of my life, when I was working low wage jobs, whether that was warehouses, whether I was a pizza delivery guy, I was working in retail, working as a waiter, when things got bad at work, there were essentially to my mind, and the common wisdom was there are two options. You quit or you stay and take it. I didn’t know there was a secret third thing. It just never really occurred to me or my coworkers to stay and fight to change things. And I feel like when a person makes that mental shift, that is when they become an organizer.
And I wanted to ask you guys, what was that moment for you? And also, it’s important to remind people why people organize. What were the issues, I guess, that were coming up in your own work or the conversations you were hearing with folks, the common concerns, issues with management, so on and so forth? What were the things that really galvanized y’all to come together collectively, but also take us back to that moment when you felt like you weren’t going to quit, you weren’t going to just take it on the chin, but you were going to do something about it.
So I could say so in the receiving end, when I was a receiving supervisor, then when I step back to being an associate, I always joke around and say I was a glorified trash man. Essentially, I just threw out the storage trash throughout the entire day. And I’m a person with a very active brain. I think a lot. Throwing out trash does not really occupy your mind much. And so, I kind of just reflected on my journey at Home Depot. I was very gung-ho at the time, trying to go corporate. It was the opportunity I had. That was something that they were pushing me for, but the more I analyzed how the place operated, the more it just didn’t really sit with me. You would hear things like, so for instance, we live in a heavily Spanish speaking neighborhood, and we’re not paid to translate.
And it used to be really, really frustrating because it’s like, yo, 30 to 40% of your business is just straight Latinos that speak no English. You have no trouble going to the people that speak Spanish, asking them to speak Spanish. But then when we say, “Hey, can we get a raise for that? Other industries pay for that.” It’s, “Oh, well no. Well, we don’t really have money in the budget.” So there’s no way to really corroborate it. They share their sales plan, but they don’t actually share how things break down. So you don’t know what the profit margins are and stuff like that. Enter being groomed to be one of those corporate people, right? They start sitting you through, running through the P&L report and everything. And you see in 2020, 20.6 million dollars in profit. 2021, 30.1 million dollars in profit. 2022, 28.7 million in profit. And you’re like, “Wait, I’m supposed to believe that there’s no money for this?”
So I ran through my mind on these things. I used to listen to a lot of podcasts, would listen to Max a lot with Working People. I’d listen to Breaking Points with Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti. Hear a lot of things about, again, Starbucks campaign, hearing about the ALU, John Deere strike. And so, you kind of start to set the seeds for, “Hey, there is actually something that can be done.” And so, I’m running through. I’m doing a bunch of investigating, looking into large shareholders and stuff. And the particular moment, it was a conversation that I had with one of our associates out in our garden department who’s a gentleman who’d been working in the company for about 25 years. And I remember talking to him and I’m, “No, can you believe we made this much? And can you believe that this… Arthur Blank on a quarterly dividend cleared like 28 and a half million dollars just in…” Right?
And in hindsight, it’s actually kind of cruel to just complain about those things because it’s like you’re just agitating people. And so, I could tell he’s getting and he goes like, “All right, dude. What are you going to do about it?” And I just immediately shut up. And I was like, “Damn, that’s a really good question. What am I going to do about that?” And I guess that’s where everything kind of clicked into place.
Again, you see these campaigns that are going on across the country and you recognize… “Look, what is your obstacle?” Right? At the end of the day, nobody knows their coworkers better than their coworkers. Surely the executives don’t. Shit, half of your managers don’t. Some of them do. I can say honestly, we did have some managers that were decent in our store and they got no support. They got told, “Hey, you guys got to suck this shit up and deal with it.” And so, then the question becomes, “All right, well what can we do about this?” And the answer became organizing. It became educating people. It became having conversations and just taking the time to give a shit about each other.
Lo and behold, 106 signatures later, we scared the absolute out of Home Depot. Thank you. They sent out the cavalry, they sent out all of their executives. They sent so many people and that was just a great example. And that’s in a way, you’re so happy to see that, because I would see the victory up here in New York with Amazon. Again, you’d see all these Starbucks victories going on across the country and the moments that were so important were just those points of connection between the people. And you realize, look, you lean into that, you can overcome a lot. Like I said, Home Depot’s a 300 billion company, they spend a shit ton of money. And we were able to push it to that point, just caring about each other, so… Yeah, shouts out to Eddie over in Garden. If you would’ve never checked me on that and said, “What are you going to do about it?” I don’t know if I would’ve done anything.
We’re getting a little feedback, so I think we’re okay. We’ll just try… Whoever’s talking, everyone point your mics the other way. And [inaudible 00:30:53], obviously this… Different for you, but I’m curious, in that vein, was there a moment when you felt like Vince, that you wanted to commit yourself to the business of doing something about what was wrong? Being an organizer, was there something that really kind of changed for you? But also as an established union, what does Local 79 say to folks, non-union workers, undocumented workers, returning citizens? I guess how do you guys talk to folks about why they should band together and unionize or do something about the issues at their work?
Make more money when you’re union?
That’s a good one.
So my journey actually starts a long time before I got into construction. I got a friend in the crowd there that when we were high school students told me he was involved in something and that there were pizza at the meetings. So naturally, I had to be there. Organizer tricks, right? So I started going to these meetings and they’re about public schools and working class communities of color being shut down under Mayor Bloomberg’s mayorship, whatever the word for that is. And the way that it taught me to rethink my own experience as a public school student in the context of something much larger and bigger than myself and my family and my community, that was happening to all of our communities of people that I went to school with and grew up with and people like us in our socioeconomic status. I grew up in the Bronx.
It showed me that there was something going on and I would learn later that the term for something like that is class struggle and oppression and exploitation, but it made me want to get involved. And the most acute thing in the beginning was they tried to take away our green metro cards. So if you grew up in New York City, you have a green metro card that lets you have three rides a day, two and from school, they wanted to take away that metro card and I think that was around 2010. So there was a big rally. Thousands of us walked out across the city from our schools and we went to city hall. And when I got there, my friend sitting in the crowd was on the stage with these other high school students. I’m like, “Wow, I know that guy.” So we got to talking after that and I wanted to be involved in something like that, because I saw it making a real difference.
They wanted to take away our means of transport, which would’ve had to force our families to pay thousands of dollars per child every year in transportation costs while they’re trying to shut down our schools. And it showed the character of this war that was going on against Black and Brown working class communities. And I knew that I could sit home and I don’t know, play PlayStation or whatever, or I could go and be involved in something bigger than myself. And it kind of sent me on a lifelong journey. Years later, I would become a Local 79 apprentice. Great money. I wanted to make money and I wanted to be involved in a union, because I thought unions were cool before they became very cool. And also, I applied around the time that Bernie Sanders was having his first run at the presidency and there’s that whole wave of our generation thinking that way.
And when I joined the union, I was able to plug into things that were happening everywhere because my union is deeply committed to organizing, not just in job sites, but also in our communities that we come from, for a holistic, comprehensive approach to economic justice that uplifts the whole working class and not just workers for one company or workers at one job site or another. And when I joined the union, we were fighting for real affordable housing and good labor standards on housing developments in the Bronx. And I grew up my whole life hearing terms like gentrification and stuff like that and the need to fight against the stuff, but here, I saw an institution that could actually do the other side of it, not just fight the problem, but actually propose a real solution. We can build the housing and we can make it affordable and we can do it with real labor standards and real local hire standards and I was really vibing with all of that. And if that wasn’t good enough for me, we had a couple of years long battle at the Hudson Yards with one of the largest developers in the world, Steve Ross. So throw him right up there with Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz and all of them. So we had a picket line out there, multi trades, and we were fighting for years.
I don’t really want to talk about the way that it ended, but that experience of seeing thousands of construction workers coming together every week and fighting and being willing to put it all on the line to fight for our livelihoods, it made me realize like, “No, this is it right here.” Because we talk about neoliberal New York City, right? This is the neoliberal center of the world that grounds global systems of capitalism and imperialism and white supremacy and whatever else. The real estate industry in New York City is one of the major anchors of that and the entire class structure of the city was built upon a decades and decades long process that’s tied into centuries long historical processes of the immiseration and disenfranchisement and just punishment and disciplining of Black and Brown working class communities here and I could see that my union was really a north star in all of that, really pointing the needle in a way that we could organize our way out of this hole, for not just ourselves as workers on these construction sites, but in our communities.
So now, all these years later, my job as an organizer now for the union is to bring that passion and that vision to other workers, not just non-union workers, but also workers in the union, but when it comes to talking to non-union workers, they already know the problems for the most part. If you’re working for non-union construction employers, typically, these are predatory employers that are trying to take advantage of the most vulnerable parts of the working class, formerly incarcerated workers, immigrants, women, public housing residents, people generally living in poverty, and they hold things like your immigration status or your parole status, above you coercively in order to exploit workers for cheap labor. So they’re already being made to work in unsafe conditions for low wages and fucked up environments where the boss… It’s not uncommon to hear stories from the non-union side where the boss says, “I’m going to tell you to do whatever the hell I want you to do, and I know you can’t do any differently because if you lose this job, you’re going right back to prison.” So that’s the reality. And when we approach these workers, it’s… Being a good organizer is about listening.
So it’s really about getting people comfortable to tell you their story and then honing in on what it is that they’re facing and showing them what our union can do to stand with them in order to fight and help them build up their own fighting capacity when it comes to their employers. And the more and more that we do that, and I have a few other segments that I could get into a little later, it really paints this view where… In the mind of the worker, the problem isn’t just them and their employer, but it’s a structural thing, affecting thousands and thousands of us that do the same work in different job sites on different construction projects facing the same conditions.
Then it becomes a working class matter. The non-union workers that we’ve organized into the union have become some of the greatest activists that I’ve met in my life. Max interviewed a couple of them who worked for one of the worst construction companies, Alba Demolition, that we were going at for years and we were helping organize some of their workers that were standing up against a bounty that the company put out to intimidate workers to stay away from filing worker’s comp claims if they were injured on the job. They said they would give $5,000 to any coworker that would step up and say that their worker’s comp claims are fraudulent. So these workers stood up against that. They said, “No, this is unfair.” They joined our rallies and they were retaliated against for it. We stood up with these workers, the National Labor Board, we took it there. They had to be hired back. They’re now Local 79 members. They’re great activists. And as of last month, the owner of Alba was in handcuffs, arraigned for a construction kickback scheme that was now being cracked down on by the Manhattan District Attorney.
Okay. [inaudible 00:39:41]
Sarah Beth Ryther:
Yeah, so before I started working at Trader Joe’s, I thought it was a really awesome place. It’s very imaginative. You go into a store and it’s really colorful. There’s art everywhere. There are products that are very inventive and everyone seems really happy to talk to you and to see you. I was interested in that energy and when I started at Trader Joe’s, it became clear very quickly that that was a narrative the company has been pushing for years and years and years and it is very, very different from the truth. And it is really interesting to hear folks’ stories over a long period of time and just see and understand how different from the truth that is. Personally, there were several instances last winter, November and December, that were really, really scary. There were safety issues with folks inside and outside of the store that management handled very poorly.
At one of those incidences, I was on worker’s comp, and I remember just sitting in my living room and thinking, “This is absolutely unacceptable. It is unacceptable that folks are afraid every single day when they’re coming to work and they’re afraid because the people who are supposed to protect them are not doing their job.” And so, that led us to a lot of questions that led us to try to really together get to the source. Why are these safety issues happening? Is this local? Is it just us? Is it larger than us? Do you feel unsafe at your workplace? Do you feel good at your workplace? Every single shade and variation of those questions we asked over and over and over and over. And I think that it became, over the course of months, just a situation where we decided together that we were not going to abandon each other. That we were going to stay together and stick together and the easy choice would have been to quit. The easy choice would’ve been to move to another retail job with similar pay, with maybe benefits that are slightly lower and to give up. And instead, we said, we are really, really awesome together. We feel like a community. And so we want to, again, collectively ask these questions of ourselves and see if we can make a difference.
And so, that really led to the beginnings of our campaign and the base of our campaign was that every single person, every individual is more important than the union and is more important than Trader Joe’s. And that has meant that when… And I keep using the word community and I’ll continue to use the word community, because that is what we are trying to build and we are trying to build it not only in our store, not only in Massachusetts, but across the country, with the understanding that folks who are really entrenched in a community that cares for them can fight the fight better because they know each other. They go to picnics together, they hang out after work, they watch each other’s kids. They know when an illness happens, they know what bus route somebody rides. And all of this information influences and informs the really real changes that we’re looking for in our workplace and will continue to inform those changes.
I started at Starbucks when I was 17 and in high school, so the only thing I knew about a union was that my parents were in one when they were teachers in Baltimore County, and they were in their own labor union. So when my now good friend and fellow organizer texted me, “What are three things you want to change about your job?” I really sat back and thought. I was like, “I mean, I guess I could get paid a little more or I would like to have a fair schedule where I’m getting scheduled consistent hours.” So since then, me and my coworkers started communicating more about the issues going on in our store. And before this, I didn’t even realize that these were issues that I was having, because I thought that’s just the way it is. You don’t get these rights, you don’t get these benefits. It’s just you’re here to do a job, you get paid minimum wage and then you go home.
Where things really started to click for me is when we got into issues of health and safety regarding COVID. I tested positive for COVID, alerted my boss, and I wasn’t aware until after I tested positive that two coworkers that I had worked closely with were already positive and I was not made aware that I was put in that risk. So that, I just couldn’t fathom that they would not tell me that I was in contact with this virus that is killing people and they wouldn’t tell me and I showed up to work. So that’s when it clicked that this isn’t right. Starbucks and my management is not treating me like a human being. [inaudible 00:45:29]
So, that’s really where that clicked for me. So since then, me and my coworkers would continue to talk and talk to people who we wouldn’t see as often. And like you said, we built a community and that’s where my passion for organization came, was in that community that we built together and I’m so grateful for being able to do that and being able to bring people together over their united concerns.
Hell yeah. So thank you all so much for sharing that. And I hope, one of the things that I’m hearing, which I imagine everyone else is hearing, anyone who’s listening to this, days, weeks, months after we’re all here in New York, is hearing the same thing, that this isn’t stuff that’s happening in some far away land, right? Being done by some people that are just wholly different from you. This is happening all around you. This is happening next door. These are your neighbors, these are your coworkers, these are your fellow parishioners, right? You are part of this movement. You just don’t know it yet, right? I mean, because I think every one of us has a story like that, that we can relate to. But again, it’s that shift because we live in this society that just from birth beats into our heads that if you don’t like it, your one option is to quit, right?
Your other options are, I don’t know, be grateful, stop complaining, stop expecting to be treated like a human being, you piece of shit. Right? That’s basically what our society has on offer. And so, it’s just really incredible to hear how you all, regular working people who look like us, sound like us, people who have families, lives, backstories like us, made that brave step with your coworkers to say, “No, there’s another option.” And I want to keep that momentum going, because I feel like, obviously, the term organizer, organizing gets thrown around a lot these days. And I imagine, and I’ve had a lot of people tell me that the term organizer, when they hear it, they assume that it’s referring to some different kind of person, someone who’s not them, and mainly because they don’t know what organizing actually looks like.
So let’s demystify that process a little bit and talk about what organizing for you all looks like on a day-to-day basis. So what sorts of conversations do you get in? I guess what sorts of infrastructure building or just like… Yeah, what does the work of organizing actually look like in your respective corners of the world? And what in your experience works in doing that organizing and what doesn’t? Any sort of stories or tips that you can share? We’ll finish off by talking about more of the lessons we can learn, but I guess, let’s start back with you, Vince.
I mean, as I stated earlier, and I feel like we’ve all kind of touched on it in the answers that we’ve given. I mean, look, organizing in its most core component is just talking to people, right? It’s the organization of people. It’s funny, right? Sometimes when I refer to myself as an organizer, because I’m going through imposter syndrome. “Am I really an organizer?” It feels like, like Max said, this bigger thing, but in actuality, it’s again, just having conversations. When I reflect on it, I didn’t really get the idea to organize at Home Depot until the summertime, but when I look at my history at Home Depot, the six years I worked there, the seeds were set there the whole time. Organizing is, “Hey, how are you today? How’s your family doing? What are you doing this weekend?” Right? It’s those connections that pull you together, because I remember when everybody ran down on the store and you have all these corporate people and “Hey, how are you? How are you doing?”
And I remember everybody always coming back to receiving and being like, “Yo, these people are so full of shit. It’s insane.” And it’s like that’s what organizing ultimately gets to, is just… It’s having conversations every day, talking to people. And then, again, shout out to Eddie. Not just talking about the problems, but presenting solutions and breaking down the barriers of what you think is inconceivable. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. When you can connect with people through so many different ways, that’s what gives you the leg up. Like Chris was saying up here…
… different ways. That’s what gives you the leg up. Like Chris was saying up here earlier. The power’s in the people. All the financial engineering that’s done by mega corporations, all the money that they think they make, workers produce the base capital. And that’s why they get so scared when people talk to each other, when they form those bonds, because they’re like, “Holy shit. These motherfuckers go and figure that out, there goes our second house, there goes our third Mercedes.” And again, it’s keeping up at it every single day. You know what I mean? For our organizing drive for instance, there was only one week where I didn’t get signatures and it was to kind of try and cool things down. But there are those times where in the beginning you get 20 signatures in a day and then you may have a day where you only get one or two and most of the people are like, “Oh, here comes this fucking guy again talking about organizing. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of this place.”
It’s that battle of attrition. One of the things that I’m really into that helped a lot with it is boxing. You’re an inside fighter. You’re in it for that battle of attrition. You’re duking it out. You’re like, “Yo, we’re here. We’re with it.” And again, that’s organizing, that’s showing up every day, and that’s understanding what your goal is, what your vision is and trying to share that with others, because it’s like, look, there is a better world out there. There is something better. And it starts again just by taking the time to give a shit. And that’s I guess probably one of the best things to say to kind of break down the complexity of it.
That is the difference between Ted Decker, the CEO of Home Depot, Tim Horgan, the executive vice president, our regional vice president who walks around thinking that he gives a shit about people, trying to act like it, work and people. That’s the difference between the people on this stage, the people in this room and those individuals, is that when we say that we give a shit about people, I can go and I can tell you about Garmenia Torres’ three kids and how she moved here from DR. I can tell you about my boy, Ray, who grew up in Baltimore, moved up here, my homie, George, who came from San Jose, my work grandpa. Everybody up here has got those people that they can connect with and that’s what it’s about at the end of the day, is it’s developing those relationships that are naturally going to occur within the workplace and then continuing to build on that and helping people to see within themselves what you see in them, what they may not see in themselves and what the executive sure as shit don’t want people to see in themselves. So…
When it comes to Local 79 or a construction trades organizing, our organizing doesn’t really look like traditional union organizing, and there’s several reasons for that. Construction is just such a unique industry in terms of our work. Our work tends to be project to project on a job to job basis. We work to complete the projects that we’re working on, so that means we’re working to put ourselves out of a job. Some other industries might be able to relate. And we have a very transient workforce. Workers are moving around from site to site, might be split up into different crews, geographically dispersed. So the NLRB vote strategy doesn’t really land the same way that it does in other industries and workplaces.
So if you’ve ever gone around the city and you’ve seen the big inflatable rat on a pickup truck and some people wearing hard hats or union gear outside, that’s probably Local 79 or another union, but it’s probably mostly Local 79. That’s us. We’re out there. Those are called our informational lines, also called job site actions, where we’re out educating workers and the public about… Well, we’re educating the workers about their rights. We’re educating them about the laws that exist to help them, to keep them safe, that nobody teaches us about and that their bosses are invested in them not knowing about. We’re educating the public about the risks that non-union construction projects can pose to themselves, their communities. It’s not unheard of to be walking down a sidewalk in Manhattan and a sidewalk shed or a scaffold collapses and hurts someone. These are things that are in the news every now and then. And they really catch your attention.
I’m trying to think of more examples. So I’m going to jump to the most extreme example. Last year in New York City, 22 construction workers died and 17 were on non-union job sites. And that’s something… If we’re not out there doing what we’re doing, that’s a dynamic that’s only going to grow. So we have to deal with that, but we can’t just do it on a job site to job site basis. We can’t have a rat up at every single construction site in New York City. So that’s where we need to think structurally, and that’s where we do think structurally. So what we do as Local 79, we fight to feed in our street game, our ground game, our organizing campaigns on the job sites into bigger picture battles that really create the changes that we need to impact our industry.
So for example, we’re fighting alongside the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition, which includes immigrant organizations, workers centers like New Immigrant Community Empowerment, Make the Road and many others in order to fight for what’s now being called the Unemployment Bridge Program to create a permanent system of unemployment benefits for excluded workers who could be formerly incarcerated people coming out, immigrants that can’t receive unemployment benefits, because we believe that if there’s a safety net for these workers, it’ll be easier for them to be able to stand up to their bosses and organize and organize with their coworkers versus if you have to choose between, “Shit, do I talk to my coworkers about possibly we get together and address these unsafe conditions or the wages that we’re making? Do I choose between that or hunger?” If we take that out of the equation equation through something like the Unemployment Benefits Program, then we’ve significantly changed the game.
Some other things that we’ve done, a couple of years ago in 2021, we passed this thing called the Body Shop Bill in city council. Body shops are a notorious thing in New York City in our construction industry. Think of a plantation packed into an LLC. Body shops are where when developers and contractors not only don’t want to hire union workers, when they want to exploit the shit out of workers to put up their projects and make a killing off of it economically, they go to body shop labor brokers who provide them with vulnerable workers from vulnerable communities, formerly incarcerated people, immigrants, just like I mentioned before and everybody in that pecking order is making a profit from the labor of these workers who are making poverty wages, don’t have benefits and have things being held over their head like the possibility of deportation or returning to prison.
So we passed a bill that forces these companies to license, to register and get licensed by the city and come out of the shadows, so to speak, as well as provide information about the wages that they’re paying their workers. And that’s a huge step towards not only getting more information on them so we can go after them as organizers and our organizing departments, but also to show the non-union workers, “Hey. Look. It’s possible to build power. We just made your boss have to come out of the shadows. You can go on the city website and I can show you how to look up the wages that they’re paying you.” It’s an empowering thing to be able to show workers tangible results.
Other tangible results that we got were passing some criminal justice reforms in 2021 at the state level. So because of the legislation that we passed then, it’s now no longer a parole violation to work overtime in New York. Think about how crazy it is that before a couple of years ago, if you’re on parole and you’re trying to work overtime, that’s a parole violation or attending a labor demonstration, that’s a parole violation. So if you need to make a few extra hours a week in order to keep a roof over your head, you got to choose between that and being thrown back into prison.
I have a union brother sitting in the crowd who worked on a job once, a union job site, where an apprentice who was on parole had to bring their probation officer in in order to try and convince them to let them work overtime. And when that fellow came to the job site, the entire crew, which I believe was 50 people, they mobbed up on him and said, “What are you doing? Let him work overtime, blah, blah, blah.” They convinced him on the spot when he saw the shop steward, the coworkers, the foreman, everybody vouching for this person. And that’s what Union Solidarity is about. And the man was allowed to work overtime after that.
So we took that solidarity, that strength that we display on our job sites that keeps us strong in the industry and we raised it to the level of law in order to change at a widespread scale people’s lives that work in this industry. So when we’re going after companies like Alba, when we’re going after body shops and organizing the workers, the workers that get organized in through our union apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, they become some of the fiercest advocates and activists you’ve ever seen. And their stories that they bring to the table and the facts that they bring to the light are really able to move things at the level of politicians and policy makers, elected officials who have the power to either allocate or don’t the resources to these companies that are getting significant public subsidies in order to exploit workers all over New York City.
So our organizing, there’s a macro level to it. There’s a micro level to it. But every step of the way, at every rung of the ladder, the most important thing is the stories of the workers, their lives, their communities, their history, how they got to where they were and how the union changed their lives, because there is an endless amount of stories. And if you want to look them up, you can actually follow Laborers Fight Back on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. And we have so many graphics with so many workers who talk about the experience of becoming union workers and how that changed their lives but also the darkness that they had to face in the non-union side of the field. And this is what’s generating massive profits for developers and banks and hedge funds all over down in Wall Street. And it shouldn’t be that the rich just keep on getting richer while sucking all of the wealth out of our communities and while workers are literally falling out of buildings and dying.
Hell, yeah. And yeah. Sarah Beth, Riley, what does the organizing look like in your respective corners of the world?
Sarah Beth Ryther:
Similarly. It’s a lot about stories. It’s a lot about meeting people where they’re at, hearing what their concerns are, hearing what their worries are, talking about their families, talking about what it feels like to have a sick kid and to have to yourself call in and then get scolded for it or written up, face disciplinary action, et cetera, et cetera. I would say that most of our conversations have to do with either fear or possibility or a combination of both. And so having really honest conversations about people’s fears, about, “What am I afraid of if we walk out? What am I afraid of if we go to the bargaining table and we’re sitting across from somebody who has complete control over our collective future? What does that fear feel like? And how can we move through that with a sense of possibility?”
And I think that’s where it becomes really, really, really essential to talk to folks and ask them, when they’re afraid, where that fear is coming from, what evidence they have for that fear and then having a conversation about what evidence we may or may not have to counteract that fear and sometimes just telling folks that, “You have to sit with the fear and it will be fine if we do it together,” and over and over and over having those conversations. Before we had a walkout on New Year’s Eve in Minneapolis, and before that walkout, we were on the phone for hours with people talking about what they were afraid of. Were they afraid of a relationship with a manager being damaged? Were they afraid for their job security? And how can we together move through that?
And so I think that is ultimately fear, possibility and then again what you guys are saying, just collecting stories, talking to folks, building community, building relationships with people, because we spend so much time together. If you’re working 40 hours a week, that’s most of your hours. These are micro communities that are just your whole life. And so they have to feel safe. They have to feel protected. They have to feel like you can invest in them and that the people around you have your back.
So I’m sure many of you have heard about the anti-union propaganda coming from Starbucks corporate. So if I’m simplifying organizing in a Starbucks cafe environment, it’s kind of a two-step process. The first being defacing the rhetoric coming from corporate, because we are faced all the time with false information about Workers United. Personally, when I was organizing my store in Baltimore and getting ready to transfer here to New York for school, I was told, “Well, Riley, if you unionize, you’re not going to be able to get that transfer. You’re not going to be able to go to work in a store in New York.” Not true. So, so many things like that that first have to be… People need to know that they don’t have your best interest at heart. They want money.
So my first step is to make that clear to my coworkers, that this propaganda coming from your bosses is false. They don’t have your best interest. And then the second step being, of course, pretty similar to what everyone has said here, human connection. Like you said, we spend so much time together. Our coworkers build this connection and care for one another that is so valuable when organizing, because sympathy and anger are the two most important emotions when it comes to organization. I always say this to people, to fellow partners, when they talk to me about organization, “Get your coworkers angry. Start thinking about scheduling. Start thinking about your hour cuts,” which are ridiculous. “Start thinking about all of these things that you were not treated fairly and get mad, because it’s not fair.” And that anger is so motivating to bring people together. So you get angry and then you connect with each other and sympathize with one another. And that is the best way to build a sense of community and start building your union.
Hell, yeah. So we’re going to get to Q&A in a sec, but I want to just kind of do a quick final round here. And I’m just warning you guys that we’re going to go in reverse snake order. So in a second I’m going to throw it back to you all and then we’ll come back this way. But I guess before we open up to Q&A, I want to build on this incredible conversation, which I’m truly honored to have with you all. And think about what sorts of actionable lessons we can give people from the incredible struggles that you all have been involved in, that Starbucks workers around the country have been involved in, and also our other brothers, sisters, and siblings fighting the fight across the country and beyond.
What can we learn from the past one, two, three years that can make us better organizers, that can help us build more robust power with longer staying power? What lessons have you learned that you find now you’re applying to organizing that you’re cutting down a lot of the lag time that maybe you faced in the beginning? Anything like that. It could be social media strategy, conversational strategy. Could be using great tools like Action Builder to cut down on keeping track of all the workers you’ve talked to in your shop instead of using a fucking Google spreadsheet or something like that.
And I just wanted to sort of give an example from the media side, from the supporter side. Folks who are listening to this can’t see it, but I am wearing my UMWA shirt, which was given to me by the great Braxton Wright, who himself has been on strike in Alabama at Warrior Met Coal for 23 months, nearly two years. I think it’s now the longest strike in Alabama State history. Who here has heard of it? Okay. The lesson that I think we all need to sit with this week, because if folks haven’t heard the news, the UMWA has sent a letter to Warrior Met after 23 months of strike unconditionally saying workers are going to go back to work or offering workers go back to work while negotiations can continue, but obviously, we know this is not the way we wanted the strike to end. And Warrior Met is already saying that there are 41 workers that they’re not going to let get their jobs back because of their, quote, unquote, conduct during the strike, which is horse shit.
But what I think we need to learn from this struggle is we can’t forget about each other. These workers were holding the line for nearly two years while national media ignored them, while politicians on the Democratic side and the Republican side abandoned them. And while we, I think, with the best of intentions would support these workers down in Alabama when we could, when we remembered to, when we saw a post on social media, but what happened in the long stretches in between that? The weeks? The months? When the holidays were around? That’s the stuff that chips away at you. That’s what makes it harder to hold the line when that’s what we need workers to do. That’s what they need to do for themselves and their families.
We can’t just get excited when we see a new Starbucks store has filed to unionize and forget about the workers who just unionized and are now having their hours cut below 20 hours a week and they’re losing their goddamn healthcare, or when Starbucks just closes unionized stores like in Seattle or Ithaca or anywhere. Where are we when that happens? I think one of the lessons that… What I’m trying to say is that we all also have a role to play here. We can keep that fire burning. We can show up for each other in our respective locales if there’s a strike going on, in your area. Get your ass to that picket line. Donate to that strike fund. Or if you can’t, share it with people who can’t. Just keep that story alive. Keep the struggle alive however you can.
As we say all the time on this podcast and at The Real News, no one can do everything but everyone can do something. And so I hope that we are all send… I know we’re all sending our love and solidarity to everyone down in Brookwood right now. After nearly two years of intense struggle at Warrior Met Coal, we can’t forget about them. We can’t forget about any of our siblings out there who are still fighting that good fight. So with that in mind, let’s kind of do a sort of quick round around the table starting with Riley and coming back here. I guess what other sorts of lessons from the past year or so of struggle do you want folks to leave this conversation with?
What I want people to leave this conversation with is that we are people. The people who make your coffee in the morning are people. We have feelings. We have emotions. We have lives. We have families. Because every day that I clock into work, I have 100s of customers not treating us like human beings. So the best way you can show solidarity to your baristas is a smile. “How are you? How’s your family doing?” Any kind of connection. Even asking about how we’re doing in our union fight. Just a little bit of humanity is all we need to really feel that support from people.
And as for my fellow partners, what I suggest during these times in between actions is, one, keep these conversations with your coworkers going about, especially right now with Starbucks, we are facing aggressive hour cuts, specifically in New York City that is extremely illegal because of the Fair Work Week Act. Fair Week Work Week Act states that you cannot have over a 15% cut in hours without just cause. I know people who are cut 50% of their hours. So keep these conversations going, keep that anger flowing, because that’s how the momentum is going to keep going.
Sarah Beth Ryther:
I think, again, going back to possibility, you can do it. I didn’t know what a union was and we figured it out and we figured it out together. And so for those folks who are feeling just incredibly frustrated, feeling worn down and feeling like their workplace is just an awful place to be and to exist in, you can do it and you can figure it out using the resources that are widely available. Social media is amazing in connecting us and bringing us together and people in your community. The communities that were in the Minneapolis labor community has been absolutely instrumental in helping us out and giving us advice and just talking to us again when we were at the very beginning and knew absolutely nothing. And so again, I would say you can do it.
So the point that I’ve been trying to drive home, and I hope I’ve been doing an okay job of it, is that the relationships between labor and capital, between employers and employees in the construction industry reflect the relationships between our communities and the people in power and wealth and power. And it’s an exploitative and impressive relationship. And the powers-that-be depend on that setup remaining that way in order to have a pool of cheap labor to draw from to put up these buildings that construction workers build every day.
So one of the things happening in New York City right now is that there’s a severe housing crisis. Nobody is happy with the rents. If you are, God bless you. But there’s a housing shortage and other dynamics that are driving the rents up. So the government is really being compelled to act. And what they want to do is pump out as many apartments as possible over the next decade to the tune of 500,000 apartments. Now, those don’t just fall out of the sky and drop into the ground. They have to be built. These are large residential developments. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of construction work. So the way that we’re looking at it is that this is where a lot of the investment and the construction boom is moving towards to solve the housing crisis and alleviating the pressure on the housing supply constraints right now. That-
… the housing supply constraints right now. That development boom can either increase and deepen generational poverty and disenfranchisement and criminalization for working-class Black and brown communities. Or, it can be a means of building generational wealth and uplifting people and creating means of economic mobility. And the way to do that, in our view, is what we’re calling the fight for construction justice.
The fight for construction justice is a fight for strong, local-hire policies to actually create pathways for people from our communities who have traditionally been excluded from the construction industry, and even unions at one point, to gain these careers. But not just to have a job, but to have a good job.
We’re also fighting for a wage floor, a wage standard with these local-hire policies. We believe that construction workers working on city-financed housing developments, which like I just said, they’re planning on 500,000 over a decade. It’s a lot of work. If you go and see a big residential building, chances are it’s a thousand apartments or less. So 500,000, way bigger number.
If our taxpayer dollars are going into funding this, then we should be able to pay construction workers at least $40 an hour, with medical and retirement benefits added into that.
So that’s our vision right now. It’s a campaign that we’re launching. What I would ask in terms of actionable items, go and help us with this. Spread the message, follow Laborers Fight Back. Follow laborers79. We’re on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all that good stuff. TikTok, I think we’re still figuring out. But spread our message. Help us get it out there.
If you are an organization in New York City, we’d love to have co-sponsors on the construction justice movement. Join our coalition and help us spread the movement. Local 79 is known as a union that goes out and fights alongside everybody.
We’ve been out there with Amazon, we’ve marched with Starbucks, so many different causes, so many different people. And now we’re putting out the call: we need help to fight for our communities, to fight for our industry, and make sure that workers’ justice and workers’ power means something real in the construction industry. So Laborers Fight Back, everybody.
I was going to say, if you need help with TikTok, you should talk to this guy real quick.
I’m still getting that figured out. But if you guys ever want to check out a long-winded 10-minute monologue, you can go check it out.
All right, so I want to hit this question from two points. The first one is just more the nuts and bolts of organizing. Firstly, I’ll say, look: our organizing campaign did not end the way that we wanted. It ended actually very poorly. It was down 165 to 51. It was a heavy burden to carry. We also lost the World Series that night. So that was not a good night.
But something that I learned in that: be careful being really gung-ho. I was very determined. I was very driven, and I ended up taking on a lot of the work. It was about myself and three other organizers, and I was doing the vast majority of it.
And right in the time that you’re going through it, you’re animated. You’re, “Yeah, we’re going to do this, we’re going to take this, we’re going to beat these motherfuckers up. Yeah, come on, let’s go, let’s do this.”
But the problem is over time, it’s tiring. You’re working a 40-hour job, you’re doing all this shit, trying to organize, trying to do interviews. I got a two-year-old at home. It’s trying to balance all that stuff out. It’s very, very difficult.
So what I tell myself now; not that we want to take stuff back, because you either win or you learn. It’s like my quarterback, Jalen Hurts said; I got to shout out the Eagles; but you either win or you learn.
And something that I learned from that was the importance of again, to the previous answer we gave on connection: making sure that that connection is established, and sharing that burden. Definitely being organized where you can bring in Action Builder. I wish that that was something that I had familiarized myself more with, because it would’ve made things a lot easier.
But the second part of it that I want to get into is, I think of it like this. If I were to talk to myself before I got into organizing, I was really frustrated in life. I felt like I had a lot of things going for me, yet the opportunities that I wanted just weren’t presenting themselves.
I would look around at my coworkers, and I would feel angry and I would feel frustrated. Why are things not changing? And in that, what I would encourage people to do; people who are considering organizing; one of the first things you want to work on is what you can within yourself. To rectify, to correct those things. And it’s difficult. That’s an ambiguous answer.
Because the thing is, you really have to know yourself. You really have to know who you are. You have to understand your position in life, understand what the world needs from you. And if you feel that calling, if you feel that in your belly, act on it. Something Max and I talked about in the interview that we just recently did; and look, I’m going to sound like a complete fucking dork, but I don’t really care.
I watched The Matrix a thousand times. I watched Batman a bunch of times. I watched Spider-Man a bunch of times. Because in all honesty, when you look at it, right now I’m sitting next to real-world fucking superheroes.
There’s not a spider that’s going to fucking bite you. You’re not going to be the orphan of billionaire parents. But there are these concepts that we love in these movies of overcoming obstacles, of fighting for your fellow man; things that are so powerful.
And if there was ever an opportunity that I saw to do that … That’s why I love when Eddie challenged me. ‘Cause I fucking went home that night, I watched The Matrix, and I’m like, “Bitch, I’ma be Neo.” You know what?
And it’s a great opportunity to live those values, to live those things. And you never know what’s going to happen if you don’t take that step. You can find 1,001 reasons to not do something. Or conversely, you can find 1,001 reasons to do something.
And in the end, that’s what organizing is. That’s what these people on the panel have been talking about: is not just sitting there frustrated, but doing something. So what I would tell people in those times where they’re frustrated at work, where there’s some long-haired asshole that was sitting back and receiving in a Home Depot in Philadelphia who’s mad all the time; this is your opportunity to be great.
Greatness doesn’t always come about in the ways that we think, but greatness is greatness. And what people in this room are doing, what the people I’m sitting next to are doing, it’s greatness. And it’s your opportunity to be great and leave an impact on the world around you, on your community. And if that’s not inspiration enough to get off your ass and do something, I don’t know what is, man.
Look, let’s all go out there. Let’s be Batman. Let’s be Wonder Woman. Let’s be Superman. Let’s be Neo. Let’s be the heroes in our community who can make things better. Because it’s through people like the ones in this room, and the things that we do, that can help us to make that difference. Ain’t nobody coming to save us. So it’s time to save ourselves.
Let’s give it up for our great panel, everyone. All right, I’m fired up and we ran a little long, but I apologize. I didn’t want to stop that conversation, ever.
But I know that folks have some questions. So I wanted to see with the time we have left, if folks had any questions they wanted to ask our amazing panelists; the great Mariah over there has a microphone. Again, we are recording this, so please speak into the mic so we can get you on the recording.
Hello. Thank you so much. My name is Brian. I work with Amnesty International. I just want to say thank you so much. Y’all are really real-life superheroes. I mean, you guys are powerful. The gentleman from Local 79 said that the unions out there saving lives and changing lives, and I could not agree more.
My question is: is there a story or an instance in your organizing work where you’ve been struggling, going through it? You come home, you’re exhausted, and you just encounter a situation at the workplace that a colleague … that really anchored yourself in this work?
Where you’re like, “Okay, I can’t give up because other people depend on me to do this work.” And I’m wondering if one of you or all of you could speak to that. Thank you.
And we can load up; is there another question folks wanted to throw in there? Then the panel can jump in with whichever one they want to address.
Hi y’all. My name’s Megan. I’m with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee. It’s been really awesome. I have two questions that are interconnected, so hope you bear with me.
My first question is just: how do you guys start having an organizing conversation with someone that you don’t know where they stand yet? What does that conversation look like? And how do you start to feel someone out who you don’t yet know?
And then the second part of that is: how do you bring people in who you know are down with the union to help you have those sorts of conversations? Thanks.
I just want to make sure on this side, did anyone have a question? Just wanted to make sure I didn’t neglect that side. Okay. And then here’s our last one.
I’m Robert. I’m an 1199 organizer. In terms of Starbucks, I hear a lot that we should go and say, “Union Yes is our name.” And that feels to me like a really great way to just blow up a campaign, if I don’t know that people are already organizing and have been inoculated against management. And so is that something you absolutely want people to do, or to not do, if they haven’t sussed out the landscape already?
I’m just going to go ahead and answer that question super quickly. Personally, I don’t think it’s the best thing to do. Yeah, you’re showing your solidarity. But in the long run, you’re not really doing anything to help the campaign by mobile ordering with the name “Union Yes.”
It was nice when we won our union election, that we had a bunch of people congratulating us via their mobile orders. But if you aren’t sure of where a store stands in their organization process, I wouldn’t. But thank you for that question. It’s really important.
And as far as the other ones, whoever wants to jump in, if you got that fire in your belly, like Vince said, you got a response, hop in.
Oh yeah. So to the first gentleman’s question: actually, I have a little inspiration folder at home. And one of the things that I have in there is very special, to the point that he was talking about.
So I think a really, really hard day, a lot of people tell me “No.” It was a rainy day. I go out to my car, I’m getting ready to leave, and I see something on my car. Normally, people like to walk through the parking lot and leave shit on there. So I’m over here thinking, “What? Some fucking asshole left me some shit that I don’t want to buy.”
So I go, and for whatever reason, I was just compelled to look at it. I look, and it’s a fucking note that says, “Pro-union. You go, brother.”
And I’m like, “Holy fuck! Somebody took the time to figure out my fucking car and go and put this shit on there.”
And I tell you: when my mood was like that, it just shot straight up. I was like, “Man, that was such an amazing feeling.” Just because again, it’s the smallest thing, somebody leaving a note on your car.
Yo, like I said, right next to the 165 to 51 paper, I have a tattered paper that says “Pro-union. You go, brother.” And when somebody talks to me in 60 years, I’ll probably still have that shit. Because that shit was a cool reminder of how awesome people can be.
And then just real quick to Megan’s question; I kind of forget the second half, but at least wanted to answer the first half. Honestly, I think just engaging with people is like, “Yo, how do you feel about your work environment?” A lot of people at first would be like, “What’s this dude getting at?”
And it’s like, “Look, I think the pay sucks. I think the scheduling sucks.” And then, that kind of open people up more.
Then she said, “How do you bring people into having that conversation?” You’re going to have your peoples who, you guys are on the same page, everything is just rolling. And so from there, you just build off of it. You really just approach it with an open mind.
I talk to people who I knew weren’t pro-union. But I was like, “Yo, look: there’s a benefit to talking to people to get them on the same side. But there’s also a benefit to figuring out why people don’t want to unionize.”
And at the end of the day, if you approach it with that mindset, you’re already better than the company you’re fighting against, because you’re just actually trying to understand the landscape, as opposed to trying to force feed your perspective.
To build onto that, one of my favorite methods of talking to my coworkers is if someone’s complaining about something, jump in there and be like, “So you think that you’re having a hard time because we’re understaffed? Well, the union is actually working to fix that.”
It’s just when people are upset, that’s a really great time to insert yourself. But if you’re not getting to that point, the best way is to just start bringing up issues, in my opinion.
Start bringing up issues you’re having, see if other people are having those issues. And then … It’s best to start slow when you’re talking about unionization, especially when you don’t know someone’s opinion at first.
Start talking about issues like, “Oh, what do you think about the new schedule coming out? Your hours have been cut. That’s crazy.” And then start slowly mentioning your union, Workers United, whatever you’re working with. And it’s a great way to facilitate that conversation.
On my end, when you’re having a conversation with construction workers; and this is a lesson that I have to relearn over and over again; or any workers, really: patience is the most important thing.
Like I keep saying, you have to be able to really listen. You have to be able to pay attention to details, what people are saying. Sometimes people are telling you things without even knowing they’re telling you things. And a skilled organizer has to be able to pick up on all of that.
The other side of it is: when you’re talking to people or trying to get them to act, you have to walk people through the contradictions in their own head. And you have to walk them through certain things so that they come to realize it on their own. And that just requires such a level of patience.
But once you get people there, once you’ve taken them to a place where they’ve never been before, you got them. And then they got themselves, and they can get other people into that space of freedom in their mind. And that only builds on itself.
I think when it comes to strategic methods and stuff for when you’re dealing with people in any job site there, there’s an OG Organizer that might be in some of the bookshelves here. But there’s a saying that I’ve gone by since I was a organizer in my younger days. Wherever you go, you got to find people, and understand that people generally will fall into three categories.
The more advanced: the people that might be more aware, or more inclined to action already. The intermediate: the people in the middle that might not ever get involved, but might not stand in your way. And then the people that are waiting to be won over. That’s where most people will fall.
And then the backwards, the stubborn reactionary types that will try to obstruct you. They might be the snitch on the job, be the ones to go running to the boss, be the rat, whatever. You have to be able to identify where people fall.
And the way I’ve always thought about it is, you got to unite the advanced to win over the intermediate and isolate the backwards. In all my years of organizing, that’s never failed.
As for what I think was the first question: when it comes to how hard organizing can be, because nothing ever goes right, nothing ever goes according to plan. You have to improvise every day. I wake up, I don’t know what my day is going to look like. Whatever I had planned for the week, those plans are gone by the end of the day. It’s that kind of lifestyle, at least in construction. I don’t wish that on anyone in any other industry.
But that really is where camaraderie and solidarity, those things really do matter. My people are sitting in the crowd right over here and a small fraction of my union family; shout out to Local 79.
But those things really do matter, and that’s where you constantly have to be building a sense of community in what you’re doing. And that involves a lot of things. That involves accountability, that involves principles, being principled, all the things that it takes to hold groups together.
And the larger that groups get, the more complex they get, the more that divisions grow. So I want to bring it back to what Chris said in the beginning up here: you have to be able to work with people that don’t see things the way that you do, that have different beliefs, that have opposite beliefs.
You can only imagine: I work in construction. There’s a lot of conservative folks I work with that vote for Trump or whatever, and have those worldviews. These are the people that I have to be able to reliably be able to fight side by side against some of the richest people on this planet.
And there are people that I’ve met who I’ve completely opposite worldviews from, who I would rather get into battle with than some people that I have the same exact worldviews on. When you’re able to hit that balance, that’s the crucial thing that a working-class organizer needs to be able to do.
Because there’s no universe, no timeline where a working-class organizer is able to successfully organize labor movements with homogeneousness. You have to be able to work with people who see things differently.
Sarah Beth Ryther:
To answer Megan’s question, I think that looking at your conversations with your coworkers as just mostly about life, and then a little bit about the union, feels very, very, very helpful; especially in the beginning.
But, continuing on: some of those questions are that you can ask about somebody’s life really relate to how they feel about organized labor, how they feel about their workplace.
What do you think about this manager?
What do you think about that manager?
Where did you work before?
What was that like?
What are the things you liked about that environment?
Tell me a crazy story about …
Did you work in the restaurant industry?
Was it bonkers?
How did that feel?
And asking about people’s families. A lot of people have parents who were in unions, have relatives who are union stewards or presidents of a local. So really mapping, trying to create a 360 view, very gently, over hopefully a longer period of time, if you want to do some deep organizing. But again, trying to understand the whole picture, versus just a little part of it.
All right, gang. Well, it is eight o’clock. I want to ask everyone to give our panel one more round of applause.
I want to thank you all once again for coming out, especially with the crappy weather; we really appreciate it. This was a really special conversation, and I would encourage y’all to keep the conversation going.
After this: come up and meet our incredible panel of superheroes. Tell us about the work that you’re doing in your community. Let’s do more of these events. Reach out to us at The Real News. We will cover as much as we possibly can.
The point, again, is that we all have a role to play in this. We can all help change the world. So let’s go out there and do it. Thank you to the People’s Forum. Thank you to Action Builder. Thank you to all of you. Goodnight. Thank you to Chris Smalls.
Hi everyone. Just really quick, thank you all for coming out to our Build Power event. I do want to shout out the Action Network Action Builder team.
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