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Labor

Jonah Furman On The Year Work Broke

"In a time of crisis, people see that the way things are is not necessarily how they have to be."

Juharr via Flickr

If 2021 has made anything clear, it’s that workers in America are fed up—with their bosses, their union leaders, their contracts, and their conditions.

We’ve seen numerous high-profile strikes, valiant and sometimes successful efforts at organizing corporate behemoths, the Great Resignation, a tight labor market giving workers more leverage than they’ve had in years, and key internal battles over leadership and democracy at some of the largest unions in the country. Whether 2021 will be remembered as a turning point for labor or a missed opportunity is a question for the future, but it’s undeniable that this was a year when workers tried to claw back some of their power that’s been slowly eroding for decades—and more and more people started to pay attention.

Jonah Furman is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes. Over the past year, he’s contributed invaluable reporting and analysis to understanding the current moment in labor, through his work at Labor Notes on labor conflicts such as the UAW strike at John Deere and the BCTGM strike at Kellogg’s, as well as his weekly newsletter roundup of U.S. labor, Who Gets the Bird?

Discourse Blog talked to Furman via phone last week—the same week workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo won the first ever union at the company and Kellogg’s workers rejected another deal and the company announced it would hire permanent replacements for striking workers—to try to make sense of the state of labor heading into 2022.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

There has been no shortage of high-profile labor strikes this year across a bunch of industries—manufacturing, healthcare, mining, education and academia, etc. But at the same time, the amount of new organizing activity appears to be stagnant compared to last year and pretty significantly down from even 2019. Why do you think this sort of militancy from established unions, along with external conditions that have given workers more leverage than ever, hasn’t inspired a surge of activity overall? And if not this, what will? 

U.S. labor history is long in some ways but it kind of goes back to the same touchpoints. You know, people talk about the same stuff over and over, like [how] the 1930s was this upsurge when our modern union movement was born, and we had an explosion of new organizing and explosion and strike activity. And people say it was the Great Depression, and things got so bad that workers just had to fight back. But the crash was in 1929. The Flint sit-down strike didn’t happen until 1937. The National Labor Relations Act didn’t happen until 1935, and the general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco didn’t happen until 1934. And the 1920s was one of the lowest periods of organization in history. 

Look at the statistics of the US labor movement in the 21st century—certainly everything before 2018, but even since then—and it’s like the ’20s. We’re just totally disorganized, the working class movement has been institutionally gutted. And in terms of activity levels, some of the lowest strike activity on record has been in the past decade. 

I don’t think you have to go all the way back to history for all this stuff. But if your theory is that a crisis brings a backlash, history shows us, and our current moment shows us, that it takes a long time. We saw some walkouts at the beginning of the pandemic and instant responses for health and safety in particular. But for the most part, crises last a long time. The 2008 crash, we didn’t see Occupy [Wall Street] until 2011. We didn’t see the depth of the housing crisis until a couple years in, and you didn’t see the global shockwaves until 2014. You can’t snap your fingers and change it even with a global pandemic.

You’ve expressed skepticism elsewhere about the hype and coverage of this fall’s strikewave. Where do you think this disconnect is coming from between public perception of these actions and the reality of worker power?

The cynical read of it is hype and fluff, and that the media just wanted a story and got a story. I think a more honest read of it is that we called it Striketober in 2021, and there were 25,000 people on strike. In October 2019, there were like 85,000 people on strike. We didn’t call it Striketober because there wasn’t a feeling that it was connected socially and politically to other stuff. Most of the work was done by the pandemic but also the Build Back Better stuff, the response to the tight labor market, the corporate response to the pandemic—those things made people see themselves more in the John Deere workers and IATSE people than they saw themselves in bigger strikes in the past.

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It seemed like this was the first year, at least since I started covering labor several years ago, when unions really began to tangle with employers on tiered contracts, which offer different and often worse benefits to workers based on when they started working for the company. We’ve seen that at Kellogg’s, Kaiser Permanente, and at the John Deere strike you covered front to back. What have you heard from these workers about why they drew the line in the sand now?

I think the tiered contracts and what’s happened in the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers are all sort of one package. The bigger picture is people challenging the settled questions and asking, “Is the status quo in our labor movement working?” There’s always been a group of workers in the union movement who’ve challenged their unions to do something differently, challenge their employers, and reopen questions that have not been open.

For the IATSE strike, you talk to these members and they say for decades, people have just said that this is how it is—you just work these hours. And suddenly something changed during the pandemic where people said, well, maybe we don’t work these hours anymore. And the same, to some extent, happened in the UAW and Teamsters in challenging their national leadership structure. 

Trying to understand why this is happening right now, I think the only way to understand is also connected to whatever sort of root social disruption there is. In a time of crisis, people see that the way things are is not necessarily how they have to be. So you have people saying maybe it’s time to challenge the two-tier John Deere contract that’s been around for 24 years…it’s not like these are new innovations, and they’ve always been bad, but for whatever reason people said: “The world is falling apart and I still have to follow this stupid rule, and I still have to accept my union can’t do anything about it?”

When these moments of opportunity strike, do you see a way for the labor movement to best position itself beforehand to seize it?

One thing that might seem like an obvious point, but I really think it bears repeating, that the labor upsurges we’ve seen have been in the unionized workplaces. Not to discount the Great Resignation, but we have not seen nonunion workers take some sort of collective action against the status quo at their employer, whereas we have seen unionized workers do it. Part of the answer is that nonunion folks need to organize if they actually want to make gains in a period like this, if you’re not organized you’re at the whims of a tight labor market, which can have some good downstream effects for you but you can’t really control it.

But more than that is that a lot of union members have said they need to fix up their unions to be ready to take advantage of moments like this. A lot of these John Deere union members were not very involved in the union before because they did not see it as a vehicle for getting what they wanted. And now they’re like, ‘We went on strike, but we just weren’t prepared to do so and had to pull our union leadership into it.” And now for the next contract, if they elect new leadership at the national level, this could be a whole different ballgame. 

In the past few months particularly there have been some major signs that several big unions are having or are about to have a reckoning over internal democracy, with Sean O’Brien being elected president of the Teamsters, UAW reformers winning direct democracy, and IATSE approving a new contract basically on a technicality. Do you see this as part of a larger trend towards militancy and reform in the labor movement, or something that’s siloed within particular unions where this has been a problem for years?

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I think over the past 10 years, there’s been an anti-establishmentarian or some kind of anti-status quo feeling in the country, and that’s true for union people, too. Some of the people I was in touch with at Deere I was in touch with through the Iowa caucuses for Bernie, people who are not satisfied with how things have gotten in this country on a really large scale, and in a lot of cases, people feel their unions have also not kept up. [Note: Furman was the Sanders campaign’s National Labor Organizer in 2020.]

I will say, the very common feeling—among rank and filers, among union leaders—of the labor movement in this country is that it’s fucked, that it’s not in a good position and not getting better and there’s not much hope. There’s hope in the abstract concept of workers’ power and there are flickers of hope, like with the PRO Act and Starbucks and Bessemer, but there’s not a plan to turn it around. So anyone who looks at the union movement and says, ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’, knows that at least part of it is for the unions who’ve become complacent or lost their way or have become outright corrupt like the UAW, to challenge the status quo.

You’ve covered a frankly absurd amount of new organizing activity, elections, labor strikes, etc. through your newsletter Who Gets the Bird? Are there any that stick out to you that maybe didn’t get an adequate amount of media coverage? 

One story I think hasn’t gotten its due is the Mexican autoworker movement. They’re basically having this same kind of thing happening there, where they’re rejecting these longstanding corrupt and company unions and forming real unions against a lot of corporate pressure. So that’s been inspiring to see and I’d love to see more people paying attention to that. Not just as an international labor story but it’s very connected to NAFTA and US manufacturing.

When you talk about jobs leaving the country and what a crisis that is for Rust Belt America, at some point you have to talk about organizing the race to the bottom. Mexican manufacturing is a key part of that question, and as long as that remains infinitely cheaper and more exploitable, then US workers are going to be further screwed. That was a dynamic we saw in the BCTGM strikes earlier this year, talking about how they’re moving jobs to Mexico. And so what’s the plan? It can’t be to blame Mexican workers or ask the company not to do it. That’s not how we do capital allocation in this country.

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I think the thesis of my newsletter is that people need to sort of better understand the actually existing labor movement. I think we have a lot of people who are excited by it and cheer on the next thing, and people who want to talk about history and the 1930s and 1970s, but not a lot of people who are looking it in the eye. That’s been the whole point of the project: what would it take to get really real about what actually is happening? There are millions of almost strikes and interesting stories. Right now there are these 10,000 shipyard workers in Virginia who are talking about striking and nobody’s aware of it, nobody’s talking to them. You just have these local news stories that tend to be really shallow. It’s hard to pick one.

We’re nearly a year into an administration run by a self-professed “union guy.” What marks would you give Biden so far, and has anything about his labor policy surprised you?

Someone asked me this question for an interview like six months ago, it was still kind of wait and see. I think we’ve seen. They’re not willing to end the filibuster, they’re talking about the Build Back Better Act, we have no idea how good that will be. But the thing is that it’s put up or shut up for labor in terms of like, what can a president do. You get these tiny two-year windows where there’s been labor legislation on the table. And if you don’t get it done, there are no points. You don’t get any credit…we came into this very clear what the important priority was and it was the PRO Act and he didn’t do it. So I think you just got to get a big fat F on that.”

I also think the soft power of the presidency…you could say you support the John Deere strikers. I know people liked that he said vaguely positive things about unions in the context of the Bessemer, Alabama vote. It’s good, but it’s really close to doing nothing. [Note: After this interview was conducted, Biden spoke publicly about the ongoing strike at Kelloggs and criticized the company for moving to permanently replace strikers.]

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So I don’t know what he’s done for labor. It wasn’t abstract what labor was asking for… I really think he’s made it clear it’s not a priority either in policy or even politics. He hasn’t done what could be done.

What would you like to see more of in the labor movement, and in press coverage of the labor movement, in 2022?

My insistence is that the labor movement is part of the rest of our civil society and politics, and all the challenges to the status quo we’ve seen to the Democratic Party or even the Tea Party, that stuff is happening in the labor movement. I want to see more of it. There are 10,000 local union elections every year, what percentage of those are contested? And what percentage of them are contested on the basis of a shared vision for a better labor movement? Very few.

In terms of coverage, I think the number one thing is: talk to more workers. In the John Deere coverage, people were big fans of the work I was doing, and all I was doing was talking to workers and sharing what they said. There are corporate pieces to it, there are institutional pieces, but a lot of it is just talking to workers, listening to them, trust them on what they care about and what they think the fight is about.