pacific northwest labor history association conference: the young organizers

Without a doubt, the most engaging talk I attended at the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association Conference was "Young Workers Rising," a panel of young organizers interviewed by another young organizer. I won't try to reproduce it here, as I could never do it justice, but I can share some bits that I found interesting and exciting.

First of all, there is -- and I quote -- "an unprecendented wave" of union organizing going on right now, throughout North America.

Some are campaigns you've likely heard of, like the burgeoning Starbucks Workers Union and Amazon Labor Union. Most of the efforts, however, take place under the radar of the mainstream media. Owners of those outlets would just as soon not expose their poorly-paid and badly-treated staff to successful union organizers! I learn about strikes, lockouts, organizing, and other labour news through a few different mailing lists and websites -- and most of what I see, I only see there. For the rest of you: be assured that organizing is happening everywhere. Workers are demanding more, and they are succeeding.

On the panel in May were: a former stage manager now organizing tech workers; an archivist organizing in the GLAM sector (galleries, archives, libraries, and museums); an organizer with Starbucks Workers United; and someone organizing food service workers in a local cafe chain. 

These folks are doing everything right. 

They are diverse, inclusive, and affirming. Historically, a few unions were way ahead of the curve on inclusion, equality, and diversity. But for most, it took a very long time to break down barriers of racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, Islamophobia. But these kids are on it, right out of the gate.

They are building worker power, organizing internally, steered by leaders who rise organically from the workplace.

They are identifying and training other organizers.

They are fearless.

And they are having fun, approaching their work with determination and joy.

Here are some tidbits from my notes.

* The librarians, archivists and museum workers union drive began with one union librarian sharing the details of her contract. That is a powerful detail. When I was an office worker, the temp agency always said, "Don't discuss your rate." There's a reason for that. The takeaway: always discuss! Information is power, so we should always be sharing.

* One panelist's labour activism "grew out of the liberation struggles of 2020". After marching and demonstrating and attending meetings, they needed to find more meaningful work, and recognized union organizing as both a direct path to improving lives and to helping people find tools to improve their own lives.

* The food-service industry is a segregated workplace, and segregated mostly by class -- middle-class workers front-of-house, and mostly undocumented, poor, immigrant workers in the warehouse, cooking, and catering. The employer, of course, tries to pit them against each other.

And even when that doesn't fly, when there is empathy, the segregation is a huge obstacle. It's difficult to organize people for issues that don't impact them. Front-of-house workers, for the most part, live with their parents; they have health care and they don't pay rent. The warehouse and catering workers have very little, but speaking up is risking deportation.

One of the great successes of our library workers strike in 2016 was that full-time workers walked out mainly for part-time workers. Full-timers had issues, but the strike was mainly on behalf of the part-timers, who had grown over the years from 25% to 65% of our membership -- and who got essentially nothing from the contract. Needless to say, they were utterly disillusioned with full-time bargaining committees who negotiated only for themselves. It was a delicate balancing act, and it worked.

If you're lucky and have good full-time allies and good leadership, you can get away with that -- once. A steady diet of it will not work. As one panelist said, "We can organize along class lines, with an immigrant population, but they can't do it alone. We need men who will fight against sexual harassment. We need white workers who will fight for people of colour. We need comfortable workers to fight to raise others up." This is a challenge!

* Many people don't realize that there are low-paid tech workers without benefits or any job protections. Tech workers who earn salaries of $150K often subcontract much of their repetitive work (such as coding) to people who are paid $16/hour. 

* Mandated return-to-office rules after covid was radicalizing for many tech workers. 

* The Seattle Labor Council was the labor council to boot the police union from the organization. This is a bold move that other labour councils have followed. (More about this: "Local unions defy AFL-CIO in push to oust police unions" from Politico, and It's time to kick police unions out of the labor movement. They aren't allies, opinion piece in The Guardian, both from 2020.)

* The food-service organizer referred to the different marketing and branding of their employer's products -- the same products in different packages, one looking like a supermarket brand, the other branded with organic and sustainability -- "but it's all the same shit".  

* The panelists emphasized the importance of "defining your own wins". They told us about 1,200 casino workers who struck at the Atlantic City Taj Mahal. Billionaire owner Carl Icahn closed the casino rather than negotiate in good faith. The workers held strong. And when the casino re-opened, it was "fully union from day one", and they got most of what they had asked for. "Defining your own wins" is an important life lessons in so many respects.

* The organizers all followed the Jane McAlevey organizing methods, adjusted to their own context. Some high-level critiques have been written about McAlevey's work lately, which is inevitable as ideas spread widely. Nothing is without flaws, and no arena should be exempt from critical thinking. But workers' struggles can't wait for purity and perfection. Let the theorists theorize. Building worker power works

To stay in touch with labour news, I recommend PressProgress' Shift Work newsletter. There are many good sites and email lists. Be aware that "LabourWatch", run by the Canadian LabourWatch Association, is an anti-union website.

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