How and Why Josh Eidelson Went From Being a Labor Activist to a Labor Journalist (Also: Labor 101)

Josh Eidelson covers labor for The Nation, Salon, and In These Times. We met for coffee and I asked him a lot of questions about his life and his work, and then also some questions about labor (what is a union?). He answered, I recorded and transcribed.

If you’re not going to read the whole thing, though you should, I’ve highlighted the parts you have to read. This is important.

IN THE BEGINNING

Logan Sachon: Tell me about you, Josh Eidelson.

Josh Eidelson: I grew up outside of Philly and got involved in the labor movement in college. My first month in college I participated in civil disobedience with campus workers who were trying to win a union contract.

LS: Had you been exposed to that before?

JE: I was political in high school. A lot of my activism in high school was around international human rights, or being at Jewish day school, sparring with people about the Israel Palestine conflict, which will happily consume any amount of energy a person has for sparring and argument. But I wanted to be involved in work that was more local and also work that was about organizing, rather than taking a stand by yourself. Work that was more about broadening the circle of people involved rather than just being on the right side. To do that, I had to learn how to organize. So I interned with a welfare rights group the summer after high school and learned some things about community organizing there.

LS: Can you explain welfare rights to me?

JE: This was in the shadow of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, and the situation had become much more austere—as it remains now. Benefits were taken away and this framework was set up to kick people off of benefits, so the organization that I was working with was set up to make sure that people had access to the benefits they were eligible for but also pressing for reforms to the “reform” to make it less ugly towards people.

I was working with two organizations. One was a non-profit that had been hired by the state of Pennsylvania to basically administer a welfare-to-work program. I was writing a training manual and helping people write resumes. Some of the people working for that nonprofit had a lot of the frustrations that many people on the left had about the law. For example, the idea that someone who was in school getting training for a job should have to leave in order to go get a minimum wage job instead, because their time was up.

So they directed me to an activist group that was literally across the street, and said, “While you’re interning with us, working within the system, why don’t you also see if you can intern with them and beat up on the system from the outside.” So I got to do that for a summer. The activist group was called Moms on the Move, a project of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, which is this venerable progressive organization of unemployed and underemployed and low wage folks in Philadelphia.

One of my projects there was to track coverage in the media of this looming cutoff, where people were going to lose their benefits en masse in Philadelphia, and everyday I would look at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer for welfare stories. And this was a time when there was some kind of Allen Iverson scandal, and Allen Iverson beat out welfare reform news every day that I looked—for weeks. So I was working on media and I was involved in some of the different kinds of activist work people were doing, and I got to follow organizers and see what they were doing to do to build a movement of low-wage or non-wage folks on welfare in Philadelphia.

LS: So cool to have that so young, that exposure.

JE: It was an awesome summer, and it positioned me to show up at Yale ready to find a way to plug into organizing. And conveniently enough, I arrived in 2002 in September in New Haven at a moment when there was a huge looming showdown between organized labor at Yale and the university. There were dining hall workers who were fighting for a new union contract; clerical and technical workers and secretaries fighting for a new union contract; graduate students fighting for the right to organize a union; hospital workers fighting for the right to organize a union—and I walked into this a couple weeks before people were planning a mass civil disobedience.

So I met with one of the students who was organizing, I said, “I was an activist in high school, what you’re doing seems exciting what can I do, can I hold a sign?” And she said, “You’re going to come get arrested with us.” And I said, “I never got a detention in high school, you’re crazy!” I thought, “Maybe I’m not an activist.” I thought I’d devote more time to theater instead. I tried out for a play, I got cast in the play, the play got cancelled. There was a period of a few weeks where I kept arguing that I shouldn’t be a part of this civil disobedience. It was like the book of Jonah.

But when I made arguments about why I shouldn’t get arrested, the students and workers and organizers who were organizing the civil disobedience didn’t engage in making philosophical arguments back at me. Instead, they said, “It’s obvious that you believe in this civil disobedience, you’re just scared. And so rather than have an argument with you, we’re going to talk to you about fear. We’re going to talk to you about when we were afraid, and we’re going to talk about how we got over our fear, and push you to think about getting over your fear.” I learned a lot about organizing in those couple weeks, and about what it means to see a kind of strength in someone and a potential in them that they don’t yet see in themselves.

Because these organizers were totally confident that I was going to get arrested even though I kept saying I wasn’t. And this went on for a couple weeks. I would come to their meetings, I would say, “When you guys get arrested , you should do this, you should walk like this, you should wear this,” and they would say, “You’re getting arrested,” and I would say, “No! I already told you I wasn’t! Why aren’t you listening to me?!”

And then on Yom Kippur I gave a sermon on social justice. I was feeling a little self righteous about my sermon on social justice. But then we got to the point in the book of Isaiah, in the reading on Yom Kippur, where Isaiah says, “God really could care less about the rituals that you do, the words that you say, if you’re not actually doing something about people who are starving, people who can’t clothe themselves.” And it really hit me in the gut. Because of all the things that people had said to me and the way they had pushed me and challenged me. And I knew what I had to do.

So I emailed my parents, a couple weeks after I had shown up as a freshman, and said, “I’m going to be getting arrested, here is why.” And immediately I thought, “Well, I don’t want to be the only one of my friends doing this, I have to get some friends together.” So I started going out and organizing my friends, and I would tell them, “Look I took a few weeks to figure this out, but you don’t have that kind of time, it’s a few days away.” And I got a few friends to do it. It was one of the amazing experiences of my life. We had 700 people blocking traffic, standing up to the university. Everyone was supposed to be silent as people walked down and got arrested but that totally failed because people were excited. They were chanting and singing. I said to an older hospital worker who was standing next to me, that I hadn’t been sure what to say to my grandparents, and she said, “I’m not sure what to say to my grandkids, because I do want them to follow the law most of the time, but I’m just having to explain to them, sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

LS: To have that experience your first month of college!

JE: Yeah I was hooked. I just organized this forum for The Nation magazine around the question, can the labor movement be saved? And the opening I wrote is fairly pessimistic— there are a lot of reasons to be fairly pessimistic about labor. But there are several reasons why I have not given up on the labor movement. One is that I don’t really see an alternative to having some kind of labor movement. But another is I got sucked into the labor movement in a place where, though the unions didn’t win everything—a decade later, the unions have still not won some of the things they were fighting for when I was there—there was a powerful, progressive, broad-based labor community and social movement in New Haven, and it’s gotten stronger since I left there.

And at the same time, what used to be just free-floating, somewhat apolitical resentment toward Yale has been channelled, along with people’s hopes for their kids and visions for the city, into a progressive coalition that has become a real counterweight to the power of business in New Haven. It’s fascinating. Coming into the movement in New Haven is where I got some hope and where I was able to sustain some kind of hope. After I got arrested and the university still didn’t buckle, it was like, “Okay, what do we have to do next, and what do we have to do after that.”

ACTIVIST TO JOURNALIST

LS: So how did you go from being an activist to a journalist. Or are you still an activist? An activist-journalist?

JE: I’m no longer an activist. I was an activist, I was an organizer, and now, I’m open about my views often, but I’m not in the fray doing activism. What I’m doing is independent reporting and analysis, while being open about both what I think is happening and what I think should be happening.

I had the four years of doing activism in college, and then I went to work for UNITE HERE, which was the union I had been active with primarily in New Haven. I was an organizer for them in Sacramento, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. It was a terrific experience. But I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of—and in some cases the low quality of—media coverage, not just of unions specifically, but of work and class and the relationship between a worker and a boss; of efforts to organize workers; efforts of workers to extract benefits or extract democracy from their boss, union or not. I also really enjoyed drawing stories out of workers. I really enjoyed drawing information out of people in management. And I had always loved to write, I was a columnist for the paper in college, I was blogging the whole time I was an organizer, and I had a desire to get to learn stories beyond the industries I was organizing in and to get the share the stories I was learning beyond the small circle of workers I got to talk to everyday. So the way to do that was to go out and be a journalist. And so in 2011 I crossed over. I love what I get to do. I really enjoy my job.

LS:But do you get overwhelmed? There’s so much, and so much of it is a bummer.

JE: I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t have to cover everything that happens in the world of labor, since the world of labor is the world. And sometimes I find myself covering a lot of sad stories. But I’m interested in conflict, so often the story I’m writing, it’s because there is some kind of fight, and it’s not just a story of bulldozing, though sometimes there’s fighting and then being bulldozed over. Other times the conflict I’m writing about is hypocrisy. Sometimes there is no noble fighting going on. There are seemingly limitless stories about anti-union democrats and anti-union ostensibly liberal companies.

LS: How do you decide what to cover? Do you have a sense of what’s going on in labor all over the country, and you pick and choose where you’re going to zoom in?

JE: I’m fortunate to have good sources, so I have more of a sense than I could have as an organizer of what’s going on across the map in the United States, although it’s certainly not comprehensive. In terms of how I choose stories, there are a couple factors, a few things I try to do some combination of. One is that the labor movement is in crisis. The vultures are circling, at this point. And so I’m always interested in stories that have something to say about what is and isn’t working in terms of the future of the labor movement. And sometimes the things that are working are not sexy and new, sometimes they’re very old. Like doing deep face-to-face organizing, like what people did with me when they were getting me to get arrested. Or going on strike.

I’m also interested in the things that businesses are doing to break unions. Through a series of articles I’m exploring this question of what is out there that is working and what is out there that is not working. And I often write about failure. Failures are always very instructive. So I confront these questions of what is and is not working and why. And who is winning or losing and why.

Some of the other stories I do are about finding class and finding labor in contexts where people aren’t looking for it often. I want to do work that is read by people within labor who are wrestling with these questions, but I don’t want to do only work that is read by those people.

LS: What would be an example of that?

JE: One of the stories I got to do is about college athletes. This was for Salon last year around March Madness. Now these are people who many people don’t think of as workers at all—the government doesn’t recognize them as workers. But you’re talking about people who work dozens of hours a week, create enormous wealth for universities, and are subject to restrictions from their boss—in the form of the universities, in the form of the NCAA—that are greater than what almost any workers are subject to in the country. Restrictions on what they can do when they’re on vacation, what they can eat, who they can accept a gift from, whether they can have another job. And part of what is so interesting about these restrictions is that the workers have no formal opportunity to participate in coming up with these rules.

There have been these exchanges between among liberal bloggers about whether college athletes should be paid—but even when these arguments happen, there’s no discussion of democracy, no discussion of the athletes being able to participate in coming up with the rules. There’s just this question of, “As liberal bloggers, how much profit do we each think there is in this industry and how much money do we think should go to the workers.” I think that’s a fair question, but what’s more interesting to me, is, “Why aren’t college athletes at the table when we decide what should happen with all the money they are producing?”

And it’s not just the money. There used to be what were called “volundatory” workouts. And they call them this because they’re pseudo-voluntary. They’re voluntary slash mandatory. So on the one hand, the NCAA had a rule that you couldn’t be required to workout more than a certain amount of time. At the same time, everybody knew that they were de facto required to. So part of the way the NCAA chose to maintain this fiction, is that there were these rules preventing medical personnel from being present during the volundatory workouts. So ostensibly, it’s not mandatory if the medical staff aren’t there to oversee it. So what happened? A couple of people died from intensive workouts where there was no medical staff present. That’s a labor story! And it’s also a democracy story about the lack of control that people have over the conditions they’re working under. I was glad that there were people that read that story who wouldn’t have read the Boeing story. And I think that to the extent that people think of labor journalism as just being about unions, labor journalism becomes a much more cramped idea than it actually should be. Labor is work and work is everywhere.

BOEING STRIKES //RIGHT TO WORK STATES

LS: Do you remember your first story?

JE: One of the first big stories I did was about the political firestorm over Boeing. This was one of the only times that politicians consistently wanted to talk about the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB had issued a complaint, which is the equivalent of an indictment, against Boeing, the aerospace giant, for allegedly retaliating against workers for going on strike. And this was not a weak allegation. And it’s worth saying that because companies punish people or make threats for striking all the time and they get away with it and it’s very difficult to prove. In this case, Boeing management actually went on TV and talked to reporters and cited the strikes that were going on in Washington state over and over as a reason they were opening a new plant in South Carolina rather than in Washington state. That’s the smoking gun.

And yet the story got so twisted, not just by republicans, but in much of the media coverage. It was told as a story about the government punishing South Carolina for being a right to work state [meaning unions can't negotiate contracts requiring workers represented by the union to pay for the costs of representation, which makes it harder to sustain unions], when the actual legal issue at hand was Boeing punishing workers in Washington state for choosing to go on strike. And in general Republicans talked about it in the same way, and Democrats didn’t want to talk about it at all. And Obama when he was asked point blank about it, said something to the effect of, he wasn’t going to take a position, but that it was important for companies to have flexibility to move their business where they needed to. So not a profile in courage.

The story that I did though, was a profile of the Boeing strikes. I went out to Washington state and I talked to people who had gone on strike at Boeing, people who had been going on strike at Boeing for five or six decades. And I asked, “Why do people keep going on strike at Boeing?” For a long time, most of the time, when their contract expired, they went out on strike. And since the strikes were what instigated Boeing to, quite brazenly, go out and tell the media they were taking production elsewhere in response, shifting business in response, it seemed to me like it should be an obvious question—why have there been so many strikes? And not just why does Boeing think there have been so many strikes— though I asked Boeing—but why did people who went on strike think it is that they kept finding themselves doing it?

I emailed the union and I said, “I want to come out there and meet some of the workers who have been activists through the strikes.”

I talked to workers about the strikes they went on over chemicals they thought were unsafe that they were using; the strikes they went on over the ability to have a secure retirement; the way that they believe that Boeing tried to force them out on strike in order to break the union; the threats that they allege Boeing made years earlier in private to workers saying that they would lose business, that the workers would see jobs taken out of the state if they kept standing up to the company.

I also talked to Boeing, over the phone—they did not want to go into as much detail as to why they thought each of the strikes had happened. There was one comment they made, I won’t try to quote it verbatim, but basically it was to the effect of, “The message the workers should take from the business being moved is that we need to remain competitive.”

And what was really important to me about doing that was not just making a case for why this indictment was fair, it was about bringing forward the part of the story that was about people’s work and people’s resistance. That, whether you agree with the workers or not, really should be part of the conversation. We shouldn’t only be hearing from Newt Gingrich about this.

I later wrote a story for Salon disagreeing with what the union said about the resolution. There was a settlement in the case. The union and a lot of progressives claimed it as a victory, and I saw it as a defeat, so I wrote about why I saw it as a defeat and why I thought Obama and the democrats shared some degree of blame for leaving the labor board and the workers twisting in the wind in terms of making the case for enforcing the law. And that was one of the stories I felt really blessed for the opportunity to go out and tell.

WALMART AND TRADER JOE’S // GIVING UP MONEY OVER POWER

LS: I think the first things I read from you were about Walmart.

JE: Yeah, more than anything else, what I’ve been covering is Walmart over the past several months. There’s a pattern with Walmart, which is if you put enough heat on Walmart, Walmart is willing to spend more money. Walmart makes donations to insulate itself. Walmart told the federal reserve that it raised wages a little bit because of the, frankly, not even that well-designed pressure campaign against it in the 2000′s. What it doesn’t want to do is concede power.

And the democratic party at the elite level is full of a lot of people with the same mindset, who are comfortable redistributing money from rich people to poor people, from bosses to workers, but don’t really want to redistribute power to workers. Warren Buffett supports the idea that rich people should pay more taxes relative to poor people, but he didn’t support the Employee Free Choice act, he didn’t support making any kind of change in the power relationship between labor and capital. And that’s the challenge for labor. Unless the unions become totally milquetoast, when you do something that makes it easier for workers to unionize, you’re making it easier for them to actually say no to their boss, and that’s more threatening than something like the earned income tax credit.

LS: What about companies that are good to their workers, but don’t have unions. I’m thinking of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

JE: I think Trader Joe’s is a great example of a company that, like most, would rather give up money than give up power. And I think that’s true not only of people who work in Trader Joe’s stores, but of farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They’re one of the groups that I call alt-labor, the array of organizations that are labor groups that aren’t unions. That coalition has been very savvy about organizing in the supply chain, from the tomato in the field to Trader Joe’s or Subway or Chipotle, where it ends up in your stomach.

They had a successful campaign at Trader Joe’s, where they said, “Why won’t Trader Joe’s sign on to this fair food agreement, it would only cost them a penny a pound?” Trader Joe’s said,”We think we are already paying the extra penny premium, because the growers are paying it, and we are paying the growers and so why do we need to sign on to this?” Trader Joe’s was probably telling the truth in saying that their resistance wasn’t about the money. What it seems to have been about is power. Because once they signed on to this fair food agreement, they would be obligated to meet with farm workers about labor conditions in the supply chain and to potentially stop doing business with one of these growers if the growers stopped following the fair food agreement. That is much more threatening to a company like Trader Joe’s. Similarly, even worse in their minds, is if they have to sit across the table from the people they directly employee and negotiate with them. The Coalition of Immokalee won, and Trader Joe’s did sign the agreement.

But you see that pattern all over the place—Starbucks, NYU, Walmart. Not that companies tend to be eager to spend money on labor costs, but virtually every time they will spend money, whether it’s money on union busters or on wages or both, rather than give up power. Because once you concede power, by definition, you can’t take it back without a fight.

THE BOSS/WORKER POWER BALANCE, HISTORICALLY AND NOW

LS: Are there companies that, from the beginning, have said, “Yeah, our workers should be organized and this is a thing we’re going to allow?” Do bosses ever say, “We’ll have our posse, and you guys should have your posse, and we’ll talk?”

JE: I’m sure there are a handful of examples, I don’t know that I could list them, in part because even the companies that are now seen as progressive and enlightened on labor issues, it’s because they lost a fight awhile ago. There are certainly companies who have chosen not to be in an open state of war with workers. And there are benefits that come with that. Labor peace brings stability to the company. It’s easier to brand your company if you’re not at war with anybody. There are advantages in terms of turnover and productivity when you treat workers better. And certainly there are advantages in the overall economy when workers have money to spend. But that doesn’t mean that management at those companies has rolled over. And unions themselves often fight to prevent their staff from unionizing and bargaining. Generally people don’t give up power unless they have to.

LS: Was there a time when workers and bosses shared power, when the unions were not seen as antagonistic?

JE: There is some debate about this. The dominant school of thought is that, in the period after WWII, through a compact represented by General Motors, business came to terms with the idea that they had to deal with unions. That if you pay people well enough to buy your products, it’s good for the overall economy and it ends up helping you. Unions like the UAW tried to institute more radical forms of democracy like in Germany, where workers would have played a bigger role in governing companies, but after failing to win that, they settled for much better raises and retirement benefits and so on. And under this theory, that compact came apart through a combination of competitive trade pressures, stagflation, Reaganism. So that’s a theory.
Then there is a critique that one of my teachers, Jennifer Klein, a great labor historian at Yale, subscribed to—she would argue was that there was never really peace, there was just a partial detente, or less visible forms of struggle. But it was never really that capital ever came to terms with labor. In fact, there were record strikes in the 1950s.

But what I think is quite clear is that it used to be that labor had more leverage, relatively. That unions more often were able to fight management to a draw. To the extent that bosses make a calculation about which fights are worth it to pick, there are fights that would not have been worth picking in a lot of industries decades ago. And now they are.

LS: Can you give me an example of a fight the bosses are picking now?

JE: Look at pensions. It used to be that pensions, besides the fact that they’re a more efficient way of distributing compensation, pensions were so widespread at unionized firms that there was more and more pressure to provide pensions at non-union firms. Now the situation is reversed, and the unionized firms are copying the non-union firms and insisting they need to copy them and compete with them by getting rid of pensions, and pensions are silently being strangled, particularly in the private sector.

When I was reporting on the American Airlines bankruptcy process, the transit workers union agreed to freeze the pensions, meaning no more money is going into it, and the president of the union acknowledged to me that he doesn’t think it will ever be unfrozen. Which means for the purposes of the future, the American Airlines pension is dead. The Verizon strike ended with an agreement sacrificing pension benefits for future workers there. You see this over and over, in part because there is such attention to fights over whether people have the right to even have a union, it often goes unnoticed when people are giving up all kinds of gains that took decades of strikes for workers to get, and can be wiped out in one contract.

LS: What a bummer! It’s just such a bummer.

JE: There is hope though. There are exciting things happening. I do think that the story of the past couple of years is that we see vulnerability in unexpected places and we see vitality in unexpected places.

So places that were historic strongholds of organized labor, like Verizon in the private sector, like the UAW in Michigan, like Wisconsin in the public sector, have seen devastating defeats. At the same time, places on the margins, where workers have never had a union, where the odds are totally stacked against people, there are, if not victories, exciting rumblings. Like Walmart. Like fast food industry where there are strikes that are instructive. Like in Longview, in Washington state, where workers broke the law and physically blocked the tracks to prevent people who from weren’t from their union from being brought in to do the work and break the leverage that the Longshore Union had.

So I try to tell some good news stories and some bad news stories. I love what I get to do. I get to talk to management, I get to talk to workers, I get to talk to academics, I get to talk to activists, I get to talk to politicians, and there are just so many stories out there. There are so many labor stories out there.

WHAT CAN HUMANS DO

LS: Here’s where I get stuck. I read your articles, and get kind of wound up, and then it feels like … there’s really nothing to do except retweet it or repost it.

JE: What I’m doing now is reporting and arguing and analyzing. But if the question is, “If a person doesn’t like the lack of leverage that our economy provides for workers now, doesn’t like the binds that workers find themselves in, what can they do?” There are different kinds of power people can harness. One is what we used to call, still sometimes call, industrial power. Any workplace that gets organized anywhere, where people come into the labor movement, that statistically increases what we call density, the number of workers who are organized. Organizing a workplace raises the standards in that industry, it raises the standards in the economy, it builds the capacity on the left of working class organizations to have leverage in all kinds of situations. So the more workers organize, the more power workers are going to have.

Now the way to do that is not Norma Rae style, to stand on a table by oneself and hold a sign, because retaliation is very real. So it’s important to organize in a strategic way, but there is no comprehensive alternative to people organizing to have leverage in the workplace. And sometimes that means creating an organization which doesn’t exist, like this group called the Model Alliance, which I plan to write about, which is an organization of fashion models trying to improve their working conditions. It’s a year old.

Another way is politics. It is not an accident and it is not an inevitable result of globalization that unionization has declined and labor’s leverage has declined and labor’s share of national income has declined and business’s fear of workers has declined. It’s the result, certainly of some mistakes that unions made along the way and some strategic errors, but it’s very much the result of an intentional political and legislative and legal agenda that broke the back, to a significant extent, of U.S. unions, through laws and court decisions that made it much harder to organize. At the same time that union busting industry was getting savvier and larger and more powerful and more popular.

But there is this question about the push and pull, the chicken and the egg, of organizing and politics. And I do think that on the whole, too much of unions’ resources is devoted to politics over organizing workers, even though there are existential threats to organizing unions, and also politics is such a tremendous obstacle. So if people got together and organized and forced politicians to change the Taft Hartley Act, which restricts the power of unions, to change the Labor Relations Act to be more pro-labor, or even to do some of the smaller more incremental things—that would make a difference. For example Obama has it entirely within his power to decide that the federal government is going to be a high-road contractor, and is only going to hire companies for federal contracts that comply with the law.

LS: Hahah that sounds crazy. Why would they do that?

JE: Right? Right? Tough on crime. There is a Government Accountability Office study which shows that tremendous sums of money go from the federal government to companies that violate labor laws. Now Obama did sign an executive order that said companies can’t specifically be reimbursed by the federal government for the cost of union busting. But I did an investigation for Salon that found that that executive order doesn’t even stop companies from using space that the government rented for them or equipment that the government provided to them for union busting.

So there are these small but meaningful steps that could be taken even without Congress to make it harder to bust unions, things that even Obama alone could be doing and isn’t, and if there were enough pressure on him, maybe he would be. And I think it’s sobering to compare the effectiveness of the LGBTQ and immigrant rights groups have had in moving Obama from one position to a more progressive position, to the ability that unions have shown to do that, which is quite minimal.

LS: Why do you think that is?

JE: I think part of it is that we have seen, over the past couple years, the remaking of the republican party as an even more virulently anti-union party. If you want to see what unions are worried would happen at the federal level without Obama and without democrats having a house of Congress, look at what’s going on at the state level, in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and other places stories that didn’t get as much attention like Georgia, where they tried to ban picketing essentially at residences where it could be disruptive.

So the further to the right that the republicans move, the more anti-union they become, the more cover there is for the democrats to betray labor, where the republicans are actively trying to destroy it. I think part of the answer is that within unions, there is a real caution about challenging the administration. For example, in the State of the Union, when Obama proposes a combination of pro-labor and anti- labor policies—more pro-labor than anti-labor—you don’t see major unions coming out and demanding more or demanding different. Instead, the closest thing to a criticism in the AFL-CIO statement on the State of the Union address was, “We hope that Obama will be even more full-throated in his support of his agenda.”

But I think it also speaks to the fact that the republican party—at the elite level and to a significant extent demographically—is a party of capital and a party of business. The democratic party is not, at the elite level, a party of labor. It has multiple souls at best. But you look at key figures in the party, people like Jack Lew, who is up for treasury secretary, maybe the most important economic policy position in the administration. Where was he in between being in the Clinton cabinet and being in the Obama cabinet? Well he was at Citi and he was at NYU where he was a key figure in busting the graduate students union. This is a story I reported for In These Times, and re-visited for Salon.

LS: What about buying power. Have your buying habits changed based on what you know about labor practices?

JE: In my personal life, when workers have chosen to call for a boycott, I have honored that boycott. And I think for people who are thinking about how to be more ethical consumers, there is no more important question. And that’s complicated. In the global anti-sweatshop movement, there was all kinds of debate about whether people in the U.S. should boycott clothes that were made in certain factories if the workers haven’t called for a boycott, or if some workers wanted a boycott and some didn’t. But I think if you’re going to have an absolute principle, in terms of what you won’t patronize, rather than personally coming up with a set of labor standards, as an individual you are far better of with a principle that’s about honoring the courage and the judgment of workers who have decided they do not want your business where they work.

I wish unions were better about publicizing when they do call for a boycott. But for example, for many years there was a boycott of Taco Bell by the Coalition of Immokalee workers, which was successful. That took years. Hyatt Hotels is under boycott by my former employer, UNITE HERE. American Crystal Sugar, a company that has locked out their workers for a year, is being boycotted by those workers. Palermo’s Pizza fired 75 immigrant workers after they went on strike, the workers have called on a boycott on their pizza, which is mainly sold at Costco. But I think if you’re going to have a standard about boycotts, it’s to listen to workers about whether or not they want your business. That said, there are companies who at various times I felt were such outliers that I didn’t want to take my business there. But if the question is, how are you going to change the world, an individual person boycotting alone doesn’t have the impact of participating in a boycott organized by workers, and it doesn’t have the impact of shutting down a Congressman’s office over a law or walking off the job in order to get leverage where you work.

 

Josh Eidelson lives in New York.

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23 Comments / Post A Comment

OllyOlly (#669)

Wow this was really great. It seems obvious now, but I never thought of how companies that are lauded for treating workers well are still withholding the power and only giving up some money. It is such an important point.

EM (#1,012)

I think the part about college athletes should be highlighted because I have never, ever considered it and it’s such an interesting question. “You’re talking about people who work dozens of hours a week, create enormous wealth for universities, and are subject to restrictions from their boss—in the form of the universities, in the form of the NCAA—that are greater than what almost any workers are subject to in the country. “

megsy (#1,565)

@Michelle That’s an issue that we have here in Canada with our junior hockey players. These are high school kids, generally 16 to 20 at the oldest, who play for community teams and are playing with the goal of being drafted by NHL. Huge amounts of money are made around these kids (the world Junior tournament between Boxing Day and New Years does millions) with them only receiving a small stipend.

highjump (#39)

@Michelle It is the same argument that has been used to successfully organize graduate students (in the public sector, there was a bullshit NLRB decision that said grads in the private sector cannot be organized) who are TAs and RAs – they provide a service to the university. Just because they are also students doesn’t mean TAing and RAing (and basketball playing) isn’t a job that deserves compensation and standards.

highjump (#39)

I’m still holding a bit of a grudge that Obama, who said in the campaign trail that he would “put on a pair of comfortable shoes and walk a picket line” has been nowhere on major state fights like Wisconsin. And Blanche Lincoln can seriously go straight to hell for blocking EFCA.

I think the point Josh makes about use of resources could be a whole other article/interview (which Logan should totally do!) about modern unions and politics. Because political/organizing spending is getting really tough to unpick because in a lot of places you have to run a legislative campaign before you can even run an organizing campaign. The disclosure forms don’t really show the complexity of that, you know? But money probably could be better spent.

Like Josh I have also seen the labor movement getting stronger on the ground while getting killed in state houses. For every article I read that says the labor movement is already dead I feel like there is one that says the labor movement is undergoing a renaissance – maybe they’re both right.

Oh, and fwiw, I don’t love the highlight feature. I understand why it was used but I found it distracting.

deepomega (#22)

This was great, even where I disagreed with it! (E.g., pensions are unethical and should be banned.) Would love to have more discussion of what is and isn’t labor – although there’s interesting stuff here about power dynamics, too, like it seems like the natural conclusion is “labor is someone in a workforce who is at a power disadvantage.”

EM (#1,012)

@deepomega Explain “pensions are unethical and should be banned.”? I have never heard anyone say that but I come from a union-loving family.

deepomega (#22)

@Michelle Well, to be clear, I mean a very specific kind of pension – a guaranteed pension with a guaranteed value provided by an employer. I’m fine with public non-job-based pensions (Social Security, basically).

But private pensions are a promise to provide money that does not yet exist, 40 years in advance. And there is no short or medium term reason for managers to not just push the funding of pensions off onto future generations – in fact, there’s a HUGE incentive for them to do that, so that current employees are taking income from future employees. Which leads to situations like horribly underfunded pensions, huge liabilities that have no hope of getting paid out but are contractually obligated. (Detroit and the UAW have been facing this issue).

And because of the slow fuse on pension funding problems, the people who set them up and run them into the ground by underfunding them never are around when they finally collapse, so it’s impossible to hold anyone responsible. So given the incentives involved I don’t see how a pension plan be run ethically by a private employer.

loren smith (#2,300)

@deepomega Isn’t that exactly what publicly funded pensions have done? I know, at least in the Canadian context, I’m certainly not counting on getting my Canadian Pension Plan contributions back. Hope my dad enjoys that money from me!

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@deepomega The fact that employers are violating their legal obligation to fully fund pensions shouldn’t really be an argument against pensions’ very existence. Pensions are part of the compensation an employee receives – when the employer makes that guarantee, they should be required to provide it. It’s just compensation that is deferred rather than paid out immediately in the form of salary. People generally accepted lower salaries than they otherwise would because they considered the pension to be part of their compensation. Taking it away after you’ve guaranteed it is basically robbing people of part of the compensation they signed up for when they agreed to take the job. I would say THAT is unethical and should be banned.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@WaityKatie Also, why is it “impossible” to hold anyone responsible? That’s why we have law enforcement.

highjump (#39)

@WaityKatie YES THIS! “Impossible to hold anyone responsible” is a faulty argument. It is certainly not impossible to enforce the law, it is just that a culture of asshattery has grown up around pensions. And what is stopping employers from at least partially pre-funding these pensions?

r&rkd (#1,657)

One advantage of pension plans versus individual retirement accounts is that IRAs induce over-saving. Specifically, each individual fears outliving her savings, so she saves an amount that will cover her retirement beyond her average expected lifespan, in case she lives longer than average. When each individual does this, the result is an aggregate over-saving.

With a pension plan guaranteeing a pension for life, every participant’s contribution can be average. Some people will live longer and collect more, others will live shorter and get less, but plan participants can all contribute the average amount.

There are other problems this doesn’t solve, of course, like predicting mortality tables decades in the future, and the political opportunism deepomega mentions above. And maybe you think that people should save more (though superlow interest rates suggest that is currently not the case).

deepomega (#22)

@WaityKatie It’s only a legal obligation if the contracts are written that way. With the UAW and the Big Three, the unions kept agreeing to fund less and less because it’s in their interest too. (Which will get people to quit – underfunding pensions or cutting pay increases?) There’s no legal way to make sure that pensions aren’t paid for by future generations. Put another way – neither unions nor management care about employees who haven’t even been hired yet.

@deepomega I wonder how much money it would save the economy if we made social security, say, 50% more generous, raised payroll taxes proportionately (and applied them to all income), and then eliminated all other tax-advantaged retirement savings vehicles and non-SS pension plans. Tens of billions? Hundreds?

deepomega (#22)

@stuffisthings Me too. Wouldn’t prevent savings, just would move the social pressure into “keeping social security funded” instead. Also, you know, imagine if public employees weren’t getting 90% of their income in pensions when they retired at 50.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@deepomega The sad part is that pensions used to be a common feature of all jobs. Now public employees are the only people who still have them, and they’re constantly being chastised and hated for it. Pensions are a good thing. Everyone should try to get one, not tear down the few who still have them until we’re all “equal” in having absolutely nothing. Blergh.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@stuffisthings I’m just a little curious as to why you would trust the government more than employers to fund people’s retirement. They haven’t done a very good job with it so far.

@WaityKatie Social Security’s trust fund is scheduled to start falling behind in the next few decades, and could be fixed with a tiny tweak to rates. Most state & local government and many large private pension plans are already either technically or actually insolvent and many would require billions and billions of dollars of additional investment to get current with where they should be. Employees with individual retirement accounts are entirely dependent on the continued performance of the stock market for their retirement income. If you happen to retire in or near a bad year, like, say, 2009, you’re sort of screwed.

I’m aware of many cases where people have lost their private pensions due to mismanagement or insolvency, but this has yet to happen to a single Social Security retiree.

This was great! Also, you guys need to figure out how to do pullquotes in your CMS, the current system is not working so much for me. PULLQUOTE 1: Just do actual pullquotes!

@stuffisthings IT WAS AN EXPERIMENT! also i don’t like how pullquotes work i never know when i’m supposed to read them!

@Logan Sachon I guess they don’t make as much sense on a blog as in a magazine where they’re supposed to PULL your eyes away from the glorious advertisements towards the two-dollar-a-word prose filling the spaces in between.

Tom Smucker (#3,376)

I am a retired Verizon employee with a pension, which was a part of the “cost” of employing me for 30 years. Deepomega has taken his or her eye off the ball by focusing on underfunded pensions. In the context of the war on unions described in the interview with Josh Eidelson Deepomega should take a look at all the fully funded pensions that have been gutted and sabotaged by owners. Read “Retirement Heist: by Ellen E, Schultz (Portfolio/Penquin). Schultz is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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