Transcript: Future of Work: The Worker's Voice – The Washington Post

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MS. ABRIL: Good afternoon, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Danielle Abril, technology reporter here at The Post.
Thank you for joining us today for the second part of our series that looks at the future of work and how workers are shaping their industries.
The covid‑19 pandemic has led to a dramatic reassessment of work, both from employers and employees across all sectors of the economy, and employers‑‑employees‑‑excuse me‑‑are using a record number of job openings as leverage to demand better wages, hours, and workplace dynamics.
My first guests are here to examine how workers are shaping the conversation about how they work, how they are compensated, and how their companies operate. Joining me are Ai‑Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Liz Shuler of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Ai‑Jen, Liz, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MS. SHULER: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
MS. POO: Thank you so much.
MS. ABRIL: Of course, of course.
And a reminder to our audience that we want to hear from you. Tweet us your questions using the handle @PostLive.
Before we get going, let’s familiarize our audience with ourselves just a little bit. So Ai‑Jen, I’m going to start with you. Could you give our audience a brief description of what you do?
MS. POO: Yes. I am the president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and we advocate on behalf of the nation’s 2.2 million nannies, housecleaners, and homecare workers who provide caregiving and cleaning services in our homes. And I also direct Caring Across Generations, which is advocating for changes in our culture and policy to better support all caregivers, paid and unpaid.
MS. ABRIL: And, Liz, tell us a little bit about yourself.
MS. SHULER: Sure. I’m Liz Shuler. I’m the president of the AFL‑CIO, and we are an umbrella organization of 58 unions, 12.5 million working people across all sectors of the economy. In fact, we just affiliated our 58th union yesterday, the Major League Baseball Players Association. So we represent working people, whether it’s in construction to teachers and nurses and frontline essential workers to game developers in the video game industry. So it’s all about making life better for working people because we know that in this era of coming out of the pandemic, people deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and to be paid and protected.
MS. ABRIL: Absolutely. And real quick, just to acquaint the audience with myself, I’m Danielle Abril. I’m the tech at work reporter. So I cover everything from how technology impacts workers to the future of work, which is what we’re here to talk about today.
So let’s go ahead and dive into the topics. I want to start with the shifting support for unionization. Liz, I’m going to start with you. Union support is at an all‑time high, with 71 percent approval rating. This comes after workers successfully unionized within large corporations like Starbucks and Amazon, and just a note to our viewers, The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Liz, what shifts do you think led to this surge and support?
MS. SHULER: Well, I think, you know, for too long, workers have been made to feel like they are powerless and that they should just accept, you know, the wages they’re getting and a lot of these toxic work environments that we’ve been seeing, especially coming through the pandemic, also unsafe work environments, you know, subpar benefits, not having health care insurance and not making enough money to even make ends meet. And that’s been simmering below the surface for many, many years but has really come forward certainly during the pandemic.
We’ve seen it with the Great Resignation. You know, people are starting to feel it in ways that we hadn’t seen as acutely before, and so I think finally people are rising up, and they’re saying, “You know what? I deserve better. I deserve more.” And they’re realizing that this doesn’t have to be their reality.
So there’s a vehicle to transform the workplace, and I hope that’s what people leave here with today, that coming together collectively, you can actually make change by joining together with your coworkers, and that’s what a union is.
And so, also, you know, people are seeing corporations making billions of dollars in profits. Their CEOs are making record pay. I think it’s 325 times the average worker is the CEO to pay‑‑average worker pay ratio now. So people are just fed up, and they’re fired up, and they’re not going to take it anymore. So they’re not going to just sit by and accept the broken system that they’re in.
So we’re seeing people come together in unions and coming together collectively to make the change they need, and making clear demands together is more powerful. So, you know, that’s what we’re seeing. It’s exciting. It’s across all different types of industries, and so the labor movement is really in a new era. And we’re excited to build on this momentum.
MS. ABRIL: And that bleeds right into my next question, which I’m going to actually direct at Ai‑Jen. How can workers capitalize off this momentum to change the workplace experience?
MS. POO: I think that there is not only momentum among workers, but just generally, in the public, there is this sense that–a recognition–that before there was ever a pandemic, there was an epidemic of low‑wage work in America where too many people were working incredibly hard and still couldn’t make ends meet. And then we realized all of a sudden, right, that a lot of those people who can hardly make ends meet are actually essential workers, essential to our safety, our health, and our well‑being.
And all of us were feeling isolated in different ways. Part of this surge of unionization and organizing among workers is actually just breaking out of the isolation and recognizing that we need each other, that we can rely on each other, and collectively, we have the power we need to improve conditions. And we also have a very pro‑worker, pro‑union administration.
We have new leadership in the labor movement. Liz is very humble, but she is the first woman president of the AFL‑CIO, and we are so proud of the rising leadership of women in our labor movement. Young workers are organizing. I mean, it is an incredible moment for renewal and change. So, if you are thinking about organizing in your workplace, now is the moment. We have the public on our side. We have a growing and renewing labor movement, and we’ve got momentum.
MS. ABRIL: Got it. And, you know, I want to come back to you, Liz, to talk a little bit about this growing momentum that we’re talking about, this growing support. Union membership still remains low, even though approval is up. Why is that, and what do you think would encourage higher participation rates?
MS. SHULER: Well, there are a few things. Workers are excited. They’re energized. They’re ready to make change, and they’re finally connecting the dots so they can do it through forming a union in their workplace, but we are still facing a lot of barriers because labor laws are broken. They’re tilted in favor of corporations because corporations don’t want to see any threats to their power and their all‑out ability to treat workers the way they want to treat them at any given moment, and so they see unions as a threat. So they’ll do everything they can to harass, intimidate, often fire workers to prevent them from joining together.
And I do want to say that companies under the law today have the ability to voluntarily recognize a union. If workers come together and ask for recognition from their company, the company can voluntarily recognize them, but most companies don’t. And so there is a lot of intimidation. There’s a union‑busting consulting business in this country that’s worth billions of dollars, and so that’s what we’re seeing when you look at Starbucks, for example, where the company is just fighting unionization with everything it has.
We also have examples like Microsoft who said, “You know what? If our workers want to join a union, we should let that happen.” So they’ve pledged neutrality with the Communications Workers of America to say, “We see the trends, and we want to‑‑we want to work with our workers because we know they’ll be more satisfied and productive and have longevity at the company if we’re listening to them.” So I think we have examples all over the country, whether it’s graduate researchers at the University of California or Google cafeteria workers who just organized with Unite Here, cooks and servers who are working as contractors at different companies, and last week in Atlanta, Sodexo presented their manager‑‑the employees presented their manager with a plan to organize, and the company said, “You know what? If workers win the election, we won’t block it.” So there’s a dichotomy here, but unfortunately, workers face too many barriers to realizing the voice that they are entitled to in the workplace because of the broken labor laws in this country.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.
You know, you brought up something that actually relates to a question that just came in from one of our audience members, so I’d like to go ahead and read that in light of what you just said. You talked about Microsoft pledging neutrality. You talked about companies that can voluntarily agree to acknowledge the existence of the union. Lori, one of our Twitter followers, said, “How can pro‑union companies help with organizing?” So one step further, they’re pro‑union. What exactly can they do?
MS. SHULER: Yeah. And make it real. If you’re going to talk about corporate social responsibility‑‑and, you know, we see all these mission statements that companies put out there about, you know, being inclusive and respectful and committed to treating their workers well, and if you’re going to call your workers “partners,” then you got to act like it. You have to, you know, support the drive that most humans have to be heard and respected and have dignity on the job, and don’t hire a marketing firm to put together this messaging and then not walk the walk. So I think that’s the one thing that companies could do today is just be‑‑have an open, transparent approach, and really follow through on the commitments they make with their‑‑you know, their fancy marketing statements but to really support workers in their desire to have a voice and be heard and be at the table and really bargain collectively across the table from the employer and solve problems together and listen to frontline workers, because they’re the ones who know how to do their jobs the best and make the company more successful.
MS. ABRIL: Ai‑Jen, did you have anything you wanted to add to that from your perspective?
MS. POO: Well, I did want to add that I think that there are a lot of workers who face all kinds of challenges when it comes to organizing, and domestic workers, care workers have actually faced a whole history of exclusion from basic rights and protections in the workplace. And so what that means is we just all have to be more creative and leverage every tool at our disposal. For domestic workers and care workers, that has meant creating a federal domestic workers bill of rights that actually establishes a 21st century framework for rights and equal protections for this uniquely isolated and vulnerable workforce.
We also have pilot programs that we’re really excited about where we’re experimenting with new forms of workers being able to come to the table and give company executives feedback, to have a voice in the workplace, combined with raising standards. We have a pilot that we’re working with a company called Angi to implement, which increases the base pay of workers working through this technology platform to $15 an hour in the states where we’re doing this pilot, and it includes accident insurance and paid time off in addition to creating a new way for workers to have a voice to shape the dynamics on the platform.
So we just have to continue to innovate and be creative because we know that in every corner of this economy, workers deserve to have a voice, and workers have unique value to shaping the future of every company, every workplace, and the future of work in general.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. I think this is a good moment. Ai‑Jen, you brought up care, caregivers, and the care‑giving industry.
I want to switch over to the pandemic really quick. Ai‑Jen, I want to stay with you since we just jumped on that topic and follow up on the care‑giving industry.
You know, the care‑giving industry seems to have emerged from the pandemic with a newfound respect, but yet little has changed for the workers themselves. What important lessons learned from the pandemic should influence how employers and the government value and support these workers?
MS. POO: Well, I think we have a new perspective on the fact that this is the work that makes all the other work possible, that the care economy, supporting childcare, supporting home‑ and community‑based services for older people and people with disabilities, supporting good jobs in the care economy is not a nice to have. It’s actually essential to more than 50 million working family caregivers and parents being able to participate in the economy.
The fact that so many women were pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic is just a glimpse into how badly and urgently we need to strengthen our care economy, and that means making childcare much more affordable and accessible. It means making home‑ and community‑based care for older adults and people with disabilities accessible and these jobs that support these services actually becoming living wage jobs with benefits and a union. This is all essential to the entire foundation of the economy, and I think that it is a moment for government and business to come together and invest in making sure that for the sake of the well‑being of the economy as a whole, we have got to make these jobs good jobs. We have got to make care much more affordable and accessible.
And I’m so glad we’re talking about this on a panel about future of work, because when we think of the future of work, it’s so technology oriented, but in reality, the future of jobs is moving towards care. We have a huge and growing aging population we’ve got to care for, most of whom want to age at home and in the community. We’re going to need a huge workforce to support that, and we just simply don’t have a sustainable workforce in place because the wages are poverty wages with no benefits. So this is urgent. These are jobs of the future. We have an opportunity to make them good jobs, and we can’t miss it.
MS. ABRIL: And, Liz, you know, your organization represents more than 12.5 million workers. How have their needs or demands shifted during the pandemic?
MS. SHULER: And I just want to echo with Ai‑Jen said because coming out of the pandemic work was seen differently, and it was front and center, where often, you know, in years past, we took that essential work for granted. And so coming out of the pandemic, I think people have more of an appreciation for what it takes to make this country move, and we cannot lose that.
I think we kind of all get back to our daily lives, and we get back to just, you know, thinking that our health care workers and our transportation workers and our grocery store workers that were absolute heroes through this pandemic are just back in place and, you know, we’re kind of getting back to, quote, “normal,” right? So we cannot take that for granted.
And you’re seeing that, you know, workers were told they were essential and then are now being treated as expendable, especially when we see, again, companies making billions of dollars coming out of this crisis that we’ve been in and not able to find enough money to give their workers who got them through a raise and continue to protect their health care benefits.
So I think workers are really starting to see a shift in how work is being done, you know, making safety a number one priority, clearly making sure people have the personal protective equipment that they need, so that we’re not fumbling around in an emergency trying to make sure workers are protected.
And, also, the impacts of technology have changed the way we work, and that’s something the labor movement is looking at closely because we’ve made a lot of tradeoffs coming out of the pandemic where workers want flexibility. Now, not every job can be done from home, and that’s something I really want to emphasize, that a lot of workers who were showing up every day risking their own health and safety to get us through, those aren’t jobs that you do over Zoom.
But we also know that technology has hastened the change in how work is being done, and also with those flexibility tradeoffs come things like surveillance and invasions of privacy that we really don’t have a rule book for. And so I have seen the impacts and how, you know, companies are docking people’s pay when their keyboards aren’t active or taking pictures of them periodically to make sure they’re sitting at their desks, and the only way that workers can have a voice in shaping how technology works in their work environment is by having the power of a union to sit across the table from an employer and negotiate how those impacts are materializing in their work environments. So we think this is the new frontier for the labor movement as technology especially is changing our work environments.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Something I’m following very closely, by the way, is this technology element that’s really changed the way we work.
We only have a few minutes left, and there’s a couple things I wanted to touch on. So I’m going to do a brief look into the future, but I’m going to try to shove as many questions into the same line so we can get the full answer here.
Midterms are coming up. Obviously, there’s some messaging that needs to get out about the midterm elections. Liz, I’m going to start with you. What message do you want to get to voters? And then I’m going to tack on a secondary question here which is if you could briefly just give us a peer into the future and what this next era of workers’ rights and the labor movement will look like, and perhaps those two questions are one and the same.
MS. SHULER: In 30 seconds or less, right? No.
MS. SHULER: No, I could not be more fired up for this midterm election cycle because I think the issues are front and center for working people, that, you know, we are still struggling. People are continuing to try to feed their families and make ends meet often by working one, two, and three jobs because of what AI‑Jen said, that we have not made the investments or, you know, prioritized as a country making work with livable wages so that people can make it in this country a priority.
And so we’re continuing to spotlight what’s broken in our economic system for our members and for working people as we head into the midterms because it’s going to be so critically important to elect candidates who are putting working people first, and so we are taking an issues‑based approach. We want to get out here, have face‑to‑face conversations, especially in this era of misinformation and sort of our social media vortexes that people are getting limited information because we’re not talking to each other face to face, and so that’s what the labor movement can do.
We have a footprint in every community across this country, and so we’re having those conversations, driving turnout, because our freedoms are under attack. Our freedom to vote, our freedom to organize and collectively bargain, our freedom to access health care and reproductive health care, those are just a few examples that are really driving our members to get active.
So we think that, again, the future of the labor movement is bright. People are coming together organizing in numbers we haven’t seen in a generation. Numbers last week, 71 percent of the public supports unions. The time is now to rise up, make your voice heard, and come together collectively to make change and do that through a union.
MS. ABRIL: Lots of enthusiasm there. Great.
Ai‑Jen, I want to know what you think is at stake these midterms and then also what the next chapter in labor rights looks like for you as well.
MS. POO: I think the future of our democracy is at stake, and I think if working people want a government that works for them, they have to show up and vote, and they have to join a union or an organization to amplify their voices, because we need working people at the table now more than ever before.
One way you get at the table is by showing up to vote. Another way you get at the table is by organizing with your colleagues, and between those two things, we can change the course of history in this country and certainly do what we have to do in this generation to protect our democracy.
So I feel like, on the one hand, incredibly optimistic and, on the other hand, incredibly clear‑eyed about how dangerous and real, clear and present the threat to our democracy is, and unions and working people are the first line of defense to save it just the way we always have been. So let’s do our job. Let’s do what we got to do.
MS. ABRIL: That’s a great ending thought there. We’re just about out of time, so I think we’re going to have to leave it there. Liz, Ai‑Jen, this was an incredible conversation. Thank you so much for joining us here today.
MS. SHULER: Thank you. Appreciate it.
MS. POO: Thank you.
MS. ABRIL: And I will be right back in just a few minutes with my next guests. Please stay with us.
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MR. GARCÍA: [In progress]‑‑wearing a blue‑colored shirt, sitting in my house. My pronouns are he and him, and I’m joined by Jennifer Epps, the executive director of The LIFT Fund, who is the leading voice building worker movement in the South. W.E.B. Du Bois once said, “As the South goes, so goes the nation.” The U.S. South is center in determining the fate of this nation, from civil rights to political progress to workers. In general, the South is experiencing unprecedented economic growth. Companies are flocking to the South to do business, and yet workers still face inhumane conditions that have long plagued the region.
In February 2021, unemployment claims for Black Georgians were 71 percent higher than those White Georgians. In Mississippi, 70 percent of all women of color earn under the living wage, the highest of any state. These same stories repeat across the South.
Jennifer, can you share what the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund is and how it aims to address these issues?
MS. EPPS: Sure. My name is Jennifer Epps, and I’m the executive director of the Labor Innovations for the 21st Century Fund, better known as The LIFT Fund. I’m a Black woman with brown hair, wearing a colorful dress, sitting in my home office. My pronouns are she and her.
So LIFT launched the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund this year to invest in organizations that improve economic livelihoods and social conditions for workers across the South and to increase the ability for workers to have a voice in their workplaces.
Our fund unites key institutions and actors like labor unions, worker centers, organizers, funders, and community allies in select Southern cities and states, where racial justice and economic justice work are underway.
So, when we think about South, we think about what’s happening in the South, when we think about what’s happening here, it’s been a generational disinvestment. It remains one of the poorest regions in the nation, yet there’s a big influx of jobs and opportunities coming to the South, but not everyone is winning. So while there are a lot of corporations that are coming to the South and providing jobs, some folks are really seeing the fruit of that economic improvement, but workers haven’t really seen the same growth, in particular, Black and brown workers and people of color that work in these industries and are getting these jobs and not seeing their wages and working conditions improve.
And we believe that relates to not just the working conditions but how folks live overall, how does this impact education, childcare, how it impacts health care, and so what the fund is really trying to figure out is how do we support workers that are supporting an entire community.
MR. GARCÍA: Thank you, Jennifer.
The Southern Worker Opportunity Fund is so unique in that it brings together national and Southern funders as well as labor organizations together to address these major challenges. Can you share why this approach is necessary to create the change you want to see?
MS. EPPS: Sure. A traditional model, one where workers are fighting in isolation for better wages is just too limited and will not meet this moment.
So we’ve seen over the last four decades, union membership has plummeted to 10 percent across the nation and only 5 in the South, and this is in no small part due to union‑busting efforts by big corporations leading to flatlining of wages and benefits for millions of American workers.
A majority of Americans believe the decline in unionization has been detrimental for workers and the country, and over two‑thirds of American support unions. And it has been at the highest point in the last 60 years.
The Southern Worker Opportunity Fund takes the unity among the workers and expands it by deploying multiyear general operating grants to organizations and coalitions that are committed to ensuring that workers are in the driver’s seat and have a real say over the working conditions and life across the South.
So we believe by partnering with national, regional philanthropy and major labor unions, we’re galvanizing calls for increased public investments for job creation, improved job standards, and access to labor organizations that allow workers to be heard.
A long‑term investment in the South can bring about a new chapter for workers across the region and, indeed, nationally. That is accompanied by higher wages, quality benefits, and strong employment protections.
MR. GARCÍA: Jennifer, when you talk about supporting the whole person, like just the worker, that sounds like an effort of building a deeper version of democracy where people have agency over both their working and living conditions. Can you share how democracy is secured through the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund?
MS. EPPS: Absolutely. The bottom line is when workers are able to support their families in a way that folks don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay their rent or their mortgage, how they’re going to eat, how they’re going to have their childcare needs met, and how they’re going to have good health insurance and their health needs met, when folks have that ability and are able to support their families, we believe that that will affect an entire economy and an entire community will be better off.
We believe in a strong multiracial approach that centers Black and brown workers to ensure that those who are most impacted lead in the solutions, and that’s key for building a more just and equitable democracy.
So we’re so excited to have launched our open call this summer, and we’re looking to partner with organizations that are really trying to figure out how do we support workers in various ways, in traditional advocacy or other innovations. Our first round of grant making happens this fall, and our work is just beginning in what we hope will be a shift for workers in the South that doesn’t just impact the region but the entire country, and we’re especially thrilled about philanthropy, labor, and all kinds of organizations joining forces to strengthen workers and movements in the South.
MR. GARCÍA: Thank you so much, Jennifer, for that. I really appreciate it. We’re so excited to be part of the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund and see how you help workers do their necessary work to ensure that they have the right conditions at work at the same time we create an economy in the South and the nation that works for all of us. Thanks, Jennifer and the Southern Workers Opportunity Fund.
And now we’ll hand it back to The Washington Post.
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MS. ABRIL: Welcome back. For those of you just joining us, I’m Danielle Abril, tech reporter here at the Post.
Here to continue the conversation about the future of work and the workers’ voice are Jaz Brisack, Starbucks Workers United organizing committee member, and Michelle Miller of Jaz, Michelle, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MS. BRISACK: Thank you.
MS. ABRIL: Of course.
A reminder to our audience that we want to hear from you. Tweet us your questions using the handle @PostLive.
Before we get going, I briefly want to make this conversation accessible to all of our viewers. So, for our visually impaired audience members, I am Danielle Abril. I am currently coming to you from my home office. I’m wearing a black shirt and a black blazer and have long black hair.
Jaz, can you briefly describe yourself?
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MS. BRISACK: [In progress]‑‑I’m sitting in front of a quilt from North Carolina.
MS. ABRIL: And, Michelle?
MS. MILLER: Hi. I’m Michelle. I’m a White woman in my home office, wearing a purple shirt, with brown hair, coming to you from Brooklyn, New York.
MS. ABRIL: Wonderful. Thank you both for doing that.
Jaz, to start, let’s talk about what led you to the unionization‑‑excuse me‑‑first at your Starbucks location.
MS. BRISACK: Sure. So, you know, I learned about unions for the first time when I was 16 because I got really into reading about the Scopes “Monkey Trial” and the history of free thought and atheism in this country, and through Clarence Darrow, I learned about Debs, and, you know, I learned about the history of unions. But, like a lot of people, I thought that that was something that people did a hundred years ago. And it wasn’t until I got to college and had a labor history professor, Joe Atkins, who actually introduced me to Richard Bensinger, who is an incredible union organizer, who was then working on the Nissan campaign, that I realized it was something that you could still do.
So fast‑forwarding to Starbucks, after a few years of, you know, bouncing to different organizing campaigns in between breaks from school, I’d been working with baristas in Buffalo, New York, at a local coffee shop chain called SPoT Coffee that had unionized, and when I came back from grad school, I wanted to work in the same industry that I was organizing. And, you know, the Industrial Workers of the World had a slogan back in 1919 that was “Get on the job and organize.”
So I decided, you know, Starbucks had been competing with SPoT. They had fired a friend of mine for trying to start a union, and, you know, I wanted to see if it was possible. And, sure enough, my coworkers were more than able to make it happen.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. That’s a great, great introduction to what led you here.
Michelle, I want to dip into your background here. What was the genesis for
MS. MILLER: Yeah. Thank you so much. It’s great to be here and a real honor to be alongside Jaz, whose work I have been following from afar.
So what led my cofounder, Jess Kutch, and I to create Coworker was actually our experience in the trade union movement.
I grew up in West Virginia in a family of coal miners whose lives were made more stable and whose ability to actually survive every day at work, to come home alive from work was made possible by the United Mine Workers. So I grew up in a union environment, and when I graduated college, I began working at SEIU, the labor union, where I met Jess Kutch, my cofounder, and where through our work with workers every day, we were able to see the ways in which union members really were imagining new structures through which they would like to be able to organize people in their neighborhoods and communities and were also having this experience at the time that because labor law is so broken and because the process for joining a union is so difficult, that there were many people who wanted to start organizing inside their workplaces. But the possibility of being able to join union or begin a union organizing campaign was pretty far away from them.
And so we created Coworker as a sort of place where people in the early stages of organizing, people who had an idea about one thing that they wanted to change inside their workplace, and the motivation to try and build collectives with their fellow coworkers, where that would be enough for them to get help, and we thought that maybe if we helped people with their organizing in these early stages that you might start having people have this direct experience of collective advocacy actually being something that could change things inside of the workplace, to build those muscles, and then to eventually be able to build their own‑‑build and create their own organizations and popularize this idea of workplace organizing that had created so much stability for working class people throughout the past 200 years.
MS. ABRIL: Got it. And, Jaz, the big headline this week is the fact that union approval is at its highest point since the ’60s. What do you think led to this moment of resurgence for union efforts?
MS. BRISACK: I think, you know, workers have always wanted to organize but fear takes a lot of forms, and, you know, usually, the biggest form, of course, is employer opposition, which we’re still seeing in extreme ways, you know, from Starbucks to Amazon to, you know, local union campaigns.
But I think our generation is overcoming a lot of what we’ve been told about unions and a lot of misconceptions and slander of unions. I think red‑baiting doesn’t work anymore, and I think that, you know, people are fundamentally seeing that unions are the only way to really change a workplace from a dictatorship into a democracy.
MS. ABRIL: Yeah. And, Michelle, in your view, how did the pandemic and other events over the last few years usher in this new era of the labor rights movement?
MS. MILLER: Yeah. So we were actually at Coworker, even before the pandemic hit, seeing an uptick in the interest in and popularity of the idea of workplace organizing and unions. We were seeing that in the ways in which gig workers were engaging and self‑organizing. Tech workers were organizing. The digital media sector had been organizing.
And I think that when the pandemic hit, that prepared people for this idea that‑‑especially for essential workers that the place where people would need to protect themselves the most would be in those very vulnerable public‑facing workplaces, where literally your life was on the line every time you were going to work. So, at Coworker, for example, we saw a 2,600 percent increase in worker‑led campaigns during the first two months of the shutdown, and some of those campaigns really led to significant changes and protections for workers. Starbucks baristas one closure of cafés for six weeks with pay, REI employees wanted the same, and then two years later, both of those companies started unionizing.
We supported grocery store workers at many national and regional chains who were demanding hazard pay and who through their organizing work made hazard pay‑‑they kind of normalized it and made it a popular demand, and so I think in those moments, when people were really seeing that their employers were not going to protect them, that they had to stand together and protect one another.
I also think that all of the ways in which people experienced economic vulnerability throughout the pandemic and in the most, you know, recent year as government support and state protections for people have really been frittered away, that those of us facing debt, those of us with housing insecurity, those of us with other forms of economic insecurity have seen that when we‑‑that the only way we protect ourselves is when we’re able to rely on one another, and that we can create different systems to share resources and share wealth amongst ourselves and engage in democratic decision‑making and figure out how to support people in our community. And if there are these big questions that people who have created these networks among people in their communities are asking us, it’s like, well, if I can do this as just like a regular person in my neighborhood, why on earth can’t my employer do better? Why on earth can’t the federal government do better? Why can’t the state I live in do better at redistributing wealth and ensuring that everyone has stability and protection and a lack of precarity in their lives?
MS. ABRIL: And, you know, with all of this momentum and change in acceptance or support of unions, Jaz, I’m wondering how organizers can capitalize on the current labor markets and moment to force the change that they want to see.
MS. BRISACK: I think we need to, you know, double down on our focus on organizing the unorganized, which, of course, is a slogan that goes back to the 1920s. So, in a lot of ways, you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I think what we’re doing is very similar to what, you know, the people that founded our unions did in the garment industry or in the auto industry or, you know, in sectors that were considered just as unorganizable then as restaurants and coffee shops are now.
But I think, you know, we’re trying to make the question the fundamental fight for the right to organize. Is Starbucks going to sign the fair election principles? Are we going to let these companies get away with terrorizing workers, firing workers, you know, using psychological warfare to try to break people’s spirits and force them out? And, you know, I think the question too is can we really mobilize the labor movement and the community to stand behind us. We had a citywide picket in Buffalo on Tuesday where we hit every store, union and nonunion, in the city, and I think if we can keep ramping that up and, you know, mobilize 10,000‑‑or 10 million union members across the country to help us hold Starbucks accountable in the same way that unions, you know, mobilize for midterms or for, you know, democratic elections, I think we need to be mobilizing to support organizing wherever it’s happening.
MS. ABRIL: And, Michelle, aside from compensation and benefits, obviously two big, big things that workers want to see improve, what issues are top of mind for laborers, and how are these different than pre‑pandemic priorities?
MS. MILLER: Well, I did just want to quickly, if I may, build on what Jaz was talking about with community support specifically of Starbucks baristas because we just launched a fund to support Starbucks baristas who are facing retaliation or engaged in organizing that is supported by the public, and it’s really only been launched for about a week. And we’ve already raised about $15,000 from the general public, and we’re creating more and more opportunities for people who want to support Starbucks baristas in their efforts to organize and stand up to the‑‑you know, what Jaz just described as the real terrorizing of people who are engaged in organizing. You can do that by supporting baristas through the Solidarity Fund. So it’s the Solidarity Fund by Coworker, and we‑‑it’s, if you’d like to go and support.
But some of the‑‑you know, Liz in the prior discussion, one of the things that she had mentioned, which is something that we’ve been paying a lot of attention to in terms of what are people facing post pandemic, is the increased use of technology to manage various aspects of work.
So what we studied, the proliferation of tech products, there was a 30 percent‑‑30 percent of the technology products that are at use now inside workplaces were created after the pandemic, and these bits of technology do all kinds of things. They monitor productivity. They administer people’s jobs. They track‑‑they propose to track your health and your heart rate, and they take pictures of you. They track your sentiment and your behavior. They target you as a potential threat to the company, and this could really have significant impacts on people going forward.
You know, one thing that’s really important to point out is that the way that this technology works is that it has to surveil you at all times and collect data on you at all times in order to function. So, if you have productivity monitoring software, that productivity monitoring software is watching you. It is making a mathematical decision about the rate of productivity that you might be needing to meet, not taking into account things like whether or not you’re working with a disability, whether or not environmental factors might impact your ability to actually perform at the level that you had been performing yesterday, and making decisions about your future ability to earn income. These technologies are very opaque. It’s really hard to know like what kind of data they’re collecting and how they’re using it to make decisions, what happens to the data afterwards. We know that this is embedded in a very large data brokerage industry where data is packaged and sold and resold in order to profile people to sell them all kinds of financial products and monitor access to things like not just jobs but education, credit, public benefits. And it is a kind of Wild West right now where there isn’t a lot of regulation and not a lot of knowledge about the way that this technology is being used.
And white collar workers are seeing a lot of this coming in to monitor their work‑from‑home situations, and then lower‑wage workers, people in delivery and logistics, are, you know, being followed by a variety of different cameras and GPS monitors.
There were a group of workers in Washington State a couple weeks ago who talked about how they had the first successful strike against surveillance software when their employer threatened to put cameras in their trucks that watched them as they were doing their jobs, and so there are a lot of potential impacts of the use of this technology that we’ve not been able to look into.
And I’ll just end on saying that even the federal agencies under the Biden administration are taking a look at this technology. You know, there has been a lot of evidence of algorithmic bias built into the technology that’s being used that has a disproportionate impact on workers of color, and so this is something that, for example, the EEOC has been looking into about the ways in which protections and civil rights protections on the job could be actually at risk by the use of this software.
MS. ABRIL: Absolutely. The surveillance software has really proliferated during the pandemic, and I think it’s really important to highlight. So thank you for doing that, Michelle.
Jaz, I want to switch over to you real quick. Some big news about the Teamsters launching a new division to focus on unionizing employees of Amazon.
Now, a quick reminder to our audience that The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
But back to you, Jaz, you were clearly not afraid to take on large entities. What is your message to executives who want to discourage their workers from unionizing?
MS. BRISACK: I mean, I think, first, it’s not going to be a winning strategy to try to union‑bust because, you know, Starbucks came out pre‑union campaign trying this, you know, virtue signal about how progressive they were, how they were a different kind of company, how we were partners. And, you know, they said that they were a safe space for LGBTQ people. They said that they supported Black Lives Matter, albeit after protests where, you know, workers were calling them out for banning workers from wearing Black Lives Matter masks and so forth.
But I think, first, you know, it’s not a winning PR strategy. The public overwhelmingly supports unions and isn’t going to stand for union busting.
And, secondly, they’re fighting the best workers that these companies have. They’re fighting people like Lexi Rizzo and Michael Sanabria who are, you know, two of the best baristas in Buffalo, who started this union campaign because of how much they loved Starbucks and the company and serving customers and making the best cup of coffee that they can. And when you’re burning those kinds of people out and trying to force them out so that they stop having the energy to carry on this union campaign, then you’re shooting your own company in the foot.
So it’s much better to sign the fair election principles, actually stop fighting us‑‑and come together. No company wants a union, but there is much better ways to behave than, you know, the way all of these corporations are reacting.
MS. ABRIL: That makes a lot of sense.
Michelle, I want to briefly return to technology. I know you talked about it in a very concerning way and some things that have come about since the pandemic in terms of the way tech is being used on the company side for surveillance. I want to talk a little bit about how technology has been used for the workers in order to organize and promote collective bargaining powers. Tell us a little bit about how that’s changed over the pandemic.
MS. MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think a wonderful thing, you know, we’ve been able to do through our platform and that workers have been able to do in a number of different platforms and usually using popular technology tools is to communicate with one another and to share concerns and grievances across space and time in order to build power inside of their companies.
So, when you look at‑‑you look at groups like the Gig Workers Collective, which are gig workers all across the country who are working in delivery at places like Instacart and Shipt, they were able to build a powerful network of their fellow employees who are working at all different hours, who are working in all different places, who don’t have like a water cooler to gather around or, you know, a locker room to meet one another in, but are able to communicate with one another and collect information from one another about what’s not working inside their workplaces.
And you can say for sure the same thing about the Starbucks worker organizing, being able to amplify one another’s fights, to be able to share stories of people who are being fired every day so that that doesn’t happen under the cover of darkness and it doesn’t happen in a way where, you know, any one individual can be blamed for what the company is choosing to do. You look at the ways in which the Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union have used social media and various communications platforms in order to get their message out.
Like, I think that the ways in which we’re able to take a fissured economy, an economy in which, you know, franchises make it so that only‑‑you only know six to ten other workers in massive companies with hundreds of thousands of employees, or in gig, you’re always kind of working alone. The ways in which workers have been able to use technology to create virtual spaces to find one another and to share their concerns and to come up with campaigns has been really inspiring. And it is the thing that workers have done for hundreds of years. Like, this is‑‑it is the use of technology, but it is also the use of the thing that is nearest to your hands. So, like, everyone has a phone. Workers know how to find one another on that phone, and, of course, the first thing they did was use that in order to organize.
So, you know, I also think that based on that expertise and the ways in which people have been able to use these technology tools to organize, that that is the indicator that in terms of the way that technology is being implemented at their own workplaces by their bosses, that maybe these workers have some expertise about how to do that better and how to do that in a way that isn’t about extraction, domination, and surveillance, but instead about improving their ability to do their jobs.
MS. ABRIL: Got it. And, Jaz, I want to bring up a buzzword that’s been floating around different sectors right now, which is “quiet quitting,” which really seems to be a nod at worker burnouts. What role do you think union membership plays in possibly preventing burnout?
MS. BRISACK: I think it changes everything, particularly the fundamental power dynamic of the workplace. You know, I think in a lot of ways, you know, “quiet quitting” seems to be another word for setting boundaries, which obviously is something that a union contract could help with because then workers could negotiate, you know, where the limits are and what their job actually entails and, you know, be adequately compensated for doing that work.
But I think, you know, with a union, workers have a say and a stake and will be able to, you know, continue not to feel that same kind of extraction and domination and surveillance that Michelle is talking about, because, you know, they’ll actually have power in the workplace instead of everything being top down, everything being dictated by the boss or corporate.
MS. ABRIL: Well, a great point to leave it on. Jaz, thank you so much for that.
Michelle and Jaz, unfortunately, we’re now out of time, so we’ll just have to leave it there. Jaz Brisack and Michelle Miller, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. BRISACK: Thank you.
MS. MILLER: Thank you.
MS. ABRIL: And thanks to all of you for watching. To check out what interviews we have coming up, please head to to register and find more information about our upcoming programs.
I’m Danielle Abril. Thanks again for joining us.
[End recorded session]


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