Newsletter #81: The Union Forever, Part 1 | Listeners' Maibag with Eric Blanc

Earlier this month, organizer and academic Eric Blanc joined Alex Press and Micah Uetricht to discuss the new green shoots in the American labor movement. Next week, the newsletter will feature Alex Press’s reflections on the place of journalists and intellectuals in the labor movement. But this week, we continue to pilot a new feature of the Dig newsletter: here, supporters of the podcast on Patreon can follow up with the subject of the interview and ask questions that came to mind as they listened to the episode.

Marshall T.: Which of the new organizing efforts that you described in the episode has resulted in a successful unionization election or was voluntarily recognized has, thus far, produced a first contract?

Eric Blanc: Most of the large-scale victories have been concentrated in higher-education; these campaigns have been bottom-up efforts and continue to wrack up major contractual victories. In fact, the norm is that these drives are winning huge gains for workers at some of the country’s largest employers. You can say that it’s easier for workers to win here, because these fights are politically sensitive and may be railing against public institutions, which have historically not fought union drives as hard as private-sector companies. But up until recently, these employers were still fighting tooth and nail to avoid recognition and were unafraid to take these workers to court or appeal to Trump’s National Labor Relations Board to defeat these drives.

As far as the private sector goes, the drives at the largest corporations have not yet won contracts. Still, the potential that these drives represent are reflected in smaller campaigns, in small to mid-sized chains. One positive example would be Colectivo Coffee — a company of over 500 workers, hardly a mom-and-pop shop. This was an employer that went as hard against the union as their resources would allow. But ultimately, because the workers organized every shop and had a strong majority and were able to mobilize community support, they won a first contract. (Interestingly, one of the turning points in that campaign was that the children of the employers went to a high school in which a Young Democratic Socialists of America [YDSA] chapter was organizing in support of the strike. It became a citywide scandal because the bosses tried to get the advisor of the YDSA group fired for being involved in the labor dispute. It totally backfired on them, galvanizing community outrage and support and became one of the tipping points to pressuring the owners to settle.

Jack O.: Both guests in this episode are, in their own ways, remarkable examples of a vocation we had thought had disappeared: part journalist, part organizer, full-time labor movement intellectual. Who are your models for doing that work, and what are the unique challenges that this work has that other types of journalism or intellectual production might not? What’s the place of these sorts of writers in the movement as a whole?

There’s a precedent for this. In the 1930s, in particular, there were many labor journalists in the Congress of Industrial Organizations world. Labor Notes is certainly an important journalistic outfit. That said, I don’t think I have a solid model in my head about what this vocation, as you describe it, looks like. Frankly, it’s mostly borne out of necessity, both to make a living and to publicize and learn from our movement.

If your background was an organizer, your principal moral and ideological commitments are to the workers, who you desperately want to see win. It raises different dilemmas than if you adopted a position of neutrality. The major dilemma for someone like me is that there’s a fine line between reporting as accurately as possible on union drives and providing information about internal strategies or discussions that lawyers and employers can later use against the union. All of these things can and will eventually be read by management-side lawyers.

But airing on the side of being open about this stuff is still, I believe, the best way forward, because lawyers and employers will find this information anyway. But we sometimes have to time it right, wait a few months or years before talking about it in serious detail.

Another dilemma that faces our work is that it can be difficult to criticize unions you’re writing or studying about, because your ability to get information depends on them giving you access. So there’s a fine line between not wanting to write puff pieces that do the movement little service but also not wanting to lose your access or betray anyone’s willingness to provide you with detailed information.

Sean R.: Labor’s political opportunities often depend not just on how unions are organizing or the state of the domestic economy. They depend also on the general geopolitical constellation. If World War II, then the Cold War, helped cripple the domestic labor movement and deliver its leadership into the arms of the war economy and State Department, how can we avoid that in the twenty-first century?

It seems to be the case that part of the reason why the Biden administration has been better on labor when compared to recent Democratic administrations are the consequences of a geopolitical rivalry with China, so there’s a real tension there that the question recognizes. It’s a tension that has to be seized, and I think it’s possible for us to seize these openings while also resisting military conflict with China and even pushing for cooperation around issues like preventing the climate crisis.

So far as it is up to labor, I think the solution is simple: take advantage of the contradictions of your own regime for building working-class power, but don’t simultaneously buy into the imperial premise of your administration.

Barbara B. and Martin N.: Talk about the power of consumer boycotts. Should the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or other community groups organize boycotts against companies like Starbucks in solidarity with the workers? How best can us on the outside show solidarity for those striking or struggling to get the company to the table?

These are good questions, because boycotts until very recently have fallen out of favor, at least the way that they were normally organized by established unions: often very ineffectively, a moral statement against a company rather than part of a serious plan to win. More recently, boycotts have shown their ability to work. In the drive that preceded the Starbucks effort in upstate New York, the same people who ended up going on to organize Starbucks as part of this regional drive to organize all coffee in upstate New York also successfully wielded a boycott against a company called Spot Coffee. Similarly, there was a boycott in Burgerville, a chain in the Pacific Northwest. Workers who were then (but are no longer) Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, organized a boycott and showed that it could work. When boycotts are used as a supplement, rather than a substitute, for worker militancy, they can be very powerful.

Looking at Starbucks, I have a hard time imagining a path to a first contract that does not pass through a large part of customer and community organizing, up to and including boycotts. It’s exciting that on college campuses, there have been instances of direct action to push the administration to cancel its contract with Starbucks. The path forward isn’t through individual action — lone individuals disgusted with the company’s union-busting saying, “I won’t go to Starbucks,” for instance — but getting involved with organizations or organized demonstrations, such as the days of action put on by Starbucks Workers United, which you can sign up for on their website.

Eventually, though, there might also have to be self organization of the boycotts alongside the unions. Unions can’t often push for these boycotts themselves because of legal restrictions, so organizations like the DSA or ad-hoc groups might have to take more of a lead and be more vigorous in promoting and taking direct action around certain boycott tactics beyond what unions are willing and able to do.