A photo of a large inflatable rat at a union picket line.

Who's Afraid of Labor Unions? with Vanessa Veselka and Gordon Lafer

For a significant stretch of our lives, most of us spend a whole lot of time working. In this episode of The Detour—the third in our series on organizing—we'll explore what it means to organize at work with the help of Vanessa Veselka and Gordon Lafer. We'll think about unions and labor and solidarity and power, and we'll also ask what unions are for. Are they primarily a tool to improve the basic conditions of our labor, like pay flexibility, predictability, and safety? Or might they also be for something more like solidarity, democracy and hope? When are unions likely to take root, and what generally stands in their way? And what about this particular moment for unions and labor in Oregon and across the country?

Show Notes

Vanessa Veselka has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a musician, a student of paleontology, a union organizer, a cab driver, and a mother. As an organizer, she has worked with hospital and long-term care workers, longshore and warehouse workers, and state employees. She is the author of the novels The Great Offshore Grounds, which won the Oregon Book Award for fiction in 2021, and Zazen, which won the 2012 PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction. Her short fiction appears in Zyzzyva and Tin House Magazine, and her essays appear in the New York TimesGQ, the AtlanticBitch Magazine, and Best American Essays.

Veselka was a guest at Consider This in January 2023. You can view the whole conversation here

Gordon Lafer is a political economist and associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center.  Lafer has served as senior policy advisor for the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor and has been called to testify as an expert witness before the US Senate, House of Representatives, and multiple state legislatures.  He is also a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute, where he has written widely on issues of labor, employment and education policy.


More on Labor and Organizing from Oregon Humanities


 Hi, this is Adam Davis with The Detour. I'm sitting here this morning speaking into a microphone and checking in with The Detour's producer, Keiren Bond here at the X-Ray FM Studios in Portland. And while Keiren and I are doing this, we're also somewhere else. We're at work and so are most of us, most of the time.

For a significant stretch of our lives, most of us spend a whole lot of time working. In this episode of The Detour, which is the third episode in our series on organizing, we'll explore what it means to organize at work. With the help of Vanessa Veselka and Gordon Lafer, we'll think about unions and labor and solidarity and power, and we'll also ask what unions are for. Are they primarily a tool to improve the basic conditions of our labor, like pay flexibility, predictability, and safety? Or might they also be for something more, like solidarity, democracy, and hope? When are unions likely to take root, and what generally stands in their way? And what about this particular moment for unions and labor in Oregon and across the country?

Maybe you've thought about labor organizing, and if so, why? If you haven't, why not? Our guests, Vanessa and Gordon, have done a lot of working in and thinking about unions and believe that unions could benefit most of us. Even those with good vacation time and bonuses. They've lived their commitment to organizing at work, and their words are deeply rooted in their long and varied experience and the understanding that has developed over countless efforts to build power from the ground up.

We start with Vanessa, a novelist who has been at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex worker, a musician, a student of paleontology, a union organizer, a cab driver, and a mother. As an organizer, she's worked with hospital and long-term care workers, longshore and warehouse workers and state employees.

Vanessa grew up with a generally pro-union mindset. Her parents would never cross a picket line. And in her early years, she saw how, when an injustice happened and the right voices spoke up, how easily powerful entities could make something happen if they wanted to. Vanessa sees organizing as a human endeavor, something we humans do to use common sense, support, honesty, and passion to build something better.

This conversation was part of our Consider This program on people, place, and power, and was recorded at the Alberta Rose Theater in Portland, Oregon. 

Vanessa: I always understood organizing. I understood disobedience, I understood connected disobedience. When I was, I was kicked out of high school, and I didn't go past ninth grade in high school. And I spent one day in a New York, like two days actually, in the New York Public School. And then, two different ones. And they had these big gates that would come down in the stairwell when the classes went—in this one particular place—and it would trap all the kids who were late to class in the stairwell, and they would come up and like, you know, ticket people, right?

And I saw that, and I was so offended that that day I made a little flyer, and I put it in the bathrooms, and I set up a time, and I got like a whole bunch of other people to do it. And I'm like, if we all go in there and the thing goes down, what are they gonna do? Like, you know, so that was always how I thought.

And I saw organizing work in a lot of ways. I was part of the Tomkin Square riots in 88. I saw it, like I saw, and these moments of power are really, really important because like for instance, in that situation, you know, without going into it, the issue was that they were putting curfews in parks and that they were, you know, for the Zeckendorfs and the Trumps buying up the property, and the riot happens and all of that, and people had been organizing for a long time to get that to stop. And after that, the next day they just announced all New York parks were open. And so you see those moments, you go like, they can do that. Knowing you can do that, that's organizing. And then when I saw it in Seattle and WTO, what I saw is I was part of people sitting. There was a big sit-in, and we were kind of trapped at the jailhouse sit-in, and there was like 800 people in jail and all these negotiations about jail, solidarity, et cetera, et cetera, and fights in the city, and it had—it was kind of at a standstill until, at 11:00 p.m. one night, a representative of the Longshore Warehouse Union, which controls the whole coast, walked in and said, let those 700 people go, or we're gonna strike the West Coast. And stop loading gear. Period. They were out the next morning. Charges, like with the exception of a small handful, charges dropped. All of a sudden they found a solution for 700 people to leave jail that they had not been able to do for a week. And it wasn't on paper that that's what happened.

But I knew, because I knew  and I was talking to people at the time, that that's what happened. And I saw that and I went, that's power. That's real. I came to organizing naturally. The first place I tried to organize was a place I was working, which was the Amazon warehouse in Seattle. 

Adam: So that's the first place that you started to organize, was the Amazon warehouse in Seattle?

Vanessa: Yeah. You'll notice I wasn't successful (laughs). I was successful in a way. It was 1999, 2000. And I was a salt. So a salt is an old 1930s term for somebody who goes in for the purpose of organizing—takes a job, goes in for the purpose of organizing. So I did that, but I didn't do that for anybody. I just did it because I needed a job, and I thought that like, well if I'm gonna go work somewhere, that place looks like it needs to be organized. Right? So I went to the Amazon warehouse and, and it was, um, somebody had explained to me, like on a cocktail napkin, basically, almost the amount of, uh, here are the things you do to try to start organizing.

And I went, okay, got it. You know? And, and but it's the human—It's humans talking to each other. It's humans talking to each other about how you use your common sense and your support and your honesty and your passion to build something better. And that means you— there's discussions about risk. It's an intimate thing, because fear is real. 

Adam: It's interesting cuz as you've been talking in, in my head, I've been going back through some of the early jobs I've had, and I think one of the ways I first ran into unions was not by participating, but in a way the opposite. It was a construction job.

Vanessa: Yeah. 

Adam: Outside Chicago with a guy named Bernie Pakanowski, who ran an outfit called BP Carpentry… Bernie Pakanowski. And he, uh, he was an incredibly hard worker, and he was an incredibly profane guy, and he hated unions. 

Vanessa: Right.

Adam: Why do you say right? 

Vanessa: Okay. So when you say building trades, I say right, and let me explain why. It's not to cast dispersions on people in the building trades who are unionists. I know amazing unionists in the building trades. There are two different big models of unionism that we have. We have what's called craft unionism. And that means you organize by your job class: iron workers, electricians, right? And the idea of power there is if you have all the iron workers or you have all the electricians, they cannot do the work without you. Right? So the power and the leverage comes from the job class. 

There's another model that's an industrial model, and that sort of comes from the, you know, you look at the Ford factories and things like that, and that says we have more in common because we all work in the same place, even if we have different job classes. So we can shut the factory down if we're all in one union. Those are the basic principles. The craft model came from, um, a guild system essentially in Europe, right? It came through apprenticeship, it came through hiring, built into hiring halls, and the industrial model comes later. One was the AFL, one was the CIO. Together, they became the AFL-CIO. And that is your very basic primer on this. However, it is just a human, it's understandable why it happens.

Adam: I think I was struck by your quick recognition of why Bernie might be, might have strong feelings about unions. And for me, I was sort of learning something about unions that I hadn't known before. Which was that, that people might have strong negative feelings about them and that for him it felt like, like this was a cold Chicago winter, and he was very proud that on the coldest days, we were out there working right. And he would say, you know, those union guys aren't working today. Now I was not as proud to be outside working.


Vanessa: Yeah. That's identity. 

Adam: I couldn’t feel my fingers. 

Vanessa: Right. That's identity. The fact that American workers have been constantly sort of fed an image, story, um, and in systemic ways, the idea that pride in work means never asking for anything. Or pride in work means doing anything, you know, just because like, that whole bootstraps thing, right? It's very built-in. It doesn't mean that it's still not real to the person, and that's the thing that I think sometimes gets forgotten. It's still totally real to the person for whom—my grandfather was like that—for whom that was a very big part of his American identity. And his sense of pride was to never need anything and to always make it happen. You know, people are not machines. They need their pride. And if you take that away, and say, well, this is just a, you know, this is just a tool of capitalism, right? Like, if you take that way, you're not recognizing the, like, actual experience of pride. And if you take it away another way, saying like, you're totally replaceable. That's another way to take it away. There's all different ways it comes away. 

Adam: Yeah. It's interesting when you just said the tool of capitalism, the word tool stood out to me and it makes me wonder, so like, a hammer is a tool. It's pretty clear what a hammer's for. It's mostly to hit a nail in, sometimes it's to take a nail out. That's about it. Is it fair to think of a union as a tool, or is it useful and if so, for what function? 

Vanessa: So, nothing is one thing. In one sense, a union is a working democracy that is accessible to the workers that are in a particular place or in a particular industry and more accessible than other forms of democracy. Right? So in one sense, it is a functional democracy within a system, right? In another sense, there are unions that are very much focused on just bread and butter. And there are unions that are very much focused on social movement and some that are focused on all of it. And there's a whole variety, the insanity of, you know, sort of the knee jerk, anti-union response is, it's like, well, we're gonna throw out voting because I think that's a terrible, you know, I didn't like what they voted for. So, no more voting, right? Like, unions are democratic institutions, even when they are led by terrible people who then have to get like every other organization pulled back, held to account, all of those things. The mechanisms for democracy are still there. 

Adam: And why did you say at the start of that comment that unions are a way to sort of practice democracy, that's more accessible than other ways? What did you mean there? 

Vanessa: Right? Because it’s very direct. I mean like, yes, there are unions that are huge, but they still have structures in place that can make everything, you know, bring everything closer. A lot of people in most workforces can elect who are unionized, can elect a steward. You know, when unions tend to be less than they should be, it's usually for apathy. It usually comes out of apathy. And that's the same of democracies.

Adam: I think it's this question of how much we might want from our work and how much we might want from a union that's part of that work. And that challenge of identifying again, what is this tool best for? Is it best for helping us practice democracy in the place where we're also getting paid? Is it best for making sure we only have to work a certain number of hours a week?

Is it best for a deep sense of emancipation? Is it best for a break after four hours? Like, do you have an idea in your mind of kind of—here's what the union does best, and here's when we get into trouble with trying to make it do something. 

Vanessa: Well, let me change that just a little bit. For a union to be meaningful, to work on any of those levels, it has to have power. Period. So the question is, where does that power come from? And that power does come from one place. Ultimately, it's the ability to withhold your labor. It's the ability to say no, it's the ability to strike. It's the ability to say this is not good enough and mean it. And I'm gonna go back to basic relationships, you know, because this is all normal stuff. If you're in a relationship and you say no—you know, to your sister, to anybody, right? Like you say no, but you don't mean it. It's not no. Right. It's not. So if you were not willing to withhold your labor and say, you know what? If this doesn't happen, I'm not gonna work here.

That is, there's all sorts of context, right? Like how hard is it to get another job? There's all sorts of other pieces to that. Like, this one is closer to where—this works with my daycare schedule. So people get held hostage all sorts of ways, but they do come to a point when they're like, you know what? I'm done. I'm done. And if this can't be made into something—and here's the other thing. Unions are built by the people who want to see the job work. They're not built by people who hate the place they're working. They're built by people who wanna make it better. And so they're the people who stay. They're not usually, I mean, you'll get a hothead call, right? But everybody knows that person's a hothead. But when unions are really formed, they're formed by people who care about what they're doing and wanna make it better. 

And I think that people also think that the strike is something taken up lightly. Now, I'm gonna say this, and maybe people will hate me for it. If there's like 15 twenty-year olds who don't have much else to do, other than like their scene at work, a strike could be taken up pretty lightly, you know, like that. God bless them. But like, that's a different thing. But for most people, it's something entered into only over stuff that really matters, that they really need, and that they're willing to risk and protect each other's risk to do it.

Adam: You're listening to The Detour with Vanessa Veselka.

It's interesting to think that the power starts from this potential to withhold. And it kind of makes me wonder about whether there are certain places, whether there are kinds of work or sectors where a union is likely to take root and others where it might be less likely. But I wonder too about whether there are places where it's most needed and whether those go together or not. Does that question make sense? 

Vanessa: Yeah. I mean, in terms of some places being more or less likely, they're pretty easy to spot. Okay. I came out of hospital organizing primarily, so there's like hundreds of job classes in an average hospital, and you're gonna have people who are working in very low wage jobs that don't require a lot of high education, and you're gonna have people in extremely high education.

And the people, I would always see like techs you know, like Angiotechs, like a lot of different techs, and they were the hardest group in some ways to organize, because you run into this like, well, I'm a professional and I don't need what this other person needs. I feel like they need a union, but I don't need it, but I'm really pissed off that the nurses make more than me. And I'm like, well, you know what? They're organized. They bargained together for their wages. And you know, some of that's shifted over the years, but what I'm saying is usually it's people who have really been, um, the two big misunderstandings I see is that people in those work, those workforces, like the ones, the techs I was just talking about, they really need you. They really could benefit from being organized and working together and building their skill, making sure their skills are honored, et cetera. The other big thing I hear is those people, usually meaning people of color, people living in abject poverty, people living with lots of other vulnerabilities, those people won't organize. It's too dangerous, and they're scared. Those people organize, because they have to, and they know it. Like this idea that in an average workforce, one worker always looks at the other and says, you know what? They're not gonna do it, or, I don't need it, or, I'm doing it for them.

Adam: Well, at the start of that comment, you talked about organizing in healthcare. And your piece, about a year ago in the New York Times was a really beautiful and illuminating piece about organizing in health and memory care. And I was thinking, to some of your early examples about organizing, and there were some quick wins, but in this case, formally it was a loss.

Vanessa: Formally it was a loss, but it didn't feel like it. 

Adam: So yeah, go ahead where you're going. 

Adam: So, organizing changes people. Um, I am, as an organizer, somebody who is not very interested in ideologies, because I really believe that to become a union, a strong union, you have to act like a union. You have to be a union. And I believe in that kind of like, you know what? If you hold together and you act like a union, nothing can keep you from being a union. Nothing. Like the certification process can fail. They can decide, you know? But there is that strength that is gonna be there. And these were workers, that he's talking about, that I wrote about in this piece, who really were set up in a no-win situation. They were set up, for context, these were memory care workers. Their residents were dying at off the chart rates, due to staffing, like off the chart rates due to staffing, not of Covid, all sorts of neglect. And they were desperate, and they wanted to organize to stop it. And they were willing to take a very radical path to try to do it, which was to strike for recognition, meaning they didn't wait for the vote. They had, 85% of them signed cards. They signed petitions, they did all the stuff and they said, we are a union. And they went, and they did not get recognized. Their employer never recognized them as a union, and they ended up, most of them working, you know, they quit together and left the big bulk of them.

The process of how they changed during that time is a process I've seen a lot in organizing, which was people in contact with their own power, not their own politics, not their own sort of like ideology, but their own power, who take those risks. You know, they change in the course of that. What is good enough for them changes, what they know they can do changes.

Like it's just,it wasn't perfect. It was a terrible situation. I would much rather have seen them win. But they made massive changes in their own lives, and I, they were a small enough group that I was able to follow the stories of most of them. So I know where they ended up. I'd know how things, you know, and, and they didn't, you know, the ones who were the main organizers, they didn't see it as a loss either. And that story doesn't get told enough, but actual power, when you actually take that and you actually say, no you don't get to say your, you know, the boss who lived in Colorado and bought a 6.25 million-dollar house that year in cash and all sorts of other things, like you don't get to say you are here for the patients. I'm here for the patients. That's why I'm doing this. That's a different…you learn to honor yourself in that. And it's changing. It changes me. 

Adam: There are these occasional stories over the last year or two especially that seem kind of promising about unions.Oregon seems like a relatively high union membership state, relative to other states in the country. 

Vanessa: Yeah. So I mean, here's the thing. I'll just do this. I know there are some union, you know, union people here in the audience, and you may not even know this, but if an…so, an employer is not supposed to do a whole bunch of things that they do in almost every campaign, right? They're not supposed to follow you into bathrooms, terrorize you, threaten your schedule, like make all sorts of, you know what I mean? They're not supposed to. I mean, they do all sorts of terrible things. The truth is, they bribe people more often than they fire them. It's more effective, and they do it all the time. And if they get caught, there's almost no way to prove it. It's literally at the level of like, some of the issues that have come up around police, well, were you afraid when you saw this? And then if somebody says, I was afraid, like you have to prove the state of mind when something, well, I fired her, but I wasn't thinking about organizing and the fact that she's a leader, you know, I mean, it can all line up. [And] it still doesn't matter. It's not enough for you to get a board charge. If you make clear that hurdle and you get a charge, you know, oh, we won at the board. Sorry, I'm not trying to be, but like you get something like that, how big do you think. I'm gonna ask a couple of questions. Make noise if you think the penalty is over $10,000, like a company that to basically say they've got five ULPs, like really bad, that's called unfair labor practice. Say they've got five really bad, you know, rulings against them. What do you think they're paying, $10,000? Say they're, you know, Amazon, say they're whatever. Do you think they're paying $10,000 in fees for that? No. No. Do you think they're paying five? 200? None. None. There are no compensatory damages in our labor law. There's no, there's no penalty. There's no enforcement, and there's not a single financial penalty. There's none. So these guys can do whatever they want and they do. And I wrote this in the article, and it was the thing that got quoted back the most to me, which is time is a white collar weapon.

If you are the worker in this, you know, the two years it might take for something like this to run through, or a year, it might take—that's why your power is in each other. Your power is not in the law. And I have never met a worker who wasn't in, you know, who wasn’t a White man, who thought the law was there to protect them.

The law is not, and I'm not trying to knock things like that. I'm saying that very honestly, like I just haven't met, like that instinct that the law is on your side. That the law is something to go to, it would be great if it was, and there are times strategically where like, you wanna file that stuff. There's techniques, there's tactics, there's right moments to do it. There's ways to push forward all of that, but fundamentally, there's no compensatory damages. So what is the law, right? 

It works for the employers. You can theoretically, in the most extreme circumstances, force someone to bargain. And then they don't show up with their homework done, and they drag it, out and they found more things.

You gotta file more things on 'em to get 'em a bargain. So what gets 'em to bargain? It's power. The ability to strike and withhold labor is the heart of being able to negotiate. You can do it, you can, absolutely. Workers united can beat the boss. They can, but it takes real organizing around real issues with real leaders and relationships to each other. It's a fight, and it's an amazing fight.

Adam: Vanessa Veselka is a novelist, an author of The Great Offshore Grounds and Zazen. Her writing appears in Tin House Magazine, the New York Times, GQ, The Atlantic, Bitch Magazine, and Best American Essays, among others. 

Next we speak with Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, who came to labor organizing as a grad student when there was a move to organize a union for non-tenure-track teachers. Gordon comes to organizing from an academic background, which was also the setting where he first became interested in organizing. In this conversation, Gordon talks about the fear he and his peers experienced as a result of intimidation tactics used by the university and how fear is the number one reason those who want to organize don’t.

I spoke to Gordon earlier this month from the X-Ray studios in Portland, Oregon. 

Hey, this is Adam Davis with The Detour from Oregon Humanities, talking with Professor Gordon Lafer from the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center. Gordon, thanks very much for joining us. 

Gordon Lafer: Thanks for having me.

Adam: So I just want to ask you, as we're thinking about labor and organizing, why this area of focus for you? How did you get into it? 

Gordon: I got into it a long time ago when I was in graduate school and there was a move to organize a union for the graduate student teachers. And we, um, eventually organized and joined the same union as the secretaries and custodians and dining hall workers. And that was, all that was eye opening to me in a lot of ways. So that's how I first started. 

Adam: And when you say eye opening, can I ask you to say a little bit more? What was eye opening? 

Gordon: It was, I mean, a lot about union organizing and what it takes to organize an isolated group of people to be a group that can act together and to get people who are naturally scared to do things that are hard, like go on strike or get arrested in civil disobedience. And, you know, it's all people who you have no control over. Everything is voluntary. That was eye opening. It was eye opening for me how anti-union and how, the level of kind of intimidation and threatening tactics that the university would engage in, and the collaboration and relationship between us as graduate students and other workers at the union also was eye opening, cuz this was at Yale University, which has a very hierarchical feel about, you know, who knows something and who knows nothing.

There's the senior professors and the junior professors, and there's people, who are like the buildings and the trees, who wear uniforms and get their hands dirty. And you know, we started organizing and then you see, what actually does leadership or or courage look like. And here's somebody who got a hundred percent of their people out on the picket line from the library. And I only got 70% of mine from the political science department or something, and it totally changes. It takes what, I think, in higher education, ends up being a really nasty and degrading idea of who's worth something or who has, you know, who has knowledge or anything, and turned it on its head in a way that was also eye opening. 

Adam: Made it sort of real and not theoretical?
Gordon: Yeah. And what it made real is something different than the vision that, than the official vision, right? Which was that lots of people know something and lots of people are leaders worth following and have interesting creative ideas. And it's not just the tenure professors. 

Adam: It's interesting. At the start you talked about sort of moving from isolation to being able to work together and as we get a little deeper into thinking about union organizing, I guess I wonder, uh, if you've seen in all the work you've done some common themes or techniques for moving from that sense of isolation toward being able to work together in ways that requires, you said courage and stepping up in unanticipated ways.

Gordon: I mean, the number one thing that stops people from organizing unions every place is fear. At the extreme, fear of losing their jobs. But also, you know, most people in a non-union setting depend on a supervisor for all kinds of things. You know, can I get more hours or less hours or different schedule or can I come in late on this day cuz I have to do something with my kid? Or, you know, lots of ways that you can be rewarded or punished. You know, if there was no fear of any of that and you took almost any group of people in America and said, what do you think about getting together with your coworkers and coming up with some proposals for how to make work better and sitting down with management and trying to come to an agreement on those and writing those up in a way that's legally binding, there's almost nobody who would say no. I would rather have no say at all over that. I would rather just management decide everything unilaterally. But that's—the majority of the workplaces work that way, and they work that way overwhelmingly because people are scared. So to make people be less scared, you know, partly involves building real relationships between people. And it's also like the decision to support union organizing is different from a decision about like who to vote for in an election, because it's not just saying, what do I think is right or wrong, or what do I like, but it's that everybody's looking around to all of their coworkers and saying, do I believe that this group of people has what it takes to stand up and stick together and do something that will force management to do something they don't otherwise wanna do. And so it's, there's this kind of feedback mechanism where everybody's trying to judge the commitment and bravery of everybody else. And that's always true in every union organizing campaign, no matter what the industry is or who the people are.

Adam: What are they looking at when they're trying to make that judgment? How do you read that kind of thing? 

Gordon: Well, it's a reason why, in organizing campaigns, people usually start with mild things. So if you start, you know, if you go into a place, say, where organizing is not really started and say, you know, well, are people ready to strike? The answer is gonna be no, you know, almost a hundred percent of the time. People aren't ready to strike in the beginning. And so you say, okay, first let's just do a survey and see what people care about. And now let's have meetings in the departments. And now maybe we have a petition. And you know, for most people a petition is a scary thing because you're putting your name out in public and kind of outing yourself potentially as a troublemaker. And when people do each one of these things, and don't get fired, it takes away a little bit of their fear and builds a little bit of trust in each other. But it's a slow, gradual process. You know, I mean, anybody can imagine it in their own workplace if they look around and, you know, most workplaces are, it's not that everybody's in isolation from each other, but we tend to organize in a way that makes sense for the profit motive of the employer, which is what private companies are supposed to do, is make profit. So we're isolated according—we're divided according to occupation, sometimes pay scale. Oftentimes those things overlap with language or race or ethnicity or gender divisions.

And then along comes a union that needs to build solidarity across all those lines that people are normally separated by in the workplace. So that also has to happen cuz you can't have a successful union that's built on, you know, one group of people, no matter how strong they are, being very strong and everybody else being alienated or uninvolved.

Adam: Is it as simple as, I'm gonna just throw out like an exaggerated question here, which is if work conditions like, around schedule or pay flexibility, transparency—is it that when work conditions in those areas are bad, a union is most needed? Are there situations in which you think, no, a union is not needed, or do you think unions are good in every circumstance? I'm just trying to get a sense of what kind of a tool a union is and where the ground is most fertile for it. 

Gordon: Well, there's to say the first thing: do I think a union makes sense in every workplace? Yes. To not have a union is like, means there's no democratic process inside the workplace, inside the corporation or the organization. And it's like saying, you know, when people are like, well, if the boss is good, then there's no need for a union. To me, it's kind of like saying if you have a benign dictatorship, but it's truly benign and really wants what's good for people, then there's no need for democracy. And that, you know, in the most extreme favorable case you can think of, that might be true. In terms of saying a truly enlightened dictator is gonna make all the right decisions that will make people's lives as good or better than the decisions they would make for themselves. But at some point it's like, you know, being 20 and having your parents say, we only want what's best for you. And you feel like, okay, well maybe you do only want what's best for me, but I need to be able to make these decisions on my own. 

There's something that's—there's something fundamental about that, and I, this is a little off track, but you know, one of the things I think about with this is, I spoke to somebody once who is an very high executive in a Fortune 500 company, not the CEO, but like one of the top two or three people. And all of his friends were in similar positions in different companies. And he told me that they all talked with each other about putting together what they called ‘fuck you money.’ And what that was, was enough money to live, to support themselves and their families for a year in case they got fired. So that if they got into a fight with their boss, who was the CEO, they knew that they would be okay, even if they got fired, they'd have enough money to live till they found another job. Now, look, these were all people who were at, you know, the top of the economy. You know, almost the most powerful people that exist with the greatest prospects of employment. So this guy told me that him and all of his friends did put aside this money. None of them ever used it, but it made them feel different walking into work every day, like they felt like they walked in more, a little more with a straight back than bent over and didn't have to worry about what happens if I say what I really think.

So for a normal person who has no chance in hell of putting together a year's worth of living expenses, having a union contract and a neutral, impartial grievance procedure is the closest you can come to fuck you money. Right? And that's separate from, does the boss make good decisions or not, it's like, can I act, can I just be a dignified adult or do I need to always be, you know, a certain amount, subservient and kissing up to somebody because I'm dependent on them. 

Where unionization is most likely, you know, depends on two things that in some ways are in tension. One is, people feel like they're being mistreated, so that there's [unknown] did this research where they measured, what do people think they deserve and what are they getting, in terms of a lot of things—not just money, but you know, voice over certain kinds of decisions and stuff like that. So the things that you mentioned, where people are being mistreated, and then the other thing is that they think there's some hope, not a guarantee, but they believe there's a reasonable chance of changing that. I do not believe it's true what some people say is like, oh, things just have to get bad enough, and then people rebel. There, you know, there was, I don't know, 600 years of feudalism and although there were some revolts, for the most part, everybody woke up in the morning and that was just their normal life. And you know, things can be very bad and people don't rebel unless they think there's actually a chance of winning.

So you need both of those things. I mean, in terms of to make the most fertile ground. And it's not, I mean, money is always very important, but I think if you, in interviews of workers who become the most active in union organizing drives, are people who have some sense of injustice or not being treated with dignity on the job. And some of that's about money, but it's not only about money. 

Adam: So there's a clear link, it sounds like, actually, between fertile ground and the sense of dignity that—

Gordon: Yes, but you have to believe that it's possible too, otherwise, you know, you'd be putting yourself at danger and banging your head against a wall.

If you look at the anti-union playbooks of management consultants and the stuff, you know, you can find the stuff in—it used to be printed in books, now it's mostly online—one of the key parts of the classic message that management consultants use to stop people from organizing unions is essentially convincing them that it's futile. That there's nothing the union could do to improve their payer conditions. 

Adam: Right. So it's actually, so they don't say, focus on the first condition you talked about, which is the mistreatment. Instead they focus on the second, that no matter what you do, it's gonna remain the same or it's not gonna improve.

Gordon: Yeah. Yeah.

Adam: Can I ask you, I want to sort of anchor this a little bit in Oregon and maybe the US right now. I think what I want to ask is why aren't unions more prevalent?  

Gordon: Overwhelmingly the answer is fear, fear, and fear. The number of, the most recent data from MIT, so that the percentage of people who say that they wish they had a union in their workplace is like 50% or something like that. And the number of, in the private sector, the number of people who do have, workplaces that do have unions is like seven percent. The gap in numbers of people is something between 50 and 60 million people. So that if, if everybody who says, according to polls, that they wish they had a union had one, there'd be an additional 50 or 60 million unionized people.

And overwhelmingly, the reason that doesn't happen is that people are afraid and that, you know, that's part of the reason why you have a significantly higher unionization rate in the public sector than you do in the private. People are afraid in the public sector too, but the public sector traditionally, and in Oregon by law, does not engage in the kind of scorched earth intimidation tactics that are the norm in the private sector. And so unionization is about 7 or 8% in the private sector nationally and someplace in the twenties in the public sector.  

Adam: And maybe, can we just talk about Oregon for just a minute? Relatively higher unionization in Oregon than nationally?

Gordon: Yes. 

Adam: And, and why is that so, do you think? And I said relatively from a place of ignorance, what's your sense of where Oregon stands next to the country as a whole?

Gordon: It is higher than the national average. It's not one of the highest states, but it is higher than the national average. The public sector is well organized, and like I said, public sector labor law is better here than in most places, which essentially prohibits employers from—it requires that public future employers be neutral, basically. They can't do anything to either encourage or discourage people from organizing unions. So it just takes the employer out of that debate among workers. 

So Oregon is a little stronger, and then a lot of what's going on here I think is similar to what's happening elsewhere in the country and has more to do with changes over time than it does with like the particulars of Oregon versus other parts of the country. 

Adam: What are the changes you're seeing over time? 

Gordon: So the whole national economy has gotten slowly but steadily more unequal for the last forty years. And that also means harder for people, not to get rich, but to get a secure middle class, kind of working middle class life, in which you have a home, you have health insurance. You're not afraid about being poor when you're old. You can help your kids launch into adulthood. That's what most people want. I mean, I'm sure everybody would be happy to be rich, but that's really the thing that people want. And then it's gotten harder and harder for more people.

One of the outcomes of that is that jobs, like, let's say Starbucks, years ago were something  most people just did temporarily for a few months on the way to someplace else. You know, it was a part-time job, I don't know, while they're in school or during the summer. Nobody thought of it as their, as a long-term job. And those jobs have become things that people do now for a lot longer and longer Into their twenties, say, into their lives. And that means that the jobs matter to them more than they used to. Which I think is why we've seen organizing in those sectors that in the past you never would've seen organizing in. In some way, it's a sign of problems in the economy. 

Also, the support for unions, you know, by opinion polls is strongest basically—you know, the younger people are, the stronger that support is, and I think that's less, I mean I don't know if that's really an ideological difference, maybe it is, but I also think it's because people who are just coming up now, who are in their early twenties, see a harder economy. All this obviously is bad, is a problem or less hopeful, less feel like, oh yeah, I can do this thing and then I'll progress and I'll be, you know, moving up the ladder and doing well. And that makes things like, you know, the things that unions can give, more important to them and makes them stay longer in those kinds of jobs. So I think the wave of organizing that we've seen, especially in the service economy, is partly a function of that stage that we're at in economic history.

Adam: So that seems like a bad news, good news story.

Gordon: I think that's right. And I mean, you see the same thing in, for instance, organizing graduate students or adjunct professors at universities, which has also been growing a lot in the last couple of decades. It’s directly in proportion to how bad those job markets have become. 

Adam: I'm thinking about your two-part, what makes for fertile ground? One, like mistreatment and I think, then the second part you named was, was hope for change. It's interesting to think of, okay, what's gonna, what's gonna lead to someone who's working at Starbucks feel like, okay, I'm here enough, it matters enough, and I am connected enough to the other people I work with that we should go ahead and work on unionizing. And that that wouldn't have happened twenty, thirty years ago. I mean, how do you feel when you look at these sorts of changes? Does it make you feel optimistic or what's the emotional response to this stuff?

Gordon: I think it's great to see people standing up for themselves and organizing. You know, like you said, it's in a lot of ways, in response to conditions that are not good. You know, I have a PhD in political science, which I feel like is the field that failed to predict the downfall of the Soviet Union and every other major thing that's happened. So I don't, I don't feel like I can say what's gonna happen in the future, but in terms of hope, one of the things I think we've seen is how quickly something can spread. So Starbucks is a good example of that. There was no organizing at any Starbucks, and then one store in Buffalo, New York successfully organized. And then within a year there were, I don't know, 150, 200 other stores that had organized. 

We kind of saw the same thing with the fight for a $15 minimum wage, which I think most people in America thought that that was both impossible and maybe unwarranted, like undeserved. And the first place that that won was in SeaTech, in the city that surrounds the airport in Seattle.

And it was won through a ballot initiative. And because, I think it's a town of only about 15,000 people, there was intensive, intensive organizing. So whatever, it took a long struggle. But as soon as they won in Sea Tac, then people thought, well, if you get fifteen bucks an hour for pouring lattes in Seattle, why shouldn't we get that at LAX or at Portland or wherever. And that spread very quickly too. Not always at fifteen, but the push for significantly higher minimum wage spread very quickly after the first victory. So I think that we are at a time when, you know, there's anxiety and resentment and insecurity in the economy and that can go in a lot of directions.

You know, people end up being resentful at big corporations and at the same time resentful of immigrants or it fuels racism, fuels a lot of different things, but when there's, when people see like, oh you organized at Starbucks and you got this much more and this worked? I think there's a lot of readiness to jump on things when people are given reason to be hopeful. Not to be promised, but to believe they have a reasonable chance of winning. 

Adam: Are there policy developments that particularly excite you right now? 

Gordon: Yes. You know, nothing is totally set, but there's a move at the federal level to say that non-compete agreements have to only be for people who actually have access to corporate secrets. I don't know if this is something you've ever run into. But you know, when you work someplace and they make you sign something saying, I won't work for another company that does this kind of work for two years after I leave here, or something like that. You know, if you're somebody who's privy to whatever secret recipes or code or whatever, or you know, corporate trademark, things like that may make sense. But in the last couple of decades, that's proliferated to a huge part of the economy where you have people working at fast food restaurants who are forced to sign something saying, when I leave here, I won't work for a restaurant within fifty miles for the next year, which makes people, you know, makes it much more difficult to quit a job. And makes people much more scared about being fired. So there's a move at the federal level to do away with that, which I also think some of the stuff that is happening federally about incentives, to have the clean energy technology done in America and done as high wage jobs, whether or not they're union, is really important.

You know, as far as I can see, right, we're most likely gonna have all electric cars in a decade or something, and hopefully, I mean Oregon has already made the commitment to switch to a hundred percent clean renewable electricity generation, and there's a lot of work and a lot of investment. And the question of, to some degree, is that work gonna be done domestically or is it gonna be sent to wherever the cheapest labor is in the world? And if it's done domestically, is it gonna be high wage or not? And you know, there are, from my point of view, good and disappointing things about the Biden administration, but they've taken some really important steps on that front. And when you look at what are the, what are the industries that are emerging, that are gonna add jobs, not in the small numbers, but in big numbers, that's one of the biggest things. So that's a hopeful thing to me.

Adam: Gordon Lafer is a professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center. He served a senior policy advisor for the US House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and author of The 1% Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America, One State at a Time.

You can find links to Vanessa and Gordon's work in our shownotes at oregonhumanities.org. The Detour is produced and engineered by Keiren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Ben Waterhouse, Karina Briski and Alexandra Powell Bugden are our assistant producers. I'm Adam Davis. Thanks for listening. See you next time.



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