…and how to do so
Even before the pandemic, things were bad for American workers. According to a 2017 CareerBuilder report, 78% of US workers were already living paycheck-to-paycheck, and more than a quarter of workers were unable to set aside any savings. United for ALICE is an organization that studies “financial hardship across the United States,” and their national overview based on a 3-year average between 2014 and 2017 paints a disturbing picture of how many people in the US were already unable to support their families, even with jobs.
America has never really been true to its promise of equality, but there was a time when workers earned a better relative wage. The Economic Policy Institute published a handy-yet-depressing article in 2015 called “Wage Stagnation in Nine Charts,” showing how this situation has worsened since the 1970’s. Though there are many factors to consider here, it is worth noting that this coincides with the decline of unionization.
I don’t intend to go into a history of the labor movement here, but suffice it to say that history suggests things go better for workers when they organize. Unions are just one way of accomplishing this. It can be more difficult, but you can also organize your coworkers without a union.
I recently spoke to Daniel Grosso, a member of the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Labor Committee, about what the Denver DSA is doing, and his thoughts on why organizing is important.
Kevin: Could you start with a description of what your current involvement in organizing is?
Daniel: Our most immediate focus has been on organizing restaurant workers in Denver and Colorado generally, both those that are back at work and those who are unemployed.
In your experience, what is the most common reason workers have for getting involved with a union, or some other workplace organizing?
The most common reason that workers get organized is because of selfishness. I think many people would be surprised about that answer, but in my experience the only way to build true power is to show individual workers that they can achieve more by getting organized with their fellow workers than making demands alone. It’s honestly pretty simple. When you ask the average worker, do you want better pay? Do you want safer worker conditions? Do you want more ownership over your job duties? The answer is always yes, yes, and yes!
And then when you ask, if you went to your boss alone and asked for all those things what would happen? The worker understands on a visceral level based on their lived experience under capitalism in America, better than any textbook could teach, that the boss would laugh in their face. Well, what if you and all your coworkers went at the same time to your boss and did that, could they ignore you? And the answer is of course not. So, most workers don’t organize because they are socialists, or have a deep ideological belief in unions or workers rights. Most get organized because they know they deserve better, and once they understand they can actually get better by joining a team they want a union. As a side note one of America’s biggest hurdles in this arena is our cultural death grip on the idea of ‘individualism’. The truth is, as John Donne said, ‘no man is an island entire of itself’.
When workers organize, with or without a union, would you say they generally see an improvement in conditions?
With or without a union workers who get organized always see improvement in their working conditions, mental health, and general well being. We’re Americans. Every American that I’ve ever met believes that fighting for a good cause is a good thing, regardless of the outcome. So, when workers organize, even if they don’t win every single demand they have, they build solidarity between each other. And solidarity leads to a sense of community and, sappy as it may sound, love. Those are always good things to build towards.
In terms of changing things for the better, do you think voting, even in local elections, has as much impact as organizing in the workplace?
In terms of changing things for the better we need to understand that both voting and organizing are simply tactics in the broader struggle for building a better society. I always encourage people to vote because it is a good tactic to get politicians in office who might make it easier to organize. But the short answer is, organizing is far more effective simply because you can do it every day rather than once every two to four years. And having an organized workplace can win you real material benefits like more money, healthcare, etc that actually allow workers to have more free time to focus on things like ‘who should I vote for?’ And also, having strong worker unions and organizations actually affects how politicians vote and act. In this country worker unions used to dictate the terms of debate. When politicians were talking about working conditions unions had a seat at the table and directed the conversation. It wasn’t even a question if they would be involved. Now, unions are on the upswing again, but they are nowhere near the power they once had. So, my feeling is that when you vote, and you should, you should not think of the politician you are voting for as a saviour who will fix the bad things in your life, but rather as another tool who could make it easier for you to make actual consequential decisions about your life; like, they could make it legal in Colorado for public sector unions to strike for example.
Perhaps striking sounds extreme to you, but especially at this point, it shouldn’t. In her book A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy (which I highly recommend), Jane McAlevey sums it up quite nicely:
“Being nice and polite, playing by the rules, occasionally voting in elections just doesn’t cut it with the billionaire class. The only way to make the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, give a meaningful percentage of his profits to the people who made him a multibillionaire is for the workers, all of them, to walk off the job until he does.”
Though she was referring to one specific and extreme case, the concept applies elsewhere too.
Thanks to Daniel for taking the time to answer my questions.
Disclosure: I (Kevin) am also a member of the DSA. However, all opinions expressed here are my own, unless otherwise noted. This is not an ad for the DSA, though I would personally encourage others to get involved with them, or any other group working towards similar goals.
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