RevolutionZ

Ep 259 Ellen David Friedman on Labor Organizing

December 10, 2023 Michael Albert / Ellem David Friedman Season 1 Episode 259
RevolutionZ
Ep 259 Ellen David Friedman on Labor Organizing
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Episode 259 of RevolutionZ discusses with Ellen David Friedman from the board of Labor Notes and based on her decades  of labor organizing the current surge and   prospects of U.S. labor organizing.  How can unions best navigate the complexities of race, gender, class, and climate struggles for change.. How can organizers generate long-term  commitment and avoid distractions from and obstacles to  a  relentless struggle for dignity, efficacy, and control within workplaces and throughout society. 


Support the show

Michael Albert:

Hello, my name is Michael Albert and I am the host of the podcast that's titled Revolution Z. This is to be our 259th consecutive episode and our guest this time is Ellen David Freedman. Ellen has been a union organizer, primarily in Vermont, for nearly 50 years, where she organized scores of unions, coordinated contract campaigns and strikes, and built the left through helping to found and lead the Vermont Rainbow Coalition, vermont Progressive Party, vermont Workers Center and electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders and other progressives too numerous to name. Between 2005 and 2015, she lived in now I'm not sure how to pronounce this.

Ellen David Friedman:

Guanzhou.

Michael Albert:

Guanzhou, China, and involved herself actively at many levels of the workers movement until being expelled by the National Security Police. Presently, she serves as chair of the Board of Labor Notes and devotes herself to building the class struggle poll of the resurgent US labor movement. In short, ellen is a remarkable person, politically committed not for a brief span, but for decades on end. So, ellen, welcome to Revolution Z.

Ellen David Friedman:

I'm so delighted to be here. Thank you, Michael.

Michael Albert:

How about i to start, and before getting into current labor activism's importance and directions, which I'm sure we'll focus on, we address one pretty easy question and one that might be rather difficult but has struck me of late as of considerable general importance. So first, what got you started in left and particularly labor activity?

Ellen David Friedman:

Ellen, I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not drawn by the profound underlying commitments of the left. I was born in 1952 and despite obviously the chilling impact of the post-war anti-communist hysteria, the McCarthy period, as a child and growing up in the 50s and 60s, wherever one put one's hands out or wherever one cast one's eye, there were ideas of vast social necessity for equality, for identifying and countering racism, misogyny. Obviously, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the student movement that was largely anti-imperialist and anti-war, all forms of the new communist movement, and even just in broad sort of civil society, the center of gravity was in the direction of equity and social goods as opposed to the domination of the market which has characterized neoliberalism. So I felt like I was born to resonate with the historic chords of the moment and lucky enough to encounter many, many people during the way who helped fulfill those expectations and hopes.

Michael Albert:

You know, it almost leads perfectly into the second question which I wanted to ask in any event, which is, over the decades, you have, I am sure, known or just encountered a whole lot of people who have gotten started on the left, become active at one moment or another, maybe in a strike or a campaign, or perhaps a set of protests like Me Too or anti-war activity or climate activism or Black Lives Matter or whatever and going back, of course there were many more paths and who have perhaps remained progressive or even radical, but who have not become passionately committed, multi-issue, multi-tactic participants like yourself, pretty much always prioritizing, contributing to trying to win change and indeed to win a better world.

Michael Albert:

So I know it's a tough and perhaps even a somewhat unfair question, but well, what do you think causes some people to get involved at some point but so far not very many to become lifelong activism creators, organizers, planners, doers. And what causes other people to drift off or remain progressive, but at a very much lesser level of involvement? So, to put it differently, we get spurts of growth. Right now, for example, around Palestine, there's a big spurt of growth. But then how should we act so that all who come aboard stay aboard and exhibit steadily growing breadth and depth of commitment. Or, finally, to put it more personally, what has caused you to stay fundamentally involved, committed, focused, and what instead caused others to well drift off?

Ellen David Friedman:

That is a glorious question, because it leads us to think about the solution. A good question will do that, and so I'm happy to try and address some parts of it. I think I can start with the least important thing first, and that would be you know something about those things that we do not get to choose the moment in time that we are born, the family we are born into, what their values are, our own personalities, I mean, where do personalities come from? We certainly do not know the answer to that, but some personalities seem more inclined to one form of life activity or another. So you know all of those totally idiosyncratic but random, apparently random choices. What class are you born into, what race, what gender?

Ellen David Friedman:

putting all of those things aside, therefore, I would say that, for me, the critical elements are these One, the opportunity to find, be invited into or place yourself into environments where your dignity is being upheld, maintained and reinforced as you learn to do the work of organizing and as we know from our respective experiences in the left, in the 60s and 70s.

Ellen David Friedman:

That was not always the case and sometimes it was, but not always. And it's very hard, I think, for people to learn to take risks or to make commitments in environments where their dignity is in doubt. You know it's a very it's a competitive environment. If it is very judgmental, if it is filled with cliques and small groups, if it's filled with secrecy and manipulation and positionality, you know those are not comfortable places to be. So I do think that is something we can control. We can try and shape our organizations, whether they are unions as it has been for me because my primary home has been in the labor movement for all these years or in left political organizations, community organizations of any sort. So that's that has been a lesson that I hold very dear and in my organizing I try and take that seriously. The next thing which we also get to control a bit is whether or not we have exposure to and the opportunity to develop our critical thinking within an ideological framework.

Ellen David Friedman:

So I again felt quite fortunate that in the mid-60s, through older friends, when I was still in junior high I think, I began to be exposed to the basic Marxist canon and to begin to read and study with others, long before I think I had the intellectual ability to master. But what happened for me was this notion that, oh, there can be an explanation for the world as I am seeing it, as I'm experiencing it, not only its abstract, largest self, but its most immediate, intimate self. There can be an explanation that allows me to feel grounded, that gives me the tools for confidently assessing my environment and then figuring out is there something I can do about this environment? So for me those tools were, you know, the tools of historical dialectical materialism, again learned. I was lucky to be able to learn them in environments that were not always driven by a party line, which again is not a very respectful way to teach or learn.

Ellen David Friedman:

I did decide for myself quite early on, I think in my sophomore year at college, which was 1971 or 72, having been in the SDS chapter at Harvard where I was an undergraduate, which then folded, I think, some time around then, and maybe I joined I did join some other left sectarian organization, briefly, not sure if I remember what it was, but in both cases I thought. You know, I don't actually think this is going to help me either in my development of theory or my development of practice in the environment I need. So I have actually never joined a political organization I mean a you know left sectarian party organization since then, which is you know 50 years.

Ellen David Friedman:

And I have never regretted that decision. So I've always worked very closely with people in all stripes and in the labor work of course, a lot with DSA in recent years, with ISO when that was still a formation solidarity, from which the founders of labor notes, with which the founders of labor notes are associated, various more anarchist groupings. Happily, you know, very happily, as long as people kind of behave themselves as decent human beings, that's great and can enhance our movement. But I have felt I needed to be able to feel unconstrained by dogma and I guess the final so I think that's useful for everyone and I think the final thing are having access to the methods that help us develop critical thinking, and by that I mean in our, in our modern history, the work and the approaches of popular education, for example, miles Horton, ella Baker, paula Friary, for some of the main, you know, proponents.

Ellen David Friedman:

They're just profound. Those ideas are so damn profound, you know, and they're very simple this approach to how you help people, whoever they are, wherever they find themselves, to see themselves within the system that is dominating their lives, to understand that they are in that system with others, than to see themselves as part of a collective with others for the purpose of transforming that system into a more liberatory world. So I'm super grateful for those and I think if you kind of put those few elements together, it helps people stay in for the long haul. No guarantees, but everyone that I know who has stayed in for the long haul and and the upcoming generations who are now entering I've watched them being transformed by some of these factors. I think we have a chance to build a steadier, stronger base in the left.

Michael Albert:

I have to thank you for complimenting the question, but I also have to tell you that the answer was brilliant and, I think, points to the opposite side of the coin. That is, the features of what we've done or are doing that are impediments to people staying in and that need to be corrected. But I want to change gear to what you've done, a lot of your work on. So what do you think has caused the really quite substantial, I think, spurt of labor activism that's now occurring in the US and in other places as well?

Ellen David Friedman:

Yeah, first, we just have to say isn't it fabulous People of our age and our generation who we're not absolutely sure we were going to get to be around for this moment? I certainly could not be more exhilarated and it's one of the things about being an organizer for so long is that, as simply horrific, horrible crises continue to erupt everywhere the underlying and permanent crisis of climate destruction, of course, racism, deep exploitation of workers in every way and, as we know, the unbearable, grotesque events unfolding now with the genocidal attack at the State of Israel against Palestine, we have to as engaged, hopefully compassionate and human beings, we have to be deeply hurt and we have to do what Papa Gramsci instructed us to do many decades ago, which is to have a pessimism of the mind, an optimism of the will about all of this. Sadness cannot be a reason to not take a very forthright, steadfast and impassioned attitude towards organizing. Sadness is not enough of a reason.

Michael Albert:

Let me interrupt you before you go on to the labor part. Continued the last question. In some sense, while you were giving the first answer, I thought of the same quote, unsurprisingly.

Michael Albert:

I guess, and I think you actually sort of demonstrated in the second answer part of why you've stuck with it. You can see the ills, you can see the dangers, you can feel the pain, but at the same time this isn't always true, I don't think, including at this current moment At the same time, you can find the reasons for persisting, the reasons for optimism. I mean, when you opened up with isn't it amazing to be at this moment with all this labor activity going on? I think there's a lot of people around who are instead saying isn't it dreadful to be at this moment when it's all over, there's no hope and anything that looks like hope isn't that contrast. Some would say you're insane, others would say it's admirable, and that may be the difference.

Ellen David Friedman:

Yeah, I often encourage people in my organizing work to not talk about optimism, of course, when Gramsci has it embedded in that beautiful quote.

Ellen David Friedman:

It's okay, but the quality that I think we are best served by in our organizing is not focused on the need for a specific outcome. There's so little that we can do to control a specific outcome. Obviously, the balance of power and forces are so profoundly weighed against liberation, against peace, a world at peace, a world of equality, a world of simply social sustainability. So the odds are so clearly opposed to that we would be quite silly, in fact psychotic, to have optimism about the outcome. So what we have to be instead optimistic about is that anyone anywhere can engage in organizing on the basis of profoundly radical and liberatory values, anyone anywhere. Can we know that? We see that we hear those stories all through history In millions of stories. Of course we will never hear from history, but that we know happened. And so again in my organizing, even through all these extremely slow years of neoliberalism from the 1980s until about 2010 or so, I was filled with a kind of steady sense of you know if that person who I talked to yesterday actually just calls me back next week to tell me, yes, here's what happened in my workplace this week. You know we talked about this idea. I had some questions, you made some suggestions. I went back and talked to my coworkers and I want to tell you about it. Any incremental victories like that would fill me with complete joy. So this may be a question of personality I don't know if it's possible but that capacity to believe that what we do has value, that scale, of course, is important because of all the dragons we have to slay, but that, since we don't get to just wish those dragons dead, we instead have to be fulfilled and we have to be encouraged to keep going. At whatever level our victories can occur including, you know, if we cut the dragon's toenails, that counts right. There's something there, and so some of it is proportionality, accepting. You know that the big victories take a long time and a very strong base to build and seeing ourselves as part of that project, and some of it is just not being distracted. So, in answer to the earlier question about why have you lost so many people along the way, I think my guess is you, and I would agree there have been a lot of distractions in the last 50 years or so.

Ellen David Friedman:

Neoliberalism has done a great job at confusing people about many things. Confusing people, obviously, about consumption. We lost many people simply to the idea of recreating, you know, their lives as consumers in one fashion or another, because consumption is the byword of neoliberalism, I have been very, very deeply concerned by the penetration of, you know, the nonprofit industrial complex, the transformation of an actual movement into a different form of consumption, of political consumption, in which, you know, many unions and all kinds of well-meaning nonprofits have recreated themselves with corporate logic, where they've ended up with high-paid executive salaries, with CEOs or directors of nonprofits or union presidents who see the organization as their organization, who use the resources as if it is their resources, who become imperial and autocratic at worst, and just top-down or bullying in order to maintain a sense of control. So the opposite of what we mean by bottom-up, mass-based, radically democratic participatory spaces. Unfortunately, many, many, many people have been lost to the left by wandering around in that sterile desert for so long.

Ellen David Friedman:

So, anyway, lots of reasons that have to do with distraction. The next question about well, why are we seeing it now? In part, is the ability of neoliberalism, I think, to offer all those distractions was what happened to the economy, you know, after the US economy went to crisis and we began what I think we can now understand as the transfer of the center of the global capitalist project from the US to China and, after China's period of economic opening up and reform in the 1980s, allowing this kind of bubble economy to develop here. So anyway, there was lots of resources floating around, mostly through debt, but anyway, keeping us quite distracted. And now you know the bill is coming due and people are really struggling materially and I think that's part of what has engendered this new period.

Michael Albert:

I think it is too, but as I hear you, I sort of think back in, the 60s were a time when there were distractions galore. Right, there were an incredible array of things to move people from any fledgling concerned and flangeling with social justice, etc. Into other areas that actually did offer some real fulfilling possibilities. And yet, you know, there was the civil rights movement and there were other movements that then blew up into the whole 60s phenomena. So I think another factor I'm not saying the one that you're raising isn't an issue it is, of course but I think maybe another factor is some sense of efficacy, some sense of hope, some sense that there's a point to trying to cut the dragon's toes or seek a new world.

Michael Albert:

I actually myself prefer the latter, I'm not really a dragon barber, but in any event, I think that other thing is a factor too. If I'm wrong, I'm wasting a lot of my time, but in any event, the real point to come out of this is we do need to figure this out. It doesn't matter how long we operate if we get a surge and then the surge bounces down to a trickle instead of the surge becoming a sustained project that can win. Then we just go through an infinite array of bouncing around and not taking that step, and I think what you and I probably most profoundly agree on is that that is indeed, in many ways, the task of the day.

Ellen David Friedman:

Yes, and it actually is a fabulous segue to something that I have only recently hit upon in a clarified form, which is this for many of us who work as organizers, whether in the labor movement or in other settings, for most of my adult life, the idea is that what organizers do is they build campaigns and they help get people involved in campaigns with the hopes of winning something. Obviously political campaigns, a union election, a strike, trying to pass a piece of legislation right, but campaign oriented, and so much of what has constituted the literature and the legacy and the practice of organizing throughout my entire adult life has been about that, and that stuff is very important. So, again in the labor setting, which I know best, these fundamental tools of well, first you have to identify your universe. Who are the workers in this workplace? Where can you get lists? How can you get contact information? How can you map where those workers are? What are their relationships to one another and to the employer? And then all of the assessment activities. Talking with people and coding them somehow is either being, you know, pro or anti, that whole art and science. And then how you get people involved in escalating campaigns, leveraging power and so on. I don't discount any of that. That's all incredibly important.

Ellen David Friedman:

We at Labor Notes particularly and Labor Notes I've never been on the staff, but I have been a profound, the most profound of groupies of Labor Notes since its birth in 1979. It has, for me, always been my North Star is how I think of it. This fixed point in the firmament where, even when I was living in rural Vermont, there was no one else around. I was trying my best to figure out how to become a union organizer and I could get the magazine in the mail once a month and I felt like I could hang on for another month. It was like that, and so Labor Notes' goal has been how to help do that, in large part how to help build fights and winning fights, meaningful fights, but from the perspective of bottom up democratic class struggle. Unionism and has done a fabulous job at that as well is one of the only projects of the 70s, certainly in the labor movement, that has survived. It's really been Labor Notes and TDU teamsters for a democratic union.

Ellen David Friedman:

Recently, last five years or so, maybe a little longer I have really been rethinking a great deal of both how to organize, why to organize and how to teach organizing, and I've been doing a lot of it and also writing some about it. The Labor Notes editors asked me to write a book about organizing, which I'm doing now and it is almost fully written. I think that's probably about 80 or 85% written. And it was only in the last few weeks that I realized that the whole point of organizing and now I'm going to have to rewrite some of the book along these lines is that organizers should help turn other people into organizers. That's what we have to do. Certainly have to win campaigns, yes, or take on this or that fight or how to. All those things are important, but it is really.

Ellen David Friedman:

It starts with your first question how do people come into the movement, stay in it for the long run? Because our organizations come and go, our unions come and go. They come and go in part because of the changes in the economy which we don't determine. Capitalism determines that. So the coal miners union, united Mine Workers, at one time was a stellar example of union democracy and the teamsters have been and then weren't and then are again. And the auto workers was once led by communists and then weren't and are now led by really seriously progressive kind of class struggle oriented leadership. So those things come and go. We can't depend on the existence of any organization or any party or any. We can depend on ourselves to develop as organizers so that we are ready to take up whatever history hands us and work it. So that's where I've come to.

Michael Albert:

I wonder if what that means, or includes in its meaning, is that there's a goal. In other words, all those campaigns and those projects they have goals, but they're goals in the short run or in the medium run and they're not a long run goal and you can feel like, well, okay, I worked forever to win this intermediate goal, but it's going to roll back unless something fundamental changes. And that is true, actually, it will ultimately roll back unless something fundamental changes. So you know, I've been of the mind, rightly or wrongly, that one of the things that has to exist, along with spirit and seeing the glass half full, and and passion, and and the rest of it is a vision, is something that goes beyond the campaign that you're working on and really even orients the campaign you're working on. So you know you're working for higher wages, but you have in mind, well, what's really the goal for income distribution and for the way people should be remunerated for their labor? Or you have in mind, you know, a degree of say in the workplace or in the industry. Well, what's really the goal for what kind of say people should have and that that can sustain you even as other things ebb and flow. And so when I look at my, at people I know who have stuck and haven't stuck, that does seem to be a part of it. You know that.

Michael Albert:

And back you were in the rainbow when Ron Dellums would say you know, give hope a chance. I took him to be saying that, that, in other words, you had to have that. You called labor notes a load store. You know, a fixed point in the firmament. Well, this is another fixed point in the firmament. What we want, I mean not that it isn't flexible, one that we don't learn and refine it, but nonetheless it provides that continuity. So I've always thought well, I guess I have always thought that that was partly the case, and it seems like it jobs with what you're saying.

Ellen David Friedman:

Yes, and so here's how I kind of think about this question. Our generation, the baby boom generation, grew up both with able to inherit and learn from essentially the common term, the experiments, the actual revolutions and the building of communist states in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, china, cuba and, at the same time, the complete discreditation of those states and those theories Like. At the same time, it was a little crazy making, I think it took our generation a rather long time to try and make sense of any of that. I will only speak for myself. I had to go to China, which I finally did in 2005, and then spend 10 years there, which had many different reasons for it, but one of the things it helped me to really cement and understand is why state capitalism is not the same as our dream for socialism or communism and easy to say but hard to analyze, to deeply understand, to face and to accept. And the whole question of the state and what is the role of the state in socialism or communism the deep, deep overarching questions, right when we think about what is a vision we hold. What I found myself thinking and often saying to people is we cannot really answer that question until we have matured a bit in our ability to theorize the last 100 years, see if we can try to come to an understanding of what capitalism now means and does. Certainly, I think dialectical materialism is a fabulous tool for that analysis. But where it led the prior revolutionary projects is clearly not where we want to go.

Ellen David Friedman:

So what is it? It's not social democracy, for reasons I'm sure I don't need to talk about or argue here. And certainly I'm seeing in many of the youngsters around me and in myself and I know this is the life that you have lived for many years very definite reorientation in the direction of something we have called anarchism. But we also don't know exactly what that means as a vision for actual existence at this moment or in the future. So I have quite a respect for the long arc of history, including that I believe we are now shrugging off some of the deadening effects of neoliberalism, are learning from it and are beginning to rebuild or build a notion of what an economy, a political economy, would be that is not built on competitive markets. I mean, that's the most important thing, right? I don't know private ownership, whatever.

Ellen David Friedman:

We will not get into that question, but at least to say competitive markets do seem to be the source of much of their misery and their tendency to concentrate and consolidate wealth and power, that that has not proved healthy to the planet or human beings, so not that and that what we're getting to experiment with is the practice of participatory democracy. For me, that has to happen at the point of production so we can actually test it out. And it's fine to test it out in a, in a book group or a community organization, but when you are wielding power and the potential for self governance at the point of production in a workplace, now you really have a chance of seeing do these ideas work and what do they produce. So I think we're very, very, very early days there, but that's what is certainly capturing most of my attention and I think that will give us, that will give us information about how we want to govern ourselves and what we can hope from governing ourselves in the future.

Michael Albert:

I feel a little strange. I will be very interested if you come upon participatory economics, participatory society, the kinds of stuff that let's call it the part of the movement that I've been in has generated to try and address some of these questions, both the historical questions, you know, the Soviet model and so on, even historical materialism, even even the question of, well, is there something wrong in there that misled us from focuses that we needed to incorporate and to include class, etc.

Michael Albert:

So all this stuff that will be interesting when it happens, because I feel, great sympathy with you, know your sort of perception of of the world and your feelings about it, and yet there is this, this other issue.

Ellen David Friedman:

You know. Let me just say one more thing about it Sure.

Ellen David Friedman:

We were again. I know there's a for obvious reasons because of our age and the topic, we are bouncing back and forth between some of our understandings and interaction with the world in the 60s and 70s and the present moment. One of the differences that I'm seeing, if I'm if I'm remembering correctly, is that we were really on fire about capitalism and about imperialism. It was totally central for us. I am rereading now the just marvelous book Detroit. I Do Mine Dying about the Detroit Revolutionary Union movement and Auto Workers Union and the level of the millenancy class consciousness. You know, this profound understanding of the relationship of imperialism to racism at home, until work, labor exploitation was very, very advanced. Well, we're not. That that is not present in in the, in the broad environment that they're working in which we're working.

Ellen David Friedman:

But here's one thing that I am seeing now, which I wasn't seeing then, which does make me encourage, which is the commitment to what we mean by actually existing union democracy. So much. Much of what I do in my work and through the notes is is work in this, what we call the caucus poll of the labor movement, where, you know, internal groups of union members form an opposition caucus to their often bureaucratic and business oriented union and try and change it, transform the union, shake things up. And I have come to believe strongly over over many, many years that this is the most difficult work we can do in the labor movement because, in part, how depressed people become when they realize that they have to fight both the boss, and the union boss and it's very destabilizing and discouraging and there's lots of obstacles, but if you master them you're learning a great deal about democratic self-governance.

Ellen David Friedman:

So I just would say that in a lot of different kinds of workplaces I'm seeing there's no big deep understanding of deep understanding of capitalism and imperialism. It's not a big ideological framework for many, many people, but they are very keen on this, they're very, very interested in these ideas and I think that's important.

Michael Albert:

I think it may be well beyond important in other words, but you described at one point that in order to make a leap into the future, we had to sort of understand the past and understand the trajectory of movements, et cetera, et cetera. That's how I developed from I think I'm five years older than you from out of the 60s and through the next period. It was a look at past theory, past structures, past efforts and attempt to understand why they didn't work. They worked to a degree, but they didn't yield, as you said, what we really wanted. But nowadays you described it as very different, and I think it is, and I wonder what you think of this as being part of the explanation for that.

Michael Albert:

For our generation and maybe even the five years as a generation, I don't know, but for our generation. I'll talk about the people I was a cohort with at the beginning we went berserk, and the reason we went berserk was that it was revealed that everything was a lie and we believed it right. We had believed all of it Deep down, we had believed all of it right, and so when it was all revealed as a lie, we were just fucking furious. You all lied to us right, and so, and I think then we pushed quickly to call it ideology and call it looking at the, and so there was this focus on capitalism, et cetera, et cetera. Nowadays, and for a long time, no young person could rebel at the idea that they had been lied to.

Ellen David Friedman:

Right.

Michael Albert:

Because they never believed any of the lies. I mean, I don't think anybody believes any of the crap. That's still, you know, that's? I really don't think so. I think, deep down inside, people know everything's broken, it doesn't work, and not only doesn't it work, it's disgusting. So people know that, which can be totally debilitating or it can have some virtues. And so here's where maybe we disagree a little. I'm not sure it's much, but a little.

Michael Albert:

I think, going forward from perhaps some time ago and certainly now, it's possible to go forward based on the desires as compared to the critique. You know what I mean. In other words, based on well, I want real influence, I want real control, and I think other people should have it too. I want well-being and other people should have. So, in other words, instead of reacting to something that we're rejecting, seeking something that we desire and I think that partly might explain what you describe in the workplace, people are starting to desire something dignity, a sense of efficacy, a sense of actually having a say in what's going on. That's beginning to be the instead of negativity, in some sense, which was another problem with our movement. We were so fucking negative about everything that most people who had good sense didn't want to come near us. But now it's different and that gives me hope.

Ellen David Friedman:

I could not agree with you more. In fact, I really think you put your finger on this transformation that has been so kind of subtle and at the same time in front of our eyes, but it hasn't been pulled out, I think, in quite the way you just have identified it, which is almost every encounter I have with groups of workers who are trying to organize a union at present. Or they have a union but it's horrible and they are trying to change it, or they're workers who have absolutely no chance of ever having a union because the legal obstacles are too great. It's almost always the same People will talk about rent burden and that there's no health insurance or they can't afford it. But second breath will always be voice at work, respect, dignity, it's. It cuts across everybody. You know.

Ellen David Friedman:

I don't know, I'm not sure that I remember this, but my guess is that that was not on people's minds, that was not on the tip of their tongues when they were trying to organize unions, primarily in the 60s or 70s. Because there was, there was such a presumption of. That can't possibly be available to us. We have figured out well, for the elite workers it would never be that. That is to say what we used to call the labor aristocracy.

Ellen David Friedman:

They were already getting a good deal, becoming the middle class, able to buy a home and send their kids to college, but for everybody below that was this they were bubbling with the kind of rage that you have described, and so you don't think to ask for dignity or voice from the monsters that are controlling your life. There was a very different formula there you wanna kill them, you wanna slay them, but anyway. So that is quite different now and one of the. Well, all right, this brings us to another topic. But in the world of labor, as we see so many new unions and so many strikes and a real rise in militancy, one thing it is not changing for anyone is the sense of dignity or voice in the workplace. It is not doing that.

Ellen David Friedman:

In fact, if anything, the oppression, the obfuscation, co-optation, retaliation, all of the things that are opposite of that is what is growing, in fact, the whole trend in the direction of autocratic bullying bosses, completely irrational policies, management policies, management decisions are worse now than they were before the pandemic. We're seeing it everywhere. We are not seeing any increment of movement in the direction of more humane or respectful or dignified workplaces. Micromanagement has really increased Cameras everywhere, surveillance, even though there's this tremendous labor shortage. Everywhere. Workers are fired all the time for reason or no reason, just as a mechanism of keeping workers scared and under control, and they are very frightened. So you can talk with workers who have been in a workplace for 20 years and where there's been a union contract for 40 years and it has all the protections you could ever want to say.

Michael Albert:

And they're still scared.

Michael Albert:

And they're terrified yeah, I mean, is there any change inside unions in terms of not the reaction to bosses and managers and so on? That's where you're seeing what you're describing. But I'm wondering whether you're seeing a parallel to that in the unions, or whether you're seeing some motion in the unions that, and even in workers' sort of daily lives, that is more participatory, basically More towards, say, self-management or something. Take the UAW right. I mean, what's going on in there? Is it just good demands? Is it just good rhetoric, or is there a real new feeling inside the thing that will increase sustained participation and then sustain millions?

Ellen David Friedman:

Okay, so maybe for this the general answer I think would be unions that have had an internal transformation process going on as a result of a rank and file caucus. We are seeing some of those unions and we are seeing transformation in that direction the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, statewide affiliate of the NEA of the National Education Association, baltimore Teachers Union, the San Antonio Teachers Union. So those and others where the caucus has come into leadership, richmond.

Michael Albert:

Virginia, are there other industries? All right, so that's education teachers.

Ellen David Friedman:

Well, it has mostly been teachers where the caucus movement has been focused.

Ellen David Friedman:

Nurses are not a very pretty picture, I'm sorry to say yeah, I'm not gonna take to the air to criticize my sister unions, but it's a very different story there. So in K-12 education the caucus movement has been the strongest. Put them aside for a moment because it's very particular conditions. And let's look at Teamsters and the auto workers to the two leading major industrial unions. So Teamsters for Democratic Union, founded at the same time as Labor Notes 1979, by essentially the same group of people from the same political orientation, has miraculously survived these almost 45, 50 years, 45 years and they are in a very, very strong, probably in many ways the strongest place they have been in this whole time. Their approach has been to build, to find people who are drawn by the idea of democratic unionism and class you know, fighting unionism and have built during this whole period of time through finding individuals in locals, helping them to develop their leadership, build a base. Some of their local, some teamster locals are led, of course now by TDAU Slates and have been so committed, so steadfast and so smart in their organizing and also taking advantage of the criminality, you know, of Jimmy Hoffa and the whole dangerously toxic leadership the teamsters had for many years. Anyway, they entered into a coalition slate that elected reform leadership to national leadership. Well, first they had to go through and establish the right of one member, one vote, which is essential for democratic unionism, and achieved that, elected this reform slate and have. We saw their capacity to organize for what would have been a totally devastating and fantastic strike at UPS and didn't take that strike but one very, very strong contract. They, since then TDAU, has been getting lots of, you know, leads and inquiry and they're continuing to build on their organizing. So they have the capacity both to build up from below. They have, you know, a deep, deep back bench of capable leaders and organizers all over the country and they can fight local fights and in different sectors, not just in UPS, and also change things from above through their influence with the national leadership UAW quite a different story, although there have been various caucus and reform efforts in the United Auto Workers since the time of the Ruther Brothers and their sell out to anti-communism, et cetera and concessionary bargaining. So the overall direction of the UAW since the late 70s has been they stopped fighting, they engaged in concessions.

Ellen David Friedman:

As we know them, they engage very often in outright corruption and collusion with the employers. They certainly gave up any attempt to engage the members, or you know, build a fighting base. They also kind of gave up the idea of organizing. They really did not come up with a plan to organize as the auto industry transformed. As we know, they have not been able to organize any foreign owned auto plants in the US. They've been one catastrophe after another. So now different attempts at caucuses failed.

Ellen David Friedman:

Finally, a few years ago, a group got itself together UAWD unite all workers for democracy is the name of their caucus and went through this protracted process in which they helped to expose the corruption of the national leadership. As you know, people were tried and end up in jail. Then they petitioned. In the wake of that, many auto workers were appalled and when UAWD said we can't let that happen again, let's petition for one member, one vote, they did. They won it. They were then able to put together a slate, the UAWD slate, with Sean Fain as its presidential candidate and quite shockingly to everybody, to all of us they won.

Ellen David Friedman:

Now they won and Sean Fain was in a runoff, so didn't take office until March or April, something like that was barely in office. Other people assumed office before that, but barely in time to build up to the big three auto strike which has just happened, the stand up strike. They did not have the benefit that TDU did of having a base almost anywhere. They had like a handful of activists. Their values were so strong and so clear. Sean Fain I think I don't know him personally, of course I know many people that work around him and there are lots of people in labor notes who feel the same way seems to be the real deal.

Michael Albert:

From a big distance. That's what it looks like.

Ellen David Friedman:

Everybody that I know that works, has worked with him closely, will say the same thing Very principle, not a narcissist, not out for personal control. These are important things in any leader and at a moment when it was pretty clear that if you could have a decisive turnaround event in the life of the Union to rekindle the possibility of this union being an effective, fighting union instead of a concessionary, useless union, that it was a good time to do that, because the auto industry, as we know, both with electric vehicles but just all it is still an important part of the US and international economy. It might be possible to really turn that into a pivot point. So their situation they have done that.

Ellen David Friedman:

This strike was astonishing, very, very powerful. It transformed both contracts, locals and individuals. You could really see in the tracking of individual members as their awareness, their idea about oh yeah, this is what a union could do and could be it feels different. Now they have to go and build base. There's many very hollow UAW locals all around the country still in the hands of either corrupt or just plain business unionists. There are many locals that have no stewards or have poorly trained stewards. They're not in the practice of fighting or even enforcing the contracts they have. So it's a big job but it's the right job to do. And again they're touching and nerve for especially younger workers about the idea of oh, I could have a voice, I could have some dignity, I could have some shaping of the future, my own future. So I think that's very powerful and quite optimistic.

Michael Albert:

I had a question while it was going on. I didn't have anybody who I could ask and feel like they were in a position to maybe know, but now I have somebody.

Michael Albert:

So, my question was I thought it was going to go on for a long time, the strike, because I thought it wasn't a commentary on the weakness of the strike itself, so it couldn't end quickly. It was a commentary on what I thought ought to be the attitude, given their interests and their right, of the other side. We can't fucking lose this thing, and you know, both from the inside the auto industry, but perhaps even more so pressure on them from outside, in other words, pressure from the whole rest of the economy saying hold the line, you guys can't lose this. It could become something too big throughout the whole economy, and so I thought that they would fight much harder than they did, and I'm wondering why they didn't.

Ellen David Friedman:

I don't think I am the person who can answer that either, do you?

Michael Albert:

think my incredulity was a bit justified.

Ellen David Friedman:

Well, I will certainly say that I, and many other people that I know, shared this question and still share this question you know, and there are pieces of the answer, I guess One is that there were some pretty unique features, very, very unique features, in fact, totally unparalleled in modern labor history of the strike of playing the three employers off against one another at the same time.

Ellen David Friedman:

So that was, that was a pretty high stakes game and they each had to have calculations about what was available for them to win or how bad their loss could be if they couldn't call the strike off yeah, if they couldn't settle the strike. So I'm guessing that there's a big narrative about that which those of us on the outside will never know, and maybe there are people in the industry that do. You know I, my sense, was just again quite, quite from the outside, but that there was a hunt, both a hunger and a capacity, and it certainly could have gone on longer. From the union side. I don't think there's any question about that, it is.

Ellen David Friedman:

It is possible that there was some understanding that, yeah, it could go on longer, but perhaps, if we will not win in by extending it, you know enough to justify what. What could turn into a sort of disaffection and exhaustion. I don't think that had started yet, but of course I was not on the inside. It could have been that that started. So yeah, I don't know the answer to that. But the other thing I would say is that, even though it was colossal right, it was a big, colossal event that captured everyone's attention you don't dig yourself out of a hole of 50 years making you know with a strike right and there are so many things structured around how the company's finance what they do, what is available, what are their calculations, how the market is behaving.

Ellen David Friedman:

Anyway, it may just be that this was a start. We hope.

Michael Albert:

Do you think there's a future for the? You know 40 hours, pay for 30 hours work.

Ellen David Friedman:

It's so interesting, this whole thing about the work, the work week. We're in a pretty crazy moment about that. I think the answer to it is not simple. One thing I would say is this that there are, in many industries we see healthcare nursing is certainly one of it one of them manufacturing, it is also true. It's true in hospitality. I don't think it's so true in retail, but anyway, employers, short staffing under staffing is universal. It's absolutely universal. There is not a sector that is properly staffed.

Ellen David Friedman:

I would say, based on my observations, and it's because you know, you keep wages low enough. People are desperate to make more money, so of course, they're willing to work long hours and they're willing to work overtime and take extra shifts and especially if they're frightened of the employer, which most workers are, if it's, you're made to understand, you know you take this overtime or you're done. There are a lot of things that are forcing workers into both wanting a lot of hours and needing a lot of hours in order to survive. So when you talk with working people who rely including auto workers I've had this experience who rely on overtime pay, and you say what would you think about a shorter work week, they'll say hell, no, I could never survive.

Ellen David Friedman:

So they have, they've accepted the idea of a low hourly rate and a lot of hours. So it may be that the hourly rate has to go up enough so that people can imagine they could live on it, in order to then imagine not working so many hours. And then on the other side you have, you know, whole swaths of the workforce that cannot get enough hours, people that work, you know three or four jobs and try and piece something together because no employer will give them enough hours. And I include not only people that work at Starbucks, but adjunct faculty and screenwriters, and you know actors and journalists. So it's it's incredibly fractured and fragmented concept, I would say within the larger labor market, but within the whole labor market.

Michael Albert:

It obviously has to be coupled, that is, as you drop, let's say, from 40 to 30 or 60 to 30, whatever it is right, you have to raise the hourly wage so that you're at least getting the full income you were getting before, and not only that, you have to increase overtime so that it isn't a simple solution. The employers you have to have them have to pay for the labor. But I'm just thinking that, instead of functioning just for income, functioning for time and income, yes, might increase the willingness of workers to take the fight, you know, to take the risk, because they not only get the income they want, but they get. They get it for less time and they can actually live a life.

Ellen David Friedman:

It's totally consistent with what people want and need. But I'm not sure that I'm yet seeing the signs that people have moved toward it, you know, one of the things to build a vibrant fighting labor movement or left is a certain amount of confidence, and we don't have that in strong, it's in short supply. Right, and to have the confidence that you just described, which is, yeah, I deserve more money and the time to actually live a life is not there yet.

Michael Albert:

Remember the first question about people staying in and transferring Person how I used to live with used to think that it was confidence.

Ellen David Friedman:

Confidence is incredibly important, but of course not bravado, not false confidence.

Ellen David Friedman:

And again, I think confidence has so much to do with with what you can learn about yourself and your co-workers or comrades in an environment of dignity which you will not get in the workplace under capitalism.

Ellen David Friedman:

At best there might be like some false illusion of you know play acting at dignity, but so it has to be in the spaces we create in our movement. But I again, we only get to see parts of everything. But the part that I see shows me we are, we are developing, and I credit labor notes a lot with this. It has always been really founded on this principle of it's open. It is non-sectarian, very respectful. We rely entirely on the actual lived experience of workers, rank-and-file workers, in their struggles in the workplace and we elevate those you know in the magazine and our books and at our conferences. You know that's dignified and I think people that come in through that kind of environment not obviously not just labor, labor notes, but those with those elements have a chance of staying in for the long haul we're setting a record for duration, but the trouble is, I have a bunch of things that I want to explore, so I want to wonder if you could agree to do no.

Michael Albert:

I'm not sure how long people will want to, but we could do another one, of course. For example, do you think you have things to offer, so to speak, on Trumpism and workers and on the flip side, one kind of reaction. You know Hillary Quinton's basket of monstrosities, or deplorables, and what the healthy side of you know, that is to say, how does the left, at this moment in time, not only keep people and produce, produce organizers, but how does the left talk to people who are enamored of, or feel enamored of, maga, are getting something from it which I think is a sense of efficacy and and actually dignity and, you know, a feeling of being part of something much more than its, trump's politics or or even racism. So I'd like to do another round, if you're, if you're game, in which we address some of that kind of stuff yeah, I'm absolutely.

Ellen David Friedman:

This was. This was a lot of fun, and I love the idea of just sharing ideas together, thinking stuff through, so I'd certainly be more than happy to do that. You know, I'm not sure how much I would have to say about that, because in a lot in my, in my organizing work, what I mostly spent time doing with people is saying look, the goal in the workplace is to talk to your co-workers and find things that you have in common. So if you disagree about COVID vaccines, don't fight about that. Don't talk about that. If you disagree about masking, don't talk about that. You disagree about return to work. If you disagree about Trump and burning, don't talk about that.

Michael Albert:

Make relationships on the basis of what you share and, of course, agreement is going to stem from what you share. But rather than go on, given how long we've gone and saving material for a second round down the road a little, I think maybe we can stop here, and so thank you very much really for doing this. It's been a really good session, I think. And that said, this is Mike Albert signing off until next time for revolution Z.

Long-Term Left Activism and Commitment
Labor Activism and Organizing in US
Organizing for Long-Term Goals and Vision
Worker Desires and Union Democracy Shift
Transformations and Challenges in Union Leadership
Workers' Needs and the Labor Market