Episode 177: Popular Anti-Union Talking Points and How to Combat Them

Citations Needed | March 15, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
54 min readMar 15, 2023
Former and current interim Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. (AP)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Unions used to make sense but are obsolete in today’s economy.” “Unions are an “outside force” or “third party” in our job. “I’m a strong worker. Unionization will harm me personally and only help the weak and lazy workers.”“Unions are rigid, old fashioned hierarchies.” We’ve all no doubt heard these talking points at some point, if not often, from news shows, opinion pieces, TV dramas, members of our families, our co-workers and, probably most of all, our bosses.

Adam: What’s remarkable is how little these general talking points have changed throughout the decades. Some versions of these pat anti-union lines have been around since there’s been unions. It’s generally unseemly to appear anti-worker or not of the working class so opposition to the one thing that historically empowers the working class — unions — is seen as crass and politically incorrect.

Nima: So, in its place has emerged a popular set of go-to, sophistic arguments that allow one to appear pro-working class without the messiness and ideological heavy lifting of actually supporting labor organizing and unionization. These McArguments — that after decades of anti-union messaging feel right without being right — appeal to ignorance, prejudice, vagueness and gendered and racialized perceptions of what labor is, and what labor deserves: the protection and stability offered by collective bargaining.

Adam: In today’s episode we’ll detail eight of the most popular anti-union talking points, their origins, who they serve, their purpose and power, and — most important of all — how to combat these

Nima: Later on the show we’ll be joined by Daisy Pitkin, a community and union organizer, supporting labor movements for over 20 years. She is the author of the book, On The Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union, which was published by Algonquin Books in 2022.

[Begin Clip]

Daisy Pitkin: The reason that company’s third party unions is because instead of talking about them, then as a mechanism for collective empowerment at work or a mechanism to build democracy in US workplaces, they start to think of them as service providers, and then there’s a question of whether or not the union has correctly provided the services that workers may think they should.

[End Clip]

Adam: So in May of 2022, we did an episode where we discussed some of the anti-union talking points we’ll be discussing today. It got really good feedback but we felt like because it was a News Brief, it wasn’t quite as expensive as we wanted it to be, and what we really wanted to do is create a one stop shop where people who are involved in dealing with these things, organizing, fighting back against opposition unions can sort of go to one episode, and they would all kind of be there. So we’re really excited to do that. One other qualifier is that, Nima, we talked about this before. We, of course, are not the first people to sort of log and categorize anti-union talking points, unions, obviously, I’ve been working on these kinds of white papers for years. Before I wrote my piece in the spring of last year, in March of 2021, Katie Way at Vice wrote, “Five Common Anti-Union Myths, Busted.” We’ll have that in the show notes, definitely check that out, that discusses a couple similar ones, but also discusses ones we don’t discuss. So definitely go read that one. It’s a really good article, and of course, any other such collateral you’ve seen written, please, please feel free to share, we’ll retweet it and share it out. These are kind of the ones that I know, Nima, we see a lot, and we come up a lot as we do produce a lot of, for want of a better term, pro union propaganda on our show. Is that fair to say?

Nima: Right. The first talking point that we really want to go over is one we know you’ve heard a lot, which is that labor stoppages brought on by strikes, which are inevitable for unions, because that’s what we hear all the time, are going to — what Adam? — wreck the economy. ‘If workers use their power to stop working, it will wreck our economy, and we can’t have that.’

Adam: Yeah, this was a popular scare tactic during the recent rail worker union busting by Congress and the White House where almost all the coverage we saw, as we discussed in our News Brief at the time, and this is how most people sort of make labor and labor stoppages and labor actions intelligible, they understand them through these straight news reports that tell you all those scary stuff that’s going to happen if there’s a strike, and so we had NBC News from November of last year:

Drinking water to retail: How a rail strike could upend the economy. How damaging a strike would be would depend on its length, but a strike of even a few days could lead to a cascade of events that would disrupt supply chains for weeks, industry officials warn.

CNN: “Railroad strike, and the economic damage it would cause, looms closer.” ABC News, “Looming railroad strike could cripple US economy, transportation.” So the moral extortion at work here is basically a way of getting the public on the side of Congress to bust the unions because the stakes are so high. Now, of course, what union rep say to this, because I mean, in the rare chance that CNN or NPR or ABC News has on a union representative, and again, I stress the rare chance, usually they talk to some, you know, pundit or corporate CEO — what’s the first question they ask him, Nima?

Nima: What do you say to all the people who will be affected by the strike? ‘It’s going to shut down our economy.’

PBS NewsHour headline

Adam: Very rarely do you see them ask of the corporate CEOs, why don’t you just give them what they want?

Nima: Right. To avoid this strike.

Adam: Right.

Nima: That’s the point of the strike. That’s the power that’s being wielded.

Adam: Right, and what most people don’t understand, and what the media never conveys is that when things get to the point where people are doing massive labor shutdowns, it means that the negotiations have completely broken down and that corporate, by and large, is not giving anything or it’s not giving nearly a sufficient amount.

Nima: That’s not the first move, right? That’s not step one.

Adam: The people who suffer in the event of strikes are workers, they have strike funds, but it’s not their pay, it disrupts their lives, it puts their jobs and careers in jeopardy. The corporations have billions of dollars in reserves for the most part, especially these rail companies. So if it’s gotten to that point, it’s usually because the corporation’s are not negotiating in good faith or not making the appropriate changes or, in the case of the rail strikes, they know that the White House will come in and do their bidding for them. But this kind of apocalyptic, one-sided, what will happen to you personally, it really just exists for the purposes of eroding solidarity, right? It’s meant to sort of condition the public into sympathizing with the corporate owners, and the moral burden is therefore put on the strikers, without any contextualization as to how things could have possibly gotten that desperate in the first place.

Nima: Because it really has to do with where the story starts, when we start hearing about this as, say, you know, receivers of information from news or from punditry or from our social media feeds, from our families? When do we start hearing about that, and if we’re starting to hear about that, when it is, a strike is looming, and the threat of that can, you know, shut down the economy, et cetera, et cetera, we are starting to hear the story there, not when the story actually started, which is probably months, if not years, if not decades earlier, of labor organizing to try and get those companies to treat those workers better or be forced, rather, as is more often the case, because they’re not necessarily benevolent companies, to accede to the demands of labor power, but it is framed as unionized workers are effectively holding us all hostage, and if we give in what is next? What is next, Adam?

Adam: Yeah, it’s the labor equivalent of the violence breaks out after a police officer shoots an unarmed Black man, where it’s like, well, the violence broke out when the police officer shot the unarmed Black man, not after that.

Nima: Right.

Adam: It’s this idea of first blood. And so the media comes in right when a thing reaches critical mass, because again, CNN and MSNBC and all, they never covered the rail negotiations, they never covered rail labor issues at all. They only cover it when they believe it’s going to affect corporate interest and the quote-unquote “economy,” which is oftentimes just used as a proxy for corporate interest to shame and morally extort union reps into kind of feeling bad about it, despite the fact that they literally have no other leverage, right? They have no other leverage, they have no other form of power, other than shutting down an industry, and of course, what they also say with the rail lines is that, look, if this is labor that can’t strike because railroads are part of essential infrastructure, then it should be nationalized.

Nima: Yeah. So we wanted to lead off with that one, because we hear it so often, and it’s always good to have a good reply to the wrecking the economy threat.

Adam: Prior to this becoming a crisis point that was going to quote-unquote “cripple” the economy, how many times have you covered this? And the answer is 99 percent of the time it’d be zero. So, suddenly you care. Well, guess what? You didn’t care before for a reason.

Nima: Moving on. Our next point that we’re sure you’ve heard a lot is this: ‘Sure, unions used to make sense back in the old days, but are obsolete in today’s gig economy.’

Adam: Yeah, this one is very popular, like you said, we have discussed this one before, because it is so ubiquitous, and so kind of superficially appealing, right? Kind of sounds true, and it oftentimes it’ll be accompanied by someone saying like, ‘My Daddy’s Daddy, you know, when he worked in the steel mill, or the coal mine, or the sparks in the steam factory back in the black and white days, it made sense then, but something something something, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t make sense today.’ And you say, well, why would that be? And there’s assumption that those were jobs you had your entire life or they were sort of quote-unquote “real” jobs, whereas today, things like driving an Uber or working at a Starbucks or working in some kind of retail or restaurant or white collar capacity, these aren’t sparks in steam factory jobs. But what people don’t understand is that the sparks and steam factory jobs they now romanticize as being these secure, respectable, dignified jobs, they’re only that because they were unionized. Before that industrial jobs were also extremely transitory, and were seen as not something you did for a long time, and were seen as quote-unquote “entry level.” The only reason they got that image in their head is because they were unionized. But as our economy shifts away from industrialization, although again, to be clear, there’s still those jobs, into more service economies for the low wage workers, those jobs themselves can have the same kind of mystique if we unionize them, and if they have labor protection, right? And so I think people get it in their heads that the way things are now is somehow a law of nature rather than part of a decade’s long process of eroding collective bargaining.

Nima: There’s also really a gendered and racialized aspect of this particular talking point, the idea that the old-timey union jobs, the steel mill or the auto plant, which granted not everyone there was white, but the kind of popular conception of that, through our mass media, whether it is TV news or old newsreels or documentaries or Hollywood films, obviously, it focuses on the kind of white working class, blue collar character, so therefore, when that is the vision of the past that deserves the union, that builds their wealth over time, that buys that house that then can pass something along to the next generation, that all has a very racialized and also a gendered aspect to this. It’s not just the blue collarness, it’s also the manness of that, and so who really deserves a union now, right? It seems like well, you know, if it’s Amazon warehouse workers or Starbucks baristas, well, you know what they look like in your mind, and they don’t look like the folks leaving the factory grounds when the whistle blows with their lunchboxes in hand, and so I think that that’s also part of this. It’s not just looking back to the past, and now what is kind of more, you know, digitized economy is now, it actually has so much to do with who we envision as a worker, who is allowed to have those bonds of solidarity, have that worker power against their employers.

Adam: Yeah, and one of the reasons that, again, that production has increased but wages have stagnated and in some cases gone down, it’s because of the erosion of labor protections. One article published in January 2022, researchers Colleen Boyle and Eric Dirnbach calculated the amount of money the gap between wages and productivity is costing workers in real dollars. In 2017 alone, they determined, U.S. production and nonsupervisory workers together lost a combined income of $1.78 trillion. A good portion of this money went toward increased dividend payments to shareholders — a tremendous wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy. Not unrelatedly, union participation has declined. And a lot of the anti-labor attitudes that these talking points are popular with, let’s just be honest here, like white men, oftentimes have low opinions of unions relative to people of color, relative to women, because of partisan ally-ship, is that these people are shooting themselves in the foot because largely, these sparks and steam factory jobs aren’t the jobs they’re going to be getting, those aren’t the jobs they’re going to be taking themselves, a third of the country is, of course, white men, and they need to understand that this kind of glamorized version of labor is largely not reflective of the current realities of our economy, and that all labor, regardless of what it is, or regardless of its aesthetic properties, should be unionized. Because again, why wouldn’t it, and again, the jobs we now romanticize as kind of being intrinsically lending themselves to unionization, that was not the case 100 years ago, they had to fight for that, the whole image is itself based on a tautology, but a lack of historical understanding of how those sparks and the steam jobs gained that image in our head.

Steel workers gaze on as molten steel is poured at Homestead Steel Works, 1914. (PD via PBS)

Nima: The next talking point we want to discuss, Adam, is one of my personal favorites, the, ‘it’s good for some but not for you, the unions make sense, sure, for certain industries, but not the one you’re in,’ or if you are talking to a co worker who opposes unionization, ‘not the one we’re in together.’ ‘It makes sense for others, but not this one.’

Adam: Yeah. Which is again, just like unions used to make sense 50 years ago, this is a close cousin. This is one that’s incredibly convenient. It’s also very popular with CEOs themselves, that they will oftentimes say, including CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, they’ll say, ‘I support unions in certain industries but in our particular business,’ right? Out of all the gin joints in all the towns and all the world. They coincidently, you know, it’s what’s The Simpsons, you know, there’s an orb directly in your kitchen, right? Like out of all the places in the world, there happened to be this particular industry I have, unionization doesn’t make sense, and this is very popular with Starbucks, REI, Amazon, and unfortunately, a lot of nonprofits kind of use this line, right? That because of the sort of inherently altruistic nature, political campaigns will use this line when political workers, campaign workers try to unionize, right? Oh, we’re basically a charity. But that’s bullshit, you know, especially when the guy who’s running these things is making half a million dollars or $200,000, which a lot of nonprofits that’s the case, trust me, in that case, they can afford it. This is not volunteering at a soup kitchen. This may not be quote-unquote, “for profit,” but it is a business and all businesses should have unionized labor.

Nima: Now, we’ve heard this talking point for well over a century. We’ve mentioned this before on the show, but it bears repeating that Andrew Carnegie, the late 19th-century steel tycoon, robber baron, made a show at certain point of his career of being pro-union, actually making pro-union statements, for example, in 1886, he wrote this, quote, “My experience has been that trades-unions upon the whole are beneficial both to labor and capital,” unquote. Cool, taken in isolation that sounds great. But of course, Carnegie also hired strikebreakers to break strikes, right? To oppose the thing that labor unions sometimes do, and so his crackdowns on union power — I don’t know — somewhat undermine some of the pro-union statements that he has made. Also the godfather of anti-union propaganda, Walmart founder Sam Walton, has expressed similar sentiments hinting at, sure, you know, unions can be good, ‘They really can be good, but it just doesn’t make sense when you’re talking about Walmart.’

Adam: Yeah. And of course, Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, loves to do this. Saying, ‘My grandfather was in the union, unions used to be important.’ He kind of does the same shtick, and then goes into why his industry, because he’s so benevolent, doesn’t need a union, which is interesting, because the vast majority of people where they’ve had a union vote have come up, Starbucks workers, which they call partners, have voted to support a union. So if that’s the case, then why would they keep voting for it if it’s not necessary? So obviously, it’s necessary.

Nima: One of the reasons for the ‘Yes, I like unions, but not right here,’ talking point, the follow up usually has to do with, ‘building a union here, having a union here in what we do would be divisive, it would then pit different parts of our staff against itself because we are one, we are a family,’ right? We hear that family talking point a lot, ‘we are a family here,’ or ‘we’re all on one big team, so therefore, if there’s a union, it divides us,’ and this idea of division, of the union being something that changes the dynamic in a negative way, also leads us into our next talking point that we hear all the time, Adam, which is that ‘unions are an outside force, a third party in our organization, and that instead of inviting that in, we should just be able to communicate directly amongst our staff.’

Adam: This is very common, probably the most common talking point, it’s called “third partying,” unions have white papers on how to address this as well, we’ll sort of get into that. But basically, they want to make it look like the union is a third party, that it’s this outside force, it’s foreign, it’s an alien species that is beamed down and is not native to this particular job. This is a favorite talking point of Amazon. The workers at JFK8, a fulfillment center in Staten Island, say they were barded with third party messaging back when they were trying to unionize last year. This was part of their efforts to convince workers that the union was basically there to kind of fleece their wages and not protect them, not offer them anything, and Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, is a huge fan of this, he uses this kind of third partying all the time. Let’s listen to the clip here.

[Begin Clip]

Howard Schultz: We’ve always managed to overcome the obstacles and challenges, the resiliency of the company is directly related to the leadership that you have provided. But the challenges right now are real, and they’re in front of us, and the challenges are multiple: the pandemic, a post-pandemic customer, the relationship we have with our customers, competitive threats, and now a new outside force that’s trying desperately to disrupt our company. Well, I believe in Starbucks more than ever, because I believe in all of you. My faith and confidence in the future of Starbucks is based on my faith and confidence in you, not some outside force that’s going to dictate or disrupt what we are and who we are, who we are and what we do.

[End Clip]

Adam: Outside force, right. It’s not the workers versus management, it’s outside force versus the quote-unquote, “nebulous family.” But of course, Howard Schultz does not make the same money as a barista so they’re not really on the same boat, and if they are, one is in first class and one is down with the luggage. And of course anyone has worked at a low wage job or frankly any job where there’s workers and then management, they’re not a family, they’re not the same entity in the same unit, workers are routinely subjected to arbitrary drug tests, they’re heavily surveilled, everything they say is monitored, reported back to HR, workplaces are, poll after poll shows they are viewed by their workers as extremely authoritarian. Obviously, you can get fired pretty much at will, depending on your state, but pretty much whenever they want to fire you for pretty much any reason without cause. Whereas the worker can’t do that, the worker can’t fire their CEO, they can’t replace their CEO, right? There’s no democracy at the workplace, and of course, even workplaces that pride themselves on being more ethical, being a boss, by definition, means you get to call the shots for the people you supervise, the ramifications of this power imbalance are, of course, very significant, determines one’s ability to pay rent, whether they can feed their kids, their loved ones, pay hospital bills, enjoy any kind of leisure time. So the power that your boss has over you is tremendous, and it’s entirely one way, and anyone who knows, if you call yourself a family, as Howard Schultz consistently does, families don’t have one way relationships, friends don’t have completely one way relationships, and if they do, that’s considered very unhealthy. That’s considered not good. You know, there’s no scenario where, because again, they constantly talk about a family, where one family member can sort of unilaterally make all the decisions in an authoritarian way, as the case with most corporations are, again, if that is the case, then Howard Schultz’s vision for a family is some kind of hyper patriarchal, Baptist family, right? It’s not healthy. So this language is really used to obscure the very obvious, centuries-long power imbalance between worker and employer.

Employees seeking union representation at a Starbucks in Carbondale, Illinois, in May, 2022. (Megan Brown)

Nima: In her book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), the political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that, in light of this power dynamic, American workplaces are best understood as private, authoritarian governments — not free arrangements between equal individuals. She’s written this, quote:

Under U.S. law, employers are dictators of their workplaces, empowered to exercise sweeping and virtually unaccountable power over their employees, even regarding their off-duty lives.

End quote.

According to Anderson, the fact that America’s default is employment at will, right, the idea that there is broad power to fire someone, to remove someone from your workplace, for nearly any reason — this employment at will really plays a key role in upholding this kind of arrangement, this kind of workplace dynamic. She has written this, quote:

Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment… Americans think they live in a democracy. But their workplaces are small tyrannies.

End quote.

Adam: Yeah, and this is why they’re so hell bent on making unions look like some outside force, because again, there’ll be union representatives who represent existing unions but that’s the only way that they have any power. Because there’s a formula, there’s a playbook, and they’re in solidarity with other unions that therefore exercise power. Again, not to say that there are criticisms to be made of American unions, which we’ll get into with our guest, they’re not perfect, but they’re certainly better than the alternative, which is living completely under the caprice of your manager and your CEO.

Nima: And this idea of division, not just within a workplace, within a company carries over to our next talking point, which is even more targeted levels of dividing and conquering and it is this talking point, ‘I’m a strong worker, but unionization will then harm me personally, and only help out my lazy colleagues.’

Adam: So yeah, this was a popular one, and one that I think I may have bought into, not as the strong worker, but as the lazy worker back when I worked in the restaurant industry, I never had any pretense I was a strong worker, but I definitely internalized this idea that like, I deserved to make a little money or make less money than so and so. But this is a common, again, we have talked about this before, especially in our tipping episode, it’s a common way you kind of pit workers against each other, where you say, you create these false incentives within a closed system. So for example, in restaurants, you have, let’s say, five servers working a night, and instead of pooling tips, which you should always do, don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise, you say you’re going to get these four tables and so and so who is a weak server is going to get three tables, and maybe to some extent, that’s true, I mean, waiting tables is a skill and there are people who are better at it than others but broadly speaking, that exists not because of some reflection of actual skill level, it exists because it’s a way of creating incentives for someone to be, you know, we called them a captain, waiting tables you have a captain waiter, and what do you get for that? You get more tables based on an artificial closed system, they’re not actually paying more money into their pocket, as owners, they’re just taking the vegetables on the plate and spreading it around differently. They’re dividing the pie based on what consumers tip you as a way of incentivizing, you know, sycophancy, more free labor for the $2.15 an hour off the clock, whatever it is, it’s an incentive to kind of pit workers against each other, and one reason managers hate pooled tips, which they’re always entitled to do in most states, I think there are exceptions, but generally speaking, I know states like New York you’re entitled to pool tips, is because — what is that? — that’s basically the first step to a union. Because you realize, wait a second, if we bond together, as workers, we have more power rather than constantly being these atomized, Ayn Randian heroes of our own world, we can work together to raise all boats, right, to sort of raise the workers’ lot collectively, and managers are extremely good at creating these kind of rat race, closed systems within, whether it’s Amazon, you know, so and so. Actually, you know, Andor did a really good job of this, right? Did you see the Disney+ show Andor? They did a really good job of showing how you use these kinds of false competitions.

Nima: Yeah, there’s a worker camp where everyone is captive, and there are these different production teams on different levels that aren’t allowed to communicate with each other, and even within the production floors, there are different tables that are competing with each other, and they are yes, of course, incentivized to not be physically harmed, but also to then get certain other incentives if they produce faster and better equipment for the Empire to make it truly as heavy handed a metaphor as we can make it.

Adam: And if you finish dead last you get tortured, and if you finish first you get flavor in your gruel. It’s actually a pretty good example of how Amazon production works, a lot of corporate production works, even white collar labor, you sort of pit workers against each other in a competition, which not only has the added effect of incentivizing them to work harder and to produce more for you for less, but it also allows, it erodes worker solidarity, and so one of the more common things you hear people say when people do try to unionize or try to organize workplaces is, ‘Wait a second. I’m Mr. Hotshot. I’m the number one barista, you know, I do barista competitions,’ which they also promote to undermine unions, by the way, just as the Academy Awards were used to undermine actor unions in Hollywood, ‘Why should I be brought down to their level?’ And this is playing to narcissism, and it’s just generally not true, because again, when it comes to things like security, when it comes to things like predictable income, you have an incentive to pool your resources because again, you could be the biggest hotshot in the world, but if you spur a manager’s advances or annoy someone or you have a bad week, you’re toast.

Nima: God forbid, have a family emergency and need to call out.

Adam: God forbid a family emergency, right? So people think they’re hot shit, and they don’t need unions. Well, again, that’s what they want you to think, and that is very rarely actually true.

Nima: The way that this talking point actually plays out, like if we kind of go a step further, Adam, there’s this idea of a lot of workplaces then offer, you know, opportunities for quote-unquote “growth,” within your workplace, and these go really hand in hand with the anecdotes we hear all the time, whether it’s political campaigns, or your own organization, or books about leadership, and et cetera, et cetera, this idea of the employee that made their way from the mailroom to the boardroom or, you know, the idea that you started working on the cash register, and that, you know, it’s like the Louie Anderson thing from Coming to America, like, you know, but now I’m doing fries, and you know, pretty soon, I’m going to be flipping burgers, that thing and that, you know, you can make it up, you can become a franchisee, you can then become the president of the company, you are the CEO, but that this is all about professional advancement, personal accomplishment, and that you, you know, always have to look out for number one.

Adam: Yeah, look, I mean, again, there are rare cases where if you’re Mr. Johnny Bootstrap and you show up every day with a smile on your face and you play by the rules and you keep your nose clean and you suck up to your boss and you work hard, you stay late, yeah, you probably on average, quote-unquote, “get ahead.” But it’s a very myopic, and very atomized way of looking at the world because you could also just not do all that shit and unionize and probably achieve the same gains if not more with far more job security.

Nima: Our next trope is the idea of the big bad “union boss,” right? Now, as we have discussed in certain other contexts, certainly the way that unions and bosses are depicted in Hollywood, the term “union boss” has been around for well over a century, but not always used pejoratively. Boss is a word that has traditionally meant someone just in a position of power, but not necessarily always used in the union boss derogatory sense. Starting in the 1920s and ’30s, the term union boss became more popular as the Italian Mafia began infiltrating and taking over unions. After all, the leap from crime boss to union boss is an easy one and one scene especially during, say, prohibition when a lot of those labor and also crime syndicates were becoming even more tightly infused.

Adam: So it sort of made sense while you would use the term while organized crime had its grip on unions, but the term kind of stuck around as a right-wing kind of pejorative as a way of poking unions even after the mafia had long been weeded out of unions in the ’80s and ’90s. It remained in Britain, still to this day, popular to say union bosses for somewhat similar reasons but in the United States it has become a kind of go to conservative dig to diminish union leaders, right? People who represent unions, the anti labor, the quintessential anti labor Governor Scott Walker is a huge fan. He repeatedly calls union leaders union bosses. Fox News headline, “Ron DeSantis’s blueprint to dominate teachers’ union bosses 2022.” MSNBC wrote this in 2015 in reference to Clinton and her relationship with the unions, she said, quote: “‘I saw a lot of old friends,’ Clinton told reporters after her meeting with the union bosses.” CNN Headline from last year, quote, “​​This new union boss could start the biggest strike in decades.” CNN would also say, quote, “The Senate confirmed Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be Labor secretary, elevating the former union boss to oversee the federal department in charge of workplace conditions, benefits and rights.” The Washington Post from quite a few years ago, quote, “Meet the union bosses trying to woo TSA agents.”

It seeps into mainstream media as a lazy label, but it’s extremely popular with people like Scott Walker, Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, it’s a way of annoying unions, union leaders. Union leaders hate the term union boss because, again, you sort of have this image of systems like ‘I shake you down,’ right, it’s another extortion racket, and since their whole narrative is that unions aren’t extortion racket, that they don’t actually help workers, but just take money from their paychecks, and I guess, I don’t know, by private G5 jets for the union bosses, I guess is the image they’re trying to convey, It makes sense why they would use union boss, but that’s a very popular subtle term, that a lot of corporate propaganda uses, a lot of the target collateral, Amazon uses it. It’s a way of diminishing, and frankly, third partying unions for workers.

Nima: Yeah, because what it does is it really relies on this idea of hypocrisy, right Adam? So it’s like, oh, right, you know, ‘I’m your boss, but now you have another boss, your union also has a boss. So you think you’re doing solidarity, you think you’re doing socialism? But really what you’re doing is just replicating the same structure, and therefore, you’re still a sap, you’re still being taken advantage of, by bosses.’

Adam: When you sow nihilism and moral relativism, the status quo wins, right? Because if all the bosses are the same, and who cares, then there’s no, if I’m your actual boss, and I’m happy with that assessment, because now nothing’s changed and you have no power to counteract my power.

Nima: The penultimate trope we’re going to go over, we’ve touched on a bit this idea of the kind of family, feel-good language used by a lot of workplaces, but we want to wrap that into a larger trope, this idea of the new-agey style, values-driven workplace and how while, yes, I think values are good to have in workplaces and elsewhere, it is the exploitation of this idea of what values mean and therefore using values and the fact that an organization can declare its values to then diminish interest in or relevancy of workers building power together.

Adam: But of course, how does an LLC have values? How does a corporation have values? Union busting CEO of REI, Eric Artz — his 2019 take home pay was $3.3 million — he recently evoked values when bashing unionization efforts amongst REI employees. He said on a podcast, in which he somewhat infamously did the land acknowledgement before bashing unions, he said he wished to, quote, “put REI values into action,” and was committed to his, quote, “best to lead by putting our values first.” Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, can’t of course go to seconds without talking about Starbucks values. He recently told employees, quote, “With significant pressures leading to the fracturing of our partner and customer experiences [read: unionization efforts], I’ve been transparent about our missteps and the reason for my return — to reimagine Starbucks — built on our core values and guiding principles.” But of course “corporate values” and $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, right? It’s entirely worthless as something that the worker can use.

Now, historically, unions aren’t the only reason that labor conditions can improve, right? Sometimes you have liquid labor markets, attracting the best people or other considerations. What they do is they create a floor and corporate values are basically marketing fluff. They’re not contract obligations, they’re not job security, they’re not fixed wages, they’re under no obligation to maintain any kind of values, which is of course, how companies like Starbucks, quote-unquote, “misstep.” That’s a term they’ll say, right? But of course, if you have a contract, you can’t really misstep because otherwise you’re in violation of the contract, and this is a way you kind of protect against that. One really famous example of this kind of bullshit values rhetoric to bust unions, this was written by Hamilton Nolan at In These Times back in the summer of 2020, a New York City Quaker private school, Brooklyn Friend School, sought to justify why he was refusing to negotiate with the union, and the head of the school, Crissy Cáceres, had invoked a Trump-era National Labor Relations Board ruling that exempts religious schools from the legal requirement to bargain with unions, and she wrote to parents this is when she decided to explain to the parents why they were not recognizing the union, she wrote, quote:

We respect that our truths and divergent opinions are all part of one greater spirit that we can only access through direct and open communication of these individual truths. If we are to fully practice our Quaker values of respecting others and celebrating every individual’s inner light while compassionately responding to existing needs, we must be legally free to do so.

So that was their justification for busting unions. I don’t know a lot about Quakerism, I know that it involves sitting there in silence and praying, and presumably, they maybe had some divine intervention where God told them to bust the union, I don’t know the details, I can’t get into their heads.

Nima: Here’s the thing, if you know anything about Quaker values, which is a lot about helping each other out, I mean, I’m no Quaker here, but this is actually kind of anathema to a lot of what the stated values of Quakerism speak to.

Adam: Clearly God intervened and told them not to recognize the union. Who’s to argue with God, you can’t do that.

Nima: You can’t do that. Sit quietly in your meeting house, god dammit, and ensure that you can not build solidarity and accountability at your workplace.

Adam: Yeah. And they’ll always talk about values in the context of unionization, like we don’t need it because we have these values, and again, it’s just even if you’re lucky enough to even have it on a webpage somewhere, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s why they do it, they do it to kind of give you some, some puffery to make you feel sort of feel good about what you do all day, and to make you think that their corporation is different, but I’d rather have a contract than values any day of the week.

Nima: Which leads us to our final trope. ‘Unions are rigid, old-fashioned hierarchies. Our company is free, flexible, and open.’ So this really dovetails with the idea of having values but it is much more specific, right? It is the idea of, ‘to do our job the way we need to do our job, we can’t be beholden to these old fashioned, old time-y structures of unions, because we need to be nimble,’ right, Adam? ‘The modern workplace is nimble, is fluid, is flexible, we cannot have a union stifle our inevitable progress.’

Adam: Yeah, we left this for last because it’s my personal favorite, because I think it is the most superficially appealing, and you see it all the time, if you ever watch anti-union internal videos, they show employees or those sort of closed sessions where they where they sit them down and try to convince them that, and this is kind of a throwback to the first one where it’s like they made sense back in the day, but now, and they throw out these kinds of buzzwords, like corporate buzzwords about flexibility, creativity, cross training, I love that one, just basically like doing a job you’re not trained for, or you’re not paid to do, and that unions are these old, rigid, hierarchical, Soviet, old black and white things that kind of keep us back man. And they’re going to undermine your own personal ambition and growth and expression, right? One classic video from a now infamous Target anti-union video that was filmed in 2003, it went viral in 2014, but it really hits all these talking points, and we want to play that because it’s cheesy. So it’s funny, but also, it really does go into what we’re talking about here.

[Begin Clip]

Man: If the unions did try to organize target team members, they could also try and bring along their way of doing business, an old fashioned, rigid structure.

Woman: Old-fashioned is right. Being able to change quickly and adapt to new opportunities. Being flexible. That’s the key to running a successful business in today’s market, and we’ve got the flexibility now.

Man: Right you are. No one knows exactly what could happen, but there are lots of examples of how rigid grocery store union contracts could hurt our stores’ ability to serve guests, and actually hurt our team members in the process.

Woman: Here’s what we mean. Let’s say you’re working in stationery, but you’re walking through domestics on your way to check on something, a guest stops you and asks for help. What would you do? Without even thinking about it, you stop and give them any assistance they required. But what if union work rules say you can’t work outside of your department? What do you tell the guest? ‘Sorry, I can’t help you.’ That makes you look bad. But more importantly, it means our guest doesn’t get immediate attention, and they might not come back. So everyone gets hurt, everyone except the union. Right now team members can get more hours based on the ability to cover more than one area, you have the option of being cross trained and becoming a more valuable member of your team.

Man: That’s right. But with a rigid union contract, that may no longer be an option.

Woman: Also, under the old -ashioned union rules that really haven’t changed in decades, seniority rules, rather than treating people as individuals, everything depends on when you were hired.

[End Clip]

Nima: Yeah, rigid, old-fashioned, flexible. It’s all in there. They repeat the words rigid, and the term old-fashioned three times each in just over a minute and a half, Adam, to really, really make sure that that point is hammered home.

Adam: Yeah, and it’s true unions do introduce a lot of rules and structure because that’s how you protect the worker from being abused, but the idea that unions are rigid and old fashioned is really hilarious when you consider that employers do nothing but introduce regulations, rules, drug tests, overburden, surveil their workers, right? There’s nothing more rigid than your employer. I don’t know if anyone’s ever had the misfortune of working at Target, I have not, I have worked at a grocery store, so I assume it’s somewhat similar, but they’re extremely rigid, old fashioned hierarchical places. So I’m not really sure if they think it’s some kind of Silicon Valley startup you’re working at, or there’s like, maybe there’s a beanbag chair in the break room, but they’re already incredibly rigid workplaces, right? And they use these kinds of corporate PR speak to exploit workers. Words like flexibility, professional development, cross training, opportunity to grow professionally, almost always these terms are used to describe what is doing work outside of what you were hired to do, outside the scope of what you’re hired to do, and you see this a lot in Joliet, Illinois, just down the road here from Chicago, at these large Amazon plants, it’s basically a city with nothing but warehouses. They’re constantly throwing people, if you read any of the OSHA complaints, they’re constantly throwing workers from one thing they’re trained on, like one machine to another machine, because someone didn’t show up, or they’re trying to cut costs, and then they’ll say, ‘Oh, this is cross training, or this is just helping out, it’s being flexible,’ and then if you actually look at the data of injuries, they’re way more likely to get injured because they’re not trained on this stuff. So the extent to which there’s rigidity and structure and rules it’s to protect workers from exploitation, because having clearly defined rules, clearly defined places you work, departments you work in, hours you work, under what conditions you work, how many people work with you, which is obviously a real big problem for nurses, which we haven’t talked about, right? We are putting nurses where there should be eight or nine nurses they’re putting three or four to try to stretch out your labor costs, and then they have the emotional burden of watching patients suffer for it, that these hierarchical, rigid, structured rules exist so some scumbag being counter doesn’t try to exploit labor in lead to worker harm or in some cases patient or consumer harm.

Nima: So one study released in April of 2022, found that between June 8, 2020 and March 21, 2021, nursing homes, where workers were unionized, had a nearly 11 percent lower death rate among its residents than their non union counterparts. Not only were unionized nursing homes safer for their residents, they were also safer for their workers. COVID infection rates were lower in unionized nursing homes than in their non union counterparts as well.

Adam: Unions also make school safer. A 2021 study found that, quote, “the average teachers union was associated with a 33 percent relative increase in the probability of school districts adopting a mask mandate,” according to the researchers, who found, quote,“That was true even when controlling for local coronavirus case rates, support for Trump, and the other factors mentioned above.” So unions make school safer, they make nurses, make hospitals safer, because these rigid, old fashioned structures have a logic to them, and that logic is, asshole bosses are going to try to cut corners wherever they can, and having very clearly defined rigid, old fashioned structured rules is one way to prevent that from being abusive.

Nima: To dig a little deeper into some of these anti-union talking points, we’re now going to be joined by Daisy Pitkin, a community and union organizer, supporting labor movements for over 20 years. She is the author of the book, On The Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union, which was published by Algonquin Books in 2022. Daisy is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Daisy Pitkin. Daisy, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Daisy Pitkin: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Adam: So I want to start off with a little bit of your own personal, I guess, anecdotes, because we’re a media podcast, and we’ve spent the top half of the show discussing anti-union narratives popular with media and CEOs alike, some of which make their way, trickle down to workers, some of which don’t, some of which are for kind of public consumption, but I want to kind of begin by asking you what, in your personal organizing experience, what the number one objection to unionization you see from workers in your years of labor organizing, what the most popular kind of first objection to unionization is, I guess, the most popular trope if you will? Obviously, this probably changes based on industry demographics, et cetera.

Daisy Pitkin: You know, I have to say that I think the biggest nut to crack when you’re helping workers build a union, it doesn’t tend to be an ideological one. Most workers when you knock on their door or have a conversation with them, and by most, I really mean the vast majority want to have a union at work. If you asked the question of workers, do you want to work together with your co workers to make improvements on the job? The answer is just yes. I mean, almost unanimously. So workers want to form unions in this country. In fact, there have been surveys done over the last couple of years that show that unions are more popular right now than they have been at any point in the last 57 years. 62 percent of workers say, to the question, do you want to have a union at work or would you join a union tomorrow if you could? The answer is just “Yes.” So the nut to crack is it doesn’t tend to be an ideological one. It’s just fear. Workers are afraid. So they say, ‘Yes, I want to do that,’ and the next thing that comes out of their mouth, most of the time, or some of the time is, ‘But will I lose my job? Will I lose my job? Can I get in trouble? Will my workplace close down? Will I be threatened? Will I be coerced?’ You know, there’s a lot of fear about standing up to your boss to build power with your co-workers at work. So that’s the biggest nut to crack. But of course, there are anti-union messages and tropes that companies tend to use, they operate from similar playbooks across all industries, and one of the more popular ones is kind of third partying the union, that the union is the separate entity, and that it will come in and insert itself in between the relationship that workers have with their boss, that they should be using to directly solve problems at work rather than going to the separate organization who will advocate for them, and I think the reason that employers or bosses tend to third party the union in that way is because they tend to use the language of family and unity at work, they start to use the language of the union to talk about the company and its culture, and then here’s this intruder from the outside who’s come in to insert itself, and then when you get into conversation with workers about the union through that lens, sometimes there are workers who say, ‘Oh, I have a relative or I have a brother, I have an uncle, who had a bad experience with the union, this separate entity that did or did not provide the kind of services that people sometimes expect a union to provide.’ The reason that companies third party unions is because instead of talking about them then as a mechanism for collective empowerment at work, or a mechanism to build democracy in US workplaces, they start to think of them as service providers, and then there’s a question of whether or not the union has correctly provided the services that workers may think they should. So the third partying works sometimes, but the main barrier is not ideological at all. It’s just fear.

Daisy Pitkin

Nima: It’s also so fascinating, as you were saying, Daisy, that the unions are then, whether they even exist or not at a workplace, they’re held to such a higher standard than say, what a job is supposed to offer, right? It’s like, ‘Oh, well, if you’re going to come in, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that,’ and then there’s disappointment if there is opposition that slows things down, right? And so, it’s almost like a no win that there’s this high standard that is held to something that, again, takes time to build, takes time for power to shift, takes time for that solidarity to actually come to fruition, for a union to actually exist and operate in a certain way. I kind of want to take this idea and focus us on your great memoir, again, it’s called, On The Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union, of course, for all our listeners, who I’m sure most of them already own this book and love it, but if you do not, you should go get it immediately at bookstores everywhere, and your memoir, Daisy, recounts your first organizing campaign, an industrial laundry in Phoenix, Arizona. Can we talk about your experience there, why you decided to write about it, and what lessons can be gleaned from that experience? You were absolutely up against a vicious anti-union backlash from your employer. What did you hear during that fight, and what kind of lessons can be taken away from that?

Daisy Pitkin: Yeah, I think the experience that I had organizing with industrial laundry workers in Phoenix echoes a lot of what the two of you were just very correctly saying, that the union becomes this separate entity that then gets critiqued by the company about whether or not it’s good enough, and then their campaign tends to be a campaign of trying to frustrate the efforts of workers to build their union, slow it down, create a kind of gauntlet of anti-union activity through which workers have to pass if they really want to build their union, and then the question isn’t anymore, ‘Do you want to have a union or not?’ At the end of the day it’s, ‘Is the union worse, this very long, very difficult fight that you have to go through with your employer to win it?’ And that’s pretty much the story of the book that I wrote. My book focuses on one industrial laundry that was then owned by Sodexo, this multinational French, multi service corporation, with very deep pockets that chose to play from the standard anti-union handbook to try to squash the union that workers there were building, and it took five years to organize that factory because the company took a hard ideological stance against the union. They fired workers, they threatened workers, they held mandatory captive audience meetings, over 200 of them in small groups where they showed a video that was an anti-union video and spread lots of rumors, and frankly, lies about unions and what they do. So the workers there faced a very difficult uphill battle, and luckily, there were some worker leaders there, and my book really focuses on one of them, this incredible woman named Alma, who is the gutsiest worker leader I have ever met, who just decided, ‘I am not going to give up,’ and the harder this company fights, the more kind of stick-to-it-ness she had about wanting to form the union, because she knew that it was, it is the legal right of workers in this country to form unions, and their fight against the union made her want to fight harder, and sometimes that’s what it takes. So the book really traces the narrative arc of the fight that these workers had to go through to form their union. It was a really hard effort, and what I think is remarkable about it is that the anti-union campaign that she and her co-workers faced, you’re right to say it was vicious. It was, and the workers ended up winning some legal battles that are, at that time, were nearly unheard of, but at the same time, the kind of campaign that they faced was its standard. Sodexo, played from the same standard anti-union handbook that’s been around for decades and decades, and that employers always use, they pretended to be the good boss at first and talk about the company as a family. They pretended to be sad boss, that it was a personal attack, and they were so personally hurt that workers would want to form a union, instead of just coming to them with their problems, and then when neither of those things work, they played bad boss, which was to just violate the law, violate workers rights to try to scare them away from wanting to form a union. So the story traces the years that it took for those workers to finally win.

Adam: We’re going to get to sad boss later, I want to put a pin in that for now. I want to talk about two popular tropes that we hear a lot, and we discussed at the top of the show, which is number one, ‘unions used to make sense, but they’re obsolete in today’s economy.’ I would say from my personal experience growing up in a, you know, I guess, a conservative household, in a conservative state, this is probably the one I’ve heard the most, because it’s sort of the most pat, right? There were a lot of them a long ago time in black and white photo days, where, you know, 15 year olds had cold dust on their face, and unions made sense, then, but now everyone’s kind of cushy and has color TVs and flat screen TVs and refrigerators, and now they sort of don’t make sense. And the second one is, which is I think, a sort of close cousin, which is that unions make sense for certain industries. This is obviously a very gendered one you hear a lot, but they just don’t make sense in this one. A lot of times, you see, union busting CEOs will say like, ‘Hey, I’m pro union,’ they love to say this, right? ‘For literally every other industry, but the one I happen to be the CEO in’. Incidentally, that one, just by sheer coincidence, that out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world doesn’t really need a union. So can you address those two tropes? Because I hear those a lot. We talked about this a lot. I want to get your thoughts on those.

Daisy Pitkin: Yeah, you know, I think it in some ways is a really smart tack for employers to take. But, you know, we live in a world where most manufacturing jobs have left the United States. So, of course, there still is some manufacturing that happens here. Our economy has shifted to healthcare and service, and those tend to be the industries where bosses now say, ‘You don’t need a union here.’ You know, there are workers who are organizing in Amazon and Starbucks and libraries and museums and higher ed institutions all across the country, just to name a few of the industries where people are working, and you’re exactly right, that that is a message that, ‘You aren’t really a worker, this isn’t really a career, and therefore you don’t need to have a voice at work.’ They try to make workers feel as if the jobs that exist should not be career jobs, even though those are the jobs that exist in our economy. So if you want to make money in order to pay bills and take care of your family, it’s more likely than not that you have to work in one of these industries where now you’re being told that the work itself is not worthy of democracy in the workplace, of improvements, because you’re not meant to stay on the job for long, and I think it’s just incredibly short sighted. Most Americans work in these industries, they just do, and they ought to be places where people can sustain a livelihood, can support families, they ought to be places that are safe to go to work, people should be able to expect to go to work in the morning or at night, and go home at the end of their shift unscathed. So health and safety, democracy at work, the ability to know that you’re going to work enough hours so that at the end of the month you have enough money to pay your bills. These are basic, basic rights, and those are the kinds of things that if workers work collectively, they can bargain with their employers, they can shift the balance of power so that they can create those safeguards at work, and that it doesn’t matter where you go to work, if it’s a coffee shop, if it’s McDonald’s, if it’s a hospital, if you drive a bus, those things will never cease to be true, but it’s such a, you know, kind of a twisted mindset to make the majority of Americans feel that the jobs that they’re in right now should not be the jobs that they have for the long term.

Adam: Well, it’s fundamentally a tautology too because they create an economy where there’s a lot of labor liquidity, and they fire everyone all the time, and then they turn around and say, ‘Well see, this is not a long term job so you don’t really need a union because this isn’t the olden days where we had a pail hat, and when your daddy went to the coal mine, and your daddy went to the coal mine,’ and so like their own precarity, their own sort of designed precarity then reinforces why you don’t need a union, which of course, is one of the main reasons that so precarious.

Nima: Well, and the idea that these jobs, maybe they were for, you know, these CEOs, when they were teenagers, you know, were just waystations on their way to eventually becoming a CEO without purposefully not recognizing, and I say purposely, right, this isn’t, this isn’t a blind spot, right? This is deliberate the idea that, oh, well, you know, as Daisy, you were just saying, ‘These are not career jobs, these aren’t the jobs you’re going to have for years and years so why do you need to improve things when you’re not going to be around that long?’ It’s just, hey, everyone deals with it, and it’s like, no, that’s actually how you change the situation at work, and that’s exactly what the bosses don’t want. That’s terrifying.

Adam: Yeah. Daisy, can you comment on that? Because this is, you know, by listening to CEOs, you would think that 50 percent of the working class is a 15-year-old, rich white guy who lives with his parents in Orange County, right? The way they talk about it, they love to use the term entry level, which is one of my all time favorite propaganda terms, right? Because you’re sort of, it’s basically an internship, you should be paying McDonald’s to be there, basically, is what they’re saying. Can you talk about this kind of teenage-ification of labor, sort of when they talk in all these industry talking points, it’s always, again, you would think the country was nothing but 15-year-olds who smoke weed and sleep in their mom’s basement.

Daisy Pitkin: That’s absolutely right. That’s the image that they would like for the average consumer to have. But anyone who knows, you go into Chipotle or McDonald’s, you go to Dunkin Donuts, you go to Starbucks, the people who work behind the counter, some of them might be teenagers, they do tend to be young, but many of them are parents, a lot of them have worked in these places for a decade or more, and I think that the precarity that they are proclaiming is part of the point — there was a lot of alliteration there. But it’s true that the precarity and the massive turnover that’s always occurring there, destabilizes these workplaces, makes them more difficult to organize, but organizing will solve the precarity and make the jobs more sustainable, so that people can sustain the jobs for longer periods of time, instead of shuffling around from employer to employer, working multiple jobs at multiple of these kind of fast food restaurants, which is part of what we’re seeing now.

Workers prepare dishes at Chipotle. (Via Delish)

Adam: Yeah, it’s because I think people have a really distorted view also of what unionized jobs were in the past. It’s not as if working at a textile factory or being a train porter were these romantic jobs. I mean, you know what I mean? Its people have this idea that the jobs of the past were somehow lifetime jobs kind of inherently.

Nima: I guess, because people wore more uniforms back then.

Adam: Maybe that was it.

Daisy Pitkin: You know, the union that I work for now, it’s original precursor, it’s rooted in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I read about the history of the union a lot in my book also. But the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed in the early 1900s when young workers, mostly girls who were teenagers or in their early 20s, started organizing garment factories across New York City, and there were hundreds of small shops all across the city, and people didn’t last at one shop forever, right? They’d worked somewhere for a couple of years and then leave because there were better hours at another place, and they would go and work in the other place and then be there for a few years or for a year, for a few months, and then switch to another place. So it was actually a very similar work economy as we see today in fast food all across the country, and those workers started organizing shop by small shop, and then decided they needed to organize the entire industry all across the city at the same time, and they walked out on a strike that was called the uprising of the 20,000. That was really the genesis of the organizing that happened in the garment industry all across the country. But you know, here we are just over 100 years later, and the union that I work for is supporting a massive campaign where young workers are organizing shop by small shop, and now building structures so that nationally they can try to change an industry. we’re seeing the same story kind of play out right now because the sort of work world looks similar to what it did 100 years ago.

Nima: You know Daisy, you had mentioned this idea that the vast majority of workers have families to support, they are part of communities that they help to support. I want to now refocus us on how those kinds of terms are then used by employers in this kind of, you know, ‘Oh, we all have shared values, we’re a family here,’ et cetera, et cetera, which also leads to as promised the trope of the sad boss. So one thing that we’ve been talking about earlier on this episode, are these kind of flashier, newer anti-union talking points that we’ve seen from say, you know, the CEOs of REI, of Starbucks, et cetera, and I think, you know, talking about Starbucks really gets to the point here, Howard Schultz is kind of the new-agey-ist of these, you know, anti-union trope abusers. Can we talk about how the rhetoric of values and family really attempts to manipulate workers into, as we’ve been saying, dismissing the value of a union, the values that maybe also they hold dear?

Adam: I mean, the guy cries on Zoom calls, people have mentioned this to me, people who know him personally, have worked with him say like, it’s not an act. He’s like, legitimately just a cult leader who believes his own bullshit,and the very thought of unions deeply offends him, because he’s the daddy and you’re the child and daddys take care of their children and so he’s going to cry.

Daisy Pitkin: Yeah, I think, you know, in the case of Howard Schultz, I think he has an idea about the company that he founded that he is very invested in believing in, and workers who have worked for Starbucks for many, many years, have seen sort of a sea change happen inside the company during the time that they’ve worked there, and that, you know, this is a company that likes to call itself progressive, that has a number of values that it portends to stand for, and then when workers start to form a union, they become one of the most prolific labor law violators in US history. So you have to look at that and say, this company, what workers have been saying is that this company really no longer embraces its own values. The company has changed, and we want to form a union because we want to have a seat at the table, and the union busting is sort of proof in the pudding that the company is more Walmart than it is Patagonia at this point. It likes to pretend it’s Patagonia, but it’s Walmart or Chick fil A. I think there’s a lot to be said about Starbucks in this context and Howard Schultz in this context, at this point, he infamously came back to the CEO position, interim CEO of the company in the midst of the union organizing drive, that has now reached over 280 stores in 37 states across the country, over 7,000 workers have joined the Union. He came back sort of at the beginning of this and flew to Buffalo, New York, which is where the organizing drive started, and held a meeting speaking with workers, who he calls partners, and echoed the same talking point that you’re referencing, this family, you know, the company is a family, and that he is a good guy and a good boss and that workers should not form a union because it will interfere really with his idea about the company which no longer is true. I don’t know if it was ever true, but it’s certainly you know, workers are saying that there’s been a massive change in the company over the years, and he gave this speech that included something saying that he built Starbucks, this is not an exact quote, but that he built Starbucks, that the fabric of the company is akin to Jewish people in concentration camps sharing blankets with each other, that that is the foundational value upon which he had built the company. The manipulation inherent in that just didn’t work. It fell flat on workers who work day in and day out in the cafes, and see that the company has really geared itself much more toward profit rather than partnership with the people who work there.

Adam: It’s a sign of desperation, right? I think once you’re analogizing to the Holocaust, you pretty much see the writing on the wall with respect to the momentum of unionization, you’re just throwing shit at the wall seeing if anything sticks, and of course, if you’re sharing a blanket evenly, you know, he’s worth what, a few billion dollars, and maybe he should spread some of that around, then he wouldn’t have this problem probably. But I want to sort of pivot a little bit to criticisms of unions. I think one thing you work does is you’re not romantic about the problems in unions themselves, and we want to be, I don’t want to necessarily have a Maoist struggle session here but I do want to talk about the ways in which unions themselves can kind of contribute to this environment, with a lot of self inflicted problems, as you write about, toxic abusive behavior within unions themselves, which have, I think, it’s fair to say, I mean, obviously, there’s these massive forces of capital and propaganda that are a large part of this, but there is a small, I would say, a small percentage, but a non trivial one, of issues within unions themselves that have led to the current situation where we have such low unionization rates in this country, but such an exploited worker class. So I want to sort of talk about your experience with the problems with unions themselves, what you view as the fix in those problems, and how doing so can kind of make them more attractive, and solidarity more attractive.

Daisy Pitkin: You know, in my book, I write pretty frankly about some of the things that happened inside the union that I worked for because I really believe in unions, I really believe in the labor movement in this country as one of the only ways to continue to foster and feed democracy. So let there be no question that I believe in organizing, I believe in collective power. But I also don’t know how to write about something that you love, that, you know, is flawed, and write only praise. We have to be able to challenge the institutions and organizations that we believe in to be better than they sometimes are, and so my book kind of walks head on into that, and, you know, I think, earlier on in the conversation, we were talking about sort of the third partying that happens of the union as part of anti-union campaigns. I think one thing that happens sometimes in unions is that they end up becoming sort of service centers for members. In a goodhearted kind of way, there are people who work for unions all across the country who really want to serve the union’s membership, and when the union becomes a kind of service model of itself, I think it undercuts the kind of vibrant, collective power model that unions can and should be. Members of unions tend to start thinking of the union exactly as a third party that is supposed to be serving them, rather than engaging in the union as, ‘This organization, it is me and my coworkers, we are the union, and yes, maybe we have a collective bargaining agreement with our employer at this point, and that agreement means a lot, it’s a document of the power that we’ve been able to build, but still the way to enact that is through collective action all the time and not through some staff person who works for the union coming in to solve problems for us, the answer continues to be collective action and engagement from membership.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as we’re seeing this resurgence in organizing across the country, we are also seeing a tide change inside major unions all across the country for more democracy inside the unions themselves. Because what people really want at this point, I think, is democracy not just at the workplace, but inside the unions that they’re members of, and I think that unions are challenged in some ways by that, and we ought to be embracing that as we move forward because, I think, the future of the labor movement depends on workers being active agents inside their unions and inside their workplaces both.

Nima: Well, this has been so great. Daisy, before we let you go, we’d love to hear about what you are working on currently. What are you up to? What can folks pay attention to next and continue to build more solidarity?

Daisy Pitkin: So I’m really lucky at this point to get to be an organizing director for Workers United, which is the union that’s supporting Starbucks workers as they’re building this sort of national movement to organize Starbucks, it’s one of the most incredible campaigns I’ve ever been able to witness, much less be able to support. This is an incredibly worker-driven wildfire of a movement. So if you aren’t already, you should follow Starbucks Workers United online, because it’s a really exciting time to watch the, mainly young people, but not all young people, form this union and challenge this huge, multi billion dollar corporation to do better to be the company that these workers believe it can be.

Starbucks Workers United rally in Buffalo, New York. (STARBUCKS WORKERS UNITED)

Nima: Well, that is a great place to leave it. We have been speaking with Daisy Pitkin, community and union organizer, supporting labor movements for over 20 years. Her writing has been honored with the Montana prize, the Disquiet Literary Prize, the New Millennium Award, among others. And she is the author of the memoir On The Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union, which was published by Algonquin Books in 2022. Daisy, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Daisy Pitkin: Thanks so much.


Adam: Yeah, I think Daisy was great, because, again, not only has she been in the weeds, is not sentimental about it, right? Because again, I think sometimes when you do work in the anti-union space, you can begin to become naive or overly romantic about the problems with unions, which again, are never the problems that the Scott Walker’s of the world tell you they are, although, you know, Marco Rubio tries to exploit those problems to push their own agenda, right? But she’s very clear-eyed about it and clear-eyed about the fact that, you know, this is an uphill battle, the unionization, the rates in the US are below 12 percent. I mean, that’s not very good, and that even though there’s been a movement towards unionization over the past couple years, even more so in these retail and restaurant spaces, that when you include jobs that have been “added to the economy,” quote-unquote, unionization rates over the past year actually down, and so there’s been this growth, but there’s also been this pushback, it’s a huge uphill battle, and so people were working on fashioning these talking points, I know that the Starbucks workers unions are really good at public facing messaging, which is why their union votes are running up these Saddam Hussein numbers. That’s really how you sort of begin the nitty gritty work. It’s going to be a process over several years, it’s not going to be an overnight thing.

Nima: Yeah, I think what kind of good union, pro-union messaging and ways to push back on these, as we know, tried and true anti-union talking points, which have been around for years, if not well over a century, is this idea of kind of mixing the romantic with the real, you know, things should be aspirational, it should have a, you know, vision for a more just future, sure, but not to be so romantic as to just ignore actual issues to address, actual questions that people do have about how this would work in reality, about how to make this kind of solidarity real and effective and accountable, and not just then, a kind of anti-corporate talking point which sure also useful, but how do you how do you make it both romantic and real?

Adam: Right, because you have to actually convert souls for a living, which is hard.

Nima: Right. You have to do the thing.

Adam: Right.

Nima: But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and, if you are so inclined, become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We don’t run ads, we don’t read out commercial copy, we don’t have corporate donations and so all of your support is what keeps this show going. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.