Will Unions Respond to the Pandemic Moment?

Clare Hammonds and Cedric Johnson

Trade unions have the potential to play a pivotal role in developing a more significant mass movement – but will they? Clare Hammonds and Cedric Johnson join Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.


Paul Jay
Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. Back in mid-April, before the mass
protests broke out, I wrote an article titled, “Get Ready for the Coming Storm.” In part, it went
“Now, as the country settles into a deep depression, conditions for the rise of a broad people’s
movement might develop. Mass unemployment could spark spontaneous resistance, but without
organization, uprisings cannot be sustained and have little direction. I saw this firsthand during
the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore. Will progressives and socialists be ready for it?” Well,
the storm arrived sooner than I expected. I think if the mass movement that has arisen in the
wake of the police murders of George Floyd and many other black men is going to be sustainable
and transformative, workers organized in trade unions are going to have to play a leading role.
It’s almost the only place that workers are organized as workers. Even if their numbers are much
smaller than in the past, unionized workers are still in strategic sectors of the economy, including
transportation, telecommunications, the public sector, hospitals and many large industries. An
example of what’s possible may be set by the West Coast port workers on Friday Juneteenth.
Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, (ILWU) plan to close West
Coast ports in solidarity with Black Lives Matter on the day commemorating the end of slavery.
While many even on the left have written off American trade unions as too weak and too
conservative, there are strikes all over the country – and some say a rising militancy. In the book,
“Labor in the time of Trump,” the introduction ends with this: “Building corporate lobbies and
the right-wing ideology surrounding them is fundamental to capitalism, as is the impulse to
generate wealth at the top and eliminate unions.” How the labor movement responds, however, is
generating fierce debates within the labor movement. The right-wing agenda is at odds with what
most people want, and it’s up to the labor movement and its allies to expose and counter that
contradiction. The challenge for labor and the left is to marshal the forces that believe another
world is possible. Now joining us is one of the editors of the book, Clare Hammonds, who is a
professor of practice at UMass Amherst Labor Center, where she conducts and supports applied
research and labor education programs. Hammonds also currently serves as the Labor Center
graduate program director. And one of the contributors to the book, in Chicago is Cedric
Johnson, who’s an associate professor of African-American studies and political science at the
University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the Neo-Liberal Deluge, Hurricane Katrina, Late
Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans. Thank you both for joining me.

Clare Hammonds: Thank you for having us.

Paul Jay
Your book’s dedication talks about laying the groundwork for the next upsurge. Do you think this
is it? And if so, can the progressive struggle inside the union movement effectively challenge the
conservatives who lead most, if not all of the major unions?

Clare Hammonds
Well, I’ll just start by saying a couple of things about that. So there are five co-editors on it:
myself and the other three UMass Amherst faculty at the Labor Center: Tom Juravich, Eve
Weinbaum and Jasmine Kerrissey. We were also supported by our sociology colleague Dan
Clawson. And Dan Clawson passed away unexpectedly last May just after we’d finished putting
the book together. That’s the introduction. There is a reference to a book that Clawson wrote in
early 2000 or 2002 or so that’s called “The Next Upsurge” – a really important book. One of the
things he argues is that if you look at the history of the labor movement and union growth,
unions have never grown slowly and incrementally, but rather we’ve seen these large explosions
in growth. So if you look at the period following the Great Depression – 10 years or so between
1934 and 1944 -membership in the labor movement quadrupled during that period. So he’s
pointing out that if we look at this sort of slow, steady decline of the last several decades, we’re
given one picture where the labor movement is headed. But in reality, the data suggest that we
might not know when it’s coming and it might come in one of these huge bursts. And in response
to your question about whether or not these internal political progressive struggles make a
difference, my first answer is yes, which is to say that unions are democratic organizations run
by elected leaders. And as is true in all types of democratic systems, often those in power are in a
position to maintain that power by setting rules in various ways. But that’s not to say that there
aren’t avenues for new kinds of leadership to emerge within that democratic context. And I think
there are lots of examples from the labor movement – just look at the last decade where we’ve
seen how progressive struggles within unions actually transform them. And I often think of the
teachers’ unions and how they’ve really been at the forefront of a lot of progressive
transformations within the labor movement. Part of that is that they are public sector unions that
are well positioned to make common cause with community organizations. And they’re often
very much embedded in the community in ways that perhaps give them an advantage in this kind
of struggle. But we’ve really seen them leading the way here in Massachusetts. My union, the
Massachusetts Teachers Association, had a real transformation about six years ago. A Democratic
caucus within the union was able to organize rank and file members and elect a new, very
progressive democratic president. And, you know, in that period of time following it, we’ve seen
a real transformation of the union at the state level, including an aggressive campaign that
pushed back against charter schools in the state and was able to win additional changes in the
funding formula, which is how money gets allocated to different schools. In a way that increased
funding for public education. And this will become increasingly important. Those resources in
the public sector become more scarce in the economic fallout of the Covin19 pandemic. I guess
just one other thing I would say in response to your question is that aside from the role of
progressive organizing happening within the labor movement, I think it’s also really important to
look at the broader social movement as a sort of ecosystem and consider the interactive effects
among these movements. Certainly, since the beginning of June, we’ve seen massive protests by
Black Lives Matter regarding antiblack racism. I think they’ve really pushed the labor movement
in new ways to confront issues of racism within their membership. And to think about how they
organize in coalition with movements for racial justice.

Paul Jay
Cedric, To what extent do you think this is the next upsurge? And if it is, how much influence
will it have, within the unions and outside, amongst the workers’ movement? I mean, does this
lead to a campaign of organizing? Claire’s talking about the times when union membership can
surge. Well, if there was ever a moment where it was needed, it’s now. But most of the unions
-and there are exceptions – but most of the unions have not been very good at organizing and not
very good at confronting, especially the leadership of the Democratic Party. So will this be a
spark that will help push this kind of progressive movements in the union?

Cedric Johnson
I definitely think it’s possible. You know, the pandemic has changed a few things for us. I think it
sort of jolted people out of their typical way of doing things, at least in how people think about
labor. The focus on essential workers and the kinds of conversations people are having about
this, I think, has been due to the induced slowdown. For some people, it was a slowdown. So
people could work from home – people who work in certain professions that allowed them that
kind of flexibility. And it’s not like that was necessarily a good thing – many people have
complained loudly that this was more oppressive – that they were forced with a different kind of
labor discipline that didn’t even allow their homes to be a place of egress. And they were at the
beck and call – at the command – of their bosses or managers at all times. So even among situated
workers, this presents some problems. But I think for all of us as consumers, we realized that
there were many occupations which we relied on. And in the midst of the pandemic, that became
incredibly vivid and clear to us. Whether it was the delivery services that folks use in grocery
stores, or the various shipping channels and transportations that connect to the port system and
what have you: we realized that there were certain workers in society who were essential to all of
us – really fundamental to our basic day-to-day needs, who also were underpaid, not protected –
not even provided with adequate personal protective equipment in the midst of a pandemic. And
you know, what was great about that moment of shelter in place is that you saw companies like
Amazon openly criticized – even in mainstream media. And, you know, workers staging sickouts
and walkouts. And then Amazon retaliating almost in a 19th-century fashion by firing those
persons who were were were organizing and then also rebellion even from the more privileged
stratum within Amazon. I saw where one engineer resigned and condemned Amazon for
basically firing whistleblowers within its ranks. So I think the focus is on essential workers, if
those were the frontline emergency and health care workers, but also people whose services and
labor we rely on, on a day-to-day basis and may be taken for granted. I think people finally
began to pay attention to those experiences in the same ways that the shelter in place allowed, for
the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd to resonate in ways that it might not have
before, when those stories would have competed with all sorts of other news stories or
distractions that Americans are typically caught up in. So I think that shelter in place and the
focus on essential workers really has helped us. And that set the stage for something else. I think
it’s possible that we will see a wave of labor organizing if things continue to go this way. And
what’s helping it in part is having a Republican-controlled Senate and White House, which don’t
give a damn about these people. They’ve responded with one of the most tokenized measures –
just a pittance in terms of relief for people who are enduring this pandemic and not allowed to
work. So I think the various conditions of the pandemic have created an opening for us. But the
work lies ahead, you know. It’s not gonna happen just because of outrage. But it’s gonna take a
lot of tireless work. The other thing, and I’ll just close with this, in my whole career, my own
profession, as a writer and an academic, I think we’ve all seen or at least heard how various for-
profit entrepreneurs seize this moment. And as in other crises, they’re looking for the opportunity
to transform higher education. I mean, some of it is is they overselling. I mean, I don’t think
we’re going to see a complete total overhaul. But where they can succeed to erode the power of
unionized faculty, move courses towards online education, get rid of entire layers of
nonunionized or contingent faculty – I think we’re going to see that, in some places – the stage is
being set for important struggles ahead. But we’ve got to be there to do the work.

Paul Jay
Claire, usually at times like this, especially given the election, the significance of the November
election with Trump – and of course, people in the union movement want Trump defeated – but so
often with these rises in the mass movement, especially around elections, the most of the union
leadership are so preoccupied and focused on funding the Democratic Party and getting people
out organizing for the Democratic Party that they don’t organize, first of all, the unions
themselves, in terms of getting new members. And then – especially at a time like this – if there
was ever a time that unions need to organize the unemployed and to create that as a real force as
it was in the 1930s, that time is now. But I think that goes to the same question of the struggle
within the unions to represent workers as a whole, as a class, and get away from this much more
narrow vision of what unions are. You know, the UAW always had such a good health care plan.
The UAW didn’t care much about Medicare for all. Of course, now none of those big unions are
in good shape. So is there a time now where the unions can start playing more of that kind of
class role?

Clare Hammonds
I think there is. I mean, what you’ve pointed to, this huge explosion in unemployment, I think
history has important lessons for us. In the period of the New Deal in which the labor movement
was successful in pushing forward pro-worker policies, there was a substantial amount of labor
unrest and organizing that included coalitions of both employed and unemployed workers. I
think the question of where unemployment will land is still an open one. In some ways that feels
like there’s such immediate work that needs to be done by the labor movement in terms of both
internal organizing and trying to work with. As you and Cedric have pointed out, we’ve seen this
sort of massive unrest happening among unorganized workers. We’re talking about Amazon
workers. We’re talking about workers in the gig economy. And since the start of the pandemic,
you know, those numbers of wildcat strikes have really been significant. And one of the
questions that arises is how is the labor movement able to grapple with the fact that so much of
this organizing is happening outside of union contacts? And how can we take the organizing
that’s happening and transform it into some sort of sustained organization that can bring about
real change? We have seen more of these increases in labor unrest happening since the pandemic
began. And we’ve seen other sorts of protest movements happening. But there has been a certain
amount of this that isn’t exactly brand new. If we look just to the last several years, more workers
went on strike in 2013 than at any time since 1986. And so we’re starting to see this uptick in
worker unrest and perhaps that’s an example of it. But I think, in terms of the organizing that the
labor movement has to do, it has to be a class-based movement and an economic-based
movement, and that’s at the heart of it. And building common cause with community members in
other sorts of issues that affect workers in their communities, whether it be around housing, or
race, or policing, environmental issues, schooling, et cetera, those are all places that the labor
movement can be organizing in coalitions.

Paul Jay
In the introduction to the book, Cedric, there’s this suggestion that there’s a debate in the union
movement about how to respond to the current situation. What is the debate?

Cedric Johnson
Yeah, I think there are many different kinds of debates. If we think about that part of the book
speaking to the current moment, the wave of unprecedented protests we’ve seen around the
country, I think there’s a way for unions to become involved in terms of resources and connecting
with social struggles, Some of them are already doing that in different parts of the country. I
know that when I participated in protests against the killing of Laquan McDonald here in
Chicago, those protests took off in 2015 – he was killed the year before – there were unions that
were out there. Maybe one way to think about it is that the people who were being heavily
policed are workers – working-class people. And in many moments where we see those who are
unionized, if we think about people like Philando Castile, who was a cafeteria worker and I think
was also a member of the Teamsters Local in St. Paul; or somebody like George Floyd, who had
been a truck driver and was unemployed as a bouncer. All these folks, though, are part of the
working class. So I think the first step in getting past those debates is to concede that these are all
working-class people. There is a great passage in Michael Zweig where he talks about the poor
and tries to take back this discussion of class from decades of liberalism, which tries to separate
the poor and the dependent from workers. And I think he basically says: who are the poor but
workers – people who have been ground up and cast aside by this particular economy. I think that
we have to think about them in the same way. So I don’t see those divides as being as sharp
between those persons who are actively organizing in their workplaces and the people beyond
the shop floor. I just think we have to step into this with the idea that most Americans are still
working class, even if our salaries may vary widely, our consumer capacity may vary widely, but
ultimately, most of us rely upon a wage in order to survive. We don’t own vast tracts of land. We
don’t own central city real estate. And so the way we reproduce ourselves is through selling our
labor power. And if we get back to that kind of basic idea, I think it moves the conversation in a
different direction. And so it makes sense that you instill themselves fully behind any policing
measures which are meted out against the most vulnerable segments of the working class.

Paul Jay
But supporting measures to restrain policing is not such a tough one for the unions. But with this
coming election right now, it looks like Biden is going to be president. I think the bigger question
is going to be whether the unions are willing to force the Democratic Party into some serious
reforms, not nibbling around the edges, as the Obama administration did. The Obama
administration – one of the big reasons Obama got elected was this big promise to the union
movement that they would pass – I forget the name of the legislation right now, but it was a piece
of legislation to make it easier for unions to organize. And they never passed the legislation after
making all kinds of promises. This goes back to this issue of the fight within the unions, like how
many of the major unions supported Sanders? I don’t think the majority did. Most either didn’t do
anything or they supported Biden. Of course, the nurses, the communication workers that did
support Sanders – and a lot of locals supported Sanders sometimes in defiance of their national
leadership – that is, I guess, the same question again. There’s a kind of change in attitudes
happening right now. This pandemic has been a big dose of reality. Do you get a feel for that in
the unions? Like Claire was talking about how a progressive slate got elected in her union. Might
this be happening more across the country? Do you see any evidence of it? Or maybe it’s too
soon to say?

Cedric Johnson
It’s disheartening when I see that the major unions supported Biden when the national
organization supported him. But I think that the Sanders campaign was terribly important. I think
it reminded us all that it was possible to run a progressive left campaign at the national level.
And that it was possible to win in some places with a candidacy which wasn’t ashamed to talk
about what kind of world we want. What kind of society do we want? And that was uplifting,
even using the term socialist. Openly. And the fact that he wasn’t capsized as a candidate because
of his long commitment to democratic socialism. That was an achievement. At the same time, if
you live in certain parts of the country, it doesn’t resonate in the same way. I grew up in
Louisiana, have a lot of families still in the south. And in some of these places, the discussions
are very different. You don’t have these massive teacher strikes like we have here in Chicago. You may not even have any unions for the most part. So in these in these right-to-work states and states where you have Republicans in the governor’s mansion and in control of the state legislature, who voted for
somebody like Sanders, it seems like a long shot. And it’s just based on the reality on the ground.
So I can imagine why black voters in South Carolina – not even imagine, I know – why they
voted for Biden. It’s because he seemed like the person who could possibly get elected. And
they’ve lived through too many – especially somebody who is an older black person in South
Carolina – they’ve lived through too many heartbreaking disappointments as far as elections, to
place their bets on Sanders, who didn’t have the blessing of the local politicians who they trust
and who do deliver some sort of material or divisible benefits to them on a regular basis. So I
think we will probably see more election of progressive candidates in local places where that’s
possible. We will see changes in union leadership. I can imagine more in the way of
diversification of union leadership going forward, given everything that’s happened over the last
few weeks. But I’m not completely disappointed with the possibility of a Biden election. I’ve said
this in a few places. I think that we have to have a long game approach to this. That Biden is
better than Trump, I think, on some issues. See, if he changes the composition of the Congress at
all, it puts us in a better position to push for things. Just look at the damage that Trump has
wrought in his appointments to different departments. I mean, Ben Carson is not the kind of
person I want to see in charge of Housing and Urban Development. We need other kinds of
people in place. And sure, we can look at the track record of the centrist Democrats, which is
also disappointing. But I think we’d be in a better place with somebody like a Biden. And given
the energy that’s been unleashed by the pandemic, we might be in a better place to push for some
different kinds of things than even what we saw during the Obama administration.

Paul Jay
Clare, you write in that introduction that the right-wing agenda is at odds with what most people
want, and the labor movement has to try to deal with this. So to what extent is that happening?
We know that a lot of union members in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voted for
Trump. Are the unions responding to this? And why do you think so many union members voted

  • it’s pretty obvious – against their own interests, but they got fooled.

Clare Hammonds
I guess there are two things. First, at this point, the right-wing agenda is really unpopular. I think
it’s worth separating out that agenda perhaps from the Republican Party and all that that entails. I
think there are two things happening there, because on its basis, when you’re asking people these
sorts of questions like, do you want to have a good school in your neighborhood? Do you want to
have affordable housing? Do you want to have a job? — like these basic things, the Republican
agenda is not very popular. It turns out people do want to have access to health care that doesn’t
bankrupt them when they get sick, for example. So, like on these issues, we see that the people
do generally support more liberal policies. And this is why I think in a lot of places you see
things being tried, people moving outside of the legislative process to actually try to pass some
ballot initiatives and going directly to the people to put things forward as a question. Because
you’re sometimes able to get more progressive policies through doing that than you are working,
you know, actually through the election process. On this question about why do so many union
voters vote for Trump? I mean, I think there’s a couple of things happening there. One, I think
this question of union membership, you know, a lot of people are union members. You don’t
identify as union members. And unions have moved to a place of oftentimes being essentially
like an insurance policy for workers. You pay the union so that you have some sort of benefits in
case you have a problem at your job. You pay the union to help make sure that you got a better
health care plan or a wage increase. And unions haven’t necessarily been doing the kind of
political education work that would help union members to see their broader class interests and
to vote in different terms.

Paul Jay
I’ve gone into unionized grocery stores and I’ve asked, what’s the name of your union? And union
members working at the cash can’t tell me the name of their union. I’ve said, do you know who
your steward is? And on several occasions, they have no idea who even who their union rep is,
the level of education in some of the unions is just terrible.

Clare Hammonds
If these people don’t know who their steward is, don’t know what their union is – they might pay
union dues, but that’s a different kind of membership. It’s in a different kind of organization. So I
think at a more fundamental level, what you’re talking about is actually transforming union
organizations so that they are engaging with their membership and doing the kind of political
education work that would allow for the development of a class consciousness that would change
some of these voting outcomes.

Paul Jay
Is there any organization and if there isn’t, it sure seems to me there should be, that is there to
help progressive workers who want to fight in their unions to get elected, to develop slates?
Because I would guess in a lot of unionized places, some of the workers feel very isolated and
they have no idea what to do. And the second thing is, as I say, some unions do organize, but a
lot do very little. And I’ve talked to quite a few workers. Sometimes they’ve reached out to me
because, you know, they watch the news. I do. And they said, well, I’m unorganized, and I don’t
know what to do about it. Does there need to be a different kind of workers’ organization outside
of the traditional union structure that can talk to both progressives in traditional unions and to
workers who want to get organized? Cedric, is there something like that? or should there be? I
don’t mean the electoral campaign, but the activist campaign, which could be, and oftentimes are,
led by unions.

Cedric Johnson
But other kinds of campaigns that we’ve seen that have intensified during the pandemic, that are
still class inflected, even if they aren’t necessarily formal work organizations – I’m thinking here
of Black Lives Matter. In a sense, there are some redistributive questions that are raised within
that. And any eviction campaigns in different cities, people calling for moratoriums on evictions,
during the pandemic. But a lot of that was being done before, even going back as far as the
subprime mortgage crisis. We’ve seen an expansion of housing activism, especially within cities
where it’s no longer affordable for working people to live. So I think there are ways that these
campaigns can serve as bridges, but also as spaces where union activists can connect, as you
allude to at the very beginning, with the unemployed, with people who are living on public
assistance, with people in the gig economy as a way to connect. This is a much smaller scale
example I’ll give you. But when I lived in Rochester, we had a pretty robust labor education
outfit going on. And the main people in charge, Linda Donahue and John Garlock, were people I
learned a lot from about how to organize events that connected with the general public, the
working class public in Rochester. And it was through monthly discussions, through labor tours,
through factory visits – things I did with students, but also even a film series which snagged a
certain group of folks who are interested in that sort of thing. I think we have to be engaged in
that kind of work as well. Like not simply approaching working-class people and different
constituencies in the midst of a crisis, but slowly starting to build a kind of class consciousness
and anti-capitalist politics. That we need, but that’s going to take time. But I just think that there
are other ways besides the collective bargaining process and shop organizing that we could use to
connect with people.

Paul Jay
Clare, now that we’re nearing the end. same question to you. Are there forms of organizing
coming into being? And if not, or should there be more of that kind of work, both within the
normal union sector and union form, but also the kind that can help unorganized workers get
organized, I should say, help organize the unemployed as well? Are there these kinds of non-
traditional union forms?

Clare Hammonds
Yes. I’m trying to think of a setting where that happens in the same organization. In terms of
nontraditional union forms, in the last 20 years, a lot of the organizing of low-wage, particularly
undocumented, workers has happened outside of the union context and particularly in worker
centers. And this has meant that if you don’t have a union, you’re not able to collectively bargain
a contract. But oftentimes these organizations have been able to organize people to either win
gains from their employer, although short of a contract, or also push for legislative changes at a
local or state level. And I’m thinking particularly here of how a lot of worker centers have been
doing organizing work around wage theft. This is a particular issue for low wage workers to get
ordinances passed that help protect workers from losing wages. So this isn’t forming a union, but
it is another type of organization that allows people to come together and fight for their rights on
the job. And within the labor movement, I think that Labor Notes, which is a network that’s a
magazine, and it presents conferences and ongoing workshops. It has been a central site for
bringing together rank-and-file workers who are interested in bringing about change and
democratic changes within their union. And certainly, since the 80s has done a lot of training and
work with union members who are looking to create progressive change within their union.

Paul Jay
Cedric, just finally: A lot, perhaps most of the people in the streets are workers, young workers,
unionized, probably a lot of them not unionized. Their consciousness now, their focus, is very
much on the question of systemic racism and police brutality and dealing with the police. But
their workers: what do you say to them, in terms of what they should be thinking about doing?

Cedric Johnson
The hope is that some of these protests would give way to maybe more forceful redistributive
politics with different kinds of discussions about how we should organize the economy or even
distribute public goods within a metropolitan context. And some of that’s already happening.
Well, what I’m most afraid of is that while all my activist friends see the possibility of this
morphing into some reckoning of America’s history of racism. What I’m also hearing at the same
time, from family members, friends, people I’ve been connected to through different institutions,
schools I went to, I’m hearing something that’s much more conservative – just a demand that
America become a less racist place. And we hear all the clichés of earlier periods about leveling
the playing field and providing blacks and all other people with an equal shot at living the
American Dream, as it’s already been presented to us. Which is expanded consumer capacity and
not necessarily, with some of these conversations, the kind of criticism I hear from activists. So I
wonder if there are multiple things happening here at once and that it could possibly go in a
fairly conservative place. It’s almost the same spirit. And sometimes it feels the same as our
people talked about the election of Barack Obama. This was a new day because it ripped the
glass ceiling off public office. We were finally able to see a black family in the White House. But
I wonder if for some people that’s enough. That kind of symbolic reckoning, whether it’s taking
down monuments, changing the names of streets, pulling films or products that people see as
relics of earlier periods – and that’s the extent of it for some folks. And maybe in some cities we’ll
see more substantial changes. But I’m worried that the liberal dimension is more powerful than
we think in this contemporary upsurge. And once we get beyond activists and people are just
asking to have a fair shot at the game as it already exists. So it would be great if we could see a
convergence between the kinds of wildcat strikes that I mentioned earlier, people organizing in
the gig economy, and the outrage that people felt about George Floyd’s death and the general
treatment of blacks by police. But I just wonder – and I don’t want to get too excited because
we’ve seen elements of this play out before and it hasn’t always done the things that we imagined
and hoped for.

Paul Jay
All right. Thanks very much, Clare. Thank you, Cedric. And thank you for joining us on the
Analysis.news podcast.

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