What Makes A Union Worth It? with Maximillian Alvarez | Crooked Media
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February 08, 2023
Work Appropriate
What Makes A Union Worth It? with Maximillian Alvarez

In This Episode

Just 10% of American workers are in a union. But according to a 2022 Gallup poll, support for unions is at 71%– the highest since 1965. Unions can be a source of protection and security, but just like any organization they can be run poorly or run well. Maximillian Alvarez, editor in chief of The Real News, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answers questions from listeners about forming solidarity, reforming a corrupt union, and weighing their union options.

If you need advice about a workplace woe, let us know! Head to www.workappropriate.com and fill out the form. We use your questions to plan future episodes, so no problem is too petty, too weird, or too complicated.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, and this is Work Appropriate. [music plays] The first time I really learned about unions, I was living in France, my host mother, a very matter of fact woman in her late seventies told me to keep an eye out on my walk to school that morning. Les pompiers sont en grève. The firemen were on strike. She wasn’t warning me. She just kind of knew I’d be interested because I was a clueless 20 year old and didn’t understand most things like the strength of French unions. She explained to me that maybe it was annoying when they went on strike, but that’s how they and other workers kept the balance of power in check. And I remember wondering, wait, why don’t Americans do this like a lot more? Of course, Americans had done that. So much of it. So, so much of it. And a lot of it even in my backyard in the mountain west, where timber and mining unions took a stand after stand against the companies hell bent on exploiting them. But when I was growing up, even in a small timber town, that unions had been defanged by right to work legislation and the popular understanding, at least in my town, was that, if anything, unions and environmentalists, but that’s another story, were actually kind of the bad guys. They had got too powerful, too greedy and ruined the good old days, whatever those were for everyone. It would take me a lot of time and a lot of reading and actually joining my first union at the University of Oregon as a graduate student to actually understand what a union could do and how they had become so effectively demonized in so many corners of American society and who ultimately benefited from so many Americans turning their back on the power of organized labor. Maybe you grew up surrounded by similar ideas. Or maybe you grew up in a union household. Hearing all the war stories because unions aren’t just for those professions we might associate with those old stories steelworkers, coal miners, autoworkers, etc.. They’re for hospitality workers and teachers and home health aides, and increasingly for Starbucks workers and Amazon warehouse employees and museum staff and tech workers and podcast workers, including, as of this week, the staff here at Crooked Media. As a nation, we’re at the lowest level of total union membership, just over 10% in 2022. But I think we’re also at the highest curiosity level of our unions. And according to a 2022 Gallup poll, the highest percent of support for unions since 1965, a staggering 71%. It makes sense then, that we get a lot of questions about unions here at Work Appropriate. Some are pretty basic. Some wonder about how to reform a broken union and some just want to know, is it worth it? I knew I wanted a co-host who doesn’t just know about unions, but talks to union members all over the world every damn day. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: My name is Maximillian Alvarez I’m the editor in chief of The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m also the host of the podcast Working People, where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams and struggles. I also host the Art of Class War segment on Breaking Points, and I’m the author of The Work of Living, a collection of ten interviews with workers that I conducted after the first year of the COVID 19 pandemic. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And you have a Ph.D.? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: I do, I have two actually. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Even better. What are they in? Tell us about it. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: History and comparative literature from the University of Michigan. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So can you tell us a little bit about The Real News Network? Because I think it’s really interesting and unique in a lot of ways, too. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I’d love to thank you for asking. So. The Real News Network is a nonprofit viewer supported media network here in Baltimore. Everyone here is just such a committed, amazing journalist or a studio technician. Editorial support administrative staff, like everyone here is just such an incredible human being. They’re so committed to the mission of lifting up the voices and struggles of people fighting on the front lines for a better workplace, a better life, better communities, and ultimately, I think, a better world. That’s I think really our core commitment, right, is really kind of focusing on the stories that corporate media overlooks, that local media, most local media are no longer around to cover, but that, you know, not only lifts up the voices of the people directly involved in those struggles, but also tries to reach people in their respective corners of the world, their communities, and make media that empowers them to to feel like they are the ones who are ultimately going to make change in the world. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: One of the things I love about your podcast is it does something that I think sometimes people forget is absolutely fascinating, which is I mean, Studs Terkel figured this out a long time ago, but like talk to people about their jobs, like what is their everyday life like, especially if someone has even a modicum of storytelling skill, right? Like it is just so interesting. And what have you found over the course of doing the podcast about just like talking to people about the work that they do? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh man. So it’s it’s funny you mention that because like I always feel like that I just like struck gold in terms of the scope of the podcast. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: And this was something that I suspected back when I was starting it as a graduate student, you know, in my dinky little apartment in Ann Arbor with rented equipment from the university. [laughs] Is is I just kind of figured and this has only been confirmed you know, with each new interview that I do and now we’ve ended our fifth season we’re gearing up for the sixth season. We’ve published over 300 interviews with different workers, panels of workers, compilations of worker testimonies. And I’m just constantly reminded of the fact that everyone has an incredible story to tell. Like every one of us is sitting on the greatest story that’s ever been told, right? Which is our— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: —own life story. And the really, I think, sad fact is that we live in such a society that in which we are all so alienated from one another and increasingly closed off and increasingly convinced that our stories and our lives don’t actually matter all that much. And so all of this accrued experience, all of the stories of love and loss and togetherness and sibling rivalries and, you know, chance encounters that lead to, you know, a career for one person or another. Like all of this just is just sitting locked inside, you know, the skulls of our fellow human beings. And we rarely ever turn to one another and give each other that gift of just listening attentively. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: One of my favorite episodes. And then I encourage people to find the interview that you did with a railroad worker. And this is, you know, within the context of the railroad strike, but also just talking about what’s changed in the industry over the last 20 to 30 years, how is the everyday experience of the job changed? What do you do on a daily basis that’s different? And I think sometimes talking with someone like that, someone who does a job that has been a job for a long time, some of these more macro trends that we talk about, in abstract become very identifiable, become very relatable, like you don’t necessarily have to be best friends or part of a railroad family to understand, oh, this is why this sort of strike has become necessary. This is why the power of labor is so important in this moment. So I’m grateful for that. And this also is a good way for me to ask how did you become interested in like thinking about labor? And that could be about unions, but also just like the work that we do. How did that become your life’s work? In a lot of ways. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I mean, it it definitely was something that I came into later in life. One of the things that I think is really important to do this kind of work, right, is is to think about your role as a journalist very differently from what you know, the common commonly accepted knowledge has been for for most of our lifetimes. Right. I don’t really believe in, you know, the notion of the objective journalist, right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: The sort of eye of God that that can see without any sort of perspectival bias or anything like that. And so what that looks like in practice on my show, Working People, the interviews I do for the Real News or for my book is, you know, I feel like you have to give as much as you’re asking others to give. And so, you know, the podcast over the course of the past five seasons, I think I’ve exposed a lot about my life story. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: And I’ve learned a lot about myself in talking to other people. And I’ve recounted the fact that, you know, I grew up very conservative in Southern California. I was, you know, first generation Mexican-American. You know, our family very much subscribed to belief in the American dream. You know, we were products of the post-Cold War era, right. Where it felt like, you know, in with the fall of communism and the explosion of the dot com boom, it really felt like there was, you know, going to be a big enough pie for everyone. And, you know, your pathway to finding a comfortable, dignified, secure middle class or upper middle class life was getting a good education and working as hard as you can. You were really, you know, the one you know, in charge of you were you were the author of your own destiny. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Simple path. You just had to follow it, right? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: That’s all you had to do, baby. Right.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [laughter

 

Maximillian Alvarez: And so, like, then the financial crash came. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And so, like, millions and millions of other families, everything kind of came crashing down for us. And we, you know, it was it didn’t happen all at once. It was a very slow burn over the course of four, five, six years. But we eventually, you know, lost the house that I grew up in. My folks lost the jobs that they had worked their whole lives to get. You know, I graduated after following that path. Right. And being told from birth, get a good education. Get a good education. I went to the best school that I could get into the University of Chicago, and I graduated in 2009, right into the middle of a recession [laughter] right? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: I managed to hold on to a masters for like one year. But then when I got home in around 2010, 2011, you know, I was working as a temp warehouse and factory worker, 12, 13, 14 hour days, because that was all that I could find, frankly. And, you know, I’d work low wage jobs since I was 16, basically. But this felt very different, right? There was a different sense of shame about it that I think— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: —a lot of us were feeling, but we were all internalizing. My dad was so depressed, I could tell it, everyone could tell it. It was hurting my parents marriage. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t talk about it. And so I go into all this back story because I eventually made it back to graduate school, the ivory tower. And I thought, oh, thank God I’m back. I can—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: We’re back on the pathway. [laughter]

 

Maximillian Alvarez: And it just felt different. It never felt the same to me. I couldn’t, you know, forget about the guys back in the warehouse. I couldn’t forget about what our family had been through and how the political establishment threw itself around the banks and Wall Street investors that had caused the crash while leaving families like mine hanging out to dry. And I just remember how valuable it was in those dark moments to turn to my fellow workers and just learn about them, talk about what we were going through, shoot the shit, you know, and connect on that human level. Like, those were really life saving conversations that I don’t think happened enough. And so I joked with people that like, in a lot of ways I started the podcast almost as a ruse to get my dad to talk about what we had been through, right? [laughter] 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: But it really kind of took off from there. And the work that I do at The Real News, the book, everything else, I think kind of grew out of that. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I love that we started with the story because this, this episode is, you know, has union in the title. A lot of these questions are about unions, but they’re really about solidarity and they’re about recognizing our fellow workers as our fellow workers and like, what is the power of that? So that’s kind of how we’re going to, I think, segue into some of the questions that we’re dealing with today, because I think the reason that unionizing keeps coming up is because sometimes it is thrown around is this like cure all, like, oh, if you just unionized, everything would be okay. First of all, it’s not that easy, even though it should be. And I also think that a lot of times, unless you came from a background where you were in a union family or I don’t know you [laughter] like some of the people that I know who know most about unions, like had professor parents who were Marxists, right? So like, there’s two [laughs] there’s two very different understandings of like how you can know a lot about unions. And they’re also we have to remember, too, that a lot of our generation’s parents went through this incredible period of anti-union sentiment that was internalized by a whole lot of people. And so there might have been it might have just been in the era that you grew up in that like unions impede innovation. Unions drag companies down like all of these various anti worker understandings that were meant to make it easier for capitalism to function without any restraints. But so one of the things we’re going to try to do, too, is just try to make some of these terms around unionization a little bit less opaque. So the first question we’re going to grapple with today is a little longer than usual, and it gets into all the reasons why I think a lot of workers are thinking about unionizing or expanding their union just generally. This is from Larissa, and our colleague Caroline is going to read it. 

 

Larissa: I work at an academic museum at an elite college in New England and have watched as pandemic circumstances split open longstanding fissures in status and standards of treatment among nonunion administrative staff, union employees and tenured and tenure track faculty. Our museum closed with the campus pandemic closure in spring 2020, and the administration proceeded opportunistically. They froze vacancies, refused to unfreeze staff positions that would have allowed the museum to reopen and froze access to earmarked funds that would have supported project based work and collection growth. The administration then punished staff based on the long closure and wrongly presumed inactivity with an extreme furlough. The impact on morale was crushing. At this point, the museum has been at an extreme staffing low for over two years. There is a tacit expectation that we will all pick up the duties of other positions while emails requesting help and support go unanswered. Our director has covered three jobs and we are all at a point of exhaustion and burnout never before experienced. The premise that undergirds such exploitation, abuse and disrespect is a shared passion for the mission, which seems particularly rampant in higher ed and nonprofit arts. Conversations about unionizing the administrative staff dead end, revealing that people are scared about job losses. In the meantime, more than 125 staff left the institution retention of talented, committed staff is not a priority, and the drain has been overwhelmingly evident in terms of staff of color, what to do, how to carry on. What does leadership look like amidst these circumstances? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Ooh. So a lot going on there. Max, what is your initial reaction to this question? Like 30,000 foot view? What do you see there? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, so, I mean, I think it’s it’s a great question. I just want to, you know, start by sending all my love and solidarity to the person who sent it in and their coworkers because, you know, I think we have to start from a place of love and understanding. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: That sucks. And it’s it’s, you know, incredibly sad to say. I hear stories like these all the time in so many different industries. Right. And so I think you can do two things with that. One, you can continue like most of us I think, have been trained to do, which is cower in silence. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Hold on to your position for dear life. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Keep your head down, hope against hope that things will just somehow get better, even though we have very little reason to to believe that that will be true. But what else can any of us do individually? The answer is not much, except perhaps quit. The second thing I would say, which is more of a disclaimer, but it bears, you know, saying it up top is that I am not an organizer and I would highly recommend that folks connect with the many, many brilliant unsung organizers who are out there ready and willing to talk to you about these types of things. And I would highly recommend you do, even if you don’t want to unionize your workplace. It’s just good to talk to people who— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: —have talked to other people in other workplaces— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: —about what they’re going through, so on and so forth. That is ultimately, you know, like what the heart of the labor movement is, is like things are going to keep getting worse. They’re going to keep finding ways to cut labor costs, quote unquote, pile more work on to fewer workers, extract as much value and profit as they can from us. We know what direction they’re going to go in. If they could, they would pay us nothing. If they could, you know [laughs] we would be living under, you know, like a feudal system. So we know the direction they’re going in. The question is what force do we have pushing the other way and how can we increase that force by building strength in numbers. And so in that regard, the reason I say all that up front is because a situation like this is very despair inducing. And as I said, I’ve heard that despair from so many different people in different workplaces I’ve heard it from. Here in Baltimore, the Pratt Library workers who just won their union. I heard from workers who’d been there for 15, 20 years, say, like it just keeps getting worse and it feels like the love is gone. People are angry, the service is worse. And like, I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. And so they banded together and they fought back collectively. Same with the folks at the Baltimore Museum of Art. They were telling me here at The Real News, very much very similar things to what this listener wrote in their question. Right. You know, people who had worked at the BMA, who loved what they did, who believed so much in the value of institutions like the Baltimore Museum of Art, just being exploited because they were told that they should feel fortunate just to be there, you know— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Because, yeah, they should be more excited about, you know, the mission of the institution than being able to afford rent. Right. Even though their pay, they hadn’t gotten a pay bump in 15 years, but the price of rent had like doubled or tripled in their time in the city. Like that is not sustainable. And that is also just to hook back to something you said earlier Anne. Unionization, as we said, is not the answer to everything. It’s a long, protracted battle. It’s going to be frustrating. There are going to be efforts by management and even unsympathetic workers or friends kind of putting doubt in your ear. You need to be able to have people to lean on because you need to be able to do this in numbers. You need a core group of people around you who can sympathize with you, who you can lean on on days when you’re not feeling up to the task. And that doesn’t just mean within your existing workplace being able to connect with people who are fighting the good fight elsewhere like to to take energy from them, to see how people have overcome impossible odds and in fact, are doing so as we speak right now, whether it’s at dollar stores in the South. Right, or Starbucks around the country, Amazon warehouses, white collar industry jobs—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: —like the New York Times, tech workers or in the gaming industry, the nonprofit industry, museums and universities. Right. We’re all in this together. Things are going to look incredibly dire where you are right now. So start by connecting with people who are in similar situations or who have been in similar situations and have won something out of it, have have created something out of that darkness, have figured out different ways to fight back as an institution. So just like starting those conversations with your coworkers, acknowledging the gravity and crappiness of the situation, but then leaning on one another, looking beyond your immediate circumstances to look for examples of hope, you know, of struggle, of victory that you can try to incorporate and replicate in your own lives. I think that’s a really, really important place to start. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I’m really fascinated by the different prongs of unionization that are happening right now, because some of it is, I think, in line with a lot of different working class unionization efforts that have been around for a long time. Right. So like Starbucks unionization in some ways is very similar to unionization in a factory. We want to make enough we want to make a living wage. We want our jobs to be safe. We want these basics of ethical employment in place. And it doesn’t matter that you say that you’re a good employer. It doesn’t matter that we have like the ability to to take online classes like that sort of thing. Like that’s not enough. And then the unionization that I’ve seen happen in nonprofit spaces, and I would extend that to other art spaces. The thing about nonprofits and arts is that they were long setup in a way that the people who did this work were people who could afford to do it for free. And that’s either because they had a spouse who made money outside of the home or they came from money. So there’s just this long, long history of not actually paying a living wage. And as we’ve tried to expand these industries to include more people, and this is, I think, especially true in nonprofits, nonprofits have been dominated by white women for so long because it was almost like it was like a secondary activity, something they did for pin money or no money at all. And if the work of these institutions is also to be more diverse and expensive institutions that are trying to make a better society, you have to have more than just white women in these positions. And so the work to unionize, the work to have sustainable pay, DEI efforts that actually do something, all of these things are trying to make this into an actual workplace and not just a hobby. And I think the institutions themselves are like, what are you talking about? This is something you do because you love it. And if you don’t want to do this job anymore, oh, wait, there are 500 other people who will do this because of the normalization of of how little you can be paid to do this sort of, quote unquote, passion work. I’m just laying that all out there to say that there are a lot of other people in nonprofit spaces and in art spaces who are going through this right now and who are also, I think, in a similar point of despair as the question asker in terms of like, oh, we just can’t get anyone on board because everyone is so scared of getting fired. Like, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. This wheel is here like other places have had to grapple with that fear and the precarity and like, how do we have these conversations? And so how do you reach out to these people at other museums who are, you know, whether it’s in Baltimore or there, this is work that’s happening in places like Chicago, all over the place and say, okay, who could I talk to here that’s just going to like, make me feel like this is the I’m not the first person to try to do this. And then also, how can we make these connections to the organizers? Because I think sometimes you’re like, can I just Google organizer for a museum like, and it’ll come up? And it’s actually not that much harder than that [laughs] but it is a— 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s not. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —little bit more harder. [laughs]

 

Maximillian Alvarez: There’s something incredibly beautiful about that moment that makes you feel less alone because how lonely must it feel to believe that you’re the only one who’s ever had the kind of thoughts that you have, that you’re the only one who’s who’s experienced this kind of heartbreak or struggle before that must. Again, that’s the kind of subject that capitalist society wants to make out of all of us, because it can feel so lonely and so impossible. If you feel like in your workplace, you have to like, totally start from scratch and figure out how to build a union one on one. Again, the good thing, like you said, is that we have, you know, so much experience to draw from so many books of history, to draw from so many people doing that work now, to talk to, to inspire us and to make us feel like more part of that human legacy of struggle that we ourselves are now carrying on and have a duty to carry on. And I think that like the labor momentum that we’re seeing right now in all these different industries is really heartening because you were seeing people say like, that’s not good enough. Right? And frankly, it’s not up to you, the manager or the boss, to decide whether or not I get to exercise my guaranteed human rights. Right. Which and organizing your workplace is one of those rights that is guaranteed in this country. So like when people when people say, like these workers are ungrateful, right or, you know, like we can’t afford, you know, a unionized workforce and it’s like, well, it’s not up to you. Like if you’ve been building your entire business on the premise that people won’t exercise their rights, then that’s a bad business model that’s on you, right? [laughs] For for building an exploitative business model based on people— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: —just forgetting that they actually have the right to organize in their workplace and demand better pay and working conditions and so on and so forth. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: This is fundamental. If you can’t afford to pay your workers a sustainable wage and also maintain a safe workplace, then you shouldn’t be a workplace, right? Like, that’s not that’s not workers being selfish. That is just like a basic of it. One thing I want to ask about, just like to roll back very slightly, do kind of like a 101. Can you briefly say like, what is an organizer? Because I think that’s one of those terms that people throw around. So an organizer is someone who is outside of your institution. They are employed by an existing labor union. And is this is like literally their job, like they are paid money to do this work. So can you talk more a little bit about what an organizer does? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, well, I would say anyone can be an organizer, right? And it really depends on on the situation. So I already mentioned Amazon. So I’ll stick with that example—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: —because there are two sides of that coin that I can illustrate right now. So when I first started for the Real News Network in October of 2020, if you if we recall a couple of months later, you know, the big story that everyone was talking about was. Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, where workers were attempting to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union. And so it was actually older workers who had worked in union shops in the south, who reached out to organizers at the RWDSU saying, we think this place needs a union. We’re seeing, you know, all of this horrible stuff inside. We know what it means to work at a union shop. And we think that the workplace would be improved if, you know, we had a union there. So they worked with the RWDSU organizers who, like you said, that is their job in the regional office there in Birmingham, not just to help, you know, with new campaigns like an Amazon, but they represent workers in that whole area and they fight for them. I was there in that union hall and saw those organizers go from talking to Amazon workers to screaming at a boss saying you can’t, you know, discipline, you know, this worker for X unless, you know unless like there’s stewards in the room fighting to get their jobs back, get their back pay. So they do a lot of unsung work. So those resources are available in established unions. And that is really like what they’re what they’re trying to do to help is use their accrued knowledge to talk to workers about the process. But ultimately, every organizer, like the RWDSU organizers told me in Birmingham, are just like our job is ultimately to get the workers to organize themselves. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Right, because we’re not working there. We can’t if we go out there and say, hey, everyone, you should unionize, that’s that’s not going to work. Right. We need the people in there to be the ones like actually driving this change. Anyone can organize because organizing really means talking to your coworkers, getting them to be part of, you know, a collective effort to have one another’s backs. That’s really what a union means, is you and your coworkers having each other’s backs, protecting yourselves, fighting as a group to get what you deserve instead of just begging individually with management. You know, on a day to day basis. I think that’s so like, what I do is really I take my approach to interviewing workers from organizers who have those kinds of conversations with workers in their own workplaces, in different workplaces every single day. So I would say you can be an organizer, really just takes that willingness to to listen to each other and to bring more people in, to build a team, to be there for your coworkers, to to build that sense of trust. And ultimately, yeah, like, the real goal is to activate people, to be the agents of change, to realize that they are the ones who have the power within themselves to change their circumstances inside the workplace and beyond. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I want to unionize with myself right now. [laughter] 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our second question is from someone who is in a union, but it is not going well. And I think this is something that is more complicated to talk about, but also very necessary. It’s oftentimes important to be like, yeah, like a union is like any other organization. It can be run poorly and it can be run really well and it is not a cure all. This question is from Eve, and our colleague Ashley is going to read it. 

 

Eve: I am a young woman who’s recently started working in an incredibly toxic union in the film industry. My union is incredibly corrupt and as a collective prioritizes overtime wages above all which destroy our bodies and lives. I’m in a male dominated department surrounded by nepo babies who wax empathetically about Andrew Tate, the shitty wives they’re divorcing and not so small winks about how diversity a.k.a me is really ruining everything for them. How can I reform the culture of my department and union? I don’t have hiring power yet, but I want to quit so bad. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So what kind of lifeline can we throw to Eve here? Is there a possibility to work on reform within the union? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Yes. So I think there is possibility. And again, I would start by you know, you ultimately know what’s best for you. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. There’s no one size fits all solution. And, you know, you have to trust your gut. If it feels like you are in truly an impossible situation or worse, a dangerous situation, you need to make that call about whether or not leaving is is best for you. And sometimes leaving is what’s best. I want to acknowledge, like upfront that that, you know, Eve is in a very difficult position there. You know, one of the benefits of the industry that Eve is in, in particular is that there are so many different folks doing different types of work in the entertainment industry. There are really great progressive caucuses within existing unions, including IATSE, including the Animators Guild. First and foremost, just being able to like, build that sort of community with other people who believe in that work and who know enough about the industry that you can sort of commiserate and strategize is a first important step. And if you don’t know where to start, you know, reach out to people like, heck, if I’ve interviewed someone that you want to talk to, reach out to me, I’ll connect you to them. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s the least I can do. Right. I mean, like, but but just don’t allow yourself to feel as isolated as that setting wants to make you. Right. Fight against that however you can. Secondly, one of the most essential parts components of the labor movement and one of the reasons that I find so much potential there, right, is A, because it is an arena in which we are forced to recognize is that there’s no one else coming to save us. It’s us or nothing. [laughter] Right. So these are the people. These are the people I have to work with. Can we achieve a common goal? And if so, like, how can we do it in a way that at least can rally us around our shared interests enough that those become the primary focus and all this other bad culture crap falls away, which does happen. I’ve heard time and time again from people who have been involved in unionization campaigns or organizing efforts that they are blown away by how much those cultural divisions within the workplace disappear when you are all fighting together against the boss. What’s the saying? That the boss is, is the best organizer. [laughter] Right. So like, so like if you can find those common enemies, if you can if you can stomach it, to have those sorts of shoptalk conversations about things that you’re all collectively pissed off about. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: So the question is like, are there, you know, workplace issues, quality of life issues, industry issues that we can actually have build a common language around and build at least a nascent sense of worker solidarity around? Can we make that the focus of our conversations and bring, you know, the sort of offshoots back to that point? Because then you’re forced to, like, work with people across the political spectrum to achieve certain shared goals. You know, the more that you show up for one another, even if, like, you can’t stand one another’s politics, but you say like, look, man, like your politics are dog shit, you know, like, but you still deserve a living wage as much as I do. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: If we can at least agree on that, that’s all I need right now. I don’t have to be your friend. You don’t have to be mine. But, like, none of this is going to get better unless we actually work together. And again, I would qualify that sometimes. It’s not just about disagreeing with it. Like, if there’s a real asshole at your work, you know, who, like fundamental believes that you are, like, subhuman and should be, you know, like, wiped off the face of the earth, the consequences could be dire, right? You know, if you were in a situation where there’s literally no way out, you need to get out of that situation. Right. But what I’m saying is that in the aggregate, there is no path to building the world that we want where we can do that, we can achieve that goal solely by working with people whose political opinions as they exist right now um, where we you know, like, only have to work with people who don’t have dog shit politics, right? [laughter] The hope is that, you know, through collective struggle, that their politics will change. And this is true in organizing stories everywhere. Amazon Labor Union got a lot of conservative guys to be part of the union effort. And it really, like, built up a sense of solidarity. You mentioned the railroad worker interview. I talked to a lot of conservative railroad workers, including some who, like would talk about these sort of culture war issues. And sometimes I had to be like, look, man, you need to knock it off with that crap, because if you want to win, you’re you’re you’re essentially alienating the people who are supporting you right now. You know, like, so if you want to go it alone, then keep doing what you’re doing. But if you want the people who are supporting you to keep supporting you, then stop being a dick about it, right? I mean, like and realize who the real enemies are and who the false enemies are. Queer people are not your enemy. Women are not your enemy. Immigrants are not your enemy. The people who are literally robbing all of us and draining all the wealth and resources out of our society and destroying the planet that we all depend on. They are the enemy. If you don’t have your eyes trained on them, then we’re not going to win. You’re going to we’re going to keep getting splintered and fighting amongst ourselves. And that’s ultimately what the ruling class wants. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: This touches on something that I talk about all the time when it comes to community. If you want to actually be in community, sometimes there’s going to be someone who’s annoying. Sometimes you go to meetings and they’re not nourishing, right? Sometimes they’re tedious, sometimes they piss you off. [laughs] Sometimes you do things that you don’t want to do, right? It’s not like, oh, I want to come home from work. And this is the number one thing that I want to do. But that is part of being in community and caring for one another. And it is part of solidarity is sometimes also being with people. And again, as you said, this is not the same as saying you should be around people who fundamentally make you feel unsafe. Right. That’s not what we’re talking about. Talking about sometimes you can be in solidarity with assholes. [music plays] So I want to I want to segue into our third question, which is a little bit of a mix of the other two. This is from Sheila, and our producer Melody is going to read it. 

 

Sheila: I work in a newsroom that is partially unionized. Some roles are union, some are not. I’m in one of those roles that is not union, but I’m interested in looking into unionizing. I think it will be a multiyear battle to get a union recognized for my role and then get a contract passed. I don’t know if I want to stay in this job long enough to see that through, and I think I’d be a leader in the process. Is it worth trying to organize my coworkers? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So to go backwards just a little bit, you know. Previously we were talking about a wall to wall union, but sometimes when a union is formed, management is able to carve out exceptions because they want to make the union less powerful and they make arguments about why certain roles are exempt from membership in the union. And I think as organizations grow in something like a newsroom, right, there are all sorts of like new jobs that come in and then don’t get added to the union. And it’s in management’s interest to not add those jobs to the union. So you have someone like the writer of this question who probably like if she’s not in management, that seems clear, right? Because oftentimes management is not allowed to be in a union. But she’s not. She’s just doing a different sort of job that is not included in this larger role. So she would have to do work to essentially convince management to do this contract to make it so that they could be either part of the existing union or form a new union. So logistics wise, like what are Sheila’s options here? Can she get the ball rolling and then leave the job before the contract is finalized? Is that okay? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean, I, I would say don’t plan for it [laughter] because because again, you know, it’s going to be hard to get other folks in your workplace to commit for the long haul if you’re telling them upfront that you’re not. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right, right. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: But I just say that just again, as a practical challenge for the situation that you’re in. And, you know, again, I would stress that like there are great resources for people from seasoned organizers that can help you with these specific questions, like what I can do is try to smuggle into this conversation as much of the knowledge that I have gleaned from talking to organizers and workers over the years, including the great Kim Kelly, sister Kim Kelly, who helped organize the VICE Union and lost her job for it. But she was like one of those valiant people who, you know, fought for something that even if they weren’t going to bear the fruits of it. Right. And I think that there’s something really beautiful in that because, you know, like, that’s the mentality that we have to be in. One thing I talk a lot about in my work is how I focus so much on the workplace and workers lives, because we spend most of our lives at work. And in fact, the workplace is a fundamental social engineering factory for the kind of society that we have. Right? There’s a lot of conditioning that happens through the experience of low wage work, right? You know, you are trained to just accept arbitrary hierarchies. You are trained to just again, believe that your place at the bottom of that hierarchy is a reflection of you and your own self worth, right? Once you break out of that, you realize how quickly things can happen. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. You realize, you know, this is what every Starbucks worker has told me is like, we are shocked at how quickly, you know, people sprang into action. We got an election date and we won. Right. I mean, but it started with us looking at the workers in Buffalo who look like us, who work in a shop like ours. And we turn to our left, we turn to our right, and we said, why not us, right? Why couldn’t we do something like that? Once you like sense that power within yourself, you’ll be shocked at how quickly things can move and how much you can actually change things if you actually work together. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And this is something that I that I hope we can touch on kind of as our final point is she’s like, it’s going to be multiple years. Is it worth it? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Is it worth it? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: What the Starbucks workers are saying, I think is very similar to what the French workers who are striking right now are saying, which is if we leave because it’s too much for us, we are just leaving that pain and that exploitation for someone else. I think enough of us have sort of seen that because that was the that was the social contract of capitalism, right? It’s like if you don’t like it, you can leave and find something better. But increasingly, more and more working people are saying, first of all, it’s not better because every job I go to sucks [laughter] and is dealing with the same issues, right? Abusive managers, hectic scheduling, piling more work on to fewer workers, high turnover rates. So like where am I going to go to? I think is the question a lot of people pose to me when when they’re faced with that sort of why don’t you just quit sort of thing? But on top of that, there are a lot of people who are saying, I don’t want to leave, like I actually like my coworkers or a lot of Starbucks workers for instance, like there are lot of trans workers, there are a lot of queer, non-binary workers who need the health care benefits that you get by working at Starbucks for 20 hours or more, which includes like gender affirming care. That’s very important to them. The workers here in Baltimore who became the first Starbucks store to unionize in the state of Maryland, when I interviewed them like 10 minutes after they won their election, that’s what they all told me. They were like, we didn’t want to leave like we like where we work. We like our coworkers and we want to stay and fight to improve our workplace. Like, I mean, that is a good thing, right? They don’t want to just pass the buck on to whatever poor soul is going to take that job next. So like the idea that if you don’t like it, you should just quit instead of if you if there’s something about your job that you don’t like, stay, fight and make it better for yourselves, for your coworkers, and for anyone else who gets hired there in the future, that’s a real mental shift that I think is happening. And again, it is ultimately up to you to make the decision if that is what you want to do. But if you want to actually get your fellow workers to band together, dig in and fight that fight to change things. I would say there are a number of things that you can do. First, again, decide up front if this is something that you actually have the capacity to commit to or at least support the effort. But just keep in mind that if you’re asking other people to dig in and commit but you are telling them that you can’t, it’s highly unlikely that you know you’re going to be able to kind of build the momentum and durability in that campaign that you need. Again, maybe there are things about your job that you like that you say like, hey, look at the industry around us, right? Newsrooms are closing left and right or museums are closing. And if they’re nonunion, they don’t get to bargain over the conditions of that closure, the severance, so on and so forth. Right. And so there are a lot of reasons to unionize. It’s not just about better paying benefits. Sometimes it’s saying, I want to lock those benefits in because, you know, bosses promises are temporary. A union contract, you know, is legally binding. And so even if there are things that you like about your job, locking them into a union contract so that you preserve them for yourselves, your coworkers and anyone else who walks into that door and takes a job at your at your workplace, you know, like that is again, like the long term goal of unionization and rank and file mobilization. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I think that one of the saddest things that happens when people are used to feeling a lot of precarity in their jobs on a daily basis, in an ongoing basis, is that you get into a defensive crouch where you’re only worried about you and yours and what unionization does and what fighting for to be part of a union is saying, I’m not just fighting for better conditions for me, I am fighting for better conditions for anyone else who comes to this job moving forward. I am fighting for this job. I’m fighting for it to be a good job. And I think that is the thing. Like when we ask that question, is the union worth it the worth for you personally? That’s going to be a complicated question in terms of like it’s going to be a lot of work probably. And if you do like a cost benefit analysis of like how many hours did I dedicate to the unionization process and how that pays out over the course of however many years you’re employed there, who knows, Doesn’t matter. What matters is the ways that you are asserting your place in the workplace and also making it a job that it’s a legacy that will carry down long after you have left that job. And I think that’s really a wonderful way to think about it. I want to thank you so much for joining me today. Is there a place where people can find you if they want to hear more from you? 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, thank you so much for having me on and for this great conversation and all the incredible work that you do. I’m a huge fan. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: People can find me, you know, please listen to my podcast, Working People, wherever fine podcasts are sold. [laughter] You can support our work at the Real News Network. We are viewer supported. It’s because of that support that we’re able to do the work that we do. So go to therealnews.com/support and become a donor today. Check out my book, The Work of Living and yeah. Follow me on Twitter @Maximillian_Alv. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Thank you again. This is wonderful. 

 

Maximillian Alvarez: Thanks for having me. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks so much to Maximillian Alvarez for joining me today. And thanks to you for listening to Work Appropriate. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you want help figuring out, get in touch. You can find submission guidelines at WorkAppropriate.com, or you can send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. We’re working on an episode about how awkward money can be at work, whether it’s your boss bragging about their new boat or finding out your peer makes a lot more than you. If you need advice about dealing with money talk at work. Send your questions our way. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen and you can sign up for my newsletter at AnneHelen.substack.com.  Next week we’re introducing a new series of episodes called, My Industry Is Failing. First up is academia. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss it.