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Why The Labor Movement Needs to Be More Confrontational and Disruptive Toward Corporate Power

Veteran SEIU organizer Jono Shaffer explains how Justice For Janitors innovated disruptive strategies that put building owners on the defensive.

Jono Shaffer is a legendary labor organizer who was instrumental in the Justice for Janitors campaign. J4J successfully unionized Los Angeles janitorial workers under unbelievably difficult conditions—the janitors were undocumented and worked for contractors rather than buildings themselves, so they were easily fired. J4J built a movement that successfully pressured building owners to respect the rights of cleaning staff.

Today Jono joins to explain how they did it and what the lessons are for the labor movement today. It’s an important conversation in part because Jono’s take on what makes for successful organizing is a little different than conventional wisdom. He’s skeptical of unionizing via NLRB elections, because even when you win, companies stall and won’t negotiate a contract (this is happening at Amazon and Starbucks even when elections have been won). Jono thinks it can be a mistake to follow a predictable, orderly legal process.

J4J took a different approach, working on building public pressure against building owners and figuring out what owners wanted, then finding ways to prevent them from getting it. They used disruptive and sometimes theatrical protest actions that meant it took longer to actually unionize, but which built worker power nonetheless. In this conversation, Jono discusses how power works and how those who want to force employers to capitulate can do it. He talks about the importance of building social movements that are bigger than just unionization campaigns around a single workplace. It’s a conversation full of the wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experience doing crucial work in the labor movement. 


It is fair to say that you are known for having innovated strategies that have worked on different campaigns, which is what we want to talk about today. For people who are unfamiliar with the campaigns you’ve worked on, I’d like for you to tell us about that history, the lessons that you have learned, and what could be applicable in organizing today.

Andrew Gomez, in an article about your work, takes us back to the beginning and says that when you were hired in 1987 for the Justice for Janitors campaign, it was a difficult moment. Union density in janitorial services in Los Angeles hovered around 10 percent; years of a union decline coupled with the disparate nature of the city presented unique challenges to organizing. Start by taking us back to that moment by telling us about where labor was. Take us to the bottom of the mountain, looking up at the task ahead.


I began my union organizing work in Los Angeles. I was actually raised in Northern California, but moved to LA to start organizing, initially, garment workers. LA was notoriously anti-union, as compared to the Bay Area or New York. People thought of LA as an impenetrable location in terms of organizing unions. The nation was going through, numerically, its largest influx of new immigrants in its history in the 1980s. Almost exclusively, those folks who are coming through the southern border are landing in LA, and other places around the area. And so, there was this belief in the labor movement that with all of these new immigrants who are undocumented, who were desperate and easily exploited, that there was just no chance.

At the same time, the historical foundation of labor’s membership in the U.S., which was manufacturing, was being decimated; auto and steel plants were closing, and the garment industry, which was the first industry that I started working in, was basically completely gone. There was a chunk left in LA, and that was soon to be gone, with all of it going overseas. Even in the service sector, call centers were going overseas. The manufacturing of all the materials needed for high-tech products was being done overseas. So, there was this decimation in the private sector of union membership. Had it not been for the change in laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s where public sector workers could be unionized, then membership would have been almost nothing. And I want to point out that one of the seminal battles in public sector work was the racial justice battle in Memphis, Tennessee with the sanitation workers. They did not have the right to organize and the right to strike, and yet, in 1968, they did. And in some ways, that lesson is a perfect example for what we encountered when I started, and I think what the labor movement needs to confront now.


You mean it doesn’t matter whether you have the rights, technically? What in particular are you singling out about the Memphis movement?


The law is not the determining factor in worker power. In fact, by definition, law is defined to protect the status quo. And so, given that the status quo in this country is fundamentally non-union, if we build strategies that utilize the legal structures that are in existence, we’re going to lose—that’s just the logical conclusion of the way law works. 

The Memphis sanitation workers’ historic strike was a group of workers that legally were supposedly unable to strike. The farmworkers struggle in the 1960s and 1970s were explicitly excluded from organizing rights as covered by the National Labor Relations Act—there were no laws governing organizing for farmworkers. The issue of undocumented workers, particularly in places like Los Angeles where there are millions of them, are technically excluded from legal protections because they’re undocumented. To follow and use the laws that are established would lead one to not even attempt to begin organizing. And yet, in many ways, arguably all the major breakthroughs in the history of the labor movement have occurred outside legal structures designed to address labor relations.


Let’s return to the late 1980s. When you get into this, it’s a bleak moment, as you have indicated. Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States and fired 10,000 air traffic controllers successfully. There were not many national successful labor campaigns. You started working with a population of people considered particularly difficult to organize—they’re part-time or undocumented. How do you begin with the Justice for Janitors campaign? Presumably you don’t believe at that time that the situation is hopeless, and do believe it’s worth trying. So, where did you start at a moment like that?


We started meeting workers, and understanding the situation that workers were facing in their workplaces and communities. I would say 99 percent of the workers who were cleaning office buildings in Los Angeles where I worked were immigrant workers, and the vast majority of those were undocumented. It was about understanding who they were, where they came from, and finding Indigenous leadership within those communities and workforces who could establish the kind of basis necessary to succeed.

It starts there with the workers, and on the other hand, with a deep understanding of the capital structures that created the conditions that workers were facing. And in some ways, both of those elements were new at that time. They weren’t new if you look back at the 1930s when the CIO busted away from the AFL and said, capital is not what it used to be. But, they weren’t for what the labor movement was doing at the time. We did those two things really deeply, which was to engage with the workforce.

As we built it, our team very intentionally was made up of folks who were of that community. I was one of two white organizers out of a team of ten. Everybody else was Latino, many of whom were functionally monolingual Spanish speaking, which would have been completely unheard of in the local that I worked at, let alone the rest of the labor movement where the idea of hiring somebody who didn’t speak English was kind of out of the question. But we had no problem with building a team that was capable of connecting to workers, and then simultaneously developing a very deep understanding of how the commercial real estate and cleaning industries work and function. Interestingly, both of those areas were in dramatic transition. The way that commercial real estate was owned, managed, and operated was going through a radical transformation in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. The workforce in the 1980s had gone through a radical transformation with the influx of Latino immigrant workers.

Jono faces off with a police officer at a Justice For Janitors action


Could you tell us more about why it was important to understand the capital structure and how and why it was helpful?


Back in the day, buildings, more or less individually or manageable, were owned by somebody and employed the people who serviced those buildings directly. They had some investors, but it was very much a localized situation. But in the 1980s, and dramatically in the 1990s and into the 21st century, the ownership structure of real estate was completely turned on its head, and how buildings were owned moved to large real estate investment companies that built massive pools of investment capital and institutional investors that they could utilize to buy buildings to operate on scale.

And then they created legal structures, the first one being dramatically a thing called a real estate investment trust, which is basically a mutual fund of real estate. Those were publicly traded entities; people were part owners of buildings by buying a share of a real estate investment trust, and then those trusts were able to manipulate tax laws and other things to avoid their responsibilities to communities and amass mountains of capital with which to buy properties.

That was a whole different ball game from the perspective of organizing. Historically, the labor law was created, and still to this day exists, to put the legal entity that a worker has the lawful right to organize against whoever their direct employer is: whoever signs their paycheck. That was a legitimate structure when employers employed people, or when the people that controlled employment employed the people themselves. But in what I call the vertically disintegrated capital structure of real estate investment, using large multinational corporate property management firms and equally large multinational service contractors to control the realities that workers are forced to endure—these were big finance entities and property owners that were not the legal employers of the workers.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, it’s unlawful to engage in secondary boycotts of people who aren’t the direct employer of the workers. That might have been okay when employers employ the workers, but it’s certainly irrelevant to the reality of today when the people that control the lives of workers are completely removed.


If you organize it in accordance with the structure assumed by the law and just go after this cleaning company contractor, you could succeed against the cleaning company, but the building managers just get a new cleaning company.


They fire overnight. The union, which had successfully organized janitors in the previous structure when they were more controlled by the buildings themselves, lost 75 percent of the industry when LA went non-union in a period of about 16 to 18 months. There was not a single election. Workers didn’t vote at all on whether to be union during that whole period. Building owners just started firing contractors and could do it on a day’s notice. I met many workers who told me about how they showed up at a building and the big barrels that they used on the floors were on the sidewalk the day they showed up to work because the building owners have the legal right contractually to fire contracts. They would argue they weren’t busting unions, and that instead they were making business decisions.

And I think that’s one of the main lessons that the labor movement, and people who are organizing now, need to move forward from, which is understanding the market realities that the industry that workers are working in operate from and building a movement of workers that aren’t linked to any particular location, but rather to the industry itself. Our campaign was Justice for Janitors—it wasn’t justice for the janitors that clean 1278 Wilshire Boulevard.

The traditional union organizing approach, to this day, is to organize a group of workers in a given place. Even to look at the Starbucks elections, which they’re doing some phenomenal work and organizing at a pace unparalleled in recent history, are still store by store. And so, what we did was we said we’re building a committee and movement of workers, that is within the entire geography that we’re organizing—it was the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign, and wasn’t the “downtown campaign” or the “Wilshire Boulevard campaign.” It was all janitors in the new office buildings. It was about building an identity of that campaign that was beyond their lives as workers, and understanding their lives within the cultures and communities that they belong to, so that when we were battling with the real estate industry we were battling with them for what they were doing to the Latino community of Los Angeles, not for what they were doing to a group of janitors in a given building.

So, that’s two major pieces. The third piece was to really get inside how the owners of the buildings did their business. Who were they getting money from? What kind of relationship could we find with that money? What was the process by which they had to go through to build whatever they were building? More often than not, when these guys are building big buildings, to this day, they are getting massive public subsidies on taxes and things like that to develop those projects on the premise that they’re benefiting the community. And yet, if they’re impoverishing workers, then how are they benefiting the community? They’re getting a tax break, ripping off workers, and impoverishing communities. We were understanding all of those dynamics and putting them into play, and we did not do any of that by elections. We legally could have tried to by running elections on a building by building basis or a contract by contract basis, but as you pointed out earlier, when those elections were won before my tenure in organizing by my predecessors, the building owners just canceled the contracts. And so, we go through a year-long process to have an election and then the company would get fired.


I think people will understand what you’re saying about how it didn’t make sense to do it on a workplace by workplace basis, and that the regional movement is more than just trying to get a particular employer to go union. That makes sense. However, I think it is easier to see a path and the steps when you’re talking about unionizing a particular employer—there’s a kind of model for this. What is the path for your kind of movement model that actually gets you towards unionized janitors? How do you get there?


One of the most important elements of this, a foundational principle, is that neither the government, nor the bosses, should be able to determine whether a union exists or not. The only people that can and should determine if there’s a union are the workers who make up that union. You don’t need sanction from the government or the boss to be a union.

And so, what we did was implement being union as soon as we had enough power to wield. For a group of workers in a building that was non-union and weren’t organizing to get a union, you could ask, “What do you want?” They would not respond, “I’m dreaming of a union.” Instead, it’s “I’m dreaming of making more money”; “I’m dreaming of having health insurance”; “I’m dreaming of not sticking bare hands into buckets of chemicals, not knowing what they are”; “I’m dreaming of not vacuuming 50,000 square feet a night.” All of those things I just mentioned are things that workers can and should and do fight for, with or without a union contract in place.

That’s really what we implemented, not so intentionally, frankly; my friends and I were part of that early group, and we always joke with each other that if we had known what we weren’t allowed to do, we would have gotten our asses kicked. But we didn’t. We were all newbies and from the outside. I had been a student and community activist, and didn’t know what labor law and what a secondary boycott was. So, we just engaged workers, identified the issues that they needed to win, and started fighting for them. We demanded them from building owners and cleaning contractors.

One of my favorite and most powerful leaflets we ever put out had a photo of a worker’s hand that was completely broken out with blisters from sticking his hand in and out of buckets of chemicals, without gloves, to clean. We took a photograph—this is before digital and the internet—got it developed, stuck it on a piece of paper, and wrote, “Shake the hand of the worker that cleans your building every night.” We passed it out in front of the buildings so that the people going in and out had to confront the fact that these workers weren’t being given the supplies they needed to work safely. And not surprisingly, we started seeing people getting gloves.

A traditional union organizing approach to something like that would have been to fight to win a union election, win that election, and then sit down at the bargaining table to try to win gloves. So, two-and-a-half years after the workers decided they needed gloves, there may be bargaining to win a pair of gloves, where the next day out in front of the building saying this guy needs gloves—we call that “being union” or “acting union” from day one. That’s how you do it, and it takes a long time. The unions themselves, the institutions, have to be willing to forego short term wins and traditional measurable outcomes like union elections. But we still have to have measurable victory. You just have to measure them in different forms, like winning a 30-person election or one office building—that would have been something we could go to the leadership of the union and say, “See, we’re winning.”


That’s the short-term victory.


We call those “numbers on the wall.” You can be put on the wall. But the fact of the matter is those 30 workers would then have been taken in large part out of the fight because they would have been stuck trying to bargain a contract in a building against some big huge multinational corporation, versus declaring that we were union and fighting for the improvements that workers in the community needed.


Help me understand how power works in that situation. Because, again, we can easily understand how it works in the traditional model. You discussed an example with the photo and the gloves—I think people can conceive that a building owner doesn’t want to be embarrassed by everyone who goes into this building knowing that they horribly mistreat their janitors. So, that’s an example of how the power works: it seems like in that case, the power comes from public shaming. Tell us about how, without a recognized union, you can actually exact concessions.


There’s a thing called a corporate web—all these things have names now that we didn’t have when we were starting. We would have to identify and understand all the angles that could apply pressure on the people who had power—in this case, the building owners that were susceptible to regulatory, political, financial, investment, and legal power and to public relations because they need to maintain a certain public image to be able to be successful. We had to build our campaigns in a way that was able to attack all of them. In that situation, we’re using the public relations aspect, and in addition, filing California OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] complaints about unsafe working conditions, and identifying who the institutional investors of that building were.

While we couldn’t do a boycott or picket the building owner, which is how the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] defines secondary boycott, you could talk to his investors, with the janitor and his hands, and say, “This is what’s going on in your investment. Do you think this is a good investment if this kind of stuff is going on in your building?” In using that example, again, of putting up a leaflet, it’s not just “Do you want that person’s hand getting destroyed while cleaning the building?” If the chemicals that worker is using to clean the building are doing that to his hands, what are they doing to you when you go into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, or while you’re sitting at and putting your hands on the desk that was cleaned with those chemicals?

So, it’s about really taking this to the fullest and most creative possible option. We use plenty of props in organizing, and one of the things we did with the gloves campaign was I dressed up as Santa Claus on Christmas—a nice Jewish atheist boy dressed up as Santa Claus—and we went into an office building, which lots of Santas used to do before 9/11, and went straight up to the office of the building owner, with me as Santa and some janitor elves. We walked in, and I remember the secretary looking at us and was so excited. “Oh, Santa, what have you got?” And I reached into my bag and I pulled out a package of Playtex Living gloves, the simple yellow ones you see in the store with a Justice for Janitors sticker on, and said, “We’re bringing gloves because you guys won’t provide them to the workers.” She flipped out and called security. We had a TV crew, an LA Times reporter, and a cameraman with us, and it showed up in the LA Times the next day. It’s about being creative and understanding how to utilize the opportunities that are there daily.

One of the things I’ve found going forward in my career is I was unknowingly led to have cut my teeth in a subcontracted environment. Most unions wouldn’t touch subcontracted workers with a 10-foot pole because of the problem that if you organize the subcontractor, the client would fire them. But by cutting our teeth in a subcontracted world, we actually were preparing ourselves to understand how capital was structured across all sectors, even a company like Amazon. The management, administration, and the board of directors are calling the shots on a day-to-day basis, but they’re answering to a set of financial investors who really are wielding the power, and simply applying the subcontracted analysis model to every situation you go into, which is: who’s got the power? And then, as the song goes, you got to fight the power if you want to win. Taking the time to understand where that power is, is essential to winning.


Your Santa Claus story reminds me that you are known for a willingness to be disruptive. Could you tell us more about the role of disruption and the willingness to get in the way of those who have the power?


Fundamentally, disruption is the most important element of any successful organization. For the people you’re up against, their success is predicated on calm and predictability. And so, our job is to do the opposite: to be disruptive in any and every way possible. Strikes are a clear mechanism or tool of disruption. But, they were more powerful in years gone by when production was stoppable. In the 1930s, when the workers sat down in the Flint GM plant and refused to leave, there were no cars that could get made. That was disruption. Now, it’s much more difficult to cause that kind of production disruption through strikes. The existing laws undermine the ability to run a successful strike, and employers can run the strikebreakers into struck situations. In our situation, it took so few janitors to clean the building, there was no way we were going to make them dirty—a 100,000 square foot office building would be cleaned by five people. There are entrances from all sides, so you’re not like going to close an office building and make sure it’s dirty.

So, really, striking was about creating the ability to bring people together to be disruptive, whether that was doing actions and activities at the office buildings themselves. As that became harder and harder because of legal issues that occurred, building owners would get injunctions against us being too disruptive on their property because oftentimes they owned the whole lot. That meant that we had to be in the street because business as usual requires that everything be running the way it’s supposed to. We ended up marching in the street, crossing sidewalks and streets, creating chaos with traffic. In Washington DC, in a campaign I wasn’t working on, they are famous for having blocked the 14th Street Bridge into Washington one morning with a huge school bus driven sideways across the street.

Some people asked, “What the hell does that have to do with the buildings?” and I would respond, “If people can’t get to the buildings, then it’s not business as usual.” The political class is catering to the financial class regularly, and so we had to make life miserable for both of those classes if we were expecting to bring enough pressure to bear. And so, we did numerous street protests and street theater—a lot of creative stuff that we learned from the farmworkers’ movement. Farmworkers had wonderful street theater, music, cultural activities, and huge marches. They did the boycotts of the grapes at the stores, and by the way, were legally able to do so because they weren’t covered by the law. The secondary boycotts in the farm industry were not illegal because there was no law. Had another union tried to do that, that was covered by the National Labor Relations Act, they would have been enjoined and shut down in 24 hours. So, it’s just another example.


Obviously, it takes years, but ultimately, how did the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles get building owners to capitulate, give in, and recognize that they’ve got to have union janitors?


We had a couple of tipping point victories that got us to a level of market representation that enabled us to really begin to bargain. One was utilizing the development process in Los Angeles through the notoriety and public response to the janitor organizing campaigns. If people wanted to build a new building in LA, they had to go through a political permitting process. They were always asking for subsidies and other kinds of things.

So, we worked really hard to make sure that they would not be able to build a new building if they weren’t willing to commit to fair wages and benefits for the people that clean those buildings, which had not been the case for decades and decades before. It was often the case for construction workers: they would get these prevailing wage rules, like the Davis-Bacon Act and things like that, but it wasn’t true for service workers. So we did that. We created massive disruption and had a number of building owners make the decision that they just didn’t want to happen—it wasn’t worth it. The cost of fighting against what we were doing was way more than it would cost to do the right thing for the handful of people that are in their buildings.

In Los Angeles, we had a seminal battle in Century City, which is an area where there’s a tremendous amount of entertainment business—it’s not where the studios are necessarily, but it’s where some of the corporate types of the studios and many of their lawyers are. And it’s very compact, in a six or seven square block area. We began organizing there, and were able to create massive disruption. It turned out that there was one major building owner, a guy from Chicago named Judd Malkin for JMB Realty, who ended up becoming the focal point of much of this fight because he was undermining the quality of life in Los Angeles. We printed up grocery bags and distributed them all over the country, telling people they should mail their trash to the company in Chicago. He was getting trash from all over the world. In Canada, people were packaging up their bags and mailing them trash. It was not a secondary boycott—we were actually providing him things, not taking things away.

And so, he came under that kind of scrutiny that also impacted his ability to go and raise money for his future projects because people knew about it. Eventually, things got so hot there. There was a very famous police riot when we were on strike in Century City in 1990. The LAPD, which is notorious for its soft touch in handling people, waded into our strike and beat the hell out of a bunch of janitors and community people and created a political crisis, in which Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor in the history of LA, stepped in and said, “I’m stopping this. This is not happening in my city,” and got a hold of the folks in Chicago. And we said, “Get this finished.”

So, between that fight and making sure that all buildings were opening with companies that use responsible contractors, and building this movement based in the Latino community, enough pressure was built that we were able to break through. From start to finish, from my first day going out and talking to a janitor in 1987, we settled our first LA countywide contract in 1995, eight years. There were a couple of incremental wins along the way that kept us having the resources we needed to do our work, but, arguably, the first really substantial economic wins for everybody in the county didn’t happen until 2000 when there was another huge countywide strike, the first time we struck countywide.

As I say, people have to be committed to investing the time it’s going to take. You’ll get the yeses on the front end: “Oh, yes, we’re down for whatever it takes.” But then a year in, they want to see what you have to show for it. If you’re fighting a company the size of Walmart, Amazon, or Starbucks, you’re not going to win the way you used to be able to when you could sit in and shut down a factory.


What you’ve been telling us here is consistent with what you wrote in an article you co-authored with Stephen Lerner where you said,

“The key lesson is that there is no silver bullet, there isn’t one thing, one strategy, one action, or one tactic that magically beats billionaires or creates the space for a movement to develop.”

You’ve been talking about a diversity of approaches, creatively thinking about how power is actually structured and how you can exert pressure through disruption. I want to read another quick quote from that piece:

“We say that Justice for Janitors unquestionably provides critical lessons for future organizing as Wall Street and the finance industry increasingly take control over the global economy. We have to look up the economic food chain, target the real culprits to bring as many stakeholders right as possible, and creatively and aggressively organized to disrupt business as usual for those in control. That can mean strikes, civil disobedience, engaging shareholders, or directly challenging other business, social, and political interests and their exploitative practices and schemes.”

You’ve talked so far about how that worked in Justice for Janitors. You just mentioned Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks, and in conclusion, I want to ask you about them. For Amazon, infamously, the employees at JFK Staten Island won their NLRB election, but now Amazon won’t negotiate with them. The same is true with Starbucks, with employees who have organized very courageously and successfully to win elections, and then haven’t successfully gotten contracts—Starbucks has strung them along.

If you were sitting down with organizers, from Amazon and Starbucks, who say, “We’ve done all this great work, and are really proud of it. We’ve beaten them in some ways, but now we’re stuck because they won’t negotiate with us.” What would you say in terms of how they need to be thinking about what they can do to actually beat these behemoths?


It’s very difficult. And I don’t want to come across as someone who has all the answers about what to do. But, the most important things are those two elements that we talked about at the beginning, which is: what are the mechanisms for disruption that we can develop and utilize? And then, what are the financial pressures and structures in place so that you can target your activity in the right location, in doing that analysis?

I’ve come to believe strongly that NLRB elections are a waste of time, and in many ways counterproductive. The National Labor Relations Board is a system that is built to benefit employers for the most part. As we’ve seen in the janitor campaigns, they have been part of campaigns that have helped even as many as half-a-million workers organize over the years, in total overall, and none of them were traditional NLRB campaigns. I think I’ve been involved in three NLRB elections in my life—one won, one lost, and the last one they never counted the ballots. And the thing is, is that workers need to be taking action as early as possible, engaging in the battles over what they’re trying to win and being disruptive.

What the NLRB can and does do better is regarding protecting workers’ rights: you can file unfair labor practice charges, and as we’ve seen with the Starbucks campaign, create a tremendous amount of pressure on the company. Starbucks has put many workers back to work that they fired that they didn’t want to put back to work. That wasn’t because they won the elections, or because they bargained with the company to get them to put them back. It was because they used a tool and pressure that forced the company to act. Developing your strategies in the ways that are really understanding what the people with the power are trying to accomplish, and finding ways to intervene in that.

One thing I say, when I’m helping people figure out strategies, is: where these companies are is not where they’re vulnerable. Where they’re vulnerable is where they want to go and trying to move to because that’s where they’re attempting to figure stuff out and where they’re looking for help. A building owner is not vulnerable in the building he’s already built and is fully occupied. A building owner is vulnerable in the building he wants to build and needs to get occupied to make money. I would like to know: what are Amazon’s next ventures? Maybe we have to fly to the moon and meet Bezos there. What are Starbucks next ventures? Where are they trying to grow their business? Because all of those places are the places where there are significant vulnerabilities. That would be a piece that I would really try to understand and develop campaigns around.


We’ve hit a lot of the points that I wanted to hit, and you’ve given us many useful lessons. Obviously, with having worked in the movement for decades, there are many things you could tell us. Is there anything else that comes to mind that you wish everyone who were in organizing today would internalize?


One thing that I haven’t discussed much is building a movement around whom the workers are, not what they do. They may be a janitor around the building, but are a member of a church, part of a community, a parent, a homeowner, a taxpayer. By expanding what the fight is about in that way, the stakeholders to the battle grow exponentially. I think that we need that. Business can’t win a fight where it’s business against community, or business versus the people. They lose that fight every single time. If Republicans followed what their stated aims were, they would lose that fight with Republicans.

Like I said before, the janitor campaign or the security campaign that we did nationally were battles between the real estate industry and communities of color and low-income communities. The real estate industry could not defend itself further impoverishing the inner cities. They could defend themselves paying low wages to workers because they would pencil it out on a budget sheet. And so, I think that whether it’s Starbucks or Amazon, and what they’ve done with the United for Respect work and Walmart campaigns, is it’s always about finding the set of stakeholders that makes you as big as you can possibly be so that you are wielding the most power you possibly can.


Let’s close here with a short excerpt from a piece that was co-authored by your colleague Stephen Lerner in the New Labor Forum because it is inspiring and encouraging:

“We believe the window of opportunity for which we have long awaited is here. We say this with some trepidation because we’ve lived through other moments of optimism, but this feels different. Current material conditions, the collapse of neoliberalism, the crisis of climate change, racial injustice, and extraordinary economic inequality make the need for change obvious to many. At the same time, focused struggle over the last 40 years to revitalize the labor movement has taught us important lessons and sharpened the tools we need to win. It is up to us to seize this moment, to imagine and win the world we want to create.”

Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth. Listen to the full conversation on the Current Affairs podcast.

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