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A Third of Your Life Podcast

You spend a third of your life at work. We’re all about making it better. The Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations explores the tech, trends, and controversies that are reshaping the American workplace.

Hosted by Steve Flamisch.



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Epsiode 2: Big Brother at Work

Do you have that odd feeling of being watched? The latest employee monitoring software tracks emails, keystrokes, and mouse clicks. It can even take webcam photos to see if you’re working. Michael Sturman, professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, discusses why more bosses are using it.

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Transcript for Episode 2

Michael Sturman:

There really are many potentially negative outcomes. First of all, workers just don't like it.

Steve Flamisch:

“Productivity paranoia.” More and more employers are monitoring their workers, but is the software too invasive? Next, on A Third of Your Life.

Voiceover:

You spend a third of your life at work. We're all about making it better. This is the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast.

Steve Flamisch:

Big Brother is watching you at work. A growing number of employers are tracking email, mouse clicks, keystrokes—even taking random screenshots and webcam photos to verify that you're working. But what are they doing with the data and does it really boost productivity?

Welcome to A Third of Your Life. My name is Steve Flamisch, and my guest is Michael Sturman, professor and chair of the Department of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Mike, it's great to have you on the show.

Michael Sturman:

Thanks for having me here, Steve.

Steve Flamisch:

Mike, what are the legitimate business reasons for monitoring employees and managing their performance and productivity?

Michael Sturman:

Well, businesses obviously have always had an interest in ensuring that their employees are productive. They want to know that they're getting what they pay for. They're paying employees to work. They want to make sure that that work is productive. So there's really strong logic there and a real strong need for companies to ensure that their employees are producing what they're supposed to be producing.

Steve Flamisch:

How did employers do this in the old days before artificial intelligence and before employee monitoring software?

Michael Sturman:

Well, mostly just by watching, by having employees in an office, or on a factory floor, or whatever it may be, you can watch employees work and that would show you that they at least look like they're doing their job and not shirking, or doing something else or whatever that might be. For other jobs, people were monitored by their output. So salespeople who are out of the office and can't necessarily be monitored, were tracked by, well, how much they sold.

Steve Flamisch:

Many blue-collar workers have lived with this for a long time. I'm thinking of warehouse workers, package handlers, drivers, food service, cashiers. I know someone who lost her job at a supermarket because her ring speed was too low. She wasn't scanning enough items every minute. But now it seems white-collar workers are under the microscope too. Bankers, lawyers, even physicians. Why is that? What changed?

Michael Sturman:

Well, in part, what changed is that COVID happened, and there's many more employees now working from home, creating this general fear that people might not be working as hard as perhaps the company wants them to. There's also just the general increasing pressure for greater employee productivity, whether that's from a doctor or a lawyer or a banker. It's about trying to get more for the same amount of money out of your employees.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, it's interesting you should mention the perception of the employer. Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries for its annual Work Trend Index. They wanted to know about the impact of hybrid work. Are we still productive if we're working at home or if we're splitting our time between the office and working from home? The results came out a few weeks ago and they revealed a huge contrast. 87% of workers feel productive at home, but only 12% of managers are confident of that. What do you make of that disparity?

Michael Sturman:

I think a lot of this boils down to managers losing the control that they used to have. This is sort of the same phenomenon that everyone thinks they're an above average driver. You have this situation where people like having control, so the employee who's at home and in control of their situation often feels like they're being more productive. The manager who used to be able to walk around and watch these employees can no longer do that, or at least can't do it as easily. And so there's this fear that, well, maybe the workers aren't doing what they should be doing, and maybe they were only doing that because I was watching.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, with so many managers worrying that their employees are not productive, it's probably no surprise that the number of organizations using employee monitoring software has, by some accounts, doubled since the start of the pandemic. The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, calls it “productivity paranoia.” Economic analyst Rana Foroohar has an even uglier term: “surveillance capitalism.”

If you Google the term “employee monitoring software,” you'll see there are numerous companies offering this technology and some are more invasive than others. So Mike, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk about some of these software programs and get your take on the kinds of data that they're collecting and whether it really is valuable to managers. I won't name the companies because there are so many of them—it seems unfair to pick out three or four—but I'd like to start with one of the more prominent software programs and get your view on these features and whether they really are helpful to managers.

Michael Sturman:

That sounds good. Go ahead.

Steve Flamisch:

All right. So they offer email tracking, surveying messages sent to and from your company account. Phone tracking, monitoring phone calls and voicemails. Keystroke counters, tracking the number of mouse clicks and keyboard presses. Active application monitoring tools, showing exactly how employees are spending their time at work. Screenshots at regular intervals, showing what's on the employee's screen. And finally, webcam photos at regular intervals, showing if you're physically at your computer. The company says this is one of the only ways to prevent fraud like outsourcing. They want to make sure that you are really sitting there doing your job—you haven't outsourced your work to someone else. What do you make of all those different features?

Michael Sturman:

Well, most of those features are essentially just different metrics. They're different metrics about how someone is working. The real question is, do those metrics actually relate to how an employee performs? If you measure something, employees will typically do more of it. So if you get paid by sending more emails or sending longer emails or clicking the mouse more or typing more, you're going to get people to do those things. But the issue is, is this really related to what the employee's expected to do or what the employee actually needs to do for their job to be successful in that job? To some extent, these kind of metrics, if it's not well thought out—and sometimes they get adopted because you can measure it, that doesn't mean you should measure it—they may show you that, well, it's kind of the situation where you're making good time, but you don't know where you're going.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, the company defended the software in a blog post, and I'll read you the quote from the blog post. "[Workers] can get away with a lot more nowadays—and while most workers are honest, there are some egregious examples of people playing on their phone all day, moonlighting at a second job, and even outsourcing their existing job to someone else while they kick back and relax… Whether we like it or not, it's not realistic for remote workers to expect zero accountability. These same people are quite content to work in full view of others in a bricks-and-mortar workplace for the same reason they feel no fear at airport security: they have nothing to hide. And the same is true for remote workers. Monitoring software only feels scary because it's unfamiliar. But the honest majority need not fear the systems that are put in place to prevent abuse from the dishonest few. Far from it—now you have concrete evidence of how hard you're working!"

That is directly from the company's website. So Mike, their view is, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. But the other side of that argument is it's still really invasive and potentially misleading. What if you're doing work on paper, not on the computer? The keystroke counter will not capture that. What if you step away from your computer to stare out the window? Maybe you're pondering how to respond to a difficult email. I do that all the time. Obviously, a webcam photo would show an empty chair in that moment. Doesn't mean you're not working. And what if you need to use the bathroom?

Michael Sturman:

I completely agree with your concerns. There is a lot to unpack in that statement. As a manager or as a business, you should have an idea when you hire an employee that they should be producing something or having certain tasks that you need accomplished, and there should be ways to look at what are the results of those tasks? What is it the person's producing? Are they producing a sufficient quantity or quality of whatever it is that they're supposed to do? And if you can't even describe what that is, so you just want to see if they're sitting in front of a computer, then you have bigger problems than worrying about whether they're playing solitaire.

Steve Flamisch:

Let's talk about another one of these companies. This is a different software program now, a company that boasts about 1,000 clients around the world, and on their website, they describe one of their key features this way: "Our computer monitoring software allows employees, field contractors, and freelancers to manually clock in when they begin working on an assignment. The application will take screenshots randomly or at set intervals, which allows employers to observe the work process. The application only tracks activity when the employee is clocked in. No spying, only transparency."

Mike, here we have the screenshots again. Now, I had a boss about 10 years ago who watched porn at work. I caught him. Several of my co-workers caught him. It was well known throughout the office. That's one area where screenshots would find egregious and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Are there any other ways, short of an example like that, where a screenshot is useful to managers?

Michael Sturman:

It depends really on the nature of the job. Yes, I could see certain jobs that really are dependent on the person being on their screen and using their screen in certain ways, and spot-checking could make some sense. But I'm pretty uncomfortable with this kind of approach, and I think it's a crutch for people who don't know how to actively manage the job appropriately but are looking for some quick and easy technological solution to help them feel more comfortable with their situation.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, it's worth pointing out that even routine, everyday office software has some components that can be viewed as employee monitoring. I mentioned earlier that Microsoft's CEO is criticizing what he calls “productivity paranoia.” But let's not forget, Microsoft Teams has the infamous green and yellow dots. A green dot means you're active. A yellow dot means you are away. And Outlook has a similar feature that displays whether you are free or in a meeting. I will admit, I Googled how to turn that off because I don't want to give the impression that I'm sitting around with nothing to do just because I'm not in a meeting at that moment.

But just focusing on the programs that are designed specifically for monitoring: I'm curious, what do employers ultimately do with this information they collect? Do they use it to adjust compensation? Decide on promotions? Do they use it to fire people?

Michael Sturman:

It's really going to depend on the employer, but I imagine this kind of information could be used to build a case for dismissing an employee. I would be really hesitant to say, ‘Well, you were away from your computer once for a three-minute period, so therefore you're fired.” Although with employment at-will, companies could do that if they wanted. But if you're trying to be more proactive about employee performance and you do spot-checking on a fairly regular basis, this could help build a case that, ‘Gee, we did 30 spot-checks during one day and you were not at your computer for 29 of them, and you have a service representative job where you're supposed to be on your computer the whole day.” That could be a case where I think more legitimately, you could be building a case to influence the person's performance or terminate them from employment or whatever it might be.

Steve Flamisch:

But is that effective? I mean, is this good management or are there better ways to manage performance and productivity?

Michael Sturman:

Better management would involve setting goals for employees and being able to check whether those goals are achieved. It involves looking at sort of broader metrics of how the employee's performing—again, more related to the behaviors and the results associated with the job and not just the simple things that you can measure because the technology now allows it.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, there are varying accounts as to how many companies and organizations are using this kind of software. The management consulting firm Gartner says 30% had some version of this technology before the pandemic, and it's now doubled to 60%. The New York Times reports eight of the 10 largest private employers in the U.S. now track productivity metrics, many in real time.

And I think some of the more interesting stats I've seen come from an IDC survey conducted just about four months ago. They asked more than 800 organizations around the world, "Have you deployed employee monitoring software?" These are the results. 48.1% said yes, this software is currently deployed. 21.9% said no, we deployed this software but removed it due to employee pushback. 14.8% said no, we have never deployed this type of software. 14.6% said no, but we removed it for other reasons. And less than 1% said they didn't know. Lastly, among organizations that are using the software, about two-thirds of them are in North America. So all in all, it's a huge number of employers. Are you surprised or does this sound about right?

Michael Sturman:

Well, actually, I'm a little surprised that so many companies are, to some extent, admitting that they really don't know how to monitor their employee performance more effectively, that they have to rely on these kinds of metrics-driven solutions. But the more I think about it, no, it makes sense that half the companies are concerned. They're worried about how employees are performing. They're not used to this “work remote” type situation, and they're grasping for solutions to help them sort of feel better about the situation. It also doesn't surprise me though that 22% of the companies said they did something and there was such employee pushback that they had to remove it.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, the IDC survey also looked at the kinds of data organizations are collecting. Remember, some software is more invasive than others, and here's the tally on that. 38.4% of companies are tracking the software their employees use on their computer. 37.9% are tracking the websites employees visit. 36.4% track the devices being used. 36.1% track logins and logouts. 35.1% track the documents and data accessed by the employee. 33.1% track active and idle time. 32.2% of employers are tracking key logging. 29.8% have technology that reviews emails, messages such as Slack messages, and voicemails. 29.7% have location tracking. And finally, 26.3% use screen capture.

So if you're someone who's generally against this technology, if you think it's way too Big Brothery, I guess it's encouraging that only a third of organizations are doing key logging and only about a quarter are taking screenshots. But still, that's a large number of employers globally who are doing this.

Michael Sturman:

That certainly is a large number. And again, I have to wonder how many of these metrics really relate to actual performance on the job. Are they measuring these things because they can or are they measuring these things because they should? And obviously this kind of survey doesn't answer that question, but that's the key for this. If it's going to be effective, it has to be metrics that relate to what the employee actually should be doing on a regular basis on that job. And until companies can really be confident about defining what the job should be doing and what needs to be monitored to get effective performance, these kind of metrics do worry me.

Steve Flamisch:

The New York Times ran a big story about employee monitoring a few weeks ago, and what jumped out at me is how many different industries are deploying it. Mike, what are the most egregious examples that stood out to you?

Michael Sturman:

Well, there's a number of actually really sort of scary examples out there. One example from that article is about radiologists reading imaging scans, and the software marks them as either active or inactive. Social workers were being assessed based on how much time they were on their keyboard. There was even one really, I think, sad case in Minnesota where productivity points were awarded to hospice chaplains, and these individuals were being essentially disincentivized from visiting people in rural or hard-to-get-to areas. And again, this really shows how the metrics can really hurt the performance you actually want from people on the job.

Steve Flamisch:

Yes. What are the risks beside that? I mean, does this contribute to higher stress? What are the other negative outcomes for workers?

Michael Sturman:

There really are many potentially negative outcomes. First of all, workers just don't like it. And so it indeed could contribute to higher stress and that can cause problems. I also worry about different marginalized groups: individuals who may not have the same access to technology. Maybe you don't live in an area that has broadband at home, and therefore you have less reliable service, which could make it look like you're not working. Individuals with disabilities may have different time that they need to be away from their computer for different reasons. And so you run risks of discriminating against individuals in those kind of conditions. And there's really a host of problems that could emerge from this.

And again, the purpose is because they're worried about a few people who are egregiously goofing off, and that's always been an issue. And if you're actually monitoring performance and the productivity and what people are producing on their job, then I think you have a better chance of catching that egregious behavior than just random screenshots or counting mouse clicks or keyboard strokes.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, the law is generally on the boss's side. The National Labor Relations Board wants to ensure employee monitoring does not infringe on your right to form or join a union, but there is no federal law banning employee monitoring. The Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted decades before this software came into existence. A handful of states, including New York, require private employers to disclose what they're monitoring. The penalties are probably too small to deter large employers: $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second, $3,000 for the third.

And business groups have fought hard against efforts to curtail employee monitoring in other states. Democrats in California tried to pass a bill that states employers “shall not collect, store, analyze, or interpret worker data” unless it's strictly necessary. But the California Chamber of Commerce called it a “job killer bill,” said it would've imposed “overbroad, unworkable mandates” on employers, and they helped to defeat it.

So Mike, if employers are not breaking any laws, then what is the risk to organizations? Is it bad PR? Loss of morale? Loss of talent?

Michael Sturman:

Well, law has always lagged behind technology, and so there is always some time where the law needs to catch up to what the technology is doing to impose what would be actually appropriate regulation. So in the meanwhile, where there really isn't any kind of regulation, the risk, I think, is largely going to be turnover. Because if you don't treat your employees with respect, there are many opportunities, particularly right now, for them to find other jobs. And given how hard it is for some businesses to find their employees, this could be a substantial risk to their productivity.

Also, you may get what you pay for. You may get people who succeed on the metrics you're now measuring, but don't actually perform the jobs that they were doing or the jobs that you really need accomplished. They may stop helping their colleagues out, they may stop doing parts of the job that aren't captured by those metrics. So you may actually be hurting employee performance because you're only measuring certain small aspects of it.

There certainly also is the potential bad PR. If someone's getting docked on their pay or fired because of a very legitimate reason that they didn't happen to be in front of their screen, that can really hurt companies' reputations. There's also a lot of social media opportunities for employees to describe where they work, and this really provides an opportunity for them to publicly say, "Oh, this company's always monitoring me. They're taking screenshots. They yell at me when I'm away from the computer for four minutes." This is going to hurt really future recruitment as well. All of this can add up to a lot of loss of talent and loss of potential talent for the future.

Steve Flamisch:

Where do we go from here? Will employers just keep monitoring more and more and more? Will I be microchipped before I turn 50? Or will this peak at some point and come back down to earth? What do you think?

Michael Sturman:

I think the pendulum always goes back and forth. So I think now there's a lot of companies grasping for solutions, and the technology often presents a simple one to begin with. I think that's going to back off a little bit as companies realize that what they're measuring isn't really what they were hoping for from the job, and that employees don't like it, and that's just not working for them. I think there'll always be this kind of technology because so many employees do work from home now, and there is going to be that concern: are they really producing? But I think the best employers, the best companies, are going to develop better performance appraisal systems so that they will look at: what are the employees doing? Are they doing that well? And assessing, again, what the job should be doing and not just what's the easiest thing to measure.

Steve Flamisch:

Michael Sturman, professor and chair of the Department of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Thank you for being on the show. Keep that mouse moving.

Michael Sturman:

Thank you so much. It was great talking with you.

Voiceover:

Thanks for listening to A Third of Your Life, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast. For more information on our academic programs, faculty, and research, visit smlr.rutgers.edu.


Epsiode 1: Why Unions are Cool Again

Workers delivered historic union victories at Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s. What’s next? Walmart? Another Striketober? And how will the midterms change things? Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, analyzes the resurgent labor movement.

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Transcript for Episode 1

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think these workers are saying, "Enough is enough and we're not going to take it."

Steve Flamisch:

Forming unions, walking off the job. American workers flex their muscle. Next, on A Third of Your Life.

Voiceover:

You spend a third of your life at work. We're all about making it better. This is the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast.

Steve Flamisch:

What a year for the labor movement. Rising public support for unions, major organizing victories, and now thousands of workers going on strike heading into the crucial midterm elections.

Welcome to A Third of Your Life. My name is Steve Flamisch, and my guest today is Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Becky, welcome to the show.

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Thanks for having me.

Steve Flamisch:

What is going on in the American workplace? Why is all of this happening now?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think there's a few things that have led us to this moment. I think working through the pandemic, a lot of people felt like their bosses didn't care about them, didn't handle the pandemic well, whether we're talking about health and safety issues or battles over remote work versus returning to the office. A lot of people had new insight into whether their employer cared about them at all. And that's been coupled with a very tight labor market where it's easy for workers to leave and go get a job somewhere else. And when they're thinking about organizing rather than leaving, when they don't have to fear losing their job because they know it's pretty easy to go and find another job, that changes the calculation and makes workers more likely to organize.

Steve Flamisch:

A Gallup poll released right before Labor Day revealed 71% of Americans approve of unions. That's the highest approval rating since 1965. Yet, union membership has been low for decades, only about 10% nationally last year.

Becky, if most Americans like unions, why is membership still so low?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's really difficult to organize a union. Most people either work in a unionized workplace or a non-unionized workplace already, and they don't experience any change. So for most people, that's a non-unionized workplace, and they don't really feel the ability to go out and organize. Organizing is hard. The law is really stacked against workers who want to unionize. Employers really have the upper hand, they have more resources, and they have the support of the law in doing a lot of things and throwing resources into an anti-union campaign. So it's really, really difficult to make a non-union job into a unionized job.

Steve Flamisch:

In spite of those challenges, we've had a year of really significant organizing victories. Amazon was the big headline grabber early in the year with Amazon Labor Union winning its first election at a warehouse in Staten Island, and we had that iconic image of ALU president Christian Smalls popping the cork on a bottle of champagne.

The union lost the second election in Staten Island, but now we're heading for another election—this time in Upstate New York at an Amazon warehouse in Albany. What do you expect will happen with that one?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's hard to predict, but the odds are always stacked against the union. These are very, very high turnover workplaces where most workers don't stick around long enough to form strong relationships with each other, and they're facing an all-out assault in terms of the anti-union campaign that they hear from the employer. So Amazon has mandatory meetings, they hold them all day long. Most workers will listen to multiple sessions of about a half an hour a piece telling them why they should be fearful of unionizing, telling them that there are a lot of downsides, trying to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt in their minds. So it's very, very difficult to have a successful organizing drive in an atmosphere like that.

Steve Flamisch:

A few months ago we were hearing that traditional labor unions might have to adjust their strategy to emulate ALU's success. Have you seen any evidence of that or is it still business as usual for the heavy hitters?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think unions are trying a lot of different things and they always have tried a lot of different things. I think there's not a single path to a successful organizing drive. Some of the recent organizing has been affiliated with big longstanding unions, and some of it has been independent.

Steve Flamisch:

Let's talk about Starbucks now. More than 200 unionized Starbucks stores all across the country. A huge number. Did you see that coming?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I don't think anybody saw it coming. I certainly didn't see it coming. It's very impressive to organize so many separate workplaces and sort of really build this powerful wave.

Steve Flamisch:

And yet against the backdrop of those successes, we're hearing more and more about allegations of union busting. Starbucks Workers United says the company has fired dozens of union leaders. If that allegation is true, how do they get away with it? And is it scaring off workers in other stores who may be thinking of organizing?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I'm sure the intended effect is to scare workers and to create a sort of chilling effect so workers are less inclined to organize. The problem with current labor law is that it's very slow and the National Labor Relations Board that administers the law is really underfunded and understaffed. So it's hard to move quickly on allegations like this.

If Starbucks is in fact found to have illegally fired these workers that were organizing, the penalty they pay will be relatively minimal, essentially reinstating the workers with back pay for the time they were away. That's not really a significant enough penalty to deter them from doing it again. If it creates a chilling effect successfully, they may decide to keep on doing it. And even if they lose those legal cases, that might be a price they're willing to pay.

Steve Flamisch:

This year, we also had the first Apple store unionize in Maryland, the first Chipotle in Michigan, two Trader Joe's in Massachusetts and Minnesota, we even had the first union victory in a congressional office. Michigan Congressman Andy Levin's staff voted unanimously to join a union.

When you look at the totality of union success in 2022, which is the most earth-shattering union victory? Which one really stands out to you?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's hard to pick one, but I think the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island. To organize a workplace that's that large where you have to gain the support of literally thousands of workers, which means thousands of one-on-one conversations, that is really difficult in any large workplace. And then when you think about a workplace where turnover is so high and many of the workers have not been there for very long, that's another huge hurdle. So I think I'd probably say that the Amazon victory in Staten Island is, perhaps, the most surprising.

Steve Flamisch:

Becky, how much of this is driven by workers who are fed up and how much is driven by unions sensing an opportunity? Noam Scheiber, the labor reporter at The New York Times, reported unions salted Amazon and Starbucks, sending workers there to apply for jobs with the goal of forming a union. Do you think that's the case with a lot of these organizing victories?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think the lines are really blurred. I think young workers now are really more aware of what unions are and the ways they might organize their workplaces. And I think there are a lot of young workers out there who say, "Wherever I work, I would consider trying to organize. And maybe because I'm seeing, for example, Starbucks or Amazon having these waves, maybe I'll apply for a job in one of those workplaces rather than somewhere else."

But I also think that they're workers too, right? So if they got a job there intentionally, they also do want to organize. And I also think in Staten Island and Amazon, there were a few workers, although, the key leaders that are most visible, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, were longtime Amazon workers. But you don't win without getting the support of all kinds of workers.

Steve Flamisch:

What's next? What is the next industry where we will see organizing activity, maybe the next company that will be targeted by unions?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Well, I'm not very good at predicting, but I think we can see certain types of workplaces. I think in the same category as Starbucks, we have places like Trader Joe's, the Apple Stores, REI, the outdoor retailer. Places with a progressive veneer that have really attracted a lot of young workers, many of them college educated, many of them who feel an affinity with the ideals and values that the company puts forward. I think we can see more brands like that facing organizing drives.

Steve Flamisch:

What about Walmart? Why haven't we seen a unionization effort there in recent years and do you think we will?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think previous attempts to unionize at Walmart were really met with brutal anti-union campaigns by Walmart. And I don't think we can rule anything out in any company or industry, but I think the geographic locations of Walmart, which are primarily in the South, in rural areas and that's not as concentrated in cities where, for example, Starbucks organizing has been quite successful or in blue states or in heavily unionized states. That all weighs a little bit against organizing there. It doesn't mean it's impossible or that we won't see it, but it's maybe not top of the list of who's next.

Steve Flamisch:

This time last year, we were heading into Striketober. Workers at John Deere, Kelloggs, and elsewhere, walking off the job over wages, benefits, and working conditions. And now, strike activity is on the rise again, notably in two areas you've studied: healthcare and education.

Let's start with healthcare. 15,000 nurses in Minnesota going on strike for three days in September, demanding higher wages and safe staffing. The union called it the largest nurse strike in US history. What did they accomplish and do you think we will see more of this?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Well, we don't know what they accomplished yet because they haven't settled those contracts, but they certainly brought a lot of attention and public support to their campaign, which was primarily about having sufficient staffing in place to provide quality patient care.

We're seeing strikes not just at many Starbucks stores, but in all kinds of workplaces. So museums, continuing to see strikes in K-12 schools, some higher education strikes. I think we will continue to see strikes and in multiple different sectors. And I think when people hear about strikes, particularly successful strikes, it makes the next strike in a different workplace more likely.

Steve Flamisch:

You mentioned public schools. We're a few years removed from the Red for Ed strikes that swept the country, but we saw 6,000 teachers and staff strike in Seattle and 4,500 in Columbus, Ohio. Do you think it's starting all over again?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I do think so. I think teachers and other education workers are feeling particularly disrespected. They've had a really, really hard time working through the pandemic. They're under attack politically in terms of the content of their teaching and their ability to choose their own books and set their own curriculum. Meanwhile, because working through the pandemic was so demoralizing, many teachers have left or retired. And so in many places there's a pretty severe shortage, which means that the workers that are there are having to work much harder just to keep up and just to educate the kids. So I think the atmosphere is really ripe for more collective action.

Steve Flamisch:

We've seen strikes in other sectors as well. About 1,000 workers at San Francisco International Airport went on strike in late September, demanding higher pay. The union, UNITE HERE Local 2, warned travelers to bring their own food because the airports, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops would be closed.

The hospitality industry took such a hit during the pandemic. Becky, do you think resentment is just bubbling up to the surface now?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I do think so. I think hospitality closed down and many workers faced layoffs and unemployment. And then when it started to reopen for many workers, it was an extremely unsafe environment with really high levels of COVID exposure and illness. And I think these workers are saying, "Enough is enough. You're depending on us, especially somewhere like an airport, and we're not going to take it." And again, the tight labor market helps. If they act collectively, they can really assert a lot of power because they aren't very easily replaceable.

Steve Flamisch:

Arguably the biggest strike news in recent months involved one that did not happen, an 11th hour deal to avert a rail strike. But it sounds like rank and file members are not totally happy with the agreement their leaders hammered out. Is that becoming more common?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's hard to assess the total numbers, but it was certainly something we saw last year with the Striketober strikes and something that will, perhaps, continue where workers will demand more. And especially if they've been on strike, they'll say, "We're not going to settle for a contract that's just okay or that feels concessionary. We're going to demand that what we needed all along is actually met. We're not willing to compromise." And in the case of the rail workers, what they're being asked to compromise on is significant. It's about the ability to, for example, go to the doctor without being penalized.

Steve Flamisch:

So that one is heading for a ratification vote and we will have to wait to see the outcome. We could be heading for an even bigger strike next year. The new president of The Teamsters, Sean O'Brien, is taking a tough stance in negotiations with UPS. More than 350,000 drivers and package handlers could walk off the job. What is the key issue in that negotiation?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

The UPS issues have to do with pay, especially pay and job security and other provisions for part-timers, but also some working conditions issues. So right now, especially in time of climate change, the exposure to heat is through a greater and greater part of the year. So the UPS trucks are hot, the workers are not getting sufficient break times, and they want to make sure that their working conditions prioritize safety, not just speed and profit.

Steve Flamisch:

Shifting gears, the midterms are coming up. How does the balance of power on Capitol Hill affect the labor movement?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

The labor movement would love some legislation to reset the balance and tip things slightly less in the direction of employers. And they've been promoting various pieces of legislation in recent years. If they could win a clear majority that could move legislation in the Senate and the House, that means over 60 votes, they have some ideas about what they'd like to achieve, but that's probably not realistic. So for now, they look to, for example, the executive branch and things like appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and rulemaking and more technical pieces of the state apparatus to try to get the climate to be just slightly more favorable to workers.

Steve Flamisch:

I'd like to talk about the demographics of unions. It seems like the labor movement is getting younger and more diverse: women, people of color, LGBTQ+ workers. How does that change the equation?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Yeah, I think that the labor movement is getting more diverse and labor leaders are gradually getting more diverse. So we do have many labor leaders who are not white, who are queer, and I think that does change things. I think the typical union worker is not an older white male steel worker or mine worker, but perhaps a home health aide, a woman of color, an immigrant woman. And that's the reality of who working people are, and that's the reality of who's in unions. The biggest unions are teachers unions, which are predominantly female.

Steve Flamisch:

When the story of this period is written, when historians and future professors look back on what happened in the labor movement between 2018 and 2022, what will resonate the most? What will students be learning about this moment in the history of work?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think one of the things that will be most significant will be young workers organizing. So some of these big victories, especially in places like Starbucks and Amazon, are really led by young workers who are excited to improve their working conditions, are excited to organize, are learning about the nuts and bolts of organizing, and that energy and those skills are really spreading. So I think the importance of young workers in this moment is really going to have a lasting impact.

Steve Flamisch:

Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, thanks for joining us on A Third of Your Life.

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Thanks for having me.

Voiceover:

Thanks for listening to A Third of Your Life, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast. For more information on our academic programs, faculty, and research, visit smlr.rutgers.edu.