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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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Episode 9: No Degree, No Problem?

Can you really get the job you want without a college degree? Michelle Van Noy, director of the Education and Employment Research Center in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, talks to Clayton Lord (SHRM Foundation) and Jason Tyszko (U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation) about non-degree credentials and skills-based hiring.

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Episode 8: The Writers Strike

Writers Guild of America, East President Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, a 1992 Rutgers alumna, takes you behind the scenes of the strike that shut down film and television productions and led to a historic new contract. Susan Schurman, Distinguished Professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, leads the discussion.

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Transcript for Episode 8

Protesters:

We want it.

Fair pay!

We want it.

Fair pay!

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

It's been a ride. I've been telling people it feels like a fever dream. I keep remembering things that happened like, "Oh my God, that happened. Oh my God, that happened too."

Protesters:

What do we want?

Steve Flamisch:

Behind the scenes of the writers strike. The new president of the Writers Guild of America, East takes you inside the five-month fight that led to a landmark contract. Next, on A Third of Your Life.

Protesters:

What do we want?

Contracts.

When do we want it?

Now.

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:

The Writers Guild of America hit the picket lines in May, demanding fair pay, minimum staffing, and regulations on artificial intelligence. The strike brought film and television productions to a halt. But now it's over and the writers are celebrating a landmark contract.

Susan Schurman, a Distinguished Professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, sat down with Lisa Takeuchi Cullen for an inside look at what happened. Lisa is a 1992 Rutgers graduate, a screenwriter with credits on shows such as Law & Order SVU, and she is the president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Now on A Third of Your Life, Susan Schurman and Lisa Takeuchi Cullen.

Susan Schurman:

So Lisa, I want to welcome you to our Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast. It's called A Third of Your Life. I know you know what that means. And I want to congratulate you. I want to give you a huge congratulations on a 99% member ratification of your new contract after a five-month strike.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

Thank you. We are so proud, not surprised, but extremely proud. We also had an extraordinary turnout. As you know, it's hard to motivate voters to actually press those buttons, and we had an over 70% turnout of our eligible member voters. So we're very happy with these results.

Susan Schurman:

Oh, I can imagine. And I also want to congratulate you on being the newly elected president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

I refuse to accept your congratulations. I will accept your condolences.

Susan Schurman:

Well, that was my next question. How does it feel?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

It feels like a lot, and I'm already carrying a lot, so I'm not going to lie. It feels a little bit like I lost at musical chairs. Look, it's two years. I can do anything for two years.

Susan Schurman:

Yeah, so we'll get to a little more of that in a second. First, I want to just tell you that many of the listeners to this podcast are our students and faculty in our school, but we also have students from lots of other Rutgers programs, and we have listeners from union members and leaders around New Jersey, around the country. And then Rutgers Today, of course, is a huge audience for this. But I would say everybody that I know that's connected to labor relations has been following your strike from the beginning. We were on strike here at Rutgers right about the time you went on strike.

So place I'd like to start is, I call it, “The pundits were wrong.” At the beginning, they were all saying that your demands were unrealistic, you were headed for failure, et cetera, et cetera. And Lisa, you are a famous and renowned storyteller. You've written novels, you've written scripts for shows, like for example, Law & Order SVU. So now that it's over, thinking about it, how would you tell the story of the strike? What would be some of the key scenes in your mind?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

I was just thinking about this because we're going to celebrate at the Writers Guild of America, East with our army of 105 strike captains who were the true heroes of this story. They rose up out of seemingly nowhere. Many of them had never before been to a single Guild function, and suddenly they were getting up at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning and riding the subway out to Queens or the Bronx, sometimes to New Jersey, to Rhode Island, Boston, Pennsylvania—I think I counted seven states where we picketed—and they were suddenly 24/7 raging for their union. And it was a remarkable sight, something that we never expected going in. I think there are a hundred stories to tell, probably a thousand stories, maybe a million stories to tell about this strike. And because we are a union of storytellers, I can only imagine that many of our members will find a way to tell those stories.

But I think the story of the captains is one story. I think the story of the studios grossly, grossly miscalculating is another story. I think another story is the group of us in leadership, the negotiating committee, who went back time and again to the table to fight this fight on behalf of our almost 12,000 members, I think that's another story. I think the story of other unions rallying behind us and joining us on the picket lines and refusing to cross our picket lines and shutting down productions, I think that is a truly chill-inducing story. I just got chills just saying that again. It's been a ride. It's been five months. I've been telling people it feels like a fever dream. I keep remembering things that happened like, "Oh my God, that happened. Oh my God, that happened too." And it's hard to even believe that we've survived it, that we've moved on, and now we're back at work because it really does feel like a lifetime.

Susan Schurman:

Well, I think we were all just amazed at the support and the unity that you received from the other unions. And then of course when SAG-AFTRA went on strike, the two unions together, and I know because I've been following this for many years, this has not always been the case among the broader labor movement, but certainly in the entertainment unions in general. I don't think for your last Writers Guild strike, it happened.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

That strike was in 2007 and 2008, and I was not in entertainment at the time. I was still a print journalist working for TIME Magazine, but I hear tell from my colleagues in the Guilds that it was a completely different story. We did not get the support we got this time from our colleagues in the Teamsters or in IATSE or in SAG-AFTRA. They had their own issues to deal with. It's not that they owed us anything, but the support that we received this time was unprecedented.

Susan Schurman:

I remember talking to you and a couple others early on, and I was impressed at the lengths you all went to try to minimize the negative effect of your strike on, for example, IATSE members and the Teamsters, et cetera. How did you come to that conclusion?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

One of the more harrowing stories of the strike was that we necessarily, by withholding our labor, affected the labor of others who aren't even in our union, starting with the support staff, people who are emerging writers, almost all of them plan to become writers or are writers already, they just haven't gotten into the Writers Guild, to the crew who work in production on our television shows and movies. And we knew that by withholding our labor, we would be essentially withholding paychecks for our colleagues. And that was a terribly heavy burden for those of us who were making these decisions.

We were in close coordination with the leadership of those guilds and to the point that when we went in for our first day of in-person negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, the AMPTP, which is the organization that represents the studios, we walked into our caucus room in the Sherman Oaks Galleria where they have their headquarters, and there was this woman. And she was tall and gorgeous. She looked like a movie star. And then she was very polished. I thought, "Is she a studio executive? Who is she? Why is she here?"

And then she took off her suit jacket and her arms were covered in tattoos and one of them was of Jimmy Hoffa, and she was the representative for the Teamsters in LA. Lindsay Dougherty is her name and she is a star. If you are on Twitter, no doubt you've come across her. But she came in person as well as Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the executive director of SAG-AFTRA National, in person to our caucus room to signal their unity and solidarity with us. So we knew right from the get-go that this was going to be different, that we had their support even though we were going to cause them headaches as well.

And so what we tried to do in the meantime, as we continued over a strike that I think none of us expected it to go that long, was to try to support our union sisters and brothers with food drives, with fundraising. There's a wonderful organization that you may be aware of called the Entertainment Community Fund, used to be called Actors Fund, and it has a money available for anybody in entertainment, anybody who works in entertainment. There are grants to help people. There was a grocery fund started by a WGA member in the west named Joelle Garfinkel. It was truly extraordinary how all of labor in entertainment came together to try to support each other through this strike.

Susan Schurman:

Well, clearly there's been a huge payoff. I want to start with what is getting by far the most attention, and that is your language on artificial intelligence. It's clear you won some pretty important language on the use of AI. In fact, there's a recent piece in The Guardian that praises the terms you got because it puts AI under the control of writers, meaning complimentary to the humans, not an automated technology, and therefore maybe a model for other industries. And there's a quote that I love from one of your colleagues who said, "We didn't protect ourselves against the technology. We protected ourselves against the humans on the other side of the table who are trying to screw us every day." And I know that many of us professors are worried about the same things. Are the colleges and universities just going to use AI to develop curriculum, deliver courses online? How did you all in the Writers Guild arrive at such a smart approach when so many others were just focused on the quote-unquote "science fiction" version?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

I think your question at the start of this conversation about the stories of the strike, I think that AI story is one that will resonate for many years to come. AI was not even on our radar when we first started talking. It was a vague and distant threat, we felt. There were a few nerds on the committee who kept bringing it up and the rest of us felt like it was a tomorrow problem. But the problem with tomorrow problems when you're negotiating a three-year contract is that tomorrow is right around the corner and then you don't have a chance to renegotiate for another three years. So our excellent staff as well as our really dedicated members of the negotiating committee, some of them just rolled up their sleeves and got to work trying to figure out an approach that made sense. And right from the start, the writers were clear that we were not going to ban AI.

That was not the goal because AI was already here. It was not as though we felt like we could raise our fists in the air and stamp our feet and make this new technology go away. It's not going to go away. Like I said, it's already here. So how could we put up guardrails that would protect our members both in their working conditions as well as their compensation? And that's what we attempted to do. What we got enshrined in this contract is that a writer has to be a human. And that sounds ridiculous, it makes people laugh, but it is what we had to actually put in language, that the writer of a script has to be a human. The original source material has to be from a human.

So even if for instance, the studio came up with an AI generated idea or spat out a very bad script, they could not, as they were trying to do before negotiations, go to a screenwriter for instance and say, "Here, take this really shitty script." Am I allowed to curse? I'm going to. "Take this shitty script and we'll pay you at the lower rate of a revision to make it into an actually producible script, and then we'll figure out the credit situation later." That cannot happen. The writer, the human writer has to get the credit. The human writer has to have the control over the script, and the human writer importantly can use AI. They have to work in concert with the studio and figure it out. But if it's a tool that is useful for writers, then it is not one that we wanted to take away. However, we wanted to make sure that all parties understood AI to be what it is, which is a machine. It's a program that responds to human prompts. You need a human, you need a human to do the work that we do. And that's what we got enshrined.

Susan Schurman:

To me, that's inspirational because I think that's exactly the way we in higher ed ought to be thinking about it as well. I wanted to just turn to one of the other really, I think, huge wins that you obtained that's been overshadowed by the AI story and that is the progress you made on residuals. My sense going into the bargaining was that was one of the biggest issues on the table.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

Yes. Residuals are essentially royalties. So television and screenwriters create a product and when it goes on to success and continues to make even more money for our studio employers, then we have traditionally received a small slice of their success. For instance, if a Law & Order episode is shown overseas, or if an episode replays on a cable network, then the writer as well as other creative participants would receive a check in the mail months later. And those checks are, for writers and for actors, absolutely lifesaving and career sustaining because we do not work like regular nine-to-five people do. We don't have jobs that continue throughout the year. We work in term employment, so we are employed for chunks of time. If you're lucky enough to be on a broadcast television show like Law & Order, it might be a 40-week term, but those jobs are going the way of the dinosaurs.

More often these days, you are hired to work for 20 weeks at a time, 10 weeks at a time. I once worked for a three-week mini room. And then, so what do you do for the rest of the time that you're unemployed? Those residual checks absolutely pay the rent, pay for groceries, kept writers and actors afloat. But as television moved into streaming, the same formula for residuals did not follow. So you saw on social media, actors, for instance, from Orange is the New Black posting residual checks—that's a massive, massive show for Netflix, as you know—residual checks for $0.02 cents, $0.03 cents. That was literally the checks that we were getting in the mail, a fraction of the cost of the stamp to send the check in the first place, which was just insult upon injury.

So we needed to change that formula and we were able to do so. We got better residuals for streaming. We also got a formula for success so that if your show, for instance, is a Bridgerton, a massive, massive global hit for your streaming platform, then you see a bonus to reward that success. So that the people who write on those shows see some, as they would if they wrote on a broadcast show that was a hit and was replayed time and again, that this was our way of addressing that discrepancy.

Susan Schurman:

I know a lot of folks that I've talked to who don't have as much familiarity with the entertainment business, particularly TV and film. Could you just describe a little bit about what is a writers room? How does that work?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

A writers room is a group of WGA writers who are contracted to work on a television series. They convene every day. It's a job like any other, typically in person but since the pandemic often also over Zoom, and they come up with the episodes that make up the show. Every room is different, but you might start out blue-skying or brainstorming what the overall show looks like. Who are these characters, where are the storylines going to go? And then you start breaking down, "Okay, what does episode two look like?" Because episode one has typically already been written by the creator and showrunner and it's already sold. So what does episode three look like? And then typically we break out into either separate rooms or the writer of the episode goes off to write their episode. And those are, like I said, term employment jobs. So they are finite. They last for a certain amount of time and then they end.

Susan Schurman:

So that's why when I watch a series, I notice that there's a different writer listed in different episodes.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

Yes, and I'll tell you a behind the scenes fact is that it almost always doesn't matter who the writer who is named on that script is. For many, many shows, it is a collaborative effort. So television is a collaborative writing medium, and your name may or may not be on the script, but you might have come up with the key turning point in that plot. You may have come up with the perfect dialogue that you remember from that episode. But TV writing has always been a team effort in America and what we have won in this contract will make sure that it remains so.

Susan Schurman:

I remember, Lisa, a couple of times, a couple of years ago when I was doing some work with you all, that we had to postpone some meetings because you had to go out on the shoot when they were filming one of the episodes of a show you were writing for.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

So that is the production end of television writing and producing. And that is another very important key aspect of the job that we were also able to protect with this new contract. So writers for television, not as much for screen, although sometimes, but writers for television are also producers, meaning that we go to set, we go to the production, and we make sure that the story is being told the way that the showrunner who is the boss of the entire enterprise wants. So we sit there with our scripts, we make sure the dialogue's correct. If an actor has a problem, they don't feel that their character would be performing in this particular way, would react in this way to this other actor saying this, then you have to work it out with the director. What's the proper response to that? There are always a million and a half problems, issues, new situations, ideas that come up in the midst of production.

And the writer traditionally has always been there to help navigate those changes. And with the advent of streaming, that was going away. And the reason for that is that these writers rooms for streaming were so much shorter and the episode orders were so much shorter. So whereas a typical season of Law & Order might have 23, 24 episodes, a show on Netflix or Hulu might have 10 episodes or eight or six. So the writers rooms were ending long before the production actually began. So the writers had already been disbanded and they weren't being paid to come back and produce their episodes.

One of the reasons that that is a problem for the future of our industry is that we are not training the next generation of showrunners. So I know writers who are longtime members of the WGA, they've been in half-a-dozen writers rooms and they've never been to set, so they don't know, they've never experienced a key portion of their jobs. And so what we demanded and we got was a guarantee that the showrunner could keep on a couple of the writers so that they too could go to set and they could produce their episodes.

Susan Schurman:

Wow. It sounds like most of the key things that you went in demanding, [that] you were told were unreasonable, you got. Or at least got something that will help you going forward.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

We really did. They told us never on so many of our demands. They told us we would never get minimum staffing in writers rooms. They told us we would never see success-based residuals in streaming, that we would never have guaranteed 13-week contracts for our colleagues who work in comedy-variety in streaming. There were so many nevers that we flipped in this negotiation. What I dearly hope is that our union brothers and sisters and other entertainment unions will take these wins and run with it in their own contracts too.

Susan Schurman:

Let me get you to think ahead a little bit now, Lisa. Thinking about your two years as president of the WGA East, what do you think your top priorities will be?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

I have an agenda here. You'll be shocked to hear. No, I never wanted this job. And you know that because you and I talked about it. And a wise person whose name rhymes with Sue Schurman once told me that great leaders aren't the ones who seek the role. They're the ones who find themselves stuck in a game of musical chairs having lost and perhaps reluctantly take the role, but then do everything they can to help their fellow members. That has always been my North Star, is to help my fellow members. I'm not interested in what people might imagine a union leader benefits from, like perks or, I don't know, a seat at the table at giant union conferences. I frankly don't give a shit about the bells and whistles of a job like this. I can only approach it through my own prism, which is only to see what I can do to help my fellow members and my colleagues in this effort are my council.

And for your listeners who likely don't know this, Sue Schurman saved my union. I don't think that we can say otherwise. The Writers Guild of America, East was in a terrible predicament a couple of years ago where we had organized in a brand new jurisdiction without a strategy for how to care for these new members, how to assimilate them, how to adjust our traditional members to the changes in our union. And the leadership was at each other's throats. We were headed off of a cliff, and I personally was a hundred percent certain, I was 99% certain, that the Writers Guild of America, East would end, that we were facing dissolution. But with the help of Sue and Susan Davis, her lawyer friend who brought Sue in, a wonderful labor lawyer and leader, we found our common interests and that common interest turned out to be the welfare of our fellow members.

Each of us, no matter what our background was, and no matter how we thought we could do it best, each of us are here in leadership because we feel that we can improve the lives of our fellow members. And nobody, not a single person in leadership, was there with a nefarious purpose. Everybody thought that they could help. And that's why we were all there. We had different ideas of how to do it, but we felt we could help. And so we went through a referendum with our entire membership where we voted on some guardrails to help our very different member sectors get along and move into the future together. So with that in place, we were able to move forward. And I believe that set us up for our success here in the East anyways in this strike, because we had truly remarkable support from our sister sectors in online media, which is what we call digital journalism, and in our broadcast news sectors.

Those union members who were not on strike because their employers are not part of the AMPTP, the studio network, they came out in support of us on the picket lines. They are for the most part journalists, so they express their support through their mediums. They were supportive of us at the council table, and we came together in a way that I could not have foreseen two years ago. And I think that we are a different union now. The Writers Guild of America, East, I feel, has been through fire again and again, and we've come through stronger. We've risen from the ashes and we have you to thank.

Susan Schurman:

Well, I appreciate that. And I know that Susan Davis will, when she listens to that, also appreciate it. But I will say, because I've done a certain amount of this work—as you may know, I was the mediator that helped SAG and AFTRA to merge—I've learned over the years, it takes some people stepping forward to make this happen, and you all had that.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

I know that it was a team effort. Chris Kyle, who is our secretary treasurer, is the brains behind the operation. Maybe I'm the heart, I'm not sure. And of course, Michael Winship, our president, who has just stepped down, has been a steadfast presence for us in this Guild for many, many years, and truly, truly deserves more than anyone this peaceful retirement that I hope he gets from Guild matters, but also our council. We started in a place, and I'm sure many of your labor listeners can understand too, where leadership was splintered and there were factions and there was a great deal of mistrust. Sue, you and Susan talked often of trust and our lack of it at the table, and it's been a slow rebuild. But I'm here to say, if there are other folks listening from other unions going through something like this right now, that it can be done.

It takes a tremendous amount of work and buy-in and an emotional breaking down of the stories that we tell ourselves. I think that that was one of the conversations I distinctly remember having with you, Sue, is I told you it felt like a religious conversion for me when you told me, "You just have to think of it a different way." And it was like my brain broke because I had been so set in my thinking, and if I'm being honest, my anger over what had happened, what had been allowed to happen to this Guild that I loved, that when I was able to let that go, I think I was finally able to embrace the future.

Susan Schurman:

I just want to comment, because we do have listeners that are from a lot of different unions. I would remind them that your union, most of the entertainment unions like our own union here at the faculty, the council, the governing body of the union are all volunteers.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

We are not paid. I know some unions have paid leadership from their members, but our member leaders are a hundred percent volunteer.

Susan Schurman:

So the time that you have spent is your own time. And that leads me to ask a question about time because I know a lot of our listeners have been thinking a lot about this general topic. We call it work-life balance. And so thinking ahead for your presidential term, your writing career, your family life, do you have any advice on work-life balance?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

No. But if you do, I would be very happy to hear.

Susan Schurman:

I am the last person.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

I'm a mother. I have two teenage daughters. For anybody out there with teenage daughters, you know the pain and the suffering. It was a life-changing summer for me in many ways. These last five months felt like five years. And it shows on my face and probably inside my body and my organs. It's no small thing to raise human beings and to hold a full-time career and to volunteer your time for a cause that you really care about. I wish that I had a formula. I wish I had a secret for how to do so without a complete self-implosion.

I'm mindful of the fact that I'm only the third woman in this role. In 69 years of my Guild, I'm the first person of color and the third woman to take this job. And I have no doubt that the dearth of women, the dearth of minorities, in the entertainment business has a whole lot to do with privilege and the needs of other obligations like raising a family, like the inability to up and move to LA and to start at the bottom rung of a ladder with a job that pays $20 an hour and occupies 20 hours of your day.

I did not have that path. I had a very strange path into television writing. I was, like I said, a print journalist and then weekly news magazines, print weekly news magazines, it turned out weren't going to be around forever, which sounded apocryphal back then but look now, and I stumbled into TV writing and I got very, very lucky. I don't live in LA, I live in New Jersey. My husband is a classical musician who works on Broadway, and Broadway is in New York, not in LA. And like I said, two very needy children. And I've been able to find a career in something called development, which is the part of the industry where we come up with ideas for television shows and we pitch them and we're paid to write them. I am very, very fortunate to have something called an overall deal, which is a salary job from a studio.

Mine is Universal Studios, and they pay me to do exactly that, to come up with TV shows, and then, like you mentioned, Sue, the time we were working together, or sometimes to work on their shows. And it's a lot, just that is a lot. And so why do we volunteer? It's something I've thought a lot about, especially as I recruit people into leadership who are, as I am, in the thick of their careers. When I first joined the council seven years ago, it was made up almost entirely of people who had already achieved great success in television and screenwriting and broadcast news and who were really in retirement or near retirement and could therefore afford to donate their time and service of their Guild, which is remarkable. But I also felt strongly that you had to be in the job to understand the problems of the job.

And I've worked hard over the years to make our council reflect that and pulled people in from comedy-variety, from episodic television, from screenwriting. And then now we're lucky, I believe, to have our digital media friends who are demographically younger and more diverse and who are hustling. Everybody in leadership is hustling. Nobody is kicking back at this point. So I believe that we're all in it together. We're all suffering together sometimes in our volunteer jobs, they are truly full-time. For me, especially, as an officer, it really is like having two full-time jobs. One is paid very well, I'm very fortunate to say, but the other is not paid at all, and is sometimes the even bigger time suck and certainly the bigger headache. So why do we do this? And I do think that it's, I'm not Jewish myself, but I love the word: a mitzvah. I think that those of us who do this work are called to it, and maybe we don't do it forever. In my case, I hope to do it for two years and then out. But I think that it's a gift and a blessing and we should regard it as such.

Susan Schurman:

That points me to, I think, my final area that I want to get you to talk about, and that is Rutgers University. You are a Rutgers graduate. In fact, you wrote for the Daily Targum while you were here. So a lot of our students, I know from my own classes and from hearing from my colleagues that we have a lot of students from other Rutgers disciplines, who are certainly hoping for careers in the broad entertainment industry, either in, of course, our athletes in sports, but a lot of our others in TV, films, podcasting, et cetera. So as a very successful writer of journalism, novels, and scripts, do you have advice for our young people?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

I think that creative careers are noble. I think that they're worthy of our best and brightest. I also think that they're extremely difficult. And coming from a world like Rutgers, I think you have to prepare in a certain way. One is that it is a giant state school. And if you're like me, I don't think anyone there is like me, I came from Japan, I was born and raised in Japan, and I seem to stumble into a lot of my big decisions in life, but I stumbled into Rutgers and I had no idea how big it was. It had, I believe, about 48,000 students at the time. I had no idea that there was more than one campus. I had never been to campus, and I had to find my way. And I literally took a wrong turn into an office one day and someone said, "Hi, are you here to join the newspaper?" And I said, "I didn't think so, but what do you need?"

And that was how I joined the Daily Targum, purely by accident. But the Daily Targum is where I found my home. And I think a lot of people at Rutgers eventually say the same. The lucky ones say the same, where they find the piece of that world that is home to them. And it could be Greek life for you, it could be a club, it could be your academic discipline, it could be a job. Those worlds do exist. As for finding success in a high barrier to entry industry world like Hollywood, I do think that it is harder for folks coming out of a school like Rutgers than for say, a school like Harvard that has a built-in network of people who already are in those jobs and can help you. There is an organization called Harvardwood where they connect alumni to students who are trying to break into Hollywood.

And this is something I feel very strongly about. We're not going to change the culture of Hollywood, the exclusivity of it, the lack of diversity of it, until we break those walls down. I think that if someone like me who went to a state school, who grew up overseas, who came from a different industry altogether, can manage to break in, I hope that if any of your listeners are thinking about this path, that they realize they can too. They're going to have to work harder. It's just a fact. If you're a woman, if you're a minority, if you're LGBTQ, if you belong to any sort of marginalized community, you're going to have to work harder. That's just the fact. We haven't changed the world or Hollywood certainly enough for it to become easier for you. The good news is that those cracks do exist. You can find a toehold, you can work your way in.

It's going to be really, really hard. And the step-by-step of it is a whole other conversation that I'm happy to have another time, but for me, Rutgers made me who I am. I cannot imagine doing what I do today, standing in front of hundreds of people and picking up a megaphone and shouting about solidarity, I can't imagine having the balls to do that had I not been a 17-year-old from Japan who showed up at a college campus where I had never been before and somehow survived it. If you can survive a gigantic state school like Rutgers, I think you can survive anything.

Susan Schurman:

I would say amen to that. I had a not dissimilar experience in my first job interview coming to Rutgers, and I think that's just such terrific advice for our students and for some of our new faculty. Listen, it's been terrific. For that, we'll say goodbye.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen:

Thank you so much 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.


Episode 7: A Just Transition

How do we stop climate change without hurting the workers and communities who rely on fossil fuel jobs? Todd Vachon, assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, shows the way in his book, “Clean Air and Good Jobs.” Les Leopold, J. Mijin Cha, and Dimitris Stevis join the discussion.

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Transcript for Episode 7

Les Leopold:

Please, let's not abandon the workers in environmentally sensitive industries. Because when we abandon them, we're just handing them over to right-wing populism.

Steve Flamisch:

A Just Transition. How to support workers while fighting climate change. 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:

Jobs versus the environment. That's one of the old narratives in the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But advocates say it is possible to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy without leaving workers in the dust. Welcome to A Third of Your Life. I'm Steve Flamisch, and our guest host is Todd Vachon, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and director of the Labor Education Action Research Network, LEARN. In this episode, Todd discusses his new book, Clean Air and Good Jobs, and he talks to three of his fellow experts in the field. Now, on A Third of Your Life, Todd Vachon.

Todd Vachon:

In 1989, at the age of 13, I learned two valuable lessons. The first was the importance of unions for building and supporting the middle class. The second was that burning fossil fuels was warming the planet and would one day have serious consequences for life on Earth. The first was learned through personal experience. The second, in a classroom. At the time, my family owned a small business, a general store and gas station, in a small town in eastern Connecticut. Due to market forces, including the rise of corporate chain stores, my parents' business was struggling. By 1989, we were facing bankruptcy. Fortunately, there was a rising demand for skilled construction workers at the time. Through his friend network in the volunteer fire department, my father was able to join the local carpenters' union and immediately began working in the industry, including at several local power plants.

Within a year of his becoming a union carpenter, our family experienced a transition from being working poor to being middle-class. We had health insurance. I got glasses and braces. My dad built our family home—the same home I now bring my children to visit as he enjoys his retirement, thanks to the union pension. Around the same time that we were experiencing those economic hardships in the late 1980s, NASA climate scientist James Hansen explained to Congress and the world that the heat-trapping gases emitted by the burning of fossil fuels were pushing global temperatures higher. Hansen's remarks marked the official opening of the age of climate change. The following school year, I learned about the greenhouse effect in science class. My mind was open to the possibility that human activity was changing the planet, and not in a good way. In the 34 years since Hansen's testimony, the scientific community has affirmed that climate change is a serious cause for concern.

Extreme weather events, including hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and droughts, have become more frequent, more intense, and longer in duration. Yet, annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow and were 44% higher in 2022 than they were in 1989. During that same period, private sector union density in the United States declined from 14% of workers in 1989 to just 6% in 2022. As a result, income inequality has soared as much as greenhouse gas emissions. With the top 1% of earners now taking home 16% of all income, the middle class share of income has plummeted. Some of the major causes of union decline include outsourcing of manufacturing, eroding employment in highly unionized industries, and rabid anti-unionism on the part of employers taking advantage of weak labor law protections for workers. Today, many of the remaining, good private sector union jobs are in the energy sector, often involving fossil fuels, while many of the new renewable energy and green economy jobs are not unionized and attempts to do so face an uphill battle against hostile employers. This has led many blue-collar unionized workers in the U.S. to adopt a “jobs versus the environment” perspective, fighting to save good jobs in fossil fuel related industries by resisting measures to decarbonize the economy.

As the son of a union carpenter and a former carpenter myself, but also, the father of three children growing up in a steadily warming world, I struggled with this dilemma. How can we ensure our kids and their generation can afford to make a living with good jobs and benefits like my father did, and also have a planet that will support that living? Grappling with this question led to my spending 10 years participating in the nascent labor climate movement as an activist and a researcher, and documenting those experiences and findings in my book, Clean Air and Good Jobs. The solution to this dilemma that was most commonly put forth by labor climate activists was a Just Transition. What is a Just Transition? How can we achieve one, and why do we even need one?

To address these questions and learn more about Just Transition, I'm bringing in the voices of three experts on the topic. Les Leopold is the director of The Labor Institute and author of The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi. Mijin Cha is assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Dimitris Stevis is professor of politics at Colorado State University, where he's also co-founder of the Center for Environmental Justice. Dimitris is author of Just Transitions: Promise and Contestation. For full disclosure, Mijin, Dimitris and I have collaborated on research reports previously, including the Just Transition Listening Project, which was conducted in partnership with the Labor Network for Sustainability, and which will inform much of today's conversation.

Let's start with Les. Hi, Les. Thanks for taking the time.

Les Leopold:

Thank you for having me.

Todd Vachon:

You literally wrote the book on Tony Mazzocchi, the person who is credited with coming up with this concept of Just Transition. Can you give us the backstory and some historical context for the origins of the concept?

Les Leopold:

Let me walk through what he had in mind and how it led to Just Transition. First of all, his mission in life was to build a radical, anti-corporate labor movement. That's what he was about starting in the late 1940s onward. The problem in doing that? He grew up in the labor movement during McCarthyism, the Korean War, and so on. He knew from the get-go that the workers he was trying to organize could either go right or left. That right-wing populism that we talk about right now was something he was concerned with right from the beginning.

His method, as it turned out, in the 1960s, he basically discovered that the workplace was an absolute mess. Out of his work, his educational work, his agitation grew the occupational safety and health movement. He thought that was the key to building a radical labor movement because he didn't think capitalism could solve that problem—that it was a contradiction that you could make work safer, but you couldn't make it safe enough to save these workers from having basically a dramatically shortened lifetime. That was the basic framework. He thought he had it made really, by the end of the 60s and early 70s, and he was very active with the environmental movement. Then he made another discovery. He realized that everything that the members of his union produced was toxic and would have to be eliminated. He also realized very early on. He was the first labor person to get involved in climate change, as far as I know. Held the first conference with labor people on climate change, brought Hansen in to talk to them.

He realized that that was going to add another dimension of making a lot of work expendable, something that had to go to save the planet and to save the lives of people in the community and the society in general. His line at that point was something like, "We lived for 5,000 years without plastics. We're going to have to do so again." That meant all the chemical workers that he was representing probably should lose their jobs. He was facing a critical problem, of course, because his base made all these toxics. He had a big, big problem. He had to figure out some way to relate to them, especially the nuclear weapons production workers. He represented them, atomic workers. He would talk to them. This was as the nuclear testing stopped and it looked like the Cold War was coming to an end. He talked to them and he said, "What are you going to do when peace breaks out? Demand more nuclear weapons? You can't do that."

He needed something for them. Then he made a conceptual leap that I don't know anybody else that would've dared make it. He basically said, "We’ve got to pay these people not to work." Again, his famous line was, "I realized that work was shit. That's why I became a labor bureaucrat." He said, "I've never met a labor person who got on staff that ever wanted to go back on the line. Once they're out, they don't want to go back." He took it even another step further. He said, "Look, I experienced the GI Bill of Rights at the end of World War II, and they paid us to go to school. I got a living wage.” He went to dental repair school for several years, got a living wage. The tuition was free. The government paid for that. It was actually higher than Harvard's, this rip-off school he went to.

Anyway, he was saying that, “I got paid. My job was to go to school.” He called this “redefined work.” He said to us, he said, "Look, what you do with The Labor Institute. You call it work, but how do you compare it to Dave Campbell's oil workers who go inside a very toxic facility every day? Management tells them what to do. Is that work? Is your work really work or is it just the only thing you have in common is you get paid for what you're doing? Your job is golden compared to theirs.” He said, "Why can't working people have that same experience?" If they've spent their lives working in a fossil fuel industry or a toxic industry, and now we're telling them they can no longer work there, why shouldn't they get the experience of getting paid to go to school or just getting paid in general for a period of time and not having to continually suffer? Certainly, not suffer for a decision that benefits the entire society. This is where this guy's head was at.

At first, we thought he was crazy. You can't pay people not to work. That's not right. No one will buy that. He just kept saying, "You guys are wrong. You don't get it. We’ve got to do something like that." Finally, actually, the person that turned us around was our colleague Mike Merrill from Rutgers, from LEARN, same program as Todd's, who said, "No, he's right. He's right." We started talking and the Superfund legislation had passed. We called the program “Superfund for Workers,” and it was something like four years, full-paying, benefits, plus free tuition. I, at least, got him to go down to four years. He wanted it forever. He agreed to four years. The first incident that could have made this really relevant was Ciba-Geigy in Toms River, New Jersey. Now, this is your example of what happens when you don't have a program.

That local was very active in occupational safety and health, was a big backer of the work Rick Engler was doing with the Work Environment Council in New Jersey. They were strong support progressive people. Then it became apparent that something was wrong in the community of Toms River and there were clusters of cancer. Kids were getting cancer. Greenpeace got involved, and they climbed the smokestack and did their thing, stopped up the effluent pipe that went out half-a-mile into the ocean and was polluting the beach. Mothers went on the march. What did the local do? Tony was not their representative at this point. He was not in office. What did they do? They did a counter march against the mothers.

I remember Mazzocchi said, "You’ve got to be crazy. You're going to march against mothers who are protecting their kids from cancer? How can you do this?" They didn't listen. The place was shut down. That local set up a political action committee to fight environmental regulations even after the local was shut down. I'm sure a ton of those people ended up being what we call the right-wing populace now, the Trump supporters. Tony's line at that point, he was trying to tell environmentalists, "If we don't do something for them, they're going to eat you for lunch." We tried to move this dialogue around the country through education, that's what we do.

We got a dialogue going at the AFL-CIO nationally, and it didn't go too well there. The mine workers pretty much shut it down. We did have some luck with the atomic workers though, because they were starting to do cleanup projects. Was it $50 billion was set aside, $70 billion for cleaning up the facilities? One worker, atomic worker, put up a sign, said, "Treat workers like dirt. Give us a Just Transition." We got some little fun. Something actually worked out there where they got the right to transfer to clean-up jobs, et cetera. Really, they didn't get a full Just Transition, but at least, the concept gave them a direction to go into.

Todd Vachon:

Wow. Such a rich history. I know that some of this work took place at our own Labor Education Center here at Rutgers University as well. We know that the concept of Just Transition originates from Tony Mazzocchi's work. It's also my understanding that you had something to do with the use of the words, the term Just Transition.

Les Leopold:

In 1995—this is my one claim to fame in all this— I was representing the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Mazzocchi was actually out of office. That was a great base to work from because you could invite in environmental groups for education and have a great dialogue. Anyway, they sent me to speak at the Great Lakes Conference. It's a treaty organization between the United States and Canada. It was in Duluth. I gave what we call “the speech.” It was the first time I ever made a public address while I was at The Labor Institute. Just before getting on the stage, there was another guy there named Brian Kohler from the Canadian Energy and Paper Workers, who used to be when that district was in the Oil, Chemical, Atomic Workers, he was a member of the Oil, Chemical, Atomic Workers, and now is their environmental health and safety coordinator.

We were talking back and forth. I showed him what I was going to talk about. We came together and we said, "You know? Superfund, terrible. Nobody likes that. Let's call it Just Transition." We both got up and gave our speech and used the word Just Transition for the first time. Now, Brian is the international Eveready Bunny for Just Transition. He moved it all over the world all by himself. He's the person that's responsible for moving it through the various labor movements in Europe and then getting it into the Paris Peace Accords and into the dialogue. If there's ever a Peace Prize given out for Just Transition internationally, he should get it.

Todd Vachon:

That's a great story and so interesting to be able to connect all the dots. I guess the last thing I wanted to ask you about was the relationship between environmental justice and Just Transition. We know that there's been a history of exclusion and hiring and also, by unions as well, in terms of workers of color and from different backgrounds not being able to access the good jobs in the fossil fuel sector. We also know the history of environmentalism in the United States has meant that a lot of the most polluting and toxic facilities are often sited in communities of color and low-income frontline communities. Within the U.S. context currently, the concept of Just Transition seems to be getting embraced more vigorously by environmental and climate justice activists than labor activists. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of that, about how the concept of Just Transition permeated from labor spaces into environmental justice spaces domestically within the U.S.?

Les Leopold:

Somebody told me, "You should not just be talking to the big Anglo environmental groups. How about talking to the environmental justice networks?" Dave Campbell and I went on a Maquiladoras trip with them, got to know them a little bit better, started doing joint education. They said, "Hey, you know what? What about the communities? We get you on the workers, but we're really interested in transition for the communities. We like that phrase." I was actually incredibly impressed that they liked that phrase. We started all kinds of conversations, summit meetings between labor leaders and environmental justice leaders. God only knows the various things. I literally can't remember anymore. Out of it came the Just Transition Alliance. Janice, José, others ran with that thing. From where I sit, it looks like they're the equivalent of Brian Kohler in moving it throughout the United States. Now, everybody and their uncle uses Just Transition, usually means 10 different things by it. I'm just hoping that we can keep the worker portion involved.

Here's my key takeaway. Please, let's not abandon the workers in environmentally sensitive industries. Because when we abandon them, we're just handing them over to right-wing populism. Mazzocchi, I think, was right— that they can go either way, if we do the education, if we do the grassroots organizing, and if we have a dialogue. If we write them off or come up with feel-good things, like it's going to be win-win for everybody, they won't have to do anything special for them and it's going to cost too much money. If we wanted to do a Just Transition that was fair, both to the environmentally sensitive workers and to communities, it can be done. The question is whether we have the will, whether we have the conceptual apparatus that Mazzocchi had to push and push and push until he changed the way the world thought.

Todd Vachon:

Thank you, Les, for putting this all into such great historical perspective for us.

Now, to get a better sense of why a Just Transition is so crucial at the current historical juncture, we're going to turn to Mijin Cha of UC Santa Cruz. Mijin has researched the topic extensively and is a co-author of the Just Transition Listening Project, which was a community-based research project conducted in partnership between the Labor Network for Sustainability, several community partner organizations, and four academic researchers. The project interviewed over 100 workers and community members who had faced, or currently facing, or anticipated facing some form of economic transition, to find out what their experiences had been and what it was or what they could use to make a transition more palatable and less painful for themselves, their family, and their communities.

Hi, Mijin. Thanks for joining us.

J. Mijin Cha:

Thank you, Todd.

Todd Vachon:

We have spoken before and even written together about the inevitability of transitions, that the only real constant is actually change. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

J. Mijin Cha:

I think what we want to point out is that transition in and of itself is not necessarily unjust. There's transitions all the time. Particularly as our economy evolves, we can expect and we should expect transitions. It's that our response to them is so inadequate that makes them unjust. The existence of transitions in and of themself is not the issue that causes us injustice, but our inability to both react to them but also, react in a way that protects workers and communities is what makes it unjust. We have these cycles of declining industries, like the textile industry, the manufacturing industry. We have had several industrial transitions, so that fossil fuel transitions is just the latest inevitable transition.

Again, there's nothing inherently wrong about transition. As our economies and our societies evolve, arguably, as we evolve away from fossil fuels so that we can protect our planet and have a future for humanity, fossil fuels will be the last transition of what is an inevitable transition. What can be done? What we want to think about is what can be done in transition while workers still have power.

Part of the issue that we heard, part of the problem was that there's really no notice period before things start to shut down. When things are shutting down, everybody then is negotiating from a position of precarity. They don't know what will happen in the future. They don't know what will happen with their jobs. They don't know what will happen with their community. When you negotiate from a place of fear, you're unable to think both broadly and widely. You can't think about, what do we need in five years? What do we need in 10 years. And what would be the best overall transition package? You're thinking, what's going to happen in six months when I lose my job? Where will I find this money? Where will I find my health insurance?

What we found is that when we think about the fossil fuel transition, we are just at the beginning of it. Really, now is the time when we should be thinking about transition plans so that workers and communities can have the maximum amount of power in these negotiations as we transition away from the fossil fuel sector.

Todd Vachon:

Good point.

J. Mijin Cha:

The other point is that we still don't know what we are transitioning into as we transition away from fossil fuels. The renewable energy future, as many of us know, there's a geographic disconnect. Where jobs are being lost in fossil fuel regions is not necessarily where renewable jobs are being created. We also know that renewable energy jobs have much lower rates of unionization and pay much less. Some of the fossil fuel workers that we were talking to—I think this is a really important point of that—that it's not that they're ideologically opposed, per se, to climate change. Of course, there are those that are, but we are asking them to leave a secure employment present for an unknown employment future.

Todd Vachon:

That's a really good point. Can you talk a little bit more about that tension and maybe bring it into historical context?

J. Mijin Cha:

What creates even more of this tension and uncertainty is that we have a history of unjust transitions. If we think about globalization, the past industrial transitions of globalization and deindustrialization, we were largely unable to support workers and communities. What that means is that workers were largely unable to be placed in jobs that paid similar wages with similar benefits. Communities really had no transition support. We saw this large swath of what they call “dead towns” across the Midwest, across the Northeast. As these industries left, those towns just died, figuratively and literally. We had some transition assistance programs like the Trade Adjustment Act, but they were not really robust enough to meet the demand of the problem. There was some transition support, and some workers were helped, and some communities were helped, but it was never able to meet the scale of the demand.

The other thing that we found was that work closures are more than just your loss of job, that it actually leads to the social fabric disintegration. A loss of identity amongst workers. Workers had become tied, the work is their identity. Because there was so much despair that it actually led to waves of suicide amongst workers. The feeling that they are really treated as though they're disposable, especially in the cases where they just had bit-by-bit shutdowns. They really felt like, “We are just disposable. Nobody really cares about us and nobody is really helping us.” We talk a lot about unemployment, unemployment benefits, and what happens in the absence of work. We talk much less about what happens to the social fabric disintegration when these plants and industries start to shut down.

Todd Vachon:

We've had all these unjust transitions historically, in auto and paper and steel. The defining issue of our time today is climate change. It will have obvious ramifications for fossil fuel workers. I often note that the number of coal mining jobs has declined precipitously in recent decades, due largely to technological changes, efficiency improvements, and market forces, like the rise of cheaper natural gas. Who are the types of workers we should be looking at when considering the energy transition, and to what should they be transitioning?

J. Mijin Cha:

Something that we also heard was that there's a lot of attention on fossil fuel workers. How do we transition coal miners? How do we transition oil and gas workers? We don't talk as much about people who were excluded from these industries in the first place due to histories of racism and sexism. If we focus just on the fossil fuel workers, we actually are not having a Just Transition because there is a whole slew of workers that were excluded from this economic activity in the first place.

Then what we think about what skills are transferable. We want to get away from thinking prescriptively about “fossil fuel workers need to then transition into clean energy jobs,” or things like “coal miners have to become coders.” These are ridiculous statements that don't really resonate with workers. Instead, we should really think about place-based quality job creation so that people can choose what industry they want to transition into and be less prescriptive about, “Now, you have to install solar, even though used to be an oil refinery worker”.

Then, of course, COVID exposed the depths of how inadequate our safety net is. This is extremely important now as we think about transitioning away from fossil fuels. We often hear about the rural region in Germany, which also transitioned away from coal mining and still manufacturing, but the safety net in Germany is on a whole different level than safety net here in the U.S. Even if they lose a generation of workers, which they did, they did not have nearly the depth of despair that happens here to workers because we just don't have adequate unemployment supports. We don't have adequate relocation support. We could go on and on about how terrible our social fabric and safety net is in the U.S.

Todd Vachon:

The social safety net is definitely weaker here in the U.S. relative to other rich countries. That seems like it would have to play a big piece of making a transition more just. In my own research, I found that the pervasiveness of neoliberalism, really the belief that the government should play little to no role in the economy, has tampered the demands by many workers and many unions for expanding these sorts of benefits. Or really even of thinking of unions as vehicles for broader social change beyond just bread and butter issues for their members. Any thoughts on this or insight that you can offer from your research?

J. Mijin Cha:

This is somewhat generational. What we heard from younger workers is that they don't just care about work, they care about climate change. They care about student debt. They care about a lot of things beyond just work, which is an evolution about how labor unions have traditionally been in the U.S. They don't see their identity just as a union worker anymore, especially if they're workers of color. When there's racial unrest, they really deeply feel the racial unrest. Their concerns are not just economic, they're not just labor. Seeing workers as a whole, as more than just their job, helps really more fully express this.

Todd Vachon:

To build upon this idea of “whole worker” and get a better sense of what a Just Transition could entail, we're going to bring in another co-author of the Just Transition Listening Project, Dimitris Stevis.

Dimitris Stevis:

Hi, Todd.

Todd Vachon:

Hi, Dimitris. In my own research, I've found Just Transition to be very difficult to define, in part because it is used so differently by so many different people. As you know, I've identified three distinct but nested frames, which I refer to as protective, proactive, and transformative. You've done some classification work of your own on the different dimensions of transition. Could you speak a little bit about that—about the scale, scope and ambition of Just Transition?

Dimitris Stevis:

Something doesn't have to be called a Just Transition to be a Just Transition. It could be integrated into the existing policies, into other policies. Certainly, that's more apparent in social welfare in European countries. Even in some instances in the United States where, in fact, transitions do include justice and pretty rigorous justice provisions. Finally, there can be implicit Just Transitions, much weaker, but re-figuring, showing us the direction towards a more complete Just Transition. In terms of scale, we think about space and time. One of the things that became very apparent is that people did recognize that you need to think about Just Transitions across value chains, not just your small worlds. Not everybody did, but many people did. We have to ask the question of whether the Just Transition policy is limited to an economic unit or a small political jurisdiction versus the whole country. Whether it's only limited to a part of the production network, maybe the production of energy, but not the transportation of energy. Those are very practical things.

How far into the past does it reach? As I said, it was very important for indigenous people, but for others too. What do you clean? How long in the past do you go to attribute responsibility? How far into the future do you reach? Are you going to say that we're going to shut down certain plants, we're going do certain things for five or 10 years and not worry about actually ensuring that the transitional policies do, in fact, deal with the impact of the transition? We have to ask the question, do we just deal with industries that are sun-setting? What about the industries that are emerging, medical renewables? What about transitions within existing industries? They're not going anywhere. Health, we talked to so many health workers. Or transportation. We have to ask the question of whether Just Transition policies are for some workers, perhaps leaving out contract workers or women or people of color.

Same thing with communities, perhaps affecting and benefiting certain people. Some are more affluent, but not the poor. One of the things that, at least to me, and I believe to all of us became apparent, is that we have to pay attention not only to sectoral transitions, but also, demographic and social transitions. Whether they have to do with the emancipation of people of color or women or immigrants, those are very, very important transitions. I think we think that somehow our focus on conventional sectors can obscure the fact that those transitions, those social and demographic transitions, are equally important. We could see them everywhere. We could see them when women would tell us, women workers, how they were affected by the pandemic. They were the ones that stayed at home to take care of children. That has had an impact on them. It's affecting their transition towards emancipation.

From that, we try to derive some sense of the ambition of the visions that people told us, which means, how deeply the Just Transition policy aims to address the causes of unjust transitions. To make it short, an important lesson that we learn is that all people gravitated towards ambitious policy interventions when talking about solutions to their problems and those of their loved ones. I want to underscore that. Really ambitious. Calls for the government to step in and take care of pensions, to take care of healthcare, to take care of education. Those things cannot take place without rethinking of the social welfare state and the social welfare network. However, these preferences are not always combined into a more comprehensive vision. There was a certain degree of large particularism and some problems in terms of putting all those individual desires and demands together. However, a whole bunch of people did, in fact, have a much more comprehensive vision.

Todd Vachon:

I want to think about this idea of a broader vision for a moment and bringing together all of these individual pieces to build a transition that's actually more transformative in nature. Something that's not only addressing the immediate concerns in one locality for one group of people. Something that's a little bit more broad and is encompassing and addressing some of the structural features of our current economy and society to better prepare the future history of humanity for the other inevitable transitions that are coming down the pike.

Mijin, do you have any thoughts or anything you'd like to add on this?

J. Mijin Cha:

The Just Transition is more than just what happens to your job. It's about, what do we think about this relationship to extraction? Not just extraction of resources, but extraction of labor, extraction of wealth, extraction of people through incarceration. As we transition away from extraction, we need to think about regeneration, and that includes relationship to land. It includes things like more just provisions, more just society. When we think about the problem, the problem is not just about the loss of work, but really as we think about moving from extraction to something else, what is that something else that we are moving towards?

Todd Vachon:

What we're talking about here is not merely an expansion of the social welfare state and the provision of benefits to workers. We're thinking more about transitioning society as a whole to a more sustainable and equitable future. It seems to me, based on what I've heard so far, that welfare state provisions do have to play some piece in that. Is that right?

Dimitris Stevis:

On one hand, one can see that very explicitly as part of a dramatic transformation. On the other hand, one can see that as a practical expansion of the social welfare state. The original proposal for Just Transition in the 1990s, which talks about retraining, a slide path to retirement and so on, the idea was that the Just Transition Fund would be part of the social welfare state. It would be something like the Superfund, like Social Security. They say, "Well, that seems quite limited." If one steps back and says, what if we did have a Just Transition Fund that was funded in a public way—whether through taxes, through contribution by corporations—but it was there, it was part of the bargain that we have in the United States to take care of workers over a period of four, five, six years in every transition? That, in itself, although it might sound limited, would be a dramatic transformation.

Clearly, the people who are opposed to the public sphere recognize that. We see that in the opposition to Medicare For All and everything that has to do with public welfare. But if you can say, “Here we have an egalitarian social ecological state, we have reached Shangri-La, whatever you want to call it, and Just Transition is part of it,” or you can say, “Just Transition Fund is adopted, it's like Social Security,” that would be a major transformation. That would not be a small transformation. On the other hand, if you have little Just Transition policies taking care of particular plants or particular cities or particular sectors, then that really doesn't get as far.

Todd Vachon:

Going beyond what a Just Transition might entail, I would like to hear a little bit about your thoughts on how palatable it is to the folks that would actually benefit the most from having a Just Transition. What is the view and the opinion of an idea of a Just Transition among the working class in the fossil fuel sector, for example?

Mijin?

J. Mijin Cha:

On another research project that I did, we talked to some folks in Appalachia about this idea of Just Transition. One of our interviewees was like, "You people are ridiculous if you think that you can come into a state like Kentucky and say ‘Just Transition” and expect people to know that you mean family-sustaining wages, low carbon." He's like, "Transition to what? Everyone goes through a transition. You go through a divorce, it's a transition. Then how could you possibly mean that? What do we mean by “just?’”

I think what it was in relation to, it was not an opposition to the energy transition, but the idea that you could replace organizing and community engagement with some terminology and expect to then build a movement is what he thought was ridiculous. I think that's the point, is that we can't just say Just Transition and then expect everyone to get on board.

All of our successful examples, I don't even know if they actually necessarily use that term. The idea that we are facing this transition, something is going to close or something will go away, and we want to envision a future for our community—that is something that you can then organize around and then you then build a shared vision that you can then advance. I think there is no term that can be a shortcut for that. We have come to use Just Transition in academia, amongst advocates, amongst policymakers. I think that's fine. The idea that you could substitute terminology for organizing, I think, is what we have some resistance to.

The last point that I'll make is, because as you see Just Transition becoming mainstream, you see a lot of what I would consider to be neoliberal approaches that are saying “just, equitable, and fair,” “just and equitable.” Arguably, if that transition is just, it is also equitable and fair. You can't make it more palatable if you use more terms, if you don't do the organizing to build the support for the idea in the first place.

Todd Vachon:

Now you're talking my language. I think both of you know how much I believe organizing to be the most powerful and effective means by which to achieve positive social change. The same is true with trying to achieve a Just Transition to a more sustainable and democratic and equitable future. Clearly, there's much more work to be done on that front, both in terms of ensuring that we're looking out for the displaced workers in the fossil fuel industry as we decarbonize the economy, also addressing the historical injustices along the lines of race and gender in terms of employment in the new green economy, as well as the past harms done due to environmental racism.

I'd like to thank Dimitris Stevis and Mijin Cha for joining me, as well as Les Leopold earlier, to give us a history of Just Transition, why it's so important that we have a discussion around what a Just Transition is and why it's so vitally important that we bring the workers and communities into the fold together to discuss what their needs really are to shape the policy moving forward. That brings us to a close of this episode of A Third of Your Life. From the School of Management and Labor Relations, I'm Todd Vachon.

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.


Episode 6: All Work and Low Pay 

A new report by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work reveals many of New Jersey’s Latina immigrants are struggling with low wages, non-existent benefits, no childcare, and no time off. Lead author Glenda Gracia-Rivera shares gripping stories and reveals how the Hispanic Women’s Resource Centers are helping.

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Transcript for Episode 6

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Sometimes you want to just go out to dinner, or sit in a restaurant, and even just have an ice cream cone, but you can't because you don't have any money for that.

Steve Flamisch:

Scraping by. A Rutgers report shows what life is really like for many of New Jersey's Latina immigrants. 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:

New Jersey is a progressive leader in so many areas, but we rank near the bottom on pay equity for Latina women. Now, Rutgers researchers are going beyond the numbers and revealing the many complex challenges facing some of the state's lowest paid workers. Welcome to A Third of Your Life. I'm Steve Flamisch, joined by Glenda Gracia-Rivera, Director of Professional Development and Training at the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. Glenda, welcome to the show.

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Hi Steve. Thank you for having me.

Steve Flamisch:

You are the lead author on this new report. You teamed up with Debra Lancaster and Maria Robles to examine the economic and employment conditions of Latina immigrants in New Jersey. Where did you get the idea for this research?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

So Steve, we really got the idea from a conversation that began about a year and a half ago with the Latino Action Network Foundation. We were in discussions about the stark pay gap between Latinas and non-Hispanic white men in the State of New Jersey, seeing as how New Jersey ranks almost dead last in the country. The Foundation operates four Hispanic Women's Resource Centers throughout the State of New Jersey, and those centers offer very crucial services to many Latinas, predominantly immigrants, in the state. So we wanted to really take a look at how do we talk to these women to examine some of the barriers that they're experiencing, and then in turn, start thinking about what are some strategies moving forward? How do we think about putting in place some mechanisms that will help close that pay gap?

Steve Flamisch:

You and your colleagues convened focus groups with 69 clients at these Hispanic Women's Resource Centers. The vast majority of the women you interviewed are not second- or third-generation Latinas. They are immigrants who came here from places like Mexico and Venezuela and Ecuador, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. And they told you what their lives are like here in New Jersey. On an emotional level, what did it feel like to you to hear these stories?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Oh, wow. So we had eight focus groups and in every single focus group there were tears. There was a lot of emotion. There was lots of stories about some of the conditions they were escaping in their home countries. So it was for me personally, right, I think about my mom's experience. So that hit close to home. Our colleague is also here from another country, so close to home for her. So we were all emotionally invested in hearing their stories and being able to give them a voice. A lot of them were happy to have the opportunity to just even talk about their experience and tell us a little bit about what their barriers are, what some of the hardships are, because they did know that we were going to synthesize this into a report that was going to hopefully put forth some policy recommendations. So the emotions were high and that's definitely for us as Latinas ourselves, two of us on the project, it was something that hit close to home.

Steve Flamisch:

In the report, you discuss the many barriers to employment. These women have limited professional networks in the U.S. and about half of them rely on family and friends for job leads. What are some of the specific challenges they face when trying to find work?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

So first and foremost, coming here from a foreign country and not speaking the language is a huge barrier. So a lot of them expressed their frustration about not being able to speak English. That was the main thing that we heard from a lot of them. So a lot of them were actually accessing services, ESL classes, at these Hispanic Women's Resource Centers because that was initially one of their most imminent needs were they were here. They wanted to work so they had to learn the language.

Another one that was really high up was childcare because so many of them had school-age or preschool-age children. Childcare was an issue. So the lack of access to childcare meant that they had limited hours available to work a full-time job. So they were then sometimes forced to look for part-time jobs that were evening or weekend hours so that they could contribute a little bit to the household. They didn't have anyone to care for their children during the day or pick them up from school or drop them off, right? You're working a regular 9:00 to 5:00 job, really hard. You might be able to pick up your child but not drop them off or vice versa, right? So that was a struggle, even some of them talked about passing off responsibilities, trying to coordinate schedules with their spouses or other family members. So the childcare thing was really big also.

And then we heard other things. Obviously, for some of them, the fact that they were undocumented—so their immigration status—was a barrier. They felt like they could only access certain jobs because they had "no papers." Transportation was another big one. And outright discrimination. A lot of them did talk to us about stories of specific discriminatory practices or things that were said to them in interviews, or ways that they were treated by employers, because of whether it was the language barrier or the race ethnicity thing. So those were the main barriers that we discovered in talking to them.

Steve Flamisch:

Glenda, you made a great point in a TV interview after the report came out. You said these women are not looking for a handout. They want to work.

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Yeah. I feel like that is one of the things that really popped out at me, again. All of them, when we talked about aspirations, they wanted to get a steady job, they wanted to further their education, buy a house. Some of them talked about wanting to open up a business. So really they wanted to participate in the workforce, and they just want to be treated fairly and paid fairly for the work that they are doing. So it's not a handout, it's doing really hard labor, doing incredibly difficult work in some circumstances, and just wanting to be treated like a human being, right? Some of them talked about feeling invisible, feeling like they don't exist, lots of just poignant stories about that. So it wasn't about wanting to have something handed to them, it was about, "No, we want to work for it. We want to participate in this economy. We just want to be treated well."

Steve Flamisch:

So what happens when Latina immigrants do find work? What kinds of jobs do they get in New Jersey?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

So a lot of them were working in sectors where, especially if you think about the English proficiency issue, a lot of them were working in fields in which they necessarily didn't have to speak a lot of English to be able to get the job done, which is why we saw such a great representation of them in the cleaning and maintenance industry, right? You have to have just a very basic understanding of, what is it that you want done? And they can just go about their business cleaning. Restaurant, service work too. So you think about bussing tables, just bringing out food, cleaning dishes in the back, those types of things. Again, don't really need a whole lot of English for those types of jobs. So that's where we saw a lot of them.

And then there was also a lot of them participating in care work. A lot of them were either home health aides, or we saw a few of them who were working in childcare centers, preschools, and things of that nature, some nursing homes. So that's where we really saw them. There were a handful of them who were also doing factory work. So again, if you think about the types of jobs that they could access, if you're doing some line work in a factory, right, you're on a production line, you can learn a couple basic phrases or things, and you could do your job without having to have a mastery of the language. So they are really pretty much relegated to a lot of those low-wage jobs.

Steve Flamisch:

With so many Latinas working in low-wage jobs, I guess it's no wonder we have such an enormous pay gap. New Jersey ranks near the bottom on pay equity for Latinas, 49th of the 50 states, with only California faring worse. Latinas in New Jersey earn, on average, 45 cents for every dollar a non-Hispanic white man earns, scraping by on just $27,000 to $30,000 per year. Part-time and seasonal workers earn even less. What about the women in your focus groups, Glenda? What did they tell you about their financial situation?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

So most of them were barely making it to cover their basic expenses. They were having trouble in most instances making ends meet, and they talked about living in dwellings where there were multiple people in the household. They talked about having to use credit cards to cover some expenses. Very few of them—I want to say it was probably only four of them—who really talked about having time for leisure activities. We did talk to them, what do you on your free time? There was no free time, right? They were either caring for children or trying to work, and so I think only two of them said they had extra money for leisure activities.

So when you think about, out of 69 people, only two of them had money to spend on themselves or for leisure activities, it feels really dehumanizing. One woman in particular talked to us about, sometimes you want to just go out to dinner, or sit in a restaurant, and even just have an ice cream cone, but you can't because you don't have any money for that. How much is an ice cream cone? That one hit me particularly hard, right? So you think about, "Wow, you can't even afford a $3, $4 ice cream cone?" Again, so dehumanizing. And those things really stuck with me.

Steve Flamisch:

And low wages are just part of the problem. I see in the report, very few of the women, just 7%, have paid time off to care for themselves or a loved one. Most of them were unaware of New Jersey's earned sick leave and paid family leave laws. So what do they do when they get sick?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

They still go to work, right? And that wasn't surprising to us. Our center has been doing work on paid leave for a very long time, and we've been hearing these conversations from lots of populations of people, but predominantly when you think about our immigrant groups, it's even more compounded because there are less legal protections. They are less likely to speak up around some of these issues. So it was no surprise to us that they weren't aware of some of those laws in place to protect some of their rights, but they didn't know.

Steve Flamisch:

One of the findings that struck me in the report is that women who are scraping by—83% earn just enough money for basic expenses—are still stretching themselves even thinner by sending money to struggling family members.

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Yeah, that one really got me also, just thinking about, you're barely able to pay your own bills and you don't have any leisure, any money for leisure on your own. You may have to cover some of your costs with credit cards, and yet here you are still making the effort and making it a priority that some of that money goes home to help the family members who are still in your home country. Some of them were also helping family members here as well. It's a sense of duty for them, right? They feel like it's an expectation. It's a given, and that's how many of them talked about it. "Yeah, my mom's there." Some of them had children who were still in their home countries, and it was like, "Duh, what else are we supposed to do?"

So even though we here are facing really difficult circumstances, they have it worse, right? And so it's my expectation or it's my duty to be able to send them some money because I'm the one who's here, right? And it's like, I'm the one who made it out, so I have to give back, right? There were even two or three of them who were donating to small community funds or types like foundation types. So that was also, again, another feeling like I have to give back. I was able to make it here and even though I'm struggling here, I left a really tough situation and they are still there, so I have to do something for them.

Steve Flamisch:

You have a section in the report about dreams and aspirations. Twenty-nine percent of the women in the focus groups say learning English is their number one goal, and that's why many of them have enrolled in ESL classes at their Hispanic Women's Resource Center. What else did the women tell you they would like to do?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

This was our favorite question, and I will just give a shout-out to my colleague, Deb Lancaster, because we were talking about which of the questions we would cut, and I was like, "Okay, if we don't have enough time, we'll cut that question," and she pushed back. And I'm so glad that she did, and that we didn't, because it was like it really let us close out with a really aspirational, forward-looking view of things. One of the things that really stuck out to all of us was, even though they are having such a hard time making ends meet, and there were really tough situations and hardships that they were experiencing, so many of the women were very hopeful also. There was still so much hope and gratitude, right? Those are the two words that come to mind in thinking about, but we're here and we have an opportunity and we want to just build and grow here, right? I mentioned it before, we want to participate in this economy. We want to work and we have the opportunity to do that.

And so there was this feeling of, even though it's hard, we have hope that it's going to get better and we're going to work for it to get better. So a lot of them really, so many more of them wanted to start their own companies. There was a lot of talk about entrepreneurship, and so they wanted to see if the centers talked about, could we get some classes in starting our own company? So that was some of their dreams and aspirations in starting their own companies, furthering their education, right? A lot of them just wanted to get a steady full-time job here that was going to help them provide for their families. A lot of them, an overwhelming majority of them, especially those who had children, just talked about wanting their children to have an opportunity to become professionals, to go to school, to study and work in better jobs than they had to work. So it really was just like, "We want to do better for them." That was a lot of what we saw.

Steve Flamisch:

The Hispanic Women's Resource Centers are working to help Latinas achieve their goals. The Latino Action Network Foundation supports four centers across the state: the Community Affairs and Resource Center based in Asbury Park, the Hispanic Family Center of Southern New Jersey in Camden, the Morris County Organization for Hispanic Affairs in Dover, and La Casa de Don Pedro in Newark. The funding for these four centers comes through the New Jersey Department of Children and Families’ Division on Women, as well as other public and private sources. What kinds of services do these centers provide?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Oh my gosh, it's like soup to nuts. It does vary based on which center we're talking about, but when you think about just some of the basic things, they were offering English classes. They offer lots of employment services such as referrals, specific job training in certain areas. Some of them would help with resume writing, interview skills—there were a lot of them who talked about how much it helped them with interviewing, particularly in English, right? That's really nerve wracking. It's hard enough to go on an interview, but then you have to go on an interview and speak a language that you're not necessarily comfortable with. So they talked about those things. They talked about being able to get computer classes.

They also, even just things as simple as translating letters that they got from their school. So if they got letters sent home from their children's school and they couldn't understand what it was, the centers would help them translate, help them respond to the letters, or address some of the concerns. So that's translation services. There has been an uptick in counseling and therapy services. A lot of them do energy assistance. Some of them even do driving lessons or help them pay for driving lessons. Domestic violence services was also a pretty... I feel like that may be a cornerstone of how some of the services that the centers were offering early on when they first started out in the late 80s, early 90s, yeah, soup to nuts. Nutrition services, they would go get food bank things and they could get referrals to medical services, just a little bit of everything.

Steve Flamisch:

They've seen a massive spike in demand in recent years, jumping from 209 clients in 2016-17 to 3,309 clients served in 2020-21. In the report, you recommend that New Jersey expand its support by establishing new centers in places like Passaic County; increasing funding to the existing centers, enabling them to add housing, immigration and legal services; and empowering the centers to provide mental health services to clients, many of whom come to New Jersey with trauma histories made worse by the economic and employment challenges we've been discussing. What do you think it would mean for Latinas in New Jersey if the state followed those recommendations and provided more support for the Hispanic Women's Resource Centers?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Yeah, I think it would mean a huge boon for the state. Latinos are one of the largest economic contributors to the State of New Jersey. They're opening their own businesses up at exponential rates, right? So really thinking about expanding some of these services. If these women were able to become more self-sufficient, if they're able to really provide for their families, if they're able to access childcare services and really get into full-time, well-paid jobs, we really think about what is that going to mean for New Jersey? That means New Jersey's going to be that much better off because they are such huge contributors to the economy.

Steve Flamisch:

In the end, Glenda, what is the biggest takeaway from your report? More than anything, what do you want people to know about Latina immigrants in New Jersey?

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

I think I'm going to go back to, they just want to provide for their families. They want to be able to, right, take a sick day off, not have to worry every waking minute about how they're going to cover their expenses, pay all of their bills. We tend to look at immigrants as an “other,” right? And we all really just want the same things. We all want to be able to provide a better life for our children and our families. We want to work in a place that we're respected and that we are being paid fairly for... Take a sick day if we're sick, not have to go stay home with our sick kids, not have to send them to school. So that to me is the biggest takeaway.

Steve Flamisch:

The report is titled Una Mano Amiga en Este País: A Helping Hand in This Country by Glenda Gracia-Rivera, Debra Lancaster, and Maria Robles of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. You can find it on our website, smlr.rutgers.edu. That's smlr.rutgers.edu. Click on "News" at the top of the homepage. Glenda, thank you for your important work on this and for being on the show.

Glenda Gracia-Rivera:

Thanks so much, Steve. It was my pleasure.

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.


Episode 5: A Tower of Strength 

Nannie Helen Burroughs was a visionary Black educator, labor leader, and suffragist who founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909. Danielle Phillips-Cunningham, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, wants to make her a household name.

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Transcript for Episode 5

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

There's a lot that I've learned about her over the years and I've just been really determined to write her history ever since. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Nannie Helen Burroughs is one of the most influential Black women in the history of the U.S. labor movement, yet too many people have never heard her name. Meet the Rutgers professor who's working to change that. 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: 

She built a national school to establish new career pathways for Black women and girls, created the first labor organization for Black women, fought for voting rights, and even found time to write plays. Nannie Helen Burroughs should be a household name, and one Rutgers professor is trying to make that a reality. Welcome to A Third of Your Life. I'm Steve Flamisch, and I'm joined by Danielle Phillips-Cunningham, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and author of the upcoming book, Tower of Strength in the Labor World: Nannie Helen Burroughs and Her National Training School for Women and Girls. Danielle, thank you for being on the show. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Well, thank you for inviting me, Steve. It's a pleasure to be here. 

Steve Flamisch: 

How did you become interested in researching Black history and labor history, and when did you first come across the name, Nannie Helen Burroughs? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah, that's a really good question. I first began developing an interest in Black history as a student at Spelman College. Spelman College is a Historically Black College for women in Atlanta, Georgia, and so that experience was really, really life-changing for me because we learned about Black history and all the aspects of—of course, Black history is U.S. history—so all the aspects of U.S. history that we didn't learn in high school or in middle school. And so I was so interested to know about all these things that especially Black women had accomplished about their groundbreaking work and how relevant their scholarship, their theories, and their activism was to social, political, and economic issues that still impact our everyday lives. 

My interest in Black history also stemmed from growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, a city where Black history just surrounds you. As many people know, it's the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., so there's the King Center there, and there are many Black people in key political positions, and so that history is just all around you. I also had family in Detroit, Michigan and went there for the summers, so a lot of Black history up there as well. So I just grew up with an appreciation for Black history, and Spelman College shaped my interests, particularly in Black women's history. 

I first came across Nannie Helen Burroughs's name when I was conducting research for my first book entitled, Putting Their Hands on Race: Irish Immigrant and Southern Black Domestic Workers. And so while conducting research about the activism of particularly African American domestic workers and how they fought for better working conditions, I came across this organization called the National Association of Wage Earners, and that really sparked my interest in learning more about the organization because it was the first Black women's labor organization of the early 20th century. 

And so I noticed that the records were at the Library of Congress, and when I went to the Library of Congress, I noticed that those records were in the Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers. And I said, "Who is this person named Nannie Helen Burroughs?” I had never heard of her before. And so once I started researching her papers, not only the National Association of Wage Earners but everything in her collection, I said, "Wow. I have to write about this phenomenal, audacious visionary." So her papers are primarily located at the Library of Congress. It contains over 10,000 files, so there's a lot that I've learned about her over the years and I've just been really determined to write her history ever since. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Let's talk about her remarkable life. Burroughs was born in Virginia in 1879. Her parents were former slaves, and she grew up in the Jim Crow South. What was it like for Black girls and Black women at that time in American history? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah, another good question. It was very challenging. In many ways, Black women, in terms of labor, were excluded from many occupations because of their race and their gender. Most Black women had to work as domestic workers in the homes, in the private homes of white families, and the only other job that they could get was sharecropping and mostly sharecropping in the Jim Crow South. So their occupational options were very limited at the time. And for Black women who were fortunate enough to get a quality education, [they] mostly worked as teachers, so even other jobs were foreclosed to them. Even Black women who wanted to leave domestic work and wanted more defined work hours were excluded from jobs and factories, as stenographers, for many government jobs at the time, so things were really hard. Black women also, and girls also, dealt with Jim Crow, or what Pauli Murray referred to as Jane Crow, which is racial and gender violence and discrimination at the time. 

At the same time, there were these enclaves of Black communities where Black women and girls also flourished. So around five years old, Nannie Helen Burroughs' mother left Virginia and took Nannie and her younger sister, Maggie, to live in Washington DC. And so Washington DC has this long history ever since pre-Reconstruction of Black social, political, and economic advancement in the nation's capital. So they had developed and established their own schools and banks and stores and organizations. And so her mother, in the book, I write about how her mother saw a future for herself and for her children, and she did what many Black women did at the time, which was to migrate to larger cities, whether they were moving from small rural towns in the South to larger cities in the South such as Atlanta and Birmingham, Dallas, Texas, and so some women also moved up North. And so Nannie Helen Burroughs's mother was a part of that migration. 

And while in Washington DC, Burroughs had access to a lot of Black institutions that helped mold her. Most notably, she was enrolled in a school called M Street School, which later became known as the Dunbar High School, named after Paul Laurence Dunbar. But M Street School was one of the most prestigious schools for Black children at the time in the country. It was actually the first public school for Black children in the country. And she was taught by many people who are recognized today as great leaders, such as Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper. They were both leaders in the civil rights movement as well as the women's rights movement. So she was really surrounded by a lot of Black activism and Black institutions and Black leadership that helped mold her into the leader that she eventually became. 

Steve Flamisch: 

She wanted to become a public school teacher herself, but she was turned down for a job in Washington, so she decided to start her own school. And in 1909, at the age of 30, she established the National Training School for Women and Girls. How did she do it? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah, that's a very good question as well because her pathway was not straightforward, as you mentioned. She graduated from M Street School with honors, the highest honors in her program. She studied business and domestic science and graduated at the top of her class. She wanted to, as she said, draw a good salary, a comfortable salary so that she could take care of her mother, who labored as a domestic worker, and so that she could just live comfortably and take care of her family. But someone rejected her for the domestic science teacher position, and Burroughs attributed that to her skin complexion and to colorism within the elite Black community of Washington DC at the time. She also came from a working class background, and so she attributed her being unable to get a job at that time to also her working class background. 

She applied for a teaching job at Tuskegee, what is now known as Tuskegee University, and Booker T. Washington was the president of the school at the time, and he also denied her a job. And she attributed that to her working class background and operating outside of a lot of the elite Black circles at the time. 

A pastor at 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington DC put in a good word for her at The Christian Banner, which was a newspaper run by a Baptist church organization in Philadelphia. So she went there and worked as an editor for the magazine, and then the organization moved to Kentucky. She moved to Kentucky with the organization, the Baptist organization, and she actually opened a prototype for the school that you just mentioned that she opened in 1909. This school she opened in the early 1900s, and it was known as the Women's Industrial Club, and she started teaching local women business courses as well as courses in domestic science and millinery. And so then, she decided that this was just a smaller version of what she really wanted to do, which was to create a school that forged these new pathways for Black women and girls that were foreclosed to them and to create opportunities such that they wouldn't have to deal with the same hardships, the same discrimination that she experienced. It was a challenge to get there. 

She was a part of the National Baptist Convention, which was the largest Black group of churches, of Baptist churches. And the men who were in the key decision-making positions of the National Baptist Convention were against her starting the school for women and girls. They thought that women and girls should not learn different trades, that they should only be interested in learning the art of homemaking and becoming wives. So Burroughs' vision for this school went against all of these patriarchal, sexist notions of what women and girls were expected to do, but she kept forging ahead. 

She created a network of Black women who supported her vision, who fundraised the money to start the school. It took a lot of money to build the school, especially in DC, but there was a core group of women in the National Baptist Convention who traveled across the U.S. The biggest fundraising event took place in Los Angeles, California. And she was able, by 1907, to purchase the land, and then in 1909, to build the school. And so she and those women, who became teachers at the school, literally cultivated the land with their own hands because this was a rugged piece of land that many people did not want. And so they laid concrete, they uprooted trees. They literally cleared the land for the school. 

And so in 1909, she opened the school with five students and eight teachers. The students were from all over. There was one student from Haiti, one student from South Africa, and the other students were from the U.S. South. And within two years, she had 108 students at her school. 

Steve Flamisch: 

How big was the school? How many buildings were located on that site? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah. Over time, by the 1920s, there were over eight buildings at the school. And the school first started in a really unstable, physically unstable farmhouse, eight-room farmhouse, and she grew the school into eight buildings. And so she actually lived on the school's campus, which I think speaks to her dedication to the school and how much she invested in the school. I think it's important to mention that she did not draw a salary for the first 30 years that the school was open because she did not get any support from the National Baptist Convention. And the money that she was able to raise with who I call her organizers, or Black women who really supported her vision, all of that money went back into the school. 

So by the 1920s, there was a building. There were several dormitories. There was a couple of buildings for the classrooms. 

She started her own printing department, and she actually started her own newspaper on the school's campus, and the name of the newspaper was called The Worker. And I think that speaks to how much she really was determined to change the working and living conditions of Black women and girls at the time. She started it in 1911. I found the subscriptions to The Worker at the Library of Congress, and I counted the subscriptions. So within a year, she had over 500 subscribers and across the country. These were people who subscribed to the newspaper in small towns, towns I've never heard of before, to huge towns like cities, Los Angeles. There were also subscribers to the paper in Cuba and in Haiti. She wrote a lot of articles about the particular labor injustices and racial injustices that Black workers were facing at the time, and she used that newspaper to inspire activism and organizing around those issues. 

The printing department and the laundry department—she also had a laundry building on the campus—they served multiple purposes. So many of the students who attended her school were working class, like she was as a student, and many of them could not afford tuition. So they worked their way through school and they worked in the printing department, they worked in the laundry department, for example, and they earned money for their tuition, but they also gained practical hands-on experience and learning these trades that actually many Black women had been barred from. And so yeah, it was a fascinating campus and it was huge by the 1920s. 

Steve Flamisch: 

You've written that Burroughs built the National Training School as a laboratory. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yes. 

Steve Flamisch: 

She wanted to improve the working conditions of Black domestic workers like her mom, but she also wanted to open new career pathways for Black women and Black girls. So how did she incorporate those desired outcomes into the curriculum and how did that go over? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah, that's a good segue question because I'll pick up where I left off in terms of the printing department. It was unheard of for not only Black women to work in printing departments but to actually own print shops. And so it was her vision—and she was a writer, which you mentioned earlier—and she really wanted Black women and girls to be able to own their own publishing houses as well as print shops. And so she infused that into the curriculum by creating work opportunities for students to work in that department. 

She also wanted students to have access to government jobs, and so she created stenography courses, Black history courses as well. She was big on racial pride and students having a firm sense of themselves and their history. So even as she created domestic science courses to help improve Black women's working conditions and domestic service, she did not create the courses in a way where she taught students to be subservient to white employers. She wanted students to enter whatever profession that they chose with a strong sense of racial pride. As one of her students remembered, she would tell students all the time, "Hold your heads high like you're the queens of Ethiopia." So she was really big on that. 

And even the domestic science curriculum was scientifically-based. So she was not only teaching students how to, for example, serve meals and clean clothes but the actual scientific or the chemical composition of foods, the physical composition of the human body. So she wanted students to have this firm sense of food as science so that students could also become domestic science teachers, and so that they could take this knowledge back to their own communities and their own homes and live as healthy lives as possible given all of these structural inequalities. 

She also, later into the '30s, she had courses that taught students how to become barbers. As we know, there are not many, a lot of women barbers today, but she wanted students to even break into that field and just have as many options.  

This did not go over well with a lot of men. Booker T. Washington was against what was called a blended curriculum, so learning not only trades but also academic subjects, and he just thought that women should only learn domestic subjects. But then there were also women, Black women at the time, who Burroughs was very close to, who supported this blended curriculum and created curricula of their own, blended curricula of their own. So Mary McLeod Bethune, who just got a statue in the U.S. Capitol Building, was very big on creating a blended curriculum for girls, women and girls. Anna Julia Cooper, who actually taught Burroughs at M Street School, she was big on that. So Black women were on board. They were forward-thinking, but there were some men who were just really resistant to that. 

And Burroughs was very big on supporting her school, primarily with donations from Black communities because she didn't want white philanthropists to dictate to her how she should design her curriculum. And so she was primarily concerned about white philanthropists who thought that Black women and girls were incapable, inherently and intellectually incapable of learning scientific subjects and learning social studies, being taught social studies courses, and as well as learning about history. So she created this blended curriculum primarily with support from other Black women because of the backlash from some Black men and also white philanthropists at the time. 

Steve Flamisch: 

And what's so interesting about that, to me, is that she helped to fund the National Training School with small donations from Black women, whereas Booker T. Washington, her critic, he had the support of white philanthropists at Tuskegee. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yes, he did. He did. And he actually predicted that ... I came across a letter actually in an archive a few years ago in which Booker T. Washington wrote a letter to Nannie Helen Burroughs and told her, I don't think that your school will survive because a school that primarily is supported by small donations from Black communities, it's just impossible. It just won't survive. And her school lasted until the late 20th century. She struggled, though. She struggled a lot. It was amazing in terms of what she was able to accomplish, but it was also very difficult because she had to constantly prove to people and justify to people that this type of school, this very progressive kind of forward-thinking school for Black women and girls was important and would benefit society overall. 

She constantly had fundraising campaigns. There were times in which she was not sure where the next donation would come from because it was difficult. So she dealt with more difficulties than Booker T. Washington, but somehow she forged through and just kept ... but people kept donating to the school, and it lasted until the latter part of the 20th century. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Tell me about the student outcomes. Did her graduates make inroads into some of those professions that were previously walled-off to Black women? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yes. Yes, absolutely. She liked to talk about a student named Susie Green, who she met in Alabama and who was part of a sharecropping family in Alabama, and she recruited her to the NTS, and Susie worked in the printing department. And Burroughs encouraged her to ... In fact, Susie didn't want to work at first in the printing department. She wanted to learn horticulture, which was another course that Burroughs designed at the school. So she took that course as well as she worked in the printing department. And after she graduated, she started her own print shop, and she was the first Black woman in Washington DC to own a print shop, and she owned it for several decades. So that's one story. 

Burroughs also included arts courses in her curriculum—music and acting courses. And one of the graduates of her school was named Ethel Moses, and she became a popular Harlem Renaissance actor. She was in several Black films and documentaries, and she was one of the first Black women to integrate movies at the time. So she was someone else who just became well known, and after she left the school, she graduated from the school, she went to Harlem and that's where her acting career just really blossomed. So those are two examples of women who broke into fields that really were foreclosed to Black women. 

Steve Flamisch: 

What terrific success stories. Burroughs had to be so proud of them. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah, she was. She definitely was. In her advertising pamphlets for the school, she told lots of stories of women who forged their own pathway. She was also proud of students who became domestic workers. She was always critical of people who had classist or elitist ideas of what people should do in their lives. And so she also bragged about a student who she came across on a train that she was riding from DC to Philadelphia, and the student's name was Beatrice, and she was a graduate of the domestic science program. And what she admired mostly about Beatrice is that she left a domestic service job that did not provide adequate housing and living wages, and Burroughs attributed Beatrice's sense of self and resistance to those working conditions to the program. She was proud that she left that job and sought another job and secured another job actually in Philadelphia that offered much better wages and working conditions. So she always made a point of highlighting the wide range of jobs that students were able to get after leaving her school. 

Steve Flamisch: 

In 1921, 12 years after she started the National Training School for Women and Girls, Burroughs authored a new chapter in her life story. She established the National Association of Wage Earners. Danielle, you've described this as “a little-known but important Black women's labor organization of the early 20th century.” What was the National Association of Wage Earners? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yes. She started the National Association of Wage Earners in 1921. It was the first Black women's labor organization of the early 20th century, and it was the first Black women's labor organization that came closest to becoming a labor union. That is pretty significant considering the long history of racial and gender discrimination in labor unions and the exclusion of Black women from other jobs. So the fact that ... And also, this organization came before organizations that were started and run by domestic workers. And so those organizations really emerged during the late 1920s into the 1930s. So the National Association of Wage Earners was a precursor to those organizations. It was the first organization really dedicated to improving working conditions in domestic service. That was unheard of at the time. Most labor unions at the time were only interested in improving the working conditions primarily of white men in factory jobs and industrial jobs. 

And also, the National Association of Wage Earners was unique in the sense that the majority of the members were domestic workers, but also a large percentage of the membership included Black women and men from a variety of occupations. So one thing that I really enjoy doing is going through those membership cards, and they're all at the Library of Congress, and looking at the professions of the different members. So there were members who were dentists, who were insurance agents, who were teachers, professors, who were farmers, some members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the organization that A. Philip Randolph started, the first Black labor organization that became unionized. They were members of the NAWE. There were beauty culturalists, who we now call hairstylists, who were a part of this organization. 

So I think the membership cards and the composition of the National Association of Wage Earners really reflected this coming together. It was like a labor movement within itself, a Black women's labor movement within itself. And considering that men and women were a part of the NAWE shows just how badly it was needed at the time, so they had a shared vision across these different occupations. 

Steve Flamisch: 

She and her co-organizers enlisted 1,800 Black women and men from across the country—37 states and Washington DC—to come together in this effort to advocate for "a wage that will enable women to live decently." What was the outcome of their advocacy? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Well, part of the outcome was bringing together all of these people. And for a short time, particularly in DC, the wages of Black domestic workers went up because of ... DC was really the organizing center of the organization. She bought a headquarters, which was a huge house that actually is still there in DC, and that became the headquarters and known as the district union of the National Association of Wage Earners. And so they registered a lot of domestic workers in the city and they were able to increase their wages. 

And in some ways, this organization, although it never became a federally recognized labor union, in many ways, it operated like a labor union. Employers who wanted to hire members of the National Association of Wage Earners had to agree to certain working conditions stipulated by the NAWE members. 

The NAWE was also successful at creating a sharing profit enterprise. They had their own factory where they made uniforms as well as tools for domestic workers. A lot of times, some of the tools that they needed to do their jobs, they had to purchase on their own and they were expensive. And so she created a business within the headquarters in which the members shared the profits. So it was a way to also supplement the wages that they earned from their jobs, but also the employers had to agree to a standardized wage. So that was something that the NAWE accomplished. 

The NAWE headquarters also hosted education campaigns for the community about the particular labor issues confronting Black women at the time. So they succeeded in also creating this forum where the community came together to various lectures and discussions at the headquarters to talk about and to organize against all of these systemic inequalities that impacted Black women's lives. 

And lastly, they were successful at creating a safe place for Black women to sleep. At the time, there were a lot of Black women who migrated through DC in search of better working conditions and jobs, but could not find safe housing. And so the NAWE headquarters also doubled as a hotel where Black women could stay for free and could stay there until they could get on their feet. 

Steve Flamisch: 

So by the early 1920s, Burroughs is running the National Training School for Women and Girls and the National Association of Wage Earners, but she's not done. She becomes a prominent voice for voting rights. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Absolutely. Many Black women could not vote because of Jim Crow laws that were in effect during that time. And so Black women and men—this was part of the Black experience especially in the South, but also in parts of the Midwest and all over the country—these Jim Crow laws prevented Black people from exercising their right to vote. In some cities, you had to pay a poll tax. Black people were charged a poll tax. And also, Black people were forced to take these erroneous and just random government tests that the people at the polling locations could not pass themselves. There's also something called the jelly bean test, and so some Black people who tried to vote were denied the ballot until they guessed the correct number of jelly beans in a jar. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Oh my God. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah. And so there were all of these just impossible, almost insurmountable barriers to voting. 

And also, something that's important to say is that Black women and men faced violence. Black women and men were lynched for trying to vote. They were harassed. Black women in particular, they were fired from their jobs, especially if they labored as domestic workers. They were fired from their jobs if they tried to vote. So there were real threats just in terms of legally but also socially, just on an everyday basis, that prevented a lot of Black women from voting. 

Steve Flamisch: 

In 1924, Burroughs co-founded the National League of Republican Colored Women. Most Black people at the time were registered Republicans. Tell me about that organization. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah. So she and other Black women of the time were not silent about these Jim Crow laws and these acts of violent intimidation towards Black women and men in terms of them trying to vote. And she started the National League of Republican Colored Women out of frustration because the Republican Party at the time—it was progressive, relatively progressive, it was seen as the party of Lincoln, of Abraham Lincoln—but even then, Nannie Helen Burroughs, as well as her co-organizers such as Mary Church Terrell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells-Barnett were frustrated with Republican lawmakers because they were not forceful about passing an anti-lynching law. And that really upset them because they said, "Hey, we're out here stumping for your candidates. We can't even vote, but we're out here stumping for your candidates. We're getting you all elected, and you can't stand with Black people and stand up to the Democrats and pass an anti-lynching law? We're being killed in the streets. You can't do that?" 

And so they decided to start the National League of Republican Colored Women in a meeting that they had at a school in Chicago, and they elected this core group of Black women. It was about 100 Black women. They elected Burroughs as president. So as president, she was the spokesperson for the group. And they operated semi-autonomously, so they were still aligned with the Republican Party, but they said, "Hey, we are going to represent Black women's interests, and we are going to be that powerful voice that articulates and that pushes Black women's interests since we can't depend on you to do that." 

And so she created surveys, questionnaires, gathering all of this research and information about how Black people were intimidated from voting. This wasn't only just in the South. She sent surveys and questionnaires to people throughout the Midwest, the West, as well as in DC and parts of the Northeast as well. And so they used the research that she collected from these questionnaires and brought them to Republican lawmakers and to the president—the U.S. President—and said, "What are you going to do about this? This is how we're organizing, and the government needs to do something." 

So in many ways, they're like Black women today. So Stacey Abrams, her work comes out of this long lineage, and she acknowledges this long lineage of Black women's political organization. And Burroughs, she met with lawmakers. They actually demanded a meeting with President Coolidge, and they presented their findings to him and they told him, "If you do not support our interests, if you do not do something about voter suppression, we will no longer support you or the Republican Party." So she was definitely a force to be reckoned with, and so was their organization. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Danielle, as I listen to you describe what Nannie Helen Burroughs was fighting to achieve as an educator, labor leader and suffragist, I'm struck by the inequities that remain a century later. Many Black children still grow up attending underfunded schools. In many places, Black people are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs. And we still have voter disenfranchisement. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yes, we still do. And so a lot of the inequities in systems that Burroughs was fighting against, we still see that today. And so I think there's a lot, even though her activism occurred several decades ago, there's a lot that we can still learn from her organizing as well as that of Black women who she worked with at the time, and it shows how forward-thinking they were and how they laid out this blueprint really for how we can tackle these issues that still confront our country today. 

And so I think this is an exciting time, especially to really move on this vision that they had for the country because for the first time in decades, conversations about economic justice, about voter suppression, that is coming to the forefront in many ways because of the George Floyd protests, because of Black women who have been appointed to key economic positions in the Biden-Harris administration. So this is a time to really move on many of the demands that Black women have been making for well over a century. 

All of this that they've uncovered, their research, I think it's important to learn from that and to take their intersectional lens. They were some of the first Black women, especially Nannie Helen Burroughs, in terms of approaching policies and policy recommendations and research from an intersectional perspective. Right? So looking at the ways in which race, class and gender inequities shape all of these institutions that contribute to all of the problems that you just mentioned in terms of education, jobs that don't pay living wages, housing discrimination, environmental racism. All of this is impacted by that. 

And something that I mentioned earlier, which I have to admit, I didn't think we would be back at this point in our country, but that is practically the outlawing of Black history and teaching Black history in our schools. It was illegal in many places when Burroughs was teaching Black history at her school, and now we're seeing that resurface. So there's a lot in terms of education as well that we can learn from what Black women did to address these issues decades ago. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Well, Nannie Helen Burroughs did so many remarkable things in her life. She also wrote several plays in the 1920s. During the Depression, she served on President Hoover's Committee on Negro Housing. She actually chaired the committee. And she established a cooperative right there on the campus of the National Training School, the Northeast Self-Help Cooperative. So many different aspects to her remarkable life.  

And Danielle, I'm struck by the selfless qualities of Nannie Helen Burroughs. She devoted herself to her work. She never married. She ran the National Training School for decades without accepting a salary, as you mentioned earlier. And you write in your book that she literally ran herself ragged. She suffered from a stress-induced illness. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

I'm glad that you highlighted that because that is also connected to the specific issues that Black women face today, which is taking on the world and organizing against all of these different stressors that impact our everyday lives. I think it's important to remember how even great leaders were also human at the end of the day. And so she accomplished a lot, but I also think that it's important to remember her frustrations and her disappointments because those areas point to some things that still need to be changed and some things that were problematic at the time. As Black women sociologists have long documented, Black women tend to suffer from health conditions, so from chronic health conditions as well as maternal mortality because of them fighting all of these barriers, and some of the same barriers and issues that Nannie Helen Burroughs encountered. 

And I also think it's important to remember what she did during the Depression because she was engaged in labor organizing outside of labor unions. And so starting a cooperative was something that she did to help unemployed Black people at the time. And Black people, because of preexisting inequities, were disproportionately impacted by the Depression. And so that cooperative provided jobs for over 200 Black people in the local community and also provided health services for Black people who could not afford quality healthcare at the time. So as she was creating all of these resources for Black women and girls as well as the communities in which they live. She paid a price for it in a way. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Burroughs died in 1961, right before some of the seminal events of the civil rights movement: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and Dr. King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It's sad that she did not live to see those moments, but her work really foreshadowed all of it. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yes, it did. It foreshadowed all of it. The organizing, especially the organizing that took place behind the scenes to make those legislative victories possible, she was in the middle of all of that organizing. So while she didn't get to see it, I think she was able to see some progress while she was alive. I think that she got some energy and inspiration from working with other leaders of the time who helped make those pieces of legislation, those key pieces of legislation possible. She was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mentor. They worked very closely together. A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who was instrumental in the organizing of the March on Washington, they worked closely together. So she was able to see a lot, and she also talked a lot about being happy that her school would survive her. So her legacy definitely lives on, and it lives on through the organizing of Black women today. 

Steve Flamisch: 

I think she did more in one lifetime than most people would do in two or three, and she could easily be the subject of a Hollywood film. Yet her name is not mentioned alongside Dr. King, Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer. Why do you think that is, and why should more people know about her? 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Yeah, I think part of it is because she was outspoken, she was outspoken for her time. And in the early 20th century, women, especially Black women, were not expected to be outspoken. And she was never afraid to speak her mind.  

She was also not married, and some women who were married had some social protections in terms of how they were seen and perceived. And so she was "not protected" in that way. She actually refused to get married. She was proposed to twice, but told both men, "I am married to my work." She did not have children, and so she was ridiculed for that as well. She challenged many conventions, social conventions, in terms of what education should look like for girls and in terms of what women should do and how they should be and how they should act, and so she did not go over well with everyone at the time. So that's part of the reason. 

I also think part of it is the gender construction of traditionally how we think of labor leaders. It's a masculinized construct and it's seen as it's kind of closely aligned with industrial male jobs. And so these great labor leaders and labor union leaders were mostly white men who fought for labor rights in factories, for example. And here she was, she was a Black woman fighting for Black women's labor rights, and especially domestic workers, so people who were outside of that industrial realm. So she is mostly remembered as an educator, which is within this feminized occupational lens, but I think that her life speaks for itself, and she was definitely a labor leader who contributed to many labor movements in this country. 

Steve Flamisch: 

Your book will certainly raise awareness of her life and legacy. It's called Tower of Strength in the Labor World: Nannie Helen Burroughs and Her National Training School for Women and Girls. It's coming out later this year, and I'm looking forward to it. Danielle Phillips-Cunningham, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, thank you so much for being on A Third of Your Life. 

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham: 

Thank you, Steve. I enjoyed the conversation. 

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. 


Episode 4: I Am a Man

William Lucy co-created the iconic slogan that rallied Black workers during the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, and he became a leading figure in the civil rights movement and the labor movement. Francis Ryan, a labor historian in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, talks to Lucy about his career.

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Transcript for Episode 4

William Lucy:

We came up with the signs, simply said in four words, "I am a man." It was the shortest phrase that we could get that would instill in them a sense of pride, not just for what they had done, but what they were doing to try and change the system. The city went bananas when the signs showed up.

Steve Flamisch:

He co-authored one of the most famous slogans in the history of the civil rights movement and went on to become a leading figure in one of America's largest and most influential unions. William Lucy shares his story. 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:

When Black sanitation workers walked off the job in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, they demanded more than higher wages and safer working conditions. They wanted to be treated as human beings. So they carried signs bearing the simple but powerful phrase, "I am a man." William Lucy, a young official with the American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, helped to create that now famous slogan and he went on to become a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and the highest-ranking Black person in the labor movement. Today, at the age of 89, he’s still dialed into both. Lucy shared his remarkable story with Francis Ryan, a labor historian in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, and we're excited to present their complete, unedited conversation. Originally recorded in 2021, here are Francis Ryan and William Lucy on this special edition of A Third of Your Life.

Francis Ryan:

I'm very pleased to have an opportunity to talk with you. To give you a sense of where I am right now, I'm actually in the Labor Education Center at Rutgers University here in New Brunswick, and I'm here in my office and you can't see outside, but it recently has snowed, so we still have a lot of snow on the ground. I want to ask you to let us know where you are right now.

William Lucy:

I'm at home, Washington DC. Sunny day. 44, 45 degrees temperature. Perfect day.

Francis Ryan:

Great. I want to welcome you on behalf of our students, especially. We have a wonderful group of students here in the School of Management and Labor Relations and so many of them are working students. They're working at least part-time, many of them are working full-time to put themselves through their education. And I know that a lot of them would be very interested in hearing about your life and a little bit about maybe where you were born, what your early life was like. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

William Lucy:

Well, I was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1933, November. Spent my early growing up years there in Memphis. Left Memphis 1942, about March or April, somewhere in there, but I went through a portion of elementary school right there in town. My family left Memphis right on the outset of World War II. My father left first as a part of a recruitment effort for defense workers. My mother and my brother, we left a few months after that. We wound up in Richmond, California. We lived in an area, by and large, designed for defense employee housing, grew up there, went to finish elementary school there and then went to junior high and high school in Richmond. I completed my high school education at El Cerrito Junior/Senior High School.

Spent a little bit of time at Contra Costa Junior College, which is located in the county that we lived in. Spent a little bit of time at the University of California, which there was a research department. I went to work first for the defense department at Mare Island Naval Shipyard there in Vallejo, California. Spend about two and a half years there, and then went to work for county government, government of Contra Costa County, which is a major county, or one of the major counties in Northern California. As a part of that work, as I said, went to the materials and research area of the University of California in Richmond, California. And, from there, we went into the involvement with organized labor, initially.

Francis Ryan:

Could I ask you, were your parents involved with organized labor before you?

William Lucy:

No, no. Not at all. My father was a mechanic, but he was a welder in his work for the Kaiser Shipyards, so he may have had some exposure to it, but I'm not aware of it. My mother was a seamstress and, to my knowledge, she had no engagement or involvement with labor.

Francis Ryan:

So tell me about when you first joined AFSCME, which in case any of our listeners don't know, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is the largest union in the AFL-CIO that represents government sector employees at the state and municipal levels.

William Lucy:

It was, by and large, state and local government employees, a smattering of federal sectors. But my involvement with AFSCME was sort of a longer story. When I went to work for Contra Costa County—this was in 1953—I was recruited by the county to come to work. This was the period when the major highway construction program was underway. President Eisenhower initiated what was called the Federal Aid to Secondary Highway Construction Program and states across the nation became engaged in building out their highway systems to meet their local needs as well as meet the federal standards that were being set. So I went to work in the public works department in Contra Costa, not February, but in 1953, worked there for 13 years, and in the course of that became involved with what was the County Employee Association. It was not a union but an association of county employees.

And during the course of that experience, there became a discussion of whether or not the association was meeting the needs of blue collar employees. And '52, '53, a discussion broke out as to what we wanted to do because Contra Costa County was a heavily unionized county and our view was that the civil service system that covered public employees really had gone somewhere beyond their initial responsibility, and that being [to] certify employees who had passed the civil service test and was eligible for employment. And our view was that that system didn't really meet the needs of workers, because it didn't deal with our ability to participate in wage setting programs, it didn't speak to our needs in terms of benefits related to our employment, and we simply thought that the civil service system, as good as it was, was an extension of the employer and we simply thought we had a right to sit down and we'd discuss wages and other conditions.

And out of that grew a broad discussion of whether or not we really wanted to be a regular trade union workforce and activity, or whether we wanted to remain as a civil service system. We opted for both, and as a part of that, we joined into a nationwide discussion about the role of public employees as employees, not public servants. And we thought we had an entitlement to discuss a number of things that were not a part of the civil service process.

Francis Ryan:

So what year did that happen, that you joined the union, joined AFSCME?

William Lucy:

Well, we joined AFSCME about 1958—'57, '58, somewhere in there—because we went through a process of deciding to be a union. And then, once we made that decision, of course, it was, "Okay, what union do we want to be a part of?" And AFSCME, at that time, in 1964 elected a person by the name of Jerry Wurf as its national president and he really believed very strongly in the rights of public employees to have access to the traditional programs of collective bargaining and right to organize. And we believed very strongly in that, so we joined with AFSCME. That would've been 1953 or '54.

Francis Ryan:

Now, I know that when Jerry Wurf came in as the president of AFSCME…

William Lucy:

I'm sorry, it would've been 1963 or '64. I'm sorry.

Francis Ryan:

Right, right. So he comes in in '64 and he comes out of New York City, he's a great organizer, built up District Council 37 there from just about under 1,000 to 10,000 by 1961. And what was happening in New York was happening all over the country with AFSCME. I mean, AFSCME was growing by leaps and bounds at that time. And, as a young person who was involved with the trade union movement at that time, were you aware that there was something special happening?

William Lucy:

Oh, absolutely. As a county employee who was really experiencing a whole new perception of yourself as an employee and the rights that went along with that, we were well aware that there was a mood shift taking place among county employee workers and public sector workers in general, as to how they saw themselves. We used to make the discussion that there's very little difference between a truck driver who drives from First Street to 125th and then a private sector truck driver who takes over and drives from 125th on. I mean, same skillset required, same knowledge and experience. So we started to see ourselves as regular employees entitled to all the rights that private sector workers had under the National Labor Relations Act and their ability to collectively bargain.

Francis Ryan:

Now, the thing about AFSCME's organizing at that time, they were organizing in sectors that included a lot of Black workers, Black men and women who were working in healthcare, in municipal services, and there seemed to be a connection between the Black freedom struggle at that time and the labor movement. There was this merging together. And tell me about that. Was that something that people were really aware of and trying to develop and build community connections along those lines, too?

William Lucy:

Well, I think President Wurf brought to the organizing efforts sort of a new approach to it, and that is that focused on community issues and around community workers, because so many public sectors were on the workers of color side, and so he had the Civil Rights tactics coming out of his background of organizing. Now, the merger of those two things produced a whole new approach to organizing in the public sector, and it caught fire, because people had, while they were working in the public sector, accepted the terms of employment and what have you, but they really believed that there was something better in store and they believed themselves to be well-qualified employees and entitled to sit at the bargaining table. Saw you saw the New York experience where DC 37 hospitals and administrative employees, a sector of the workforce that was heavily dominated by Black and Brown employees who were, as a matter of fact, in the low end of the wage and benefits scale compared to private sector workers at that time.

Francis Ryan:

Did you see that happening in other places outside of New York, as well?

William Lucy:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. It was happening in all the major urban areas: Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and if you tracked our organizing schedule, so often workers were reaching out to the union to say, "We like what you’ve got to say. How does it fit our situation?" And, I mean, the union was organizing by leaps and bounds, as you say, and principally because public sector employees were beginning to develop a different view of themselves as workers. I mean, the public sector was holding to this sovereign doctrine that we were above responsibilities for bargaining of workers. Well, cities and counties and states, they may have a lot of responsibilities, but one of them is managing a rather large workforce and making sure that those workers have access to decency and dignity in the context of the day-to-day issues that affect their wages and their benefits.

Francis Ryan:

Now, we know that AFSCME had large chapters in places like New York City and Philadelphia and Detroit, but we see in the '60s, too, there is really a resurgence of organizing in the South. And there's always been a strong resistance to union organizing in those areas and we see by 1968, in Memphis, a major moment in the history of AFSCME, in the history of American working people, with the Memphis Sanitation Strike. And I know that you played a very significant role in that moment and maybe you could tell us a little bit about what brought you back to Memphis to work in helping those men who were on strike?

William Lucy:

Well, in all candidness, let me say, I, like a lot of staffers, wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and one particular day, I had been assigned to Detroit and got a phone call from the office that says, “There's something happening in Memphis. Can and will you take a look?” And Memphis was sort of symbolic of a large section of the country that got no attention at all and some basic functions, and particularly sanitation work, those functions are almost exclusively reserved for Black and Brown workers and particularly across the South where you're dealing with commercial, not commercial, but private sector garbage collections. I mean, in the downtown section, that's private sector, so it's got better wages, better business, but the public garbage collection responsibility for private homes and what have you, it's almost exclusively reserved for sanitation work of the city.

And Memphis was an area where the workers themselves knew that they really needed something to give them an opportunity to have a better life. The confrontation in Memphis was not inspired by the national union, it was a phenomenon that grew out of the frustrations of the workforce in Memphis. Here, you had men who had worked the better part of their adult life in the city, some working 15 to 20 years. Their wage levels were $1.25, $1.35 an hour. They were confronted with equipment that came from the Stone Age, that they simply could not get the actions that they hoped for just to make the job a little bit better, where they could do it better, a little safer, add some of the benefits that grew with type of work they were doing. And they, themselves, decided that they wanted a union. And they appealed to the city to allow them to have a voice in some of these issues that concerned them.

And Memphis had just gone through an election for a new mayor's form of government. I should say, a new structured type of government, from a commission-run government to a strong mayor system. And, unfortunately, both the election and the union's effort ran head-on together at the time when it was just not the best time. No union in its right mind would have a sanitation strike in February in the South, because workers don't strike because they're angry, they strike because they're frustrated, and this was a classic example. Men had gone for years, some working below the minimum wage, others having no voice in safety procedures, no grievance procedures that we see as a part of every basic contract that exists. No vacation time, no sick leave, none of the things that a worker today would anticipate either existed by virtue of the union or simply by the personal systems of the employer.

So the strike grew out of that. Probably the catalyst was two men who had worked for the city for some time, and in the midst of this were scooped up into the back of their sanitation truck caused, as best as we can tell, by some sort of a faulty electrical system and was triggered by a lightning strike, and two men lost their lives. And then, we discovered that there were no procedures to deal with a situation like this. Therein was the basis and the catalyst of the strike.

Francis Ryan:

Now, as part of that strike, one of the iconic images that a lot of students of history see are the striking men with the placards that say, "I am a man." I know that that was something that you came up with, and I was wondering what the origins of that were, and also when was the exact moment when you realized that that should be something that became a slogan of the struggle?

William Lucy:

Well, two things. I mean, first of all, the city of Memphis and its leadership, particularly the mayor, had no intentions of dealing with a workforce made up of Black men and, by and large, the lowest level on the scale, the sanitation workers. Their claim—and there probably were legitimate claims and problems that any leadership would sit down and talk about—but this city took the position that they had no right to demand that the city address any of these things in the kind of forum that they wanted. And so, they struck. And our role was to try and do all we could to help them win this effort. And we were aware that there was no law in Memphis or probably a lot of other places across the South, but if we wait until somebody wants to pass a law to give us the right to have access to some kind of a bargaining process, we'll never have change.

So the strike took place and during the course it became clear, there had to be something that was going to hold this together. And we came up with the slogan because across the South, you can go from boy to uncle to grandfather without ever passing the station of being a man. And a tremendous religious leader, a fellow by the name of James Lawson, during the course of our meetings, either he or others would mention the point that the refusal of the city to sit down with this workforce is treating them as if they're not men. And one of the great sources of pride among these men were they do some of the most difficult work under some of the most dreadful circumstances and they're just simply not treated as men.

So a pastor by the name of Malcolm Blackburn, he and I were charged with finding some glue to hold this together so they wouldn't have to go back to work with no sense of broad community support. So we came up with the signs, simply said in four words, "I am a man." It was the shortest phrase that we could get that would instill in them a sense of pride, not just for what they had done, but what they were doing to try and change the system. And, needless to say, the city went bananas when the signs showed up. It was a sense of pride to the workforce, and it brought the community into the discussion, because every Black man across the city of Memphis understood the absence of being treated as if they were a man.

Francis Ryan:

This strike was happening in those early, early months of 1968 and there was a larger movement happening here, of course, the Poor People's Campaign that Martin Luther King was really beginning to push at that time, and he came to Memphis to support this strike. And did you have interactions with Dr. King during those days?

William Lucy:

We met during that period a couple of times to talk about the role and function of the union and the support that was coming from the community and what he would bring to the issue. Let me go back to your earlier part. Dr. King, who had really come through the movements across the South, but really came to the point where much of what was happening had to be related to the economic situation of the people who were struggling. And he saw, in Memphis, the classic contradiction between people who work every day, yet not only could not raise themselves out of poverty, but had no mechanism to do that. The National Labor Relations Act and one of its contradictions is it provides a mechanism for folks who are skilled, very professional and it gives them a right to bargain. That's at the higher end of the wage and benefits scale.

At the lower end, the National Labor Relations Act specifically excludes, as you well know, public sector employees and does very little to enhance the ability of low wage workers to find a mechanism. So Dr. King saw those as contradictions and really thought that the workers had a right to not only bargain collectively, but to mobilize around doing that. The Poor People's Campaign, gave an opportunity to demonstrate that. Here are workers who are not arguing about what they do, they simply want to have a voice in how they do it.

Francis Ryan:

So the 1968 strike ends with a contract recognition of the union. Of course, Dr. King is assassinated during that terrible moment in April of 1968. What happened in the days after that? Was this seen as a turning point for AFSCME? Was it a turning point in, let's say, that connection between the community, the African-American community, and the trade union movement in Memphis? Was that seen as a permanent development in your thoughts?

William Lucy:

I really can't say. I mean, in those days, while the national labor movement came to the aid of the strike and the strikers, the Memphis labor movement was a different story, because these workers were not workers who had even recognition by the movement itself, locally. And during the course of the strike, sort of the civil rights association, the political movement of the strike caused some locals in the Memphis area to be very reluctant to reach out and be supportive of this strike. I would say the rubber workers, the retail clerks… were very helpful, but others were slow to come. They came, but they were slow.

How we were able to build the support was based on the community's clear identification with it. For long, every church, every social service organization, every club on the Black side of town were sympathetic to the strike and had tremendous support. Dr. King's assassination triggered another set of concerns, and that is how do we keep this going? Well, once Dr. King's funeral services and other activities were passed, Lyndon Johnson brought somebody from the labor department to try and play a role in getting the two sides to think about what it is we're trying to do. And there was a fellow by the name of James Reynolds, who was the Undersecretary of Labor at the time, just tremendous commitment to resolving these kinds of problems. He not only worked with the two parties, I mean the city and the union, but he played a role in identifying the people across the community who had some experience in these types of confrontations. And he managed to put us all together and started us to work.

Francis Ryan:

Right. Now, one of the things about this moment in the late '60s, AFSCME is beginning to bring in 1,000 members a week sometimes, and it's got about half-a-million members. By 1977, you have a million members, so there's an incredible growth. And I know that a lot of the new members in AFSCME chapters were working class women and I was wondering if, we're talking about the "I am a man" placard from 1968, all the men on strike were, I mean, they were men, right?

William Lucy:

Mm-hmm.

Francis Ryan:

There are women, there are working class women who are coming into AFSCME at that time, too. Tell me about that. Were there particular leaders that you remember or a particular set of ideas that some of these women brought with them?

William Lucy:

Well, I mean, that slogan was specific to that situation. I mean, at a point in time, maybe still true, I'm just not aware right now, a little over half of our membership were women and they were organizing themselves like other parts of the union was doing. We've had on our board, let's say our executive board, almost a majority, for any number of years, were actively engaged women, and they were organizing in areas that were simply ripe for organizing: the healthcare sector, the administrative sector, professional class. And these were people who had decided that as a public sector employee, they were entitled to some things that the civil service and merit system did not give them, and they wanted a mechanism so that they could participate fully.

And it's not all about money, much of it was about safety, much of it was about leisure time issues. I mean, things that would be a normal part of any set of private sector negotiations. Right now, probably 52%, 53% of our membership are women and the leadership level is such that it attracts and brings in other women concerned about the unique problems that the female workforce has.

Francis Ryan:

Now, this is an issue, speaking here at Rutgers, our institution, the School of Management and Labor Relations, has always been at the forefront of research on working class women, labor feminism, and so many of our students are young women who work in retail and food service and it's an important question, I think, to put out there that the role that women are playing and shaping AFSCME and the trade union movement in general, was there any pushback to that?

William Lucy:

Well, I suspect there was, depending on where you were at, but if you look at the growth patterns and you could, early on, see that the growth was among those functions that were, by and large, female related, and our female leadership then and now was really very aggressive and going out to recruit members who had no union, or recruit more to make the union better. And I think we see that across the trade union movement now. And some of the real difficult campaigns, they've been won by women organizer and women administrators.

Francis Ryan:

So in 1972, you come in as an international leader with AFSCME. You come to Washington and you become the international secretary-treasurer. Is that correct? In 1972?

William Lucy:

The timing may be a little off. I came to work for AFSCME in 1966. I came from California to here to start up what we call our Legislative and Community Affairs Department. We noticed early on that the growth of the role that the federal sector was playing in the policy direction and implementation at county level was growing simply because of the financing and grant process that was being developed between federal government, state government, state and counties, county and city. And we didn't really have, nor did we know, the role that we should be playing in those kinds of situations. So the union set up this department, Legislation and Community Affairs, and the president asked if I would come back and be a part of that, and I did. So I had worked for the union for six years or so prior to 1972.

I was asked if I would consider running for national office, because the brother who held the office at the time was looking to do some other things. So I agreed that I would stand as a candidate for election in 1972 for the office of secretary-treasurer. And so, I held that position until I retired in 2010.

Francis Ryan:

As a leader in Washington at that time, when you came in as secretary-treasurer, how was that different? I don't believe that AFSCME had any African-American top officers at that level before that, is that correct?

William Lucy:

We had vice presidents, but we didn't have either of the national offices of president or secretary-treasurer. We had a number of vice presidents who served on the executive board. My election in '72 was unique and was different.

Francis Ryan:

And how old were you at the time?

William Lucy:

33, somewhere in there.

Francis Ryan:

So, in the labor movement, that is very, very young.

William Lucy:

Well, you said that, I didn't.

Francis Ryan:

No, I mean…

William Lucy:

I think it had a lot to do with where the union saw itself trying to go. We had taken on new and different organizing tactics, new and different organizing targets, an additional role of political action within the unions to try and not only secure by legislative means the benefits we didn't have, we were looking at legislation that, in and of itself, created discriminatory systems at work level. So it was not my decision to be in elected office, but I was asked. And by 1972, I think I was familiar enough with the size, scope, and focus of the union that they thought I would make a good candidate and I wasn't going to question their judgments. But I was elected in 1972 and served almost 38 years.

Francis Ryan:

Okay. It's an important moment, I think, not just in AFSCME but in the entire U.S. labor movement. And I'd like to ask you this question about leadership, because I do think leadership matters. Who's in leadership positions makes a difference in an organization, and I want to ask you: would you like to see more women and people of color in leadership positions in trade unions? And how does this help the labor movement if that is accomplished?

William Lucy:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's no question that their ranks ought to be increased. And I think they are being increased. We've got unions who have national officers of color, now, that you would not have guessed five years ago, 10 years ago, but primarily on the male side, I would say. But within the ranks of leadership, you're seeing more and more females, which I think is the right thing to do. And secondly, the workforce now is different than the workforce of 30 years ago. We really should not be spending our time trying to convince people that they ought to be a part of the labor movement, we ought to spend time making those who want to be a part of it, and among that group, you will find women, young people, Black, Brown, who really have the ability to reach out to the constituencies that want to join trade unions now, want to help from organizations that represent the interests of workers.

Francis Ryan:

I know it…

William Lucy:

Let me just say this, too, I mean, usually on the building trade side, for instance, there's always this story, "Well the building trades will never change." Well that's just fundamentally not true. You've got Ken Rigmaiden. You've got any number of new leaders and president and second officer roles.

Francis Ryan:

One of the things that AFSCME was at the forefront of coming into the '70s and '80s, in 1983 AFSCME puts out... one of the first international unions to put out a resolution favoring and demanding equality for sexual minorities in the workplace and in society. And this has become, I know with AFSCME and across the labor movement, a very important part of the consciousness and the policies. And I was wondering what made AFSCME at the cutting edge of that moment and what role did you play in that resolution?

William Lucy:

Well, I think AFSCME as an institution has always been sensitive to the impediments that kept people from getting what was justly their rights. And I've tried to be sensitive to that, not because I was a Black officer, because it's just fundamentally right. And I suspect others saw this in our activity, saw it in our policies. We have always tried to move our national policies down to the local level. And once you get there, you're going to attract an awful lot more people, if they're listening to your message. You made a point awhile ago about our growth rate. At one point in time, we were netting new growth 52,000, 53,000 a year. And sometimes we used to say, and I say it cautiously, we were organizing in spite of ourselves. So the point is, if your message hits the core concerns for potential members, they're going to join.

Francis Ryan:

One of the things I love about Rutgers is that it's a truly international institution. By that, I mean, I have students... I sometimes teach large sections of students, 70 students in some of the working class history classes I do, and last semester I had a class that had students—because I ask them where they're from and where their families are from sometimes—and I had students representing every single continent except from Antarctica. We had students from around the world. We have students who were born in Africa or their parents were from there. We've got students from Argentina and students from Mexico and across Europe and so many students from China, as well, and Korea, across the world. And one of the things I've always appreciated about your leadership is that you're international in your vision. You understand that the working class extends beyond boundaries, which, of course, is an important message in today's moment that we're living through, our historical moment.

And I want to ask you about this. One of the things that I know that you were involved in was placing the labor movement, the entire U.S. labor movement, and placing AFSCME at the fore of this, in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. And it's probably the first thing that I knew about you. I grew up in an AFSCME family and I used to get the magazine at home, and I was aware that you had been arrested, that you had been involved in pushing this policy, and I thank you for that. And I want to say this now that it was part of the change in my own consciousness about wanting to study working class history and having a sense of pride coming from such a family that came out of AFSCME, and I appreciate what you did with that, because it taught me and taught many people in my generation coming into the late '80s, early '90s. Tell me about that effort and the policies that you helped to promote.

William Lucy:

Well, that's a long story, but it's one that's close to my heart. We have always been, of course by and large because of President Jerry Wurf, we've always looked at our work as international work. We believe that the public sector is really, in many countries, an extension of democracy, an extension of the democratic process. That even though it may be a poor country, people and workers are entitled to some very basic rights. I mean right to food, right to clean water, right to clean air. And it's the public sector that's, by and large, responsible for some of this or should be responsible for it. We should not leave quality of life issues in the hands of private sector, particularly when there's a profit margin involved. That's our basic belief. So we've been a part of what we call Public Service International for many, many years, because we thought the public sector would be much more capable or advocating for democracy and democratic process, so we've been a part of that movement.

And South Africa was the ultimate contradiction to that and a lot of other things, and it was my belief, and I was joining other people, it certainly wasn't mine alone, that the U.S. labor movement ought not be a part of supporting a structure and function of government that depressed over half of its people, that gave them no rights to citizenship. And apartheid was not an historical form of government, it was a government and process developed during the '40s, '50s, '60s, and that it was a contradiction to what we believed was right. So we set out to at least raise the level of understanding of what it meant. And I was quite forceful in my views, and I think others had different views, and maybe had the same hopes, but it had to be done.

And we saw our government as close to apartheid as you could get and it was sort of go along, get along, no reason of the real challenges for why we call ourselves a democratic society yet we are aligned with an apartheid government. So we just joined forces with people and thought about ways and means of weakening the apartheid system and also made success. I think the high point of our lives was the release of Nelson Mandela and working with him and some of his folks during the course of the struggle.

Francis Ryan:

I was thinking about that, that when you were engaged in political struggle, sometimes it takes more than a lifetime to see the end result. I think about so many movements, the anti-slavery movement, the struggle to end slavery in this country. But this was a moment where you actually got to see the end. That must've been something. I mean, because Nelson Mandela did come and meet with AFSCME and AFSCME officials and meet with you. Tell me what that was like.

William Lucy:

Well, let me go back aways. Just after his release, we met in Durban to talk about not only where he and the ANC saw themselves going in some of the other movements in the country and how we could be helpful in that part. As you probably well know, the ANC, everybody had a question of who were they and whether or not their politics matched ours. The trade union movement who were affiliates, were unions working to uplift the South African community. And we tried to do what we could do to translate some of our skills and our experiences to those, so they could be on the ground building not only a viable democracy, but participating as the new holders of power in South Africa.

We met with Mr. Mandela, and I've heard a lot of speeches and I've heard a lot of politicians talk and what have you, but very seldom do you get really captured by one, and he did that to myself and, I suspect, others. On his release, he did a Democracy Now tour and came to the U.S. He met with our AFSCME leadership. In fact, he spoke at our convention. And he captured our folks, because it was not a pie in the sky speech or it was not political, it was just about the rights of working people and their role in building a free and democratic South African society. I mean, if there's a high point in my limited life, it's that.

Francis Ryan:

Thank you for sharing that story. I appreciate your time and I know we're kind of coming to the end of our talk today, but I wanted to mention I work mostly with students 18 to 22, 23 years old and the thing I appreciate about what Rutgers students do is that they teach me about the way that that world is today for young people. And any kind of cynicism that one my age might have gets wiped away, because they have a hope for the future in their own lives and also broadly speaking for, I think, everyone else in society.

And we're going through such a transitional and scary moment in world history and certainly our national history and, in some ways, it reminds me of the moment in the '60s when the Black freedom struggle was, as it always has been, so connected to working rights, as well, rights in the workplace. And I wonder if, thinking about our young students here, both Rutgers and around the world, do you have any insight or any thoughts, any advice about how to think and act in this moment?

William Lucy:

Well, in all honesty, this is their moment. The world is changing so fast and in so many different ways that they are the perfect group that's in position to help shape the direction. Right now, we're in the middle of a pandemic, which will end at some point in time, so what's the workforce going to look like at that point in time? Will it be a massive slice of the working poor? Or will we have voices in the global places where decisions about a new workforce are going to be made? That's a job for young people and young leadership to take on. It's also a responsibility, I think, of our current trade union leadership to prepare these folks for the coming world. I mean, sooner or later there will be a new hammer, and who's going to help figure out what to do with it?

My concern is that the politics of trade unionism is to hold on and not develop a deep bench that can help advance your industry or advance your particular union. I think we got to get out of that mindset and really prepare young leaders, and particularly those who have a higher level of education, because the world is changing so fast. The blue-collar approach is going to be necessary, but we need some other things, and to open up the spaces, so these people can get the skills they need right now and hopefully they will be on the trade union side of the ledger. I mean, offering their skills to help build unions.

And I would offer one other suggestion, then I'll quit. I mean, some of our unions who have, unfortunately, wound up in dying industries to how do we help form a stronger institution on the trade union side. I've seen some who, they will hold out, hold out till the bitter end and then they're merge with somebody. So what you've got now is two small, weak, organizations, charged with the responsibility of representing the needs of working people. And we ought to have a broader vision as to what to do before we get so weak we can't represent our membership.

Francis Ryan:

Well, Mr. William Lucy, on behalf of everyone here at Rutgers, I really appreciate your time this morning and all that you taught us in our conversation. I really enjoyed this opportunity.

William Lucy:

Well, thank you. Enjoy. You hear the rantings and ravings of a tired old man.

Francis Ryan:

Thank you, Mr. Lucy.

William Lucy:

Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk. I appreciate it.

Francis Ryan:

Okay. Thank you so much, sir.

William Lucy:

Alright. Bye-bye.

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.


Episode 3: Workplace Relationships

Our co-workers can make or break how we feel and what we accomplish on the job. Friends, enemies, two-faced frenemies, even small talk can affect us in surprising ways. Jessica Methot, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, untangles the complex web of workplace relationships.

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Transcript for Episode 3

Jessica Methot:

I always get asked, “Are work friends, real friends?” This is always one of my favorite questions.

Steve Flamisch:

Inside the science of social networks. 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:

Who do you trust at work? Where do you turn for help on a project? Do you make small talk with your co-workers? Workplace relationships have a surprisingly big impact on performance and employee wellbeing, but many employers still haven't caught on.

Welcome to A Third of Your Life. My name is Steve Flamisch, and I'm joined by Jessica Methot, an associate professor of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. She also directs the school's Ph.D. program, and she's a Distinguished Research Professor of Management at the University of Exeter Business School in the UK.

Jessica, you should be handing out scrolls, not business cards. Thanks for making some time in your busy schedule.

Jessica Methot:

Thanks so much for having me.

Steve Flamisch:

So you've been studying interpersonal workplace relationships and social network dynamics for 15 years. How did you first get interested in this field?

Jessica Methot:

A lot of the research that we do comes from real-world experiences. So when I was getting my Ph.D. program, my husband and I owned a few restaurants, and of course I was looking at the way that our employees interacted through the lens of the research that I was interested in doing. So I became really fascinated by who started to become friends with each other, who would fill in for shifts to help other people, who would ask each other for advice, who was gossiping with each other, and who just didn't like each other. And so I was actually able to do my dissertation research with data from some of our restaurants because it was such a fascinating way to observe how they were relying on each other, how they interacted, how they communicated, and how it might improve the overall environment and climate of the workplace, how we were operating and managing the employees, and just helping us be more effective as restaurants.

Steve Flamisch:

Wow. So you took what you were doing as part of your dissertation, and you put it into practice in the restaurant and you saw positive results?

Jessica Methot:

Yes, for the most part. Although given that this was about 15 years ago, there was still so much more to learn.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, you sent me some very helpful resources to prepare for this episode, including a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Paul Leonardi and Noshir Contractor. Let me admit right off the top, I skipped over the graphs with the lines and the little circles. Are those called nodes?

Jessica Methot:

They are called nodes.

Steve Flamisch:

Those are nodes.

Jessica Methot:

They represent actors. Yes. So each little node is an actor in the network, and the lines are intended to visualize how they're interacting with each other.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, they look like polymers to me, and I'm no good at chemistry, so I skipped right over those.

Jessica Methot:

A reminder of college days.

Steve Flamisch:

Yes, but I read the text. I read the text, and it was a really good introduction to the topic. So let me see if I understood it correctly. More and more employers are using HR analytics, or people analytics, to make management decisions, and that's really focused on the individual attributes of the employees: their education, their experience, their knowledge and skills. But relational analytics—how the employees interact with each other, where they get their information, this constellation of social networks in organizations—that might be a better tool or at least a good complement to people analytics when it comes to making management decisions. And most employers aren't there yet. Did I get that right?

Jessica Methot:

Yes, that's absolutely right. And so a lot of where we're seeing this shift is historically, human resource management and management in general has been really deeply rooted in the idea of human capital. So focusing on each individual in isolation, thinking about how they can maximize and leverage each person's individual knowledge, skills, abilities, competencies, to help with talent management. So making sure that we onboard correctly, how do we recruit the right people, how do we train each individual, and how do we manage each individual's performance? But in this case, we're starting to see this really big trend in recent years towards this idea of relational analytics, or organizational network analysis, where we can focus more on the relationships between each individual. It's definitely increased over the last probably 10 years. We've seen a much larger proportion of organizations complementing people analytics with the idea of relational analytics. And if you were to Google the top 10 trends in human resource management, numbers one or two will almost consistently be organizational network analysis.

Steve Flamisch:

So how do they work? How do employers collect the data for relational analytics? What kinds of data do they collect? Is that the so-called “digital exhaust” that I've read about? And how do they then analyze that and use it to predict who will be the innovators, and who's efficient, and how do we improve efficiency, and all of that?

Jessica Methot:

So there are two primary buckets or categories of ways that we can gather data on relationships in organizations. So one is an active method. So through active methodologies, we can distribute surveys. We can have employees—similar to the way they would fill out a poll survey—indicate which relationships they have with other people in the organization. So in this way, it is not anonymous. It is confidential. So we try to remove any identifying information, but we would give, say, a roster, a list of the names of their employees or co-workers in their unit. And we would say, "Look through this list and indicate who or the extent to which you trust each one of these individuals. Who would you say you're friends with? Who do you collaborate with? Who do you work well with? Who do you dislike?" And we can map all these different networks.

Steve Flamisch:

I would probably lie on that survey.

Jessica Methot:

Well, right. And so I get that feedback a lot that, "Oh, well, how do you know it's accurate?" Well, one, we have that criticism for all of the survey research that we do. How do we know anyone's telling the truth about whether they intend to quit or whether they're satisfied with their jobs? So there's always a little bit of error in their reports, but you would be surprised how open people are in wanting to indicate who they like and don't like on surveys.

So it's actually pretty surprising, the extent to which we can get accurate reports, and we're able to assess. And there have been studies that have been done comparing the accuracy of these survey reports to, say, the frequency with which people actually interact. So in addition to those active means to gather data, there's also passive means. So this would include things like “digital exhaust” that you mentioned, where we can, say, analyze email exchanges, and if two people or three people exchanged emails with certain types of communication, then we can say, "Okay, these people have a collaborative tie, or they have a tie in this organization," and that can help us map those networks as well.

Steve Flamisch:

That's interesting. It reminds me of the last episode we did with Michael Sturman, talking about employee monitoring software. I can certainly understand where some employees and perhaps unions would be concerned about privacy. How can employers strike that balance between managing performance and respecting privacy if they're doing this passive monitoring that you're describing?

Jessica Methot:

I think it's important with both active and passive monitoring. I think we have a really high ethical standard for ensuring that we're keeping the integrity and the confidence of the people whose data we are using. And so this is where we, again, try to remove any identifying information. All of this is used to provide feedback at a higher level to say, "It looks like there are some bottlenecks here. It looks like we have some potential newcomers who need to be embedded more in the organization. Here's how we might be able to improve onboarding processes. Here's why we might see higher rates of turnover, or what might happen if people retire." But it's not intended to isolate any individual person, and we try to prevent any incidence of retaliation based on the information that we're receiving in these surveys.

Steve Flamisch:

I'm curious then, if it works so well, if relational analytics can have such a positive impact, why don't we see more employers doing this? Is it simply that they don't know about it? Have they heard about it and they don't believe in it? Or do they find that it's somehow more expensive to do this than regular people analytics?

Jessica Methot:

So one of the reasons that organizations aren't implementing this to the degree that we think would be important or valuable, is that there are barriers to entry. So if you decide you want to use a vendor, that costs money. So we have to do a needs assessment. Where do we stand? Where do we need to see changes? And what can we afford to do in terms of making actionable solution-driven or evidence-based changes?

I think stepping back, a lot of organizations, to the same extent that they don't implement people analytics, is that they don't really see the value in relational analytics. “If we manage our employees well, and we think that we are paying them enough, then they should be doing their jobs and they'll be motivated.” And we know that that's not really what creates engagement and motivation in organizations. But that's still the persistent viewpoint of some managers and senior leaders.

And I also think it's not necessarily that they're not implementing it, but for the organizations that are, they're not necessarily sure what to do with it. And we see this with people analytics, as well, is they end up having data but aren't really clear how to create a dialogue or a narrative to interpret that data in a way that creates actionable change.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, let's talk about the networks within organizations even more broadly. Most organizations have a defined structure, but you are interested in the shadow of the org chart. What is that?

Jessica Methot:

We know that organizations are designed to prescribe interactions and communication among employees. So a company's formal structure is reflecting how senior leaders believe that work should get done. But we also all know that we don't always stay within those prescribed solid lines in the org chart. We bridge those functional areas and divisions to collaborate, to build trust, to gossip, to become friends, to develop rivalries, and offer advice. And so basically, employees are building these shadow networks, these informal constellations of relationships, communication and interaction patterns, that ease inefficiencies, help us to avoid bottlenecks in workflow, build climates for psychological safety, improve their wellbeing. And so these networks also help organizations become more agile and adapt to changes more effectively because these networks aren't bogged down by bureaucracies.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, I know there are two broad categories of networks. You've talked to me about task-based and socioemotional. And you've studied the complications that arise when those two overlap and become a workplace friendship. What are the pros and cons of workplace friendships?

Jessica Methot:

So friendships largely form out of being in the same place at the same time. So proximity, frequency of interaction, also having shared interests and similarities. And so this is really convenient when people are co-located. It's not surprising that we have to work with people, we are on a team together, and we have to exchange information, and we have interdependencies to get our work done, but that we also end up developing friendships with each other. We ask about each other's families. We start to hang out after work.

And many offices have strategically designed their workspaces to promote spontaneous interaction, casual collisions like bumping into each other in the hallway or at the microwave. And so pre-COVID especially, they were breeding grounds for friendships to emerge. And I was really interested in understanding what that means in an organization. So if we are relying on our co-workers to get our work done, but then we also not only develop trust, but get to know them personally, learn about their families, learn about their kids, learn about their dogs, what does that mean for how we do our work? Are we able to ask deeper and better questions? Are we more vulnerable to each other?

And so in one of the studies that we conducted back in 2016, that got published in 2018, we were looking at networks that overlaid task and friendship networks—so where task and friendship were occurring simultaneously in a network of relationships. And there had been previous research that suggested that people who have more friendships or more friends at work were less likely to quit, were more engaged, were more committed to their work, but we felt like that might not necessarily be the entire story, especially if we were relying on them to get our work done as well.

So on the one hand, we did, in fact, find that people who had more workplace friendships did develop more trust in their co-workers, did get more valuable feedback, were better able to ask deeper questions and get better answers, and were better able to perform their jobs at work. So they knew there were people there they could rely on and people who were invested in them and the outcome of the work to support them.

But on the flip side of that, we also found that people who had more of these workplace friendships felt really drained. Should I be focused on prioritizing my friend role, or should I be focused on prioritizing my co-worker role? And so this really challenged how people were behaving at work and whether they behaved professionally or whether they gave their friends privileges and favoritism, and also the complexities in, say, rivalry with a friend. And so we saw that they were reporting this made them feel more emotionally exhausted at work as well.

Steve Flamisch:

And what do you do if you find yourself competing with your workplace friend for promotion? Or maybe you are in a position where you have to provide feedback and you don't want to give negative feedback because you don't want to hurt your friend’s feelings?

Jessica Methot:

So this is always one of my favorite questions because I always get asked, “Are work friends, real friends?” And I think these types of experiences at work really show whether they're real friendships or not, but also the fact that we are at work for a reason, and the professional aspect of the relationship really needs to lay the foundation for everything else that happens in that relationship. So really prioritizing professionalism. So if you, say, get that promotion and your friend didn't, and now there's a little bit of tension and you still want to hang out, but now your friend is reporting to you, how do you ensure that you're providing objective performance evaluations? How do you make sure that you're not privileging that friend by giving them better shifts over other people? And so this is where just being transparent and communicative and laying out some of the friendship scripts when something like that happens, can become really important.

So when I realized that there were these tensions in workplace friendships, and people were really feeling torn about the positives and the negatives that come along with workplace friendships, I started to look at the emotions that were implicated in these relationships as well. So if I feel both positively and negatively towards someone at the same time, so this could be, say, a protégé of mine who I'm really proud of, but also really jealous of, for example, because they could become really successful.

One of the really interesting things that prior research had shown is that there are both upsides and downsides to ambivalence. And we've found the same in relationships where we feel ambivalently towards someone else. So on the one hand, ambivalence can be really bad for our health. It can be poor for our cellular aging, it can be poor for our cardiovascular health. It can actually be worse to have an ambivalent relationship than to have a purely negative relationship. So if you know are enemies with someone, you know you can avoid that person or do whatever you can not to work with them and not to interact with them. But if there's someone who you respect, who you like, but who you also feel torn about, then you want to interact with them, but it can be unpredictable. And that's where a lot of the difficulties in having ambivalent relationships come up.

But we also find that ambivalent relationships can spark creativity. So they help us ruminate a little bit more, problem solve, think more deeply, be a little more suspicious of the information that we're getting and more vigilant. And so this helps us maybe be on our toes, but also think outside the box and be more willing to take risks. So there's a balance both with respect to wellbeing and with respect to creativity and performance that we see with these ambivalent relationships.

Steve Flamisch:

This topic really resonates with me because I'm thinking of a former co-worker from a TV news station. We were both reporters, players on the same team. And every morning when the managers, producers, and reporters would sit around a conference table to decide on that day's coverage plans, she and I would surreptitiously text each other during the meeting and coordinate on how to get out of the stories that we didn't want to cover and pawn them off on the other reporters in the room.

Jessica Methot:

Yes.

Steve Flamisch:

But then she would gossip about me, and she would complain to the producers and criticize me. And I simply couldn't understand it. I remember thinking, "It would almost be better if you were just my enemy, and that would be easier." That Jekyll and Hyde was very difficult for me to manage. And I'll bet many people feel the same way.

Jessica Methot:

That's exactly right. And we don't want to entirely lose those people from our networks because they provide a unique value, but that unpredictability can create a lot of disadvantages with respect to how we think and behave and feel at work.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, even with this complex web of relationships you've been describing, one third of our conversations are simply small talk. “We might get snow on Saturday. Did you watch the Giants game?” You've studied the impact of small talk and you've found that it is way more significant than we realize.

First of all, how do you define small talk?

Jessica Methot:

Sure. So small talk is polite, lighthearted, superficial conversation. And so the interesting thing about small talk then is that it has several features that make it unique from other forms of conversation. So one is that it's scripted, so it is polite, it is lighthearted, it follows a predictable script. We know how we're supposed to respond when someone asks us how we're doing. And the important takeaway there is that it doesn't take a lot of effort. It doesn't require any self-disclosure. So we can re-energize through these brief interactions.

And that was where I was really interested in starting to study small talk, because having done so many years of research on workplace friendships and thinking about just how much energy they take, and how much effort they take to invest and support and reciprocate these interactions and these relationships, there was so many other types of interactions and types of communication that were occurring at work that didn't have that same type of depth. So the fact that it's scripted is one really interesting feature about small talk that we don't capture when we are, say, venting to a friend or gossiping with a friend.

And then the other feature is that it's largely spontaneous. So it can occur without being planned. We can bump into someone in the hallway and strike up a conversation. And so these casual collisions, which happened primarily when we were co-located, can really spark creative ideas. They can help us perform better. They can help us realize we were missing something that we can then go back and apply to the work that we're doing.

Steve Flamisch:

How does it differ from gossip?

Jessica Methot:

So that's a really key distinction, and we never want small talk to devolve into gossip. So gossip is really idiosyncratic. We have it with a specific person about a third party who isn't present. Small talk is, again, scripted. So we're following this social ritual where I ask how you're doing, you say you're doing fine. I might even ask, "Hey, how are the kids?" And you'll say, "They're doing well." We can ask for things like news updates. "What are you doing this weekend?" We can also have really superficial conversations about the weather or about network television or about sports, but it isn't idiosyncratic in any way. It's not necessarily specific to the person who we're having a conversation with, and it is directed to that person. So it creates a co-presence and energy that's being transferred between the two people that are having small talk.

Gossip is behind the scenes. It's intended to hide something, it creates suspicion, and it's largely negative in tone. There can be positive gossip. "Hey, did you hear about this great promotion that so-and-so got?" But largely, it could create a negative environment, whereas small talk just creates and builds rapport.

Steve Flamisch:

You did a small talk study right before the pandemic, published in the Academy of Management Journal, and it received a ton of press. I remember The New York Times, Fast Company, Forbes—they all covered it. For that study, you recruited more than 150 people to document their daily interactions at work and how it affected them over a three-week period. What did you find?

Jessica Methot:

So this was really fascinating. Again, because we know small talk can be so polarizing and so stigmatizing, we often find that people mistakenly seek solitude. So they want to avoid it at all costs. They think, "Oh, I don't see any benefit. It doesn't make me feel authentic. I don't want to feign interest in someone else's small talk, so I'm just going to put on my headphones and avoid everyone." But in our research, we found that, on days when people had more small talk than they normally would, they experienced a boost in mood and energy. So they felt more friendly feelings, more pride, and this increased their pro-social behavior—so the extent to which they went out of their way to help their co-workers. And it also increased their wellbeing, so the extent to which they were able to recover from stressors at the end of the workday.

And so this was really interesting because the way that we studied it, we essentially controlled for personality traits. So we might see someone who says, "I'm really introverted. I don't like small talk." That just means their baseline for small talk is relatively low. So let's take an introverted person who doesn't often have small talk. On days that introverted person had more small talk, they felt more energy, they were better able to recover, they engaged in more pro-social behaviors.

Now, of course, there's a flip side to it. So if we are at work—and we did this research pre-pandemic with people who were co-located in offices with their co-workers—they also reported that it was distracting. So not surprisingly, you've got your head down, you're doing your work, someone knocks on your door and wants to chat. It pulls your attention away from the work that you're doing, and it made it more difficult to get back into the flow. So we did hear that it created “time famine” that somewhat pulled away from their opportunity to engage in more of those pro-social behaviors. But for the most part, it was largely positive.

Steve Flamisch:

So if it's largely positive, do you think managers should actively encourage small talk?

Jessica Methot:

So this is one of those questions that I think can be difficult to answer, but requires a balance. So yes, I do think that organizations should encourage small talk or that managers should encourage small talk. And we were seeing that both pre-pandemic and now with the return to work, we are seeing the implementation of things like “space syntax,” where consultants can be brought in to design office spaces where it drives the flow or guides people through different parts of the office to connect, to engage and have small talk, while not distracting other people who are really working heads down, trying to stay in the flow of getting their work done. So very strategic ways of designing workspaces.

This is not to compare to an open office space design. So that's a completely different and potentially detrimental office space design. We see people in open office spaces who are avoiding small talk because it's loud, there's buzz, they have trouble getting their work done. And so it's really difficult for them to focus. So they completely avoid it by indicating that they're busy or in meetings or trying to find a quiet space. So this isn't necessarily that. It's really trying to be strategic about where people have the opportunity to engage in small talk.

Steve Flamisch:

How has small talk changed during the pandemic, and what can managers do to encourage small talk among people who are working from home or maybe splitting their time between home and the office?

Jessica Methot:

So what we witnessed during the pandemic is that we took small talk for granted. So it was something that we experienced but didn't necessarily realize was so important and such a key part of creating the environment that formed our days. And one of the aspects of small talk that was really difficult to recreate was its spontaneity.

So when we shifted to remote work so abruptly, we're not just popping on Zoom and hoping that someone else shows up out of nowhere so that we can chat with them. Our interactions, our conversations, our work interactions became very transactional, very planned, and much less discretionary, much more formal. And so the characteristics of small talk are really difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. When we were physically present in a conversation, it creates that sense of, “We are together. I have this co-presence with someone else who's standing here with me.” People feel like they're in a conversation together. And that natural transfer of energy where we can read each other's emotions, that energy erodes in a virtual environment when we're staring at each other on a screen or staring at ourselves on a screen.

Also, during the pandemic, chitchat just wasn't a priority. We were all pressed for time. We were experiencing Zoom fatigue. We weren't trying to drag out meetings too long. We had family responsibilities. And the important thing there is that we should recognize how meaningful a little bit of small talk can be in combating social isolation and redressing some of that loneliness. A small connection can make a really big difference. So just pinging someone, doing a brief check-in and saying, "Hey, I haven't heard from you this week. I just want to make sure everything is okay."

And also, one of the interesting things about small talk is that it helps us with transitions. So we very rarely launch into a meeting without having small talk to grease the wheels. Small talk is a social lubricant. We have small talk before sales pitches, before negotiations, before interviews, before performance evaluations. We really use it to set the stage for a controversial conversation. It also helped us transition into work. So if we're walking into the building and we run into a colleague, we have a little bit of chit chat before we sit down and do our work. It helps us transition from home to work. But during the pandemic, where we were all working from home, that all blurred together. It was difficult to shift our mindset from home to work as seamlessly. And there were reports of people who would, say, get into their cars and drive around when they didn't have their commute, just to get back home, to be able to make that mindset transition.

And so this is where we want to give people the opportunity to say, "Have a chat on Slack." So create a leisure chat string. I wouldn't necessarily say that the virtual happy hours were effective. We all experienced those, and they were pretty awkward. But I do think that things like daily check-ins are helpful, especially from a managerial perspective. We can also assess our own social health. So how am I feeling today? Have I spoken with anyone? Am I feeling particularly disconnected? And how can I reach out? As leaders, we also want to recreate social rituals for our teams. If this is something that we've lost, how can we ensure that we're still creating and building this social fabric in this sense of psychological safety and trust among our team if we're still working remotely? How can we integrate spontaneous conversations into our remote work ecosystem? So set availability times for when others can connect if they're free, if they're available, if they want to take a break. And so all of these things, we've heard, are working relatively well.

Steve Flamisch:

Should managers build in time at the start of virtual meetings for small talk? Should they actually put that on the agenda?

Jessica Methot:

I do think that these things need to be informal. If you put it on the agenda, we start to experience something called “job creep,” where now the meeting actually feels like it's starting 10 minutes early, and I'm missing an opportunity to have FaceTime with my manager. And so we really want to be able to emphasize, while yes, I think it's an important step and a great way to give people an opportunity to chat with each other and catch up, we never want to make it feel like it's required. If someone wants to join at the time a meeting starts, that is when the meeting should start. We don't want to force them or coerce them into feeling like they need to pop on 10 minutes early.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, overall, this does seem like a really good time to be rebuilding our social networks. Research led by Marissa King found that our professional and personal networks shrank by close to 16%, or more than 200 people, during the early days of the pandemic. Our closest relationships grew stronger, but our network of acquaintances, including those at work, grew smaller. What is the harm in that, Jessica? What is the harm in having our network shrink?

Jessica Methot:

I think one of the primary issues that we see as our networks were shrinking due to the pandemic is that we were losing access to a lot of viewpoints. So we don't necessarily only want depth in our network--so depth being the intimacy that we have with our family members and our best friends and people who we know we can rely on—we want to balance that with breadth in our networks. So having a diverse set of acquaintances and weak ties and viewpoints, that help us see out into the world. And so we get new perspectives, we get information and access to feedback that we wouldn't necessarily have in our really dense, close-knit group of family members and friends.

And so one of the recommendations that I think we were seeing a lot of is to build back our network. So this is a really great way to strategically think about, “Who did I lose? Who do I need? And how do I reassess what type of people and what type of resources and support I need in my network?” And this is really key because there's a lot of pushback about this idea of networking and what it means. And there's a lot of myths around networking that we want to try to bust because it really is critical to have the right people in our network for different types of support. And so, one of the things that we hear is that networking feels dirty, that it's immoral, that it's inauthentic, that it's disingenuous, that we're just connecting with people to ask them for things, to get something from them. And I always like to say, it doesn't have to be used that way. Our networks, we can build our networks by giving back. Is there someone who you can help where you can give and provide support? And that also adds to extending your acquaintance group in your network.

Steve Flamisch:

Do you feel encouraged? Do you think we're going in the right direction? Do you think organizations are going in the right direction and taking these things seriously, especially coming out of the pandemic?

Jessica Methot:

I think there is a really important balance here. So we are seeing organizations who aren't necessarily heading in the right direction with these return to work strategies. So some of them are just saying, "We all need to be back to work. All of us need to be back to work because we all do our work better when we're present, and we can monitor you," playing off of your episode with Mike Sturman. But I think if we can emphasize the benefit of these networks and the value that we get of being co-present in an office, but also giving employees what they now recognize is the flexibility and the autonomy that they need in their work—so having a hybrid work schedule where they get the opportunity to meet with their team in person, but not requiring five days a week of face time, I think is really important.

And I do think that organizations, many organizations, are acknowledging that balance as a really critical touchpoint. But some are just saying, "No, we have to all be back at work." I also think we have to be careful of the companies that are saying, "Okay, let's all stay remote." Because if we don't acknowledge how important these networks and relationships are, then we might lose touch and we might not be creating the climate that we want to, to embed people in that social fabric.

Steve Flamisch:

This is all really interesting. I'm so glad that we touched on all these different topics. And if our listeners want to know more about this, there is a place where they can go to find out more information. I'd like to wrap up with a plug for the website you co-founded. What is workties.org and what can we find there?

Jessica Methot:

Sure. So I'm really excited about this initiative I launched with some colleagues of mine, and we also have a team of Ph.D. students who are supporting it as well. So workties.org is a curated site for all the research that we do on the science of workplace relationships. So we have experts who've published research on relationships at work, the idea of high quality connections and building and boosting these positive relationships at work, how we can manage remote work relationships in a remote environment, how we can use relationships to help us transition into retirement or other career transitions. So it's a really interesting initiative, a really exciting initiative. And this is a website that anyone can visit. You can also find us on LinkedIn and Twitter, and you can find digested, curated posts—blog posts—that are written by us and by other guests and experts who do research in this area.

Steve Flamisch:

Workties.org. Jessica Methot, associate professor of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, thank you so much for being on the show. I enjoyed the conversation.

Jessica Methot:

Thanks so much for your time. This was fun.

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 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.

Click Here to Listen Now

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.