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Momentum in the Labor Movement, with Alex Han

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Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Momentum in the Labor Movement, with Alex Han

Last week’s episode with Max Elbaum marked a transition for the podcast into an exploration of two of the biggest questions facing the Left: “How do we block the continued rise of the MAGA Right?” and “What are we building in its place?” In this and following episodes, William will seek to answer those questions by looking at current movements in progressive spaces. He begins this week by assessing today’s organized labor resurgence with long-time labor activist Alex Han, now executive director of In These Times magazine. (Alex is also a former editorial board member of Convergence Magazine.)

William and Alex review recent labor actions, from the UAW’s successful strike under its new leadership to actions percolating among major retailers like Starbucks that have yet to secure contracts for newly organized workers. Throughout the discussion they’ll acknowledge the difficulties of building greater integration and solidarity of the organizational and member interests of unions with a broader intersectional and internationalist Left movement.

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[00:00:00] Sound on Tape: This podcast is presented by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. 

[00:00:07] Alex Han: We’ve also existed in, the kind of post-war project into the neoliberal cutting of the excess of that post-war project. So we’ve existed in the action and reaction of the same thing, and so the question to me is, what can workers create?

[00:00:23] In new industries and in new ways that’s going to change the relationship of their organizations to power.

[00:00:34] William Lawrence: Hello, and welcome to The Hegemonicon, a podcast from Convergence Magazine. This is a show about social movements and politics, strategy and ideology, the immediate present, and the rapidly onrushing future. I’m your host, William Lawrence. I spent my 20s as a member of grassroots social movements, most prominently as a co founder and national leader of Sunrise Movement, the youth organization that put the Green New Deal on [00:01:00] the political map.

[00:01:01] Now I’m in my early 30s, trying to make sense of what we’ve collectively learned in this last decade plus of social movements and heightening social crises. I talk with activists and researchers on the left, exploring the guiding theme of power. What it is. How it’s exercised and how it’s distributed.

[00:01:23] Welcome folks. We’re entering a sequence of episodes here on the hegemonic con about. What we are building today on the left and one of the big things people are building is the labor movement My guest today is Alex Hahn who has many of years of experience as a labor organizer And is now the executive director of in these times magazine Alex.

[00:01:44] I’m glad to have you here And why don’t you introduce yourself to our listeners? Thanks. 

[00:01:48] Alex Han: I’m really happy to be here and excited for this conversation. So I’m Alex Han. I am the executive director of in these times magazine, which is a almost 50 year old magazine of [00:02:00] progressive politics and labor and organizing.

[00:02:04] I spent almost 20 years in the labor movement. Over a decade as an officer of an SEIU local SEIU healthcare, Illinois and Indiana. And a lot of time working with workers in Illinois, Indiana, across the Midwest and across the country and forming unions and fighting the boss and really working to to try to build a bigger political movement centered 

[00:02:26] William Lawrence: around workers and labor.

[00:02:28] Thanks for being here. We’re seeing a lot more militancy and overall energy in the labor movement than in a very long time. In the last several years, rank and file movements have transformed the UAW and the Teamsters and new unions have made breakthroughs at Starbucks and Amazon. And these are really only the most prominent examples.

[00:02:48] There are dozens of more, and it seems like the energy is snowballing. Has it ever been so good in all of your years in the union movement? 

[00:02:58] Alex Han: And again thanks for [00:03:00] having me on. I think this is a really good way to launch out the conversation. I would say I’m not going to directly answer your question.

[00:03:06] I’m going to, I’m going to get to that. But I do think it’s important to keep in context what the situation is in labor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 union membership density, which is the percentage of all workers who are actually union members covered by union contracts.

[00:03:23] That decreased to its lowest rate in recorded history. So in 2022, amid all of this historic organizing union density was 10. 1% which is the lowest since it’s been recorded. Now the number of union members went up year to year from 2021, but the number of non union workers grew significantly faster.

[00:03:42] And so that’s just to think about, changes to the environment, but they take a little bit of time to take root and for us to see the real results. And it’s really hard to predict exactly what those results will look like. But we’ve had, inspiring organizing fights like some of the ones you’ve named and more.

[00:03:59] We’ve [00:04:00] had a National Labor Relations Board that has made a set of decisions that are much friendlier to workers, to unions than any in my lifetime and in my memory. I also want to say, today we’re talking, a little bit over 12 hours after the tentative agreement was announced between the United Auto Workers and Ford.

[00:04:21] I think by the time the podcast comes out, I’m not sure exactly what the situation will be. But it’s also important, the Starbucks and Amazon fights have been really critical and important. They also haven’t resulted yet in union contracts, in organizational victory. They’re in one mode and in one place of struggle.

[00:04:40] And so I do think it’s important historically to think about, workers en masse are much more likely in a broader way to take inspiration from clear material victories. If the TA at Ford passes in the UAW, one of the highlights, they’ve said 11 percent raises in the first year. That seems pretty easy to understand.[00:05:00] 

[00:05:00] Yeah, very sharp. We can think about the contract fight of the Teamsters at UPS, the largest single union contract in the country where you’ve got, huge wins. The company says the average driver is going to be getting 170, 000 in wages and benefits annually after that. I do I don’t want to separate the organizing campaigns and those fights from the contract campaigns.

[00:05:21] But I do think it’s important to see. Workers seeing real material gains from people around them, from people who they know from people in their communities is something that I think is going to have a broader impact than the organizing fights, although those are 

[00:05:35] William Lawrence: critical as well. So we’re going to get into all of some of these prospects about where it goes from here over the next several years.

[00:05:43] I want to. So to enter the conversation. Just take a brief step back. We know that none of this has come out of nowhere. There’s been, of course, decades, centuries of rank and file activity in the labor movement. But a big part of the recent story can be traced to the Chicago Teachers Union strike back in [00:06:00] 2012.

[00:06:00] You’re a Chicago resident. Can you tell us a bit about that strike and how it foreshadowed the push of rank and file energy that has continued to develop in the decades since? 

[00:06:10] Alex Han: Yeah I do think it’s a, it continues to be a really important touch point for a lot of people in the labor movement, frankly, and other social movements too who’ve taken inspiration from that.

[00:06:21] I will point out that actually a few weeks ago, here in Chicago UAW President Sean Fain came into town for a rally at the Union Hall, UAW Local 551. That represents Ford workers in Chicago. The current president of the Chicago teachers union, Stacey Davis Gates was there at that rally and Sean Fain from the stage gave credit to the Chicago teachers union strike as one of the moments of inspiration that helped create this moment.

[00:06:46] So I do think we’re we’re in the same, you and Sean Fain are thinking alike here. So I want to say that and I also think this goes to the previous question, but I’ll go back to the beginning, try to give a little context. In 2008, A [00:07:00] group of Chicago teachers who really thought the current leadership was not serving them, was not serving their students, wasn’t serving their broader membership, in the face of huge attacks on the public schools.

[00:07:10] Privatization, charterization waves of successive school closures, neighborhood plans that ended up having not a single neighborhood elementary school. In a bunch of black and brown neighborhoods around Chicago. Replacing them all with charters, replacing them all with privatized actors.

[00:07:27] Those teachers formed a caucus of rank and file educators inside the Teachers Union which had a really long history over decades and decades of being in a struggle back and forth between, what could be termed as social justice unionism. And business unionism, social justice unionism, I think the Chicago teachers union was really formed actually in the early 20th century.

[00:07:51] One of their first campaigns was around fair taxation in order to fund schools adequately. And so it’s a deep tradition inside the schools. I think A group of [00:08:00] their members really saw them moving away at a critical moment when schools were under attack in a way they hadn’t been before. In 2010, that group, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE as they’re known, ran a slate against the incumbent leadership.

[00:08:16] It was a moment when a lot of us in the labor movement in Chicago didn’t necessarily give them a huge chance and a huge shot at winning, but they won in a runoff led by, their new president, Karen Lewis. And really that victory pointed toward putting up a fight for the next contract campaign, which is in 2012.

[00:08:34] Now, after Karen and Cora’s victory in 2010, a guy who most of your, Listeners will be familiar with Rahm Emanuel got the boot from the White House and ended up getting elected Mayor of Chicago, which in a lot of ways sharpened that fight to bring in, not just a kind of like Chicago machine, not just to have Richard Daley Jr running the machine in that way to, but to bring in [00:09:00] real, really one of the architects.

[00:09:01] of third way Democratic Party neoliberalism, really sharpened what was necessary and what that fight was going to be. Now, as soon as Ron came in, he tried to set up more barriers to teachers even being able to go on strike. They narrowed the set of issues that teachers could strike over to purely wages and benefits.

[00:09:19] They increased the threshold necessary in an internal vote to go on strike, where normally it’s 50 percent plus one of those voting, although. For anyone who’s in a union anybody who’s been in a democratic organization, you don’t take an action as that has as much personal and broad impact as going on strike with a 50 percent plus one vote.

[00:09:40] They raised that threshold to 75 percent and not just 75 percent of those who are voting, but 75 percent of the membership Overall, would need to vote in favor of a strike in order to go on strike. Now they thought that was going to prevent the Chicago teachers from going on strike. What they did not count on was that was actually in a lot [00:10:00] of ways, a help.

[00:10:01] to the Chicago Teachers Union to say we need not just a majority will to be able to go on strike, but we need functionally consensus among our membership that this is a fight we need to take on. So they created more unity in their membership. And they spent those couple of years in the lead up to the 2012 strike, Really building the necessary muscles politically, structurally and more, and with coalition, solidifying community and parent support, working with community organizations and different groups across the city.

[00:10:32] They took on, alongside other unions, like my union, SEIU Healthcare, big banks and financial actors that were starting public budgets. And trying to, help make the argument for privatization, not just in education, but in health care and housing and all sorts of different areas they called out apartheid conditions in the public schools and really talked about the conditions as they were and didn’t soften it.

[00:10:54] And so all of those things helped to lead up. to a strike in 2012, a nine day strike. It was almost a [00:11:00] week and a half. It was the first strike in Chicago public schools in 25 years. And really the first large scale teacher strike I think in a few decades anywhere in the country nine days, but 

[00:11:11] William Lawrence: It was considered to be hugely disruptive.

[00:11:13] I remember That everybody was talking about parents. All the political class. It was hugely disruptive to the city and had a huge impact in nine days. 

[00:11:23] Alex Han: Yeah, there are few other things that could be shut down, by 25, 000 workers, but a public school system that has 400, 000 students in it, that millions of people around the city interact with every day.

[00:11:34] That’s something that you see and you feel. And it’s something that you see. Across the city, and it was a really amazing moment where, I remember one night after the strike, I forget if I was in a store, a Home Depot or Target, picking up some supplies for the next day wearing a Chicago Teachers Union shirt, and getting four high fives, just walking down the aisles of a store.

[00:11:56] It was a really of a store. It was a really deep moment and it was something that had [00:12:00] enormous public support, super majority public support, and even higher support among parents of public school students than among the general public. So the people most inconvenienced by the strike were the people who were the most in favor of it.

[00:12:14] And, I do want to just go back to that previous question that you asked, Will, about what are the moments, has there been a moment that’s this good? Yeah. And I want to talk about that timeline because the teacher strike in 2012 in Chicago, enormously meaningful, but it took several years in a lot of ways to see that impact.

[00:12:31] You saw the wave of red state teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019 that really took lessons from Chicago. But I just, that timeline doesn’t always necessarily add up immediately. It’s something that I think needs to be built to in a lot of ways. 

[00:12:47] William Lawrence: And obviously the political expression of that power that was built in the workplace through CTU has is still ripening, and it has now taken Chicago City Hall through Mayor Brandon [00:13:00] Johnson.

[00:13:00] We’ll come back to that, too. Are there any other key moments, organizations, or people that You would want to mention non comprehensive that have been, really pillars of the labor movements upsurge over the last decade. And what are some of the things you’d point out that have gone right in order to get to this point?

[00:13:20] Alex Han: Yeah, I would, I would point out Labor Notes as a really critical organization that has played a really important role. I actually think, even though I live in Chicago, some of the members of the Slate who are running for office in CORE, I met for the first time at a Labor Notes conference in the spring of 2010 outside of Detroit, Michigan at a hotel in Dearborn.

[00:13:42] And Labor Notes has been a real center of that fighting part of the labor movement. That is really thinking about how to create militants, how to create union democracy. And that’s a through line through, the Teamsters fight, the UAW fight the fight inside CTU and a lot of other teaching unions, [00:14:00] is that Labor Notes has been a convener.

[00:14:02] of activists inside the labor movement, and it’s been, it’s played the role of connecting. And so there’s a lot of other, I think of other struggles maybe in the couple of decades before that teacher strike. And I think about the connectivity that Labor Notes has given things like democracy movements in the East Coast Longshore Union.

[00:14:24] Democracy movements and pushes inside the transport workers union in New York City that embarked on some, frankly, some strikes that were illegal strikes in the aughts. Now, it’s one thing to build a fighting union. 

[00:14:40] William Lawrence: And organize a heavy duty strike to get a contract. That’s hard enough.

[00:14:45] We’re seeing more and more of that, but it’s another thing altogether to wield that power in the political arena, especially in a leftist or transformational sort of manner. The CTU and a handful of other teachers unions have [00:15:00] managed to do both in really inspiring ways. I wonder what you foresee in that area.

[00:15:05] Do you think we’ll see the Teamsters and UAW getting involved soon, not just at the bargaining table, but politically? And I guess the more general question would be, is the politicization of their unions an explicit aim of most of the labor notes crowd, the labor leftists you’re talking to?

[00:15:26] Alex Han: Yeah, I I think that we’ve seen You know, just in the UAW’s relationship to a Democratic president and Joe Biden during this strike you’ve seen them wield their power in a very different way. They still have yet to endorse Joe Biden. And I think. Almost every, if not every major labor union has already done so but they were able to pull off defeat of getting Joe Biden to be the first president to walk a picket line with a union that’s on strike while having not endorsed him yet.

[00:15:55] I would also say that I think rhetorically, And I think this is true [00:16:00] of both the new leaders at the UAW and the Teamsters have really rhetorically talked about the fight in a clearer way. And I think in the UAW, it’s a little bit sharper, frankly. Sean Fane has really, if you listen to his speeches he’s really dug deep in, in a set of kind of traditions that we really haven’t seen much of.

[00:16:22] Recently from labor leadership, yeah, 

[00:16:25] William Lawrence: I don’t know if anyone expected that from him, but he’s really been his vocabulary, his language. It’s inspiring. We need a dozen like him. Yeah, 

[00:16:32] Alex Han: yeah, no, just need 

[00:16:33] William Lawrence: hundreds. I get 

[00:16:34] Alex Han: to see a union president from Kokomo, Indiana, quoting Malcolm X as he’s, pushing his workers into thinking bigger.

[00:16:41] And thinking bigger about the demands that they make. So I do think, Teamsters and UAW are both unions that have been very involved politically, but the question is, can they, are they going to shift how they approach that? I think we’re seeing some of the possibility of that shift in the UAW.

[00:16:57] And I think we’ve seen the Teamsters, frankly, be very [00:17:00] aggressive in like California, where Governor Gavin Newsom has been busy vetoing a lot of pro labor legislation in California. The Teamsters leadership there has been extremely vocal, along with their national leadership about how they feel about that.

[00:17:14] So I do think they’re two very different unions with very different history. And maybe at some point when you do another look back we can look at the Alliance for Labor Action, which was a short lived collaboration between the Teamsters and the UAW back in the early 70s, and an attempt to break away from the AFL CIO and to create a new kind of labor federation that would function politically differently as to whether the politicization as a goal, I think that really depends on who you’re talking to.

[00:17:46] And it depends on, but a lot of that is just like a question. It’s a question of order. It’s not a question of, or it’s a question of what’s going to lead to what. And I think for a lot of the people that I talked to, a lot of the people that I really look up to, on [00:18:00] the labor left, people have been doing this for a long time.

[00:18:02] They think of the kind of militant democratic nature of these unions as a necessary precondition to politicization. So we’re now in a moment we can have that conversation much more broadly. But it’s pretty remarkable that we’re at a place where we can think of two of the most storied and largest and most powerful unions in the country where this is an active question.

[00:18:24] William Lawrence: I’m interested to hear you state the case for why union democracy matters so much. Obviously if you are not in charge and you would rather have your faction be in charge democracy is one way to get there, but that’s not just the argument that’s being made. There’s a belief that the union democracy itself is deeply important for the overall effectiveness.

[00:18:45] Yeah. 

[00:18:46] Alex Han: Yeah. I think. We’ve seen this in the way that the UAW has gone about this strike. They’ve done this strike in a very non traditional way. They went about this strike in a strategic way so as not to stretch their own resources while being able to [00:19:00] play the big three automakers off of each other.

[00:19:02] And I think it’s frankly, a strategy that could not have been put into motion had they not recently had the first national membership vote for their leadership in the history of the union. And I think that like democracy for its own sake is something that’s worth supporting, but the kind of risks that workers.

[00:19:24] need to take in order to transform their relationship to their employers, their relationship to power are risks that workers take together. And I do think that there is this, there is a quest, the question of democracy. And I think democracy and unions can frankly surface in very different ways.

[00:19:41] It can look very different from union to union but at the end of the day, do you have a super majority of your members who want to act together and are willing to listen to each other and to take care of each other? And that’s a critical part. There’s plenty of organizations and people.

[00:19:58] And there are unions included [00:20:00] in this, too, whose, their leaders may take bold stances. But the question is, can you back up those bold stances with the action of your members? I think it’s very valid and, I’ve been talking to a lot of, frankly, a lot of union activists and leaders about the crisis right now in Palestine, in Israel.

[00:20:18] And, and I’ve been talking to a lot of activists who are saying, why aren’t the unions? Jumping into this. I think one of those questions is you’ve got to see a path toward unity of action in order to create effective action. And so I do think in a democracy is the key to all of that in whatever form it can take in whatever union that takes root in.

[00:20:41] William Lawrence: So moving. Into the back into the question of politics for one second. I want to ask one more question about Chicago. You’re part of a group called United Working Families, which is a It’s a coalition, somewhat called a political instrument that I’m not exactly familiar, frankly, with all the [00:21:00] internal operations and structures.

[00:21:01] But what is clear is that it coheres and challenge and channels the power of progressive unions and community organizations in Chicago into the political arena and has recently had huge success at electing the mayor, Brandon Johnson. Do you think this is a good model for how unions ought to be part of a larger left progressive political program?

[00:21:24] Alex Han: I do. And I’m going to be biased in that to, to some degree. But I do think there is, there’s a real need and United Working Families was not created, in a bubble. It was created. With some help and some inspiration and some lessons learned from our allies in the Working Families Party both in New York and elsewhere it was something where we thought about, even thinking more globally, how do unions exist in left political parties and structures around the globe.

[00:21:52] We can even think of, just to the north of us in Canada, the New Democratic Party is a relatively recent creation. [00:22:00] A third party that was created by the Canadian Labour Congress as a functional Labour Party for Canada. Now, their actions haven’t always lined up that way.

[00:22:09] But there’s a lot of different experiments and attempts. And I think in a lot of ways, It’s, United Working Families structurally, and it brings together, labor unions. It brings together other political organizations and community organizations and individual members and tries to figure out a way to do balanced democratic decision making as a result of that.

[00:22:30] I do think a lot of that inspiration comes from looking at the successes and challenges of social democratic and left parties across the globe. Nowhere, in nowhere else. Does, do political parties look like the American Democratic and Republican parties? And for most of them, there is like a, there’s a constituency.

[00:22:49] We were also inspired by the fight to reform the Labour Party in the UK which was a really active struggle in the mid teens. And so I do think it’s a, it’s, is it a blueprint? No. [00:23:00] Is it a good model and is it something to contend with as, other organizations and organizers and other actors are looking to build.

[00:23:08] Their politics, yes, I think it should be looked at.

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[00:24:03] William Lawrence: So I want you to then give us an upbeat story for the trajectory of the labor movement over the next 10 years the union organizing itself, but also how this is in relationship to a broader left and in the political arena. 

[00:24:18] Alex Han: Yeah, I, I think in a lot of ways, and this goes to the question of democracy and the labor movement.

[00:24:26] And it goes to also my response to your first question, talking about what is the real context of where worker power exists in this country. If the labor movement represents 10 percent of workers, and if that percentage is dropping, then that labor movement cannot democratically represent the will of workers.

[00:24:43] More broadly. That’s just how the numbers work. And I do think that the deepest path toward shifting the politics and shifting the orientation of the labor movement is not to focus all of our energy purely on internal reform efforts, although those are [00:25:00] critically important. The question is, how is the labor movement going to grow?

[00:25:06] How can we double the size of the labor movement? That’s the thing. That can actually energize. That’s the thing that can shift the politics. If, if 15 million young workers join the labor movement. As I, I think like every public opinion poll has shown, particularly young people, have an enormously positive opinion of labor unions.

[00:25:25] And that a super majority of them would join a union today, if it was an option. How do we think about that shifting those politics, because really when the labor movement has gone through waves of organizing, whether it was in the early part of the century in the CIO and industrial unionization, whether it was in the 60s and 70s in the wave of public sector unionization which enormously diversified the labor movement, both in gender and race, and really shifted and changed what the politics were there.

[00:25:54] I think that those are the things that can really help to shape what the labor movement [00:26:00] looks like going forward. So the question is Can an internal fight, can a fight like the contract campaign and the strikes at the big three, can that turn into the organizing of hundreds of thousands of more manufacturing workers?

[00:26:14] And to bring that energy into, the labor movement. I think it’s very possible, I think that, but I think it’s also, I don’t generally give purely optimistic takes. So I 

[00:26:25] William Lawrence: like that about you. Yeah, 

[00:26:26] Alex Han: and I’ll temper that just by saying that, a lot of that is about the question of the conditions of what is the economy overall.

[00:26:33] Is the economy expanding and in what ways? And so we’ve got to maximize what’s possible. Given we’re not going to change the broader economic structures that we work in and live in right now, but we can maximize what we can do. And so I think there is a lot of possibility over the next 10 years, and there’s a real necessity.

[00:26:52] The labor movement needs to transform itself. It’s not going to transform itself just by shuffling around the chairs that exist [00:27:00] right now. It needs to grow, and that possibility is there. 

[00:27:03] William Lawrence: So what is missing to make that come 

[00:27:05] Alex Han: true?

[00:27:10] That’s a good question. I think we’re getting closer to, there’s can point in a bunch of different directions. There’s a deficit of leadership in some ways, but I think we’re seeing newer and different kinds of leaders express themselves. And I think particularly, in these union reform movements and what they’ve been able to produce, because I think we do need Labor leaders, I wrote about this and in these times in my editorial last issue, the demand for a 32 hour work week.

[00:27:38] And, we don’t know where that’s going to land with the big three, but the simple act of the UAW putting that on the table for a couple 100, 000 workers and saying, here’s a demand was the UAW saying, we’re going to bargain for the whole working class. And we’re going to talk about what the whole working class needs.

[00:27:54] And so I do think There’s a question of leadership, and then there’s a question of cross union partnership and [00:28:00] ability of different people who are working in different industries and different regions and places to coordinate strategically, which is, again, that’s a role that Labor Notes in some ways has played.

[00:28:10] That’s a role that there’s a lot of different organizations, the Bargaining for the Common Good Network that I’ve worked with a lot over the years is another place where that kind of coordination is happening. 

[00:28:22] William Lawrence: She, you noted that 10 percent is not enough to actually represent the working class.

[00:28:29] You suggested that we should try to double that to maybe 20%. That sounds better. If we were at 20 percent union density, would that be enough to, uh, represent the interests of the working class? Or do you believe that unions need to be in relationship with other working class formations that organize working class people, but not under, not in the workplace and under the guise of being a labor union.

[00:28:55] Alex Han: Yeah I think that there’s, there’s no magic number that gives us the amount of [00:29:00] kind of credibility and power. And I should also point out, there are countries in which I think, the labor movement does a very credible job of representing a broader working class sentiment.

[00:29:10] Countries like France. Part of this is the structure of how labor law works is different. But actually France’s union density is pretty comparable to the United States. But they can, their union federations, they have sets of competing different union federations with different political views they can call for general strikes and get millions and millions of workers to support those.

[00:29:29] They can put out kind of political calls and they can move those politics as well. So there’s, so I do think it’s critical, for labor to work together with, the growing climate justice movement, with the movement for black lives with groups like the Debt Collective or tenant organizations that are really organizing people in.

[00:29:48] A model that’s inspired by a set of labor organizing, but also it’s like about what is people’s material relationship to power and what’s and so I think those are really critical. And I [00:30:00] think it’s balancing those two out. But what I would really say is that what we need is, It’s a dynamic labor movement that is unpredictable and growing.

[00:30:08] And so there isn’t a magic number but if we’re on the upswing and growing that power that’s something that, politicians have to contend with. That’s something that kind of economic actors have to contend with. 

[00:30:20] William Lawrence: Within that dynamism. Or the new ideas that are emerging and directions. People want to see their unions or the labor movement in March large go.

[00:30:29] Are there any directions or tendencies that you find concerning that you think are aside from just the incumbency and the sort of the pre existing stasis? Are there any proactive tendencies out there right now that you think would be a wrong turn. 

[00:30:42] Alex Han: I think there’s and part of this just comes from my own experience.

[00:30:46] I think there can be like, historically, I came up as an organizer in the odds, which was a challenging time. To be an organizer in a number of different ways. And, I learned a lot from [00:31:00] a lot of brilliant people who had been organizing through the 80s and 90s. This was like three decades of the, some of the, the most challenging political climate, in, in kind of modern American history, in a lot of ways, the rise of neoliberalism the, and all of that.

[00:31:15] And I think that there is, continues to be a tendency of trying to take tactics and strategies from that moment. And broaden them out. And I think it’s a mistake. There are a lot of cases in which we’ve seen, and this is true of many different unions and organizations and it’s really a strategic question, but to win representation and gains for workers who have had no role in fighting for them to focus on legislative victory, at the expense of building rank and file and mass base and power now those are questions, it’s almost never cut and dry.

[00:31:48] It’s almost never, hey, we’re going to either do 100 percent this way, or 100 percent that way. But I do think there continues to be danger in creating things that we have to explain to workers are [00:32:00] victories. If that makes sense. Oh, a legislative vehicle, to raise the wages for this specific group of workers.

[00:32:07] Or that we have, this kind of, this public entity that now has to listen to this specific group of workers in industry. Anything that takes two steps to explain to a group of workers that they haven’t had to fight, that they haven’t been in a fight for is something that I think is, it’s challenging to think of how that really moves a bigger working class movement forward.

[00:32:28] William Lawrence: That’s very interesting. Sometimes I see groups making demands for procedural justice so that they’ll be invited to the table in the future when the reality is they haven’t been able to actually force themselves to the table this time. Yeah. On the issues that matter. And I haven’t seen that work out often.

[00:32:45] Alex Han: Yeah and it’s a, all these situations are dynamic too. And part of that is, how do we understand what is the goal we’re trying to get to? And how do we have some strategic tension in how we’re going to arrive at that goal too? It’s [00:33:00] important. 

[00:33:00] William Lawrence: I want to ask a question about the more external conditions.

[00:33:02] And you mentioned this, the sort of, we’ve seen a lot of macroeconomic ebbs and flows that really have huge impacts on the labor market. Tight labor markets have been an important factor strengthening the hands of workers in some terms during the pandemic and its aftermath, and it’s driven up wages, but I’m a little unclear on how it has by itself led to more militant organizing.

[00:33:25] In the inverse, we know that an economic downturn and rise in unemployment Would be bad for workers as a class, but do you think it would be bad for union organizing per se? And another way of asking this is should union organizers be watching Fed policy with concern that Jerome Powell is going to induce another recession and that’s going to cut the knees out from this wave?

[00:33:48] Alex Han: Simple answer is yes and yes. There, there’s only so much sharp ideology or coherent strategy can push back against the broader conditions that we’re [00:34:00] in, and I do think part of that is like identifying the places where those impacts are smaller and that can be, regions, it can be specific industries, specific employers.

[00:34:11] But I think at large I also don’t think from some policymakers and some, thought leaders, they’ve been very clear that they want a recession in order to lessen the bargaining power of workers. 

[00:34:23] William Lawrence: Crystal clear. 

[00:34:24] Alex Han: Yeah, they say it out loud, they say it out loud all the time. And they’re not wrong.

[00:34:30] That is something that impacts the ability to do movement building on a broad basis. 

[00:34:36] William Lawrence: Now I want to move towards a couple of maybe more ideological and long term oriented questions. I’m curious for you. Is the horizon of the union movement. Fundamentally reform oriented in the sense that its aim is to represent more workers to do better politics And then win a better deal for the working class, or [00:35:00] do you harbor more revolutionary ambitions of perhaps some sort of general strike that would bring the state to its knees or some sort of dual power being exercised at the point of production that we build on the shop floor.

[00:35:12] Where do you orient yourself on those debates? 

[00:35:14] Alex Han: I go back to a little bit of what I like The way that I’ve framed it sometimes before is to say, it’s not a question of how to re reform this labor movement, although that’s one of the strategies that we need to use. It’s a question of what is the next labor movement?

[00:35:30] What does that look like? And we have that. been, structurally in the same place in the labor movement for 70 years really 75 years since the passage of Taft Hartley, the Labor and Management Relations Act. All of these things have set up the structure of what we exist in and we’ve also existed in.

[00:35:49] The kind of post war project into the neoliberal cutting of the excess of that post war project. So we’ve existed in the action and reaction of the same thing. And so the question [00:36:00] to me is what can workers create in new industries and in new ways that’s going to change the relationship of their organizations to power.

[00:36:09] I would say I do harbor revolutionary ambitions. And I think of them more as transformative ambitions. I think that there’s power to be built. And I think this is something we all understand. We are in, an interlocking set of crises. We’re in a poly crisis. And reform is not adequate.

[00:36:44] William Lawrence: What we would like to achieve eventually and what we what we have to do in the meantime. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So continuing to peer ahead into the clouds of this 21st century, I wonder how we can [00:37:00] do all of this without just speed running the 20th century. Because in the, United States 20th century labor radicalism led to a great class compromise.

[00:37:12] There was the New Deal order, and in that New Deal compromise, American labor was a willing partner in the project of American global hegemony, led by the U. S. Capitalist class and the military industrialist complex. And, labor took a share of the profits and fell in line on foreign policy.

[00:37:32] And my sense of solidarity tells me that I don’t think this is an acceptable outcome this time around. And I don’t think it would be for the left labor organizers I know, but how can we make sure it actually is different? 

[00:37:45] Alex Han: Yeah, I’ve seen so many echoes of this and some of the conversations and debates around, by dynamics or the Inflation Reduction Act and so many people, even those who I think take what might be a more conservative stance on those [00:38:00] understand that they’re pointed toward a bigger foreign policy objective, right?

[00:38:04] Which is animosity with China and an attempt to continue asserting America’s place in the global order. We do need to have some clear starting points where our understanding has to be that is not an order that is going to actually be implemented. create a livable world for the future.

[00:38:21] So I do think there’s some, there is some need to figure out how to bring a set of people to some sort of consensus on that question. Now that doesn’t mean that Different organizations and groups aren’t going to take, again, different tactical and strategic routes to something and it doesn’t mean that there won’t be disagreement.

[00:38:41] And, I do think of, this is one of those places where I do think about the work particularly, in my mind is the work of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil. And the kind of continual political education project that exists inside that movement. Now that is not a labor union [00:39:00] or a labor movement, but I do think there are some really important lessons for us to learn in how to adapt and evolve a transformative vision of politics in order to not just become a part of a moderately better, like not say we’re just going to be junior partners in this hegemonic project.

[00:39:18] We’re going to make it a little bit better than it was going to have been. Because we know that little better isn’t adequate. And so I do want to point to I do think in the global South, There are a lot of places, there are a lot of organizations and people, and there are a lot of unions who are grappling with that question as well.

[00:39:35] What is their role in relationship to the state? What is their role in their relationship to actually thinking about transforming things? In the U. S., we have a unique position, being in in the global power. And so I do think, it’s a place where we can hopefully learn from some of those lessons.

[00:39:52] It’s also a place where I’m really heartened by this new UAW leadership. We’ve seen, and this is like a relatively small thing in the greater scheme, [00:40:00] but we’ve seen UAW’s Region 6, that covers the West Coast, sign on to a labor letter for a ceasefire. In Gaza, which, labor unions by and large, hopefully by the time this comes out, there will have been more who’ve signed on but to see the UAW being maybe one of the key actors in that kind of liberal hegemonic project to see the possibility of them existing in a, situated in a slightly different way is enormously hopeful to me.

[00:40:32] William Lawrence: I think where it would really get hard is in the UAW. Could we imagine a UAW that would take a stand in favor of less resource intensive models of the EV transition? That’s a place where I go that’s going to be another tough one because right now the profit model is all around building the biggest cars with the heaviest batteries possible.

[00:40:51] And we know we’re going to use. maybe 10 times more lithium cobalt than we need to compared to, maybe other ways of even building [00:41:00] cars. But but it might be a little bit less profitable based on how they’re doing things now. That’s going to be a tough one because ultimately the management and the workers are negotiating over a pool of profits.

[00:41:09] And to call that into question is the toughest sell of all. 

[00:41:12] Alex Han: Yeah, that’s very true. Although again, I think there are other, there are instances where we can look at unions and maybe the answers haven’t been answers that are transformative, but we can look at the struggle and we can look at like how other unions have answered some of those questions.

[00:41:27] I think at the West Coast dock workers, with the leadership that understands many of these jobs are going to be automated, and figuring out how do we actually do something that manages that process and that allows for workers like, I do think the frame of a just transition, I still think that is a really great phrase to think about.

[00:41:45] And I think it, it’s got application much more broadly than climate and environmental justice. I want to just transition for Workers in the prison industrial complex, I want to just transition. And so a lot of this is like, how do we give workers agency and [00:42:00] a democratic voice in creating the kind of world that they think they need?

[00:42:04] And I think if we’re able to put that question in front of people then that’s something new for a lot of people to grapple with. And could end up. Hopefully moving us in a different direction. So if you ask me today, is the UAW going to do that? I would say the possibility exists and that’s significantly different than how I would have felt a year or two ago.

[00:42:25] I would add something that occurs to me, and this is very specific, but, back in the mid 70s there was a leadership contest in the United Steelworkers and a leader from the southeast side of Chicago, Ed Sedlowski, this legendary labor left organizer and leader. Was running for the national presidency of the steelworkers and he gave this interview where he said, we don’t want I don’t want my kids to go work in a coke oven.

[00:42:49] I don’t want my kids to work. What we need to do is we need to figure out a path where no one has to do this kind of backbreaking dangerous [00:43:00] work. And really, I think that kind of statement pointed toward how do we think about. Actually, again, the world that we want to live in and that we want to build and what is the role of labor in creating that.

[00:43:14] William Lawrence: Management of production for the actual benefit of human beings. Yeah. Yeah. It’s not that complex an idea. Yeah. So I was curious to ask, in doing politics, a left leaning union often finds itself opposed to other unions. Solidarity forever, and yet people come out on the opposite side of a lot of political candidates and issues.

[00:43:37] So how do you, what is your approach to dealing with this holding solidarity forever while also dealing with these, pitched political battles in the political arena? 

[00:43:46] Alex Han: I would relate this back to a couple, like thinking about. union democracy, thinking about kind of the need that we have, I think about a lot of moments and it’s true when you’re doing politics and legislation, [00:44:00] and this is true, not just in the labor movement, it’s true much more broadly as well, you’re going to end up on the different side.

[00:44:06] Than people and you’re going to wish that you were on the same side. I do think a lot of that can be, there’s two elements. One of them is about like, how are we expressing the needs of workers, and communities like in these questions and how do we couch these things, so many times a legislative fight, it just ends up being framed as, It’s not framed in the sense of what do members need or what is the impact going to be on workers, right?

[00:44:36] It ends up being a very different kind of basis on which people make decisions, like a very inside baseball political basis. So I do think as much as possible, like focusing it on who are the actual people who are going to be impacted? How are they making a decision about what needs to move forward and how do we push people to respect that decision?

[00:44:54] But then there is another level, like the reality is elite politics exist and like [00:45:00] the world of lobbying and legislation and political operatives exists. And there isn’t a relational aspect of like labor leaders having to figure out like, what are the things that we need consensus on? What are the things that we need agreement on?

[00:45:14] What are the things that we can agree to disagree? And I would also like point toward, some of the, Labor union, something I think a lot of people on the political left really need to keep in mind is that there’s a lot to lose in politics for a labor union. There’s a lot to lose for any constituency that has existing relationships with the people in power, as bad as strange as those relationships may be.

[00:45:39] And I think this is like broadly true, when we think about the voting patterns of we say, Oh, black voters do this and Latin X voters do that. And, those are, a lot of those behaviors are a function of an actual, like the material impact of a loss of access and power can have.

[00:45:55] And so I think that’s true in the labor movement as well. But I do think that [00:46:00] you have to, I do think that the baseline is figuring out what are the things that you actually need agreement on that are core and what are the things that you can be on opposite sides. 

[00:46:10] William Lawrence: Yeah, people want to, if you got it, you got to build a bridge across.

[00:46:14] It’s if you’re in the inside and you were able to get your deal on the inside, even if it’s not much, it’s going to be tough to convince people to give that up. On a lark or for a promise of some revolution that might not be just around the corner. 

[00:46:30] Alex Han: Yeah. And I’ll give, I’m not going to name the unions involved, but I can think of a few different examples of entering into coalition with multiple unions and community groups.

[00:46:39] And one of the groups saying. The bottom line is, if we get this for our members, we’re going to have to walk away. And I remember being really appreciative of the clarity of that. To say this is our bottom line, and, we’re not going to go after you. But if we get, this certain type of deal for the [00:47:00] people we represent, we’re going to have to walk away.

[00:47:02] The problem comes up when people are not clear about their actual objectives. And what they’re trying to accomplish. And it becomes 

[00:47:08] William Lawrence: about, yeah, moralism rather than people’s interests. 

[00:47:11] Alex Han: Exactly. 

[00:47:12] William Lawrence: As a closing question what would you advise to someone who’s listened to this? They’re excited, they’re jazzed, and they want to become a labor leftist organizer and work to build a transformational socialist workers movement.

[00:47:24] Where should they start? 

[00:47:25] Alex Han: I do think You know, there’s a lot of debate in some places about the rank and file strategy versus others. There’s a lot of debate about the positionality of people. I don’t have a blanket answer. I do think that if you work in a place or an industry, or if you have the ability to do that, where you can imagine that there are like minded people like you, that you can connect with then I would encourage people to join a union, to form a union at their job.

[00:47:52] If it’s one of those things I would encourage people to get involved in, whether as a worker or as a volunteer with something like the Emergency Workplace Organizing [00:48:00] Committee that the DSA and UE have been running collectively for the past several years, and that’s really helped to launch organization in a number of different types of workplaces and industries around the country, I would encourage people to, to subscribe to Labor Notes and to go to, to go to a Troublemakers Workshop.

[00:48:20] The labor notes is putting on as close, if it’s an, if it’s an a distance that you can make to go there and to learn from some of the people and hear from some of the people who are really actively engaged in that and to really think about how to, approach things from a learning perspective.

[00:48:34] William Lawrence: We’ll get some of those resources for the emergency workers organizing committee and labor notes in the show notes for this episode, Alex, thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. You’ve given us a lot to think about. I really appreciate your time. 

[00:48:47] Alex Han: All right. Thanks. Really appreciate you inviting me on.

[00:48:54] William Lawrence: This podcast is written and hosted by me, William Lawrence. Our producer is Josh Elstro, [00:49:00] and it is published by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. You can help support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon subscriber of Convergence for as low as 2 per month at patreon. com slash convergence mag.

[00:49:14] You can find a direct link in the show notes. This has been The Hegemonicon. Let’s talk again soon.

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