Sarah Jaffe

May Day Amid A Plague with Sarah Jaffe

Transcript May 1, 2020

[edited for clarity]

 

Laborwave Radio in conversation with Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” She is a Type Media Center reporting fellow and an independent journalist covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, the Guardian, the Washington Post, The New Republic, the Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, as well as a columnist at The Progressive and New Labor Forum.

 

She discusses labor organizing and worker militancy amid a plague on this troubled day of celebration, May Day. 

 

Preface

“We already know, because of the climate catastrophe that is breathing down on us, that we need to radically reshape the economy and do it quickly. Well now we've seen that we can. It turns out that we can survive on the work of so-called essential workers. I think what we’re seeing is the things that are staying open right now, the things that we need, are jobs doing the work of social reproduction. Nurses are working, and members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are picking tomatoes in Florida working. The people who deliver things to you, the logistics chain, Amazon warehouse workers who have been showing us all how to be militant lately, are working. That is social reproduction work. So much of the rest of the economy doesn't actually need to exist.”

 

Laborwave:

One of the things I was particularly taken by recently in reading Mike Davis was his explanation of [Karl] Marx's view of history. Marx assessed, of course famously, that people make history in circumstances not of their own choosing, but did believe that there is an opportunity to fast-forward history at certain moments.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

Although sometimes history fast-forwards itself, whether you like it or not.

 

Laborwave:

Exactly. So a crisis could be a fast-forwarding, not of your own choosing, but in a rapid new direction.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

There's the other quote that everybody's dropping right from [Vladimir] Lennon about weeks where decades happen. There's the Lenin quote and the [Antonio] Gramsci quote that I think Will Davies was joking that they've been retired from overuse.

 

Laborwave:

I purposely didn't use that one.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

It's real, right? You get these moments and what I think Marx is talking about in that, and that was from the 18th Brumaire which I was just referencing the other day because it's the book where Marx was grappling with being wrong, which I think is a really, really, really important thing for all of us to do. I was just talking about how Mike Davis is always right, but like sometimes we're wrong about things and the left doesn't always do a great job of learning from that, and the labor movement doesn't always do a great job of learning from that or really talking about it, which is why there aren't any good books on Operation Dixie. We should grapple more with the moment when we're wrong, but also the thing about good strategy is that it always has an understanding that contingencies will happen.

 

Sometimes the global pandemic will happen. Other times the financial system will collapse. All sorts of things can happen. The one constant that we learned from Marx is that capitalism is inherently crisis prone and therefore when one little thing goes wrong, like you know a lot of people having to temporarily quarantine themselves, everything can blow up really fast and that presents both a lot of real material misery for a lot of people and also opportunities to point out that capitalism is inherently crisis prone. Maybe a system that can't handle a month or two of quarantine isn't actually set up to take care of human needs?

 

If you work at a grocery store, you don't make a ton of money, customers are often jerks to you, and you're on your feet all day. It's probably kind of boring when people aren't being jerks too, right? It's not a great job on the best of days, but now you're expected to go do that not great job and you might die of it. And that makes people a little bit more likely to push back against what their boss tells them cause they're like, you know, okay I would maybe do this job for nine bucks an hour and hate it, but now you want me to risk a slow, painful, miserable death on a ventilator? No thanks.

 

Laborwave:

Where do you think organized labor has been in all of this resistance? Like how do you feel the preparation before the crisis hit was for organized labor and what about its immediate response? Has it been positioned in a way to take advantage of the fact that worker militancy is on the rise in places like grocery stores?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I think the answer there is basically it's uneven. Just like the labor movement has been for a really long time in places where unions are strong the reaction has been pretty good. So there have been some wins for things like hazard pay and safety precautions for places like Kroger grocery stores for thousands of UFC members and that is great. I spoke to one of their members from West Virginia, he's a pharmacy technician at a Kroger and his name is Travis Booth, and he was like, ‘okay so we got all this stuff and they've extended all of that into May so we know they can do it and we know they're raking in money because of the virus. So we better be preparing to make them put that in our contracts, make these raises permanent. You've told us we're heroes. Okay. Pay us like it in other places.’

Other unions are being flattened by this thing. Like Unite Here has had over 90% of their members, I think, lose jobs, which is just like what do you even do with that? How do you even conceive of that? And even if a lot of these people are probably going to get hired when the economy reopens, we don't know when that is. This whole thing is really uncertain and I can't even imagine what it's like to be at Unite Here headquarters trying to think through this right now.

There is preparation in terms of how to build on the gains made before. There's preparation in terms of rank and file activists and nurses who are organizing days of action around the country. Nurses and teachers have been two of the bright spots for unions for a while now. There's places where we are seeing teachers really strong too. Like in New York city where the mayor and the governor were having this sort of nipping back and forth match about when they were going to close schools. And the teachers were just like, screw it, we're calling a sick out. You don't want to close the schools then we’ll close them because we have the real power here. And that came from rank and file militancy, and from an already organized core within the union.

 

Laborwave:

I absolutely agree the labor movement is such an odd patchwork of really strong social justice minded organizations that do good organizing, and others that just rely on tradition and routine.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

And I should say I don't think it's a reflection of Unite Here that tons of its members just got laid off. Like it's a reflection on the fact that they represent people in an industry that mostly thinks people are disposable.

 

Laborwave:

Absolutely. Yes. I think it's fair to always qualify that capitalist bosses are the primary problem. I don’t want to make all my critiques of the labor movement seem as if I don't understand that ultimately the system is against all of us.

But what organizing practices do you think the stronger labor unions were employing before the crisis hit that made them more prepared? Could you give us some highlights of the ones that were bad or sloppy organizing practices along with highlights of the good practices?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I think the best is always when the members feel like they are strong and that the union has their back. When you have members that say if I walk off the job, a union is going to be there for me. Rather than like, ‘oh, I have to call the union and make sure that they think it's okay that we do these walk-offs.’ Just like the sort of walk-offs that we're seeing at Amazon warehouses, which are nonunion, but like anything where people are confronting their bosses immediately in a moment where there's split second decisions being made about people's health when the union has their back it’s a stronger union.

Every moment that you're at work, you think about the way people feel empowered to take care of themselves rather than feel sort of scared and like they're on their own and they have to ask somebody permission to act. So, the places where we've seen militancy, we're seeing it coming from the workers. You're seeing that as part of union cultures or reform movements within the union that address that the rank and file are the union.

 

Laborwave:

What about in the places where things are being decimated or the unions were just failing to show up?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

The thing is that it's always easier to shut a workplace down than it is to force it open, and it's always easier to strike from a job that you have then strike to make somebody hire you or keep you on the job or keep a plant open. These are the challenges that we've seen. This is why manufacturing unions have been suffering lately. We know and everybody listening probably knows about the problems with the UAW lately, but it's also really, really hard to go on strike and force GM to keep a plant open. There's things that could have been done better in the recent GM strikes certainly, but also I don't know that they could have kept Lordstown open by striking. These are fundamental sort of challenges and the same thing for Unite Here.

Like what leverage do they have if they're just going to lay everybody off? I genuinely don't know what the answer to that is and it doesn't mean that there might've been things that they could have done better, but like the challenge right now is there are industries where people are just going to say we're going to get rid of everybody, and at the end of this we might hire you back, and the only leverage you have there is public opinion. I think public opinion is going to be more favorable to tons of people getting laid off because of the virus, and in other situations, but it's not that strong.

We’re in tactics land, right? I don't know if anybody has a grand strategy for how to handle organizing in a pandemic. If Mike Davis had one I would love to hear from him because if anybody did, he probably does. But, if anybody had written out a strategy for in a global pandemic, when a third of the world is on lockdown, this is what the labor movement should do I would love to hear from that person. If you’re out there, you’re a genius and can we be friends?

These are those moments where a lot of things are flying by the seat of their pants, but also there are some victories happening. Like I was just editing an interview before we got on the phone here with one of the nurses who plans the day of action that they did yesterday, which was April 15th as we're talking and she's a nurse in Chicago, a member of at NYU. And they've long supported Medicare For All. But what this moment is making them realize, she said, and I've heard this from other nurses too, is it isn't going to be enough. What you actually need is a fully nationalized system and the workers need to run it because they're the only ones who actually know how to run things around patient need and not- god, I almost did the capitalist greed because it's just right there. It's hanging right there. That's the protest chant.

We’re seeing in real time also that the thing Joe Biden considers an impossible demand, single payer, is also not enough. And that's changing right now with these nurses understanding of the system is that we need to nationalize it.  Andrew Cuomo, who is governor of New York that I have very, very little love lost for, has basically sort of socialized the hospitals in New York. They're doing things like taking them into some form of state control so that they can distribute resources to where it's most needed.

We say these things are impossible, but they’re happening. So we're in some ways running to catch up and other ways like leaping forward with the analysis.

 

Laborwave:

I'm wondering where we can further some of these things that previously seemed impossible and which now seem inevitable? But on our own terms. I'm thinking about a lot of debates among labor organizers and socialists around strategy, and some of these position I've heard Doug Henwood describe as anti-work debates where people push for like the four-hour day and push against work as an imposition, which I am totally in favor of…

 

Sarah Jaffe:

Yup. Work sucks.

 

Laborwave:

Yeah. [laughter] And it's true now we've seen a lot of work that absolutely does not need to be more than four hours a day

 

Sarah Jaffe:

Or done at all. Right? Like how much of this work that has just been shut down for however many months do we even need?

 

Laborwave:

I would argue confidently that we don't need any managers.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I know, right. I mean, come on? But it is a fascinating moment, right? We already know, because of the climate catastrophe that is breathing down on us, that we need to radically reshape the economy and do it quickly. Well now we've seen that we can. It turns out that we can survive on the work of so-called essential workers. And there are things that we hope will reopen. I personally really miss this little Thai restaurant in my neighborhood and I would like it to be open and I want to give them all my money. And I’d like to get my nails done, and I have not had a haircut since January. So these are things that are closed right now that I really look forward to reopening. And I promise to be very, very nice to all the people that work in them when they do reopen.

But then there's stuff that it's like, what is that even for? David Graeber calls them bullshit jobs. I interviewed Tithi Bhattacharya about this, she's the editor of a wonderful book on social reproduction theory, the things that are staying open right now, the things that we need are mostly jobs of social reproduction. Nurses are working, and members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are in Florida working. They're still working in terrible conditions. I might add the people who deliver things to you, right? The logistics chain, Amazon warehouse workers who have been showing us all how to be militant lately. That is social reproduction work. So much of the rest of the economy doesn't actually need to exist.

One of my favorite stories that I'm looking at over and over right now is the IUE CWA workers at GE in Lynn, Massachusetts, and some other places, who have demanded to stop producing whatever it is they produce there. I got a very irate press release from a press guy at GE who was very concerned that I know that they make very important military equipment in this plant. And I was kind of like, yeah, well your workers say they'd rather make ventilators. Do you have a comment on that? And he just kept sending it back to me like more passive aggressively and highlighted “military equipment,” and I was like read it, read it the first three times. Don't care.

 

Laborwave:

What you’re saying about Tithi Bhattacharya in highlighting how reproductive work is really the glue that holds together all of society makes me recall an argument that Jane McAlevey made in a couple of different forums suggesting that the labor movement as an overall strategy needs to prioritize the sectors of teaching, nursing and logistics. What do you think about that argument and what would a platform that is appropriate for the times really be if that was our strategic focus?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

The nurses and the teachers have already been doing it. They have been leading the charge already. Anybody who pays attention to anything to do with labor, even if that's just excitedly tweeting about strikes, knows that teachers have been leading the charge and that nurses are consistently out in front of everything. Now I'm literally hearing from nurses that we need to nationalize the whole system. We have an understanding already of what those workers would like to demand and we talk about it as something called “bargaining for the common good.” This is where public sector workers, teachers’ unions in particular, have been making demands that are not just for the workers in that workplace, but improvements that actually will affect the entire city.

I've been thinking about this one because it's related to things that are going on right now in Los Angeles. Teachers went on strike just a little over a year ago. One of their demands was there was some land that's owned by the school system that should be used to build affordable housing because Los Angeles, like most cities in the country has a massive housing crisis. And I was thinking of this the other day cause I was talking to some folks who had occupied houses that are owned by the state of California in a different way. And the teacher's union is supporting those people who are moving homeless folks into these publicly owned vacant properties because they don't have anywhere to self-isolate. When you talk about things that are being done that we've been told are impossible, people are putting homeless people in houses and hotels now because suddenly it turns out we can do that.

 

Laborwave:

I really appreciate the emphasis here on the rank and file workers being in the forefront of all the creative and adaptable methods.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

Yeah, they know what's up. They know how to run the places that they work and we should probably listen to them more. I think a lot of people, even within the labor movement, have gotten into this habit of seeing workers as not really capable of running shit. And I just think that's so deeply wrong-headed in every way because I've never talked to a single person who could not run their workplace better than their boss.

 

Laborwave:

I 100% agree.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

It's just true. And if they can run their workplace better than the bosses they can probably run the country better than Trump. Which is really not saying that much.

There is this understanding that the union is kind of this thing that's over here and we service the members and we take care of the members, maybe like gently guide the members into the right decisions. And that's not to say there isn't a place for skilled organizers. I think there is, I think organizing is really hard. I'm not good at it.

 

Laborwave:

I think a lot about the role of staff organizers, in part because I do work as a staff organizer for a labor union…

 

Sarah Jaffe:

And by the way, I think you also should be union members. I’m not the kind of person who's just like staff unions are terrible. Whatever, like no, work is work.

 

Laborwave:

No, no, totally. I mean actually I should be transparent I am a member of the IWW and that is my actual official staff union representative.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

Well that's very Oregon Pacific Northwest.

 

Laborwave:

Right. [laughter] It was voluntarily recognized because I happen to work for a good union. But I wonder a lot about the role of staff in developing and helping build and guide rank and file workers ultimately with the view of inspiring worker insurgency. My question is how do you organize an insurgency? Because really that's what I think rank and file empowerment is. Ultimately the rank and file take the lead, and what that ends up looking like a lot of times is they, maybe they don't officially overthrow the union, but they pretty much shuck union leadership and shuck staff leadership and take matters into their own hands. And that looks like things like wildcat strikes and so on. What do you think the role of the staff organizer should be and what do you think it looks like to organize an insurgency?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I mean I'm not an organizer, so like you know that there are many, many better people than me to ask that question. But I think one of the things that makes good organizing also makes good journalism, which is just treat the people you're talking to like they are as smart as you are and they know a lot of things you don't. And you might also know some things that they don't. So you meet people as equals who have information and skills that share back and forth rather than to be like, I am the organizer who is going to teach these people how to be militant. Often there's plenty of militancy and people are sort of looking for help and support so they're not doing things alone.

Show me working people who aren't pissed off these days. Capitalism sucks and it's been sucking even more for the last decade and now it's like the worst it's ever sucked since 1929. There's a way that a lot of unions have tended to hire organizers out of colleges and people who are USAS (Students Against Sweatshops) activists and stuff like that. It holds up wonderful, but also tends to create this idea that these people [organizer staff] know things and these other people don't know things. Especially when you're hiring college educated white people as organizers for a union that mostly represents Black and Brown women.

I don't know that I have particularly useful advice on how to organize an insurgency, but I do just feel really strongly that even a lot of people who work at unions do not think their members are smart and capable of running the union, the workplace, the country, the world. And like I just do, cause I think like, look at the people who are running everything. I think we couldn't be doing a much worse job in a lot of cases.

 

Laborwave:

I totally see the affinity and agree that the journalistic approach of listening to people and letting them speak for themselves, and it’s one that I try to adopt. Advice that I've been given from better organizers than me is just let workers speak for themselves.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I get these calls sometimes where somebody's been like press briefed within an inch of their lives and it's just so boring and isn't what the person actually thinks. And they're being told this narrative where they have to just like sound really sad and pathetic and it's so disempowering. I talked to this woman the other day who was a fast food worker from North Carolina and I asked her to tell me what it was like when you first started thinking about going on strike and she goes, ‘yeah, well I made a promise to myself decades ago that I would strike anytime I got the chance.’ I was like, I love you so much. Cause nobody coached her to say that. She was just, yeah, I know that this is how this goes, and we need to strike all the time. We need to strike more than just today. We need everybody to go on strike with us. I feel like that's not what anybody is going to coach them to say to a reporter. But it was the most authentic thing that she could say.

 

Laborwave:

It's such a refreshing contrast to the typical sloganeering of a lot of labor unions, which is really very conservative stuff. Like fair wages. Well what does fair wages mean under capitalism?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I mean I think a fair wage is the workers owning the means of production. But that's not usually what other people think of. What is fair? What does it mean that the boss should pay their fair share of taxes? What does that mean? Like fair share of the top tax bracket up until Ronald Reagan was like 90%. That sounds fair to me. It still doesn't sound fair, I think we should take everything.

But yeah there are these sort of words that have been so focus grouped, and this is not just a problem for unions this is also a problem for other organizations that I write about like a lot of pro-choice organizations for example, everything has been so scripted and focus grouped and narrowed down into an easy narrative. I was talking with a very experienced organizer friend of mine yesterday about this actually, and he was just like, you know it's not about the narrative, it's about power. Right now, as I was saying, I think that public support for any worker who walked off the job and says my boss is setting up conditions where I'm going to get the virus has probably more public sympathy and more public support. I think bargaining for the common good demands and things like that are really important to bring the community along with you. But that's not about crafting a narrative. It's about figuring out what people actually need and figuring out ways that you have power to meet it.

 

Laborwave:

It reminds me too of what I've been seeing recently about certain supporters of the Bernie Sanders campaign. I don't want to chastise or deride people who I think are trying to lick their own wounds by saying things like, well we've won the battle of ideas. And my thinking is was that the fight, the battle of ideas? We have an abundance of good ideas, what we don't have are political organizations that enable people to act.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

Well that's the question. I spend a lot of time in the UK and there was an entire general election in the UK in November and December and it was over by December 12th, and this election had been going on for a year by that point. So our electoral cycle just like eats everything. And I think that really sucks. But I also think that talking about the battle of ideas, it's not just about ideas, right?

When the nurses are saying, yeah, we were saying Medicare For All, but what we really need is actually a nationalized healthcare system, not unlike the one that happened in UK, but where the workers would actually run it rather than Boris Johnson being able to gut it. It is important to be able to say now the political discussion is a lot bigger. Like who would have thought a Republican president would have sent $1,200 checks to everybody, even if they all are getting lost in the mail and the website tells half the people you can't get them. The fact that they even agreed to do that is a huge jump from 2008 and Obama was president in 2008. Well, he came in in 2009 but he handled a lot of the recovery from the financial crisis, and we've already run more out of Trump than working people got out of Obama. So we should pause on that for a second and ask what's different now?

It's not just Bernie. Bernie is a symptom. I think that there is a tendency to sort of put the cart before the horse and say that Bernie made things like the teacher strikes possible and that's just crap. It's not true. Bernie did not start the rank and file organizing in Chicago or New York or West Virginia. That's just not what happened. Bernie was able to go from being an obscure weirdo who was in the house for, however many years, to the Senate during that period of time and then become the sort of voice of everything in 2010 when you did his eight-hour speech that wasn't really a filibuster, but everybody watched on the internet, right? That was the moment Bernie broke, but still nobody thought that any [Wall Street crooks] was going to be in prison and he was literally the only one in Congress who would say anything.

It is important to look and see what is different now and what is different now is not that there's one guy who ran for president. What is different now is that there has been a revival of the strike. Not big enough by far. The level is still too small, but Janus didn't kill public sector unions. It was supposed to four years ago and when Scalia died, was it four years ago I don't know. And it makes me really mad that his son is running the labor department right now. But like, remember when Scalia died and we were all kind of breathing a sigh of relief because that meant that the Friedrich's case was going to go four-four which up to then we thought we're screwed. And then we haven't been screwed. And that's basically because teachers have gotten really militant lately. There was some more preparation granted in some ways because people got a little bit more time to be like, Oh crap, we need to do some internal organizing so we don't lose all our members when the gauntlet comes down. I was on Janus watch, my editor of the New York Times wanted me to write a thing about the Janus decision whenever it came down. And so for that whole Supreme Court session I was sitting in the coffee shop down the street from my crappy sublet watching every morning to see if the Janus decision had dropped and it was the last one they released that cycle, and like we knew they were going to do it. We expected to hear it. Like I was at a thing where Mary Kay Henry spoke in March that year and she expected it to be the first one that comes because they want to defund unions as quickly as possible. And it was the last one that dropped. I got to guess that at least somebody in there was looking at the teacher's unions going, did we screw up? I mean we're going to do it, but wait a minute.

There has been a shift in power and I think that it's not a battle of ideas. There is leverage in a different way now. A friend of mine in the UK, James Needway is always saying is that Trump and Boris Johnson are not Republicans the way we've understood Republicans for the last 20 years, 40 years. They don't do things quite the same way. And that doesn't mean that we're winning because they are in charge now. It means that because everything's a dialectic they will absorb some of our things right and try to take credit for them and then figure out other ways to screw people over cause they still ultimately work together. So I don't want to entirely dismiss the battle of ideas. I also want to say that it's never about ideas, it's about power.

 

Laborwave:

I fully agree with that position. What I am most concerned about is how often it seems like the awareness campaign in itself is misconstrued as the entire battle. But, I wonder what you think about this take? My impression, my pop-theory, is that you can correlate the decline of material power in the labor movement in the United States with the increase in the belief that everything is a PR campaign in terms of organizing.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I think that's true, but my hot take is the decline of the labor movement in this country started when they kicked out all the communists. And that is a point that I will fight you on, and I have tried to convince, among other people, Bill Fletcher to write a book about it. Because I know that Bill agrees with me, or rather I agree with Bill because he's been doing this a lot longer than I have and I really want to read the book that he would write about it. So if anybody who's listening knows Bill or is Bill write the book.

I keep referring back about fights for workers control, and this is why I'm obsessed with the GE workers who are demanding to make ventilators. There was a period of time in the early CIO when you had a lot of communists in the room who considered the labor movement as the place to wage the battle over control of the means of production. And even if that was not going to be what won the revolution, it was going to be a slow struggle for more and more control on the shop floor and the treaty of Detroit, which was the big deal with the automakers that essentially locked in regular gains in wages and regular vacations and benefits. 

But things like that were happening and the labor movement stopped fighting for control of the means of production. They started fighting for a better life, which is like a totally, totally understandable thing that they did. I get why it happened. The miscalculation I think was that you thought that the boss was going to stick to the deal, but capital never stopped fighting the war. They just pretended to stop for a little while and then the seventies come around and there's a profit squeeze and all of a sudden the things that were thought to be permanent gains are rolled back by bosses. 

If you've read Lane Windham's book, one of the arguments that she makes is that through the seventies workers were still trying to form unions. But then this massive union busting industry had really come into its own. And so they started losing as many union drives as they won. And so this question is like disarming in a fight that the boss never really conceded.

I think it goes back to an understanding about what unions are for. Is this a fight that we can sort of have a detente that will last for a while, or are they always going to try to find ways to crush us? The thing that coronavirus is making very clear is for a lot of bosses they just don't care if we die because like literally people went off saying that on Fox news. Right. Like going on and saying like two to three percent of people are going to die in order to reopen the economy. They're saying the quiet part loud.

 

Laborwave:

I have a lot of questions that I want to ask you so maybe I can combine a couple at once. The way I try to explain it to folks when I try to give my quick view of the labor movement history in the United States is that there's always been a left wing and a right wing of the labor movement. And what happened was the right wing defeated the left wing and we're still suffering under the circumstances of the victory of the right wing of the labor movement.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

Yeah. I mean it's interesting to me actually on that point that the IUE CWA is the one who is leading the charge on these demands to make ventilators, because the  IUE is the thing that was created to squash the UE. The UE were communist run and the IUE was the thing that was created to raid them. It's even on their website. I mean it's more nicely phrased than that, but like it's on their website that they were formed to be an alternative to the communist union. And the UE was pushed out of the AFL-CIO and it still exists and its workers still often have the best analysis of anybody you'll meet. 

So I think it's really interesting that now in this moment these workers who were in a union that was on the side of bread and butter contracts is the ones who's making this demand that is much more than bread and butter.

 

Laborwave:

Yeah, I think it's important to highlight that just because the right wing defeated us doesn't mean that we can't regain and reclaim some kind of primary position within organized labor. Absolutely communists and anarchists folks were repressed by the state and ousted from formal labor organizations in the past. But it seems like that has also resulted in a real abandonment of the left from taking organized labor seriously and trying to prioritize the need to engage and involve our bigger strategic plans with organized labor. Maybe not necessarily at the center or forefront but as primary in our plan. And instead what I see is a million arguments about how we need to make the Democratic party a leftist party or whatever, and I never see the same people, or maybe it's very marginal, saying the same thing about the labor movement. We totally have a better chance at making the labor movement a left wing overall movement than reforming the Democrats. What do you think about that?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I mean it's a different thing, right? Cause like the Democrats are not really an institution. They're a collection of, you know, Grifters. Like I said, I spend a lot of time in the UK lately, and the Labor Party is a party. You can take power within it, like Jeremy Corbyn was able to do. You can get elected leader of the Labor Party, and suddenly you have thousands of people flooding in. It's all kind of a mess right now. And there's a whole scandal about the party staff really resisting that, but has just broken last few days. It's really fascinating if anybody likes to watch other countries politics as a spectator sport, or less spectator in my case. But our Democrats are not a thing you can take over that way. There's no majority vote for the DNC chair and they don't have that much power anyway.

When Keith Ellison ran to be chair of the DNC and was quickly squashed  there was a lot of crap in there. Actually, it really made me mad. Some people within the unions. I mean, Randi Weingarten came up pretty strongly against the things people were saying about Keith Ellison and I was really proud of her for that. But there isn't a structure to take over and democratize, because the Democratic party isn't a party the way the Labor Party is a party. That's really my set of concerns about that. It's just like you can't do it. There's no levers. It's a ghost. It's a bunch of rich people. 

Unions, whatever we might think of how some of them are run, are institutions that have levers of power that you can push and you can push on repeatedly. You can run for local office in your union, you can organize a new local. If you're in a union you can be part of a campaign to elect somebody president of your union. You can do all sorts of things. You can go on a bunch of wildcat strikes and really piss off the leadership, and you can do lots of things. But there are structures and rules for how you can take and use power and also you have actual leverage, which is the workplace, which is a much more dynamic location to contest for power than the ballot box.

 

Laborwave:

One symptom of the left, in my opinion, abandoning organized labor I would say is the real lack of labor journalism in the United States. And I wonder if you agree with that assessment, but also why do you think there is such a lack of serious labor reporting in this country?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

The short answer to that is that we don't sell newspapers. The business section sells newspapers and we are not particularly advertiser friendly. As I was saying to somebody else the other day, because if I am writing a story about a big company it's usually about how they're being crappy to their workers. And that does not make for good ad sales. If I had a story about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that doesn't make the people who use their tomatoes look great. Right? Or the story about Kroger. Well, I mean, you know the story about Kroger wasn't that bad cause they were like, yeah, we want some good things. Although we had to negotiate really hard for them whether that Kroger handed them to us out of the goodness of their heart, Amazon right now, right. People are going on strike left and right and they are firing people and that does not make for advertiser friendly copy.

So I mean that's the sort of political economy of the labor beat. And what's fascinating is that the places that it survived, even now, you know, Josh Eidelson works for Bloomberg cause that's who will pay for labor reporters because the boss wants to know what we're up to. The Wall Street Journal has had a labor reporter for decades. It never stopped. The New York Times ran Steve Greenhouse out finally. But those are some of the reasons. And then there was just like what you're saying, like I started trying to be a labor journalist in earnest in 2008, 2009. I was in grad school, the economy was collapsing. I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life and trying to figure out what a credit default swap was and why it broke the economy.

And at the time I had to twist arms at places like The Nation to get to write labor stories. And now that is not the case. I've got two in edits at The Nation right now. But at the time it was not anybody's priority. And they were a few people like Liza Featherstone who had kept the beat alive, but it was on life support and it was certainly not most people's full time job. The sort of rebirth of it ,to the extent that we have one now, has gone alongside the rebirth of worker militancy from the labor movement. So the first time I can recall getting a call to do a labor story rather than having to beg was Wisconsin, and that was followed by Occupy and then the Fight for 15, and then suddenly people would call me up and be like, Hey, what's this thing that's going on?

You write about that stuff because there is a case for it. And then the thing that's happened since then is that a lot of journalists have been unionizing in places that were previously non-union, new media, but also older media like the New Yorker. And that means that suddenly you've got a lot of smart young reporters who not only have an awareness of their own class position, but everybody at Slate knows what “right to work” means. Now I think that a lot of people still don't know because the boss tried to put it in their contract and they nearly went on strike over it. Now they not only know what it means, but they viscerally know what it means cause they know what it would've meant to have that in their contract. And so that has done wonders for labor reporting and commissioning and things even from people who don't write about it themselves that often. There's still not enough. And the fact that I'm a freelancer, Kim Kelly is a freelancer, Michelle Chan is a freelancer, and Tammy Canada's a freelancer is because it's still not that many people want to put enough money into hiring experienced labor reporters full time, but we can scratch out a living. And that's better than it was when I started, when I had to write things like the 10 worst Republican governors when I was working at Alternet.

 

Laborwave:

I have honestly, so many more questions I'd love to ask you, but I know that we have to be a little bit more tight with our timeline here. So I want to leave you with a quote from Mike Davis, going back to it again, my obsession with him recently, and then kind of get some thoughts from the quote itself, if you wouldn't mind.

So in one of his more recent books, Old gods, New enigmas, he writes, “it is not progressive impoverishment that usually generates revolutionary impulses, but mass unemployment and the sudden loss of hard won and apparently permanent gains.”

So thinking about what Mike Davis identifies as the moments of revolutionary impulses where do you see those impulses happening now? How much do you think organized labor can be a part of those revolutionary impulses in the face of mass unemployment, I think we reached over 20 million in this past week, and the loss of gains that we thought were permanent?

 

Sarah Jaffe:

It's a really hard moment right now, because one of the things that's happening is that everybody's supposed to stay home. So it's really hard to do things like figure out what our tactics are raising hell when you're also trying to not spread the disease. And the irony being like, I don't know if you saw those pictures of the protestors yesterday pressed against the door demanding that they reopen Ohio?

 

Laborwave:

No, I didn't see that.

 

Sarah Jaffe:

I’ll send it to you. Somebody did a screenshot of it next to an image from the Walking Dead and it's really kind of creepy. But that's the thing, right? The people who are willing to go out and do a protest right now and risk everything are the people who kind of don't believe that things are actually that bad. So that's hard. But at the same time we are seeing in real time that the economy can be changed very, very quickly and a lot of this work is not necessary, and a lot of the things that we have been told over and over again are impossible are actually being done. And we're seeing that the people who are essential workers are a totally different set of people than we were told are smart, and are worthy of listening to and taking seriously and are worth caring about.

Now it's going to have a lot of effects on people in ways that- I don't know what will shake out obviously, because I am not the kind of witch who can see the future. But to think about what it means when we finally sort of lift the lock down with the economy is people are saying like, Oh, it'll just come back and it'll be fine and we can just like reopen. That's not true. So what is going to happen in between there is going to depend on many different things. But if the Trump administration and the jerks in Congress who think that they don't have to come back until May aren't going to do anything else for people, and people are not getting the checks, and they're not getting their unemployment, and the can't even get through to unemployment because the phones are so busy, people are going to get desperate and desperate people do a lot of things. 

The labor movement can be helpful in terms of having a power analysis, understanding leverage, understanding how to make things stop and how to make things start. And also being an institution that can be supportive of people when they need things because like people need things right now. There are people who can't leave their house because they're old. They're immunocompromised, they're in many ways more susceptible to coronavirus. And you know, mutual aid networks are springing up, but unions can be a source of support for people even when they're losing things. And it's a moment where the workers who are well organized can take a leadership role and be more clearly aware of what people need than Trump or Cuomo or whatever. And I have no idea what's going to happen. It's weird and terrifying. And also it's proving a lot of things that we have long known correct, from the scary ones, like the bosses will be cheerleaders, let a bunch of you die rather than suffer a loss in their profits, or the accurate ones, which is a lot of this work is crap and we don't actually need to work that hard in order to have a livable world.

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