Low pay, no opportunity for advancement, and feeling disrespected topped the list of reasons why millions of workers quit their jobs in 2021. With union organizing in Big Tech, Starbucks, and Amazon and labor unions enjoying high popularity with workers across the country, could this be the beginning of a new labor movement? Arelia Valdivia and Francisco Diez from the Center for Popular Democracy are here to share some insight into the Great Resignation and what is driving worker unrest.
Some highlights from Has Worker Unrest Sparked a New Labor Movement:
01:29 – A Shortage of Good Jobs
06:23 – It’s More than Just Pay!
10:20 – The New American Majority
15:25 – The FIX UI Campaign
This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds with Traci Dority-Shanklin. We believe in demystifying retirement solutions, upholding retiree dignity, and contributing to economic stability through union organizing, pension reform, and legislative activism. In short, we're devoted to busting myths about the labor movement. If you're interested in the enduring power of labor, well, you've landed in the right place. Experts and activists will share their insights, expertise, and stories. Time is short, so let's get started.
Traci Shanklin 0:36
If you are just joining us on the podcast, I have been chatting with Francisco Diez and Arelia Valdivia. Arelia Valdivia is an organizing manager and Francisco Diez is an advocate with Workers Justice Policy at the Center for Popular Democracy. I first learned about the Center for Popular Democracy in an article about unemployment insurance reform in Bloomberg Businessweek. Lockdowns and the coronavirus pandemic laid bare our inept and patchwork unemployment system, so the CPD is organizing and enlisting the help of all workers, both employed and unemployed to help reform the unemployment system. Arelia and Francisco are here to talk about those efforts and share some insights into what's fueling the current wave of workers’ discontent.
Traci Shanklin 1:29
Post-COVID, we have had the most unusual job market in modern American history. The economy has experienced two historical surprises. First, the demand for workers came soaring back at a velocity rarely seen. But second, despite companies going all out to hire and millions of workers either retired early or stayed on the sidelines. And these two forces have collided and we're experiencing a time when employers face too few workers. So, we've heard the numbers that the US employers are struggling to fill 10 million jobs because workers are either saying, "No thanks," or "I quit." And there's a US Bureau of Labor statistic that shows November 2021 shattered all previous records for workers quitting. And I think it was like approximately 4.5 million quits. And there were a ton of companies that went on strike during October. But a lot of them were Who's Who companies like Kellogg, Frontier, Big Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, which is a larger hospital in the area, John Deere, IATSE, which is Hollywood's largest union. I think there were according to Cornell's University School of Industrial Labor Relations tracker, there were 198 strikes in 2021, and 53 of them happened in October. So, what do you think is fueling workers' discontent and their refusal to return to the workforce?
Arelia Valdivia 3:06
I would want to reframe that also, as like, I don't know any workers who are actively refusing to return to the workforce. All the workers, for example, within our memberships are actively trying to rejoin the workforce, but they're trying to rejoin the workforce with a job that adequately sustains them and their families. But, the biggest thing that I think is really a question of safety, right? Workers are used to being asked to do, you know, backbreaking work. They're used to being asked to work really hard for very little pay, but COVID changed the stakes of the game, right? You're no longer just being asked to work a lot for very little pay; you're literally being asked to risk your life for very little pay, to risk getting sick, getting your family members sick. And I think that that's the biggest like one of the biggest factors right now is that it's a safety issue, right? If you are a server, who works waiting tables and makes minimum wage but survives on tips, does it feel worth it to you to risk your health, your family's health waiting tables for very, for very little for a job where you can barely sustain your family?
Arelia Valdivia 4:19
When I was in the Union, the biggest issue we were fighting was like how do we make sure that when our members go back to work, that they're going back to work safely? And that their safety is put as the number one priority and safety takes on different forms right now. It is COVID but a big part of the IATSE strike was that they were working these unreasonable hours and that's really like a quality of life issue, right? And so, I think that really COVID brought like those issues to the forefront and really made it very tangible to people that their life, their actual life wasn't being valued by these employers. And I think that that's like a very visceral feeling that drives people to take big action, like go on strike. So, I think that that's part of it, obviously.
Arelia Valdivia 5:10
I think that we're in a time where people feel like they should be compensated more and that their health and overall well-being should be taken care of in a way that it wasn't, particularly if you're being labeled as "essential." And all of a sudden, you're being put on this pedestal, it's like, the country can't function without you, you're essential. And you're being told that and then, on the other hand, you still can't make enough to feed your family. It just doesn't make sense. And I think people are finally pushing back against that.
Francisco Diez 5:41
I think Arelia meant, it really hit the nail on the head-on in the first point, which is that we're really seeing a shortage of good jobs. And nonetheless, despite the high quits rate, what we're seeing also is that the hiring rate is even higher than that. So, people are quitting to leave -- primarily leave for other jobs. And, you know, luckily, the employment rate is going up, but it is really at the core, I think, what Arelia has described is that workers understand what -- have a better sense of what they're worth, and are more willing to, to fight for that, and know what it takes and are more willing to use this labor market to try and find a job that better respects or better matches that dignity.
Traci Shanklin 6:23
Yeah, I think it's a very important point. And I appreciate you clarifying this, that the stakes are truly so much higher now. And I'm wondering if given the convergence of COVID and worker shortages, and union favorability being at an all-time high, do you think workers -- employers, I mean, might put things beyond or even at a higher priority, this higher hourly pay back on the negotiating table?
Arelia Valdivia 6:59
I will say that I've never seen employers willingly do something, regardless of what the labor market looks like. But, I think that they are being pushed by workers to put things back on the table. I think as long as workers keep pushing back, it's gonna, it's going to kind of push employers in the right direction. I'm hoping that that continues to push wages higher, right. Like, I think I'm hoping that that continues to also push for better safety standards when people return to work that pushes for other benefits that people have been fighting for. And I think the more even for non-unionized workers, the more unionized workers stand up and push back and increase the standard, it really increases the standard for everybody. And so, I'm hoping that that trend continues. But, I don't think that employers will do it without being pushed by a movement of workers who are demanding more.
Traci Shanklin 7:54
Are there any fringe benefits that you guys are hearing that are hot buttons for workers that employers might be forced to look at?
Arelia Valdivia 8:04
Beyond the basics of health care and retirement, I think the biggest, like real issue that employers are having to face is also like, workload. I think people are not wanting to go back and have to work overtime hours to be able to make it. I think people are really looking for schedules and a workload that can sustain their life without them having to kill themselves to make it happen. And so, I think that that's like, the biggest issue, anything that's been negotiated outside of like wages and health benefits is like how do people return back to work safely. And that includes, like, actual precautions around COVID and keeping people safe, but that also includes like schedules that allow for people to rest and to spend time with their families and take care of each other.
Traci Shanklin 8:56
I think childcare is a big hot button as well. I think there's a lot of frustration over the way different obviously, this is even community by community with schools. But, I know a lot of people are feeling the burden of that. It's very hard to make a livable wage while you're also having to homeschool your children, so I think that that's a big one as well.
Traci Shanklin 9:26
There was a New York Times opinion article by President Jimmy Carter who wrote about the toxic polarization that threatens our democracy. He cited a Center on American Life survey that said that 36% of Americans, so it's almost 100 million adults across the political spectrum agree that the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it. The Washington Post recently reported that roughly 40% of the Republicans believe that violent action against the government is sometimes justified. And on your website, you guys state that the Center for Popular Democracy is nurturing a new generation of leaders that animates the promise of our democracy in building a grassroots infrastructure for mobilizing the new American Majority. Can you help us understand who is this new generation of leader, and what do we need to know is their core value?
Francisco Diez 10:30
The new generation of leaders is really kind of working-class folks who have been historically kind of left behind whether that their working-class white folks in Appalachia or black folks in the Bronx, who have been left behind in different parts of American history who need a voice and need power in a way that is actually equitably distributed and fulfills the full promise of what this democracy in this country can be. And I think, you know, that's the kind of the premise behind the Center for Popular Democracy, we support, you know, community organizing throughout the country that tries to improve the lives of people who live in this country, across a variety of issues that directly impact their lives. Our fundamental view is that you know, we're going to need to take action altogether, as people across this country to really try and save and fulfill the promise of what American democracy can look like. And but that's going to have to be a deeply inclusive vision of who is in this country and who deserves dignity. And fundamentally, we believe that everyone does.
Francisco Diez 11:36
And that's, you know, one of the promises of the historical mission of the labor movement and why, you know, we are so closely allied with many partners in labor, in labor unions, and in worker centers, in community organizations like ourselves that are working for improved workplaces and improved working conditions. And it's worth remembering to historically that, you know, the labor movement has been one of the biggest supporters and creators and fosterers of the civic life that's necessary to really make democracy flourish. Whether that's been true in the United States, it's true in many parts of Latin America, in Africa, and in European history. And I think if we really are able to build an economy that works for all, we're going to be able to build a political system that works for all.
Traci Shanklin 12:24
Can this new American majority that is growing and getting its voice and its traction, be the beginning of a third-party political system? Or do you think that it can fit into our two-party political system?
Francisco Diez 12:42
I don't think we can speak on behalf of CPD on this particular point because it's a very complicated point, and I don't think there's a particular set of stances from our organization. But, I think there's going to be a need across the country for political parties to actually respond to workers’ and people's needs. And we don't see that in governance. Even in states where there is supposedly solid Democratic governance. Renters are fighting for "just cause" evictions in places like New York; workers have been fighting, you know, fought for an excluded workers fund in New York and in California. And those are questions that can be settled by policy. But, you know, even the Democratic Party does not fully respond to what workers and the majority of Americans need. And that's definitely true about the Republican Party. And there are a lot of policy solutions that don't actually solve the problems that are actually out there. But, that's because the solutions needed are really have to go at the core of how our economy functions and who it serves. And currently, it doesn't serve workers and people who are in poverty or who are marginalized, or who are left behind for different reasons.
Traci Shanklin 14:00
To the point that you were making earlier that the US labor movement has challenged our country to create an economy of employers that gives all members fair wages and workplace safety standards and retirement benefits. And it does bleed into the public across all employer -- employers as the labor movement raises the game or raises the bar, I should say. But, I mean, is there -- I think as I look at it, and I have my own personal concerns about where we are in the country, is there an appetite to keep this pro-worker conversation in today's political climate?
Francisco Diez 14:44
I think there definitely is. The fact that labor unions have, you know, over 60% approval rating, which is the highest they've had in a while, I think the fact that we are seeing efforts by lots of workers to try and organize their workplaces, maybe not at the rates that we need to actually see real increases in the rate of unionization. But, I think the other thing that I want to mention too, is that labor unions also do a great job of helping educate workers about the issues and have done that historically, and mobilized them for fights that don't always immediately relate to them. I think there's great examples historically, not just in pushing employers to improve workplace standards and improve equity in the workplace, but also, politically.
Francisco Diez 15:29
The CIO, before it became the AFL-CIO and even after it became the AFL-CIO, were critical to supporting community organizations in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. And without the alliance between the NAACP and the CIO, and later, the AFL-CIO, we might not have seen some of the most important transformations in the creation of American democracy, without the labor movement. And it does a lot when there are forums, democratic forums, like labor unions, for workers to learn what it means how important it is to vote in who immediately leads your contract negotiations, but also why it's important to fight against divisions among workers to improve their standards of living and how whether it's racism or sexism or other types of divisions of oppression in this country that really divide workers are frequently combated on the immediate level by the labor movement when workers are a part of a union.
Traci Shanklin 16:32
I had a conversation with a labor leader who talked about creating a new generation of leaders. So, she was very into leadership building and building it at the grassroots level. Her mantra was that we're, you know, we're really educating and building leaders in the labor movement. I also spoke about a year ago with Nicole Lee, who's a diversity and inclusion specialist, and Nicole talked about how we live in a society where people from their very birth have this entire -- their entire trajectory determined by their zip code. Their life trajectory can often be determined by race or sexual orientation as well. But, how is your organization addressing this economic and/or structural barriers that can help this new generation of leaders grow?
Francisco Diez 17:28
What CPD does fundamentally is trying to build a leader full network of community organizers and the communities that are able to build power together across different issues. First and foremost, help workers and individuals, and community members actually realize the types of power they have when they take action together, but also helping recognize that there are already existing community leaders that do a lot of work and to help mobilize them in the direction that helps build that power necessary to have legislative change. I think the long-term answer to the question of how do we make a more equitable society or a society where real equality of opportunity even exists, is going to be done through policy change in economic, social, and political policy change. But, on a base level, we have to do that, too, by really helping workers and community members really be able to grow their own power by building together with others. We believe in the power of people coming together to change the future of their communities and their country. And, that's really what we aim to do both as unemployed action and as a larger community organizing network.
Arelia Valdivia 18:42
The one additional point that I wanted to highlight just specifically around organizing workers around unemployment issues is that the pandemic actually created an opportunity to organize and bring together workers across lines of difference in the way that I don't think most kind of crises do. Usually, when you're dealing with issues of worker justice or economic justice, you're kind of dealing with people of the same kind of general population that you talked about people based on their zip code, based on their gender, they're going to be tracked into a certain life. Well, I think that the global pandemic really impacted people across the board in a way that would disregard race, class, gender, everybody was impacted. People from all types of employment were laid-off and facing an unemployment system that was broken. And one thing that's really interesting about the Movement for Unemployment Reform is that we have people who have historically not been marginalized, historically not have to deal with these issues, face a broken unemployment system. And so, we have working professionals in the same boat as we have just regular working-class people for the first time in a long time.
Arelia Valdivia 20:06
One thing that's really interesting about this moment is that you're also able to grow a more expansive movement, but get people from different -- from different walks of life to understand each other, understand struggle, and understand that these systems are broken in a way that they might not have, prior to this, and we see it all the time within our own membership. I think it provides a really great opportunity to build a more united and more expansive movement for reform. In this case, it's unemployment reform, but I think it leads people to understand that so many of the systems in the country are broken, and they are finally being impacted by one of those systems. And it's been really interesting for me to see as somebody who's organized for very long time to see this issue impact people who have never had to really face difficulties in the same way as workers and people of color do on the day-to-day basis.
Traci Shanklin 21:04
I think that's an excellent point. A really excellent point. Frankly, if I hadn't experienced it, I wouldn't know that it was broken. Well, if any of our listeners would like to get involved with the UI reform, what can we do?
Francisco Diez 21:18
You can sign our petition that demands that Congress fix unemployment, so "Fix UI," and you can sign that petition at www.populardemocracy.org/fixui, so that's F-I-X U-I. You will be able to join the list for “join our movement” to fight to improve unemployment reform or to fight for unemployment reform and be able to get more information from us about opportunities to reach out to your legislators for opportunities on the state level to improve unemployment systems and get more involved.
Traci Shanklin 21:56
Yeah, thank you. And I'll put that link in our show notes as well. Is there anything either of you guys would like to add in closing?
Francisco Diez 22:04
The fight for reforming unemployment insurance is both an immediate need for the unemployed because this is when workers are at their most vulnerable, but also a need for all workers to fight for while they are employed. Being on the job and trying to push your or work with your employer to improve your workplace is going to be a lot easier when you have a real exit option. And that ideally, you have a system that backs you up because you're being connected through that system to organizations that are invested in your well-being and in your dignity.
Traci Shanklin 22:43
Well, I really appreciate both of you taking the time to join us in the conversation today. And I look forward to seeing all of the great things you're going to do where UI is concerned, and you know, I would love to have you back when you're working on something new and different or you need any help expanding your message. If you've enjoyed today's podcast, please consider supporting us with a voluntary contribution at www.patreon.com/multiemployerfunds. That's www.patreon.com/multiemployerfunds. Or you can subscribe to us and leave us a five-star review on your favorite podcast platform. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast, and many other podcast platforms. And, of course, you can always find us on our website at www.multiemployerfunds.com. That's www.multiemployerfunds.com. Here you can find our entire podcast library and join our newsletter. Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the multiemployer world. Be part of the change.
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