White-collar workers are organizing labor unions at Tech & Game, nonprofits, college campuses, and now comic book workers. CWA District 3 organizing coordinator and grassroots activist, Cassie Watters, explains why these workers are turning to the Communications Workers of America to help them organize and how the CWA is supporting them.
Some highlights from CWA Organizing: Tech and Game Workers:
04:10 – Campus Workers Strike Back
10:32 – CWA and Jobs with Justice
13:03 – The Importance of Mentorship
16:23 – CODE: Coalition to Organize Digital Employees
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This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds with Tracy 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 0:38
My guest on the podcast is Cassie Watters. Cassie is the organizing coordinator for District 3 of the Communication Workers of America. CWA District 3 covers the southeast United States and Puerto Rico. Whether she worked as an organizer with the United Campus Workers, CWA local 3865, or helped workers defeat an outsourcing attempt by their billionaire governor. Cassie has dedicated her entire career to activism and grassroots organizing. Hi, Cassie, thank you for joining me on the podcast today.
Cassie Watters 1:13
Thank you for having me.
Traci Shanklin 1:15
So, from reading your bio, I see that you're originally from Oklahoma City, and you are the daughter of two union members. We actually share that background. I also grew up in a labor family. So, can you tell me how this motivated or inspired you to become a labor organizer for the CWA?
Cassie Watters 1:34
It's one of those things where it just all adds up. At the time, I probably didn't think, “I'm part of the labor movement,” or I even knew what that meant. My mother was a public school teacher. She's a band director, and later a music teacher. And they went on strike. But, I was too young to remember that; I was two. It was a major strike in 1979 when a lot of public sector workers were striking. And she wasn't involved in her union until that moment. And it was very influential on her just realizing the collective power the strike represents and what a union actually means or can mean.
Cassie Watters 2:23
My dad went on strike when I was a little older when I was about 11 with the symphony, and he was a cellist. And they were on strike for over a year and ended up having to fold and reform as a philharmonic as a part-time entity. And families packed up and left the state as a result. But just as a kid, I walked the line with him. I carried a sign downtown at the Civic Center where they performed and where they had their musicians’ union office. And it was fun. But, I also saw it was having a real impact on our family. He stepped up and became the only staff person for the local the secretary-treasurer and had to kind of like learn how to use a computer. This was in the late 80s. We really didn't have a lot of computers stuff at home. And so, yeah, took on an additional job because he had to, but it turned out to be a job with his musicians' union local. And so that was my first job. Shortly after that, when I was 12. I was working part-time, just filing, licking stamps, stuff like that in the union office. But, I don't think it was until later when I got to college and was involved in a struggle as an adult, as part of a coalition that formed when our custodians were outsourced, that I made the connections and was helped by the people involved in that coalition to make those connections that this is a community. This is what a community actually means or should mean. And unions are a part of it. Students are a part of it, etc.
Traci Shanklin 4:10
I would love for you to elaborate a little bit on this custodian story because I think our listeners would really appreciate understanding a little bit more about that moment.
Cassie Watters 4:21
There was a private college part of Long Island University, Southampton College, so we're in the Hamptons, no less, but a small college. It was a marine science college. That's why I went there initially. And they decided to outsource or privatize the custodians to a company called Lero management. And this was in the 90s. Outsourcing certainly was happening, but not to the extent it is today, for instance, so I didn't know what it meant, and nobody else I knew what it meant, but one of the custodians who was the shop steward in the union that they had actually ended up decertifying and joining a different union because they felt like they weren't made aware of this outsourcing like they should have been.
Cassie Watters 5:10
And so, there was a rally. And it really was a moment of realizing you're a student there. You're sometimes called the customer, but you're also referred to as a community and that we're all there as a community. But, students were told this was being done because of complaints about cleanliness. And meanwhile, it was obviously an attempt to cut costs from labor. And no one I knew had complained about cleanliness. The coalition that formed was students, some community members, and custodians meeting together to really say like, what is this really about? And how do we push back on the administration's decision to try to turn it around and expose it for what it really was? I have a scholarship, but all of a sudden, my scholarship is capped, and tuition is rising every year. So, you start to put some pieces together, like, what's the problem here? And why are we trying to cut costs on the least paid people on campus? And ultimately, we were successful. And about a year and a half later, they canceled the contract with that company, and brought the custodians back in-house, after, you know, a number of actions, raising awareness about it in the media.
Traci Shanklin 6:38
That's a great story. And it really speaks to that grassroots organizing piece that's obviously very fully in your DNA. I am really interested, which I think goes into that story, hearing more about the battle that you had with the United Campus Workers and the governor of Tennessee. I'd love to know who was the governor at that time and what was the grievance or situation that prompted that fight?
Cassie Watters 7:11
Well, 20 years later, almost exactly, I'm in Tennessee now and the United Campus Workers include faculty, staff, and students on campuses across Tennessee, and a Knoxvillian named Bill Haslam was elected to Governor, a former mayor of Knoxville, and his family is part of our local gentry here. His father and mother's names appear on buildings on campus, etc. He himself was a billionaire and was elected to be governor and showed some interest in higher education. And then, we learned of an attempt to begin a process that gave privileged access to vendors from the very beginning of the process to look at outsourcing state facilities' workers of all kinds, whether on campuses or other state facilities, so maintenance, grounds, custodians, etc. One of the vendors was a company that Governor Haslam had been invested in before he ran for office Jones Lang LaSalle or JLL. And here they were at the table helping to design the very thing they were then going to bid on.
Cassie Watters 8:31
So, it all looks really bad. And yet, the legislators didn't know about it, because they had previously changed the process. So, the procurement process could all happen just within the executive branch. Certainly, the media wasn't aware. And so, when we exposed that, it really raised a lot of questions, and we've just kept raising it. And the facilities workers themselves really took to the streets immediately, especially at the flagship land grant institution here in Knoxville, the United University of Tennessee, Knoxville, UT. There's an area known as the Strip on Cumberland Avenue that runs alongside campus and news feeds -- 4 o'clock -- everybody standing out, calling attention to this. It ended up being a 27-month-long by -- they invested a huge amount in trying to make this thing work. And we really put a wrench in the works. By exposing it to the public and to the legislature. There was a wedge in his own party with people who were opposed to this, who we were able to make an alliance with during the fight. So that even though they signed the contract, campuses were allowed to opt-out, and the flagship campus opted out, and the rest went like dominoes.
Traci Shanklin 9:54
Wow. For our listeners, the thing that really strikes me is the tenacity of it all. That you have to really let me you talked about 27 months of chipping away at it. And I think that anybody who's ever spent any time on an organizing campaign understands that, but a lot of people who are sort of on their peripheral of labor unions don't realize the long-standing commitment you have to have to these fights.
Cassie Watters 10:24
We gave it everything we had. And then some and the bonds were really strong that got formed, but it was not easy.
Traci Shanklin 10:32
What brought you to your work at the Communication Workers of America or the CWA for our listeners if you hear us use that unilaterally?
Cassie Watters 10:41
So, I had previously been involved with Jobs with Justice, which is a national network of local coalitions, and I had been involved in the one in Massachusetts, right out of college, and then again, when I moved to Tennessee because there is also a chapter here in East Tennessee. And CWA, Communications Workers of America, was instrumental in helping to found Jobs with Justice in the late 80s. Larry Cohen is one person, in particular, former international president of CWA who was instrumental in Jobs with Justice. And so, I had been around CWA locals and members and campaigns for a while, when I moved to Knoxville and was working, it's SOCM is Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment. That was the attempt to keep the acronym from Save Our Cumberland Mountains when they went statewide.
Cassie Watters 11:37
Learning about the Campus Workers and then becoming involved in their efforts to create a different vision for the South. And for things like good jobs, good living wage jobs, our democratic rights, our public services. And when they initiated an effort to hold a rally of a coalition of organizations, SOCM through my involvement with Jobs with Justice, and learning about that, and people reaching out to me, and then me talking with the members about it, and people saying, of course, we would support good jobs like, yeah, we'll be there. Because they had a long history in SOCM of grassroots lobbying and showing up at the Capitol. And they had that in common with the Campus Workers. And so, showing up at that rally in March of 2011, was pretty major. And for the members, and also, for me to see them again, the tenacity and, and the vision that was possible. And so, when a position became available, I had wanted to get back into labor organizing, specifically, and was inspired by what I saw the Campus Workers doing. And so that's when I came on board as an organizer. And UCW is an affiliate of Communications Workers of America, CWA.
Traci Shanklin 13:03
Organizing is not a traditional job for females to go in. There's way at least in my experience, I know a lot more organizers that are male than female, though there are definitely that is changing as we speak. But as a female labor leader, do you have any experiences or was there a mentor in your life that empowered you to really continue on this path in the labor movement?
Cassie Watters 13:28
I had several mentors. The one from college who really encouraged my involvement in that coalition, faculty member, Cory Dogon, who's still in Massachusetts and now at Stonehill College, sociologist, and somebody who really, yeah, encouraged me to be at that time part of something that was happening with the program called Union Summer. Although I didn't participate in that program, but there was an attempt to try to involve young people as organizers, and whether it's, it's men or women. Some of my mentors in Jobs with Justice too, a woman who went on to do some other impressive things MB or Marybeth Maxwell, and Sarita Gupta, who later became executive director of Jobs with Justice and now he has a role in the Ford Foundation I just learned recently. But, seeing their involvement in a national organization, I think was also a big part of it. And they made some concerted attempts to gather women in Jobs, with Justice. And that was also influential for me at the time. I left out a group in Boston, too -- Women's Institute for Leadership Development or WILD. There's been a number of things over the years. Highlander Center here where I live hosted a summer school for women. And there's now a group called WILL Empower that also works with women in the labor movement. And I have been a mentor in that. And definitely wish that was around when I was younger.
Traci Shanklin 15:17
The CWA's name is associated with a lot of with organizing of a lot of different industries, that normally they're non-traditional that we really don't think of as being organized. It was interesting when you were talking at the top and you were talking about your parents, I think it's a there's an interesting connection for you or a through-line in that they were in the music business, and they were both union: one as a teacher and one as a musician. But they were both in, still participated in a union. And we forget that unions can be in all different industries. But I've noticed, CWA has organized the tech industry, such as the Alphabet union, and then most recently, the comic book workers with the Comic Book Workers United. Generally speaking, what type of worker does CWA represent?
Cassie Watters 16:17
There's not one answer to that because there's multiple sectors and industries within CWA.
Traci Shanklin 16:23
Has CWA been seeing more organizing among white-collar workers in general?
Cassie Watters 16:30
Certainly, yeah, a lot of self-organizing. It's a different experience when we are contacted, and there's a group of people already in motion, and many of them are from either the tech world or the nonprofit world. And so, it is; it's a different moment.
Traci Shanklin 16:48
As different as they are, are there any commonalities between when somebody contacts you about organizing or becoming an affiliate of CWA? What is there any common, I guess, issues or concerns that seem to be similar? Or are there are massive differences whether it's blue-collar or white-collar?
Cassie Watters 17:10
Yeah, I think there's both. The commonalities are always about dignity and respect in the workplace. You know, and that cuts across all job classifications or industries. What that looks like, can be different depending on the workplace, or the person and their kind of level, in, in our society, in the hierarchy. But, pay is relative, you know, if we're talking about Google as an employer versus, for instance, the University of Tennessee, it's, I mean, that is a huge difference in pay for someone. But, there's also a huge difference in one is still mostly public entity, and one is a huge profit-making corporation, and so the fair share is relative. But, we're still talking about a fair share in that sense. And so again, I think there's both differences and commonalities. I know, we would often tried to point out hypocrisy in values in the expressed values of an institution of an employer, like the University of Tennessee, for instance. And the same thing is happening in the tech and nonprofit world, whether it's software tech companies or nonprofit large nonprofits like National Audubon Society where people feel like there's a set of values over here. And then there's how we're being treated over here, and they're not matching. And we're calling attention to that and calling for it to match and for us as the workers here to receive the same kind of ethical treatment that we say we're putting out in the world.
Traci Shanklin 18:58
You mentioned the Alphabet union is a newer union in the tech industry at Google. Is the Alphabet union limited strictly to Google, or does it cover other workers in the tech industry?
Cassie Watters 19:11
So, the Alphabet Workers union is Google and all of its contractors. There is another group called CODE within CWA that includes other tech and game employers.
Traci Shanklin 19:27
Got it. So how did the Alphabet union come about? I mean, what prompted the workers to organize?
Cassie Watters 19:33
It's some of the things we were just talking about. It was the treatment that some people were experiencing; the payouts that they saw given to executives who had been accused of sexual harassment. What was happening with their work? What was their work being used for? Or is this being used in the military? Is this being used for an ethical purpose, or not?
Traci Shanklin 20:01
Which employees from Google are represented by Alphabet union? Because you mentioned CODE as well, so just to kind of hammer that point.
Cassie Watters 20:13
I think there are some tentacles here. So, the Alphabet Workers union is Google workers and any of the contractors. But, I think that's seen as kind of a broader project called of CWA is called CODE, the Coalition to Organize Digital Employees. And so, they're linked, but CODE does include other employers. The Alphabet Workers Union is open to all, so Alphabet is the name of the parent company of Google. So, it's open to all employees of Alphabet, regardless of their role or classification.
Traci Shanklin 20:54
Gotcha. The CWA recently made the news -- congratulations -- by announcing that they were organizing comic book workers under Comic Book Workers United. What employees in the comic book industry are organized under this union?
Cassie Watters 21:11
So far, it's just Image Comics, and they wanted to use that kind of broad name to inspire others. And so, I think we'll see other campaigns begin to go public with other employers under that same umbrella. But Image Comics, the small bargaining unit of production workers there who kicked this off.
Traci Shanklin 21:37
What are some of the issues that are prompting the comic book workers to organize? And what are they fighting for?
Cassie Watters 21:43
Some of the same things that we've been talking about. So, things that -- behavior that creates a hostile work environment, I think was a big issue for this group. They should be able, again, to have dignity on the job. They have some of the same issues as the tech and game industry where it's unreasonable hours for relatively low pay as well.
Traci Shanklin 22:09
You have been listening to The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds. Since I'm running a little low on time, I'm going to pause our conversation with Cassie Watters, the organizing coordinator for CWA District 3. On our next episode, Cassie returns to share her thoughts and insights into what's driving millennials and Zoomers to organize and quit their jobs in the Great Resignation. We even get the opportunity to talk about retirement funds. You won't want to miss it.
Traci Shanklin 22:40
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