The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast

Unionbase and Organizing the Next Generation with Larry Williams Jr

June 18, 2021 Traci Dority-Shanklin Season 3 Episode 9
The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast
Unionbase and Organizing the Next Generation with Larry Williams Jr
Show Notes Transcript

Support for unions is at an all-time high across the country with 65% in favor! Three-quarters of new union memberships belong to Millennials and Gen Z. Larry Williams Jr., the founder of Unionbase, the nation’s first social media platform designed for labor, is Traci’s guest, and he’s here to tell us all about Unionbase and the role it plays for the next generation of labor organizers.

Some highlights from UnionBase and Organizing the Next Generation include:

01:10 – Larry’s Labor Journey
07:35 – Labor and Management are not Always Contentious
10:58 –
17:04 – Millennials and White-Collar Organizing
22:04 – But... What About College?

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Narrator  0:02  

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin. If you're interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you've landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund-related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision-makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They'll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all of the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short, so let's get started.


Traci Shanklin  0:36  

My guest on the podcast today is Larry Williams, Jr. He is the founder of, the first social media network and education platform for unions and union workers. He is also the co-founder of the Progressive Workers Union. The Progressive Workers Union is a national union for nonprofit employees started at the Sierra Club. Larry currently serves as the labor coordinator and has been in this role since 2017. Hi, Larry, thank you for joining me on the podcast today.


Larry Williams, Jr.  1:08 

Oh, thank you so much.


Traci Shanklin  1:10  

For someone so young, you have quite an impressive resume. Could you please share a little bit about your background? How you got involved in labor? Did you grow up in a labor family? Did you study law - labor in college?


Larry Williams, Jr.  1:26 

Thanks so much for the nice intro. And it's actually kind of a funny story. You know, I did not necessarily grow up in a typical union home per se. But, I did come from a working-class family. And I think those values of, you know, working multiple jobs if you have to, working as many hours as it takes, but understanding that you have to create a living for yourself and for your family is something that my mom put deeply into my consciousness. My father passed when I was pretty young, but he was also working class as well. So, I think in terms of my professional career, I kind of, you know, stumbled backwards into the labor movement -- happily. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  2:04 

I recently did a TED talk, and I tried to squeeze this in, but I couldn't. But, essentially, I worked multiple jobs in college, and my classmates will always see me switching uniforms and running back and forth with books. But, I was basically full-time employed with multiple jobs and part-time in school. You know, at some point, it just became too much. And I was lucky enough to get a temp job working for a union in DC, one of the most powerful unions in the country. And yeah, from there, I just was obsessed. I learned about organizing, and the tech side of it, the in-person side of it, and the history side of it. And from there, I was just obsessed.


Traci Shanklin  2:40  

How did you come to the Sierra Club and become a co-founder of the Progressive Workers Union?


Larry Williams, Jr.  2:46 

That's a really long story but I'll keep it very short. And I'll also say, the update is I'm no longer with Sierra Club. I had a really great run there as labor coordinator. But fortunately, it's time to leave. My mentor at the time, you know, when I was just running Unionbase, I had left the union, told me that there was an opportunity at Sierra Club to be labor coordinator, which anybody who follows the environmental movement knows, "just transition" is a hot topic right now, right, which is going to be probably for the next 20 to 50 to 100 years. And so, there's a big gap in terms of knowledge of folks who know the labor movement, but also understanding the environment movement, and can work to bring the two together. Because there's always, you know, been somewhat of a contentious relationship. But as of late, there's been a lot of power built up between the labor movements and environmental movement. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  3:32 

So, I was kind of brought in as the labor guy in the environmental movement. And in that, a lot of my co-workers were like, "Oh, so you come from the union world, you should totally run our staff union." And I said, "Well, I don't know." Because I know what it takes to run a union, you really have to give your life to it. But there was a lot of organizational problems at the Sierra Club that, you know, it's a 125-year-old organization. So, there's no organization that old that doesn't have some sort of problems in their history. And my co-founder of PWU, Neha Matthew-Shah; she had many years at the organization. So, she knew the organization really well like the back of her hand. And I felt like I knew the labor movement because I spent so many years dedicated to it. We had issues around pay inequality, you know, racial and gender pay inequality. Being a nonprofit, there's always an issue around unpaid work time and comp time being tracked. There was just like, so many issues. It was like three pages long. And I know because this is something I was keeping track of, right? I come from the traditional labor movement of member-driven organizing, instead of being service-driven. You're an organizing union. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  4:43 

So, we built it from the first brick. There was an existing staff union, John Muir Local 100, which was great, but it was it was named after John Muir, who's the founder of Sierra Club. So, that was the first issue because he had a history of racism and eugenicism and everything else. And the union also wasn't quite penetrating into the membership. First thing we did was talk to every single member and say, how's your experience here, and we dug up a lot of stuff that had been under the surface for a long time. So, I'll just say that we built the movement. We built a steward program, Labor Management Committee, and then ultimately, a really great bargaining team. And this all led to a two / three-year process, which led to a really historical contract, which is now I think, the - it's kind of the bedrock of the nonprofit movement. Now, everybody tries to build a similar contract. And we've been able to expand -- the new leadership of the union who's amazing as well -- has expanded the union to 350. And all these other environmental nonprofits like Greenpeace, and it's really become a movement. It's really beautiful to see.


Traci Shanklin  5:48  

Could you give me a definition of what the Progressive Workers Union is, or what their mission is?


Larry Williams, Jr.  5:54 

So, I think the - the current leadership has really tried to keep the core belief that we have of censoring impacted and vulnerable people in our union. That's the first thing, you know, black folks, folks of color, trans folks, non-gender binary folks, folks who typically in the workplace, you know, are getting overlooked for promotions and in job increases are suffering discrimination. There's always pay inequality for women. You know, these are things that the labor movement was built on as I've heard you say before. And we believe that by lifting the folks at the bottom, everybody else benefits, and our union as a textbook example of that. So, that's our core mission. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  6:34 

And then the other thing is, I think we've kind of just by - by the nature of how we're set up as an independent union, we become this decentralized, more swift force where, you know, we have these units, and these units as they join the local, they have their own set of priorities because they're in a different organization. As long as you're able to lift up, those who are most vulnerable, and you agree with those principles, we'll help you organize; we'll help you bargain. I mean, the new leadership has their own direction, obviously, right. And that's why I stepped down because I believe you can't have a labor movement that moves into the future if you're not allowing other people to come behind you and build something even better. So, those are - those are the real basics. We're an organizing union. And we believe in building power. And also, obviously, working with employers, right, because you need the employer to be successful for your members to be doing well. So, it's not always a contentious relationship. But, we definitely believe you have to bring power to the table in order to have a really good conversation.


Traci Shanklin  7:35  

I love that you just pointed out that labor and management are not always contentious. I think that's a really big misbelief in the general public. I think there's a lot of great employers out there that are trying to do what's right, and want to work with labor, and see the advantages of having the labor union. So, I love that you point that out.


Larry Williams, Jr.  8:01 

Absolutely. I mean, Sierra Club really stepped up to the plate. I mean, we wouldn't have gotten that contract if -- we really struggled for it was difficult, you know, for an organization to now deal with suddenly their employees have not just a voice, but a large voice, a very visible voice. But, that's the beauty of it is that if management steps up to the plate, then the whole work environment becomes better and mid-level managers are doing better as well. Everybody, I think has more job security and more clarity and transparency around what to expect and tracking hours. And so, we really change the organization from top to bottom. And that's the benefit of a union.


Traci Shanklin  8:36  

The unified voice in many ways that unions can bring to the table on behalf of the workers helps businesses, because sometimes, they don't know what they don't know, right? They're in one office, and the workers are doing their job. But, when something is brought to their attention, they can address it. But without that information, they can't do anything about it. And I think it's that unified voice that is a real asset that labor brings to the management side.


Larry Williams, Jr.  9:12 

The first major win we got in terms of expanding our membership was chapter employees because a lot of folks have been in the field making varying wages and, you know, having varying experiences under the same employer. So, we made an agreement with Sierra Club, which was really fantastic. Again, they stepped up to the table and expanded the membership to, you know, folks who are in the chapter. So, that was the first group, I believe the second was 350, which was, you know, this is another really well-known environmental nonprofit group. And then, of course, Greenpeace, which is, you know, super well-known. And the list has continued to grow over time. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  9:50 

I just think like there's so many groups of workers, particularly nonprofits who kind of are stuck in what we call, "the nonprofit industrial complex." And that's because, you know, nonprofits are typically funded by funders, and funders don't necessarily, I think, calculate wanting to pay a fair wage when they're making these funding asks and things like that, right? So, some of this, I think, eventually needs to get to educating funders that you want to unionize workforce because they tend to stay longer, because they're better paid; they have the ability to stay at the job; they don't have to have multiple jobs. Also, they have more skill because they've been there longer, and then you avoid the cost of retraining workers. Every time you know, these folks who are so low-paid have to move on. So, there's so many benefits that come with having a unionized workforce that I have had a lot of people -- this is actually the reason why I love the labor movement. So many people have come to me and said, "Oh, I joined this organization now as my employer because PWU represents the workers, and I've heard about what you guys are doing." And that's what tells me, you know, even beyond PWU the labor movement still has a value proposition. And we just need to really execute on that.


Traci Shanklin  10:58  

You're also a founder of the, could you tell the listeners what Unionbase is; its purpose; why it was founded?


Larry Williams, Jr.  11:06  

I think the original purpose -- I was very young at the time I was in my early 20s. And like I said, I was working for a major union. And, you know, I think I just saw that there was no real avenue to find out what union is around you, or even to find out more about unions. So, I kind of took my experience as a young person who believed in civil rights and human rights and women's rights, but didn't know that there was a movement, outside of the civil rights movement, dedicated to the advancement of those rights within the workplace and beyond. And so, upon learning that I, you know, my natural instinct -- I think most folks want to apply what they know to what they love. So, I know technology, and I love the labor movement. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  11:47  

I used to see folks in my union always look at Union Facts. And when I realized it was a non-union site, like why are we using this non-union side to try to find out, you know, obviously, people look for salaries, but also to find out where locals are. So, we created a prototype, and all it did was literally look up, you know, what locals in the area by zip code. And my partner at the time, this guy Lewis Davis, he was working with SEIU. We came up with the second version prototype and kept advancing it. We caught the attention of Lean Startup, which is typically attributed to, you know, small startup businesses. But obviously, we were one of the rare occasions where this is like worker sensor technology. So, I think we caught their interest. And I got really early, they had us in one of their big presentations. But, the methodology has been to build something, release it. And then based on the feedback we're getting from unions and workers, we iterate. And we've done that probably a few 100 times. And what happened was people were saying to us, "Oh, this is great that you can look for union, but we really like to be able to look for other union leaders or other workers who are trying to organize." And that's how we came to the point of being somewhat of a social network. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  13:03  

And in 2017, you know, we caught the attention of some folks at Fast Company and Forbes and other places, and that kind of snowballed. But the unfortunate thing about that is that the title of the article that came out in 2017 that everybody saw, "Millennial Trying to Save Labor Movement," it turned off a lot of people in the labor movement, because A) the word, "millennial," which, you know, millennials get blamed for everything. So, I'll take that - I'll take the rap for that. But the other thing was the comparison to Facebook because Facebook, you know, we all know what Facebook is doing in terms of, you know, selling data. And there's so many issues there. And we're trying to do the opposite. We're trying to create a secure space for workers to talk, for unions to talk, and for both groups to talk to each other. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  13:44  

And it's a real coding challenge. It's a - it's a social challenge because you want to meet people where they're at. And people tend to meet in Facebook groups and all these very insecure places. And then communication of the labor movement is spread across WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook, email, I mean, there's so many places. A lot of people thought we were just crazy for trying to do this, and why would you want to create something new, but I think we were really ahead of ours -- ahead of our time. Because now, you know, with COVID, people are seeing that you can't always rely on house calls and in-person union hall visits to have these conversations. So, in some ways, we're still ahead of our time. And I think you know, now we're leaning a little bit more towards the education piece because we realize you can build all this great technology, but if people don't know the first thing about a union, then you - you have a major issue, right? You can't just jump - drop somebody in the pool, you have to really, you know, walk before you run.


Traci Shanklin  14:39  

This is a conversation that I've had with many people. So, growing up, I grew up in a labor household. My dad was in the labor movement. And you know, as a kid, people always, "So, what does your daddy do?" And I would say, "Well, he works for labor union." "Well, what is a labor union worker do?" And even as a kid, I would struggle to say because they would immediately think he was literally like a laborer. So, somebody who's building houses, and I would be like, no, he goes to an office. 


Traci Shanklin  15:10  

I was speaking to a friend yesterday or the day before yesterday, and we were talking about the labor movement. And he was saying that he did a paper when he was in college. And I don't know what the thesis of the paper was. But, he said, when you Google, or go to the library and research, labor that predominantly in the news, labor is represented negatively. You know, you've got racketeering, and corruption, and mob boss. And those are the headlines. It's very hard to find the positive news story; the story of how the union helped someone get their immigration card, or the story of how when the fires broke out in California, the union rushed to their members, you know, sides with everything: clothing, food, food, you know, gift cards, to go buy stuff, places to live. It is a community of people. And those stories rarely get told in the news media. 


Traci Shanklin  16:21  

And I think that that's something Unionbase has an opportunity to share in terms of conversational and good stories. So, I applaud what you're doing. Some of the greatest accomplishments have big mountains in front of them. So, there's nothing wrong with climbing it. So, good for you guys. And I hope it goes really well. And I hope it continues to grow. And one of the things you talked about is how you just keep pivoting, and big fan of the whole disruption, strategic disruption. And that is, you know, that's a mark of strategic disruption is to just keep taking feedback, pivot, taking feedback, pivot. So, continue the good work, there.


Traci Shanklin  17:04  

Support for unions is at an all-time high. And according to September 2020 Gallup poll, 65% of Americans surveyed were in favor of labor unions. The 2017 Pew Research Study showed that three-quarters of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 had a favorable view of labor unions. And according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 75% of new members in 2017 were under the age of 35. So, one of the core reasons for asking you to come on the podcast today was to talk about union organizing and millennials. You have volunteered to wear the millennial hat. Yeah. And for all of its good and bad. But, what - what do you think is going on with millennials? I mean, why are they leading this push to organize and in today in history?


Larry Williams, Jr.  18:06  

I think that the changing expectations of young people is part of this shift. We do everything from our cell phones. We update our friends. Some people use the dating apps, you know, everything is digitized. That's allowed people to work from a distance is the advent of this "nomad life" -- digital nomad life -- where people want to live and work from wherever they are. I think that they've had this flexibility to say, "I'm going to work where I want. I can go to any employer I want. It's not even like I work. I typically always stayed at jobs for five to seven years before I even thought about taking on something else. Whereas you might see a millennial stay at a job for four or five months if that and then switch to something else. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  18:45  

But, at the same time, when you look at the industries that are organizing, so you have journalists, nonprofit employees, you know, you can really go down the list. It's a very long list of industries where the organizing has been growing. It could be web developers, designers. I find that it tends to lean a little bit heavier towards professional class, even though it's not exclusively professional because Amazon workers just made an effort, right? But, I do think that they see themselves in this related to Bernie Sanders movement of, you know, the 1% being richer than they've ever been, and understanding a little bit more that this is a class struggle, even though they may see themselves as somebody who may want to one day be wealthy. They have, I think, a little bit more clarity on the fact that right now, I need to do better in my life, and they see the union as a way to do that. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  19:32  

The other thing is a lot of the propaganda that came out of that Powell memo, you know, many, many years ago, is probably a little bit less effective because we're not consuming that traditional sources of information anymore. I still read the Washington Post and the New York Times, not solely, but those are good places to start to get, you know, go out and get other sources. And these kids are watching Young Turks. They're on, you know, YouTube and like looking at places where you can actually find information that's more relative to you. And they're not just consuming strictly corporate information. So, I think that that opens a lane for not only Unionbase, but also for unions to try to go to other places to get your message out that you wouldn't necessarily think of. This is the - the moment of creating your own base and really marketing to that base. This is what people do individually on these social networking platforms. And unions have a huge base of what 11 million workers in the private sector that we're not activating. Many of them don't even know they're in a union. So, if you focus even half of that -- 3 to 5 million workers on one specific goal, you can do a lot. And I think, you know, that's been my mission since 2015, is trying to figure out how to get us kind of, even though we have some - some differing interests, like youth solidarity to start moving the ball together.


Traci Shanklin  20:50  

Yeah, you know, you touch on the -- so traditionally, union members have always been seen as blue-collar workers, you know, when people would ask me what my dad did, and not understand as a leader, what he was doing in the movement. But, blue-collar occupations didn't require the college degree; although, they did require some special skill training. But, you've mentioned how the union movement is really benefiting from this white-collar occupations from the college faculty members, teachers, nurses, healthcare workers, journalists. I mean, you've just mentioned a bunch of them: nonprofit employees like the Sierra Club. So, these types of jobs that do require some sort of higher education. You even fit the profile. You have a bachelor's degree in Business Technology, and you're a union member. So, why are college graduates organizing? I mean, why has organizing shifted to this white-collar occupation? What is the benefit that these white-collar jobs see in organizing a union?


Larry Williams, Jr.  22:04  

Well, one slight correction actually never finished my bachelor's degree. And I'm not ashamed of that. And I'll tell you why. Because the labor movement, you know, really lifted me into the middle class. And for I think this is a lot of people, you know, they have to choose between being able to pay the rent, or being able to be in school. And it's not a decision that you want to have to make. And unfortunately, a lot of people aren't able to get the opportunity to join a union and then, right, so like, now, if I wanted to basically stop working and go to school full-time, I have that choice because of the money that I was able to save having a union job. So, I think it's important to share distinction for folks who don't have - don't have a degree and maybe feel like, "Oh, I can't do this." You definitely can. If you're 30, 40, 50, you don't have a degree, you can still do it. But, you just have to kind of get that solid base. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  22:54  

But, I think the - that pivot, in terms of the type of workers that are joining unions, I kind of wonder if that is a little bit attributable to the - the intellectual side of it. Because if you're looking at the data, if you're looking at the studies that come out all the time, that it's undeniable what unions do for workers. It's pretty clear that in your lifetime, you're going to make more being in the union versus not being in the union. It's pretty clear that if you're a minority -- though, it's not perfect -- generally, you have mechanisms to fight back. If you're a woman and you're getting underpaid, being in a unionized job versus not. So, I think a lot of folks who are in the more educated class, they sit here and they look at the data, and say, "Well, this is clear what we want." 


Larry Williams, Jr.  23:36  

The other thing is, I think it's a little bit less effective to do that intimidation tactic for people who, if you're a group of folks who organized by trade, then you can't tell them that they're wrong for organizing. That just doesn't make any sense. And I have these conversations, like still with so many workers who reach out to Unionbase, and they say, "Hey, we want to organize, but like, what's the first step?" They don't even know the first step. And that says something about culturally where we are as a society. When even though joining a union is you're human, right. But, there's a lot of fear associated with it and a lot of lack of information.


Traci Shanklin  24:08  

I have so many thoughts on what you just said. The first thing I want us to say is the college education thing is, on a personal note, is something that I could get on my high horse about. I mean, it wasn't even an option for me. I was going to graduate from high school, and I was going to go to college, but not so much for my older siblings, right? So, it was like, "Are they going to go to college, or aren't they?" And so, I think that there's definitely a shift. And it's something that I have children, and I think often -- if my kids want to specialize in a trade, I think that we're not all built to be academics, right? Some of us need to get our hands dirty, and some of us want to have one skill, and in many ways, it's an art form and use it. So, I think that we as parents need to remember as our kids are showing us who they are, and help them just be -- give them the opportunity to go in that direction and remind them that there are options. I mean, when they took shop out of school, I - they really did many kids a disservice. 


Larry Williams, Jr.  25:17  



Traci Shanklin  25:19  

This has been The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds, and I have been speaking with Larry Williams, Jr, the founder of, and the co-founder of the Progressive Workers Union. This concludes the first half of our conversation. So, I hope that you'll join us for the second episode when I'll be speaking with Larry about gig workers, the Amazon vote, and we continue our conversation about millennials, Gen Z, and the future of labor organizing. 


Traci Shanklin  25:49  

If you have enjoyed today's podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a five-star review. You can always find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pandora, and many of your favorite podcast platforms, or visit us at our website at That's Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the multiemployer world. Be part of the change. 


Traci Shanklin  26:26  

And that's it for this week's episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds Podcast. We love to hear from you. And if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, head over to, and let us know. Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to next time.


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