This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: How trade unions got their mojo back

Mick Lynch
My advice to all workers is to join a union and we must get organised. The public sector in this country, as well as many private sector workers, have been screwed to the floor not just for two or three years but for an extensive period going back to the crash in 2008. And many people have really, really fallen behind where the cost of living is on a continuous basis and they’ve got very insecure employment and the companies have taken advantage. And I think we’re gonna see a wave of unionisation and union activity because people are just fed up. You know, you can press a spring for so long in terms of wages and conditions, but eventually it will bounce back. And I think that’s what we’re seeing the beginning of and the RMT seems to be in the vanguard of that. We’re happy to do that, but we need other unions to come into the campaigns around us.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
This is Working It with me, Taylor Nicole Rogers.

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I’m a journalist for the FT who typically covers the US labour market in the New York office. And occasionally I’m a guest on this podcast. Today, however, I’m sitting in the host’s chair while Isabel takes a well-deserved rest. The voice you heard earlier is Mick Lynch, the internet-famous general secretary of the RMT, a specialist transport union best known for representing British railway workers. If you’re from the UK, you probably already know of the union’s recent efforts that have caused cancelled trains and closed Tube lines due to striking drivers. And Mick has been the face of it. At the moment the union is fighting against compulsory resignations and a pay freeze. It believes that the railways are using the pandemic as an excuse to make permanent, detrimental changes to working conditions. I cover unions a lot in my reporting and something I want to learn more about today is how they’re changing the relationship between employees and their employers and if it’s a good idea to join one. Here’s Isabel in conversation with Mick a few weeks back.

Isabel Berwick
So I was gonna ask you about some of the criticism ’cause, you know, a lot of the rightwing press and the Tories have been quite anti the strikes. But I’m judging that because of social media which wasn’t there during the last big waves of industrial action, do you think that’s profoundly shifted something? The message is not as polarised as they once were.

Mick Lynch
Yeah, I think there’s something that the Tories and the Daily Mail and these people are looking fairly reactionary compared to what we’re doing because our message is fairly simple: that we want to negotiate conditions, we want a pay deal and we wanna keep our jobs because they’re good jobs compared to many others, because some people feel very vulnerable if you’re living in rented accommodation as a twenty-something, let’s say, whatever generation they’re calling that these days. But if you’re a twenty-something, maybe verging on a thirtysomething, and you’ve never had your own property, you’ve never had a job that’s gonna last more than six months or what have you. You might think, “Well, why can’t everyone be like railway workers? Why can’t everybody get those conditions? And how do we go about getting that for ourselves?” ’Cause people haven’t only got unstable work, they’ve got unstable accommodation and they’ve got unstable lives. And the railways are a kind of symbol for what stability is. It’s not the most exciting work, but it is steady, it’s responsible. And traditionally you’ve had a kind of ability to plan your life, and a lot of people are looking for that. But these companies, even the mega companies, don’t wanna provide people with that ’cause they don’t want people getting their feet under the table with the ability to rebalance the workplace and have a say through elected representatives and spokespeople that can articulate their case.

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Taylor Nicole Rogers
I’m joined by Dave Lee, who writes a lot about ecommerce and the gig economy from our San Francisco office. So, Dave, you’re a Brit in the US writing a lot about unions. So from your observations, what are the differences between the UK and the US when it comes to organising?

Dave Lee
Well, I think there’s obviously a difference historically, a kind of difference in attitude towards unions in the US compared to the UK, and right now that’s still borne out with the number of people that are members of unions in both countries. In the UK it’s more than 23 per cent of people are in the union. In the US it’s only just over 10 per cent and this has been on a decline for quite some time. I think one of the issues here, there’s been a view that unionisation has made it, you know, more difficult for companies to grow or make them vulnerable to being undercut by competitors overseas. That does seem to be changing now. I think some of the themes that Mick discussed in that clip there where he’s talking, you know, about people worrying about their housing, worrying about their stability in their jobs, that does seem to be coming through. And one of the biggest changes in the US I think is, you know, when Joe Biden came into the White House, he promised to be the most pro-union US president in history after, you know, a spell of policymaking that really most people seem to think kind of favoured the employers rather than the employees, particularly at big companies. And so that seems to be the shift that’s happened.

And I think also, and Isabel mentioned this in her question there, you know, what can’t be ignored is the social media aspect of this. Now this is the first swell of American unionisation in the connected era, as we could put it. And, you know, many of the organisations that are growing now, particularly at companies like Amazon, have been using, you know, TikTok Facebook Live to sort of show these organisations’ efforts and get through some of the company’s messaging that previously has been able to kind of quell this stuff before it’s got started. What it’s also done I think has made Mick Lynch a bit of a celebrity over here. I mean, I know back at home he’s incredibly popular. He’s on TV a lot and those clips go viral. But they are being seen by union leaders and union supporters in the US and Mick Lynch is becoming a bit of a union celeb among those people as well. That just simply wouldn’t have happened decades ago because we wouldn’t have seen those two worlds come together. So I think it’s a uniquely interesting time for unions in the US.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Yeah, absolutely. And I have to ask you, since you lead our coverage of Amazon, what is going on with the Amazon union?

Dave Lee
So Amazon was completely blindsided by this union movement. There’s a group called the Amazon Labor Union. We used to call them a kind of almost like a ragtag bunch of Amazon employees, but they totally surpassed everyone’s expectations. They were able to hold the first ever successful union vote at an Amazon facility in the US — JFK8, it’s on Staten Island, just near New York City. The leader there, Chris Smalls, he’s become this union celebrity. He’s being seen at rallies with Bernie Sanders, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and he’s just been this figurehead of the new union movement. And one of the things that’s interesting about him is that this isn’t someone from the old union movement in the US where you had the Teamsters or other groups like that. This is a very independent, very sort of fresh take on union organising. So, you know, it’s a big step forward for unionisation in America because, you know, Amazon is becoming one of the biggest employers in the country. It’s a sort of new working class, if you like, but it’s still a very, very nascent movement. Amazon would be worried about it, but it’s not critical for them just yet.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
It’s weird for me to think of Amazon being worried about something, right? Because we think of them as this behemoth company that’s impenetrable in many ways. But he told me a little bit about why they’re so terrified by the prospect of this small, ragtag, as you said, union.

Dave Lee
Yes. I just imagine if Chris Smalls heard me call them ragtag, he’d take (laughter) he’d take great issue with that. Maybe I should have a different word. But anyway, Amazon sees this as a threat to what Amazon does best, right, which is scaling up its production at times like Christmas or Prime Day, then getting rid of all of those people when they don’t need them. You know, Amazon sees that as a competitive strength, that it can do that. And their workforce swelled by almost a million during the pandemic to handle that demand. Some of that stuck around. They’re starting to sort of downsize slightly. But the ability to do that, the ability to say, “Right, now it’s Prime Day, we need loads of people working”. That’s something they wanna retain and they wanna keep pushing some of their more controversial practices, you know, some of the monitoring of workers, some of the quotas that they have. I mean, they deny they have quotas, but it’s a bit of a sore point of Amazon. But basically it is monitoring of how quickly boxes are being moved and sent off to customers. That’s something Amazon really likes to do because I think that makes a difference for their efficiency. They’re worried that unionisation would mean that. The unions, of course, say, you know, they can still do the job, of course. It just means more stability and it means more collective bargaining on things like pay and conditions. And yeah, that’s the stand-off. That’s what Amazon’s trying to avoid.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I’m just wondering though, can a union like this really have a concrete impact on a big company like Amazon?

Dave Lee
I mean, that’s a big question. And actually, we’ve seen in the past few weeks more and more people, more media coverage, kind of questioning the ability for the Amazon Labor Union to do what is arguably harder than winning a union election, and that’s negotiating a contract that works for those workers. But Amazon obviously isn’t gonna budge too much, knowing full well that if the workers at JFK8 suddenly get 25 bucks an hour, the workers nearby, they get 17, they’re gonna say, “Well, we’ll have a piece of that union action too”.

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Taylor Nicole Rogers
So Dave, I think the case of what’s going on at Amazon is really fascinating in and of itself, but made even more so by the fact that we’re seeing similar organising drives at Trader Joe’s and at Starbucks and even in sectors that are already organised. It seems like the unions are more willing to push their employers than before. So why do you think this is all happening now?

Dave Lee
Well, I think hearing from Mick Lynch at the beginning of the programme there kind of hit the nail on the head for what I hear people talking about here, right? It’s income inequality has just grown in this country. In particular, you have workers that are saying, “I’ve got no stability here. My healthcare isn’t up to it. I don’t know whether I’m getting hours from one week to the next”. You’re seeing many workers, you know, in the gig economy saying this isn’t OK. And that sentiment that workers should have more rights is seeping through to non-gig economy work that is also sometimes just as unstable. So I think that’s the mood that’s shifting. You know, I think what’s been particularly striking about the unions at tech companies is that you have sort of on both sides, you have some of the corporate employees starting to think this as well about the people kind of under their care further down the chain, particularly at companies like Google, for example.

Now Google, they’ve got a small union growing within Google, the Alphabet Workers Union. They were just sort of unionising small parts of that company where contractors are used particularly heavily. And you know, many people think, well, what does a Google worker have to complain about when it comes to work? But actually, Google, like many tech companies, relies on contractors that have very unpredictable working lives. They may only have contracts that last a couple of months at a time. They don’t get the same sort of benefits as the rest of Google’s employees. And so it’s the sort of result of decades of policymaking that favours employers being able to use workers, this sort of flexible entity rather than giving them the stability that arguably, you know, some of the country was built on in the sixties where union groups meant that workers in the auto industry could, you know, have a home and a garden and a dog and all these things. That’s something that’s been eroded over that time and I think it’s the culmination of that frustration.

What is also happened, of course, that, you know, really can’t be ignored is the pandemic has flipped the power massively, right? You have workers knowing that these companies are much more desperate for labour than they were. We’re seeing hourly wages. The rate go up slightly at Amazon and other places as well, which is acknowledgment that they have to, you know, work harder for that labour. And so this is the feeling among workers is that we’ve got the power now. We have more of a say because they need us more than ever. And workers aren’t perhaps seen as such an easily found commodity anymore. So bringing together all of those factors has made it a fairly unique point for labour organising. And you know, Mick mentioned in the clip that you’re seeing sort of people in their 20s saying, well, this isn’t OK, my parents had this, this and this and I don’t. I think that’s only gonna get stronger as people that are, you know, age 20 to 25 are gonna have that same sentiment as well. And they’re gonna be incredibly digitally literate and they’re gonna be organising incredibly strongly there. So this is really a swell. And the question is, you know, how permanent can some of these more recent developments become in the union movement, or will the companies be able to fight them off?

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Taylor Nicole Rogers
According to Mick, this power shift between employee and employer that’s come about through the pandemic might permanently change the dynamic.

Mick Lynch
It’s a really strange thing that people like the airlines, the aviation industry and the aviation companies, the handlers, ground handlers, sacked a lot of people using Covid as an opportunity. And what they do there is rip out all those contracts which might have premium time and might have some standards in them, and they wanted to take casualised people. The fact is, nobody wants to work for them. That’s why they can’t get anyone because they’re offering minimum wage or a little bit above, but there’s no conditions. So I think this phenomenon of rising prices but not rising wages is a fairly new thing. It wasn’t like that in the seventies and the eighties. And that’s because union power has been stripped away. We’ve got to win that back, but we’ve got to reach out to a new generation of people and change our set-ups as unions. Make it less boring, perhaps, than the traditional branch meeting and the way that we carry on. Make it more stimulating for people so that they can get involved very quickly and see some results quickly. And that’s what I’m detecting is going on. I’m getting a lot of young people coming up to me as an old fogey, shaking my hand and patting me on the back. People who are 40 years younger than me are coming up to me saying, “Well done”, and they like what we’re doing. And a lot of our members are getting that on the picket lines. And there’s some been some impromptu demonstrations in towns based around our dispute.

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Taylor Nicole Rogers
So, Dave, what are the risks and realities of joining one of these unions?

Dave Lee
Well, the obvious risk is that these people would lose their jobs. Now, you can’t strictly speaking, you can’t lose your job directly by being in the union or even for, you know, organising. But there has been a handful of cases at Amazon where prominent organisers have lost their jobs for something else. And you know, Amazon say, well, that’s fair, they should be able to fire their employees. And the union says, well, it’s, you know, retaliation. So that’s the immediate thing. Also, you know, Amazon and other big companies that is sort of deciding where to place their business around the country. They can make decisions on that based on the conditions for unionisation. So they might say, well, you know what, if we launch a new facility over in New York now, that’s a risk. So why don’t we put it in Georgia instead? One thing that I think is often underestimated and not given enough thought, particularly when sort of media figures discuss unionisation, is that the burden of organising these unions and the risk of organising these unions is arguably falling on the people that can’t afford to lose here. And so I think when companies come out and union-bust and say, well, can you afford dues, can you afford to go on strike? The answer is no in a lot of cases. And so that’s the risk, it’s that you go all-in on this broad idea of labour organising. But actually what happens is you put yourself at great risk. So I think, yeah, the risks are real, but I guess it’s strength in numbers. The more workers that are unionising, the more unionised workforces are, the less of a say corporations are gonna have on whether or not they want unions. And if we can reach that status quo, then I think the union movement will be in good shape. But getting there could have a lot of collateral damage and the damage would lie with people in the lower income part of this country.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I think the only place to end this is with a bit of advice on what to do if you’re looking to organise your workplace. So if you are looking to unionise, here’s Mick again on how.

Mick Lynch
Yeah, well I’ve done some unionising from the ground up. I mean, when I started on the railway, Eurostar was a new company. We didn’t have union recognition. So the first step is to join a union, then do some small-scale networking with your co-workers and the people that you can trust, because there are people that will wanna put you out of that company if they find you’re organising, which is what we’ve seen with Amazon and Starbucks and so forth in America. You have to create a little network. That’s easier now because of social media and WhatsApp and messaging, and get some simple communications based on what you’re experiencing. So if you haven’t got sick pay, if you haven’t got premium rates, you haven’t got any conditions or pension or anything, you’ve just got to create a little charter of demands of four or five bulleted points saying these are the things we want from our employer. And then you’ve got to try and get a union that’s gonna support you in there and push for recognition. In the UK it’s called getting recognition. I think in America they call it getting a contract. And you’ve gotta push for that and say, “Look, these are the things we want. We wanna do that through structure. We wanna be responsible as a workforce for democratic process”. Some employers will do that. In the UK there are some legislative steps you can take through a thing called the Central Arbitration Committee. So you have to start from the bottom up. But the unions will be there to assist people.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I think the thing that has stuck with me most from the conversation we’ve had today is how much work it takes to build a union and how, despite all of the popularity and views on TikTok and support from high-profile politicians here in the US, that a lot of these unions don’t have a lot to show for it yet. And so I think that’s what I’m going to be looking out for as I continue to cover and follow a lot of these union negotiations, whether they be for the rail workers in the UK or for Amazon here in the US.

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Thanks again to Mick Lynch and Dave Lee for this episode. If you are an FT subscriber, please sign up for our new Working It newsletter for some behind-the-scenes extras from the podcast and exclusive work and career stories you will not see anywhere else. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producer Anna Sinfield, executive producer Joe Wheeler, production assistance from Lee Maier and Amalia Swartland, and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT we have editorial direction from Renée Kaplan and Manuela Saragosa and production support from Persis Love. Thanks for listening and see you soon.

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