In the mid-1950s, nearly three in 10 employed workers belonged to a union. Now that figure is down to around 10 percent—just 6 percent in the private sector. But labor organizing and pro-worker policymaking are on the rise. At more than 200 Starbucks outlets, an Amazon warehouse, and even an Apple store, workers are banding together to ask for higher wages, better benefits, and more control over their schedules and workplace conditions.
Labor scholar and organizer Dorian Warren has been a leader in those efforts. Warren is the co-president of Community Change, a national organization that builds the power of low-income people, especially low-income people of color. “This is actually an exciting time for the labor movement,” Warren tells co-hosts Michael Tomasky and Felicia Wong on episode 3 of How to Save a Country. Warren describes the diversity of those pushing for unionization in modern America, the importance of federal leadership when it comes to labor rights, and what’s really at stake: “No labor movement means no strong democracy. No labor movement means no middle class.”
Warren also discusses how the fight for a $15 minimum wage went mainstream, how unions can create social and political communities and multiracial solidarity, and why the American Rescue Plan is a success story worth telling.
How to Save a Country is presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.
• “US Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point since 1965,” Gallup’s August 2022 Work and Education survey
• “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” a seminal paper by David Card and Alan B. Krueger that changed how labor economists view the minimum wage’s relationship with employment
• “Labor Unions and White Racial Politics,” Paul Frymer and Jacob M. Grumbach’s research on the role of unions in shaping the attitudes of white workers
• Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South, by Robert R. Korstad, which describes how union elections were the first time many Black people voted
• For more from Dorian Warren, check out The Hidden Rules of Race, a book he co-authored with Andrea Flynn, Susan R. Holmberg, and Felicia Wong. Learn more about his work at Community Change and the Economic Security Project.
Michael Tomasky: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia Wong: And I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: And this is How to Save A Country, our podcast on the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States.
Felicia: Because progressives need a common purpose and a common strategy to win.
Michael: We connect the economy, democracy, and freedom—because it’s all one thing.
Felicia: Unions play a big part in that interconnection. Our guest today, Dorian Warren, knows that from personal experience. He’s a renowned movement strategist, labor scholar, and the co-president of Community Change, a national organization that builds the power of low-income people, especially low-income people of color. We’re going to talk with him about workers and the labor movement.
Michael: In the mid-1950s, nearly three in 10 employed workers belonged to a union. Now it’s about 10 percent, or just 6 percent, if you count only the private sector.
Felicia: But labor organizing is on the rise again. Just look around: In more than 200 Starbucks outlets, an Amazon warehouse, even an Apple store, workers are banding together to ask for more: more wages, more benefits, more control over their schedules and workplace safety. They’re asserting more agency on the job because they’re acting together.
Michael: So we’ll talk with Dorian about why unionization is so important to the broader progressive project.
Dorian Warren [clip]: You want to understand the relationship between the labor movement and democracy, it’s really easy: No labor movement means no strong democracy. No labor movement means no middle class.
Felicia: But first I want to ask you, Michael: When you were growing up, did you think about labor and labor unions? Because when I was a kid, it didn’t seem like labor was really part of my life.
Michael: Yeah, if you were growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the ’60s and ’70s, you pretty much didn’t have the luxury of not thinking about labor, Felicia. There were coal miners all around. So many of my friends, the kids I played ball with, their dads were coal miners or worked in some way related to the coal business. There were strikes that shut down my high school for a week, I remember once, because there was no coal. So yeah, it was around me in a pretty big way. Now, of course, there are far fewer miners. They still pull as much coal out of those hills in the state of West Virginia, but with about one-tenth the number of miners. So the union presence has been decimated.
Felicia: As you know, I grew up in California, and unions were probably part of my life. My cousins worked for the post office, and of course there’s a postal union, but I didn’t really know much about it. Learning about the importance of labor and labor unions to our economy and our society is something I’ve come to later. It’s so interesting, these similarities and differences in how we grew up.
Michael: Yeah, as I say, it was all around me. I remember a conversation with my dad once, before I really understood these things. My father was an attorney, but he had been in the UMW and worked his way through law school.
Felicia: UMW, that’s the United Mine Workers?
Michael: United Mine Workers, thanks. He was a shop steward, in fact, while he was going to law school. I asked him at one point, “But dad, this strike”—whatever strike was going on—“it’s illegal, right?” He said, “Michael, strikes are often illegal. That’s kind of the point.” I said, “Aha. OK.”
Felicia: Right, that’s what it takes to change power in this country.
Michael: All right, on with the show.
Felicia: Dorian Warren is a triple threat:
He’s a labor scholar, he’s a labor organizer, he’s co-president of Community Change, and he’s a renowned movement strategist. Dorian Warren, welcome to the show.
Dorian: Thanks for having me and for those very, very lovely words. It’s making me blush if I could.
Michael: Dorian, let’s talk about one of the biggest trends of the year: the success of union organizing. Campaigns at Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple are landing win after win and getting these shops organized. These are big companies, and these are major upsets. You must be heartened, at least when you look at this. What do you see here as a trend that’s developing?
Dorian: I’m very heartened by all of the news, really the wave of union organizing that we’ve been living through the last several years, that we honestly haven’t seen. I know people want to go back to the ’30s, but let’s not forget, there was a wave in the ’60s and ’70s of public-sector unionization, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this since at least then, much less the ’30s with the rise of industrial organizing under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or the CIO. So there’s a lot to be hopeful about, and I think there are some questions of what it all adds up to. On a hopeful note, I think you both know we are in the midst of a moment with the highest level of union approval ratings in a very long time. Gallup has been measuring public support for unions since 1936, and I think now 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions. Seven out of 10 Americans—that’s the highest it’s been since 1965. By the way, the all-time low was 2009, at 48 percent, and it was the only time since Gallup’s been asking this question since 1936, the only time that below a majority approved of unions. So something has changed, something is going on, I think, in the last decade. There is something different in this moment.
Felicia: That is an enormous jump from in the mid-40s to almost 70 percent of Americans approving of unionization. Can you talk a little bit about who in particular is interested in unionizing? Is this young people? What’s going on?
Dorian: A couple of things we do know; there are a lot of things we don’t know, Felicia. One of the things we know, this union approval number is in the context of the decades of decline in the membership rate for unions. In 2021, the percentage of the workforce unionized was 10.3 percent, down from 10.8 percent in 2020. In the private sector, it’s even lower than that, it’s 6.1 percent—a historic low of workers, particularly in the private sector, unionized. What we do know from the data is that Black workers are most likely to be union members out of all other demographic groups, and there’s a long historical relationship for that. But also I think we know a little bit about who is likely to approve and who is likely to be actively engaged in unionization efforts. We have these old images that are outdated of who are unions for, and who are in unions. We think of industrial workers. We think of blue-collar workers, people who got their hands dirty, in a sense, which is still the case when you think of essential workers, whether meatpacking or care workers in this moment.
What’s striking about especially this current wave, if you think of Starbucks workers, for instance, there are a lot of college graduates, what we used to call white-collar workers back in the day, that are very much supportive. I think in that Gallup poll, something like 70 percent of college graduates approve of unions. That’s up from 55 percent in the 1990s, a whole generation of workers who came of age during or after the Great Recession into an environment, in an economy, where their futures were less bright than, say, their parents’. I think there is a bit of anger and a radicalization, frankly, of especially some college-educated workers, who are saying, “No more.”
The last thing to say is it’s not just white-collar, college-educated workers. There are a whole bunch of workers in the South in particular, in low-wage industries—think Dunkin’ Donuts, or a Waffle House, or even Starbucks in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina. There are folks organizing in the South right now, and in fact the demand for unionization is so great that many traditional unions cannot meet the demand. They can’t keep up with the calls they get from workers who are saying, “I just walked out. I need your help,” or “The grease was too hot in the kitchen at the Waffle House and we’ve said it to our supervisors week after week and we just had enough so seven of us walked out.” So there is something really going on across the spectrum in terms of one’s class background, racial and gender background. This is actually an exciting time for the labor movement.
Felicia: I think we should turn now to this question of why people get unionized in the first place: higher wages. That’s a pretty big reason to join a union. I want to talk about the minimum wage and the “Fight for $15.”
John Iadarola [clip]: This is coming out of an Oxfam study, Oxfam America, who says nearly 52 million workers, or almost one-third of the nation’s labor force, earn less than $15 an hour. These workers whose annual income is less than $31,200 are disproportionately women and people of color.
Tia’yonna Pringle [clip]: During the pandemic, I was working at Popeye’s in Tampa making $10 an hour. I decided to use my voice, and I went on strike and demanded better working conditions.
Jemere Calhoun [clip]: We’re fighting for a $15 minimum wage because we feel that that’s what we need, and that’s what we deserve, and it’s only humane.
Terrence Wise [clip]: Fast food jobs are not just teenagers looking to buy a new Camaro, a new car, you know, it’s adults. I have three little girls that I support working in fast food, and my fiancee who’s a home health care worker, we still struggle with homelessness and keeping food on the table, despite working full-time here.
Felicia: All of us here remember, Dorian, you definitely remember a decade ago, when $15 an hour was crazy talk. How did $15 become mainstream?
Dorian: Felicia, you and I were there at the very beginning and the launch of the “Fight for $15” in the union campaign. And in fact, I was engaged with the union at the time, Service Employees International Union, which helped to support and launch the campaign. I got an assignment—and this was, in full disclosure, during the time I was at the Roosevelt Institute, I was an academic as well—and my assignment was to help find progressive economists who could validate the campaign demand for $15 in a union. And among even our progressive and liberal economist friends, the vast majority—there were some exceptions—the vast majority said that was too much too soon, that it would hurt the very workers we were trying to help. This was echoed frankly by the Obama administration, which said, “Well, $9, maybe $10 max, is the place to go. You all are asking for too much.”
To answer your question, I think one of the interesting lessons is, one, to ignore conventional wisdom or sometimes the supersmart people in the room, the Larry Summers of the world, who definitely said, “No, that’s a bad idea.” Two is to go forth with the boldness and bold idea, the idea itself was super bold. We’re gonna double the federal minimum wage at $7.25 and demand $15 an hour, and we’re just going to do it. So there was a boldness in the idea and the demand, and then there was action. “This can change. We can do something about it.” So we saw a wave of one-day strikes, for instance—that was the action part. Then the campaign to make the idea real and legitimate was to go place by place. Think of it as a form of, sort of, progressive federalism to say, “OK, if there’s inaction and obstacles at the federal level, what can we do experimentally at the state and local level?” So we saw SeaTech. We saw Seattle. We saw San Francisco. We saw New York. We saw LA. We saw Chicago. All these municipalities and places around the country with a smart campaign of action increased their minimum wages, whether it was $10, $13, $15 an hour. And guess what? The sky didn’t fall like all the so-called smart people told us it would. The sky didn’t fall, and so now we have so much evidence from economists and social scientists around what happens when you increase the minimum wage to something outrageous like $15 an hour. We’re now, 10 years later, at a place where Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice King, and others are saying, actually we have to even raise our expectations more to $20 an hour, given all that’s changed in the last 10 years.
Michael: And it hasn’t been raised since 2007 by Congress, when a lot of Republicans voted for it, incidentally, as you well know. But I want to return to this question of empirical evidence that you just raised, because I think that’s a really important point. Seattle raises its minimum wage to $15 an hour. People say, “You’re going to kill the restaurant business.” The restaurant business thrived. All this kind of thing goes back to, of course, the famous Card Krueger experiment of 1993. This was a study of wage differentials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when New Jersey raised its minimum wage and all disastrous things that most economists predicted would happen did not. So that’s all been disproven. But talk also about benefits a higher minimum wage brings, not just to the people who get it but to the economy as a whole, to the people a little bit up the wage chain and to the economy.
Dorian: Well, we now have so much evidence about the effects of minimum wages on local economies. We know especially that lower-income, lower-wealth folks with an infusion of cash or simply just a raise are much more likely to spend that money locally and to boost local economies. Often when you hear opponents to the minimum wage talk about the effect on small businesses, it’s an ideological point, not an empirical point, and at this point we need to actually put the final nail on a coffin on the continued neoliberal ideology that somehow raising wages is bad for business. It is just not empirically true. We also know a little bit about the wellbeing of folks that actually get a raise: People are much less likely to be hungry. People can afford basic necessities. People are less likely to be evicted. People score higher in terms of overall mental health. There’s just a range of benefits.
Felicia: Hey listeners, this is us, the hosts, hopping in after our recording with Dorian to add a little bit more on this specific Card Krueger study, because it’s pretty critical. Before studies like the Card Krueger study, labor economics was a lot of theory, and theoretical economists used to say that government raising wages would cause employers to hire few workers and cut jobs. But then some people started to do experiments to test this in the real world. Michael, do you want to explain a little bit more about this study and what happened?
Michael: In 1992, New Jersey raised its minimum wage. All the economists of the sort you’re just talking about said, “This is going to be a disaster. This is going to kill jobs in New Jersey,” and all the usual things. David Card and Alan Krueger were two economists who said, “Well, that’s what the theory says, but let’s go actually see what happened.” So they conducted an experiment in 1993, a natural experiment in the argot of economics, where they went and looked at the data of what had happened in the several-month period after New Jersey’s higher minimum wage went into effect. They found that in fact it did not kill jobs in New Jersey, that jobs were fine in New Jersey, maybe even slightly up there, some debate about that aspect of it, but what there is no debate about is that it was not a job killer in New Jersey. And it was really the first and most famous of what came along later, a series of more data-driven experiments that showed that neoclassical or classical economic theory just wasn’t right.
Felicia: Weren’t some of these studies actually paired studies? So you would look at what happened to employment in a county that had raised its wage and employment in a county that hasn’t raised its wage, and really try to compare that, so it was pretty data-driven and pretty empirical.
Michael: That’s a big change in economics that I catalog in my book—I might as well throw in a fast plug for The Middle Out by Michael Tomasky—but it’s been discussed elsewhere. Economics moved from being heavily reliant on this kind of theoretical model to being much more empirical and much more data-driven, and the data show that, guess what, workers have been getting screwed for 40 years.
Felicia: Well, that’s something we talk about on this show, and we also want to help our listeners understand how economics has shifted and how that’s actually driven real-world effects, policy effects and outcomes for workers. So that’s why we took a little bit of a detour to have this conversation.
Michael: With that, we’re going to take a quick break, and we’ll be right back with Dorian Warren.
Michael: Welcome back to How to Save a Country. Dorian Warren, the point of this is to get political power back in the hands of working people and to get wealth back in the hands of working people. This is where we look back, not just to the past two years of the pandemic but the past 40 years of American politics, in which, to me, the central fact of our political economy and perhaps our whole political life of those four decades is this massive transfer of wealth from the working and middle classes to the top 1 percent and even the top 0.1 percent. To the extent that we want this podcast to be about not just the policies but the ideas that animate them, tell people about the ideas that drive the “Fight for $15” and all these efforts that are going on right now.
Dorian: When historians look at this moment, I think they will probably find that there is an uptick in collective action and protest, particularly from progressive moments and, frankly, on the flip side, an uptick in collective action from the right, but in terms of political violence. We’re living in a contradictory moment. Think about Buffalo, New York, and Buffalo as an exemplar of the contradiction. On the one hand, the first Starbucks store ever unionized in America, the collective action of a whole bunch of workers, baristas, some college educated, some not, but just doing something pretty radical that most people said couldn’t be done. That’s a really hopeful note. But also in Buffalo, the mass killing and murder by a white supremacist who subscribed to this thing called the “great replacement theory,” for which many, particularly white Americans, in this country believe that their status is threatened and fear the future of a multiracial democracy. So both of those things are true simultaneously.
One could hypothesize that part of the rise of frankly right-wing authoritarianism is due to a decline in living standards and expectations and the lack of, I would argue, a strong labor movement as a potential vehicle of organizing people. What we do know from the scholarship—and I’ll give a shout to some colleagues and former students and friends of mine, Paul Frymer, Jacob Grumbach, and Tom Ogorzalek, who have a fantastic paper on the role of unions in shaping the attitudes of white workers, and the punchline is essentially if you’re a working-class white person, you are much more likely to be supportive of, say, racial justice if you’re a member of a union than, say, if you’re a member of an evangelical church. Those are two different kinds of institutions in civil society that shape outcomes in different ways with the same population. This is a long way of trying to answer your question, Michael. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of inequality, the rise of the one percent and its incredible wealth and power—what we might even call an oligarchy ruled by the wealthy few, the redistribution of wealth upward to the wealthiest the last 40 years—there is a relationship with the decline of the labor movement and the decline of unions.
Felicia: I’m wondering what you think about whether or not unions provide community, seems to me that that could be pretty big in this time of social fragmentation, a kind of loneliness epidemic it’s been called. I’ll say I see that in my own organization—the Roosevelt Institute is unionized. I know Community Change is also unionized. And one of the things I think the union gives people is place, like an actual community within the larger institution. Talk a little bit about that.
Dorian: Absolutely. I do think there is this social capital that union members acquire in terms of how to organize a meeting, how to be in relationship with one another, how to take collective action. I would distinguish it a little bit from what we might call political capital, the skills and resources necessary to participate in democracy. There’s a great book, Civil Rights Unionism by Robert Korstad, that makes the point that for many Black workers, particularly in North Carolina in the ’40s, the opportunity to vote in the National Labor Relations Board union election was the first time they got to vote because they were excluded, because of Jim Crow, from our political democracy. So where did they learn how to be good citizens? They actually learned it through a National Labor Relations Board election, the first time they voted and under conditions of coercion, often, because employers have all the power at the workplace. There isn’t equal time for workers or a union organizer to speak on company property to talk about the union. It’s really all employer power, and so if you learn how to overcome that in terms of exercising your voice in the context of coercion, well of course you’re going to be prepared to engage in the rest of civil society and in terms of a political election.
The other point which I think a lot about: When I was still teaching, I used to always say, “If you want to understand the relationship between the labor movement and democracy, it’s really easy: No labor movement means no strong democracy. No labor movement means no middle class.” We have all this empirical evidence from around the world on that question. There is a relationship between unions and organized labor and the labor movement in securing democracy and aiding democratization efforts and in expanding social and economic citizenship. I think that’s kind of the place we find ourselves over the last 40 years. What happens once you lose a strong labor movement? Do you lose your democracy? The verdict is kind of yes.
Felicia: Dorian, it seems like what you’re describing is a country and a society that’s caught in between. We are caught in between a democracy where we’d like to have one person, one vote, and an oligarchy, whereby very few people have a lot of power to not just spend money and create companies but also to write political rules. Part of what I hear you describing is all of us living through that tension, and that hasn’t settled. That is also the tension that the Biden administration finds itself in. I’d like to ask you, given both the some of the strengths that Joe Biden had and that the party had, but also some of what was arrayed against this administration, what do you think of what this team has accomplished, and what do you wish they were doing more of?
Dorian: You’re going to get me in all sorts of trouble. So I’d start by saying what frustrates me about the punditry and the normal conversation is sort of the horse-race nature of the conversation: “Oh, his approval numbers are really low.” All the, “Democrats are heading for midterm losses of historic, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” as if we’re in normal political time. This is not a normal political time. I think our judgments of President Biden have to take into account the context. He walks in with a pandemic raging, with an economy crashing, and then existential threats to democracy. I’m hard-pressed to think of a predecessor president that had to deal with all of those things simultaneously.
Second, I would say, I wonder if historians will see the American Rescue Plan in particular as a pretty historic piece of legislation and a break with 40 years of neoliberalism. I wonder if that’s how it will be seen in terms of the political will that was mustered to do a really big thing of getting cash out the door—what was it, $1.9 trillion?—to individuals, to cities, to states, to counties, to basically say the government has a huge role in the economy, the government actually helps to make the economy. It helps to write the rules for the economy, and it has a huge and different role to play in moments of crises. I rarely hear people in the pundit class talk about the American Rescue Plan, and it’s partly because they don’t talk to ordinary people who directly benefited and were saved from falling off of a cliff, frankly, because of the American Rescue Plan and the cash—whether through stimulus checks or the child tax credit—that literally went into working people’s pockets. I had my own family members who survived only because of the American Rescue Plan last year.
So I get frustrated—maybe this is to the critique of the Biden administration—can you tell a damn good story for once? It’s just remarkable to me how this administration is incapable of telling a really clear story with a plot, with a protagonist, with a villain, with some hope, with some challenges. I have a 2-year-old. I read her stories every night. There are certain elements of good storytelling that somehow all these smart people, paid really well, cannot figure out—how to tell a goddamn good story about what they’ve done.
Let me say it this way: What is the counterfactual if there was no American Rescue Plan? What would’ve happened to millions of ordinary people in this country but for that safety net that was created, albeit temporarily, in 2021? If people can see the effect of government in 2021 in their lives, how do we then raise expectations for what more can government accomplish?
Felicia: I do agree with you that the American Rescue Plan was a historic pivot away from a small-government neoliberalism toward something much bigger. I think the question is whether or not we will be able to keep that vision and have a long arc, because the story you are telling, Dorian, is one—this country has always gone back and forth, progress and then backlash, progress and then backlash, got to keep with the progress. That’s what I hear you saying, and I hear the union story as part of the progress story.
Dorian: To give another example of the inability to tell a good story, we started by talking about Starbucks workers. Of course we have to talk about the Amazon workers on Staten Island—again, huge labor breakthrough of monumental significance, of really going after one of the largest employers in the world and one of the most powerful companies, if not the most powerful company, in the world and actually winning. There are at least two parts of the story. Part one is the courageous and innovative organizing of workers at that Amazon warehouse and, frankly, to do it without traditional institutional labor.
Felicia: Explain that a little bit for our listeners. What does that mean?
Dorian: It’s not like of the, say, 60 national unions in this country that one or two of them said, “We’re going to go organize Amazon in Staten Island,” and they did it. Nope, that’s not what happened. What happened was a group of workers who had been there for a long time and frankly were motivated less by wages but by working conditions and health and safety standards—really important distinction, let’s not assume all workers are motivated by just higher wages, they also want safe working conditions. In the midst of the pandemic, a whole bunch of angry workers at that Staten Island Amazon warehouse said, “Nope, we’re going to start to have conversations and push back and organize.” And yes, there is a union organizing workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, that hasn’t been successful yet, but this effort in Staten island was really without the backing of a formal union, was without the backing of the AFL-CIO initially—they’re all there now—but it wasn’t like the labor movement was on the cutting edge in terms of institutional unions at figuring out the strategy to organize Amazon. It was really, really innovative, a ground-up, bottom-up campaign by workers who did a lot of reading, who did a lot of watching old labor-history videos. They did talk to a whole bunch of union organizers, and they pulled off something that most traditional unions didn’t think was possible. So that’s part A. I want to give those workers agency; they did something innovative.
But here’s part B, and it goes back to the role of the government. It goes back to the role of the state, because the story not told about that successful Amazon victory, and frankly the victories at Starbucks around the country, is the role of a state institution called the National Labor Relations Board. One of the first acts of President Biden, I think maybe even on his first day in office, but definitely the first week, was to fire the Trump general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board very publicly and to put in a progressive general counsel who has been committed to actually enforcing labor law in a way not seen in generations. You have to understand a little bit about what happened before that union vote at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse. Oh yeah, the NLRB actually came in and said, “Amazon you’re violating the law,” and “You have to adhere to the law and allow certain conversations at the workplace and allow some union organizers to come on the property of the workplace.”
So there’s a way in which part of the Amazon story in Staten Island is a government story. It’s the role of a strong National Labor Relations Board. It’s the role of actual personnelist politics, and appointments matter, and actually, yep, elections matter at the highest level if you care about union elections. The fact that we haven’t heard as much about that story tells me there’s a lot more work for us to do, for the Biden administration to do, for the labor movement to do about what are all the conditions necessary for us to get to some sense of freedom and economic justice?
Michael: So here’s a “let yourself dream” question. This show is called How to Save a Country. How would you save the country if they made you emperor? What are the first two things you do?
Dorian: Oh my, you stumped me on that. What would be the first things I would do?
Felicia: Maybe you wouldn’t accept being emperor. Maybe that would be the first thing.
Dorian: That’ll probably be the first thing.
Felicia: The emperor of our democracy. Maybe not.
Dorian: I think I would pass a whole bunch of enabling laws that give people power, so I would pass really comprehensive labor law reform that actually puts workers on an equal bargaining level with employers, that enables them to exercise their freedom of association free from reprisals and intimidation and firings as our labor laws should be working. It’s not anything radical. It’s laid out pretty clearly in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The purpose of that act was to equalize the bargaining power between corporations and workers, which is not equal. I would immediately figure out a way to pass laws that enable workers to exercise collective action without intimidation or reprisals.
Second, I think there’s another set of enabling laws, and that is really ensuring the fundamental right to vote in this country for everybody, empowering people to exercise their voice. There is so much money from corporations and the wealthy fueling campaigns to restrict who has the right to vote, and it’s because of the incredible transfer of wealth from working-class and poor middle-class folks over the last 40 years that the one percent can fund these campaigns to undermine democracy. That is a direct connection. Increased wealth and power translates into money very easily because of a Supreme Court that has allowed this as a mechanism, which then further erodes and undermines democracy.
We are in the midst of a huge backlash around the retraction and erosion of democracy, of the exclusion of key populations and targeted populations.
This is not just American history. This is the history of electoral democracy for over 200 years. Elites always want to contract the electorate because there is a fear of majority rule. There’s a famous saying in terms of electoral democracy that the poor will soak the rich, meaning if you give all poor working-class people in the democracy equal voice with rich people, they will vote to tax them and redistribute wealth and income downward. Yep, that is exactly what is happening.
The two things I would do, to answer your question, Michael: Make sure every worker has the right to organize and make sure every person in this country has the right to vote and is encouraged to vote.
Felicia: Dorian, so appreciate you, so appreciate your work and your colleagueship.
Michael: Dorian, thank you so much for joining us.
Dorian: Thank you for having me.
Felicia: That was Dorian Warren. Always great to hear from him.
Michael: It is, and he’s nobody’s idea of an armchair analyst. He’s highly involved in this fight to get more workers into unions.
Felicia: If you want to know more about Dorian’s work and mission, you can go to communitychange.org. There’s even a “Join us” tab that you can click on, might be nice.
Michael: What stuck with you from that conversation?
Felicia: Two things. First, the new upsurge in labor organizing is not an accident. It happened because of individual organizers, of course, but also because our government has set the conditions to create greater bargaining power, which I think of as countervailing power against corporations who for too long have been allowed to extract from their own workers.
Then the second thing is that Black people benefit especially from unions. I was really struck by his anecdote that for many Black voters, their first voting experience wasn’t in government elections but was in union elections. This helps all of us understand that unions can help all people, especially white people, become more multiracial in their politics and their attitudes.
Michael: That’s so true, and it’s just so great in general to see the labor movement genuinely on the move and on the rise. It’s the first time really in my adult lifetime, which is a long time now, and I understand that this feels scarier, uncertain to some people. Strikes, the threat of strikes, are a big deal, but ultimately our democracy’s going to be a lot healthier, and our economy a lot stronger, more stable, less fractured, less polarized if workers are safer and more secure on the job.
Felicia: With that, we want to thank Dorian Warren again for joining us. How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our associate producer is Alli Rodgers. Our lead producer is Pierre Bienaimé. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal wellbeing at omidyar.com.
Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at hewlett.org.
Felicia: We’ll be back in a week with another episode on, what else, how to save a country, so if you’re not following the podcast yet, please do so.
Michael: And, of course, throw us a rating or a review. Felicia, can you tell listeners what they can look forward to next week?
Felicia: Amy Kapczynski will join us to give her proactive take on the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and what working at the Supreme Court is really like.
Amy Kapczynski [clip]: It’s a very small and intimate place. I can think of no government agency that has anything like the amount of power that it has with so few people working for it, and it’s a place about which, I would say, there’s a lot of secrecy.
Michael: See you all next week.