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The current state of unions in America
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The current state of unions in America

A conversation with author Hamilton Nolan.
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In this episode, journalist Hamilton Nolan shares about his upcoming book The Hammer, a deep dive into the current tattered state of unions in the US and the prospects for their future.

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David Roberts

Hey there, Volts listeners. I’ve got something a little different for you today, a little off our typical beaten path. I hope you will indulge me.

For years I have been reading and appreciating the work of Hamilton Nolan, whose career has run oddly parallel to mine. Like me, he's been in journalism for almost 20 years and recently struck out on his own with an independent newsletter.

Nolan helped unionize the Gawker Media workforce back in the 2010s and ever since then he has been more and more preoccupied with unions. His work on the subject has culminated in a new book, The Hammer (on sale Feb. 15), about the state of unions in the US and prospects for their future.

In it, he tours the country visiting industries that are just beginning to organize and follows an up-and-coming organizer named Sara Nelson as she navigates the labor establishment. It is unsparing about the tattered state of unions and the difficulty of organizing, but nonetheless optimistic about what unions could still be.

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This is not Volts’ typical area of coverage, but I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of unions to a just clean energy transition, it’s a good book, and it’s my podcast, so … we’re taking a field trip.

With no further ado, Hamilton Nolan, welcome to Volts. Thanks so much for coming.

Hamilton Nolan

Thanks for having me, man. Excited to be here.

David Roberts

I'm sure on your book tour you're going to talk to a lot of pods and people who are deeper into unions than we are here. So I hope you'll indulge some rather, sort of, basic childlike questions about this stuff.

Hamilton Nolan

Totally.

David Roberts

But my sense is that the Volts audience, your sort of typical urban, educated, liberal, white-collar type, not to stereotype my own audience. I love each and every one of my listeners, but I think they are like me, I think, kind of out of touch with unions, sort of vaguely positive toward them, but also have some sort of vague critiques of them floating around, but most of all just do not have a great sense of what's going on today. At least I didn't till I read your book. So I want to start at the beginning, philosophically speaking.

How about you just start by making the very basic case for why in a capitalist society, something like unions are not just good to have, but necessary. What is the case for unions?

Hamilton Nolan

Yes, absolutely. And I will say my target audience is actually not super hardcore union people. I really hope that regular people exactly like who you're describing your audience read this book because I think one of the points the book tries to make is that a lot of the problems that we have in America that people think of as political problems and economic problems are actually rooted in labor power. So the case for unions is pretty simple. Here we are in capitalism, as you say, not just capitalism, but shareholder-driven capitalism, right? Which is probably a little more accurate description of the American system, a system in which big, powerful companies exist to maximize profits and to minimize labor costs.

Minimizing labor costs is a basic incentive of capitalism that all businesses, to some extent, are obligated to try to do. And all unions really do is to try to balance the playing field, to balance the power between employers and employees. To give workers a seat at the table, is what they like to say in the labor movement, but it just allows workers to come together and negotiate as a group. That's really the most basic function of a union, which is called collective bargaining. But really it just means you work somewhere, you and your coworkers can sit down together and negotiate with your employer as a group, rather than all having to negotiate individually in a completely powerless way.

So the most basic case for unions is just that in capitalism, it's absolutely essential for workers to be able to join together and negotiate the conditions of their employment. Otherwise, you have a wild power imbalance between capital and labor, which is what we, in fact, have in America today.

David Roberts

I think the conventional kind of econ 101 response to that is "the power workers have is their power to leave and get a different job." Right. If they don't like the conditions, they can go to a different employer. And so in some vague sense, employers are competing for employees. And that is supposed to be the incentive?

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, I mean, I guess, first of all, unions don't undercut that at all. Of course, employers in unionized industries still compete for employees. It just allows employees to negotiate collectively and to get the money that is sitting there in front of them that they're only able to get if they are able to negotiate collectively. And also, I think maybe the more basic kind of real-world answer to that is, of course, anybody who lives in the real world and has a job knows that it's not that easy to just say, "well, if you don't like it, quit," and then you won't be able to pay the rent, and then you can't buy food, and then you can't buy stuff for your kids.

David Roberts

Especially also because we attach health insurance to employment, too, which makes flitting around between jobs rather —

Hamilton Nolan

A whole other bad idea. But, yeah, I mean, there's a lot of unspoken power imbalance in that kind of statement, which is, I think, one reason why the right wing loves to use it. "Just go get another job," it's obviously not that simple.

David Roberts

Yeah, and I really appreciate one of your recent posts, which made the point that if in a bargain with employees, employers agree to pay more, what that reveals is that money was sitting there, there was excess value there to be had, and workers weren't getting it. It's sort of de facto proof.

Hamilton Nolan

Absolutely. And I mean, that's a point that I really wish everybody who didn't have a union would understand, is that you work for a company that makes a certain amount of income. How much of that are they paying you? They are paying you the minimum amount that they can afford to pay you and still get you to do the work. And without collective bargaining, you're almost always getting less than you could get. And the difference is just going into the pockets of your bosses and the investors.

David Roberts

Let's then talk about kind of big picture wise, the history of unions in America. So my vague understanding is there were big fights in the early 20th century. And this is something I also think people don't appreciate, is how big those fights were and how nasty they were. I mean, it was like battles, wars, massacres, like truly insane shit around unions early in the century. And then they sort of grew, became more and more powerful, peaking somewhere around mid-century. And then basically for the last 40 or 50 years have been declining. That is sort of the level of detail I'm working with here.

So, maybe start sort of mid-century when unions were at their peak. What is it that brought them to that peak? And then what started this process whereby the level of unionization in the US has been whittled and whittled and whittled away?

Hamilton Nolan

Right. Well, as you say, there were enormous, bloody, violent battles in the first part of the 20th century from workers just trying to establish unions to win the right to have a union, from iron-fisted employers like Henry Ford and US Steel and Andrew Carnegie and all those famous capitalists of the past. I encourage people to go read labor history books because they're extremely exciting. And you'll see how much blood was shed to get things like the 40-hour work week and stuff we take for granted today.

David Roberts

And passed over so lightly, I think, in standard curriculum.

Hamilton Nolan

Yes, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I think there's probably a reason why they don't teach labor history in public schools in America, especially in red states. But to fast forward a little bit, there was a lot of that sort of grassroots union activity. Leading up into World War II, unions were very strong. It was an industrial time, so they were building those industrial unions in the auto industry and the steel industry and all those industries. After World War II, the AFL and the CIO, which were the two main coalitions of unions, merged. And by the mid-1950s, one in three American workers was a union member.

One in three. That was the peak of union power in the United States of America.

David Roberts

So around like 35% ish?

Hamilton Nolan

Right in the mid-fifties. And I think for people who've grown up today, more recently, it's hard to even imagine what America was like. And one consequence of that was that the entire golden age of America, the post-war prosperity of America, that even Republicans talk about as like the golden age, which was an age of shared prosperity, existed because workers were very powerful, because unions were strong. I mean, unions made that happen.

David Roberts

And taxes on rich people were very high.

Hamilton Nolan

That's right: higher taxes, strong unions. And all the money that was made by those companies was shared. And without that, it's not shared, which is where we are today. But after that, the business world got together and said, "we don't like this because unions are taking some of the profits that we could have." There was a very concerted effort by the business world and their political allies to pass laws that made unions weaker, that made it harder for unions to strike, that made it harder for unions to organize, that restricted who could and could not be in a union.

All these things that are still with us today, actually. And also there was a concerted program to kind of perfect the art of union busting, meaning they really figured out how to come in — if you want to organize your workplace — and send in a team of professional union busters to essentially lie and scare workers out of unionizing. So those things happen throughout the '60s and the '70s. Then when you hit the Ronald Reagan era in the '80s and deregulation and all the good things that Ronald Reagan unleashed — firing the air traffic controllers is one that a lot of people point to in labor history as a terrible moment for unions in general — from then on, it's sort of just been steadily downhill for more than 50 years.

And today, one in ten American workers is a union member. So that decline from one in three to one in ten is really the story of the decline of unions in America.

David Roberts

How much of that was deliberate hostile action on the part of employers and their political allies versus the sort of structural decline of the kind of industries where unions were prevalent? Do you know what I mean? This was also the era of deindustrialization and globalization, et cetera, et cetera. And those are not unconnected, but to what extent is just like unionized industries kind of disappearing, playing a role?

Hamilton Nolan

Well, the answer is both because if you think about what unions are, unions ideally are going to be wherever the jobs are in the economy. Unions exist to serve working people. So when the horse and buggy industry goes out of business and they start driving trucks, the teamsters, which were the union, what do they do? They organize the truck drivers. So it's not a natural state of nature that when an industry declines, the total rate of unionization has to go down. Because even as the industrial jobs left America, which were heavily unionized industries, it didn't mean that unions couldn't go out and organize the other jobs.

I mean, the primary reason, not the only reason, but the primary reason that they couldn't organize those only jobs, was there were all these legal and regulatory and economic and other obstacles to doing that kind of organizing. So it was very much the preference of the employers that this set of industrialized union jobs disappear and leave America and be replaced with this set of lower-paid service jobs and stuff that were much harder to organize.

David Roberts

When you talk about the horse and buggy example: one of the critiques of unions is that if you have a horse and buggy worker union, that union is going to be a force for resisting or slowing down or trying to stop the transition to automobiles. And pick it for any industry, the idea that you're sort of like freezing in place capitalism, which is supposed to be creatively destroying things all the time and building new things, in that sense, unions are a force for conservatism. What do you make of that?

Hamilton Nolan

Well, I mean, the reality is that unions don't run companies. Unions can do a lot of things for workers. They can protect you as a worker, they can protect your rights, they can make your life better, but they ultimately don't manage companies. And so a union can't stop — the United Auto Workers at GM, cannot stop Tesla from building electric cars. They don't do that. What they can do, which I think is a positive thing, is that when we do have those big shifts in the economy, which happen regularly, and huge swaths of workers get displaced by those changes, unions can bridge the gap.

And using clean energy as an example, the United Mine Workers can say, "we want to build a path for these coal mine workers to have jobs in green energy." And the alternative is they all get thrown off work and nobody cares. So that is more the choice, I think, than unions being a force for conservatism.

David Roberts

So, starting in the '60s and '70s, this decline starts, accelerated, like everything bad, by Ronald Reagan, and now we're down to 10%. Your book is about a lot of, and I think people who follow the news these days, these past couple of years have seen a lot of sort of sparks of new unionization, a lot of talk about unions, sort of like unions generally are kind of back in the news in a way that I haven't seen in really my lifetime. Is any of that ultimately stopping the decline of unionizations? Like, is the pace of descent even changing?

Hamilton Nolan

That's kind of maybe one of the big questions I try to get at in the book, is that we're sitting in this moment of opportunity, right? I mean, as you say, even in my lifetime, and we're probably close to the same age, 21 —

David Roberts

Ish, plus or minus 30 years.

Hamilton Nolan

We grew up through the Reagan era. And I think it's accurate to say that today is the most high-profile level of public enthusiasm for the labor movement in my lifetime, and probably in your lifetime. So there's a lot of energy around unions, which is natural because we've had 50 years of rising inequality. So sooner or later, people are going to be like, how can we fix this? And then the question is, as you say, can the labor movement actually harness this and turn around this ongoing decline? And I mean, the numbers say, "no." I shouldn't say they can't.

I will say they have not. They have not done so. And I try to get at in the book some of the reasons and some of the failures of the labor movement itself to kind of reckon with the scale of the problem we're dealing with and really be able to harness the energy that's out there today to start organizing on a large enough scale to turn those numbers around.

David Roberts

Yeah. So, well, let's talk about then where some of that organizing, you track where some of that energy is. So I think sort of the big story is — in the US in the last 50 years — has been the decline of your sort of stereotypical white-collar jobs, manufacturing, et cetera. That stuff moved overseas, and we have become more of a service economy is the sort of big picture line. And a lot of people, I think to the extent they think about unionizations in this context, just sort of assume, well, those previous jobs were sort of like union ready, sort of union inclined, whereas organizing service workers, which tend to be kind of more marginalized, tend to move between jobs much more often, tend to work part-time jobs much more often tend to work gig jobs much more often.

I think the idea is, like, just can't unionize this. So talk about a few of the places where you visit in your book where unionization is happening. What industries?

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, I like to push back against that sort of conventional wisdom that there are jobs that are not organizable. Right. I don't believe that that's true. There's certainly factors that make it harder and easier to organize different workplaces. And when you think of those industrial jobs from the perspective of labor organizing, they did have some good things going for them because you have thousands of people in one location, and it's sort of easy to go in and get to all the workers and talk to them. So logistically, there are reasons why it was easier to organize those kind of factory workers.

David Roberts

Can I toss this into? Is the fact that those jobs were much more likely to be held by white men also play a role in this?

Hamilton Nolan

Actually, no. Because if you look at the statistics, black workers in America are more heavily unionized than white workers. And, part of the reason being they tend to work lower wage jobs that have historically had higher rates of unionization. So a lot of the growth in unions today is in areas like, for example, health care and home care and things like that, where you have a lot of low-wage workers of color. So there's nobody that cannot be organized. Right. And when you think about a high-profile campaign like the Starbucks union campaign, which has been going for two, three years now, that was an area where the conventional wisdom said — Starbucks is essentially fast food. I mean, let's be honest, right? It's dressed up fast food, but basically it's fast food.

There was a level of conventional wisdom, even within the labor movement that it's useless to try to organize fast food because there's so much turnover and it's so hard. And then the Starbucks campaign launched, largely driven by the workers themselves, and they've unionized something like 300 plus stores in just a few years. And it goes to show that level of latent enthusiasm that already exists that they tapped into. And so there's all types of, I mean, everything I write about in the book, our own industry, digital media, right?

David Roberts

Yeah.

Hamilton Nolan

Which used to be a place where you could get a job, not so much anymore. But —

David Roberts

I remember those days.

Hamilton Nolan

There was a story in the Washington Post in 2015, and the headline was like, "Why don't digital media workers organize?" And it was about, here's all the structural reasons why there aren't unions in digital media. And within a few months after that story, we had unionized Gawker Media. And then within a few months after that, a whole bunch of other digital media places started to unionize. And it was like, "what changed?" What changed was unions started trying to organize us. And when they did, we got organized. So I really believe that the application of effort to organizing is what produces results.

And part of the reason for the decline of unions as a whole is that unions, over those years, when they were really under assault politically and economically, sort of retreated into this bunker mentality that we can only organize where it's safe.

David Roberts

Right, right. I want to get into that in a second, but first, let's just touch on a few of these. These are mostly service industries. Now, the new organizing that's happening. And so you visit some garment industry folks.

Hamilton Nolan

I have a couple chapters in the book about a union called Unite Here, which is hospitality workers, hotel workers, room cleaners, casino workers in Las Vegas. They have very strong unions, very strong unions. And those are low wage jobs, obviously, those are not great jobs. But that union goes out and organizes in the hotels, in the convention centers, in cities. It organizes in the airports. It will go into an airport and organize every food stall in the airport and get all those workers on a union contract. So stuff like that is such a good example of the fact that you can organize anywhere.

And that union is actually very politically powerful, even though it represents almost entirely low wage workers or lower wage workers, just because of the level of organization that they have.

David Roberts

Is a strike a necessary part of unionization for these industries? Like, have all these industries had to strike to convince employers that they're serious? Or is that just extreme cases?

Hamilton Nolan

It's not extreme. If you think about where does the power of a union come from? When you get right down to it, the power of a union comes from the ability of workers to say, "we're not going to do work unless you give us something satisfactory." Right. No matter what the law says and no matter what the boss says, at the end of the day, if the workers don't do the work, there's no business. And so that is the fundamental and unalterable core of all labor power. And that means the strike. And so throughout history, and even recent history, the strike — you wouldn't say it's necessary in every union.

There are many unions that you can organize a place and negotiate a contract and you don't have to go on strike. But there is always the possibility that you will have to go on strike, because if you're not willing to go on strike, then you're essentially telling your employer that they can impose conditions on you that are unsatisfactory and you're not going to do anything about it.

David Roberts

Well, let's talk a little about the law around this stuff. So I think one sort of naive question about this is, if I'm an employer and a bunch of my employees say, "hey, we want to start a union," and I don't want a union, what is to stop me from just firing those workers and hiring new workers who won't strike?

Hamilton Nolan

Right. Well, that, in fact, is illegal. So union organizing activity is a legally protected activity, meaning that it is against the law for your boss to retaliate against you for trying to organize a union in your workplace. And obviously, firing you is a form of retaliation.

David Roberts

Don't some states, though, have the equivalent of no-fault firing, though? You can be fired for any reason. Can't they just fire you and say they did it for something else?

Hamilton Nolan

Well, in practice, yes, that's what they do. In practice, workers start to try to organize a union and the boss fires them. And then they're like, "you were 1 minute late," and that's common. And then you can file an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB and it gets litigated. And there's a legal process for that. But, I mean, the law is, it is illegal for them to retaliate against you for union organizing. So if you are a worker and you are nervous about the idea of organizing a union, which is very common and for good reason sometimes, you should know that it is legally your right to try to organize a union, and retaliation against you is illegal.

And in the real world, it can be very hard to enforce that. But the right exists.

David Roberts

And what is "right to work"? Explain a little bit what that means and where it came from and where it exists.

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, right to work is a term and sort of a poorly named term. It's one of those things designed to sound good that's actually very bad. What it means is that you cannot be — well, there's a few ways to say it. If you get a job at a place that has a union already, normally you would have to join that union. You would be a part of the union at your workplace because you're working under the union contract. So you would pay union dues, you get the benefits of the union contract, and that's how it works.

It's called a closed shop. In right to work, nobody can be required to join a union. And so if you want to organize a union at your workplace, you have to individually get everybody to voluntarily sign up. And it makes it much, much harder to build and maintain the power of unions, particularly over time.

David Roberts

Right. Because just to point out the obvious, like, if there's a union and it has secured higher pay for the workers, I can just get hired there, enjoy the higher pay, not pay the union dues. So I'm a free rider on the union, and then everybody's a free rider on the union, and then next thing you know, there's no union.

Hamilton Nolan

Exactly. Right-wingers like to discuss it as sort of this freedom issue. Like, "you are free to not join the union," but in fact, it's exactly what you said, which is you're getting all of the benefits that everybody else paid for with their union dues and you're not paying.

David Roberts

Right. So let's talk then a little bit about, you're quite critical in the book of the union establishment, as it were. The AFL-CIO is the big umbrella union organization right now. But I guess I would just start by saying, like, if unions have been getting their asses kicked for 50 years now and they're down to sort of not much more than a rump kind of remnant, they're clinging desperately to what they have, isn't a measure of defensiveness and sort of bunker mentality kind of inevitable in that situation?

Hamilton Nolan

It might be inevitable, but I would turn that question around and say it's kind of the definition of insanity thing, of doing the same thing over and expecting different results. The way I look at it is like if you've been getting your ass kicked for 50 years, it's time to step back and say, "we need to do something different." Whatever we have been doing for 50 years has resulted in us getting our ass kicked. It's proof positive that it's time to do something different.

David Roberts

Do you think in their heart of hearts, some of the big figures in unions kind of have accepted on some level that unions are dwindling and eventually will vanish, and their role is just to sort of scrap for what's left while there's still anything to scrap for. I mean, none of them would say that. Of course, none of them would ever say that. But do you think that's the mentality in some quarters?

Hamilton Nolan

Yes, absolutely it is. And we're kind of painting with a broad brush here because there are a lot of great labor leaders also. But yes, that is the default mentality, I think of a lot of people who run big unions. And even in the book, I interviewed the head of the AFL-CIO, which is the biggest union coalition in America. And I said, "is it possible to turn around the decline of unions?" And her answer was, "with the laws the way that they are, absolutely not."

David Roberts

Interesting.

Hamilton Nolan

What you hear from sort of that set of union leaders all the time is like, "we need to change these terrible laws so that we can turn around this decline." But what's happened in practice is those terrible laws were passed in 1947, and here we are in 2024, and we haven't changed them.

David Roberts

This is a side question, but the labor bill that was part of the Build Back Better mega package early on, the PRO Act, which ended up, like so much else, getting stripped out of Build Back Better. Was the ambition of that act equal to the moment?

Hamilton Nolan

Yes, I mean, the PRO Act itself would sort of revolutionize labor law and fix all the biggest problems that we sort of lightly touched on here. But the PRO Act itself is great. I think that bill itself couldn't get passed, and they tried to stick in a couple of small parts of it, and even that got stripped out in the end. But, yeah, it'd be great if it happens. Yes.

David Roberts

So we know what needs to happen, and most, but not all of the Democratic Party is on side, on board. I mean, is this another thing where it was just like two or three jerk-off centrists killed it, or what's the sort of balance of democratic opinion?

Hamilton Nolan

Right. I mean, in terms of the PRO Act, which is kind of the whole shebang, the PRO Act would fix, really, it would be like everything that labor wants. Now, I think not all Democrats support it. There's the Manchin and Sinemas of the world, but close to all Democrats would support it. However, that bill will never pass as long as the filibuster exists.

David Roberts

Yeah. Like so many others.

Hamilton Nolan

It will never pass. And also, I think that if there was a situation where that bill was actually in a position where it could pass, you might see some of the more centrist Democrats suddenly change their mind about it because it's a lot easier to support a revolutionizing labor power. when you know it's not going to happen.

David Roberts

Well, this is why it's so hard to get rid of the filibuster, right. It's protection for Dems to be able to say, "oh, I support this, that and the other."

Hamilton Nolan

Right. It makes it easy for them to pretend to support it. But also, I would say, as a strategic matter for organized labor itself, you have to do that analysis and be like, "how much time do we want to waste on this?" It is never going to pass as long as the filibuster exists, period.

David Roberts

Right. Right. So let's talk then about, tell us a little bit about Sara Nelson and more broadly, her vision of how the big union groups should be acting and your vision of what the big established union groups ought to be doing, even given the inclement legal, sort of environment they're working in.

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah. So Sara Nelson is kind of the central character of the book. She is the head of the Association of Flight Attendants, which is the major union for flight attendants in America. It's got about 50,000 members. She is sort of well known as a progressive, fiery, energetic labor leader, an ally of Bernie.

David Roberts

Good talker, gives great TV.

Hamilton Nolan

Yes, great on TV, great speaker. Sort of — she can set the house on fire in a way that a lot of union leaders today can't do. And she was also one of the first — as I was doing more and more reporting about unions and stuff — she was one of the first labor leaders that really grabbed me as, like, somebody who was saying the same things that I believed and talking about the issues in the same way. And so I kind of follow her throughout the book as she struggles with the issue of kind of how to assert her vision for what the labor movement should be in the face of this sort of intransigent bureaucracy that makes up a lot of organized labor today.

And really, the big transformation that I would like to see and that we should have from organized labor is that when we talk about how they want to change labor law in order to help organize workers, we need to turn that vision around on its head. And the reality is that you have to organize workers in order to get the political power to change the laws and get the things that you want. That is the shift that needs to happen. For many, many decades, the basic approach of the union establishment has been like, "we are going to accumulate political power by getting in tight with the Democratic Party for the most part, and eventually they're going to do something nice for us that's going to make it easier for us to start organizing workers again."

And it doesn't work; it hasn't worked. It hasn't worked for all these decades. What can work, though, is to just go out and organize. If you go out and organize workers today, there are millions and millions of workers — who it is possible to organize. It's not a pipe dream. It's not a pie in the sky. There are all these places, just like Starbucks that you can go out and you can organize unions and you can organize millions of new workers, and you can turn around that decline in union density. And by doing so, you add to the political power of the labor movement and you give the labor movement what it needs to assert itself politically.

That's kind of the change that we need to see. Unions need to think primarily about organizing workers. They don't need to think about kissing Joe Biden's ass.

David Roberts

Well, presumably if you said that to them, they would be like, "Well, if it were that easy, if we could just go out and organize millions of new workers and get more political power, then we would. But we don't have the money, the power, the money." I mean, to what extent is this a psychological shift in focus, and to what extent are there real material constraints on what they can do?

Hamilton Nolan

There's both, for sure. I mean, it would require billions of dollars to organize workers on that scale.

David Roberts

Right? Where would that come from?

Hamilton Nolan

First of all, it would come from unions who have billions of dollars. There was actually a report recently on the status of union finances. And what it showed is that over the same time period that we're talking about, as union density was declining, the financial position of unions was getting stronger. They're just not spending that money on organizing. So unions have money. They can spend the money to organize. There's also the possibility that I would love to see, is getting a public revenue stream to assist in union organizing. The National Labor Relations Act says that the role of the federal government is to support and facilitate collective bargaining.

And how do you do that? You can't do that without unions. So, I mean, there is a legal path to getting the government to help fund union organizing.

David Roberts

Has it ever done that? I mean, is that a thing that's ever happened?

Hamilton Nolan

No, but it's funny because unions don't ask for that. When I raise this with unions themselves, a lot of times they'll be like, "well, you don't want to be tainted by the government. You don't want to be tied to the government." As if this money would pollute them. But then they will go to Washington and ask for $80 billion bailout for the pension funds. $80 billion for the pension fund is fine, but $1 billion for union organizing is somehow tainted. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but the first step to all of this is just the determination of organized labor itself to say that "organizing is going to be our first priority because we are going to go extinct."

And that step has not happened.

David Roberts

Well, one thing you get across really well in your book is just how high touch organizing is. It's just like we live in a sort of era where people want for there to be an app for things that makes it easier, you know what I mean? They could just order stuff online, whatever. One thing you convey really well is it is tedious and difficult and takes a long time. It involves repeated, grinding heartbreak. There's no romanticizing it. It is hard as hell to organize a new industry.

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, it's hard work, and it's worth being upfront about that with people. People contact me all the time because I write about this stuff and they sort of say, "I'm interested in unionizing my job. How can I do it?" And really, the answer is, like, "you're going to talk to everybody there." If you don't know your coworkers, you're going to get to know them.

David Roberts

Right? Whoever said socialism is a lot of meetings.

Hamilton Nolan

Exactly.

David Roberts

Same with unionization.

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, you're going to be the weird guy going up to your coworkers and being like, "I don't really know you, but let's go have coffee so I can talk to you about something secret." And you kind of have to do that stuff, but the payoff is worth it. And also, I think that going through that process kind of makes you a better person in a lot of surprising ways.

David Roberts

I mean, that's basically what you did at Gawker, is it not?

Hamilton Nolan

Kind of. I mean, a lot of us did it together. I would say. No, it's a group effort for sure. Yeah, I mean, at Gawker, which was a place — if people didn't read Gawker, it was sort of like arguing was what we did. We argued on the Internet. That was what the place was. So everybody that worked there is very prone to just argue with each other, and that's kind of how we were oriented, and we were very independent minded. We didn't want people telling us what to do. So all these things kind of go against the idea of organizing into this group collective effort, and we had to overcome that.

You have to sit down and have those talks with the writer next to you who has different ideas about how all this stuff should happen. And you have to go through that. And we did. And it's hard, and it can be annoying and it can be frustrating and it can make you mad. But at the end of it, you all get to this place where you have this kind of collective power that you never, never had before.

David Roberts

Well, you say that people write you asking for advice. I mean, one obvious question is, at the very basic level, are the big unions at least operating some service whereby people could call them and say, "How do I organize? Like, how do I organize my workplace?" Is there a how-to book, a set of people that will come advise you, is there anything?

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, I think that most people would be shocked by what a lack of infrastructure there is to do exactly that kind of stuff in the union world. I mean, to the average person — I sometimes ask people, I'm like, "How do you think you would organize a union at your job?" And people have no idea. And naturally, of course they don't because nobody's ever taught them that. So of course they have no idea. And then there's not really an easy front door into doing that, like what you're talking about. So that is an example of the kind of basic infrastructure that does not really exist.

And that when you start thinking about how we're going to turn around this decline in unions and how are we going to create a situation where anybody, anywhere can have easy access to a union organizer, we really have a long way to go.

David Roberts

I mean, that wouldn't take a billion dollars just setting up a friggin hotline or something. Just some advice.

Hamilton Nolan

There are websites, I mean, the AFL-CIO, you can go on their website and fill out a form and theoretically they will connect you with the union somewhere. But in practice, it's like maybe the union is busy, maybe the organizers didn't get around to it and there's a lot of understaffing.

David Roberts

Right. And, well, this is something you mentioned is like: once you're in one of these unions, you're busy, you're understaffed, you're frantic, you're just trying to hold your industry together. And so expending a lot of energy, reaching out to other industries, helping other industries, is not necessarily high on your list.

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, working at a union, of course you're dealing with all the members of the union, all the people who are already members of the union saying, "Hey, I got this complaint. I have that complaint. This is happening. We have to fight for a contract at my job." There's always stuff going on. And so there really has to be a kind of concerted effort at a high level to be like, "We're going to build a system to organize new workers on top of all the complaints that we always have to deal with anyway."

David Roberts

We're running out of time here, so we're going to enter a speed round here because I got a bunch of little questions left over. So what about at the state level? The federal legislating is utterly borked for reasons we're all very familiar with. But I have been impressed following clean energy at — I've made this point 10 billion times. But when Dems win a trifecta in a state, voila: Next thing you know, there's a bunch of great clean energy policy coming out of that state. And in the last several years, in every case, and I can't think of an exception, that clean energy legislation has involved strong union provisions, things like, you must have a worker agreement for every project.

You have to pay prevailing wages; all that kind of stuff. Do you find a little more hope at the state — ? I mean, can state legislation do some of the work that federal legislation is not doing?

Hamilton Nolan

Absolutely. You know, and it's very true, with labor rights, along with clean energy and gun control and abortion and a bunch of other issues, we're seeing increasingly a big divide between red and blue states and moving in opposite directions. While Florida is trying to legalize child labor, Minnesota is turning into a socialist paradise. So, like, it is going like that. Yes, there's a lot of great things happening at the blue state level, and there's a lot of horrible things happening at the red state level and not much happening at the federal level.

David Roberts

Yeah. All right, speed round. What should we make of last year's writers strike in Hollywood? Is there a lesson you'd like to pull out of that and tell everybody?

Hamilton Nolan

Yes, that's my union, the Writers Guild. The lesson of it is they organized the whole industry many, many decades ago. Not a little piece of it. The whole industry, the whole screenwriting industry is in one union. And because of that, that union is powerful enough to shut down Hollywood to get what they need to get. And so, the lesson is organize the whole industry top to bottom, and the world is yours.

David Roberts

What about, do you look back on your experience organizing digital journalists any differently in light of the just absolutely brutal fate of that industry ever since? Whatever burst of unionization happened in that industry, it didn't seem to protect workers from just getting slaughtered and laid off by the dozens.

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah, no, because I think unionizing it was time well spent. And also, all those workers that are getting laid off are getting severance because they have that union contract and they would not be getting it otherwise. So, I think the adjacent lesson, though, is you have to keep organizing wherever the new industries are, wherever the new jobs are. You always have to be organizing the next thing and the next thing.

David Roberts

Right. What's the deal with the railroad union and Biden? If you're out wandering around on Twitter, you hear two different stories. From lefties you hear: "he screwed them and they didn't get a contract." Whatever, something, he screwed them. And then from other people, you hear like, "no, actually he did right by them and they're happy and they support him." What happened?

Hamilton Nolan

No, it's hard to answer this question in a short way. There's something called the Railway Labor Act, which is a separate set of labor law for certain industries, like including the railways. The short answer is Biden did the same thing that presidents always do in these situations. But his claims to being the most pro-union president of all historical time would tend to make you think that he might have allowed them to strike. And if you believe that the right to strike is a basic sort of intrinsic right, which I do, then he did screw them by not allowing them to strike.

On the other hand, that's the same thing that every other president in history would have done too.

David Roberts

What do you make of the claim that he's pro-union, more broadly? Does that sound legit to you?

Hamilton Nolan

I think it is legit that he's certainly the most pro-union president of my lifetime and maybe of arguably of the past century. At the same time, it's an extremely low bar, even on the democratic side, very low bar. So he's done a lot more for unions than his predecessors did, but there's a lot more he could do still.

David Roberts

What do you think about the fact that the unions that probably average Americans are most familiar with are police unions and teachers unions, which are, let's just say, problematic from different angles for different reasons, but neither, I think, are serving as a great advertisement for unionizations. How do you think about them?

Hamilton Nolan

It's interesting because in the public sector, something like 30% of workers are unionized, whereas in the private sector, it's like 6%. So one reason why those are the unions that people see is because public sector unions are so much more prevalent than private sector unions, unfortunately. I would say the teachers unions do a lot of good things, much more than the police unions. But it is true that, yes, that is kind of a relic of the fact that the public sector is so much more widely unionized and points again to the fact of how important it is that we start unionizing the private sector to balance it out so that those wouldn't be the only unions that people think about.

David Roberts

Do you think police ought to be allowed to unionize? Is there something different about police? You look at how police exercise their union power, and it's pretty malign top to bottom. Is that something we just have to put up with?

Hamilton Nolan

I think police should be allowed to have a union like anybody. But their unions should be restricted in terms of what they can bargain for, in the same way that in red states, teachers are restricted. So in many red states, public employee unions are very heavily, legally restricted about what they can bargain for. And often they exempt the police from those laws because they're so pro-police. And in fact, the police are the ones who need to be restricted the most because they tend to do the most damage with their unions. And also, I don't think that police unions should be in the AFL-CIO with all the rest of us personally, but they should be allowed to have a union sure.

David Roberts

What do you make of the, sort of, folk story, like, if I just ask a set of random people about unions, one of the kind of, I think folk stories that is floating around are that unions are corrupt. This is obviously a story the right has been pushing for decades, but not completely without grist for that mill. What do you make about the idea that once you are organized and you have a bureaucracy and you have a kind of machine built, the machine is going to start serving its own interests rather than the interests of workers? How do you think about that?

Hamilton Nolan

I think unions are human institutions, and so like all human institutions, they can be corrupted by corrupt humans. So that's, I think, kind of an unremarkable thing to say. The huge, pervasive corruption in unions that existed 50 years ago in the Bobby Kennedy era and all that, that has mostly been cleared out at this point. That's not how it is anymore. And so I don't think unions are any more prone to corruption than any other human institution, and they're certainly less prone to corruption than businesses because they have much more democratic influence by having all those members.

David Roberts

Yeah, I guess by way of a final question, this is so vague, it's difficult for me to even formulate as a question: But one of the things that I think someone on the left looks around at U.S society today, at U.S. capitalism today, and one of the sort of striking features — I think kind of the ur-problem from which all other problems descend — is a sort of lack of trust, a lack of public trust and solidarity, basically. A lack of a sense that we're part of a common project, we're in this together. We are a big us in some sense, and we no longer — I mean, maybe U.S. relative to European countries, never really did.

But certainly lately, we do not feel like a big us, but a warring set of tribes in basically perpetual running warfare. And I just wonder, do you think that the spread of unionization, that unions, that the sort of solidarity that they inspire in small settings — do you think that spills over? Do you think that the spread of unionization is an answer in some sense to that problem?

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah. And I think that's really one of the most promising aspects of unions, and one of the most unique aspects of unions is that they are one of the only, if not the only institution that brings together a whole group of people across all those lines, right? Across racial lines, across gender lines, age lines, political lines. Everybody is in the union, right? Everybody at the workplace is in the union. And we're not excluding anybody. It is a collective activity of everyone, and it forces everyone to work together in a collective way, in a common direction. And through that process, it really is kind of a school for democracy.

It sort of teaches you what small-d democracy really is. The process of working together with people for a common goal is something that a lot of Americans never really get a chance to experience in their day-to-day life. There are no institutions in your normal life, probably, that operate like that, in the way that unions do. And I have seen groups of union members made up of just the entire rainbow standing together at union rallies fighting for the same cause. And it's just not something you really see anywhere else in America. And I think that if we are able to scale up and give so many more people that experience, I do think that you're going to see some of our political problems improve, at least.

David Roberts

Yeah, the way I think about it — I think a lot about the media environment and media incentives, because this is with the sort of decline of third places and civic organizations and etcetera, etcetera. This is all very much discussed decline of kind of civic involvement in America. More and more people just sort of interact with the public sphere insofar as they do it at all through their screens. And everybody who brings you something on a screen has the incentive to piss you off, right, for reasons that are very well established. Like, you succeed in that environment by aggrieving people, by doing the opposite, by convincing them that they have particularist interests that are not shared by other people, and they should be outraged that those other people are trampling on them.

And I was thinking, as I was reading your book, like, what in the US, what other institution or source of information or just anything that a normal person would encounter in their day-to-day life is just preaching solidarity, is just mentioning solidarity, is talking about solidarity at all. There's nothing else doing that.

Hamilton Nolan

Right. It's such a unique set of qualities that make up unions. And I honestly can't think of any other institution — because even something like church, for example, is an institution that attracts people that want to be there. So it sort of self-selects for a certain kind of person that wants to be there in the first place, whereas a union comes in and is like, "we're all in, we're all in together, and we're going to work this out together." And I just think that especially the political class in America that thinks about how to make political change really underestimates the power that widespread unionization would have transforming the American electorate itself by giving them that type of collective experience.

David Roberts

Yeah. Final, final question, then. This is always a dumb — I hate when people ask me this question, so feel free to just hate it back at me. But are you hopeful? Are you optimistic? You make a good case for why unions are important. You make a good case for how big union organizations could pivot and emphasize organizing more and emphasize outreach and organizing more, and you paint a picture of sort of what could be. But at the same time, I think you and I are realistic about a lot of the forces and trends pushing in the other direction.

How does it all wash out for you? Do you see that number ever turning around in your lifetime? That decline of unionization ever turning around in your lifetime?

Hamilton Nolan

Yeah. And I choose to be optimistic because none of us know what the future is going to be. And I think sometimes people underestimate the extent to which we make the future. The future is a result of the choices we make. And so you might as well be optimistic and try to make the future you want to see than giving up.

David Roberts

Well said. We'll wrap it up there. Thanks Hamilton. Thanks so much for coming on and walking us through this.

Hamilton Nolan

Thanks a lot, man. That was fun.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad-free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at volts.wtf. Yes, that's volts.wtf. So that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much and I'll see you next time.

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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)