63 | Get Up, Get Down, Brooklyn Is A Union Town

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded more of workers: longer hours, angrier customers, and increased exposure to disease. Now, workers across the country — from baristas to warehouse workers to nurses — are organizing to demand safer, fairer workplaces. Workers in New York City are leading this wave of action, unionizing more workers than anywhere else in the country. Producer Melanie Kruvelis spoke to striking workers, elected officials, and community members to understand what's at stake for New York City's workers — and how organizing in the five boroughs impacts working people across the country. • Brooklyn, USA is produced by Emily Boghossian, Shirin Barghi, Charlie Hoxie, Khyriel Palmer, and Mayumi Sato. If you have something to say and want us to share it on the show, here’s how you can send us a message: https://bit.ly/2Z3pfaW • Thank you to Melanie Kruvelis, Zach Lennon-Simon, Lee-Sean Huang, Cara Levine, Megan, and striking workers everywhere! • Transcript: https://bit.ly/3VEENfb

63 | Get Up, Get Down, Brooklyn Is A Union Town - Episode Transcript
Brooklyn, USA | November 23, 2022

[MUSIC BED: Drone swells] Khyriel Palmer: You’re listening to the Brooklyn, USA podcast – an occasional audio love letter from Brooklyn to the world.

Khyriel Palmer: Uprisings don't happen overnight. Labor movements are seeded, and it takes time for them to grow.

Khyriel Palmer: In 1936-37, United Auto Workers won a sit-down strike against General Motors with the help of the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigade – a group that wore colored berets and armbands with “EB'' inscribed on them. Here’s one member of the Emergency Brigade on the 40th anniversary of the strike…

[Clip from “With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade (1979)”]: These red berets and these red arm bands faced danger, faced shotguns, faced the buckshot. Faced the tear gas… this armband still has tear gas on it. We are the foremothers of today’s young women. [END CLIP]

Khyriel Palmer: The group was made up of neighbors, relatives, friends, and allies. They protected the strikers with mops, brooms, rolling pins, and pans, and acted as human shields between protesters and police.

Khyriel Palmer: Today, we’ve seen a new wave of community support for local unions. Here in New York City, workers are unionizing more people than anywhere else in the country, and seeding the ground for future co-workers and co-conspirators. Their calls are echoing throughout our streets, like they did last May Day in this demonstration at Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s Greenwich Village penthouse…

[Clip from Starbucks Union Protest] Protestors: The workers united will never be defeated! The workers united will never be defeated! The workers united will never be defeated! [FADE CLIP]

Khyriel Palmer: For the next installment of our look at work and labor, Producer Melanie Kruvelis spoke with striking workers, elected officials, and community members to understand what's at stake for New York City worker, and how Brooklyn residents are linking up to support this moment of labor organizing.


[Ambient audio from Starbucks rally] Protestors: Get up, get down, Brooklyn is a union town! Get up, get down, Brooklyn is a union town! Get up, get down, Brooklyn is a union town! [FADE PROTEST AUDIO]

Ariana Ayala: I'm Ariana Ayala. I work at The Reserve in Williamsburg on North 7. So today we're on strike to send the message to Starbucks that we deserve better, we shouldn't be working in these unfair labor conditions. Just yesterday, we were open all day even though there is a biohazard in the bathrooms. Biohazards are like anything that we don't have the chemicals to clean up, you know, like diarrhea, throw up, blood. The manager said we needed to stay open or go home, which are quite literally, like not even Starbucks policy.

[Ambient audio from Starbucks rally] Protestors: Get up, get down, Brooklyn is a union town! Get up, get down, Brooklyn is a union town! Get up, get down, Brooklyn is a union town! [FADE OUT PROTEST AUDIO] [FADE UP MUSIC: Mysterious, slow drum beat, simple melody]

Emily Gallagher: One of the first immigrant groups that was living here were Germans who were very into organizing unions and organizing guilds. [FADE OUT MUSIC] My name is Emily Gallagher, and I am the Assembly member for the 50th District, which is Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn. There were beer halls here in the 1800s where people are having the same conversations that we're having today. It's both inspiring and also a little depressing, if you think about it the wrong way. [laughs]

Eric Dirnbach: One of the fun things about living in New York is that there's always kind of a fight, always kind of the class struggle is very visible sometimes. There's always strikes and actions going on. I am Eric Dirnbach, and I live in New York City. I have been working for a number of unions for over 20 years and at the beginning of the pandemic, I think a lot of us saw that there was a real need to provide some help for nonunion workers that were being called "essential workers", that had to go to work under more dangerous conditions. And workers who were in unions had the ability to kind of organize for improvements. But nonunion workers often are left on their own. So I wasn't around for the very beginning of EWOC, but I joined like a month or two later.

[CLIP from "This Is an Emergency: Flattening the Curve from the Bottom Up" webinar, Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee] Wen Zhuang: All right. I think we're going to get started. Thank you all so much for coming and joining. Yeah, these are resources for people thinking about quitting their jobs, thinking about unionizing their workplaces.

Wen Zhuang: My name is Wen Zhuang. I live in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. EWOC stands for the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee. It's a national worker organizing project that's supported through the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical Workers Union. I think a lot of EWOC's earlier cases were pretty urgent. Almost like life or death, right? Like mask mandates at work or adequate time off to recover from COVID. All of a sudden, we were kind of thrown into this global pandemic and people were still expected to go about their working lives and working days as if nothing was happening.

Eric Dirnbach: Only 10% of all workers are in a union in the U.S., but tens of millions want to be in a union. Right? But it's very difficult to organize and a lot of folks don't know how to do it. And so EWOC provides a resource to talk through the issues at work, provides some organizing training, and just strategize about putting together an organizing plan to help folks kind of do anything to improve conditions at work, getting together with coworkers, taking direct actions, writing petitions to the boss, or if they want to eventually file for kind of a formal union election. On the one hand, it's kind of very thrilling to kind of build solidarity and confidence with coworkers over time, really start to feel your power. On the other hand, it comes with some stress and anxiety as well because there will be union busting activities. Management will often try to make things miserable for those workers. They may even be fired illegally. And yeah, I mean, it's it's tough and it can get emotional, but hopefully it's also really rewarding and kind of a thrilling process.

[Ambient audio from Starbucks rally] Protestors: Hey hey, ho ho, union busting got to go! Hey hey, ho ho, union busting got to go! Hey hey, ho ho, union busting got to go! [FADE OUT PROTEST AUDIO]

Emily Gallagher: The people that are forming these unions that are gaining ground and becoming successful are not who they were like 30 years ago. They are coming from different backgrounds. They they, have style that's different. Right? Like my hero, Chris Smalls, like he is out there being himself.

[CLIP from “Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls Opening Statement before Senate Banking Committee”] Chris Smalls: [00:06:44] Well, first of all, I want to address Mr. Graham. It sound like you was talking about more of the companies and the businesses in your speech, but you forgot that the people are the ones who make this... These companies operate.

Emily Gallagher: Before, we were very marginalizing of people who did not fit the mold of who we thought a labor leader should be. And the more we can get that real experience and that real authenticity to oneself, the better we're going to do. [FADE UP MUSIC: Driving beat]

Ariana Ayala: Working in one of the most diverse cities in the world gives us an amazing opportunity to show people who have little to no knowledge about their rights as workers that we do have power in numbers. And, organizing in New York City, you bring so many people together, but we all have the same idea about what we're doing, which is getting what we deserve.

Emily Gallagher: It doesn't surprise me that labor organizing is happening here in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. [FADE OUT MUSIC] When I was first in this neighborhood nearly 20 years ago, it was all independent stores on Bedford Avenue. And one by one, we fought as people sold their building, and it was bought by a speculator. I remember when the Goodwill got torn down by Chase Bank. All of that was just really wounding, I think, for everybody who loved this place. And it feels really good to watch the workers who are literally in the energy space of these independent businesses now rising up against the very kinds of people that are the capital source for gentrification. [FADE UP MUSIC: Simple beat] I like to call it Bedford Avenue's revenge.

Ariana Ayala: You can try to gentrify an area as much as you want, there's still going to be the people who runs the area, who works in the area, who's serving you.

Wen Zhuang: I mean, New York is New York. We have the ability to set the baseline, right? To raise the bar. Whether it's within electoral politics or labor legislation or contract campaigns, and have ripple effects all across the country. It is kind of on us to always be thinking about how can we raise the bar? We will never get to where we want to be if we don't figure out how to organize the mass working class of New York. And that means people who don't speak English, that means people who are undocumented. The stakes are very, very high.

Eric Dirnbach: There's opportunities to support folks kind of all the time, especially in New York City, where there's always a fight going on. You might hear about a rally that's happening. You might hear about a strike that's happening. Show up at the picket line. Walk the picket line with folks. Bring some donuts. You know, I think the folks that are engaged in these struggles really, really appreciate the support because, again, folks could be on strike for months, for instance. So it's really helpful to have folks show up.

[Ambient audio from Starbucks rally] Protestors: Say it loud, shut it down, New York is a union town! Say it loud, shut it down, New York is a union town! Say it loud, shut it down, New York is a union town! [FADE OUT PROTEST AUDIO]

Ariana Ayala: Stop by! Say, like, "Hey!" Let us know that you're there in support of us. Let us know that you stand strong with us and in solidarity like we'll never fall down.

[Ambient audio from Starbucks rally] Protestors: Say it loud, shut it down, New York is a union town! Say it loud, shut it down, New York is a union town! Say it loud, shut it down, New York is a union town! [Applause] [Cheering] [Cowbell] [FADE OUT PROTEST AUDIO]

[ring] [ring] Operator: Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice message system. At the tone, please record your message.


Zach: Hi. My name is Zach. I work for the Hearst Corporation and I'm born and raised in Brooklyn. Woop woop.

Megan: Hi, this is Megan. I'm a union organizer at Sanctuary United, which is a new union that we formed at Sanctuary for Families.

Cara: My name is Cara. I work at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit that serves survivors of gender based violence through providing legal services, case management, clinical services and also residential shelters.

Lee-Sean: Hi, my name is Lee-Sean Huang. I am a part time assistant professor at the Parsons School of Design, which is part of the new school. I also serve as an elected member of the bargaining committee representing part time faculty across the new school in our contract negotiations with the university administration.


Zach: I would say I do really enjoy my job, I edit food videos for Delish, but I don't really enjoy the company I work for.

Lee-Sean: I've been teaching at Parsons since 2016, and one of the main reasons I started teaching at the New School in the first place was because of the university's core progressive values and its mission to, quote, "prepare students to understand, contribute to and succeed in a rapidly changing society." Well, our society has certainly changed a lot since the pandemic. Our economy has changed a lot. And it's time not just for a new contract, but a new vision for what working conditions look like in higher ed. And I really hope that the new school can be part of that innovative vision.

Cara: As nonprofit workers, we're considered a mission driven union where a lot of the drive and impetus to unionize comes from our commitment to our work and to our clients. We care so deeply about the clients that we serve and the problems that we face in the workplace, like low pay, high, high caseloads, trouble with retention, burnout and a lack of support generally all negatively impact our clients and make it really difficult to provide the quality and the level of services that we want to. And we knew that a union would allow us to have a collective voice in our working conditions, and make our work as service providers more sustainable in the long run.

Megan: It's been really exciting. I am a pretty, I guess, relatively new staff member now. I've been there for for over a year, which I mean, with the turnover rates that we have is actually not super new. But I felt pretty new at the time that I started with union organizing. I've really found like a lot of really good things to come out of it. I mean, first and obviously most important is a space to create proposals and policies for the workplace that will make things better, get us higher wages and more freedom and the things that we need to provide services to our clients effectively.


Lee-Sean: Some of our demands include a real raise that takes into account inflation and increases of cost of living over the last few years. We haven't had a raise since 2018 and we also want to end unpaid labor. We're currently paid for contact hours based on time in the classroom, but other teaching activities like preparing syllabi and lectures, mentoring students at office hours, grading assignments, writing recommendation letters, those are not explicitly paid for. And so when you consider all of the time it takes to do those things, many of my colleagues are making a little bit over minimum wage.

Cara: Our organization, because we provide kind of these wraparound services, we have workers in a bunch of different roles -- legal case management, clinicians, administrative positions, development, communications and residential aides and maintenance workers. And so there's varying levels of privilege and autonomy regarding our working conditions. We wanted a wall to wall union as much as possible in order to truly have a democratic workplace where our most vulnerable workers, our least, lowest paid workers, those who took on the most risk during the pandemic as direct service providers, are supported.

Lee-Sean: While our strike continues. We are also continuing negotiations with the university. We've met with them for about 4 hours today and we have time scheduled with them tomorrow. Today is Thursday, November 17th, as I'm recording this and we want to make a deal and get things done. Ultimately, this is about dignity, equity and a paradigm shift, and that's the vibe that I felt in our open caucuses, where we welcome all part time faculty to join us and express their feelings in the Zoom chat while the bargaining committee is meeting.

Zach: We're approaching our second year in bargaining over our union contract with Hearst Union, and we're approaching that anniversary because our company has spent a lot of money, a lot of money to delay and stall and basically just not give their workers anything but disrespect. And that doesn't sit right with me. I'm more than happy to edit the videos. That is the agreement I have entered in of course. Like, I will get paid, and in turn I will produce a service which is editing food videos. However, I really dislike sitting down for these bargaining sessions and basically being told to my face how little they think of me and how little they think of the people who make them their money.

Lee-Sean: Bargaining across the table with the university can be tense. The university's lead negotiator has sometimes talked down to us like we are errant children. But now that we're on strike, I think they feel our power and I sense a shift in that tone.

Zach: Without us there, there is no company like they can say, "Oh, we're a prestige name brand thing", but their name is made off of our like blood, sweat, and hard work, basically.


Lee-Sean: As I'm recording this voice memo, my colleagues and our allies are picketing outside the New Schools University Center on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and in front of other new school buildings. And while classes are canceled, the lesson for our students, I hope, is about the power of collective action. And it's been so inspiring to see students joining us on the picket line. So I'm grateful for the support of our allies in the full time faculty, as well as from students and even local businesses that have chipped in and donated food, water and coffee.

Cara: Even though our union is, of course, only our organization, we see ourselves as part of a broader movement, both in terms of the labor movement, which, you know, we're part of, and but also as part of the movement to end gender based violence. We see our work through the union and as service providers, as essential to that movement. And across the field, domestic violence advocates often come from the communities that we serve. And so we see unions as a survivor justice issue because financial stability, workplace autonomy are survivor justice issues. And unions provide workers with the security to make decisions about our own lives and also just make it possible for us to work as service providers in the anti-violence movement in the long run, for the long haul. Because it's hard work, and we know that our union will really allow us to have the longevity and the protections to do our work best.

Megan: I found like really strong community, and a place where some of my frustrations about the workplace can have a welcome home and a listening ear. And sometimes I feel like that moral support is really a big part of keeping the work going when you're starting a union from the ground up is being there for each other to talk about how difficult and hard it is to be working at a place without a union that you feel doesn't fully respect you as a worker. That really plays into a lot of the progress that we've had up until this day with our contract process.

Zach: I am hopeful for the future when this contract will be done, because I think the only thing that can really help work in the future is more unions, more processes, and better support for workers. Because CEOs are doing fine. It's us, the people who can't afford rent in this town. And I would really like to stay where I was born and raised, but I can't do that while these capitalism shenanigans continue.

Lee-Sean: On the Parsons website, it says in big letters to prospective students, "Let's design a better world." Well, I think that organizing is an extension of design. And all of that, creating a better world, starts at home with ourselves at our university, designing a better, more equitable contract, because our part time faculty working conditions are our students' learning conditions. Thank you.


[MUSIC BED: Beat with space-y melody]

Khyriel Palmer: Brooklyn, USA is produced by me, Khyriel Palmer…
Emily Boghossian: and me Emily Boghossian,
Shirin Barghi: and me Shirin Barghi
Charlie Hoxie: and me, Charlie Hoxie
Mayumi Sato: and me, Mayumi Sato

Khyriel Palmer: …with help this week from Melanie Kruvelis, Zach Lennon-Simon, Lee-Sean Huang, Cara Levine, Megan, and striking workers everywhere!

Khyriel Palmer: If you want to tell us a story, or somehow end up on the podcast, check the show notes for a link to our guide on recording a voice memo on your mobile phone and sending it to us on the internet. And if you like what you hear or think we missed something, comment, like, share and subscribe, and follow at BRIC TV on twitter and instagram, for updates.

Khyriel Palmer: For more information on this and all BRIC Radio podcasts, visit www.bricartsmedia.org/radio.


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