By Rob Callahan
“Hope is a discipline,” I heard a legendary voice declare not long ago.
Yes, hope is a discipline. But might it also be a contagion?
Flashback to long ago: 1997, North Philadelphia, an urban college campus, brutalist architecture, a setting more gritty than ivied. That’s the when and where of how I got my start in the labor movement. I was a young scruffy grad student and instructor at Temple University, teaching composition and lit courses in the English Department while making embarrassingly sluggish progress towards my own degree.
Between classes and the piles of papers to grade, a few colleagues and I would spend our idle moments grumbling about the meager pay, the heavy teaching loads, the health insurance we wryly dubbed the “spatula plan” ( just enough coverage to scrape you off the pavement in the event of catastrophe), and looming budget cuts threatening to precipitate mass layoffs.
Our kvetching klatches eventually led to our printing up fliers and distributing them around campus, and those fliers drew several scores of bookish and bedraggled 20-somethings to crowd into the Sociology Department’s claustrophobic grad student lounge on April 2, 1997. That gathering turned out to be the inaugural meeting of an organization that would ultimately — after a five-year fight with the university administration — become American Federation of Teachers Local #6290.
My origin story isn’t special. It’s much the same for anybody who finds themselves drawn into the labor movement. The stories vary in their particulars, and they might play out as high melodrama, or instead be relatively quiet and understated, but the basic beats of the plot follow more or less the same pattern. It starts with the feeling that one’s work merits more respect, it leads to the discovery and cultivation of a community of folks who feel likewise, and it culminates in the realization that such a community can wield real power through solidarity.
I’m sure a lot of you reading this have your own version of this story. Maybe you once raised hell on a picket line to flip a non-union show. Or maybe you quietly conferred with coworkers to get everyone on the same page so that nobody on the crew would agree to accept comp time in lieu of overtime. Recognizing the worth of your work, forging ties with colleagues who feel likewise, supporting each other to collectively achieve better — it’s all fundamentally the same tale.
Flash forward to the present. A quarter of a century, almost to the day, after I first got involved in unions — on Cesar Chavez Day, March 31, 2022 — I attended the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s Workers Congress. In the ballroom of a downtown hotel I sat alongside hundreds of other activists from L.A.’s union scene, all of whom came from different organizations, different backgrounds, and different industries — but each of whom likely had an origin story that was, in rough contours, more or less analogous to my own.
The Workers Congress’s headline speaker was the legendary Angela Davis, reflecting sagely upon the struggles of generations past and the struggles of the present day. Davis is an elder now, but her voice has lost none of its power or its precision — it remains resonant, eloquent, and erudite, with those superfluous little semi-schwas she appends as grace notes to the end of her words. To a rapt room she spoke engrossingly of intersectionality, resistance, and the predatory nature of capitalism — bringing to each topic all of the fire and exactitude that she had brought to her famous jailhouse interviews more than half a century previously. I know I was not alone in the room in feeling a thrill to hear this iconic iconoclast tell us that she had never before felt such optimism about the potential for transformative social change.
Davis was asked how she maintained her drive to fight for justice over the span of decades of struggle, including long periods in which revanchist reactionaries had the upper hand. That’s when she said, “Hope is a discipline.” And a murmur of assent spread through the room, the sound of a mass of people recognizing a truth they had instinctively felt but perhaps not previously heard articulated, crystalized into a simple declaration. Because the activists in that room knew that there can be no struggle without hope, and that there are periods — epochs, even — when hope is mostly, maybe entirely, a function of will and work.
The experts were all wrong. The little guy with the slingshot won.
And what I’d been taught since my first entrée into the labor movement a quarter-century before was that organizing was a discipline, too – an art and science with its own rules and procedures, a long tradition of received wisdom, tradecraft, and best practices. I may have got my start by passing out a bunch of fliers willy-nilly, but I soon acquired mentors – many of whom had helped midwife the great boom of public-sector union organizing a generation before – who taught me that organizing was a methodical practice.
But what, though, if hope – or even organizing – isn’t only, or isn’t always, a discipline?
On March 31, as the crowd of Angeleno labor activists gathered listening to Davis, on the other side of the country a small team of bureaucrats in the Brooklyn offices of the National Labor Relations Board were counting ballots. For those who tuned in remotely via Zoom, the drably nondescript hearing room on the screen belied the historic significance of the event therein unfolding. The votes NLRB officers were counting had been cast in a union election at an enormous Amazon warehouse in Staten Island (dubbed, in Amazon’s parlance, JFK8).
That election pitted a behemoth of trans-national capital, founded by the world’s second-biggest billionaire, against a little upstart organization without staff, funding, or dues-paying members, founded by an unemployed Amazon warehouse worker who’d been fired in 2020 for leading a walk-out to protest the company’s inadequate COVID-19 safety protocols. Allusions to the story of David and Goliath are perhaps a bit pat, but it’s hard to imagine a much more asymmetrical contest. This new little union, calling itself Amazon Labor Union, had no resources and no institutional backing; it was the antithesis of what the champions of unfettered capitalism used to derisively refer to as “Big Labor.” But this little group had a big foe, a notoriously anti-union corporation with unfathomable resources and power, and the determination to quash any dissent within its workforce.
It wasn’t simply, though, a question of resources. Unions almost invariably take on opponents with deeper pockets, but unions can still win. Organizing, though, is a discipline, a set of established practices and pathways to power. And to outside observers, it didn’t look like the upstart Amazon Labor Union was observing all the orthodoxies of organizing. Organizing campaigns are supposed to build organizing committees large enough to reach every worker; to spend time inoculating workers with a preview of management’s anti-union rhetoric, so that workers build immunity before the bosses begin efforts to intimidate; to reach supermajority support before petitioning for an election; to have ironclad tests to assess workers’ support; to use tactics such as house visits to have multiple one-on-one conversations with each worker in a safe place away from the worksite. To most outside observers, it doesn’t appear as though the nascent union at JFK8 did much, f any, of these things.
When the election at Staten Island’s JFK8 got underway, almost every expert in union organizing was privately predicting that the vote would be a loss for the union. Outside observers recognized that it was an important vote, but anticipated the amateur organizers would fall short in their effort to overcome Amazon’s union-busting juggernaut, much as pro-union Amazon workers fell short in Bessemer, Ala.’s BM1 warehouse the previous year. I don’t know if I necessarily qualify as an expert, exactly, but I certainly was among those expecting the drive would be defeated.
You know how this turned out. The experts were all wrong. The little guy with the slingshot won.
A lot has been written in the past couple of months about how the Amazon workers won at JFK8. Some good journalists and activists have spent time interviewing organizers and workers, setting down the details of their story. Chris Smalls, the new union’s charismatic founder, and members of his small leadership team have given talks to meetings of union activists, relating how they did it. As I mentioned, I didn’t have any involvement in the campaign, and I haven’t spent any time with those who were involved, so I don’t feel qualified to add here to the body of reporting that has been done on this story. Moreover, I’ll confess that, even after having read a fair bit of that reporting, and even after having heard the leaders of the effort speak about their fight, I, as a long-time union organizer, don’t really know how they did it. And perhaps that’s the point, my lack of authority on this topic. Because, yes, hope is a discipline. But maybe also, sometimes, hope is a contagion.
Maybe there are long historical spells when hope is a feeble flame, buffeted by rain and wind, and we need that discipline, an elaborate array of structures and procedures to shield that little ember, shelter it from all the forces threatening to snuff it out. And yet maybe there are other historical periods, or perhaps even just moments, when everywhere there’s enough fuel and enough heat, and a tiny spark from that flame can touch off an inferno.
Witnessing the Amazon Labor Union’s upset victory in Staten Island, a wave of similarly seemingly improbable wins at Starbucks locations nationwide, and a dramatic uptick in the number of petitions filed with the NLRB in recent months, one might begin to believe we’ve entered a new era of contagious hope. (Indeed, the bold stand our and other IATSE locals’ members took last fall during the Basic Agreement talks played a not insignificant role in spreading this contagion.)
In his 2013 article, “Fortress Unionism,” labor strategist Rich Yeselson wrote of the long era of labor’s decline, dating back to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. My summary here won’t do justice to Yeselson’s arguments, but he effectively asserted that no strategy concocted by union leadership or staff could ever be sufficient to reverse the movement’s downward trajectory. The best our institutions could do, according to this notion of “fortress unionism,” would be to play a largely defensive game, curbing as much as possible the erosion of labor’s power until such time as conditions were right for explosive growth. In Yeselson’s advice to unionists:
“Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it. That is how massive union growth occurs – workers take matters into their own hands and then unions capture that energy like lightning in a bottle. … [U]nion growth occurs when working-class activism overwhelms the quotidian structures of civil society … During episodes of massive union growth, the workers don’t confine themselves to the careful strategies of union staff – they disregard them, and force the union to play catch up. Conflict spreads quickly from worksite to worksite.”
What if the discipline of organizing that I have spent a quarter century learning, the methodology taught to me by the previous generation of organizers, is not a system of eternal truths, but a historically-contingent set of best practices for surviving a long period of dormancy, keeping our organizations alive through a long winter of harsh conditions and existential threats? What if several generations of putative labor experts have really just been serving the function of interim caretakers of the machinery of the labor movement, preventing it from falling into total disrepair, but useful only until such time as masses of workers were ready to swoop in all at once and take it back?
It is worth noting that infectious enthusiasm isn’t infallible. One month after Chris Smalls’s ALU scored its upset win at JFK8, it lost another union election at a separate New York Amazon facility, LDJ5. And Starbucks workers fighting an aggressive union-busting campaign have, as of the time of this writing, lost elections at nine Starbucks locations nationwide (while winning at 70 others). Any organizing primarily propelled by grassroots zeal rather than centralized strategy is bound to experience losses as well as wins. (To be fair, plenty of union organizing campaigns that have been carefully scripted and directed by professional experts have also gone down in defeat.) The takeaway isn’t that workers are now winning every battle; it’s that they’re fighting aggressively for workplace democracy, and that specific setbacks haven’t derailed the overall momentum that seems to be building.
Recent months have underscored just how much even old hands have new ways to learn. The energy that appears to now animate fights for workplace justice throughout our country is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my previous quarter century in the movement. Even when such energy comes up short, it’s a new hope that’s not merely contagious, but thrilling. To all those who work in post-production and are inspired by the electric buzz of worker militancy we’ve seen in recent times, let’s work and learn to bottle this lightning together.
Rob Callahan is the National Organizer of Motion Picture Editors Guild, Local 700, IATSE.