Marketplace Logo Donate

Daily business news and economic stories from Marketplace

This is not your grandpa’s union

Heard on:
A Starbucks logo hangs in the window of one of the chain's coffee shops in the Loop on January 4, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

get the podcast

Labor organizing looks a lot different today.

The workplaces are different compared to decades ago. Think less industrial factories with thousands of workers and more Starbucks, REI and Trader Joe’s with bargaining units of a couple of dozen employees, all organizing one location at a time.

“On one hand, it could be easier because you’ve got a smaller group of people to be making the demands. But then you have this challenge of power … it’s hard when you’re looking at a massive corporation, but you’re organizing it piece by piece,” said Sarah Jaffe, labor journalist and co-host of the podcast “Belabored.”

The AFL-CIO’s goal is to unionize 1 million workers in the next decade. Could organizing smaller workplaces be the path toward reversing decades of declining union membership?

On the show today, what labor organizing looks like in the modern economy, why it’s different from what we saw in the past and what it means for the workplace of 2022 and beyond.

In the News Fix, the wild story of an Olympic athlete and what it says about modern-day slavery. Plus, we’ll tell you about an airport to avoid if you’re traveling this summer. Later, we’ll hear from listeners about deep sighs and coupons, and we’ll make you smart about flapjacks!

Here’s everything we talked about today:

Got a question for our hosts? Email us at Or leave us a voice message at (508) 827-6278 or (508) U-B-SMART.

Make Me Smart July 12, 2022 transcript


Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.


Kimberly Adams: Hello, I’m Kimberly Adams, and welcome to Make Me Smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.


Kai Ryssdal: I’m Kai Ryssdal. It’s Tuesday, we’re doing one topic today as we always do on Tuesdays, and we’re talking labor organizing, labor unions, organized labor in this country, what is happening. Because actually, there’s a lot happening. President Biden was out with iron workers in Cleveland last week. Union workers, as you know, are a huge political force in this country. And oh, by the way, there’s an election coming up. And so we’re gonna talk about the strength and the impact of organized labor in this economy right now.


Kimberly Adams: Because it’s like, we seem to be hearing about a new union drive almost every week. Starbucks locations, REI, Trader Joe’s, Apple in some cases, the list goes on and on. Union organizing, though, looks different today than it did decades ago, and so we’re going to talk about the implications that has for workers in this economy.


Kai Ryssdal: Sarah Jaffe is here to make us smart. She’s a labor journalist, also the co-host of the podcast “Belabored”. And also she writes books, couple of them are called Work Won’t Love You Back, which is – parenthetically editorial here – true. And also – I mean my boss is listening never mind – and also Necessary Trouble is another one. Sarah, welcome to the show.


Sarah Jaffe: Hi, thanks for having me.


Kai Ryssdal: So, you know, part of the premise for this podcast was that we are, it seems, in a slightly different time for labor organizing in this country. It seems to be not the big union drives that we’ve seen, but sort of smaller shop by shop. We’ve seen the Starbucks, we’ve seen the Amazon warehouses, we’ve seen the Apples, and they’re kind of going one by one. Is that a fair impression?


Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, so the thing about that is that it’s been true of American labor law for quite a long time that workers are basically required to win union recognition shop by shop, or bargaining unit by bargaining unit as the technical term would go. The difference now is, of course, that the bargaining units are a lot smaller, because we’re not talking massive factories that have 50,000 people in them, where winning a union at, you know, Ford’s River Rouge factory, or a US Steel Plant, was organizing thousands or tens of thousands of workers. We’re talking about, you know, Starbucks by Starbucks, where there’s fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty workers at a time. Or even the Amazon warehouse, right, the Amazon labor union on Staten Island has a bargaining unit of 5000 or so. And that’s, that’s a pretty big one, compared to, you know, a lot of the things that are happening now, where a lot of the new organizing is, as you’re saying, it’s coming in much smaller workplaces, it’s coming in nonprofits. The one that I was just watching today with the Guttmacher Institute, which is, of course, a reproductive rights and research nonprofit, just organized and the employees won their union with 97% support today. But that is still like a pretty small organization compared to a big old factory.


Kimberly Adams: I suppose now, it’d be the appropriate time to disclose that we here at Marketplace are also recently organized and currently negotiating our first contract. But I wonder, is there a difference in how hard it is negotiating with a smaller group compared to these tens of thousands of workers in a factory back in the day?


Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, I think. I mean, on one hand, it could be easier because you’ve got a smaller group of people to be making the demands. But then you have this challenge of power, right. Starbucks is closing stores, they just announced today, I think that they’re closing a couple of stores in Seattle, including a couple of the ones that had unionized. So you know, it’s hard when you’re looking at a massive corporation, but you’re organizing it piece by piece. It wasn’t as easy, although they did do it to close those factories down and move them, although the pattern of deindustrialization we’ve seen, the reason that we don’t have those massive factories anymore, is not that massive factories don’t exist, they just now exist in China and Bangladesh, because they did close down that unionized factory outside of Detroit. So we can see the way that that power works is not fundamentally different. It’s just easier for Starbucks to close one or two stores when they’ve got 7000.


Kai Ryssdal: Do you think – to the point of organized labor as a political force, do you think this smaller unit by smaller unit thing, right, the 15 person Starbucks store instead of the, you know, giant revolution thing, do you think that attenuates the political oomph that organized labor can bring?


Sarah Jaffe: I think what has attenuated the political oomph that organized labor can bring is that we’re just now at 10% union density across the country, and it’s something like 6% in the private sector. And the challenge is getting that back up with getting from small unit to, you know, trying to get to a million new workers, which is the target that AFL-CIO head Liz Schuller said at their recent conference. Trying to get to that, 25 people at a time, is a real challenge. The interesting thing about the Starbucks organizing, of course, is that it’s been spreading really quickly. But even still, right, it’s a real shift. And it’s interesting, of course, that I think President Biden spends a lot of time – you mentioned him meeting with the iron workers, spends a lot of time still according like sort of old school organized labor, right? Iron workers, steel workers, auto workers. This is sort of the mid-century vision of who a union worker was, it’s probably a man, he’s probably white and wearing a hard hat, as opposed to, you know, young, multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered kids who work at Starbucks – I shouldn’t say kids, that sounds demeaning, but like, you know, when you’re looking at people who are young, who are 20, 21 years old, right? That’s not who somebody really imagines as the political constituency of organized labor. And yet these days, it increasingly is. When you look at somebody like Chris Smalls, who’s the president of the Amazon labor union. He’s a man. That’s what he has in common with some of these assumptions, although a lot of the other people who helped organize that place were not men. But you know, this is a different organized labor, and it’s going to have different political demands.


Kimberly Adams: Which is so fascinating because, you know, in the history of organized labor, these exact groups that you’re talking about leading the charge here, were traditionally blocked from joining unions back in the day.


Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, I mean, when we talk about the history of American labor law, like in the Wagner Act, which is the National Labor Relations Act, it says that the job of the US government is to promote workers getting into unions. Of course, that has pretty much been the opposite of what every law passed since then has done to in terms of workers organizing. But, you know, the Wagner Act was a piece of legislation at the same time as the New Deal. And we know that the New Deal at this point left out certain kinds of workers from the Wagner Act, from the Fair Labor Standards Act, because of who they were, because of the compromises that had to be made with certain southern politicians to get these acts passed. They left out domestic workers, they left out farm workers, because those were the places where most of the workers were black. And the other sectors of the economy have gradually been able to move into the protections of labor law, when we think about hospital workers, say, who only got collective bargaining rights fairly recently, when we think about service workers, who were exempt from minimum wage, and still, in a lot of cases, have a tipped minimum wage. It’s been an uneven process of including more workers, and then lately, of shutting more of them back out again, right. So we’ve seen the Supreme Court decisions that then have ruled that certain kinds of workers aren’t really workers, or that the labor law shouldn’t really apply to them in the same way because they’re in the public sector. So it’s an ongoing struggle to get both the law and the unions and the people who make strategic organizing decisions to think about young people working in a Starbucks as important as people who are working in a Ford factory.


Kai Ryssdal: What do you think accounts for the rise – certainly the rise in consciousness about organized labor, but also perhaps just the rise in general background activity in this area?


Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, I mean, so you mentioned my books in the beginning, and I was working on my first book, Necessary Trouble, I was talking about sort of social movements in the US after the financial crisis, and the rise of class consciousness in this country. And that was, you know, I was talking about Occupy, obviously, and Black Lives Matter, but I was also talking about the big protests in 2011 when speaking of stripping people of labor protections. Wisconsin stripped away collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. I wrote about the Chicago Teachers strike in 2012. And so we’ve been seeing this building, kind of, you know, and frankly, as material conditions get worse for a lot of people, as rights have been taken away, but also as it’s harder to find a job, it’s harder to find a good job, as some of those good jobs themselves become less good jobs. When we think about like universities, which are now taught 70 something percent by adjuncts or otherwise contingent faculty, right? Good jobs are becoming harder and harder to come by, and working people increasingly desperate. And then now we have this other moment, post pandemic, where the labor markets actually tightened up a little bit. But it does mean that some workers have been able to make more demands. And so when we saw like the wave of strikes last year, at Nabisco, at Frito-Lay, at John Deere, the workers knew. These were people who had been told they were essential workers and kept working throughout the pandemic. And they knew that their companies were profitable. And so they just weren’t going to take the argument anymore, that they couldn’t get a raise, or that they couldn’t get more reasonable working hours, because the company couldn’t afford to hire more people. They just knew better. And so I think we’re seeing the combination of conditions getting actually worse, with a rising confidence, and frankly, anger on behalf of working people.


Kimberly Adams: If this keeps up, say, you know, the next five years or so, how do you think the American workplace is going to be different for American workers? If we continue to see this sort of rising wave of small-scale unionization?


Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, I think there’s a real question about what comes next, about what the next big leap forward can be, right? Because it’s not going to be enough to just – think 20 people, 20 people by 20 people by 20 people, even if that is on some level the way that the law would have you do it. It is going to require something bigger than that. And what happened, you know, in the 1930s, as this labor law was being written, is that you also had a group of organizers who were thinking about how to organize these big factories that before the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations is what it stands for. The AFL basically organized the so-called skilled labor, in smaller shops, maybe, and didn’t think that you could organize industrial workers. And so we need to see something on the scale of that, really, to get back to a place where workers have a real experience of power shifting in the workplace. But you know, even those 20-person shops, that’ll make a big difference in the lives of the people who work in those places. And you know, companies like Starbucks, where this just the way it keeps going, and they can close two stores, they can close five stores, they can close maybe 100 stores, but they can’t close all the stores that have been unionizing at the rate that they’re unionizing at. And so at some point, is the company going to decide “Screw it, let’s make a deal. Let’s stop fighting them”? You know, we just saw Microsoft I believe, make a statement that it would be neutral.


Kimberly Adams: Right, the Activision. Blizzard acquisition.


Sarah Jaffe: Right, exactly. And so it’s possible that some companies are going to just kind of say, okay, okay, we can make some sort of a deal that will be less disruptive than potential strikes, potential loss of employees, potential loss of reputation. Things like that are going to be really interesting. Another thing that just happened today, of course, is Wired Magazine, where the employees had voted to strike on Amazon Prime Day, which is obviously a big day for the tech sector. And miraculously, they got a deal. So, you know, one of the things that I say a lot to people is, you have to watch strikes, obviously, because strikes are the demonstration of power. But you also have to watch almost strikes. You have to count strike votes too, and see like, okay, this organization made a credible threat of striking that would have really disrupted this organization’s business and profits. And so the company said, All right, all right, we’ll make a deal. So these are interesting questions that are going to be – certainly things that I’m going to be watching over the next few years.


Kimberly Adams: Plenty of fodder for the next book. Sarah Jaffe, labor journalist, co-host of the podcast “Belabored” and author, as I mentioned, of several books, including Work Won’t Love You Back and Necessary Trouble. Thank you so much.


Kai Ryssdal: Sarah, thanks a lot.


Sarah Jaffe: Thank you.


Kai Ryssdal: I learned a bunch in that, not least of which is – and I should have known this that unions have to organize shop by shop, bargaining unit by bargaining unit. And it’s just different now. Because the bargaining units are smaller. Totally interesting. I should have known that.


Kimberly Adams: Yeah, I’m really stuck on this idea of who’s leading the charge, that it’s people of color and women. And, you know, in addition to what Sarah was laying out about the legal framework, not including industries, with those folks in it. I mean, back in the day, black people weren’t even allowed in some labor unions. And so, you know, my mom told me stories of when she was a kid, her dad crossing picket lines during strikes, because he couldn’t even join the union if he wanted to. But he needed the work, you know, so. Fascinating.


Kai Ryssdal: Yeah. Wow, that’s a good story. Actually. Your grandfather?


Kimberly Adams: Yeah, they apparently… people would drive by and shoot at their house. It was bad. Anyway, sorry, I just brought it real back real quick. That’s American history for you. Well, if you have a interesting labor related story or other things, let us know what you think. Our number is 508-827-6278, also known as 508-U-B-SMART. You can also send us a voice memo at And we will be right back.


Kai Ryssdal: All right, let’s do some news. Let’s do some news. You go first.


Kimberly Adams: Yeah, because as you know, I was scrambling to get into studio today. Because I was desperately trying to catch the opening statements of the latest January 6 hearing, which, you know, everybody will probably heard all the news once you hear this podcast. But I was really struck in the opening statements today that Liz Cheney, the co-chair of the Commission, laid out in very explicit detail that she could see that the arguments trying to – let me say that a different way. She talked about all the efforts to basically shift the blame off of Trump for what happened on January 6, and that as these hearings continue on, the arguments that people are using to try to say it wasn’t Trump’s fault are changing. And there’s like this game of hot potato happening of shifting the blame. It’s like, oh, you know, it was the crowd was out of control, and Trump had no control over it. He didn’t know what was going on. And now the argument is, oh, no, he got bad counsel from his lawyers, and it’s not his fault. And she was like, Donald Trump is a 76-year-old man, and not an impressionable child. And he needs to take responsibility for his actions. And I just thought that was so striking, and really reflective of what this committee is trying to do. They’re like, no, you knew, everybody around you knew, you did it anyway. And this is your fault. Yeah, that’s my news.


Kai Ryssdal: It’s wild and I will confess, I’m sort of, I’ve got one eye on the hearings and the subtitles here in the studio because it’s crazy stuff. Not that I’m not paying full and devoted attention to this podcast. I’m just – come on admit it. You would if you could too!


Kimberly Adams: I do not have that level of multitasking ability. I would not be able to fake attention if I was doing that, so I’m not even gonna try.


Kai Ryssdal: Okay. All right, well then I’m definitely not doing it either. Alright, anyway, so I got two and a half things. The first is not at all in our bailiwick, but holy cow, this is a wild story. So Mo Farah, who’s a British four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 5000 and 1000 meters in, I think, the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. There’s a documentary out about him on the BBC, in which he says that he was trafficked into the United Kingdom, obviously, illegally when he was a kid. He was held in servitude, he was abused. And then finally, after having told the teacher at work about his true identity, was placed in a different family and better circumstance, and obviously went on to amazing athletic achievement. But it’s a wild story. Wild. Just unbelievable.


Kimberly Adams: I was listening to that this morning, and just mouth hanging open. Because, you know that human trafficking and modern-day slavery exists, but the fact that you’re hearing from somebody who experienced it, the woman who trafficked him, just like out there wouldn’t talk to the BBC, obviously. They talk to his family back in Somaliland, and the person whose identity they forged, you know, to bring them into the country. It’s, oh, my gosh, what a story.


Kai Ryssdal: Wild story. So that’s, that’s just a thing that caught my eye this morning. Also related to the United Kingdom, but generally about global aviation more specifically, or more generally. If you are flying this summer, forget about it. And if you’re going through London Heathrow, don’t. They came out this morning and said – the London Heathrow airport authorities came out this morning and said, we’re going to limit passengers for the summer season, because we don’t have enough staff to take care of the hundreds of thousands of people who come in here every single day. They have asked airlines to voluntarily stop selling tickets, because of staff shortages and a crush of people wanting to travel. So do not go through London. Just don’t.


Kimberly Adams: You know, as I’ve been booking travel for various things this summer, I’m giving myself such a buffer on either side of it. Because I’m sort of expecting that my flights gonna get delayed or canceled, and I’ll have to make other arrangements. Did you see that photo of all of that luggage stuck in Heathrow?


Kai Ryssdal: Literally a mountain of suitcases that have been, you know, misguided and mishandled and left to die and just crazy. Don’t go to London. Don’t go to London.


Kimberly Adams: One of my stronger memories of my time in Cairo was Egypt Air lost my luggage once. And in order to get it back, I had to go back to the airport. And they took me into this basement and I was like, actually worried, because it was dark and it was scary. And I go into this cavernous room, with ceilings maybe like 15 feet high with just row after row after rack after rack of luggage. And I’m like, how many people’s luggage is just lost forever down here?


Kai Ryssdal: Everybody’s. Everybody’s luggage. Everybody’s. Okay. And my last little item is just a public service announcement. After all those pictures came out from the James Webb Space Telescope, the amazeballs pictures, they’re crazy. But I wondered out loud on Twitter, if what we’re seeing in these pictures, if we were like actually out there next to these nebulae and galaxies and stuff, you know, spacesuit and physics and gravity notwithstanding, is this what we would see? Is this what would hit the naked eye? And the short answer is no, it would not. A lot of this is infrared, a lot of the clouds are gaseous and opaque. And so no, but just thank God for astronomical photography, because it looks much cooler. But that is not what we would actually see. And I was just curious about that this morning. And that’s all.


Kimberly Adams: And you got an answer. I will put a shameless plug in here. Tomorrow on the tech show, we have a conversation with a Nobel Laureate astronomer who explains a lot more clearly than I was really understanding, what we’re looking at in the picture, and also about that planet that they found that has water in the atmosphere. And this concept of looking back in time through the picture. I was trying to explain that to my niece this morning and did a terrible job. And he gave a really clear example, which is that he used the example – I’ll give a little preview – of when you do a core sample in the earth, and at the bottom, you can see what little animals and critters and fossils were alive millions of years ago. In the middle, a little bit more recently. And close to the top, you know, stuff that was alive more right now. We’re basically looking at a core sample of the universe through all the different time periods, which really helped me wrap my head around the concept.


Kai Ryssdal: Very cool. All right. Well, there you go. We do a little science, we do a little politics, we do a little astronomy. And let us now do the mailbag.


Kimberly Adams: Okay, last week, a listener proposed that we create a Kai-sigh index, as an indicator. Oh wait, does it make you want to sigh?


Kai Ryssdal: Stop it, stop it.


Kimberly Adams: Anyway, they wanted this to be an indicator of the mood of the country. And one of you called in and left us this


Amanda: Hey, K squared. This is Amanda calling from Columbus, Ohio. And I’m calling to commiserate with Kai about his Kai-sigh index. I didn’t realize how much I sighed until my boyfriend called me out on it one day. And then I realized I sigh, all the time. It’s like breathing for me. And then I got stressed because I was feeling self-conscious about sighing, so that I was sighing more. I realized it is a family trait. Everybody in my family sighs a lot. And we have different levels of sigh exaggeration, and timbre and technique. And it’s like a real thing. Now I realized I do it all the time. So totally, totally understand what you are going through.


Kai Ryssdal: Yes! Well, that’s the best listener letter ever. Thank you.


Kimberly Adams: Everyone likes a bit of validation.


Kai Ryssdal: Just a little bit. All right. Here’s one more listener voice memo.


Petro: Hello, Kai and Kimberly. My name is Petro. I’m originally from Ukraine. But right now I’m in Portugal because of war that Russia is waging on Ukraine continuous. You’ve been talking about coupons in the last couple of episodes. And I’ve been thinking like, yeah, people are not really using it. But I’ve realized something: cashbacks. Cashback is something that kind of replaced coupons. So you’re not clipping things to go with them, but you actually look in where you can get bigger or better cashback or on what products. So that’s what we use. So kind of similar.


Kai Ryssdal: They’re kind of similar.


Kimberly Adams: It is. Again, now that some credit cards give an offer of like, you shop at certain stores and get cash back. And I have definitely done that type of shopping at CVS where they’re like, you know, if you buy X number of dollars of this product, then you can get some money back to spend… Extra Care Bucks or whatever. Yeah, yeah, it is.


Kai Ryssdal: Also, just for the record, we’ve got a guy who’s Ukrainian but living in Portugal, but who takes the time to listen to this podcast? I’m sorry. That’s just incredible. Just thought I’d say that.


Kimberly Adams: Yeah. Thanks, Petro.


Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, no joke. All right. Here we go. As we always do. We’ll leave you with this week’s make me smart question, which is what is something you thought you knew, but later found out you were wrong about? Stephanie in Massachusetts, you’re up.


Stephanie: One thing I thought I knew but later found out I was wrong about is that everyone has the same definition for flapjacks. On our flight home from our honeymoon in Ireland, we were excited to see flapjacks listed as one of the in flight meals. You can imagine our disappointment when we received a big granola bar rather than a short stack of delicious pancakes. It turns out that in some countries like Ireland and the UK, flapjack is an oat bar. But Canadians and Americans say that flapjacks are pancakes. Thanks for making me smart.


Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, of course they’re pancakes. What? Okay.


Kimberly Adams: I mean, it’s kind of like biscuits, you know? To us, they’re biscuits; to them, it’s cookies.


Kai Ryssdal: That’s true. That’s true. That’s fair. That’s fair. Oh my goodness. All right, anyway, no matter what you learned on this podcast or elsewhere in life, send us your answers and make me smart question. Send your voice memo to our email at Or you can leave us a message 508-827-6278, 508-U-B-SMART is another way to dial that.


Kimberly Adams: Make Me Smart is directed and produced by Marissa Cabrera. Our intern is Olivia Zhao. Ellen Rolfes writes our newsletters.


Kai Ryssdal: Today’s program was engineered by Juan Carlos Torrado on the other side of the soundproof glass mansion. Mingxin Qiguan is going to mix it down later. Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez – he used to work here – the composer of theme music. The Senior Producer is Bridget Bodnar. Donna Tam is Director of On Demand. Marketplace’s Vice President and General Manager is Neil Scarborough.

What's Next

Latest Episodes From Our Shows

4:50 PM PDT
4:27 PM PDT
1:47 PM PDT
7:58 AM PDT
Oct 3, 2022
Sep 29, 2022
Aug 9, 2022
Exit mobile version