Successful labor organizing takes time; take no shortcuts and study your adversary carefully: Interview with Michael D. Yates on Labor – Organization, Negotiation, and Education

by Farooque Chowdhury and Michael D. Yates

Michael D Yates 1
Michael D. Yates in Santa Fe, NM on March 10, 2020.

The following is the concluding part of Michael D. Yates’s four-part interview with Farooque Chowdhury:

Farooque Chowdhury: In your organizing work, in your union support work, as a staff person for the UFW, as a worker educator, and as a writer, what are the most important lessons you have learned?

Michael D. Yates: I will answer each part in turn:

1. Organizing

Let’s begin with the two organizing drives I helped lead.

The first was with the maintenance and custodial workers at the college where I was teaching:

a) A good organizer must be a good listener. Don’t act as if you know more than the workers know. My teaching experience taught me a great deal about how higher education works, that is, how colleges are organized and run. I knew what teachers needed in terms of control over their working lives. However, my experiences were my own and no one else’s. Others may not have thought exactly as I did. They also might have known more about many things than I did. I was young when I first started to try to organize the teachers. Many teachers were much older. So, it was important to listen to them and not interject my own views. Academics have a bad habit of considering themselves experts in all things, even though their actual learning is limited to their specialty. We like to listen to ourselves pontificate while others sit rapturously listening to us. Anyone who has been to a conference in the audience of an academic speaker knows that when the speaker is finished, hands shoot up. A person is called upon. This person, instead of asking a question, begins to tell a long story with themselves the subject. Nothing is more boring and off-putting. When organizing, egotism has to be suppressed and empathy brought front and center.

This was even more true for the maintenance and custodial workers. I did not do their work, and therefore I had no expertise. How was I to know what their concerns were unless I asked some questions and carefully listened to the answers? It was no doubt true that these workers respected the professors. But that respect was mixed with a feeling of inferiority, which in turn was mixed with a certain hostility, usually suppressed. Here, the fact that I came from a working-class background helped me interact with these workers. My natural speech was much like theirs. I had some interests — sports, for example — that overlapped with theirs. And my view of the bosses was clearly much like their own. I had far more freedom at work than they did, but I could use this to do things that would help them, like make copies, phone calls, get meeting spaces, and so on. I could use a professorial tone with those who spoke it, and did so to push the union drive forward. Another thing that was important was not to pretend that I was just one of them. They knew this was not true. We lived in somewhat different worlds. One of the workers began to take college classes, including my own. He had the makings of an “organic intellectual,” a person from the working class who then becomes a leading voice for his workmates. The world’s working classes need as many of these as they can get. Whatever an intellectual can do to discover and teach them is invaluable for labor movements.

b) Nothing is better than face-to-face discussions. Every worker in a proposed bargaining unit must be met with in person at least once. The organizer should keep a brief file on every worker, noting gender, age, main concerns, and the like. These should be updated regularly so that the organizers get a view of how things are going. Also, it is important to begin to make concrete the concerns of the workers by drafting potential contract language as soon as possible. When a union wins a certification election, the subsequent negotiations will be much smoother if the workers are already prepared with contract language. There are some things that must wait, of course. The employer is bound to provide the union with information that it has but the workers do not with respect to wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. So, a full-scale wage proposal cannot be adequately made without such information. The workers may not fully know, for example, the extent of wage differences between men and women. The union could do a survey itself, but this is time-consuming and might be costly, so it will be necessary to get this information by requesting that the employer provide it. However, to the extent possible, begin the preparing for negotiations while the organizing is taking place.

 c) It is impossible for an outsider to effectively   organize a union. Only the rank-and-file can do this properly. The more the workers are involved, the better, and the more democratic the end result will be. Too many unions do “top-down” organizing. They send in organizers from the outside who fail to build internal union support, leadership, and cohesion. This is never a good thing. Successful labor organizing takes time. There are no shortcuts. Right now in the United States, an organizing campaign has been ongoing for at least a year at Starbucks stores. Workers are being trained as “salts,” that is, union advocates who will apply for jobs at Starbucks stores and then slowly begin to agitate for a union. They will know that there is already widespread dissatisfaction with working conditions at the stores across the country. So, they will have fertile ground on which to work. But they will be workers, not outsiders. So far, the results have been heartening. Not many contracts yet, but a great deal of successful organizing.

d) Don’t write anyone off, at least initially. The antiunion brothers became strong union supporters. Experience can be the best teacher. Perhaps a story related to the organizing of the teachers, discussed more fully in the next part below, is instructive. I had a friend who taught physics. He was from Youngstown, Ohio, an industrial town like Johnstown, centered on the steel industry. Youngstown was a union town, and my friend’s father was a steelworker. Unfortunately, my friend had become a libertarian, believing that the “free market” was best and that perhaps unions weren’t needed for professors. I remember saying to him, “John, you wouldn’t have gotten a PhD unless your father was in a strong union. Like I would have, you would have become a factory worker. And isn’t it a betrayal of your dad to be against a union?” When we had a union election for the teachers, I think he voted for the union, but I can’t be sure. A few years later, he got a job at another college, one in which the faculty had a good union. He contacted me, saying he was having problems with his supervisors. He was glad there was a union he could use for protection from arbitrary actions by the administration, such as being fired. Another person, an adult student, was enraged with my Introductory Economics class because I showed a set of films that were radical. This man had been a lifer in the military, with three tours of duty in Vietnam, and, like most men who spent most of their lives as part of the U.S. military’s killing machine, his politics were firmly right-wing and xenophobic. As they used to say, “America, love it or leave it.” He told me later that he wanted to come down the auditorium aisle and strangle me. After he graduated, he got a job as a local bus driver. Like the physics professor, he had a problem with his employer, in this case, the bus company. Whom did he call to help him? Me! The guy he wanted to strangle. I advised him on what to do, and no doubt he learned a lesson.

The second organizing effort involved the teachers at the college. This taught me several lessons:

a) Many faculty consider themselves professionals, like physicians and lawyers, and not workers. For them, labor unions are for workers, not professionals. College professors are colleagues, not fellow workers. To join a union means that one is lowering oneself, behaving below one’s status. The difference between the maintenance and custodial workers and the professors could not have been starker. In addition, some faculty believed that unionization would be a betrayal of their students, especially if there were ever a strike. They couldn’t see that the power a union could bring them would make them more secure and better paid in their work, with a real say in how the college functioned, and that these things would be good for the students as well. There would be no reason that organized teachers would want to do something injurious to those they taught. In those days, this difficulty could not be overcome at the University of Pittsburgh. When I realized this, I broadened my horizons and did what I could to help other workers unionize. But I always harbored the idea that someday it would be possible to organize the teachers. Someday, teachers at the university would realize that they were workers, that the deans, provosts, and chancellors were their bosses, and that there was a definite conflict at the heart of the relationship between the two groups.

b) It is of great importance to study your adversary carefully. How does your employer operate? Who holds real power? Are there weak points, such as conflicts of interest, that workers can exploit by making them public? Can entities with which your employer deals be led to put pressure on your employer, such that the workers will benefit? For example, if unionized truck drivers make deliveries to your employer, can solidarity with them lead to their refusal to make deliveries should your group strike? Research is important. In addition, while organizing, begin to solicit from workers what their basic demands are. What do the teachers want, stated as specifically as possible, and how might demands be satisfied, as argued above. This way, if the union wins, people will be ready to negotiate without delay.

c) There must be a solidly organized group of workers who will spearhead the organizing drive, a committee of the committed and knowledgeable. This group must meet regularly to work out strategy and tactics. At the same time, these workers must never become a privileged group. They must always reach out to the entire workforce and operate democratically. In a large and geographically dispersed workforce, there will be several such committees, and these must communicate and coordinate with each other.

2. Speaking to and Supporting Workers

The main lesson I learned from my talks and union support actions is this:

Intellectuals seldom speak the language of the working class. Hence, it is difficult for them to help lead workers toward a radical theory of capitalism, or anything else for that matter. I had the advantage of having grown up within the working class. My language, figures of speech, and mannerisms were familiar to the workers I addressed. I worked hard to make complex ideas and history accessible to those who were learning about the world, the economy, and so on. for the first time. I later concluded that until intellectuals begin to see themselves as workers and start to speak in lucid, emotionally charged language, they will always be speaking mainly to one another, and no social good will come from this.

I have a joke I tell now. I say, it looks like the intellectuals believe that they are changing the world one conference at a time! I stopped attending academic conferences a long time ago. I remember going to the Socialist Scholars Conference (later renamed Left Forum) in New York City. We all got name tags, and it was always the case that people would look at one another’s tags to see where they taught. I couldn’t help but think that when a person from an elite school saw that you were not from such a school, the elite professor quickly moved on. The academic stars were always surrounded by a coterie of acolytes hanging on the star’s every word. Real solidarity seemed rare. I sometimes attended summer conferences of the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE). Founded during the political ferment of the 1960s, URPE was a haven for the growing number of radical economists. It was an exciting time, and the journal of the organization, the Review of Radical Political Economics (RRPE) was something I looked forward to reading. I often incorporated the analysis in the articles into my courses.

One of the founders of URPE was my mentor and friend, David Houston, who taught at the University of Pittsburgh. David helped me navigate the economics department at the University. He was on my PhD thesis committee, and after I began to teach in Johnstown, we became friends. He was the book review editor of the RRPE, and he wrote a review of one of my first books, Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs, which was quickly published in the journal. David encouraged me to attend a URPE summer conference. I did attend two or three of these. It was somewhat similar to Socialist Scholars conferences. David had grown up in a wealthy Philadelphia family, but he had become a fervent Marxist, much to the chagrin of most of his department colleagues, who were diehard neoclassical economists. He also put his principles to work, organizing and participating in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He paid a price for his activism; his salary was frozen for three years, and he was ostracized by “respectable” academics. But to me, he was a hero. At the UPRE conferences, he would make fun of the attendees from elite universities, who spent their time at the conferences talking to their elite school “comrades,” reminiscing about their days at Harvard and Yale. But at least then, there were many good radicals in the organization, and the articles in the journal were useful and written to be understood. Today, the journal is often filled with boring and generally useless articles that appear mainly aimed at padding a professor’s curriculum vitae. I should add to my previous saying, “Changing the world one conference and journal article at a time.” I should add that recently URPE published a radical and powerful statement in solidarity with Palestinians, who have been brutalized genocidally by the State of Israel. Some older URPE members were strongly opposed to the statement, but younger members were just as strongly for it. Hopefully, there will be a resurgence of radicalism in the organization.

3. The Farm Workers and the UFW

More than anything I have done in connection with the class struggle, my experiences with the UFW taught me the most significant lessons:

a) There are no good employers, only less bad ones. While, in general, the largest growers were not as crude as Ernest Perry or as condescending as Roger Donlon, they were as committed to the exploitation of farm workers as their smaller competitors. They just maintained a distance between themselves and what their corporate entities did. Much as did John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who, when questioned by the U.S. Congress in the wake of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, said that he just owned the mining company’s stock; he had nothing to do with the violence that had resulted in the death of many miners and their families. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) say in the preamble to their union’s constitution that workers and employers have nothing in common—words that every radical must take to heart. There can be no economic, political, or moral justification for the private ownership of the means of production and the treatment of workers that follows logically from such ownership. The perfidy of employers is ubiquitous. If a corporation concludes that it is cheaper to face lawsuits than to provide safe workplaces, produce safe products, or avoid polluting the environment, it will choose to face the lawsuits. In the United States, wage theft is rampant. One of our sons, when he was working in Portland, Oregon, discovered that his supervisor was altering his hours record so that it showed fewer hours than he had in fact worked. He was not alone, either at his workplace or in millions of others. Employers spend millions of dollars hiring antiunion consultants, who often operate outside of the law, that is, they engage in illegal actions, to sow fear and suspicion among the workers. The list could go on and on. Employers consider workers as simply costs of production, no different that the tools and machines purchased. When deemed necessary, workers will be discarded, just like broken tools.

b) There are no workers who cannot be organized, or who, in the right circumstances, will not support a labor union. Farm workers, who have suffered more than just about any group of workers in the United States and who have faced direct violence at the hands of both the owners and the state, not only organized but also took militant actions to make their bosses pay for what they had done. Given not only the right circumstances but the existence of radical political and cultural organizations, workers can shift decisively to the left. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when workers faced extreme hardships, including long-term unemployment and onerous working conditions, they began a remarkable, nationwide movement to organize their workplaces. They faced police intimidation, violence, even murder. Yet they persevered, going so far as to occupy factories in the famous sit-down strikes in the automobile industries and elsewhere. Critical in many organizing efforts were open Communists. If we extend our comments to the rest of the world, we see the same thing. Today, professionals such as doctors, engineers, technology experts, and architects, among others, are forming labor unions. It is a certainty that no matter the job, employers will always try to find ways to turn it into a more mechanistic and alienated one, with much greater ease of finding substitutes, no matter how great the amount of training necessary in the beginning.

c) Following my second answer above, every group of workers has some potential power. All that it takes to convert potential to actual power is proper organization and education. We never know which spark will light a fire. The UFW consisted in large part of migrant workers, people without permanent homes in the United States or, in many cases, without legal documents permitting them to be in the country. Yet, they formed a powerful union and took on the great economic and political power of the growers, winning unions and much-improved wages, hours, and conditions of employment. Today, again in the United States, young workers at Starbucks, Whole Foods, Amazon, and many other employers are forming unions, often coordinating their actions across the country to put maximum pressure on powerful corporations.

d) For reasons made clear in my essay and other writings of mine (for example, see also the essay “The Rise and Fall of the United Farm Workers” in the book, Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle [Monthly Review Press, 2022]), capitalism is a hegemonic system. It spreads from local to national to global markets, penetrating nearly every corner of the earth and every part of our daily lives. It becomes an always regenerating mass of interconnected parts, each of which reinforces the other. This makes it difficult to combat, because if we strike a blow against one part, what we have done will always be attacked by the other parts until it is brought in line with the system’s regeneration. What this means is that capitalism tends to create people and institutions in its image. For example, many workers develop individualistic and competitive outlooks, and this behavior helps to reinforce, rather than combat, the system. The same is true for labor unions, which tend to take on hierarchical characteristics similar to those of the employers they are fighting against. The UFW made a great pretense of empowering farm workers, and, in fact, it did give them great potential power, which they began to exercise. However, Cesar Chavez found this intolerable because it threatened his own power. It is a complex story, one I have examined in detail in the links above, but the result was that the great promise of the UFW, which worked miracles in the fields, was short-lived, aborted by the paternalistic and authoritarian structure that Chavez and his close associates built. The story of the rise and fall of this iconic union offers a warning to those who organize and those who are organized because the struggle is not just against employers. It is also a struggle within every working-class organization, a struggle to make these organizations democratic, a struggle to maintain sharp and radical principles that are never violated, and finally, a struggle against all aspects of the capitalist system itself. This is the greatest lesson I learned from my time with the United Farm Workers.

4. Teaching Workers

Teaching is itself a learning experience. We always teach ourselves as we teach our students. Here are some lessons I learned from my worker education:

a) I discovered that very few radical academics engage with the working class. For example, I know of no other economist in the United States who spent many years teaching workers — or for that matter, any years at all. Yet, if we have a skill, that of teaching, and do not use it to educate the working class, then of what use are our working lives? It is bad enough that many academics do not see themselves as workers. But to not teach those who obviously are is disgraceful. The truth is that many radical intellectuals see themselves not as simple cogs in the wheel of revolutionary struggle. Rather they envision themselves as leaders, those with authority. Radical democracy is not within their frame of reference. The gatherers and hunters, who lived and labored in the longest-lasting mode of production, were egalitarians. Having a special skill did not confer any advantage on a person. In fact, if a good hunter killed an animal, others would mock the kill as a bag of bones or without fat. This was to keep the hunter humble, nothing special and certainly not deserving of more meat than anyone else. Many radical intellectuals expect more meat. I sometimes hear well-fed upper middle class radical scholars say, “nothing is too good for the working class,” but the hidden message is that they want to keep intact their socially disproportionate consumption.

b) Class consciousness rarely develops spontaneously. Just because people are wage laborers does not mean that they will become class conscious. Even those who form labor unions might not become class conscious, especially in the sense that they see the need to abolish the wage labor system itself. My father was a union member and participated in strikes. Yet, it would not be true to say that he was class conscious. He had some understanding that his prospects were limited by the fact he was a worker, and he was distrustful of his supervisors. He was a generous person, and he often helped those less fortunate than he was. But politically, he was conservative. What is needed at a minimum is education. Unions might provide some of this, but in the United States, unions typically only offer practical education, such as how to file a grievance or conduct a meeting. Members might campaign for union-favored politicians, but these politicians are almost never class conscious themselves. Therefore, what is needed is radical education, presented by a sympathetic teacher who knows something of working-class life. In my experience, workers want to know the root causes of their condition.

What is crucial is that the teacher leave academic jargon aside. I became a good labor educator because I had worked hard in my college classes to find ways to present complex material in a comprehensible manner. I always tried to find examples that illuminated what I was teaching. I found out through my own studies and experiences what the core ideas were for the subject at hand. For example, if I was teaching students neoclassical economic theory as it applies to working people, I could make it obvious why the proponents of this theory said that if a government compelled an employer to pay a minimum wage, this would lead to a loss of jobs and unemployment. This follows from the underlying assumptions of the theory. But then I showed students that when this hypothesis was tested, it failed miserably and therefore must be rejected. Raising the minimum wage does not cause unemployment. Similarly, I never met a working-class student who did not see immediately the truth of the labor theory of value: that profits are a surplus that exists because workers are exploited; paid a wage that allows them to subsist, but is far less than the value of what they produce. In a word, capital might be productive, but capitalists are not. Only living labor adds value to all things produced in a capitalist economy.

The key to radical education is to take the issues critical to changing the world — exploitation, expropriation, patriarchy, racism, colonialism, imperialism, the despoliation of the environment — and reduce them to their core causes, using examples along the way. Students can then see their lives in a new and radical light. Then, hopefully, they will then see the need to work to change the world.

I have written a series of five essays on radical labor education. These can be found at the blog Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue.

On Writing

There is one lesson I have learned from writing for and with the working class:

Writing is a skill. It can be learned, but it takes time and effort to do so — and radical writing is a special skill. Making what you write understandable for working people requires extra effort. Clarity, lucidity, emotional force; these are what need to be striven for. The writer must forego academic fame and realize that written words can be a force for radical change. Yet, writing should never be merely didactic, formulaic, like a cookbook. It must strike the imagination as well. Words can also be things of beauty. Perhaps a good example is the story I wrote titled “The Year of the Strike” in one of my books In and Out of the Working Class (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009).

Further Comments

In all my work discussed in this interview, I have had some interactions with labor officials. I cannot remember any direct confrontations. With some unions, such as the left-wing United Electrical Workers Union (UE), these have always been comradely. I have spoken at one of their conventions, been a long-time friend of their former political director, had books of mine reviewed in their newspaper, and had correspondence with a former president of the union. The same is true for the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), two progressive unions. On the one hand, I have maintained friendly relationships with some union dissidents, in the Teamsters, Autoworkers, and teachers’ unions. On the other hand, I have been a lifelong critic of many unions and their leaders. The number of them I have criticized is too long to detail. This has sometimes led to confrontations in which I was not a direct participant. As we have seen, UFW threatened a lawsuit against The Nation magazine for an article I wrote critical of its president, Chavez, and his running of the union. And the AFL-CIO, whose leaders I have written against many times, red-baited me when I was chosen to teach workers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Overall, however, while I am sure my name has sometimes been dragged through the mud by some union staff persons and leaders, direct confrontations have been minimal. This suits me fine. Who needs these? My job has been to write and act on behalf of the working class. I let the chips fall where they may.

Farooque Chowdhury: You have discussed many fundamental aspects for organizing labor with a radical point of view.  Thank you for taking the time to do this and for enlightening us with issues essential to learners and labor organizers today.

Michael D. Yates: You are very welcome. I hope that current and potential labor organizers find this useful, especially the young people now trying to reinvigorate labor movements around the world.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.Michael D. Yates is author of numerous books on unions, conditions in the working class, and the labor process.

The interview was first posted in MR Online ( on February 16, 2024.

Reprinted by permission of Monthly Review Online. (c) Monthly Review. All rights reserved.

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