Episode #8: Let’s Talk Labor Unions for Social Workers!


Note: This episode was recorded in October 2019, so while the conversation here is pure and timeless, please excuse a couple of out-of-time mentions about the Kentucky governor’s race – cuz that already happened!

Social workers spend a lot of time researching, talking about, and working together to come up with ways we can better serve our clients and communities. But what if the way we improve our services and support was by helping ourselves on the labor side of social work? Social workers routinely talk about how overworked and underpaid they are – but why does it have to be this way? This episode, we talk to a union organizer about the benefits of labor unions, why social workers specifically should seriously think about labor unionization, and a few things to expect if you do wanna take the first step at starting a social worker labor union. We can do this, y’all!

Full Transcript:

Drew:                   You’re listening to Decolonize Social Work, a conversation about social work, oppression, and liberation. I’m your co-host, Drew.

Ondine:               I’m your co-host, Ondine.

Ondine:               All right, welcome back everyone.

Drew:                   Hello!

Ondine:               Is this the seventh episode, or the eighth?

Drew:                   So many now, I’ve lost count.

Ondine:               Yeah. Which, in the podcast world, isn’t very many episodes.

Drew:                   I was at a conference recently, and I told somebody about our podcast. I was like, “Yeah, we have been on a hiatus. We just released our sixth episode.” She’s like, “Oh, I won’t listen to it until there’s 15.”

Ondine:               Oh, wow.

Drew:                   I was like, “Well, go ahead and subscribe to it, we’ll get there.”

Ondine:               Well, we’re on our way.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Person from the conference.

Drew:                   We have that threshold. Yeah, I know.

Ondine:               Today’s episode, we’re going to talk about labor organizing and unions, especially in the context of social work practice. We have a friend, a guest here today, to help us with that conversation.

Ondine:               Matt is a historian, and also a union member. Say some more about yourself?

Matt:                    Hi, everybody. I’m Matt. I’m a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 227. I work for a big grocery chain as a meat cutter, most of the time, but I’m actually out with the union, talking to our members these days. We’ve got a Governor’s race, here in our state this year, so getting out and talking to people, and making some space. Worker organizing is a big thing for me.

Matt:                    Like Ondine said, I’m big into history. This is great, this is going to be great fun to talk about history and labor, all together.

Ondine:               This is going to be great. Thanks, Matt, for joining us today, so you can help us fill in the gaps around history around labor unionizing, and labor organizing.

Drew:                   Do we want to also, right now, frame up how labor organizing and social work fits into the overall mission, I guess, of this podcast? Which is, moving towards decolonized social work, as well?

Ondine:               Yeah, take it away.

Drew:                   That was one of those things where you have an idea, and someone’s like, “That’s great, somebody should do that.”

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Ondine just gave me that look.

Drew:                   We’ve talked in our episodes about the conflict of social work when it gets ensnared with the symptoms of Colonialism, namely Capitalism. There’s no place, probably, more immediately felt in social workers than the exploitation of our labor. We’ll talk a bit more about this, about how often times, our labor is undervalued, actively, because we’re told we didn’t get into this job to make money, we got into it to help people.

Drew:                   While that can be true, my landlord does not take goodwill as rent.

Ondine:               He sure doesn’t.

Drew:                   The grocery store does not allow me to pay for my food because I’m a good person.

Ondine:               Right.

Drew:                   That would be awesome, if we were at that place. Maybe, that’s where we will go in 1000 years, but right now, that is the language that’s used to exploit social workers. There’s also this tension, too, that if we’re supposed to be doing this because we feel good about ourselves, we’re also taking on the burden of the quality of the work that, sometimes, we don’t have a lot of control over, because we’re overworked.

Ondine:               That’s right.

Drew:                   We’re under supported, and we’re undermined by our administrators.

Drew:                   So, all of this is, again, a symptom of Capitalism, which I still argue, and think that is also a symptom of Colonialism. Learning how we can destruct, dismantle the way we do social work practice that way, and thinking of it differently is, again, in the theme of what we’re doing with this podcast, which is presenting a different way to do it, in a direction that is, probably, not going to be where you typically find social work practiced.

Ondine:               I don’t remember having these conversations, at all, in school.

Drew:                   No.

Ondine:               Learning how to become a social worker. Actually, in all of my time doing social work, macro social work, and also direct client practice, we never talked about unionizing, we never talked about our labor beyond knowing that we were exploited because we’re not getting paid a lot of money. Then, talking about the material conditions of the folks that we serve, and how we felt like we didn’t have any real control over that.

Ondine:               We will get into this a bit more, but I think social workers often see themselves, in a lot of ways, as white collar professionals, which may or may not be true. We can dig into that a bit. But, thus, don’t align with, maybe, labor organizing or unions. I grew up thinking that unions, the people who get into unions work at GE.

Drew:                   Trade jobs.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               Trade jobs.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Like assembly lines. That there aren’t unions for professional workers, which I know is not true, but that shaped my thinking.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               Matt, I’d love to invite you into the conversation, at this point. Tell us a bit about what the heck a union is, and maybe a bit about how labor unions came to be?

Matt:                    Okay. Yeah, totally.

Matt:                    Before we begin maybe it’s history, we’ll talk a bit about the labor theory of Capital. What I’m going to start with is by reading all of Marx’s Capital, and then we’ll get into that. No, no.

Ondine:               Because we have time for that.

Matt:                    No, I won’t be doing that.

Drew:                   The shortest 50-minute reading of it, ever.

Matt:                    Right.

Matt:                    Suffice it to say, and you all have talked about it, that we trade our free time, and our skills, and our work, for the thing we need to live, namely money.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    So we can buy everything else. What a union does is enable you to join with other people, typically people who do the same thing, or similar things, so that together you can …

Ondine:               Bargain, right?

Matt:                    Yeah, bargain for better wages, better benefits, better working conditions, that sort of thing.

Matt:                    Like I said, it can be people that are doing work that are similar to you, it can be people who are doing more or less exactly the same thing as you.

Ondine:               There are unions, right, that represent service workers, but they might work in a lot of different settings, right?

Matt:                    Yeah, exactly. Exactly. We’ll get into that a bit, as I talk about the history, actually. I’ll just jump into that.

Matt:                    The first unions, at least in the United States, start actually around the 1790s, or so.

Ondine:               That is a lot earlier.

Drew:                   That’s a lot earlier.

Ondine:               Then I would have thought.

Drew:                   Yeah, me too.

Matt:                    Well, they start at the same time, more or less, as the first Industrial Revolution. There’s no coincidence there, because you’re bringing more and more people who are formally rural workers into cities, and that sort of thing. In a lot of cases, they were recruited, or forced to go into these factories, weaving, shoe making. Skilled trades, but minor skilled trades that had formally been practiced in the home, were now being practiced in larger workplaces. A lot of these people saw that they were being exploited, and taken away from what they had traditionally known, and joined together to get better wages.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Mainly.

Matt:                    There’s always been a lot of ebbs and flows.

Ondine:               Sure, sure.

Matt:                    Of unions in the US. Before the Civil War, they didn’t take hold very well, and it’s only after the Civil War, they really get going with the start of the second Industrial Revolution, around the 1880s.

Ondine:               When I think of the Industrial Revolution, that’s, I think, what I think.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               Right before 1900.

Matt:                    Right. That’s where you really get mass manufacturing, and the big factories with all the machines in it, and that sort of thing.

Ondine:               So, not really all that long ago?

Matt:                    No. Really, not at all. That’s where we start to get the American Federation of Labor, which was a big conglomeration of lots of smaller unions. That’s 1886 is when we get that. AFL is actually still with us, along with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, from the 1930s. The CIO actually split from the AFL in the 1930s, and this is a thing we see a lot of in union organizing, is people…

Ondine:               People coming together?

Matt:                    Splitting with each other.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    Then, coming back together when they start to see that it only benefits us when we’re together, right?

Ondine:               It’s probably the theme of the day, huh?

Matt:                    Yeah.

Matt:                    The AFL and the CIO came together in the 50s. We see lots of good things out of unions, throughout this history.

Ondine:               Yeah. What would you say are a couple things that really came from union organizing?

Drew:                   Like, some wins?

Ondine:               Some wins?

Matt:                    Some wins? The ones that are most recognizable, and the ones, I think, we take the most for granted now, is the eight-hour day, and the 40-hour work week.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Which comes out of that same organizing, in the 1880s, particularly out of the Haymarket Affair, which was a lot of protests, and strikes, and a riot, and a bombing.

Ondine:               In Chicago, right?

Matt:                    Yeah. Everyone was agitating for shorter work hours, because there was a time when people worked 12 to 15 hour days.

Drew:                   I think some social worker listeners are probably in touch with that feeling right now.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Yeah, it’s interesting to talk about the 40-hour work week. I’m glad that was codified, due to labor organizing, and how we’ve chipped away at that, over time.

Ondine:               When you have a salaried worker, like a social worker, you just have to work until the job is done. It doesn’t feel like there are any protections.

Drew:                   Yeah. No protections, then your salary is still calculated based on the traditional 40-hr work week.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   The more you work, you’re actively, actually, getting less pay per hour.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   I’ve had that job, I’m sure a lot of us have had that job.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative). I suspect, a lot of good workers understand that pretty intimately, as well.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    Right? Yeah.

Matt:                    It took people going out on the street and actually fighting for this, and joining with one another, and three men dying to get that.

Drew:                   Wow.

Matt:                    It’s not nothing.

Matt:                    When we think about racial justice, unions have been hand-in-hand with a lot of that. The, I Have a Dream speech happened at the end of the March for Jobs and Freedom, in 1963. Electrical workers, auto workers, hospital workers were notable in being a big part of that demonstration. Martin Luther King Jr. Was assassinated while visiting striking sanitation workers in Memphis. It’s always been, all of us together, that have made these things happen.

Ondine:               There’s a long and rich history of labor organizing in our country. I’ve been trying to do a bit of reading in preparation for this episode, about the ways that social work has interacted with that history. I learned a couple things that I did not know.

Ondine:               So, Jane Adams, they consider her the Mother of Social Work. She founded settlement houses in Chicago, so this was the beginning of organized … Well, it’s not the beginning.

Drew:                   It was 1890s, when it’s recognized.

Ondine:               It’s 1890s. I was going to say, it’s the beginning of people coming together to address poverty and social ills, but it’s not. Thank you, Matt, for all that context, and that background.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               I think it’s … Everybody’s in a different place with their understanding of this history. I don’t remember learning much about labor organizing, at any point, in my education.

Matt:                    Yeah, they don’t-

Ondine:               Did you guys learn about this in school? Any school?

Drew:                   No, I don’t think so.

Matt:                    Yeah, I’m trying to think. In high school, they’d mentioned something like the Haymarket Affair, or something like that. It would be … We certainly wouldn’t spend a full day on it, right?

Ondine:               Right.

Matt:                    It would just be, here’s this thing that happened. Onto, whatever, World War I.

Ondine:               Right.

Matt:                    Or, whatever the next thing is.

Ondine:               I wanted to talk a bit, then, thinking about the history that Matt just laid out, and how social work, the profession, lays over top of that. I’ve been doing a little reading in preparation for this conversation. Those of us that have gone to school for formal social work, learned about Jane Adams, and the settlement houses. Also, Mary Richmond, and the Charity Organization Society, and how these are considered the founding of the profession. Social work, as we know it today, started with these movements.

Ondine:               We know, of course, that is a very White European way of thinking about the profession, but for the purpose of this conversation … The Settlement House movement was really about social change, and policy initiatives, particularly for women and orphans. There was a lot of organizing that came out of that work. I didn’t know this, but, I guess, Jane Adams was part of the development of the National Women’s Trade Union League, which was cool to learn. That the organizing conversations that were coming from the Settlement House movement, these folks were supporting striking workers, and the people in Hull House came together to form three unions.

Ondine:               So, the Women’s Shirtmakers, the Dorcas Federal Labor Union, and the Chicago Women’s Trade Union League, all come from the Settlement House work, and Hull House’s work in Chicago. This is social work, these are really important.

Drew:                   I hope …

Ondine:               Go ahead.

Drew:                   I hope other people’s social work education is better than mine. That should not have been left out.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Especially since we cover that stuff, already. It just should not be left out.

Ondine:               Yeah. I think what was really missing … As I was reading this, and I was thinking about, okay, we learned about Jane Adams, we learned about Settlement Houses, we learned about Hull House in particular. But, I don’t remember a conversation about there being community organizing coming out of that space, and that the Settlement House movement, there was a radical aspect to it.

Ondine:               As I was continuing to learn about this, the article that I’m looking at right now, which we will link and share for you all, then talks about the Charity Organization movement, which Mary Richmond is the person we associate the most with that, a social worker. That organization was not about advocacy, really, or about community organizing. They took this perspective that people who were in poverty needed good moral examples to follow, and they would do things called Friendly Visits to working poor. You’d go to their homes, and essentially try to teach people how to live in a way that was more in line with, I guess, not being poor? I’m not sure.

Matt:                    Right, yeah.

Drew:                   Probably a little cultural assimilation there.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               They really emphasized individual growth, and distinguished between worthy and unworthy poor.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Whereas, in the Settlement House movement, it wasn’t about individual growth, it was collective bargaining.

Drew:                   It was social change.

Ondine:               It was more social change.

Ondine:               There was this tension, right, between these organizations. What I was learning was that the Settlement House movement, the folks on that side of the fence, were teaming up with Labor at the time, to really support the work. They were like, these conditions, these material conditions are bigger than individual actions, and we can all support each other.

Ondine:               That died off, after the first World War. Or, at least, social workers’ involvement in union organizing, early union organizing.

Drew:                   Hm.

Ondine:               I don’t know. Matt, have you heard, in any of the stuff you’ve read, if you’ve seen anything about social workers in particular participating in labor?

Matt:                    Well, no social work per se. I think there was an early recognition amongst labor organizers and workers that the way that you work, and your work conditions, very much influence the way that you live, and the way that you can treat the people around you. That’s a big thing. Improving working conditions and that sort of thing, basically, improved the rest of your life.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    That’s why the eight-hour work day was so important, was because it gave you more free time, among other things, that you could do what you wanted, with your time.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    That’s huge. That’s huge for being able to treat trauma, say, for example, and that sort of thing.

Drew:                   That segues into, I think, the more specific aspect of social work with this. We’re talking about your own well being within this job, and the conditions of work, also are going to immediately affect the quality of services you are then carrying out with your clients, too.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   I don’t think unwell workers are going to be able to offer services that are going to make other people well.

Ondine:               Right.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   How does that correlate, if you can make the correlation, between the output of traditional trade labor services, versus social services, and that output being affected? Does that make sense?

Ondine:               Hey, can I just take a moment? I just want to acknowledge … We decided to record, today, at the Public Library. We have a really-

Drew:                   We’re in the wild.

Ondine:               Right. Normally, we do this at our house. It’s exciting, we have this sound recording booth, and I hope that the audio is okay. There is somebody next to us, who is living their best life, recording their album.

Drew:                   The Voice.

Ondine:               Yeah, they’re going to be on The Voice, I don’t know.

Matt:                    They’re getting it.

Ondine:               You may be able to hear some wailing in the background, and that’s why.

Drew:                   Crooning.

Ondine:               Some crooning.

Drew:                   Some crooning.

Ondine:               Yes. I didn’t want to act like that wasn’t happening.

Drew:                   If you’re in your car, no, there’s not a ghost behind you, listening to this.

Ondine:               Support your Public Library.

Drew:                   Support your Public Library.

Matt:                    Oh, yeah.

Ondine:               So, sorry, I don’t know if you want to reframe that question up?

Drew:                   I lost it.

Ondine:               That’s okay. I think I knew where you were going, so maybe this will help.

Drew:                   Okay.

Ondine:               As we were learning, and reading, and thinking about this, one of the suggestions that came up from a writer, a social worker and a writer, was that social workers need unions, social workers need to be unionized, but that, historically, because the labor movement has been so focused on trade unions, that their messaging has been about retirement, it’s been about wages, it’s been about benefits.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Which are important to social workers, but social workers are also drawn to this work because we believe we should do good work.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               There’s an altruism there. So, the argument that this writer was making was that, labor, if it’s interested in attracting social workers, and organizing them, has to broaden the messaging, that the benefits of unionizing isn’t just so that you get paid better, and you’re treated better as a worker, but that it’ll also impact the clients that we, then, serve.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               And the quality of the services we offer. If labor doesn’t talk about it like that, social workers aren’t going to pick up what they’re putting down.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               Is that what you were trying to say?

Drew:                   Thank you.

Ondine:               You’re welcome.

Drew:                   Thank you.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               I would love to hear your thoughts on that, Matt?

Matt:                    Yeah. I think you’re right, I think there is that emphasis.

Matt:                    What I’ll say is that my Local bills itself as being very service oriented to our members. It is a lot of nuts and bolts kind of stuff, like wages and that sort of thing, but it goes beyond that, too. There’s continuing education that the union will help you with, there are interest-free loans, so you can get stuff done at home, or on your car, or whatever the case may be. I think it’s still very nuts and bolts, but there are those things that take a burden off of your mind, right?

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    And give you the chance to work on yourself, to work on what you need to do, so that you’re not bringing all of your personal drama, or whatever the case may be, into your work with you all the time.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   I think there’s also, probably, an analogy to teacher unions.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Or, healthcare unions, right?

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Or, a healthcare provider union, because those are also some folks whose ability to actually be working in a safe condition is going to trickle down, and have effects on the quality of services they’re doing.

Drew:                   Here, in Kentucky, we saw this past year a resurgence of teacher organizing, with our shit head Governor talking about how teachers … Basically, threatening their pensions and all this.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   Making people pretty … Galvanizing came out, and organizing.

Ondine:               Teachers have done a good job around the messaging there, right?

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               It’s not just that they want their pensions protected, because that’s important enough, but they talk about how this matters, because then kids are impacted.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               The impact on the kids is that they receive better education, because their teachers are more invested in the work.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               Drew, you and I, in preparation, too, for this conversation, were chatting about that, and about how we wondered if one negative consequence, or potential hijacking of the message that social workers should unionize is that people will say, “If social workers go on strike, then people suffer.” That there will be more harm done, if we don’t show up to work, our clients and our patients will suffer. Is that not selfish? Is that really the right way to go about trying to enact change?

Drew:                   The teachers in our state got accused of that, too.

Matt:                    Right.

Drew:                   When they went on strike, when they were doing sick outs. I think, again, we were having a conversation before this podcast, one of the things we talked about was, it’s not whether or not the social workers, or the teachers, but in this case, the social workers … Whether or not they’re there is not going to effect whether or not bad services or harm is being caused. If anything, they are minimizing the harm, at their own sacrifice, and at their exploitation.

Drew:                   Really, the harm is already going to be there, it’s just mitigated by their altruism. The harm isn’t going to subside if they suddenly strike. It just pulls the mask off it. Actually, it’s really this bad.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               I was thinking about this in the context of places I’ve worked, where I’ve done direct case work with clients. I was just trying to imagine, what would happen if I went on strike, right? The folks like me went on strike. It’s quite possible people would say that we were selfish, and that we weren’t prioritizing our clients.

Ondine:               A lot of the folks that we work with have been stripped of power, because of institutional racism and oppression, and because of the Capitalist machine. If we don’t strike, as social workers, then what disrupts that machine, right?

Drew:                   Yeah.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               I think that, to me, is worth it. What I’m hearing you say, Drew, is that harm is already being done because the system is so broken, that people aren’t receiving the kind of services and support that they need. So, what do we stand to lose?

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   I think some people will still feel the ethical, moral dilemma of, what neutered, bad service I am able to provide is still better than nothing, and these people can’t go without it. I work in housing, so this it’s very time sensitive sometimes. I might, in a seven-day period, be all that stands between somebody getting an eviction ordered against them or not. There is a risk there that, if I strike, that person might not get somebody whose like me to be able to stand in between that, and they might actually get evicted.

Matt:                    That’s-

Ondine:               It’s also a lot of pressure on you, that-

Drew:                   It is.

Ondine:               You can never stand up for what’s right, in terms of your labor.

Drew:                   It is. And, it’s also, I think going back to what you said, indicative of the fact that the harm is going to happen. Let’s look at it a different way. I might be able to help one person, but there are 10 other people that I just don’t get to help, they still are going to get evicted.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Again, it’s trying to, I don’t know … I don’t have a good disaster analogy for it, right now. It is … I think we have to sit in that ethical dilemma a little bit and realize, you’re not the Catcher in the Rye, you’re not going to save everything, it can’t just be on you. Like you said, it can’t be pressure.

Drew:                   Sometimes, maybe, we just have to pull the veil off of it, and just expose it. This is actually how the system works, this is what it’s doing. It’s disingenuous to think that I’m the only person that’s going to stop it. We’ve talked about that, with Supremacy culture, too.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   That concept of like, I’m the only one that can do this, I’m the only one that can save something, I’m the only one that is going to save people from this thing. Actually, that is how we are kept in place, by being taught that pressure is all on us, and if you shrug off this responsibility, it’s all your fault.

Matt:                    Right, yeah.

Drew:                   That this person gets evicted … it’s not the system’s fault.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   It’s not the social injustice fault, it’s your fault. You’re the responsible party for this being carried out. That’s fucked up.

Ondine:               Yeah, I have felt that.

Drew:                   I have, too.

Ondine:               As a social worker, in jobs before.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               That I failed.

Drew:                   Yeah, I feel like I’ve failed people.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Ondine:               Stemming from what you were just saying, Drew, I think this is a good example. In preparing, again, for this conversation, I was doing a little research. I stumbled upon a really cool article, written in The Socialist Worker, by a person named Erica West, who is a social worker in Oakland. It’s a little dated now, this article came out in December 2018. It was about social workers and mental health professionals striking in California, as part of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, because Kaiser Permanente, which is a huge, huge medical organization, was failing its patients and clients. I think they got sued, and ended up owing a lot of money.

Ondine:               After the Affordable Care Act passed, they didn’t honor the mental healthcare parity piece. Yeah, of course, right? Actually yeah, they paid a $4 million fine for that.

Matt:                    Good Lord.

Ondine:               I know. I know, right? Mental healthcare clinicians and social workers were striking because of this. It really was about the poor care that patients and clients were receiving.

Ondine:               In this article, Erica talks about examples of mental healthcare workers asking Kaiser to fund behavioral health groups for people with suicidal ideation, and they wouldn’t pay for it. They just wouldn’t do it. There was another example of a woman who was trying to get her husband access to mental healthcare, and really needed individualized therapy, and Kaiser wouldn’t pay for it. Wanted this person to participate in group therapy, or take medication, and those interventions weren’t working for him, but they wouldn’t pay for it.

Ondine:               So, the strike was a lot about that. There could have been some stuff wrapped up in there, too, about their wages, and their working hours, and whatever.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               I was taken with how this was primarily about the services, then, and the way that they fail the patients.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               Maybe less so about the actual material working conditions of the social workers, although those things go hand-in-hand.

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   There’s a sentence in here, if I can share it?

Ondine:               Yeah, please do.

Drew:                   Erica West says, “Just as teachers say our working conditions are our students learning conditions, social workers can say our working conditions are our client’s healing conditions.” I think that sums up the … This is a web, that is all connected.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   You can just address on issue over another. You can’t just say, “Oh, we’re going to throw all this money into opiate addiction.”

Ondine:               Right.

Drew:                   Then, just still overwork and squeeze all the blood you can out of the workers.

Ondine:               Right.

Drew:                   It’s not going to help anybody.

Ondine:               Folks listening may be wondering, well, then, how do I start a union, how do I join a union? I was wondering, Matt, if you could share a little bit about how that happens?

Matt:                    Oh, totally.

Matt:                    There are probably Locals and union headquarters in your town, in your city. Your best bet is usually to tap into one of those. Like I said before, there are unions that are very specific about a particular trade, or a particular profession, right? But, there are also those that are much, much wider.

Matt:                    I think the key is to find what’s in your area, and see if they’re running an organizing campaign, or if they have an organizer that can come to you. The reason I say you should find what’s in town to begin with is because you don’t really want to reinvent the wheel on organizing yourself or your friends. Also, there’s going to be someone there with some expertise in doing this, and also it means if there’s somebody in town, it means that you’ll have a representative for your work space.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Right away, as soon as you’re organized. That’s someone who can back you up on things like, discipline, on things like working conditions, who will know your contract that you signed with your employer, inside and out.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    So that you don’t have to know every detail of that, yourself. They can, then, go to the larger organization, as needed, about any conditions that you face, right?

Ondine:               So, if I’m a social worker, and let’s say I work for, I don’t know, I work for a non-profit organization.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               That provides services to youth, and I work there with five or six other social workers.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Can I form a union, even though there’s just five or six of us?

Matt:                    Yes, absolutely.

Matt:                    The way it typically works is, you’ll get your people together, you’ll go to an organizer, and you’ll talk through what you want your contract to look like, and that sort of thing. Then, you’ll present those demands to the employer.

Matt:                    Now, because of the way organizing works in the United States, the employer can start to ask for exceptions to the National Labor Relations Board. There’s a whole history behind that, and it makes union organizing a little harder than it actually has to be, for pretty obvious reasons, I think. Like I said, they can start to ask for exceptions, and so can exclude people on these grounds, or these grounds, or whatever. Usually, you can just go do that, and hopefully they’ll accept all five or six of you.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Or, if the rest of your workplace feels strongly enough about it, you can actually organize the entire workplace, even though you all do different things.

Ondine:               That’s a really interesting thing to think about, because a lot of social workers work in settings that are interdisciplinary.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               For example, schools. Often, schools will employ one or two, maybe if they have a big budget, three social workers, who are working with, then, a lot of teachers, right?

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Maybe all of those folks can unionize, in the same union?

Matt:                    Yeah. Yeah, that’s absolutely possible. Think of it in the same way that, and this is my experience, I work at a grocery. So, I’m a meat cutter, there’s a guy at the back door that receives all the shipments, there are produce people, there are baggers and cashiers. We all do very different things from one another, and there’s not a whole ton of crossover between us, but we’re all part of the same union, because we all work in the same space.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    There was a time when we might all have been different unions. There was a specific meat cutters union.

Ondine:               Oh, wow.

Matt:                    At one time, and the back door guy might have been a Teamster. Then, blah, blah, blah.

Matt:                    All of that got subsumed. Well, there are a lot of reasons for that, but you can absolutely be whole different things, working for each other’s benefit, in one union.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Matt, if I am a social worker, are there any risks I should anticipate if I’m going to start talking about unions at my place where I work?

Matt:                    Yeah, for sure.

Ondine:               I’m glad you asked that question.

Matt:                    Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Matt:                    Depending on your employer, I think you can, possibly, expect some retaliation. Technically, it’s illegal, but if you work in an at-will state, like our state is, they can fire you for trying to organize a union, and just say they’re firing you because you were consistently late, or something like that.

Ondine:               Just for a point of clarification, since we have listeners all over the place.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               Working at-will, these are really awful laws that get passed in states. They’re called Right to Work.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Which is a really confusing way of saying, we can fire you for any reason.

Drew:                   It’s intentionally confusing.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               Yeah. When we talk about at-will states, that’s what we mean.

Matt:                    Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, there could be some backlash.

Matt:                    They could try to … An employer could try to split you all up, and start playing favorites, and do that sort of thing. That thing happens. There’s some stuff, there, that you should be aware of.

Drew:                   Do you have any guidance, or suggestions from your own experience, about what could be done to curtail, or protect against some of those risks or retaliations?

Matt:                    Yeah, I would say, make sure you document stuff as much as possible. If you’re able to record conversations or stuff, maybe do that. Just make sure that you’re doing everything by the book, and that you’re not giving reasons. I don’t mean to put all the pressure on the employee, on the worker, but that’s what the employer is going to do, right? Make sure you have all your bases covered.

Ondine:               This is part of the role of the union organizers, to help the employees figure out what those bases are, right?

Matt:                    Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Ondine:               And what steps to take.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               My understanding is that if you’re unionizing at work, you want to make sure you know the employees that are on board, and have numbers and commitments before the management finds out.

Matt:                    Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   It sounds like, in the initial stages, the more discreet you are, the better perhaps?

Matt:                    Yeah, pretty much.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Matt:                    If you’re going to do this, make sure you have a good working relationships with your coworkers.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    A union is, if nothing else, it’s a series of relationships, so make sure you have good relationships, and build those relationships.

Ondine:               We’re supposed to be good at that in our job, right? That’s one of the things we’re supposed to do.

Drew:                   It’s that social part.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   It’s the social aspect of our work. Yeah, you would think so.

Drew:                   Also, this is a topic for a different episode, but it also leads me to wonder to myself, if a different work model all together is a better option, such as a cooperative?

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Which basically would be, it sounds to me, basically a union except there’s no boss anymore. It’s just a union, a cooperative of people, who collectively agree on salaries, and benefits, and terms of work, and whose going to do what, and all that.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   Which I said, I don’t want to get into thoughts about that, because that’s a different …

Ondine:               I think there’s space in there for another episode.

Drew:                   Maybe there is one, down the pipes.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Nice.

Drew:                   Yeah, I think that’s helpful. At least in my cursory understanding of it, any thought about unionizing, I always feel like there’s a lot of risk there. What’s to stop them from just firing me, and hiring some scabs to replace me, just because that’s the easiest way to prevent any progression of unionizing? I think that could be a scary risk, too, because not all of us can just risk getting fired.

Ondine:               Most of us can’t.

Matt:                    Right.

Drew:                   A lot of us can’t. I, certainly, don’t have a job just holding a space open for me, behind me over here. In case you lose your other job, just come work here, no gap in income or anything like that. I think that’s another fear that comes up a lot. Folks think about, what if the worst case scenario happens, what then?

Matt:                    Before you get started with it, make sure you weigh the risks and the benefits, and just be aware of those risks. Absolutely.

Ondine:               I was reading, as well, that social work, in the effort to professionalize social work has really … The practice has distanced itself from community organizing, and activist stuff, right? The foundations of Jane Adams’ work, that’s just not where we are these days.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               I think it’s important to revitalize this conversation about who we are, and who we want to be. Or, some people will look at it, going back to the root of being in collaboration with labor, and really embracing those values and ideals as social workers.

Drew:                   I also just want to speak directly to the social workers who have had a little bit more access to greater professionalization, or greater education. Specifically, UMSWs, like myself, out there.

Drew:                   There’s been some research that’s shown that a higher percentage of people with Bachelor’s of Social Works, or even paraprofessionals who don’t even have a social work degree are more likely to favor unionization than MSWs. It’s thought that part of that is because the case workers, the paraprofessionals, the BSWs, the Bachelor’s of Social Works, are the ones doing the harder, street level work.

Ondine:               Trench work.

Drew:                   The trench work, the social change work. The MSWs are either moving up to admin jobs, which are boss level jobs, or private, clinical jobs. I just want to say that hierarchy is bullshit.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   We have to get out of that.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   This social work stuff doesn’t work if we’re just replicating those hierarchies that just tear apart our society already. That’s coming back to the theme of decolonization. I was like, that’s a Colonizer tactic, that’s a separation tactic.

Ondine:               That’s right, that’s right.

Drew:                   We have to get out of that, and thinking more, focusing more, on the collective good, not just on the inside, internal operations of our social work, but also what that’s going to do to our clients.

Drew:                   If I’m just an MSW who just doesn’t … Maybe I feel like I’m underpaid, and that’s why it’s easy for me to stomach the fact that my case workers make $20,000 a year, and then they want to unionize. I feel like, well, I don’t make a lot of money either, so stop your whining. That’s not the answer.

Ondine:               That’s not the answer.

Drew:                   That’s not the answer.

Matt:                    No.

Ondine:               I want to add that, not everybody with a Master’s level Social Work, MSW, is in an admin job. MSWs also do trench work.

Drew:                   They do.

Ondine:               Are underpaid. But, I do hear this distinction. It seems like there’s more money, more problems. Or, more education … It’s people forgetting where they came from, right?

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Or, you climb the ladder a little bit, and you pull up the ladder behind you, right?

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               That’s not what we need to be doing.

Drew:                   No.

Matt:                    Yeah. Your fellow worker is never your enemy. You gain so much more by working together than you do by working against each other.

Matt:                    In a lot of cases, that’s exactly what the employer wants you to do, is to fight each other.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    So that you never stand to gain anything.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Again, we talked about that in the last episode, how disconnection, that disconnect between people. Whether it’s separation of families, separating families because people are going to prison, or even internally, separating collaborative, unionized work, that’s all Colonizer bullshit.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   That we have to name, we have to recognize, we may intentionally or unintentionally be doing. We have to name it, so that we can recognize it, and work over it.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   To get back to this core idea that this is social, this is transformative change, and that this is not the way that we just have to keep doing this.

Ondine:               Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Ondine:               Can I also … In this article I was reading, they cited some studies around social worker attitudes in organizing. I think, Drew, this just backs up what you were saying, about the Bachelors level social workers, and paraprofessionals. In this study of 360 social work union members, they were learning a little bit about why those folks had joined the union, and what they perceived to get out of it.

Ondine:               Their findings also showed that social workers of color were found to be more supportive on unions that white social workers. We’ve talked about this a lot, and the racialized divisions of labor. They posit that part of that is that people who are racially or ethnically oppressed in our country have found that being a part of a union can protect them from workplace discrimination in a way that white social workers would never even think about.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               And not think it affects them.

Drew:                   It’s not our reality.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   For white people.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Ondine:               I think that’s worth … We need to think about that, too.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Matt:                    Well, imagine too, … I’m just throwing this out here. Say, a neighborhood is able to organize itself. They have Tenants Unions, so they’re not paying too much for their housing, they’re able to get proper repairs to their housing, and that sort of thing. They’ve bargained a really good relationship with their landlords, and that sort of thing. They now have the wherewithal to start putting together things like the cooperatives like you were talking about. So, childcare cooperatives.

Ondine:               Grocery coops.

Matt:                    Yeah, grocery cooperatives.

Drew:                   Walking dogs.

Matt:                    Yeah, absolutely.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    Services, up to and including healthcare, and that sort of thing. I think that would change … I would have to think that would fundamentally change the nature of social work.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    Where a social worker would become more like what I consider our union area reps to be. Where, well, it looks like you mostly have this under control, we’re not here to change anything. If you need help, what resources can I give you?

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Is there extra education? Do you need money to help build a center? Where can we start doing these things that really, really help you all?

Ondine:               What you’re saying, Matt, gets me thinking about social workers becoming labor organizers.

Matt:                    Yeah, in some ways.

Ondine:               We’ve talked about, in social work, in our podcast before that community organizing is social work. People who do community organizing are social workers, even if they don’t see themselves that way.

Ondine:               It just occurred to me, we should be encouraging social workers to become union organizers.

Drew:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               That’s a really good role, for us.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   That’d be cool, if schools had the micro track, and the macro track, and there was a labor track. Specialize social workers in how to work at these relationships, and become a little bit more focused and trained on being labor organizers. Maybe you do go to your community mental health clinic and do it, maybe you do it at your meat cutters association.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   Those are … I’ve been trying to think of those skills, they’re often called soft skills, but those are really hard skills to learn, too. I want to reframe that as, those are hard skills, too.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Just because they’re not tangible skills doesn’t mean they’re not hard, that they’re not important. I don’t know.

Ondine:               That’s really what macro social work tracks should be.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               I think, in schools, macro social work … Every school handles that differently, and it tends to be, broadly, about poverty, and policy making, and advocacy.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               There could be more of a focus under that on what are the actual jobs we would do, right?

Matt:                    Right.

Ondine:               If you become macro social workers, it would be like, labor organizer, politician.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Something else, something else.

Drew:                   Imagine that? Teaching social workers to take better care of social workers.

Ondine:               I would like to add … I pulled a brief, or a fact sheet, from the AFL-CIO on social workers and unions. A couple things that stood out to me, that reinforced this conversation we’re having.

Ondine:               I learned that there were social workers in Baltimore, who joined the American Federation of Teachers Union, and were able to negotiate opportunities to discuss their workloads and their caseloads, to have those changed.

Ondine:               I also learned, here, that in 2015, social workers represented by unions made, roughly, 30% more than their non-union counterpart.

Drew:                   There you go.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   There you go.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               So, for a profession that’s already super, super underpaid, I think that has to resonate. Right?

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Matt:                    Yeah. It’s typically true, across the board, as well in states that have normal union relations versus Right to Work states, where … I think I’m remembering this correctly. That typically, Right to Work states, the average household income is $3800 less, or something like that.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Wow.

Matt:                    There’s always that discrepancy. There’s more workplace accidents in Right to Work states, and that sort of thing, too.

Ondine:               I’m glad you said that, because another thing that I read was that the benefits of unions, for social workers, you can address things like wages, but also workplace safety.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               There’s been a ton of legislation, state legislation and Federal legislation proposed, to protect social workers from workplace danger.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               Especially social workers go out into communities, and sometimes don’t know what they’re walking into.

Drew:                   Sometimes, going to people’s homes.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Ondine:               Right. There’s been, unfortunately, some people have died, because of danger, and violence.

Ondine:               At any rate, being a part of a union allows you the space to negotiate those circumstances, and where you would work, and how you would do your work, and how you’d be protected.

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative). It gives you a great big organization at your back, that can hold your employer accountable, if there are any problems about OSHA violations, or any of those safety concerns.

Ondine:               I know we’re going to need to wrap up shortly, but I want to jump back to Erica West’s article from The Socialist Worker, about the strike at Kaiser Permanente. I think they a couple of things that are just … As I was making my notes, I made all kinds of Xs, and exclamation points, because I thought they had so much good stuff to say.

Ondine:               Here’s one, that really resonated with me. “Like teachers, social workers are underpaid, despite working incredibly hard, and facing the worst consequences of Capitalism. Some have called social workers the janitors of Capitalism. When Capitalism leads to alienation, unemployment, substance use, and violence, it is social workers who often come in, to support the victims through the consequences.” I was like, oh my God, that’s a read right there. This is what we talk about, all the time.

Ondine:               I don’t know if y’all have any reactions to that? It really resonated with me.

Matt:                    No, that’s absolutely right.

Drew:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Matt:                    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               Something else that stood out, and this really stood out. They say, “Social workers and mental health professionals are often exploring the best and newest ways to support our clients. So, new therapeutic modalities, new ways to practice trauma informed care, and so on, when one of the best ways for us to support our clients, and something our field has yet to explore completely, is to fully utilize our power as workers.”

Ondine:               Again, gosh. I have a lot to say about trauma informed care, and the buzzword that has become. That’s probably for another episode. But, we need to start thinking about our own power, in organizing ourselves, as a way to mitigate the social conditions that Capitalism creates.

Matt:                    Right.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Matt:                    Not only our own power, but our power together.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes. Yeah.

Ondine:               Lastly, they say, “There’s no therapeutic model that will make a huge caseload tenable. There is no workshop that can teach us the best way to eradicate decades of trauma and abuse, in one session.”

Ondine:               I was like yeah, all of that.

Drew:                   That’s a fine place to conclude, I think.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   Yeah. Put the social back in social work, unionize.

Ondine:               Unionize!

Drew:                   That’s your tshirt, right there.

Matt:                    Awesome.

Ondine:               We will drop some links in our social media, and on our website, some papers and articles we read. If anyone is interested in exploring forming a union in their workplace, we’ll drop some links and some resources for you, so that you can explore that.

Ondine:               I think I’m urging you to unionize.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   Hey, if you are a social worker in a union, get in touch with us.

Ondine:               Oh, we’d love to hear your experience.

Drew:                   I would love … We would love to maybe talk to you on air, as a follow up. This certainly shouldn’t be the last time. This will not be the last time we talk about labor rights and unions on this podcast.

Ondine:               Is there anything else you’d like to add, Matt?

Matt:                    Well, thank you all for having me on, among other things. It was really, really fun.

Matt:                    Yeah. There’s lots of great resources out there. I’ll contribute a couple things that they can put up, for you all, about what is a union, and some of those basic introductory things, if you want to know more.

Ondine:               Well, thanks for joining us.

Drew:                   Thanks, man.

Matt:                    Thank you all.

Drew:                   I also just want to thank our resident crooner, next to us, for giving us a little background jams.

Ondine:               It’s ambiance.

Matt:                    Yeah.

Drew:                   Ambiance.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   A little haunted ambiance, for your October spirits.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Okay. Yeah, I think that should do it for us, huh?

Ondine:               That should do it.

Drew:                   All right. Thanks, everybody.

Ondine:               Thanks. Bye.

Matt:                    Awesome. Bye.

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