How to be a Labor Ally 101

My Netroots Nation 2017 Panel Notes

What’s the role of Labor in building a New American Nation that’s inclusive of all this country’s citizens? That question drove my preparation for the Netroots Nation 2017 Panel: How to be a Labor Ally 101 last week in Atlanta. This post will only cover my thoughts as I’d hate to misquote or misinterpret my wonderful co-panelists.

Why Be a Labor Ally?

  • Labor Is Intersectional: Union membership and workers’ issues cut across race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexuality, and yes — political party.
  • Labor Has an Infrastructure: There’s already an existing system to engage and mobilize members.
  • Labor Can Be a Foundation for Fusion Coalitions: Union members are not monolithic but do share some basic values.

What Can Progressives Learn from Labor?

Sweat the Small Stuff

Democrats have lost hundreds of seats and conservative lawmakers have passed legislation that has stripped Americans of their rights and opportunity. America has been made sick by hardening divisions between the majority of Americans and a few super-wealthy American oligarchs. Every election matters. Every piece of legislation has an impact. And every contract can change the lives of workers for better or worse.

Know the Rules

Can’t pass sweeping legislation? Use what you’ve got. Conservative ideologues excel at perverting the words that make liberty and justice tangible into tools of hate and oppression. They say we need ‘law and order’ but fail to remember that the law — whether it’s administrative rules, a labor contract, or the U.S. Constitution — was written to serve and protect the people. We were not made to be slaves to it.

In The Third Reconstruction, Rev. Dr. William Barber II says the only thing his fusion coalition needed to justify the end of North Carolina’s entrenched political machine was the oldest law on the books: the state’s constitution.

Big or Small, Progress Is Progress

If you can make progress today, do it. Americans can’t wait for things to be perfect before they get better. We walk in the footsteps of past activists and create a new path for many who come after us. A small change in a labor contract and seemingly imperfect policy solutions can open doors and change lives. Lock in that win and continue the work for “freedom is a constant struggle.”

A Lack of Vision Is Crippling

Don’t mistake unproductive action for small progress. Unions can have myopic goals. Envision a better future and create productive actions that carry us forward. If you lack a clear vision, are unwilling to build coalitions, fail to act in solidarity, or organize members for the sake of more dues, you’re not promoting liberty, justice, or progress. At worst, you’re as bad as the corporate behemoths you say you oppose.

Labor’s Missed Opportunities

Like Democrats, many unions have neglected members at the local level. You can’t occasionally drop in and be surprised when people dismiss your ‘movement.’ Recently, unions like UNITE HERE, CWA, AFSCME, and AFT have recommitted to building a vision, engaging every member, and empowering community leaders.

America Is Still a Country of Workers

The tech revolution may dominate headlines, but Americans overwhelmingly work in four job areas: retail and food; blue collar, cubicle, and caring. As Tamara Draut writes in her book ‘Sleeping Giant,’ these jobs “aren’t unskilled, they’re underpaid” and thus undervalued. Weird, considering how much we value their products and services.

Of the 30 fastest-growing jobs, Draut reports half of them pay less than $30,000 a year. Workers in this “bargain basement economy” are “more Black, Latino, and female than ever.” Whenever you hear “we need to recapture the white working class” refuse to fall for the dog whistle (whether it’s coming from the mouth of the most notoriously racist lawmaker or the most “progressive” kingmaker).

Organize around values. What does justice look like in your community? Start there. American workers represent who we are as a nation. Get them onboard, build coalitions, and we will win.

Oppose “Power for Power’s Sake”

Organized Labor (and the progressive movement at-large) tends to requires members to stay angry and compete with potential allies for limited resources, leading to burnout and false solidarity. In ‘Faith Rooted Organizing,’ Alexia Salvatierra writes that we need to engage communities constantly, on a local level, in an authentic way.

For most unions “there is no built-in requirement that the organized community consider any danger in the desire for power.” If your union has been willing to sell out workers and vulnerable Americans because it means more members, fleeting and low-paid jobs, or a field trip to the White House, they’ve lost their way.

Ask “power for what purpose?” Being big is not enough to win. Revitalize the grassroots, rewrite the rules on our terms, and get back to the reason we’re doing this: liberation, justice, and opportunity for all.


When you hear wealthy corporate executives or their bought-and-paid-for-politicians rail against those ‘union special interests’ they’re attacking our neighbors and people like us. Unlike corporate earning reports, unions represent real people. There’s nothing wrong with corporations making money, but there is something wrong with corporate leaders acting like employing workers is a charity — and not even a very good one.

If American business isn’t opening doors to opportunity, improving our lives, or strengthening our nation, then it ain’t worth the investment. Union members and all workers are living, breathing Americans who have a bigger impact on their families, communities, and nation than the top ten people on the Forbes 500 list.

In Gratitude

Thanks to Netroots Nation and my fellow panelists: Rosemari Ochoa for being an incredible friend and civil rights activist; Mary Cathryn Ricker for her leadership and vision; Nelson Lucero for his moving testimony and joyful pursuit of justice; and Gabriella Landeros for her work bridging divides and doing the hard work of building coalitions.