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Meeting the Moment in Philadelphia

A look inside—and outside—the 2022 AFL-CIO convention

At the Starbucks on Philadelphia’s 12th and Walnut Streets, the supportive sticky notes from customers were gone, flyers urging staff to “Please Vote and VOTE NO!” were being handed out, and a plastic bag of union pins had mysteriously disappeared. That’s how Kat Pfligler recalled their experience of the week in mid-June that the AFL-CIO convention rolled into town, setting up shop just a ten-minute walk away from the store. It was an important time for Kat: they and their coworkers were in the process of voting for or against unionization. It was also an important time for the country’s largest federation of unions: time to build a movement, as the slogan for the twenty-ninth convention would declare, “to meet the moment.”

The moment is defined by Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joes, Los Deliveristas Unidos, and the wave of grassroots organizing that has recently swept the country’s service industry and other sectors. Tevita Uhatafe, First Vice President of the Tarrant County Central Labor Council, laid it bare while wearing an Amazon Labor Union shirt on the first day of the convention, which was featured prominently on the big screen. “Okay, I was being a troublemaker,” he later said of his attire, “but also I wanted to make sure that people realize that these guys should be here, a subliminal message, if you will.” ALU is an independent union, unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO, and their absence was felt. Of ALU and Starbucks Workers United, Uhatafe said: “To have the two biggest, successful organizing unions right now, media-wise and hype-wise, not be at a labor federation conference. That was the biggest missed moment.”

Further downtown, the Starbucks on 12th and Walnut had announced their intention to unionize back on April 14. They were initially set to have an in-store election, which Pfligler was elated about. At that stage, “our store hadn’t had any captive audience meetings yet, so we knew it was a done deal,” they said. There was one person who was anti-union, two who were on the fence but leaning toward yes, and the rest were keen. But when Covid rates spiked, the NLRB moved the store to a ballot election, giving management time to hold the notoriously dodgy, closed-store meetings. “We had numerous one-on-ones, which were not actually one-on-ones at all because it was one barista with multiple store managers. . . it scared so many of these baristas. Because they lie and say your benefits are going to be taken from you, if you file and you win, you’ll have to beg for these benefits back,” Pfligler said.

Pfligler—whose go-to Starbucks drink is a short, extra shot flat white with oat milk, one pump vanilla, and one pump toffee-nut—said the workers at their store wanted higher pay and guaranteed minimum hours. Some were also pushing for a policy whereby staff who worked shifts where scheduled staffers didn’t turn up would get “those hours absorbed into our paychecks because we did the work of that person.” This could have wider ramifications within the hospitality industry, where “no call, no shows” are common.

Nikil Saval, who represents Pennsylvania’s First Senatorial District, located in Philadelphia (and who was previously an editor at n+1), had been supporting the organizing efforts at various Starbucks locations in Center City, including dropping off sandwiches from one of his favorite lunch spots to the workers at Pfligler’s store. “Management had made their opposition to the union clear,” he said, “and the environment was fairly charged. . . Hours were being cut in response to the organizing. This shouldn’t be permitted under the law.”

Saval, who was unable to attend the AFL-CIO convention due to illness, told me that he believed the renewed focus on and approval of unions was a result of the massive systematic failures that occurred early on (and presently) during the pandemic. “Workers are being forced to come in when they are sick and denied time to care for their loved ones . . . the wealthy are able to take shelter in their resources.”

Back at the convention, in one of two sit-downs with the press, newly elected (and uncontested) AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler spoke about the wave of independent organizing from workers shunning traditional unions. “I think there’s a false narrative that there’s this, quote, traditional labor movement, and then the, quote, new labor movement,” she said. This line had been wheeled out at Sunday’s press conference as well, when Shuler was asked about learning from the ALU. On day two, she expanded on the “false narrative” point: “That’s sort of the sexy storyline that’s developed, which, in fact, is not true. Because the worker organizing that takes place with our unions is worker-driven.” 

When asked if there had been conversations with the Teamsters or SEIU regarding the federation’s new pledge to organize one million workers in the next decade, the newly elected (and also uncontested) secretary Fred Redmond pushed back: “I think you’re missing the point. We’re talking about a workers’ movement in this country that the AFL-CIO is gonna be a part of, let me put it like that. We’re gonna be a part of this. We’re not trying to control it. We’re not trying to run it.” (As In These Times reporter Hamilton Nolan, who attended the convention, went on to write, the AFL-CIO pledge represents only 8 percent of new American jobs projected to be added over the next ten years and would bring overall union density to an even lower point than where it currently stands.) On the subject of smaller, independent organizing efforts, Saval told me: “Organizing small individual shops nationally at this scale may not create the union density we need to immediately and drastically change working conditions across the board, but these victories have reinvigorated the labor movement.”

The man in Isaiah’s department who died, apparently of a stroke: Amazon “won’t even acknowledge that he even worked at the plant.”

At the intersection of old and new in the labor movement is twenty-one-year-old Isaiah Thomas, who is involved in organizing efforts with the RWDSU—which is an AFL-CIO affiliate—at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. On day two of the convention, Thomas spoke in front of the crowd and was on the panel for a workshop dubbed “Amazon: Global Impact Requires Global Strategy and Solidarity.” Media were told we couldn’t attend these workshops: if this was the moment, we sure weren’t about to meet it. But I ran into Thomas outside a flight simulator in the exhibition hall. Workers at his facility had tried to unionize last year but were defeated in a vote by a margin of 1798 to 738. The National Labor Relations Board found that Amazon illegally intimidated workers and ordered a new election be held earlier this year, which was too close to call due to the number of challenged ballots, and is also being contested over Amazon’s alleged interference.

“You’re standing for ten to twelve hours straight,” Thomas said of his job at the fulfillment center. “You can’t sit down or you can get terminated. Or at least written up.” Workers are expected to push a thousand packages an hour onto a conveyer belt. And, he warns, you never know what might come down the chute. Car parts, metal, items that weigh over a hundred pounds. A coworker once had a saw blade fly down the chute, “raw . . . like no boxing, no encasing. Just flew down the chute.” The workers get six-minute bathroom breaks, which are closely monitored, and two thirty-minute meal breaks, which all six thousand workers are expected to take at the same time—prompting Thomas’s department to create a petition for more microwaves.

As Thomas was talking about two deaths that occurred at the facility in Bessemer over “peak season,” a robotic dog came sniffing. “Black Mirror, man,” said one of his coworkers. “Amazon will probably use that for loss prevention,” Thomas said. “That is horrifying.” Anyway, where were we? The man in Isaiah’s department who died, apparently of a stroke: Amazon “won’t even acknowledge that he even worked at the plant.”

The robot dog was created by Boston Dynamics and was part of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ exhibit. Booth minder David told me that the dog helps workers safely map out paths. “Sometimes you get the mindset that this is taking jobs away . . . you’ve got to have the mindset, I’ve got to learn that so my job doesn’t get taken away,” he said. Nearby, the Transport Workers Union of America were handing out jellybean packets which read: “Don’t let the bean counters win. Human operators save lives.” Also in the room: “Bezos can go to space, I’ll go to my union hall T-shirts, designed just last week, according to a proud creator; an “action center” complete with iPads to sign petitions; and an interactive opportunity for solidarity via 3-D printed rings, displayed with the prompt, “Add your ring to show you are ready to link up and take on the future. On one day of the conference, a man stormed through the middle of the rings, causing a good number to collapse, and marched into the men’s bathroom.

Photo by the author.

President Joe Biden addressed the AFL-CIO convention on Tuesday, June 14. That day, Pfligler’s Starbucks hosted a “solidarity ‘Sip-In,’” with support from the Philly Democratic Socialists of America. They hadn’t been coy about the action, plastering signs on nearby lampposts, and, according to Pfligler, the store decided to host an unannounced districtwide manager meeting at the same time. Not long after Biden finished speaking, a group of around eight people came into Pfligler’s store from the convention. “They shouted ‘union strong, union strong, union strong,’ and one of the mangers was like, ‘get the fuck out of the store,’” Pfligler said. “It was so dramatic. It was so silly. Because it was so upbeat . . . even the customers, all the baristas were in a good mood. The music was vibing, everyone had their coffee . . . then these managers were like, ‘get out of our store.’ It was like: Where are the pitchforks?”

There were other moments of tangible solidarity between convention-goers and workers organizing in the city. AFL-CIO members and leaders went to a rally in support of Philadelphia Museum of Art workers, who have been negotiating their first contract since October 2020. It’s in moments like these that the AFL-CIO offers help, although leaders note that this isn’t always advertised, and sometimes for good reason. Fred Redmond said as much in a reference to ALU leader Chris Smalls: “[It wasn’t] about we anti-big unions,” he explained. “This was personal. This was between them and Bezos. And, to me, that was a legitimate reason to keep the AFL-CIO out of it. And I believe they delivered that message.” And, as Shuler revealed, the ALU did meet with the AFL-CIO to swap stories and share struggles: “We immediately assigned a lawyer to help them with the objections that were filed [to their election victory]. There’s collaboration and cooperation happening behind the scenes that not a lot of people know about.”

Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack” played on the last day of the convention, as the final resolutions wrapped up and people left. I would have liked to cover the debates and opinions on these resolutions—which included a commitment that no candidate or elected official “who fails to endorse and fight for” fundamental labor law reforms “should receive the support of working people” and one about “winning guaranteed healthcare for all”—but media were escorted out whenever the discussions started, something journalists who covered previous conventions said was not always the case.

At the second media round table, I asked Shuler about this policy after she mentioned transparency. She replied: “We had that conversation, we really did. And you know, I am very much a transparent and open person. Unfortunately, a lot of our affiliates just don’t have a comfort level quite yet . . . it’s a family meeting. It’s sort of important for people to feel free to debate and not feel judged.” Seeming to not acknowledge the fact that many journalists are now a part of the labor movement themselves, she continued, “I think that’s why we chose to just have it open at certain points, but bear with us, we’re working on it. We’re gonna keep pushing ourselves.”

In a separate sit-down with invited reporters in a hotel lobby, and with a moscow mule in hand, President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten explained to one reporter that she didn’t want to offer specifics on a question about tying federal contracts to union neutrality. She was nervous about how the right-wing would respond to her comments. “Every time in this environment, we answer the question in advance, then the right wing goes nuts.” But, as Weingarten herself had argued earlier in the conversation, the details aren’t really what’s important: “It’s actually not about any of these individual particulars. It’s about: Do working people think that somebody is with them or against them? And can they actually deliver on what are the keep-you-up-at-night issues?”

Transparency was a sticky issue for some of the delegates at the convention as well. On day two, AFL-CIO leadership blocked a resolution, proposed by the Vermont State Labor Council, that called for the direct election of national officers by rank-and-file members. This would replace the delegate system, which, according to Uhatafe, “reminds me of the electoral college vote. And we all know how that goes and how we feel about that bullshit process. Is there really a difference? You can paint a pig’s lipstick . . . you get what I’m saying.”

The day after the convention ended, I called Kat to ask how they felt the union vote had gone. They were nervous after months of baristas being told they would lose vital benefits. The big union people had swept out of town, and all that was left was to wait for the ballot count to be announced over Zoom. Kat paused for a beat.

One delegate, who asked to be quoted anonymously, called the whole convention an AARP party.

“I’m scared. . . . At this point I don’t know if we will win the election. Because they told one barista that he was going to lose his school benefits, another that it would affect his trans and gender-affirming care, they told another it would affect her school and therapy. . . . These managers made organizing a union sound like a risk. When it is very much not a risk.” But the union ended up winning 6-1.

While Pfligler had been grateful for the extra boost of support at the Sip In, they told me that, until then, they hadn’t even realized the convention was on. “I don’t know if it’s relevant,” Pfligler said of the AFL-CIO in relation to grassroots organizing efforts like the one they’re involved in. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily irrelevant. I think it was just off our radar—until the other day.” If the movement wants to meet the moment, it seems it still has some distance to go: one delegate, who asked to be quoted anonymously, called the whole convention an AARP party. But there was hope to be found whenever attendees left the bright lights and freezing temperatures of the convention center and went out to stand up for Philadelphia’s workers, no strings attached.