Episode No. 2
Union Myth-Busting: Untangling Fact & Fiction
In this episode, hosts Ihsan and Mich examine contemporary pop-culture references to unions to see what union myths tell us about how to think about our rights and possibilities as workers.
About the Episode
This week our hosts look at contemporary pop-culture references to unions to see what union myths tell us about how to think about our rights and possibilities as workers.
Mich and Ihsan explore how these myths appear in anti-union campaigns tactics from some of the biggest corporate employers and how they affect teachers and university workers. Finally, our hosts consider some of the histories and new realities of the public university and union to ask how we can bust these myths and the union-busting practices behind them to fight for a more dignified work experience for all workers at Rutgers.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 4 Ep 15, “Bar Association”
- Amazon union-busting JibJab:
- Cloud 9 union-busting episode:
- John Oliver episode on Union Busting (including excerpts from Target and LRI videos):
- Sopranos – Corrupted unions run construction:
- Sopranos – Compilation of scenes with Jackie Jr:
Further Reading & Listening
Ru Listening? is hosted by:
Produced and edited by:
Our Research, Production & Publicity Team:
Website & Graphic Design by:
A special thanks to the RU-AAUP/AFT for their support.
Video Clip: Star Trek 🖖
[00:00:00] Dr. Bashir:
you don’t get time off, even if you’re sick.
It’s all part of our generous employee compensation package. No sick days, no vacations, no paid over time.
[00:00:11] Dr. Bashir:
What you people need is a union.
[00:00:16] Dr. Bashir:
You know, A trade Guild, the collective bargaining association, a union. Something to keep you from being exploited.
You don’t understand. Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation, we want to find a way to become the exploiters.
and I’m Ihsan.
That was star Trek and this is RU Listening?
So Ihsan, what are we talking about today?
Union myth busting. My favorite topic. I’m really excited for today’s episode, to be honest.
Me too. you know, there’s so much to unpack here and you know, I’m big on pop culture. So I’m ready to do that through star Trek, through the Sopranos, all of these ideas and these stories that we consume every day.
We think of these myths as side notes but the stories we tell about how the world works often influences what we think we can do about the conditions we are operating under.
Absolutely, and I think. It’s even more complicated than that, right? Like we spin this narrative about what unions can do, what they can’t do, but it’s also a reflection of how we perceive our own labor. What our work means, what its value is, what we’re allowed to have, what we’re not allowed to have.
Video Clip: Star Trek
Frool, don’t you deserve a day off when your back starts acting up.
Well, I suppose
And Grimp wouldn’t you like to take off paid vacation?
You’re being ridiculous.
Answer the question.
It’s not going to happen.
It won’t happen unless you make it happen.
Have you ever seen that meme. That’s like the U S is seven companies in a trench coat? It’s just leaning into that, The whole, uh, union
Video Clip: Star Trek
we’re going to form a a a union.
and like the fantastical, like, oh, this is impossible.
But a lot of folks in the United States conceptualize their labor that way. Like they understand how shitty their working conditions are, the hours they work, the impossibility of taking time off as all inherent to working here. we don’t dream wider than that. Our dreams are bounded by the reality that’s created for us here, which is kind of. like Insanity to me, especially when you look at not to say, well, we’re not going to hail the Nordic system.
Yeah, my Arab ass wasn’t going to let y’all move on without hearing exactly how the Nordic system sucks.. What kind of utopic society crumbles as soon as brown and black folks are introduced happiest people in the world, but not for refugees. Denmark, Finland. No? Carry on.
But looking at the structures, the welfare structures they have in place within the Nordic countries. It’s very interesting to see what is actually possible. Right?I think these clips are, Just like right on, because they hit the exact sentiment that we see with a lot of folks here in the United States, uh, uh, uh, uh, union.
Video Clip: Star Trek
[00:03:30] Dr. Bashir:
What you people need is a union.
It may as well be like Voldemort, right? Not to be a millennial elder on record. I know it’s like haha star Trek, funny, but also sounds a lot like the working conditions of the folks at a company that rhymes with Scamazon.
Video Clip: Star Trek
No sick days, no vacations, no paid over time. they’re setting up this kind of like fantastical, like, solution to all our problems. It’s so far fetched, it’s so different. But people are experiencing these working conditions all throughout the United States, right? Like these are very real issues that people are facing and to be kind of packaged in that sort of way is really interesting to me.
So much of the mythos and the storytelling about unions that happens in the public is so bad that I think it’s time to dig in and really talk about what it is people in general think unions are and why it is that even after decades of successful contract campaigns and strikes and unions benefiting the working conditions of all different types of workers in the US. Why people still think that they’re not doing what we know they’re doing.
What I found really interesting in the process of, our team doing research for this episode was just how deeply entrenched anti-union sentiment is in pop culture. Like how this idea that unions are bad and they’re bad for workers and they’re bad for the economy. It’s just like, weaved in slowly into how we think about life
So this brings us to myth one: unions are old-fashioned. We just don’t need them anymore.
we conceptualize unions as something that we once needed, but we’ve gotten to the point in our worker’s rights that we no longer need unions. Right. We have all of these rights that are afforded to us. So what else are we asking for?
That’s right. We tend to think of unions as a tool of the past, as an effective strategy that we needed before, but that we’ve evolved past but this narrative really leaves out the intense differences in people’s working conditions, especially for folks who are not white collar.
It also doesn’t tend to the fact that workers should always be able to come together to determine the safety and the health and the wellbeing that is necessary for them to thrive. And that is what a union does, right? You know, you hear the, um, Joff Bozos of the world. Uh, you know, the shaman, the shaman is ons. The Scamazons telling us that, uh, you know, oh, our workers could start a union. If they needed one, if they felt like that was necessary.
Jeff Bezos Clip:
[00:06:57] Joffe Bozos:
I don’t believe that we need a union to be an intermediary between us or employees. Um, but of course at the end of the day, it’s always the employees choice and, and that’s how it should be.
Meanwhile union busting and ensues at Scamazon.
This brings us to myth two. Union’s get in the way of employer worker relationships.
Joffe presenting the union as an distinct entity from the workers. Separate from the work and conditions in his own facilitates. The union is the workers. It’s not something that comes from the outside in it’s from inside out.
Okay, Mich, I have a story for you. After I finished my masters, I started working at a women’s shoe store for the sake of this space and not wanting to get sued or whatever, the place is called Shillards.
At one point during my training, they put me in a room, tiny little room, old school, TV, stick, a DVD in it. And the man from like the 18 hundreds, no, like it, it was old school, right? Like 1970s -esque, blurry screen, whatever, is talking to us about how we shouldn’t unionize. It was never explicitly said it was never like, no, we are anti-union. We are anti-worker. But it was implied all throughout about how it’s not proper to talk to our colleagues about our salaries. It’s not proper to talk about our work conditions with our coworkers. If something’s wrong, tell your boss, if you experienced something, talk to your boss about it, your boss will help you.
Woo. All right. So we’re going to play a clip from this labor relations Institute video that explicitly describes unions as outside agents coming in.
Video Clip: Labor Relations Institute
[00:08:49] LRI video:
Unions are in trouble. Their membership is shrinking, which means they’re in danger of going out of business. They send out high pressure salespeople to sell a bill of goods that most people believe is either have no real value or as highly over priced.
these videos are based on yet. Another myth that unions are bullies, that unions are pushy salespeople who corner you into making decisions that you don’t want to make when we know, in fact that corporations are paying outside parties like the LRI to union bust.
And they’re telling us that unions are a third party, that they are somehow outsiders, that they are coming to mess up our work conditions and our relationships with our bosses and our employers.But in fact, union busting itself is a whole industry and employees at companies like Starbucks or Amazon are shown anti-union propaganda to sell the same message. Like this shitty JibJab video that Amazon shows its managers.
Video Clip: Amazon Union-Busting
[00:09:54] Jib Jab:
We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders, or most importantly, our associates. Our business model is built upon speed innovation and customer obsession, things that are generally not associated with the unions
While employees have the right to organize. We have a right and responsibility to share our position that a direct working relationship is better for the customer, the company, and the associate. In order to be able to do that effectively. It is critical that we recognize the early warning signs of potential organizing and escalate concerns promptly. The most obvious signs would include use of words associated with unions or union led movements like living wage or steward.
I just, I’m gonna just start making fucking part of this shit.
We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our associates,
your associates as human beings. Like there are people working in these factories. This is insanity. It’s actually like mind boggling to me listening to these, these videos.
Warning signs include using terminology like living wage. God freaking forbid. I think it’s funny. Y’all if you’re listening and you’ve never seen the Scamazon JibJab video, go ahead and look at it. Because the young, the caricature that they used is racially ambiguous.
So representation does matter. Thank you.
Also this poor guy looks so tired, obviously overworked and in need of a union. Unshaven unshowered, dark circles under his eyes. Maybe he should talk to someone about better working conditions.
What I love about this, a Jib Jab video too Ihsan is that you almost can’t tell the difference between this real scam, Amazon video and something like this. John Oliver satire video that they did in an episode on unions. Check it out.
Video Clip: Satiric Union-Busting (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)
[00:11:59] Satiric video:
Hello, thanks for joining us today and watching this mandatory company video you’re here, because someone may have approached you about unionizing or ask you to sign a union card, or simply said the words, living wage out loud, anywhere on company grounds. Look, a union may work for a lot of places, but the thing is here, we’re a family and you employees are children.
Or like in this clip from Super Store?
Video Clip: Superstore
[00:12:26] Superstore clip:
Studies show that employees at a non-union facility are more engaged and happier. Yeah. Yeah. Don’t try to come between me and cloud nine. That’s my bae.
So those last two were clearly satire, but they’re almost not as funny as this next Target clip. The laughter you hear is from a live audience.
Video Clips: Target vs. Satiric
[00:12:47] Target video:
If the unions did try to organize target team members, they could also try and bring along their way of doing. It’s an old fashioned rigid structure. No one knows exactly what could happen, but there are lots of examples of how rigid grocery store union contracts could hurt our store’s ability to serve guests.
[00:13:04] Satiric video:
Hey Bob, did you know if we brought on a union, it be illegal for us to talk to our bosses anymore. No way There’s two things I love in this world talking directly to my shift supervisor and helping customers who are in departments I don’t work in.
Well, bad news, Bob, if the union came in, you couldn’t do that. Yeah. If a customer who’s outside of your department asks you a Question you’re legally required to tell them to go fuck themselves. They ask you a follow-up question. You’d have to slap them with an open hand. So everyone gets hurt everyone except the union.
So this clip is hilarious and I cry because it’s true. You know, you really hear. In it, the way that the union, um, is being hypothesized as the bully, right?
The bully on the school yard that makes it impossible for equitable and harmonious interactions between equals to exist. And I think this is the reason why the myth of the union as bullying is so powerful because it creates this idea for workers that the union again is some outside force, some blunt object that is being wielded against. the quote-unquote harmonious family of the workplace
Video Clip: Sopranos
[00:14:28] Tony Soprano:
this is a union safety official and he stays until the union deems his workplace is free of hazard. I have the money! You do? Christopher give the union a call and see if this gentleman here has paid up as union dues and then pop on his wheel covers. We’ll check the brake pads. I’ll get right on it.
So that last Sopranos clip is really interesting because it’s a part of this mythos that we have, right. That unions are a part of the corruption we’ve got this classic clip of Tony soprano using unions to intimidate people on their work site.
and there’s this whole plot line of Tony telling Jackie Jr. To just avoid the mob life, avoid unions and go to Rutgers because that’s where you become a doctor. And this is where we really get to the academic myths that we’re trying to bust here at Rutgers.
You get this narrative that you are on the road to white collardom. And in this professional space, in this privileged space of rarefied labor, you don’t need unions because you’re not really working the same way that others are working. You’ve kind of lifted yourself up out of the need to be in a union.
We can even see how a lot of anti-union companies will in exactly this way, offer quote-unquote pathways to education, positioning themselves as like routes for individual upward mobility.
And it fits cleanly into this idea of meritocracy and it further validates the status quo because it assures us that people at the top are there because they deserve to be, they work harder, they deserve more thus they earned their position to be there.
As opposed to the idea that no matter what job you occupy in our society, you deserve to be able to feed your family and pay for your picket fence. If that’s what you’re interested in, you know, that’s the thing that sucks also about this ladder to success or ladder to academia thing is that if you’re a Starbucks worker, half of America is fueled by your labor. You deserve to be able to pay your rent and pay your bills.
Yes. And this is a concept that tries to tie into this idea that we’re all aiming for something greater. We’re all aiming for this aspirational identity. You’re a Starbucks worker. Obviously you don’t want to stay there for the rest of your life. What about the American dream of a picket fence? Two-point-five kids? A nice minivan? Don’t you do want that? Aren’t you aiming for something greater?
Video Clip: Star Trek
Ferengi workers don’t want to stop the exploitation, we want to find a way to become the exploiters.
Aren’t you aspiring for something better all the time. You can do that here, but not through unions.
So we’ve been discussing the myth that education is the key to social mobility, a pathway out of the kind of work for which unions would be even necessary. And underlying. This is the idea that labor in the university is not labor at all.
Right? Yeah. I did talk to a friend a while ago who is not an academia and they’re also a union gal and we had a pretty tense conversation about academic labors and whether or not. Like our work is real work and it’s interesting to see the lines that people draw as to what is perceived to be actual, real labor versus not, right?
Yeah, I hear you. Sadly. I think that we see this exact attitude among people who do work in the university. This includes some of our colleagues who are liberals or leftists who think of themselves as probably pro union in a certain context or in theory, but who don’t necessarily see the urgency or relevancy of joining a union or understand necessarily how a union might affect their own working conditions. And I think it’s because we tend to think of our own work as existing in this rarefied privileged space or any miseries and hardships are accepted almost as the price of that privilege of getting to talk and think about what we want to talk and think about. and this paradox makes me think of this particular Fred Moten quote from the interview section of the Under Commons, where he talks about the demobilization of academics and the way that we’ve internalized capitalism. it says that in the university, quote, “everybody is pissed off all the time and feels bad, but very seldom do you enter into a conversation where people are going, ‘why is it that this doesn’t feel good to us?’ there are lots of people who are angry and who don’t feel good, but it seems hard for people to ask collectively why doesn’t this feel good?”
And this is what organizing with your union can do for you. It offers a collective space to understand and work through this question and really dig in to what the underlying conditions are that make you not feel good.
it’s really the way that academics discount themselves as workers, that they undermine the value of their own production. It’s like at the same time, There’s this way that the public frames teachers and instructors as less workers than as people with like this moral caretaking mission that they have to complete.
This brings us to the myth that perhaps is most relevant to us here at Rutgers, which is that teacher unions are bad for students and universities in general
It’s almost like a maternal figure of teaching. Right. And you see a lot of resistance to this image of teachers, as workers, especially in unions, right.
Where they’re kind of reinforcing their agency and their value as instructors. So teachers are often thought of as caregivers as much, if not more than they are as educators or workers, we usually see this more often in like K through 12, but grad workers and female faculty. Also experience a lot of this at the university level.
So we kind of see a lot of pushback against teachers who try and unionize and a lot of pushback against teacher’s unions from K higher ed, et cetera, for making demands. There is this idea that they are taking something away from the students or betraying something about their role as educators.
Right. And with public universities, like Rutgers that are often painted as moral contributors to the social good, there is a way that we fail to see their role as an institution, as an administration that is concerned with making money. And that is not necessarily, uh, a framework that is committed to care. And so we agree to accept lower pay and less resources. We scrounge around with the bits that we have, because we see ourselves as separate somehow from private institutions, we think we have less money and therefore we think we deserve less in terms of salary in terms of actually getting paid for the work that we do.
And all of this is wrapped up in that narrative again, right. That we’re a part of a mission of social good that this is a labor of love. And that being self-sacrificing, that being in the struggle, we fetish that pain. Right. And we say, oh, it’s all in the name of loving our community
So this myth of the public university as a neutral space, the way it’s propped up as a safe Haven, it’s not a corporation. It even goes as far as being anti-corporate space, it’s a public institution protecting the common good.
We resist thinking of the university as a site of employment, but this idea of the public university as a moral good as somehow outside the parameters of economic structures or oppressive structures, it really hides a pretty dark history in a really complicated economic reality.
So our union comrade and producer Danielle is going to talk a little bit about how the financialization, of the public university has created this massive amount of debt that’s circulating, for students and circulating for, even the administration, But I wanted to preface that with the contextual history of Rutgers being a land grant college. some folks might not know, but the moral act of 1862, right smack in the middle of the civil war, was the first federal aid to higher education.
And it was meant in theory to establish funding and aid to create agricultural and scientific schools across the us. so under those terms, each state was entitled to a portion of public lands, that was supposed to benefit the creation of certain colleges. I think each state received about 30,000 acres of public land but for a proprietary state, like New Jersey, that didn’t have land in the public domain an equivalent land amount of land script, or land certificate was issued to them. And because states are not technically allowed to own land in other parts of the country, these lands scripts were actually a quick way of legally allowing state governments or requiring state governments to sell all of their land script to private investors.
And so you see the way that our history as a land grant college produced all of this wealth, all of these resources for us, but it’s because the private investors who were slave owners, by the way, who founded Rutgers, were able to buy these land scripts from the federal and state government.
And so we see this kind of financialization of property that later becomes a financialization of debt, and the way that feeds into the contemporary moment where you have a university like Rutgers that has the most one of the most diverse student bodies of any university in the country.
And it is actually our student debt that is funding our university.
In a freedom school session last year held by daughter merged Dr. Alanie Shermer, who recently completed her PhD in educational policy studies from the university of Wisconsin, Madison, um, came to talk about financialization.
Uh, and what she’s saying is that in recent years, in the last 15 years in particular public universities, specially have taken on an enormous amount of indebtedness to financial institutions like banks.
between 2003 and 2012, the amount of institutional debt that universities carried doubled, something like $150 billion in institutional debt in, in public and community colleges,
So where private institutions are financialized by their own endowments and their profit motives public universities, which we tend to perceive as not being profit driven are now actually deeply indebted to banks and therefore have to prioritize their repayment .
So in order to maintain credit ratings, they need to keep board members and administrative higher-ups who are well versed in financial ease as Elainey calls it and who maintain and, help establish university corporate partnerships. And then they also have to continue to add student amenities as opposed to necessarily focusing on education because of the perception that that’s more likely to draw more tuition debt, which feeds into and helps them maintain their good credit rating.
And then on top of this, one of the most critical things that’s necessary for maintaining a good credit rating as a university indebted to a bank is to keep not only your tenure low,
You want less people with tenure. You also want, as Laney tells us less people who are unionized, the more present your unions are, the stronger your unions are on campus. The lower your credit rating will be. So public universities are highly motivated to union bust.
But that’s crazy. Could you give some insight as to how we got to this point?
Like everything, like everything evil. This all comes from Reagan’s de financializing of light from Reagan’s divesting and the public sector in the 1980s. Um, so this prime, the rising tuition, the inevitable growth of privatization of universities and corporate profit motives and increase in student debt. And also financialization of public universities comes out of, uh, the increasing divestment, the absence of state and federal monies being put into our universities, being put into our education system bar, none. Right?
It seems like it’s just another social safety net that’s being decimated. And for what, and who is it impacting? Like one other form of social welfare that is ceasing to exist.
Yup. And we see this play out a lot in the baffling choices that get made around austerity. During this pandemic, Rutgers laid off dozens of lower paid dining hall workers, well keeping on and even expanding roles and handing out raises to the athletics department and the higher up administrators.
a special shout out to the head of HR, Vivian Fernandez, who got an $80,000 raise while the rest of us had frozen salaries.
And just to put this into context. Vivian salary went from $320,000 a year to $400,000 a year while grad workers who teach courses for the university who are doing their research, who are supporting the research of their tenured faculty. We’re making around $30,000 a year.
All of, which of course makes us need unions even more. But public universities are now compelled to be anti union in order to keep up their credit ratings and honestly, to continue to silo resources to the managers and administrators at the top.
And so we see the emergence of huge anti-union law firms like Jackson Lewis, that charge insanely high consultation and retainer fees to universities to help them suppress unions and circumvent equity investigations. And that ties us back right to the types of union busting that are generated by these union myths. For example, Rutgers retained Jackson Lewis for $2 million to quote unquote, advise on, uh, read that as combat the pay equity program. The university is bringing in an actual third party firm to fight us the union of workers who actually work here and make the university what it is.
So while we are seeing an incredible rise in unionization across the country, we’re also seeing increasing pushback. Unions are constantly on the defensive and this can obscure an overshadow, some of our most important work. And this brings us to the myth that unions can suppress vulnerable people inside of them.
We’re not here to deny the long history of unions, even one of our own, the AFT right. Of our union, not listening to the voices of people, of color, and women of color specifically.It would be irresponsible and a historical to ignore our histories and how they still show up. Right. It would be a disservice to the kind of work that we’re trying to do. If we ignore race, if we ignore gender, if we ignore job title in unions, if we ignore power dynamics in our own spaces, even in our own union, we oftentimes feel constantly on the defense that we cannot address these critical issues in public because they somehow undermine the image that we’re setting up for ourselves. So even as we kind of attempt to grapple with these issues internally, we have to maintain a public image of solidarity, a public image that hinges on caring for the vulnerable quote, unquote, a public image that is progressive. But the fact of the matter is these spaces. However, well-meaning do not exist in a vacuum that is separate or, uh, that is clean of the history of the United States.
It is worthwhile to fight collectively with people in your work environment for dignity, for a living wage that affords you a good life, but it is, it’s not divorced of the everyday issues that we’re often confronted with in our day-to-day lives, right?
Right? So maybe the myth here really is that unions have to be free from the ills of society in order for them to be effective tools of enacting change.
Um, there’s no such thing as a completely safe space, you know, And I think even prison abolitionists, like Mariame Kaba say this all the time, There are only such things as us constructing safer spaces for one another and of addressing harm, right? Because there’s no version of a world in which harm doesn’t exist, but unions are not hierarchically organized to produce wealth for an administration or to circulate debt.
Unions are worker led, worker run, organizational tools and spaces for people to argue over and create a platform for what kind of working conditions they want to have. And that is where you’re also going to see. The types of prejudices and racisms, and xenophobia is get hashed out worker to worker.
Having debate amongst workers is what organizing is. That is why you join your union is to address how power is shaping your day to day life on the job. It’s to talk, to have a language, to have a framework, to have guidelines that you collectively decide upon as workers to have a discussion that is open, accountable, and about moving forward. It’s about organizing, right? It’s about transforming those conditions and you can’t transform them unless you show up and have a conversation about it first. And so I, I. We bring these things up here because we’re entering into this contract campaign and this is an incredibly. Important moment for us to show up and be accountable to and transparent about what our needs are and have that open dialogue with each other so that when it does come time to face the administration to shout about responsibility centered management, to, to provide a United front to express real solidarity. We actually know what we’re fighting for and we know what the stakes are for each and every one of us. And we hold down our end of the line and we can’t hold down our end of the line if we’re not honest about what is at stake for us and how we are showing up differently within the space of the academy.
these challenges are a big part of what it means to organize with each other, and we need more of you with us. So the next episode we’ll be talking about contract campaigns and how we shape and when our fight for our demands
Video Clip: Star Trek
It won’t happen unless you make it happen. We’ve been exploited long enough. It’s time to be strong, take control of our lives, our dignity and our profits! Strike a blow against Quark! Strike a blow against the FCA! Strike a blow against exploitation! Are you with me!?
Yes!! Union! Union! Union! Union!
Come join us, reach out to your department rep or come through to the REU AUP or PTL websites, which are listed on the website for this podcast. See you next time. And our big congrats to union siblings at Columbia and their wins since our last recording.
love and admire y’all immensely and are learning so much from the hard work you’ve put in.
And that’s our episode
Music is by blue dot sessions. Please be sure to check out our website. Are you listening.org for a list of all of the media we mentioned and references we drew on including a brief plug for Sarah Joffey Facebook work.
Won’t love you back. And it’s great history on teacher’s unions.