John Samuelsen, the pugnacious and outspoken president of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), made waves this month by announcing that his union will no longer support New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. TWU, which has had a rocky relationship with the powerful Democratic governor, is the first major New York union to withdraw its support, perhaps signaling the start of fatal cracks in Cuomo’s base.
Samuelsen, whose union represents public transit, railway, and airline workers nationwide, also played an instrumental role in killing the controversial New York gig worker bill earlier this year, after he withdrew his support. In These Times spoke to him about politics, the gig economy and the future of the labor movement.
Your union backed Cuomo in the 2018 election. What led to you withdrawing your support?
John Samuelsen: We were at odds with the governor from the time that he came in until midway through 2014. And we settled a contract that was outstanding, that broke the established economic pattern… that contract was settled with the assistance of the governor. And that began a period of support for the governor.
We’re not in the business of supporting people that don’t support us. I’ve not had a conversation with the governor since before November 2019. This may appear as if it’s happening overnight, but it’s not. There’s been a steady decline in the relationship [after disputes with governor-appointed MTA board members, and with Cuomo over MTA leadership plans]. When you have to fight with people who call themselves your friends, when you have to get into knock down, drag ‘em out brawls in order to accomplish reasonable outcomes, this is a relationship that’s not worth having. I’ve been in that mode for a year and a half… his failure to support, and his desire to undermine, have been the driving factor for me saying I’m not supporting this guy.
Samuelsen: It isn’t lost on me that he’s under investigation on multiple fronts, and that even some of his appointees on the MTA board are involved in unethical behavior. But I still maintain the position that he deserves due process, at least at a minimum of waiting to see what the independent investigation, which was taken up under the supervision of the attorney general — I’m sure that report is gonna substantiate elements of the accusations that were made against him. But until that report is out, that’s not entering into our equation. Our equation is that he is anti-MTA worker.
Do you think that if that independent investigation report goes against Cuomo to some substantial degree, that other major labor unions will withdraw their support for him as well?
Samuelsen: I think the answer to that is yes. If he is found to have been engaged in violative workplace conduct, either illegality or some other violative practice, then I think it’s logical to conclude that he will lose support.
The bill to give certain collective bargaining rights to gig workers that was proposed in the New York legislature failed earlier this year, after criticism from labor groups that it was too restrictive to offer real worker power. Have you been involved in any discussions about a new gig worker bill?
Samuelsen: I’ve been involved in dozens of discussions with food delivery workers. In fact I had a meeting today in Downtown Brooklyn with food delivery workers from Queens. My talk today with workers was that we’re trying to link together big groups of food delivery workers, big groups that are organizing amongst themselves. The next step for me is to ascertain whether there truly is worker support for such a bill. And the early answer to that is: Yes, there is definitely worker support, rideshare worker and food delivery worker support, for a bill that would allow them to organize into trade unions under state law. I think that’ll happen.
What would have to be in a bill like that, that was not in the earlier version of that bill, in order for you to support it?
Samuelsen: The preemption language in the bill (was) far too restrictive — in other words, the state preemption against municipalities creating local laws that would affect the industry. Also, everything that’s sought by the Deliveristas right now at the New York City Council, whether it be access to bathrooms or other considerations. What I would like to see, and what I think the workers would like to see, is that that all be included in the New York State bill, rather than fighting out city by city issues like bathroom access and things like that.
Also, the extremely restrictive language, which unfortunately there’s Democratic Party freakin’ precedent on, which I just find to be very, very onerous, is this “labor peace” element of the law. Which would prohibit collective action by the workforce over way too long a period.
Where do you fall on the broader debate within labor over how to approach the gig economy? Some people say we need to hold the line on employment classification, to ensure “gig workers” are classified as actual employees. Others say that battle is already lost, so organized labor should just get whatever it can to make gig workers’ conditions better.
Samuelsen: I’m right in the middle of the two things you just said. First of all, the most important thing here is that the workers themselves should make these determinations. Not the Twittersphere, the purist intellectuals that believe their position is supreme. Meanwhile I [wouldn’t] be surprised if 90 percent of them never did a real day’s work in their life. They’re just full of intellectual hot air. It’s really easy for somebody making 100 grand a year to tell a food delivery worker in Queens or Brooklyn that they can’t take steps that will dramatically improve their family’s economic security. It’s simple for somebody on Twitter to tell a food delivery worker, “No, you hold the line, you adhere to my purity in terms of political philosophy.” It makes no sense. These are decisions that have to be made by workers.
So the ultimate answer to your question is that if food delivery workers and rideshare workers want to engage in interim steps while we pursue employment reclassification, then my opinion is that we should, while simultaneously recognizing that they’re misclassified. That’s a pragmatic approach. If the PRO Act passed today, these workers wouldn’t be negotiating a contract for probably half a decade or more… it seems grossly unfair to me for either union bureaucrats, or the Twittersphere, which is worse, to tell these workers what’s good for them.
Unions today are more popular than they’ve been in decades. Do you have any grand thoughts for reversing the decline in union density that’s been going on for more than 50 years?
Samuelsen: It’s turn around-able. The TWU is growing and organizing, even through Covid-19 we’ve organized units and settled first contracts. Look, I have pretty simple thought on this: If workers organize into trade unions, and they lock arms and fight bosses and win battles, more and more workers will come. If unions continue on as bureaucratic entities, and they don’t take the fight to the boss and win contract improvements and economic improvements, then it disincentivizes workers when it comes to joining the union. When unions publicly fight, and get public victories, it’s the reverse: it’s a tremendous incentive.
We’re growing because we fight. We have more workers joining TWU right now than we have organizers that can handle them. Covid-19 has amplified the importance of the trade union movement. In the transport sector, unorganized workers were treated like absolute shite compared to their unionized brethren, regardless of the city. I think it’s been an eye-opening experience to workers not only in my industry, but across the board, of the power of locking arms.
We’re down to the final hours of our summer fundraising drive. If you’ve already chipped in, thank you so much. If you haven’t yet, there's still time.
Every story you see on inthesetimes.com or in the monthly magazine is funded entirely through fundraising drives like this. That’s why they’re so important, and that’s why we’re asking you to give.
Even as little as $5 helps, and it only takes a minute to donate. Will you chip in before the deadline?
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.