Organizers Look Back on Labor Notes 2022

A whopping 4,000 union workers and activists attended the Labor Notes conference in Chicago this year to share strategies and report on the status of the rising labor movement.

Maximillian Alvarez

Labor leader Chris Smalls, center, president of Amazon Labor Union, poses for photos with union members during the Labor Notes conference, in Chicago. Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

We wish everyone could have been in Chicago for the Labor Notes 2022 conference! But for those who couldn’t make it, we convened this comradely panel with some fan-favorite guests of the Working People podcast — Tevita Uhatafe, McKenna Schueler, and Jacob Morrison — to share our thoughts and reflections on the gathering, and to talk about the lessons and strategies we’re taking from Labor Notes and applying in our daily lives.

Additional links/​info below…

Permanent links below…

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemu​si​carchive​.org)

  • Jules Taylor, Working People Theme Song”


Jacob Morrison: All right. My name is Jacob Morrison from Huntsville, Alabama, I’m a member of AFGE, American Federation of Government Employees Local 1858, member of the Huntsville IWW branch. I’m on the labor council here in North Alabama. And yeah, that’s about it for me.

Maximillian Alvarez: And?

Jacob Morrison: And…? Oh yeah, and I’m host of Alabama’s only union radio show, The Valley Labor Report.

McKenna Schueler: Okay, I’m McKenna Schueler. I’m a freelance journalist and part-time radio news anchor in Tampa, Florida, where I mostly produce coverage on labor, politics, local government, and lately a greater focus on housing issues. I’ve written for both local and national outlets including In These Times and Strikewave. I’m also a member of the National Writers Union Freelance Solidarity Project.

Tevita Uhatafe: Hello everyone, my name is Tevita Uhatafe, pronouns he and him. I’m a proud member of the Transport Workers Union Local 513 out of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. I’m a proud rank and file member, in fact, and I’m also the first vice president of the Tarrant County Central Labor Council. And the strike whisperer, they dubbed me.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah.

Tevita Uhatafe: I’ll take that title.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah, baby.

Jacob Morrison: That’s pretty cool. That’s a pretty good title.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well welcome everyone to another special bonus episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by beautiful Patreon subscribers like you.

So, as you all heard, we’ve got three fan favorites on the show all at once. I’m super excited about it. We got my man Jacob from The Valley Labor Report, we got the brilliant McKenna out there in Florida, and we got our boy Tevita the strike whisperer all calling in. And we are still riding high from our experience getting to meet in person for the first time at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago last week. And we know that a lot of listeners couldn’t make it, but that they were really invested in it and they want to know more about how it went, what happened there, what were the exciting camp stories that folks missed?

But it really did feel, as a first timer I have no real frame of reference here, but I can just say speaking for myself that it did feel like our comrade Alex Press at Jacobin wrote, that the beating heart of the labor movement was there at Labor Notes in Chicago. And that feeling was very infectious and it was a real honor to get to share in that with Jacob, McKenna, Tevita and all the other comrades that we had over there in Chicago.

So we’re going to give you all a bit of a fun panel discussion about our impressions going to Labor Notes, things that really jumped out to us, like special experiences that we had, any critical thoughts that we want to share, and I guess how we’re taking things forward after Chicago.

I guess I should also mention that for listeners that we’re also dead, because it was a very jam packed few days. And then yet on top of that, the travel, like poor Jacob and poor me drove our asses 11 hours up and back from Alabama and Baltimore, respectively. Tevita’s been flying all over the fucking country, as per usual. McKenna got her ass all the way from Florida to Chicago and asked me for directions in the city, and I somehow got her lost. So I apologize for that. But yeah, if you couldn’t be there, we’ll do the best we can to give you guys an eye level view of how things went at Labor Notes. I thought it was great. Honestly, it feels very selfish to say, but probably the most exciting part about it for me was getting to meet comrades in person.

Of course all of the panels and workshops and sessions were really special and you could feel that electricity of the crowd. But yeah, when I was driving for 11 hours back to Baltimore, I feel like the memories that were most prominent in my head were those great human moments where you recognize each other when you’ve only seen each other through a screen before, immediately embrace, and there’s no awkwardness. You’re friends. You’re comrades. So, that’s my initial impression. Let’s go around the table and ask was this everyone else’s first Labor Notes? And what were you expecting it to be, and what was the experience like when you first sort of entered the melee? Jacob, let’s start with you.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah, well, I mean, it was also my first time, and I do think I was expecting it to be really, really fraternal. I was looking forward to it a lot more than I have going to the Alabama AFL conventions – No disrespect at all to my brothers and sisters that put on the AFL conference here in Alabama – But I was expecting it to be a little more fun, a little more exciting. And it definitely lived up to that, I think, like you said. I got a lot of really practical stuff from the workshops that I’m really excited to put into use. I think the session that I’m most going to be putting to work is going to be the panel on revitalized labor councils, because our labor council had been defunct here for 20 years before we rechartered it in 2019. So you can imagine there’s still a lot of growth to do here in North Alabama for the labor council.

And I got some really good tips, and I’ve already started trying to chase down some leads and follow some of those directions from folks who have done the same thing before us. But the thing that was really the highlight for me was, like you said, every time I turned around, there’s like, oh, there’s this person that I’ve seen that I’ve known now at this point for years, a lot of times, and I’ve never met in person, and just automatically embracing him. Tevita, when me and him saw each other, and it was only for an incredibly brief time at the book signing, I ran into him and it was just immediate, there was no hesitation. We just wrapped each other up.

It’s the same thing for Josh Armstead from Unite Here 23 in DC. We didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time talking to each other, but immediately we recognized each other and we just wrapped each other up and it was so cool. It was like that over and over and over, closed out bars several times just hanging out with people, getting to know folks. And it was always, every night, it was a different group of people. And it was so much fun getting to know people like that.

And I think another thing that I was really proud of was our response to Bernie Sanders and to baristas and Amazon workers. Somebody said something about it on Twitter, but Labor Notes is the only place in the world that you’re going to get just as heavy or just as big of a response listening from a barista… and the kind of societal inclination would be to say just a barista versus Bernie Sanders. But Labor Notes is a crowd that doesn’t believe that. We’re not just baristas, we’re not just transport workers, or just anything. We’re working people, and we’re as valuable if not more valuable than some senator in DC. And that was so, so cool, being in a crowd like that, that gave just as much to Michelle and Chris as Bernie. You couldn’t ask for a better group of folks.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hear, hear, man. I think that’s beautifully put. And yeah, I think that you really hit the nail on the head, just that mix and the unanimous feeling. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but yeah, we were sitting next to each other in that big session, and I guess we’re not blowing smoke up your ass, dear listeners. I mean, this is thousands –

Jacob Morrison: Well, you can go and watch it on YouTube if you don’t believe me.

Maximillian Alvarez: Thousands of people, if you don’t believe us, really feeling that vibe that Jacob was just describing. McKenna, what about you? Was this your first Labor Notes? What were you expecting, and what really stood out to you when you entered the melee?

McKenna Schueler: Yeah, so this was my first conference, and I’m not really sure what I expected. I was a bit uncertain, going in as a media worker. I was worried that I would be considered like an intruder or something, which was dispelled. There were a lot of media workers there that give a shit about labor and want to know how to properly document the struggles, successes of workers. But it was thrilling. It was nerve wracking for me a bit because I’m a bit introverted, and it was sobering. You’ve got folks who are sharing their successes, but also their struggles. We’re still in a pandemic, union density, especially in the South, is low. The bosses have deeper pockets, but they don’t have the people. And again, like you both said, Jake and Max, one of the most interesting or really cool parts for me was meeting folks, whether it was people that I’ve worked with online like with Strikewave, or you, Max.

And then also, it took me going to Chicago to actually meet up with some local union folks here in Tampa Bay, which was really neat, but I felt kind of guilty. So I got to give a shout out to Anthony with the Teamsters, Chris Norwood and Taylor with the IBW, folks I met with the United Faculty of Florida, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, Alec with the West Central Florida Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. Another organizer that I’d coordinated with for media before, Raul with the SCIU came up and gave me a hug at some point. We didn’t really get to talk, but it was just like, hi, you.

But yeah, it was really a thrilling experience. We took over a whole hotel, rank and file workers, labor activists, organizers, media folks, people who were just really passionate about being there. And like Jacob said, it was really great to be in a space where rank and file workers get just as much attention as Bernie Sanders. Because it’s not just about the big man, it’s about these smaller fights that are leading the bigger fights and how we’re all connected with one another.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. And I mean, we can circle back to this, but one thing in that vein that I was thinking about on the drive home was comparing that experience to seeing Bernie in 2016 and 2020. The country and the world, but I mean, I guess speaking in our respective corner of the world, we’ve taken a lot of hits since that initial moment of hope in 2016. We endured a Trump presidency and all that came with that, the loss of the dream of a Bernie Sanders presidency and what that would mean for our country – Twice. A pandemic, war, more war breaking out. It’s been a lot. But there was something beautiful and enduring that I felt in my chest driving home, thinking, oh, it’s not dead.

It’s like the seeds are still germinating, and it’s not all about winning the presidency. But you look around and you see people who still have that common attachment to Bernie and the movement around his presidency, not just his presidency, but the energy that that galvanized is still there. And the fact that people are channeling it to their workplaces and in their communities I thought was something I needed to see after being locked inside for two and a half years. But not to hog the mic, so I mentioned this, dear listeners, in the intro to our last episode, because everyone was asking. Yes, Tevita got to Labor Notes. So, inquiring minds were dying to know. He didn’t just get to Labor Notes folks. He had himself a time, so –

Tevita Uhatafe: That’s right.

Maximillian Alvarez: Tevita, take it away. From folks who last heard our interview together, pick it up from there.

Tevita Uhatafe: Whew. Where do I start? First and foremost, thank you to everyone who listened to that podcast episode that Max and I had recorded. Yes, I made it to Labor Notes. And with your help, I was able to participate comfortably. Which brings me back to those who were not as fortunate as I was to get some kind of help, just know that there were a lot of rank and file members there that found a way, and I’m emotional about it right now because I know that it’s tough to go to those conferences, and you’re not helped out at work. You probably have some issue with childcare or something, traveling, and then paying for a hotel. So it was really eye opening for me just to see how many people figured it out and found a way. So, in the month of June, I’d been traveling quite a bit and I made it to Philadelphia to the national AFL-CIO conference. And I didn’t have the experience that I felt I deserved there. But once I got to Chicago…

First of all, when I left Philadelphia, I committed to myself without even telling Labor Notes staff or anyone that I was going to light that fuck around fire and I was going to be involved in some way or somehow, and leaving a lasting impression on the attendees in Labor Notes. So the build up, the build up to Labor Notes, I had the support from the folks who donated. I had it all planned out. My family even actually stayed behind because they knew how much it meant for me to be a part of, as much as I could be, of the conference as I could. So, shout out to my wife and my kids for understanding, because they were looking forward to it too.

But anyways, from the moment I walked into the front door, I felt that love, that real, genuine solidarity love. I spent so much time within my short unionist career impressing those that have some kind of power in my union, but it wasn’t until I walked through that door and people came and greeted me like I was a hero, and it was just… I can’t explain the feeling because I felt so good. These people actually cared about my story and they understood why I was doing what I did. Bernie was standing right next to me on the stage, but I felt like people were cheering for me too, for some reason. I mean, just think about it. From my point of view – And I’m like jumping around, because my weekend was crazy – But just from my point of view on the stage and looking from left to right, and just the sea of people, responsible people wearing their masks, which was important because we wanted to make sure that people were safe.

But to feel the energy build up from the first speaker all the way down to Bernie and how people were getting so hyped up, I wish I could bottle up that energy and just take sips of it when I’m feeling down. Because man, that is better than any drug. That high, that solidarity high I’d seen from the stage, and people’s faces. They were so excited to listen to the stories of the workers. I mean, we all work for a living, and to hear somebody else struggle through something and then overcome it with a group of people.

I mean, how do you explain to people how you can’t physically see it, but just the power that was in there and the collective power, and it felt like everybody was sharing the power and sharing the moment. It was unbelievable. And I think what I really want to emphasize to the 4,000 union strong that were there was the conference was liberating to me because I finally feel that I have a voice in the labor movement. I’ve always felt like I did, but hearing it from the rank and file members is the ultimate respect because they’re just like me. We’re working, trying to make it. But to hear that, hey man, we wish we could do what you’re doing. I mean, we want you to succeed, and just wrap their arms around me at a time where I really needed it, where I really was soul searching for my role in the labor movement.

And I found it all at Labor Notes. And I just want to thank the 4,000 strong, as well as the contributors, the volunteers, because not only was it what I expected but more, but it was something that I wish everybody can share in. And if you follow me on social media, I was trying to put out as much information about different workshops I was going to because I wanted others to share in that moment too, because there are many that couldn’t share in that moment with us. But if I could be of some help to somebody else who wasn’t there to come follow along, that was fun to do. It was fun to share and to go to workshops I wouldn’t necessarily have any connections with, being in aviation, but going to a building trades for democracy workshop, or going to a teachers against standardized testing workshop.

I don’t know their professions, but I understand why their stances are. And they explained it to me to where I can explain it to somebody who didn’t have that view as well, because a lot of times people have opinions of what teachers should do or what restaurant workers should do or a barista should do. But I’d rather just hear it from the people who actually have to live through those jobs. And that’s what I did, and that’s what we all did. So, man, that was long-winded.

Maximillian Alvarez: Nah, brother, that was great

Tevita Uhatafe: That was Labor Notes in a nutshell.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I mean, just to, before we move on, to give people even more of a play by play, because we’ve got to make sure that people understand the legend of mic guy. Because, to paint the picture for folks, the first official day of the conference was Friday. And so we’d been going to sessions. I had hosted the Labor on the Radio session with Judy Ancel of Heartland Labor Forum, Sarah Jaffe, Michelle Chen of Belabored, and Jamie Partridge from Labor Radio at KBOO and also a retired letter carrier, and that was a lot of fun for me. The whole Labor Radio Podcast Network crew was out there. They even recorded it. And I think we’re going to be able to run the audio from that thanks to Chris Garlock, so be on the lookout for that.

But anyway so I did that, bounced to a bunch of these other sessions, got to run into a bunch of folks and hang out. And basically right before the big session on Friday that, as we mentioned, was this incredible mix: Stacey Davis Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union, Chris Smalls of the Amazon Labor Union, Bernie Sanders, we had a homie from the John Deere Strike UAW member, just a really incredible panel of folks, including one of the Buffalo Starbucks workers as well. And so anyway, it’s a big hall, everyone’s filtering in, everyone’s grabbing their seat. I’m kind of running low on energy so I’m like, I’m going to need some coffee, but hey, I bumped into Jacob and McKenna. Sweet, let’s all go in and find our seats.

So we found our seats on the very side, and I’m keeping one open because I’m like, well, let’s keep an eye out for Tevita, like in case he’s… He’s hard to miss, my man’s taller than I expected. But I was looking for Tevita in the back, and I think McKenna or Jacob was like, wait, is that him on stage? Fucking Tevita is up there on stage. And I was like, yep, that looks like him. And so Tevita, how did you find yourself in that position? And for folks listening, not to make you talk a lot longer, but just give us a sort of play by play of how that went, because you also mentioned that you were showing your kids those pictures. So just give listeners a window into that real quick.

Tevita Uhatafe: Yeah so, maybe a week ago or a week and a half before Labor Notes, Sarah Hughes of Labor Notes reached out and said, hey, we understand that you’re coming to Labor Notes, and we would like you to be around the stage, have kind of a stage presence, just look out for the speakers, and just be around as a strike picket line captain, if you will. And I said, yeah, yeah, sure. I can do that. So, fast forward to the evening of the event and all the volunteers for the hall, we’re all huddled up in the back at the entrance doors of the hall, and Sarah says, hey, go ahead and make your way to the front. So I go over there and stand then, this is an hour before the event starts. And I’m noticing that people are trickling in, but they’re huddled up in the back, and we’re trying to get people to get in and take seats.

So, I’m going up to the stage and hopping on the mic and saying, hey, please, if you would clear the exit way and clear the aisles or step in if you’re talking to somebody so we can make sure that we start on time. And then I ended up just staying on the stage. They really didn’t tell me, hey, stay down here and do this. They said, hey, just keep an eye on things. And that’s exactly what I did. And the view I was looking at as people are starting to come in and I’m just like, holy shit, there are a lot of people here.

And then when it finally started, I mean, I just stayed up there, and Chris was like… We’re talking, I’m standing just to his left and we’re just having a conversation here and there before it starts and he says, hey, where’s your chair at? And I said, man, I don’t have a chair. I’m not even a guest speaker. He goes, oh, it’s all good. It’s okay. And I said, hey, man, don’t even worry about it. When it’s my time to shine, I’m going to make sure that you’re involved in it too, Chris. And he said, okay. So, as the event’s going on, Michelle from Starbucks gets up, she gives a badass speech. And then Stacy, of course, she was amazing. The UAW brother, he was great.

Even Alexandra from Labor Notes, she was great at facilitating, getting the speakers up and introducing them. But it was not until Chris got up where it all changed, because Chris was hyping up the crowd with the F Jeff Bezos, and I was like, you know what, once Chris steps out,I’m going to start a chant, just to kind of rile up the crowd, because that’s what they told me to do. So, Chris knocks down the microphone after he’s done with his speech, and that’s where the mic guy came in. Anyways, he knocks down the mic stand and walks over. I saw the crowd was following Chris, and I just started a shout, ALU, ALU, and like 4,000 people were just screaming, ALU. It looked like a concert, and I’m not even an [inaudible] and I’m over here like holy cow.

So anyways, Chris knocks down the microphone, and then Bernie is right after. So after all the rah-rah with ALU and Chris, Bernie starts, and he’s trying to hold the mic. And I just saw it from the corner of my eye that the gentleman… I was sitting just to the right of him, and the artist was trying to stand up to hold it for him. So I just casually walked over and just put my arm just close to Bernie’s elbow and just held it and propped it up so he could speak, and I tried my best to hold it so he could deliver the message. Because I mean, this is one of the senators of the United States, and it’s Bernie Sanders, and I’m right next to him. I have no business being next to him, but I’m trying to hold the mic.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, honestly, I mean, you’re a strong-ass guy, but my thought was, man, his arm’s got to be tired.

Tevita Uhatafe: It felt like forever. I was switching. Because you had the podium, in which the podium had a t-shirt that was taped up with the Labor Notes logo on it. I was like, man, that’s that’s our [inaudible] right there. But anyways, so I’m shifting my stances, but making sure that my arm does not move. And it felt like eternity. And Bernie knows that I’m getting tired and just wants to get over with the speech. So he finally finishes and Bernie looks up at me and I looked down at him and it was like, we just both exhaled at the same time and just gave him a big ass side hug, and we made it. So, I mean, I can’t even believe that happened.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I imagine if my dad went to a conference and then came back with pictures of him standing right next to Bernie Sanders, I’d be like, what the hell? How did that happen?

Tevita Uhatafe: The first thing my seven year old asked me was, hey, did you have your Bernie socks on? Because he packed my Bernie socks knowing that Bernie’s going to be there and I said, yeah, but I was wearing long pants, so he couldn’t see. But I did have them on and they were happy about that.

Maximillian Alvarez: That’s awesome, man. Yeah, the legend of mic guy was born. I’m sure folks who follow Tevita have been seeing people photoshopping him into holding the mic for Elvis and other stuff. That’s great, man. It was really a beautiful thing to see you up there and to see the great reception folks were giving you, the speakers, and like you said, it was all love. I think what was also really important, and a lot of this I didn’t necessarily get to see, I heard about it secondhand. And I say this just quickly to make sure that listeners know. I mean, everything that Jacob, Tevita and McKenna said, I second. I mean, I felt that energy and felt that love and solidarity, and it really was overwhelming in a good way.

At the same time, I learned the importance of this gathering both at a time after two and a half years of pandemic conditions where gatherings like this haven’t happened. But also, it feels like a lot of the excitement and momentum about the movement has been building, but a lot of that has been expressed locally or online. And so it felt like this was the first real time to see how real the online version of reality was. And then boom, there you go. And I mean that in a lot of ways. Because you get there and, oh, shit, I’ve been seeing these updates about Starbucks stores, these are the people actually working there and they’re meeting each other and they’re excited to meet each other and they’re talking to each other and strategizing.

Oh, shit, here are, not just Amazon Labor Union folks, but Amazonians United folks meeting and talking. We saw folks from the RWDSU down in Alabama. That’s where so much of this started in a lot of ways, was down in that Bessemer campaign. Think of how far things have come since then. So, also those meetings, those debates, really intense discussions about strategy, what works, what doesn’t, how can we support each other, yada, yada, yada, that was happening too. And I think that’s really important.

And to circle back to something you said, McKenna and Jacob, and I guess this applies to all of us. But this was not what I went to Labor Notes for, but I’m very glad that I got that experience, but we’ve been doing this show for a number of years, doing The Real News stuff also during the pandemic. And it’s hard to gauge what impact, if any, that has on anyone’s life outside of my own sphere. And so even just hearing people talk about Tevita because they had listened to the episode, I was like, wow, I didn’t know that many people listened to it. Or people coming up to me that I had interviewed back in the first season of Working People like Rebecca Keach, who’s a UAW member and GM worker in Canada. I interviewed her during the GM layoffs. And as soon as I saw her I gave her this big hug.

So I think feeling the realness of it in that regard was really important to me. And McKenna, I thought it really stood out to me when you said you had to go to Chicago to connect with people in Florida, in a way. So I know that it can feel like as journalists we’re toiling in obscurity. There’s always another rung to climb. Did it feel validating to see people whose lives your reporting had impacted, and to see them recognize you for it? What was that like for you?

McKenna Schueler: Yeah, I mean, it was great. I was hoping to meet them. I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen, but then one of my buddies did a whole group text thing like, hey, you’re from Florida, let’s meet up for lunch. And so we did. And it is weird navigating the media relationship you have with people and I really don’t like it. But it was nice to meet people and hang out. And one of my weird moments, Saturday night, I pulled in a local worker, Anthony with the Teamsters. I pulled him in to get a picture with me and Jonah Furman, who I was very intimidated to talk to, but someone finally convinced me to go up to him and say hi.

And yeah, no, it was a really special experience. And obviously I hope to see them again now that I’m actually in Tampa Bay and we’re all in the same city, but I unfortunately don’t get the opportunity to always do as much field reporting as I’d like to do because I work multiple jobs and have limited time and resources. But it’s nice to do something more than just text someone and actually meet someone and show them who I am and that I’m a comrade in the struggle.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, and I mean, I’m curious how you and Jacob feel about that position that you occupy, because I thought you put that really well, is that you are in the media, so you do feel like a bit of an imposer in that space. But at the same time, you’re a worker. You’re a media worker. There’s a lot of exciting organizing happening in media, and that’s part of it. That’s part of the movement. And Jacob, you got Alabama’s only pro-union radio talk show and you do incredible work there with Adam, but you’re also an active member of your union, secretary treasurer, so you’re both occupying that crossroads of being both media and active union organizers. How do you deal with that? Or do you feel any more clarity after Labor Notes about that?

Jacob Morrison: I can answer and then I’ll hand it off to McKenna. She mentioned something about feeling like an imposter almost in non-media spaces, and I’ve always felt that way in media spaces because… And I don’t want people to think that I think of myself necessarily as a journalist or a reporter or even like an analyst or whatever. I’m just a guy who has a job who thinks work sucks and we should do something about that. And I love people, and I want to talk to them about that. I want to talk to them about how we can make our jobs better and stuff like that.

And so, because of that, this isn’t the media part of my activism, it’s not my job. It’s something I do once a week. It’s something I do on the side. I don’t take any money from it. And so when I’m in media spaces with people like you or McKenna who are doing this really cool, original reporting, I definitely feel like an imposter. And I know that you’ve talked about, Max, feeling like… And this is something that I think that anybody that does media type stuff feels at some point or another no matter how big you are, but I definitely feel sometimes like, am I just frantically yelling into a microphone out into the wind? Nobody’s listening, nobody cares. I’m not helping anybody. And coming from an Evangelical background, I worry that it’s a vanity project, that it’s just pride. 

That it’s just that I like to hear myself talk. And, of course, anybody that’s willing to get in front of a microphone, there’s a certain amount of narcissism that has to be involved there, I think.

But I do that. It’s something that genuinely, sometimes keeps me up at night. Is The Valley Labor Report just a vanity project? And could I be doing something better that is less in the spotlight with my time that would be more help to more people? And I think that’s something that I’m always going to struggle with. But talking to people that I’ve talked to on the show and talking to people that have listened to the show and have gotten something out of it and have been able to use interviews and segments to educate people about a topic or their struggle, that was super validating for me as somebody who has these internal struggles about that part of my activism.

So it was definitely validating. There were like three or four people that I didn’t know from Adam that came up to me and were like, oh, hey. I know you don’t know me, but I listen to your show. It’s really cool, I think. Of course, Labor Notes is going to be the place that’s going to happen. But it was still really cool. And yeah, definitely, definitely validating.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well and also, this is again one of the great things about Labor Notes, is they do the work of putting those pieces together. So yeah, on the media side, as we’re out here speaking into the void, or so it feels a lot of days, I thought it was really special for them to have you hosting a panel on organizing in the South. And so, I hear that voice that I know so well talking to Amazon workers, public sector workers, just a bunch of different unions on the same panel, and the questions were great. But I was like, oh yeah, this is using every… I mean, they’re Labor Notes. They’re great organizers. They find what people are good at and they use it.

So it’s like, hey, Jacob’s great at talking and getting people to talk amongst themselves, and he’s in the South, and he’s also very well versed in the sort of labor politics there. Let’s make him the moderator of this great panel that I really learned a lot from. And I was truly honored myself to be the moderator for the Labor on the Radio panel, which was really great and special, and also the Workers of the World panel. We had some technical glitches that really put me in a bad mood on that day. But in retrospect, it was still a really incredible thing to be there moderating a panel with Israel Cervantes from the GM plant in Silao Mexico, two workers from the Chilean Starbucks union, two workers from Amazon in Poland, a union leader from the Philippines, a call center worker.

When I think about it, again, I was really pissed that we only got to a third of what we wanted to because of the translation, but that happens. Life happens. The event was the important part. And I was just really lucky to be a part of it, and the crowd was great. So, I think that was one thing that really helped me on the drive back. I think on that Saturday in particular, it’s like frustrations started piling on each other, so by the end of the day I was actually quite depressed. And it was capped off with my fucking publisher not sending my books to Labor Notes.

So I was like, here is the highest concentration of people who would buy this fucking book that I poured so much effort into, and I’m so desperate to try to get people to listen to the stories in them, and you guys fucking whiffed it and you didn’t send a single book. So it was just stuff like that, that I was getting all bummed out about, but I got over it. And then when I was on the drive home, I was able to have a moment of clarity where I was like, well, stop thinking about how the conference didn’t measure up to everything you wanted it to be and start appreciating it for what it was and be grateful that you were there. And in that light, a lot of things really started to connect for me. What about you guys? I guess, were there any post-conference reflections that really stood out to you that you’d want to share with folks?

McKenna Schueler: I guess I just wanted to add really quick on the last thing too, in response to you, Jacob. I also feel like an imposter in the media space. I really just inserted myself into the local media space a couple years ago. I don’t have a background in journalism or anything. So I feel like even when I say I’m a journalist, I cringe a little bit inside, because I come from a background of organizing or activism. So honestly, going to Labor Notes felt like going home a little bit and being with family. It felt like somewhere where I could just unapologetically be my pro-labor self, wanting to learn more about how to support the labor movement. And yeah, so that was a takeaway I had at the end and I’ve been thinking about a lot the past couple days, what to do moving forward and what my role is.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well you know, and maybe we mentioned this when we were all together in Chicago, but I don’t know. I don’t know what it says about us or our culture or the industry that all of us can feel that way. Because I mean, I don’t know if I expressed it to you, McKenna, and Jacob, but I feel like an outsider in this area. I’ve always felt that way. I felt very much like an outsider in the labor media circles when I started this show. And I think I had, at times, a good reason for that. The people who were known entities in this space did not really give me the time of day and, in fact, made it seem like they didn’t like me very much. And so, you take that to heart, especially when you’re starting out.

Same goes for when I was writing right at The Baffler and In These Times and places like that, it felt like everyone else was in this club that I just wasn’t in. And I think part of that was just not being in New York. I think maybe that’s the common thread. If you’re not in New York, you’re always going to feel that way. If you’re in the South or the Midwest, you’re going to have that special chip on your shoulder, which I think makes us better at what we do, frankly. But it still feels like shit a lot of the time.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah, I want to interject and say I got a comment that said, on one of the YouTube videos that I clipped, that said easy on the anti-Yankee talk. Never. I will never do that. That is a good opinion that I have, anti-Yankee. So…

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, keep it coming, man. I’m just like, oh, yeah, hurt me, Jacob.

Jacob Morrison: Well, you’re from California. That’s not quite Yankee. That’s not South, but that’s not Yankee.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Fair enough. I still feel interpolated by it. I’m just like, get my ass, daddy. Again, I don’t want to speak for everyone. I don’t know if everyone feels this way, but I think that’s something that I’ve tried to carry over in this show. Tevita’s a great example of that. It’s like, okay, if I never feel fully part of this group or this movement even, if I’m just someone floating around on the periphery trying to help, what I, at least, can try to do is help other people feel more at home in that movement, working people. Help people feel like their stories matter and help them feel like other people are listening and that they do mean something to the folks who are fighting for a better workplace and a better world. And I think that that’s what was really… This is the last thing I’ll say about it, is that’s what I thought after leaving the conference.

I felt like I had talked to so many workers, especially the young folks, but not exclusively. Even older Canadian workers who were just like, they had that same trepidation. They felt like outsiders a bit, and they didn’t feel that way so much after Labor Notes. Even just, again, some of it you can plan, some of it you can’t, some of it is just the fact of getting to be there and talk to people. But I think that the thing that I’m most grateful for, again, apart from actually getting to meet comrades in person, I think what I’m most grateful for regarding Labor Notes, shout out to all the amazing organizers, Luis Feliz Leon, Jonah Furman, we mentioned Al Bradbury, everyone. I’m going to leave so many people out, but you all did an amazing job, and all the volunteers and translators.

It was an incredible effort. But I’m really grateful to all of them and to all of you listening who were part of that for providing that space for people to feel like this was their movement and that they do belong. And I think that is something that we should all try to spread as far and wide as we can wherever we are. So those are my thoughts. So let’s see, I think Jacob and Tevita, I’ll let you all hop back in here. Any sort of reflections, post-conference reflections that you think are worth sharing? Because I can’t keep you guys for too much longer.

Tevita Uhatafe: Oh, well, yeah. Reflections… On a personal level, I’ve really found I’m liberated. I feel liberated. I mentioned that earlier, but oftentimes… My story’s pretty rare, in which I rose up pretty quick in my union, but I was so busy trying to please the people who I thought would take me somewhere, the people who make decisions. And just speaking to the workers and actually hearing genuine love for my story and those who appreciated me opening up so much as to putting myself out there for someone, to speak negatively about how I was raised or how I came up or how I grew up. But just the fact that people really, really genuinely care for me. And it didn’t have to be somebody that’s in charge.

I feel that I can say things now and not be intimidated because I know that there are a lot of people behind me now, more than I ever knew, and that they really care. It’s knowing that I have a voice, a real voice now, I’m not scared anymore to fight for somebody I don’t know, to have that tough conversation with someone within my local now about why it’s not a good idea to be anti-Asian, or that kind of racist, anti-Asian racism that’s going on, just to tell my story to a packed room full of Asian-American Pacific Islanders and tell them my story. And use props to do it, with sticky notes on my shirt, sticking them from my shirt and putting it on the whiteboard as a timeline of this is what I did here, and this is what I did here.

And it was the visuals and the reception following my speech to these workers, I felt like a celebrity when I was done with it. Because I’m just a worker, I got through all these trials, but when people are coming up to you and like, hey, I want to take a picture with this guy, and waiting in line. Look, I’m not Chris Smalls, but man, that still feels pretty cool. So yeah, I feel I know myself now and I know my role in the labor movement, and it’s always to be there for the workers. I’ve chosen that path now and there’s no turning back. I’ll always be there for the workers because it was the workers who were there for me when I really needed them most.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Jacob, what about you? I mean, by all means you don’t have to wax poetic if you don’t want to, but you did mention that the thing that really impacted you was revitalizing your labor council. And I was wondering if you could also say a little bit about that, because I’m very curious on what that looks like or, again, what we’re taking away and trying to implement where we are.

Jacob Morrison: Yeah, so, for people that don’t know, labor councils are basically regional bodies of the AFL-CIO. And so labor councils are where, in your neighborhood, theoretically, unions are supposed to be coming together. Unions are coming together and talking about how we can support each other, talking about how we can bully some politicians, talking about how we can be a voice for organized labor in our community and make our community better. And like I said, our council had been more or less defunct for 20 years. It was officially de-chartered in 2017. But as you can imagine, once you’re at the point where the national Fed is like, okay, we’re revoking your charter, it had been dead for many, many, many years before that.

And so me and David’s story, folks will know him. He started The Valley Labor Report with me, we got together and got some other unions and reformed the council. And with that vision of how can we, in North Alabama, support each other as union members and support the community as union members and bring more people into the fold, how can we impact City Council and County Commission? How can we educate the community? One of my long term goals is any time there’s a military recruiter in a high school, we’ve got a union member right next to him. And that’s something that I would really like to see in North Alabama and the seven counties that we represent, which is going to be really hard because the military has unlimited money to send people to try to convince poor folks that they need to join the military to get a college education.

And I think that a lot of times, unfortunately, they join it for the right reasons, but I think that the empire and the military has a negative impact on the world and poor people in other countries. And so I think it’s important to show people, look, there are multiple ways that you can go get a job and not have any college debt. A lot of the trade unions, they’re a really good path to the middle class. There was a study just the other day that showed that not only are they a path to middle class, but a trade union apprenticeship puts somebody in the same place as having a bachelor’s degree, which is really cool, which is not what you get if you just go into the trades, just generically the trades. A trade apprenticeship program, they didn’t show any difference between somebody that did that and just a high school graduate.

And so these are people that are living in poverty, and people that work in the construction trades actually are forced to be on public assistance even more than the average American worker, which is insane. But the trade unions are not that way. And so we need to do better as a labor movement about showing people what options they’ve got. And that’s something that I want to do. And so the first thing that I’m going to try to do as a way to hopefully bring in the trade unions, because a lot of the trade unions still haven’t affiliated with the council. And so as a way to try to bring them in, which was a suggestion that I got from the session, we’re going to try to talk to some Black faith leaders, the NAACP, and have a union job fair in one of the local churches or something like that.

And we’ll take the opportunity where we hopefully have a big audience to do just a five minute education on what is a union, why is it good, why should you do one wherever you are even if you don’t join one of these. And having a body like that in every community, I think, is important. And having a body that is not only there in name only, that is not a resolution, an endorsement machine, but is an actual presence in the community that we have people. Maybe we don’t have people every time there’s a military recruiter in a high school, but we have unions at job fairs. We have our own job fairs. All of the city councilors know our names.

I was talking to a city councilor about something, trying to get them to pass a resolution in support of the TVA workers that were having their jobs threatened by outsourcing a couple of years ago. And she said to me, she was like, well, let me talk to so and so. I never do anything without consulting him. Do you know who so and so is? The president of the Chamber of Commerce? Screw that guy. They need to be coming to us. They need to be coming to us. I want all the city councilors, if somebody comes up to them with an idea, say, oh, let me talk to Ricky Langford, I never do anything without talking to the president of the North Alabama Labor Council.

And that’s the presence that we need to have politically. And then in the community, all the faith leaders need to know who we are, need to know where to point troubled members of their congregation to, supporting people that are less fortunate, doing soup kitchens, doing things, doing charity drives. The letter carriers do every year a Stamp Out Hunger food drive where you put out some nonperishable food items next to your mailbox, and your letter carrier will pick it up, and they donate that across the country. And so doing things like this, making sure that people know who we are knowing that this is a body, I think is important and has a lot of value.

And so I’m really excited to see other people doing that across the country, to have their councils taken over by labor militants and thinking about ways that I can do the same thing here. And then just generally – And I apologize for talking – But generally from the convention, I think my takeaway is, Tevita mentioned something about feeling the love. And that’s something that I have felt on an individual basis with other union members across the country and across my state and in my region, but never at that scale. And it really reminded me of church, of going to church. I come out of, like I said, an Evangelical church community, and there are a lot of things that I think are wrong about what they believe and the impact that they have on the world. But one thing that you cannot question about the church that I grew up in is within those walls everybody loves each other. Without reservation, without conditions, they love each other and they’re committed to each other.

And that is the feeling that I got at Labor Notes. That within these walls, everybody is committed to each other and to the working class, which is so cool. I don’t get that every time I’m in a big room with a bunch of union members. I just don’t. I don’t get that. And I did. And I think there’s a certain amount of maybe it’s easier for Labor Notes to do this because Labor Notes is not a governing body of anything and so we’re not electing a president of Labor Notes, this is just a community. We don’t have a platform at Labor Notes so it’s easy to paper over some political differences that would be more difficult at other conventions, and I want to recognize that. But I think there is just so little interest in all of these people in being somebody themselves, and the interest is all about… And it seemed all in one mind about, we’re going to make the working class win. We’re going to make workers win, and we’re going to take what we deserve.

And having everybody seeming like they were in that one mind really reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the Bible, which is the tower of Babel. And I have kind of a radical or subversive reading on it. But I mean, even before I came out of the church, so to speak, I always thought it was so cool that God was like, I got to do something because these people are going to come into my house. I can’t have that happening. I can’t have people coming in there. And so I pulled it up, but you know, he said, if as one people speaking the same language, they’ve begun to do this, then nothing, nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. That’s pretty crazy. That’s insane. And you know, so what are these people, what were they trying to do? They were trying to make a name for themselves. Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves.

That’s not a good way to use that power that you’ve got. And that’s not the feeling that I got at Labor Notes. I did not get the feeling that these are people that want to make a name for ourselves. We were a group of folks that wanted to use the power that can reach the heavens, being in one mind, in one language, a language of solidarity, to make the working class win. And I think that’s a good way to use our power. And if there is a God, I think he would be pleased with that.

Please consider supporting our work.

I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.

Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.

Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.