Meet the Tongan-American Unionist on a Pilgrimage To Support Striking Workers Around the U.S.
A conversation with Tevita ‘Uhatafe, a rank-and-file member of the Transport Workers Union Local 513 in Dallas-Fort Worth.
If you were following the strikes and labor actions that were happening last year, then you may have noticed that a certain face kept popping up in photos and reports from picket lines all over the country, from the Kelloggs’, Nabisco, and John Deere strikes, to the Warrior Met Coal miners caravan to New York City. Who was this mysterious member of the Transport Workers Union making his way to states all around the US to show solidarity with workers in their different struggles? Well, it turns out that that guy is Tevita ‘Uhatafe, a first-generation Tongan American, family man, rank-and-file member of the Transport Workers Union Local 513 in Dallas-Fort Worth, and Vice President of the Tarrant County AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. In this episode, we talk with Tevita about his life, about why family has always been so important to him, about working in the airline industry, coming to the organized labor movement, and about how doing the vital solidarity work he does is such a fundamental part of who he is as a person.
Additional links/info below…
- Tevita’s Twitter page
- Tevita’s PayPal (let’s get Tevita to Labor Notes!): @TUhatafe
- Haeden Wright’s Twitter page
- Braxton Wright’s Twitter page
- Haeden and Braxton’s PayPal (let’s get them to Labor Notes too!): @haedenwright
- Tarrant County Central Labor Council website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- Tevita recognized for his contribution to the labor movement for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “ ‘Twerking-class heroes: LA strippers are fighting for a union”
Permanent links below…
- Working People Patreon page
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to another 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 listeners and supporters like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network, so if you’re hungry for more worker and labor focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. And please, support the work that we are doing here at Working People so that we can keep growing and keep bringing y’all more important conversations. You can leave us a positive review on Apple podcasts, which really, really helps us out. And of course, you can share these episodes on your social media and with your coworkers, friends, and family members.
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And we’ve also got another killer bonus episode dropping in the next few days where I talk with Mansa Musa, who was a political prisoner for nearly 50 years. And we talk about why the labor movement and the fight to dismantle the prison-industrial complex are necessarily intertwined. So you don’t want to miss out on those. Go subscribe on Patreon. We’ve got lots more great content coming for you guys.
My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and I want to apologize for this episode being delayed by a couple days. Truth be told, I am running on fumes, baby. If you happen to follow the stuff that I’m doing on a weekly basis, not that I’d expect anyone to really give a shit. You know, we’ve all got busy lives. But if you do for some reason try to stay up on what I’m doing over here, then you know that it’s been a pretty bonkers month.
I’m pretty sure that it’s basically been in the span of one month and maybe some change that I’ve gone on Marianne Williamson’s podcast to talk about the past hundred years of the US labor movement. And that was a really great conversation. I also went, surprisingly, on Megan Kelly’s radio show to have what was, surprisingly, a productive, but not uncontentious, discussion about why workers are so pissed off right now. And I even went on PBS’s news hour to talk about the Amazon labor union. I started my recurring labor segment the Art of Class War on the Breaking Points YouTube channel, which everyone should go check out. I think you guys would really dig those segments. I also got to go up to Philly to be part of a book launch event with our dear sister Kim Kelly for her amazing new book.
Also the brilliant journalist Emily Guendelsberger. We all were part of that together. I went on Briahna Joy Gray’s Bad Faith podcast this week. And on top of all that, I’ve been doing all the good regular stuff. Going on The Hill every other week, running the editorial side of The Real News Network, supporting our whole amazing team there, and producing my own stuff for the Real News as well. Like a great interview that we published this week with Reagan, one of the striking dancers in North Hollywood fighting to unionize with Strippers United. And you guys should definitely go check that out, and definitely go support those dancers. And now I’m hearing that, at long last, after what feels like an eternity, apparently my book is finally published, and the publisher is shipping copies out to people as we speak.
So, yeah. I don’t think things are going to slow down anytime soon, but if all of this helps grow the movement in some way, if it helps get more people invested in workers’ stories and worker struggles, then it’s work worth doing. And as our theme music produced by the amazing Jules Taylor reminds us every week, we’ve got work to do. Although, that being said, I do need to find a better work-life balance because this isn’t really sustainable, and I’m no good to anyone when I’m exhausted and dying all the time. So anyway, the point is, I’m sorry this week’s episode is two days late. But believe me when I say that today’s episode is well worth the wait. Now that we’ve wrapped up our special series of interviews from Wisconsin, we’re jumping right back into the good old classic Working People format.
And I could not be more excited that I finally got a chance to chat with our guest today. If you were following the strikes and the labor actions that were happening last year, and if you listen to this show, chances are you were, then you may have noticed that a certain face kept popping up in photos and reports from picket lines all over the country. It was like Where’s Waldo? I mean, from the Kellogg’s strike, and Nabisco, and John Deere, to the Warrior Met Coal miners’ caravan to New York City. I feel like a number of us in the labor journalism world started to ask around the same time, who is this guy? Who is this guy from the Transport Workers’ Union making his way to states all around the US to show solidarity with workers in their different struggles?
Well, it turns out that that guy is Tevita ‘Uhatafe, a first generation Tongan American, a family man, a rank and file member of the Transport Workers Union Local 513 in Dallas, Fort Worth, Vice President of the Tarrant County AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. And, in my opinion, a real life superhero. And I’m not even kidding about that. Anyone who talks to Tevita for like two seconds can feel the solidarity and love for other working people radiating off of him. And the fact that he, with the vital support of his family and his union, uses whatever time he can to spread that love and solidarity to as many people as he can, that’s a vital part to keeping the movement going and growing.
It was such an honor and a pleasure to talk to Tevita about his life, about why family has always been so important to him, about working in the airline industry, and coming to the organized labor movement. And about how doing the vital solidarity work that he does is such a fundamental part of who he is as a person. And Tevita is a beautiful person.
That’s also why I am asking folks, if you are able, to please donate a little bit of money to Tevita’s PayPal account, which we’ve linked to in the show notes, so that we can get him to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago next month, near the end of June. And we are also trying to get our comrades from the Warrior Met Coal strike, Haeden and Braxton Wright, you guys know Haeden and Braxton. We’re trying to get them out to Labor Notes as well. I mean, they have been holding the line and supporting their community throughout this historic strike, which has been going for a year and two months at this point. And like Tevita, we need Haeden and Braxton at this conference, and we’ve linked to their PayPal account in the show notes as well.
All of us are really looking forward to the Labor Notes conference. I’ve actually never been before, this is my first time going. I mean, there are going to be rank and file workers from Amazon, Starbucks, longshore workers, the Teamsters, and everything in between. It’s going to be a crucial gathering at a crucial moment, where we can all come together, share stories and strategies, and really learn how we can all support one another. And Tevita deserves to be there. Haeden and Braxton deserve to be there. So if you can, kick in a few bucks and let’s make that happen. Because the movement to build collective working class power needs people who are willing to stand with their fellow workers even on the loneliest of picket lines, and to let them know that they are not alone. That they are loved and supported. People like Tevita. This is his story.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Hello, sisters and brothers and union family. My name is Tevita ‘Uhatafe. Pronouns are he and him. I’m a proud member of the Transport Workers Union Local 513 here in Dallas Fort Worth, Texas. And a proud rank and file member for my union as well.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, Tevita, it is such an honor to finally have you on the podcast, brother. If you guys follow us on social media, then you already know we are truly in the presence of a working-class warrior, and have been wanting to get you on the show for a long time. And I’m glad we were finally able to make it happen. I won’t embarrass you too much, but just got to say up top, brother, that you’re a really incredible person. And I think we talked about this a bit, because Working People listeners may know Tevita from the livestream that we did during the Kellogg’s strike where you hopped on and we had a good chat in the first hour or so of that livestream.
And I think I mentioned this then, how wild it was that I feel like so many stories that I’ve reported on, and I’ve seen pictures from these picket lines over the past year. And it was like Where’s Waldo? Because on almost every single one, I would see you there. I would see you on a picket line. I was like, how is this guy everywhere at once? And then like Mel Buer, who was reporting from Omaha, she was like, oh, I met this amazing guy in the picket line from the Transport Workers Union. I said wait, was it Tevita? She was like, yeah. I was like, oh shit, that guy’s everywhere.
So chances are folks listening to this have seen you on those picket lines, or have seen you really showing up and showing solidarity for folks. And I just got to say it’s a real inspiration, and really I think helps keep a lot of the rest of us going. To remember what it’s all about and to support our brothers and sisters and siblings on the line. So I just wanted to thank you for that up top.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Thank you. It is truly a privilege and an honor to be at any picket line at any given time, thanks to my aviation superpower, which is thanks to my union, I have them benefits. So I can be in multiple places depending on the flights. But it truly has been an experience unlike any other. One in which I’ve met so many amazing people who’ve decided to take a stand and who have inspired me and shown me how much they’re willing to sacrifice as a collective to meet the objective, which is to fight the boss and win. I don’t know how else to explain this solidarity, it’s like a drug to me. I need it more. And to listen to the stories and to listen to the issues and to hear the workers tell me the solutions that the bosses that are not taking into account. It’s a valuable lesson every time I’m at a picket line. So it is just truly a great experience. And I’m glad to share it with you all.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah, man, I get that. Sticking with the metaphor, we get the contact high from seeing you out there. It’s like, hell yeah, I feel like I’m there myself, because I know that when you’re out there, you’re being you. You’re spreading that love, that support, that solidarity. And if you’re standing on a picket line in the cold and it’s weeks into a strike, that show of love and humanity will refill the tank. And we need that as much as we can get it. And again, I want to stress to folks listening, it’s people like Tevita who are out there, and you can do it too. Even if you can’t fly all over the place, if there’s something going on in your neighborhood, 90% of the work is just showing up and being there for folks.
And Tevita will tell you that more than anyone. And I think I remember you even saying, man, on that Kellogg’s livestream. Because you mentioned there that you’re very proud of your Tongan heritage and that there’s something there that almost calls you to show that support and solidarity and sense of community. So why don’t we drill down on that? So you were born in Tonga, right?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: No. I was actually born here in the States. I’m a first generation Tongan. My parents immigrated back in the ’80s, and it was right around the time where it was easier to get a green card. The regular administration had passed the farm bill, which gave visas to people from overseas. So my parents took advantage of that and they fought, it was a foreign country to them. They really didn’t have a lot of help other than just word of mouth from other Tongans that were here before us. We brought our family-oriented mentality in the islands here to America. So, in the islands, if there’s any kind of family emergency or anything that happens where we have to be somewhere with our family, regardless if you’re at work or whatever you’re doing, you drop everything and go.
And I think I’ve used that same mentality here in the labor movement. I’ve transformed my thought of just a union member to somebody more than that. No matter what you do for a living, I consider you family. If we’re doing the same things, we’re just trying to make it. And if there was an issue going on where I have to be there and I can make the time, then I don’t hesitate, other than whether or not I can make the flight. But other than that, it is just being there for family, just to hear what’s going on, to be somebody that they can vent to.
A lot of times, people on the picket line just want to know that someone is there on the other side receiving the message. Even if it isn’t the boss, somebody out there is hearing what’s going on and cares enough to show up when they need him the most. And it’s one of those things where it gives me great joy to be that person. To be there, to be that listening ear or be the mouthpiece that they need when they don’t feel like this is something that’s working for them. So yeah. It’s amazing, man.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man, no, again, I’m in awe, and I think that’s incredibly inspiring and something that everyone needs to hear. And I identify a lot with your story because I’m first generation Mexican American. And my dad came over around the same time. Well actually he became a citizen around the same time. He came over a couple, two decades earlier. But yeah, that sense of family was always so important to us growing up, and still is. It’s honestly the thing I miss the most. Because right now, after my sister McKenna left New York to go back home to California, like right when the pandemic hit, I’m the only one on this side of the country.
Everyone, almost everyone’s back in California. We got some family scattered in the Southwest, my brother and his family are in Chicago, so they’re the closest outpost. But yeah, there were so many times during the pandemic, maybe when it seemed like the cases were going down and so the family could get together for a small barbecue. And they would send pictures to our family WhatsApp channel. And I would just, I would feel so much love, but also so much sadness because it legitimately felt like I was sitting on the moon looking at my phone of these people I loved and this place I loved. And that feeling of belonging that meant so much to me, it just felt so infinitely far away over these past two years.
But I’m very grateful to them for cultivating that deep sense of family in us from the beginning, because I see when others don’t have it. I try to give it to others, that gift, as much as I possibly can, and it means a whole hell of a lot. But I’m curious, at the same time. Our first generation family, we had a lot of quirks and a lot of fun stuff going on in the Alvarez household. So I’m curious, what was it like for you growing up first generation Tongan in the States, and did you have a big family growing up?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Yeah. We had a big family. And within the Tongan tradition, first cousins and second cousins are actually considered siblings. So we had a big extended family, which we actually saw on a weekly basis, whether it was church activities or at home, we always knew how to celebrate something. So we were always doing something. There was always a birthday party. There certainly were funerals. And if you’ve ever seen any footage from a funeral in the Pacific islands, we mourn in a big way where people would pay their respects in big droves or groups of people. So rather than your family and your church members coming to your viewing, it’s your family, their friends, their churches. And it’s like all the congregations that were in the Tongan community. So it was more of a celebration of life at a funeral.
And it was the same way for birthdays and everything else. But growing up was hard. I actually grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. And I had a lot of family there, extended family. My mom didn’t have any siblings there, but my dad had all his sisters in Salt Lake, along with my grandmother. And so it was tricky with my mom being there with all her sister-in-laws and her mother-in-law. And having to grow up here in the States, gangs were really prevalent in the Tongan community. Although we are considered people who are very spiritual, we did fall into the gang life because it was an easy way to make quick money.
And back when I was growing up there weren’t a lot of options for us. So I have cousins, unfortunately, who’ve died due to gang violence, whether it’s been killed on the streets, or killed at home, or incarcerated. There was a big, big influence of gang life in my life, but I was fortunate to steer away from that. I think I owe that to my parents who paid attention when other parents couldn’t because they were stuck working. A lot of my cousins whose parents were working two, three jobs just to keep afloat. The parents were busy at work, so my cousins were hitting the streets.
So luckily for me, my dad had a good job at the time. I thought it was a good job, with FedEx, driving trucks. He was a truck driver for over 30 years, and he was proud of the work he did. He thought he was productive here in this new country that he came to be productive in. He wanted a better future for his kids.
So, I considered it a good life, even though we did a lot of sacrificing on our end because of my dad making some decent wages. We went a lot without, because my dad would help pay utilities for his cousins or for anybody who needed help within the community. So I know what it’s like to boil water on a stove and use it to take a hot bath. Candlelit powwows in the house because the power was out because we paid somebody else’s car payment. It wasn’t that we went without. We never thought we went without, it was just that we were helping somebody else. It was a huge sacrifice, but I appreciate it now, looking back at what we did to help others when they needed us.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man, I mean, that’s really an incredible thing to hear. I mean, first of all, I’m so incredibly sorry that you lost family members to that gang violence. It’s incredibly sad and real, and I think something that folks who haven’t grown up in that or around that, it’s hard to understand. Because from the outside you’re like, oh, why would anyone do that? But I thought even just the way that you put it. It’s like, well, think about how volatile your life is when you’re a kid. And then think about that when you also mix in you could end up getting in with the wrong crowd. You could be hurting for money at home and needing to get that fast cash.
There are a lot of different reasons people fall into that. It claims a lot of young lives, and it’s a very, very, sad reality that we live in. I definitely knew people who got involved in that stuff, and I’ve worked with people who got involved with that stuff, or who had gotten out of prison after being in gangs in LA. But I think, yeah, I was also fortunate to live somewhere and have parents who had the means to pay attention to us and whip us into shape when we were getting out of hand. But I remember it was always something that I think my parents were afraid of, especially with us, my brothers and I, looking the way that we did.
To bring some levity in there, I’ve told folks on the show many times that we grew up very Catholic and conservative, and so my parents are very strict with the brothers. McKenna got off easy. But I remember one time a buddy of mine, Eric, we were on the high school football team together. And I was like, all right, you know what? I had my big Mexican fro, and it’s really hot under that football helmet in Southern California in summer training. So my boy Eric had some clippers and he was like, oh yeah, I’ll give you a buzz cut. I was like, all right, sweet. But don’t do it too short because my dad will get pissed. He’s like, yeah, no problem.
And so to be an asshole, he went down to zero basically and shaved a huge line down the center of my head. And I was like, oh fuck. So I guess you might as well just do the whole thing. And so I walked home after that and, looking back, this seems like such a dumb, small thing. But I walked inside, my dad’s eyes got huge. And he was like, you’re grounded! Because he is like, no goddamn son of mine is going to be a cholo. So just for shaving my head. And I listened to some rap, I got grounded for that.
So I was wondering how you navigated all of that growing up in Salt Lake, because it must be hard as a kid to understand that. Like if there were times where you guys had to go without because your dad and your family were helping support others. Did that make sense to you at that time? Or did you need to grow up a bit to make peace with that?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: No, it’s all I ever knew. It was a sacrifice that we never thought of until I grew up and I understood that we were helping others because my dad had the means to, fortunately. It is one of those things where they all come here at the same time looking for opportunities, and that opportunity is like a lottery. Some people get the shot by chance of putting in an application somewhere and getting the interview. And some others don’t, and they have to wait a little longer.
But it was not anything that we went without, because we never thought of it that way. I think that’s one of the biggest traits that I’ve taken from my heritage is the sacrifice that you make for others. My dad used to say it’s better to share crumbs with a group of people than to eat a steak by yourself. And I always thought of it that way. Making a lot of sacrifices, even the sacrifices of today that I’m making where a lot of times I’m taking time off, taking time off for work or taking time off from my family because I know that there’s a need somewhere else.
It’s those sacrifices that I hope my kids understand one day. And that’s pretty much all they’ve known so far. So I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to be a big deal to them. I think it’s one that I know it’s easy for me to live this life because I have my better half, my wife who understands this work. Being a union sister of mine, she knows full well the union differences in our household and how we’re able to live a better life. It goes back to her seeing how her parents struggled.
And we talk about our struggles as kids. So we can help those who are of our generation of Tongan Americans make a little better life for their kids, if not by joining a union, at least finding ways to help them out. We’re in a position where we’re so thankful to be a part of a union and to be able to have a shot at life, because there’s a lot of people who are in our shoes that don’t have that fortune. It’s like I said before, it’s like a lottery. It feels like it. I don’t know. But I’m just thankful for my union benefits. And I’m thankful to my wife for understanding this lifestyle we’re in now.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, no. Again, I can’t imagine that’s easy for either of you, and the fact that you have that soulmate and you have that family understanding is an incredibly beautiful thing. Because, yeah, I think it’s important to underline that. That the work that you are able to do to support people in their struggles, even if you’ve never met them, is made possible by that family unit. By that support, by you and your wife working together, by your kids understanding, by your union supporting you. So it’s like again, the message as always is that it’s a collective effort, and collectively we can get where we need to go, which I think is a really beautiful thing.
But I, yeah, definitely don’t want to minimize. I’m sure it gets very tiring, very taxing. All the more reason why it’s so incredible and important that folks like you are able to do that solidarity work. And I wanted to tie that back to you growing up in Salt Lake, because you say your dad was driving for FedEx.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: So was there a big union sense in your family at any point? And did you have a sense of what you wanted to do growing up?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: No, I was just like any other Tongan kid. I wanted to play football when I grew up. We were always thinking about athletics and everything. That’s what our parents instilled in us too, because they saw that a lot of our kids were making it into the Polynesian pipeline of getting into college, and that was their shot of getting in, and maybe making it to the next level.
So, the majority of us, if you weren’t caught up in a gang, you were trying to make sure that you graduate and be able to get your clearinghouse paperwork done with the NCAA. So I never, ever heard anything about a union while my dad was working other than when he used to mention it to me and my mom, when we sat over the table with my siblings. He used to say, yeah, there was a memo going out. And it was talking about people coming out there talking about unions.
And unions being so foreign to me growing up, when I started working in the aviation industry right out of a short stint in college, I went to a non-union aviation job, which is really rare considering the density of unionization work here in the aviation industry. But I had a boss at that job. It was the same work that I’m doing now, but it was non-union. And he was from Buffalo, New York, and he would always have something to say about unions, always something negative. And that’s what I thought it was too. I was hearing what was going on with my dad, and hearing that these people think that unions are bad, and then hearing it from my boss for a couple years.
I’d never really ever thought of what a union could do for anybody. And it wasn’t until I got hired into my first union job with Southwest Airlines was when I actually heard for the first time what a union was. And that was back when I first moved to Texas from Salt Lake following my marriage.
So, we’re going through the orientation and somebody from the union comes and speaks to the orientation class, and they’re telling us that we got to pay dues. And I’m thinking, so I got to pay – And this is without any knowledge of what dues can do for you – But, I got to pay so I can work over here? I mean, and that’s when I finally heard what a closed shop was. So that’s when I learned about a closed shop, and I spent some time there before I moved on to American Airlines.
There was a merger between two big airlines, US Airways and American. And on the heels of that merger was this big hiring boom from American. So I decided to hop on with my wife, who was actually working at American already. So she has seniority on me. I don’t really say that publicly, but yeah, she got time on [inaudible]. But anyways, I get hired on with this big generation, a new generation of workers. And you go to work and then I see that they have a union too. So their union’s coming in and telling us what the union can do for us. And I didn’t really pay attention to the union at Southwest because I was never in trouble.
But as soon as I got to American, I understood a little bit more of why the union was needed in our place of work. Because as soon as I started working out there, you see like when you go out there to a ramp like Dallas Fort Worth airport, the workers run the show there. It was the true chiefs. It was not anybody from management, but it was the workers. And that opened my eyes to what workers can do when they’re in charge.
I’m suddenly hearing about work rules and the contract and why it’s so important to read the contract. I’m still trying to make it past probation and I’m getting all this information from the union. So that was my start, I just gathered information and I was the guy in my class that knew where the closest restroom was, where the closest exit or entrance was to a certain gate in a terminal. So that’s how I got my start. I was just answering questions for my fellow workers who started with me, and it went from that.
Then somebody thought it was a good idea to get me more involved, so I got more and more involved. And before you know it, I started learning about solidarity outside of my own union. You hear about it all the time, where we can get stuck in our own little union silos and we have all these issues going on, and we don’t worry about everybody else’s issues, because it’s all about us.
So it wasn’t until there was a union campaign by Unite Here. It was a union campaign which caught my eye because my wife’s parents worked for these airline kitchens here back in the ’80s for DFW. So they were making $2 an hour to start off with, and they were working long hours. The same things that were happening back in the ’80s where these immigrants were getting taken advantage of in these kitchens because they didn’t understand the work rules or their rights.
It was still continuing on, and I was upset. I couldn’t believe that, first and foremost, that my in-laws had to go through that, but that it is still going on here today. That people of color who are recently here for whatever reason, they go into these kitchens and they get taken advantage of. So from there, with that Unite Here campaign, I started getting involved because it reminded me of my in-laws slaving away and toiling away in those kitchens to get hot food for first class, elite members flying in those metal tubes. It was all these gourmet meals that these people are enjoying 36,000 feet in the air were actually made by people who can barely speak a lick of English, but are mistreated and thought to be people who are not important.
And that’s what really levitated me to see what’s going on outside of my union. And from there, brother, it took off like a rocket ship. But yeah, it goes back to family. I was thinking about my parents, my in-laws in those kitchens, and I thought, why can’t we change it for this generation? Because a lot of the people who work in those kitchens, their kids go to school with my kids here in the surrounding DFW area. Luckily for me, I have a union job where I get decent wages so I can afford not to have to work extra hours, and I can make it to my kids’ recital or sports match or whatever.
But unfortunately for a lot of those who work alongside me, catering the airplanes, they couldn’t make it to those events because they were busy working or they were forced to work overtime. So a lot of times their kids were there alone at a recital. And I knew their parents because I could easily think back to when I worked with them last on the ramp, and it wasn’t any way to live. I told my wife, that’s no way to support a community, by allowing people to get stuck at work while their kids are here at school events by themselves. Every kid should be able to have their parents somewhere to promote whatever they’re doing.
And that goes to making a decent living, and having decent work rules to where you can get away. It’s one of those things where it always stuck in my mind that the same people that are working alongside me doing that work out there in that hundred degree weather, surrounded by asphalt and airplanes, they’re making half the wages I make, and they’re suffering under the same heat I am. How come they can’t make as much as me? And how come their kids have to suffer when they all go to the same school, we all go to the same stores. We all do the same things in the community. Why can’t our community all grow together? So that’s been my light-my-ass-on-fire moment. And from there on, it’s been one issue after another. If I catch on to it and I can make time, I’m there.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. No, I think that’s really powerfully put. And like you said, you don’t forget those moments of realization. I think for me, I’ve had versions of that, but the one that always sticks out in my memory is, I’ve told the story many times of one of the warehouses I worked at back in California. And I don’t know. I’m getting to that point where I’m increasingly uncomfortable talking about these past jobs the farther away I get from them, because I don’t want to convey to people listening that I think I’m still back there. A lot has changed over the past 10 years, I’m a different person. I’m on the other side of the country. I’m doing different kinds of work.
But I bring it up because this is a very, I think, one of the moments in my own development where the point that you were just making, Tevita, really sunk in with me. Because one of the warehouses that I worked at, the one that I worked at the longest, even though I was a temp and at the end of every day, I could have been told, don’t come back tomorrow. But managed to stay there, I think eight, nine months. And a bunch of other warehouses and factories for a couple weeks, month, two months, so on and so forth.
But this warehouse in the city of industry, for folks in Southern California, you drive on those freeways and you see those massive beige blocks on the side of the freeway, and you never really know what’s in there. If you could see through the walls, you would just see hundreds of predominantly Brown bodies just slaving away in these hot boxes, loading and stacking pallets. Little forklifts driving up and down these big Indiana Jones style warehouses and stuff. So that’s what’s in those big, massive facilities that they just blend into the background, but that’s what’s going on there.
And so at the warehouse that I worked at, the company, what it did was that it supplied a lot of the raw materials and certain products for big box stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond, Walmart, and so on and so forth. JCPenney. And it was so wild because there would be dozens of us, guys sweating, covered in tattoos. It was a very racially segregated warehouse, because the white people were in the front office. There were a couple white folks on the floor, but they were very much the minority. The vast majority of us were Latino. But the East Asian folks were on one side. They were doing a lot of the sewing of the pillows and all that stuff.
So anyway, just giving some background here. Because I remember slaving away in that place and taking these pillows, these feather pillows, the non-feather pillows, pillows that had to be stitched together, others that could zip. All the different fabrics that would go over the feather insert. And these are the things that make their way into the gaudy McMansion living rooms of people all across this country.
So there are people who fall asleep every night drooling onto a pillow that was stuffed and stitched and tagged and shipped by a formerly incarcerated person who is barely making enough to feed their family. I remember having gotten out of that warehouse eventually, moving to Chicago, because my brother and I moved in together. And then I was a waiter there for a year. But I remember when I got there, Zach, my brother was like, okay, go get us a couple of things from Bed, Bath & Beyond because we need a couch and some basic stuff for the apartment. So he gave me his credit card and I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond while he was at work.
And I remember walking up this aisle in a Bed, Bath & Beyond in Chicago, thousands of miles away from the city of industry. And I just stopped because I was in the pillow section, and I saw all the same pillows. And I looked at the tags, and they came from our warehouse. And I just really had one of those stop and stare for 10 minutes sort of moments thinking about where they came from and where they were going, and all that was lost in translation from point A to point B. And I think, in my own way, I had that realization that you had where I was like, I don’t want to see myself as the one who got out. And I don’t want to forget about the people who are still there. And in some way, we’ve got to make that labor visible. We’ve got to fight for the people who are still back there or all around us.
I didn’t expect to go on that long about it, but I wanted to ask really quick, just to give people more of a sense of that scene that they don’t see. That’s where I was going with this, is like all that hot, heavy labor that goes on in places like those warehouses that leads to the blankets and pillows and shower curtains that adorn people’s houses, like you were saying. Like those meals that are made for first class passengers, part of the luxury is not having to care about where they come from or think about the people who made them. So I was wondering if you could say a little more for folks listening who have never seen that side, like, what work you do and the folks around you were doing, like what that looks like on a day to day basis?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Yeah. So I’m a fleet service clerk by trade. So we load and unload cargo, mail, and any freight, baggage, anything that pertains to servicing of the aircraft. And alongside us are workers who work for a vendor called Sky Chefs. And Sky Chefs workers work alongside us because we’re both servicing the aircraft. They’re going above wing and loading and unloading carts for commissary, first class meals, anything that pertains to servicing onboard the aircraft, taking out the trash, regulated waste, if it’s international inbound or outbound flights. But these caterers, so there’s two parts. So there are caterers who are in the warehouse or in the factory themselves, and they’re the ones who are assembling the meals. And then there’s the second part where the delivery drivers are the ones that are meeting the aircraft at the plane, at the point when we touch the aircraft, and they’re doing their business, we’re doing ours. And we work side by side with each other. And the common goal is to get the plane out, get it serviced and on its way. We’re in the business of moving people.
So ironically, those who work in catering here at DFW and other stations, that work used to belong to my work group back in the ’80s and the ’90s. So when that work was outsourced, that work was taken over by a vendor. And I think it created some animosity between those who worked in my union before I was there and those workers who have taken over the work. So when I started getting involved with the Unite Here campaign, that one job was not enough. I got my first glimpse into the racial divide in unions, and the divide between the people who think they deserve the work and the people who are doing the work but are making pennies on the dollar doing the work.
It was one of those things where I was starting to hear things. When I would publicly share an event that was going on with Unite Here, I’d share it on my social media and I’d start to get pushback from people in my own union who would tell me that that work once belonged to us, why am I helping people who take our work away from us? Or why do you care about them? We have our own issues. And at that time, we were going through a contract negotiation, and this was a pretty lengthy negotiation. And it was a pretty ugly one, one in which we had an injunction served on us and passed by a judge here, a district court judge in Texas, which really made it ugly during negotiations.
So anyways, I was starting to get people talking down to me and telling me that I shouldn’t care about these people, that you could have had that job if it was still in house. And why do you care? You make good decent wages already? And that’s where it really ticked me off, and I understood that not every unionist really thinks the same way. It’s one of those things where, do you really think that those jobs were going to stick around for us forever? I don’t know, I’m not one to speculate on anything like that. But all I know is there are people in those trucks and they have families, and I’m pretty sure I know their kids, and they go to school with my kids, and they deserve a fair shot.
So I started venturing out on my own and doing things that I thought were right. And I started learning about class struggles. The class struggle fights, and started learning about class struggle unionism, where you continue to fight whoever, because there’s always somebody getting wronged by their boss. Regardless of whether or not I could have had that work, the work belongs to somebody else now, and they deserve a decent shot at a decent living. And that’s the way I started thinking as the years went on.
And it hasn’t been that many years. But I tried to be where the people need me, where those who are most vulnerable need me, because I know that I’m fortunate, and I can very well easily be in their shoes. It’s like Nas said on the song, he said, I’m one block away from the devil. So you can always be in a bad position. But luckily for me, and I’m fortunate that I’m in a position where I can help. And it’s going to continue because there’s so much going on. There are so many people being wronged right now. And all it takes is just a matter of time, and a matter of me trying to arrange my schedule.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and as you know and as we just talked about, we try to, every episode, talk about people’s working lives. Not just those, but to really give folks a sense, again, of the vital labor that people do all around us every day that holds this society up. And I think that it’s important for us to make space to talk about the work that you do in the solidarity vein, the solidarity work that you do, and the labor that goes into that. Even if it is a labor of love, it’s still a big chunk of your life and, as we talked about, takes a lot out of you.
So I want to circle back, in a minute, to the question of solidarity, unionism, or sorry, like class solidarity, unionism because I think it’s such an essential perspective that all of us need to have right now. Because whether it’s online debates about which workers should we support more because they’re the more authentic working class, or they’re the ones who are going to get us to the revolution quicker. Or whether it’s elder unionists sneering at the organizing campaign at Starbucks and saying like, oh, I think this is a flash in the pan. Or, I’ve heard about labor surges before and nothing came of it, so I’m not getting my hopes up. I think we have enough enemies as it is. And so it’s important, I think, to really take what you’re saying to heart when we look at the task ahead of us.
But I also wanted to really stress again to people that it’s something that you, Tevita, do all the time. And you’re not alone, there are great folks doing that work and showing that solidarity. So, let’s look at the past year, the year that everyone was getting really into the strikes. And it felt like more and more strikes were cropping up, and more important labor struggles, unionization efforts, the great resignation. A lot was happening in the past year. So, what does that side of your life look like? Could you tell us a bit about the different places that you went last year, what you did, and what you heard from folks?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Yeah. So last year was like… I don’t know how you can explain it. It’s like, things just happened so quick. And for me, it started off with the Frito-Lay strike in Nebraska. And thanks to social media and the internet, I started getting information on what was going on there. And once they got their stuff settled, the Nabisco strike hit. And this was on the heels of a pandemic in which people were quitting and everything. And so, Nabisco comes around and the workers are on strike. And I’m looking at picket lines I can visit. I’m looking up their picket lines, and I see one in Chicago. And naturally, the airline I work for, they have a hub there, so it would be easier for me to get in and out. Or so I thought.
So anyways, I fly into Chicago’s O’Hare, not even thinking. And this is why, I think, it drives people in my life crazy when I plan trips to picket lines, because it’s so spontaneous. It’s like, there’s a strike vote, there’s a picket line, and then there’s a matter of time before I make it to the line. So a lot of times, it’s like 12 to 24 hours notice that I give anybody in my life that I’m going somewhere.
So anyways, I’m flying into O’Hare, and not even realizing or doing real research other than this Nabisco factory is in Chicago, I hop into a rideshare, and I’m going 40 minutes south, to the South side of Chicago. So I get there and my Uber driver says, wow, you came all the way out to this Nabisco plant. And then he told me, what’s going on? And I said, well, these workers, they’re on strike. And a lot of their work has been shipped overseas or down to another country. And their employers are just not negotiating in good faith. And I gave them a reason why I was there. My kids eat cookies and all the Nabisco snacks you can think of, those are their snacks. And I told the driver and I told pretty much everybody, these are the snacks that my kids enjoy. And there are union workers who make the snacks that they enjoy. And right now these workers are out. So rather than me just sharing like a petition or something, I’m going to show up. If I can make it, I’m going to show up.
So I show up to this Nabisco strike here in Chicago, and I’ve never – So I’m from Texas, or I live here in Texas, and when it comes to anti-labor bullshit, that’s pretty much what you see anywhere here in the South. So when I’m in Chicago, I see this big whole congregation of people. And I’m thinking, this is a new world for me. I’m looking at this picket line and I’m thinking, what the hell? There’s a hundred people here. And there’s this big-ass inflatable of the rat, Scabby, was there. But Mother Jones was there. That was the one. Because you see Scabby everywhere. But the Mother Jones one was there, and I was like, I’m home. I belong in Chicago.
So I walked up to this picket line. I grab a sign and I said, I’m just so thankful to be here. And one of the workers looked at me and said, what are you doing here? Where are you from? And I told him, I’m from Dallas. And they said, oh, you’re here to visit family. And I said, absolutely. I’m here to visit my family. And when I told them I was there for a day, they were shocked. And they were like, holy shit, this guy flew in from Texas just to be here with us. And I thought that was just great that these people thought that was special. And I shared this moment with these people, that somebody cared about the people who made the snacks for my kids, and that I had to do the people right by showing up when they needed me.
And from Chicago, I went to Portland for the same Nabisco strike. Shortly after Portland, they settled. And that was when John Deere was going into strike. So, my timeline may be off, but Kellogg’s and John Deere are going into strike. And so I’m thinking, I’m doing my planning again, which is short notice and everybody’s going to be upset when they find out I’m flying out, with my family mainly. So I make it to Omaha. And this was like the first weekend of the strike when they called the strike for the Kellogg’s workers.
And so I get to the picket line and there’s a couple of different locations. And I found a couple of workers when I got dropped off by my rideshare, I just went to the nearest one. And I’m telling them, hey, can I get a sign? And they say, yeah, sure. And they’re asking me how long I was going to be there. And I said, you know what? I think I’ll be here as long as I can be. And so they started telling me about the negotiations that were going on, the early negotiations, and all the scabs that were going into the facility. And so I’m telling these folks I’m there for the day. And they’re just as shocked as the people that were in Portland and Chicago, that some random guy would just show up to a picket, not even knowing what we do for a living or how we do the work, but just wants to be there. And some of them thought that was badass, and some of them thought I was crazy.
So it went from there to New York. And I went to New York in November of last year, and this is a rally for the mine workers. So I’m meeting up with a lot of people there, a lot of the heavy hitters in labor, from the union leaders to those who write on behalf of labor and report labor. Well, anyways, I get to the rally point in New York, I forget the location. And we’re marching down the street towards BlackRock. And I finally got the feel of the cadence, because you’re trying to get the feel of the cadence so when you start to yell out a chant, the people know what you’re already going to say. So we get in front of BlackRock, and everybody was tired from the walk. And I started saying, BlackRock sucks. And that chant, BlackRock sucks, permeated down both ends of the road.
Maximillian Alvarez: Simple yet effective.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Yeah. And then the rally begins. And somebody from the mine workers’ union, United Mine Workers Union, I think it was their secretary treasurer, he found out from word of mouth, or I think it may have been Will Attic of the Veterans Council, the Union Veterans Council, who told him that there’s this guy from Texas that flew in to be here in this rally. So right in the middle of their rally. And there had to have been hundreds of people there, unionists from all over New York, the mine workers. And during the rally, the secretary treasurer is naming off people who are there: Sarah Nelson, the New York Central Labor Council, the New York State Fed. And then this guy from Texas, his name is Tevita, I think. And I’m looking around like, who the hell? So they’re all like pointing me out. And I’m just like, yeah!
I’m in the crowd, and suddenly he calls me up to come and speak to the crowd. And this is my first time I’m there with Cecil Roberts, Sarah’s there. And these are our generation’s labor orators. These are the people who rile up the rank and file members to fight. And here I am, this rank and file member from Texas, on stage with our rock stars. And I cannot believe that I was speaking to this crowd of people, like-minded like myself, saying that BlackRock sucks.
But I could talk about that. I mean, Denver, with the John Deere strike. So when I was planning the John Deere strike, there was that court injunction in which it minimized the number of people that can be on a picket line in Iowa, because I was going to go to Iowa. So I thought, you know what, let me not take away from the members who had strike duty, and let me find a picket line in the John Deere strike in which it wouldn’t be really caught up with all the bullshit from the courts. So I was looking around on a strike map and I found this local in Denver and they had five members, and it was a John Deere distribution center. And I thought, you know what, I’ve been to all these big locals, why not go and join a picket line with just five members? Because if I’m going to be there, I have to be there for those who may not get the attention.
So I fly into Denver. And I’m taking my ride share over. And I get to the John Deere facility, or the distribution center. It’s a small one, right off the highway. And I get there and there’s a tent set up, but there’s only one guy sitting there. So I walked up to the guy and I asked him, hey, is this the picket line? And I mean, there were signs there. And he said, yeah. Are you here from the labor council? And I said, I’m here from a labor council, but not from this labor council. So then one of his buddies comes over, which happened to be one of the guys that was on the negotiation team for UAW. And I tell them, I’m here for the strike. And they said, well, shouldn’t you be in Iowa or something like that, or somewhere with more members? And I told them, well, if you don’t want me to be here, then I guess I’ll just leave. And they said, no, no, no, no. You can stick around.
So we end up sticking around with those members. And they said they felt special knowing that somebody from Texas came to a picket line with only five members. And they thought, who in their right mind would waste their time? And I said, I’m that person that would waste my time. It’s not a waste of time.
Maximillian Alvarez: This guy.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: This guy. And even before the whole big strike wave, just being in Bessemer back in February, and I had the opportunity to go there twice. My first time wasn’t as pleasant as my second time, because I was there with Sarah the second time. But my first time, this was just to shoot the shit, I’m going there. And this was when reports started coming out, so I was interested, I wanted to go and hear from the workers themselves without even knowing the law.
So I’m just showing up. So I fly into Birmingham and I get to the… And I take a ride share to the Bessemer facility. Well, when I plugged in the Bessemer facility, the Uber driver took me straight to the front door. So I have this union shirt on, this big-ass Texas AFL shirt that says “union” on it in the front on my chest. I have my Apollo hat on, I have my union bomber jacket on for my local. And I’m like, oh shit, he dropped me off at the entrance. And I see the Bessemer Police Department vehicles there. So I’m hurrying to go back down to the bottom of the hill to the exit. So I’m walking down the sidewalk and the organizer for the Amazon union was standing there holding the sign right alongside that intersection, that infamous intersection.
Maximillian Alvarez: I’ve been there. I’ve stood on it myself. Yeah. I know exactly… I can see it in my head.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Well, So you know this. So I’m walking down the hill, I have a sandwich in my hand, I have one of the signs, the “union yes” signs that I saw on the floor, and I’m walking down with it. And Steve, he was on corner duties that night, he sees me and he’s like, who the hell is this guy? So, I stopped and I looked at him, he looks at me, and then he walks across the street. And then I walked across the street to him, I said, hey man, what’s going on? And he’s like, are you a mole from Amazon? And I said, I don’t think so. Am I at the right place? And he goes, who are you? And we’re arguing back and forth. And I said, I’m here with you. I want to be here with you.
So, I give him my card, and he looks at the card and he looks, it says all this stuff on it. And he calls somebody from their union hall in Birmingham, and all of a sudden, maybe a short time later while we’re standing across the street from each other at this point because he doesn’t trust me.
So I get this call from my hall about maybe 20 minutes into our stare down and it’s our secretary treasurer, and he’s like, hey, where are you? And I said, I’m out here, out of town. And he said, well, where are you? And I said, I’m here in Alabama. He goes, I just got a call from the international union for the retail workers, this union, and they said that they got a guy from the TW513 out there and they’re just trying to figure out what he’s doing there.
So, we got it all figured out, and finally Steve wasn’t so spooked at the end. So, by the end of the day we became friends. And then I went back a short while later with Sarah Nelson of the association of flight attendants. So we go the same day, and it was actually the same day that Jennifer Bates was testifying before Congress. So it was pretty cool to be there that day to see history happen from afar. But brother, it’s been so crazy to be a part of all these little union drives or whatever was going on, whether it was a union drive or a picket. But the fact that I made my way into all these different actions, I feel like Forrest Gump.
Just being somewhere by accident and suddenly I have a memory of it now. But yeah, last year was the travel year for me, and I have magnets from everywhere I’ve been. And the kids love all the magnets on our fridge because it reminds them of all the times I went somewhere and came back with something for them.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I mean, whenever my folks went somewhere, I don’t know why, but any trinket they brought back, I loved it.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I don’t know, I mean I got chills just listening to this and reflecting on the struggles of the past year and thinking about understanding why it may be unnerving to someone, especially when you’re in a high stakes moment like a strike or unionization effort at the second largest private employer in the US that’s union busting to all hell. I can understand why your guards are up.
And I felt that a little bit when I was getting there. I had to ingratiate myself to folks. Because for folks listening, there were people in Bessemer who would rip up the signs, and there was one or two people who were suspected of being paid by Amazon to do this who would basically counter picket across the street on that same intersection saying oh, unions are bad or whatnot. So, you got to understand why there’s a little suspicion at first. But also because what you’re doing, Tevita, is not something that we’ve… It’s a muscle we need to rebuild. It’s something that we should be more familiar with and why we need to actually show up and do that work.
But I got to tell you, the thing that really warmed my heart, and I think that this is a really, really beautiful part of the movement, I mean, is… Because I didn’t grow up in the labor movement. I came to it very late in life, or later in life, and I’ve been overwhelmed by what I’ve seen and who I’ve met. I mean, amazing folks like yourself and all the workers that I’ve talked to in person or over the phone, and there’s something so beautiful about those little connections, even if it’s just like you’re in the same place for one day or you’re like ships passing in the night, but you all have been in those same places. You start to feel, again, like this growing sense that we’re less alone. That there are more of us, and that we’re growing and that there is that community.
Because literally I’m sitting in my office here in Baltimore, behind my computer, I’ve got pictures of family, I’ve got paintings that calm me when I’m stressed, and I just look up and they’re like watercolors, but at the very top – And my eyes were going up as you were talking about Bessemer, because I have one of the RWDSU vote union yes, our community supports Amazon workers signs pinned above my desk – And so as you were talking about being in Bessemer and that same lonely driveway walking down with your sign, my eyes went up and I looked at my sign. I just felt again, that sense of connection. We were there and we’re still there in a lot of ways. And it’s important to build that.
And I don’t want to keep you too long, but I wanted to ask, as someone who has been out there and seen and talked to folks on picket lines from strikes that folks around the country and beyond have been reading about, or seeing maybe video clips about. I was wondering what takeaway things that you’ve been hearing and seeing that you think folks out there who are maybe excited about the labor movement or who are learning about this labor action and want to know more about it. What sorts of things do you think folks listening really need to understand about these struggles and what you’ve been hearing from workers on the picket lines that you’ve gone to?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Yeah. One of the biggest things that I say I can take away from pretty much every picket line is the fact that people feel like their bosses underestimate them. They think that just because we’re the ones doing all the work, the toiling, putting our bodies on the line to get the product out, they think that we don’t have a mind of our own, that we cannot think for ourselves, that we should be grateful for the jobs that they offer.
And what people are realizing now at these picket lines while they’re sitting there and trying to figure out the fight and what’s going to take to win it, we need to put behind our differences. We have common goals as working people, and a lot of times we let our politics get in the way of our real yearning to be with each other. The politics, they tend to separate people rather than bringing people together. And I think at these picket lines, people are starting to figure out that there’s a certain kind of politics that can bring people together, but we need to be supportive of it. We need to be supportive of helping others that are not as fortunate to be in our position or be in our shoes.
People talk about it not being a left or right thing, but a workers’ thing. I mean, I heard Michael Small talk about this at the Senate Congressional Hearing. It doesn’t matter how you vote, the people who are working are the ones that are suffering. And it’s these people who push through the policies that hurt or help us, those are those people who don’t see what’s going on unless they show up. And when they show up, it’s not very long, not long enough to where they can actually see people being harmed or hurt or being taken advantage of. They can only go off the stories. But I’m here to tell you that the stories are real and people are going through some shit out there, and if you have a union, great, you still have to fight. But if you don’t, man, I hope you get one. And if you need one, we need to go around and we need to get those workers that need one, and we need to support them. We need to support the Starbucks Union workers and the Amazon Labor Union.
One of the biggest things I’ve seen, and I don’t know if it’s a knock towards the more traditional unions, but there hasn’t been a lot of support other than after a win, then yay, hooray, here we go, another win. But prior to all that, it was all looked at as a fluke, we weren’t taking it seriously. And I think what a lot of these unions need to understand is, you got that boss mentality when you think that way. You need to put yourself back into the position of rank and file member, and remember how it was to have to be in the position to have to make a choice whether to strike or not, or to have a job action. I think a lot of them forget about it. And I’m not a professor, I’m not a historian in labor, and I’m just about to be a seven year member of my union.
But I’ll tell you, people are just not putting up with bullshit anymore. We just don’t want to hear it. We want to know who cares for us, and our eyes are opening. And if you don’t want to be a part of it, that’s fine, but don’t knock these new organizers. Don’t discount the work that they do, because I’m here to tell you, the work that these organizers do, whether it’s Starbucks or Amazon, man, it’s like back to your roots. When they say, I’m going back to my roots, that’s what these workers are doing. They’re going back to our roots to talk to every worker, not just a certain number of workers, or a certain color, or whatever. They are finding ways to engage and talk to people who would otherwise keep their head down and continue to take the beatings from the boss.
We need to support each other. And if you don’t want to support us, we will find somebody to replace you, whether it’s in our union halls or in Congress or whatever. We’ve gotten to a point where we are now seeing our power, and thanks to all these organizers, and all these organizing drives, we are starting to see our power in action. And I’m just here for the ride, man. I’m here for the ride.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. So normally in this part of recording a Working People episode, I would just say, boom, that is where we’re going to end this episode because that was, yeah, preach brother. But I’m going to keep you for just a couple minutes more.
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Okay.
Maximillian Alvarez: But, co-sign everything that Tevita just said. But in the spirit of supporting one another, I want to directly ask dear Working People listeners to show some support for our brother here who gives so much to support Working People everywhere. Tevita, as you guys have heard, does incredible work, takes the time off and hops those flights when he can, with the support of his wife and kids and union, which is incredible. And it has an impact. It’s really important that Tevita and others be able to do that work and that we support that.
I think it’s really, really crucial that more folks in the movement get a chance to meet Tevita. And there will be a chance to do that next month, in June, at the Labor Notes Conference, which I will be at. I’m very excited because I’ve never been myself. I’ve always been envious, I wanted to go. I’ve always felt like an outsider myself in the labor sphere, because when I started Working People, I wanted to make it clear to folks, I was like, I don’t see myself as a journalist. I see myself as a conversationalist. I’m a storyteller. I work with people so that they can tell their stories the way they want them to be told. But there are important labor journalists who are doing a lot more of the reporting work that I think I see myself working in tandem with.
For that reason, and for all the other reasons we talked about, it was never… Have only been part of a union workforce once, grew up in a very anti-union part of the country as a conservative. Again, I always felt like an outsider, and still do quite a lot. There are a lot of parts of the labor media world that I don’t feel accepted in. But I don’t want that to always be the case. I think that the more that we meet each other and talk to one another and learn from each other, the more that we can support one another and see ourselves as being part of this collective struggle.
And so I say all this by way of offering a plug and a plea to everyone listening, let’s get Tevita to Labor Notes, because I know he wants to go, and I want him desperately to go. So Tevita, I was wondering if you could just say a few words about Labor Notes, and what it’s going to be, and why you’re excited to go there, and then send us out that way. But I just wanted to say up top for folks listening, we’re going to have links in the show notes where you can support Tevita. But yeah, please, please, let’s get this brother out there to Labor Notes to meet with all the other great organizers who are going to be there. All the great labor journalists and all the great unionists who are going to be there. It’s going to be a really important meeting of this movement, and Tevita absolutely deserves to be there. So let’s show him some love and get him there.
So Tevita, what are you looking forward to at Labor Notes? And why is it important?
Tevita ‘Uhatafe: Well, first and foremost, I’m just grateful for this opportunity. And when you offered to do this for me, it is just one of those things where doing this work has been a financial challenge because I’m missing out on work which I would’ve otherwise not been if I would just stick around and not do the work. And I didn’t want to put my family in a position to struggle all in the name of doing this work. Luckily for me, my wife is a grinder and she can create flower leis and sell them out to people who need them. That’s my little strike fund right now, or solidarity fund. It’s my wife really putting her talents out there and creating a lot of creations which people can wear, and that money goes to helping me pay for the travel costs. Because although I have a discount on flying, but all the other things, hotel stay or anything like that matter.
I don’t get money for that. I mean, that’s all out of pocket. I’m not one to ask for money, because it just feels like putting a burden on people. But the more I do this work, the more I hear about it from people, they always ask me, is there something we can do for you? Is there some kind of funding that you do? And I tell them, no, I don’t think of it as that. I think of it as I have to be there, and if my wife’s willing to make it work, and if I’m willing to make it work, we’ll be there. But it’s starting to catch up. And when you said we can do something in this format where we can have a conversation, I thought of it as, oh, well, I’m earning my way now, not just asking them, but I’m giving them, I guess I hope I’m entertaining these folks that are listening.
But you know, what I’m looking forward to is just sharing the moment. I think we get so caught up in all the wins and losses, but we don’t get enough time to get together and just share a moment of, we made it, we’re here and we’re together, and there’s going to be another fight that we’re going to be involved with because we have each other.
And there’s so many people I want to see in the flesh, including yourself, but others that I know are going to be there. It’s going to be our Woodstock. You know, I mean, we have to be there. And if you’re not there – And that’s why I want to be there because I don’t want to be the one that’s not there, I don’t want to be the one that’s missing out. And I want to hear the stories. I want to listen to what the Amazon Labor Union leaders and their organizers, I want to hear what they did. So if there’s something I can pass along to somebody here in a warehouse that’s organizing near me, I can maybe facilitate the information to them. This is what I heard at Labor Notes.
Or if I’m at a Starbucks shop that is thinking about it, I can say, well, I heard from the Starbucks workers that organized in Buffalo, and this is what they told me what would happen if the company did this, so expect this. I want to be able to facilitate information to new organizing so that people know what to expect and know how the bosses think so when they do try to do their bullshit, we are two steps ahead of them. The information is useless if we don’t share it.
So it will be my greatest honor to help new organizing by being the person or being one of the many that’s going to be there to facilitate the information and be that support system. I think that’s it, that’s the most important thing is to be a supportive person in these new organizing drives, because Lord knows these people need it.
And I feel it right now as I’m speaking through this microphone, solidarity, the power of solidarity, and the power of togetherness, if we can just get together and fight the boss as one. I think the opportunity to be at Labor Notes to listen and to gather information and to pass it along to these workers, I think that’s going to be the biggest gift I can get from Labor Notes.
Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InTheseTimes.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.