Hamilton Nolan’s book, “The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the struggle for the Soul of Labor”

Truth to Power is a regular series of conversations with writers about the promises and pitfalls of movements for social justice. From the roots of racial capitalism to the psychic toll of poverty, from resource wars to popular uprisings, the interviews in this column focus on how to write about the myriad causes of oppression and the organized desire for a better world.

Rithika Ramamurthy: Your book’s central idea is that unions are the best tool for combating economic inequality. How has the rise of inequality over the past 40 years contributed to the defeat and the recent resurgence of the labor movement?

“Rising inequality is not just an economic story. In a country where money can buy power, it’s a political one.”

Hamilton Nolan: In the 1950s, one in three American workers was a union member. But after World War II and continuing through the 1970s, there was a concerted effort to make labor law harsher, to rule certain workers out of the labor movement, and to perfect the art of union busting. Corporations got good at making it harder for workers to organize. 

You can trace the real explosion of economic inequality in the wake of this decline back to the Reagan era until the present day. The rise of inequality and wealth concentration at the top of the income distribution, as well as a stagnation of wages for most workers, has funneled an enormous amount of money into the pockets of a tiny number of people. At the same time, the power of the working class to take back that wealth for themselves has declined. Today, just one in 10 workers belong to a union.

Rising inequality is not just an economic story. In a country where money can buy power, it’s a political one. Wealth has played a big role in destabilizing American institutions, in the rise of cynicism and fascism. What can we do to end the inequality fueling social, economic, and political problems?…First, the government could regulate the tax code to redistribute that money back from the wealthy—which seems unlikely in American politics. Second, working people could gain enough power to take that wealth back for themselves.

Even though the labor movement has been in decline, it is still the most effective tool to fix the big problems driving crises in American capitalism. Everybody—whether you’re in a union, whether or not you care about unions—needs to pick up this tool again. 

RR: You send a clear message to the American Federation of Labor and Congress Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the federation of labor unions in the United States, by saying that it has neglected its own potential and stuck with the status quo. How do you think the AFL-CIO could transform into an organizing machine and political powerhouse?

HN: If we want to reverse labor’s decline, we need to think at the scale of organizing tens of millions of workers. Two years ago, the president of the AFL-CIO pledged to organize one million workers over a decade. If we want to change things, we need to understand the scale of what we’re facing, set proper goals, and not accept our own loss. The United Auto Workers [UAW], for example, said [that they]’re going to organize 150,000 auto workers at every non-union auto company this year. That is a union acting the way the entire labor movement needs to act. It will be hard. It will require a lot of money and time. But the first step is admitting that this is what we need to do, and having a vision that is in line with how big the problem is. If we want power, there’s no other way.

“Even though the labor movement has been in decline, it is still the most effective tool to fix the big problems driving crises in American capitalism.”

If you accept the premise that unions can save America from inequality, you know that’s a huge responsibility that we need to take seriously. The AFL-CIO is not perfect, there are problems with it. It’s a voluntary coalition, so the head of the AFL-CIO can’t just wave a magic wand and tell every union what to do. But there have been times in the past when unions that did want to do big things [and] broke off and formed the CIO or formed Change to Win. Even if these didn’t last forever, they were born from an ambitious impulse.

The AFL-CIO can have all unions at the table. They have political connections. They have state and local federations. They have the basic infrastructure of a national labor movement. How do we use that? If you want to organize millions, you need to build a national infrastructure of organizers to reach people all over the country. Realistically, this will require billions of dollars. Unions themselves have billions of dollars, [so] it’s not an impossible [amount] to spend on such a large goal.

But there are other avenues, too. Can we get more resources from the government? That’s not impossible, and it hasn’t really been tried. Can we get private sector resources? Can the nonprofits that fund white papers, which are one or two steps removed from organizing, fund this work? Can we find other ways to pull resources from the world and put them into organizing? It’s these three parts—having a vision, building the infrastructure, and finding the funding—that groups like the AFL-CIO are well-positioned to do. 

RR: In the book’s introduction, you share that your experiences with unionization were core to your development as a writer. Much of this book is dedicated to the experience of unionization and how it changes people. Can you talk more about why this experience is so transformative?

HN: Organizing forces us to…sit down and talk to our coworkers in a deep way—not to argue with or defeat them, but to bring them together and forge a group consensus. It’s not a process that most people go through in normal life—it certainly wasn’t for me, as a writer. My whole job is to share what I think, and maybe to try to convince you that what I think is right and what you think is wrong.

The process of organizing doesn’t work that way. I need to listen to you in a genuine way and hear what you’re saying, what your objections and problems are, and get down to the bedrock of your beliefs and fears. That’s when I can invite you to join in [the] struggle….It’s hard to name many other contexts where you are going to be engaged in deep conversation with all people—not just [the] people you choose. It’s not just you talking to your friends. Everybody needs a conversation, everybody has a say, and everybody is equal. We have to listen to everybody and care what everybody thinks because the source of power is that collective solidarity.

This kind of organizing has the potential to give people hands-on experience of grassroots democracy in a way that is not present in everyday life in the United States. That’s why I talk about the labor movement. It’s not just about having more union members because unions vote with Democrats—it’s [about] getting large numbers of people to go through the transformative process of organizing [that] will change them and change the way they relate to politics.

RR: Part of this is surely due in part to the sharp decline in community institutions in the United States and beyond.

HN: That’s definitely a part of it. On the most basic level—except unions that have suffered from corrupt leadership—unions are democratic institutions. When most people were in a union, a large part of the country experienced this kind of democracy as a normal part of life. Everybody was plugged into it, or only one or two degrees of separation away. We’re so far from that today. People talk about the decline of organized religion contributing to the general social decline in America. But we don’t talk enough about how the decline of unions represents that too, and how rebuilding the labor movement can lead us to a world with stronger community institutions. 

RR: You make the point that unions can be made up of any sort of people with common interests—all it takes is “acting like a union.” Can you speak more about how new forms of organizing have been successful because they broke the mold?

HN: When you talk to labor lawyers or people entrenched in the movement, many will tell you, “Here’s what a union can be, here’s who can belong to one”….Unfortunately, a lot of working people get the message right off the bat that a union may not work for them. But when you understand the fundamental source of labor power, which is collective action and solidarity, you realize that any group of workers can act like a union and develop the same kind of power. In some ways, laws don’t matter when it comes to organized worker power. Laws can make your life harder: the government can make it harder for you to organize your union or might not help you maintain it. But there are other models for people to come together and exercise their collective power.

When you read labor history, you realize that the source of building unions was workers’ willingness to strike because they were in a bad situation. Striking was the one tool they had, and they used it not only when there were no laws protecting them, but when they would get beaten up and shot for doing it. The law did not help make it happen! It was collective determination that built unions in the United States in the 20th century.

At a time when so many people are not in unions—and there are so many bureaucratic hurdles to forming them—it’s so important to put this first. Instead of worrying about what’s official, worry about you and your coworkers wanting a better life and being willing to do something about it.

RR: Your book focuses on the ordinary people who organized their workplaces but also on the movement’s leaders—like Sara Nelson, the leader of the American Flight Attendants Union. With the labor movement’s resurgence, we’ve seen a strong shift in media attention to leaders like Nelson, Shawn Fain, and others. Can you talk about the promises and challenges of union leadership as the labor movement transforms?

HN: In organized labor, the members are everything. Like in most organizations, the closer you are to the grassroots, the more inspiring the people are, and then the higher up you go, the more bureaucratic they tend to be. But right now, it’s important to have high-profile leaders. Not because we want to create cults of personality or look for a magical savior, but because on a practical level, we need prominent voices in society elevating unions. Beyond all the important work Sara Nelson does for the AFA, she goes on TV and talks about unions in a compelling way that makes people listen. Shawn Fain did this during the UAW strike as well. They both have the ability to bring the labor movement to people.

“If labor journalism continues to disappear, a lot of collective action will be a tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear it.”

One of the real challenges to organized labor is that it is just regaining prominence in the public eye. This is one of the problems we ran into when we organized at Gawker. People don’t think much about unions or know how they work. They might have heard about Jimmy Hoffa, but otherwise we were starting from square one when it came to the rules and the function of a union. There’s a lot of political education you have to put in as part of the organizing process, so rebuilding that public knowledge will only make organizing easier moving forward.

RR: What is the state of labor reporting today and where does it need to be to better support the movement?

HN: It used to be normal for every paper to have a labor reporter. But as unions themselves declined, so did labor journalism and labor’s visibility in media. Every newspaper has a business section, but none of them have a labor section—even though labor is the flip side of business from the perspective of human beings. Labor reporting should be a basic part of any journalism covering society. One of the good things about all the unionization in the media industry is that it has raised [the] consciousness of a lot of reporters. Thousands of reporters have gone through union drives in the past five years or so. There’s a higher level of attention to labor issues today than there was before that time as the journalism industry suffers its own crisis.

Journalism and media are an important part of growing the labor movement, so we should be thinking about how to fund labor journalism. That doesn’t mean reporters can’t be unbiased or produce quality journalism, or that they have to be “in the bag” for unions. The AFL-CIO could set aside a small amount of money—say $5 million a year in unrestricted funds—to make sure there are writers at every paper who are contributing to the labor beat. If labor journalism continues to disappear, a lot of collective action will be a tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear it. This has a detrimental impact on the power of organized labor itself. As the tech industry continues to suck money out of media, even more coverage will disappear.

RR: In your book, you write that unions are unlike any other nonprofit organizations. Why are unions the best tool to build power, even more than any other organizations dedicated to social justice?

HN: The unique thing about unions—as compared to other advocacy organizations or political parties—is that a union is a group of workers. Other groups are often based on affinity, full of people who agree with the mission and attract people who believe in the cause. When you join a union at a workplace with 1,000 people, everybody is all in. The labor movement is a mass movement, and notwithstanding its uneven history, it isn’t a movement that benefits from ruling certain people in and others out. If you’re a worker, you can be a part of the labor movement—and almost everyone’s a worker.

This mass movement potential is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives you access to all levels of society in a way that other organizations might not. It sets unions up to be a legitimate voice of the people in a way that political parties might not take advantage of. On the other hand, you have to do the hard work of democracy….But doing this work can make unions into extremely strong activist organizations. 

RR: You say that the growth of a stronger labor movement could serve as a “substitute” for a third party in the United States electoral system. In other words, unions could be the key to building a democracy that the people control, regardless of which party is in charge. Can you say more about that?

HN: This is one thing I’d really like people to take away from the book. America would be a much healthier nation if people took the frustration, anger, and other energies they channel into electoral politics and put it into building the labor movement. Electoral politics aren’t the only source of political power. Getting the right candidate in office is not the only way to build political power. Labor power creates its own political power. If you can build a strong union with large groups of workers ready to advocate for their interests, you can use it to make the political system come to you. This strategy also puts people at the center of the political universe and makes politicians cater to a different source of power other than donors. 

The Culinary Union in Las Vegas has perfected this model. They have strenuous, top-to-bottom organizing throughout their industry. They take on every fight important to their members and go on strike if their demands aren’t met. They have done the internal organizing and built their power to the point that they have become a real political player. If you go to Las Vegas during the Nevada caucus, you will see every presidential candidate going to their union hall to talk to them. That’s not because they’re the biggest donors or the richest people in the state. That’s because they have an army of engaged members that politicians want on their side. 

RR: At one point in the book, you write: “The fate of the Democratic party and the labor movement are entwined, but not for the reasons that Democrats think.” Could you say more about that?

HN: The Democratic party tends to see labor as just another interest group. They’re just another group to be catered to and visited for fundraising. Democrats traditionally ask labor for canvassers, contribution checks, and endorsements. But building a strong labor movement can push society in the direction of building a better future, because of that transformational part of the organizing process. When you bargain a contract, you sit at the table and go through a tangible process with people in power. That kind of experience can change the electorate. If the Democratic party was more enlightened, it would see that organized labor is a machine that can make society better and change their values in a positive way.