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A Third of Your Life Podcast

You spend a third of your life at work. We’re all about making it better. The Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations explores the tech, trends, and controversies that are reshaping the American workplace.

Hosted by Steve Flamisch.



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Episode 4: I Am a Man

William Lucy co-created the iconic slogan that rallied Black workers during the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, and he became a leading figure in the civil rights movement and the labor movement. Francis Ryan, a labor historian in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, talks to Lucy about his career.

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Transcript for Episode 4

William Lucy:

We came up with the signs, simply said in four words, "I am a man." It was the shortest phrase that we could get that would instill in them a sense of pride, not just for what they had done, but what they were doing to try and change the system. The city went bananas when the signs showed up.

Steve Flamisch:

He co-authored one of the most famous slogans in the history of the civil rights movement and went on to become a leading figure in one of America's largest and most influential unions. William Lucy shares his story. Next, on A Third of Your Life.

Voiceover:

You spend a third of your life at work. We're all about making it better. This is the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast.

Steve Flamisch:

When Black sanitation workers walked off the job in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, they demanded more than higher wages and safer working conditions. They wanted to be treated as human beings. So they carried signs bearing the simple but powerful phrase, "I am a man." William Lucy, a young official with the American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, helped to create that now famous slogan and he went on to become a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and the highest-ranking Black person in the labor movement. Today, at the age of 89, he’s still dialed into both. Lucy shared his remarkable story with Francis Ryan, a labor historian in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, and we're excited to present their complete, unedited conversation. Originally recorded in 2021, here are Francis Ryan and William Lucy on this special edition of A Third of Your Life.

Francis Ryan:

I'm very pleased to have an opportunity to talk with you. To give you a sense of where I am right now, I'm actually in the Labor Education Center at Rutgers University here in New Brunswick, and I'm here in my office and you can't see outside, but it recently has snowed, so we still have a lot of snow on the ground. I want to ask you to let us know where you are right now.

William Lucy:

I'm at home, Washington DC. Sunny day. 44, 45 degrees temperature. Perfect day.

Francis Ryan:

Great. I want to welcome you on behalf of our students, especially. We have a wonderful group of students here in the School of Management and Labor Relations and so many of them are working students. They're working at least part-time, many of them are working full-time to put themselves through their education. And I know that a lot of them would be very interested in hearing about your life and a little bit about maybe where you were born, what your early life was like. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

William Lucy:

Well, I was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1933, November. Spent my early growing up years there in Memphis. Left Memphis 1942, about March or April, somewhere in there, but I went through a portion of elementary school right there in town. My family left Memphis right on the outset of World War II. My father left first as a part of a recruitment effort for defense workers. My mother and my brother, we left a few months after that. We wound up in Richmond, California. We lived in an area, by and large, designed for defense employee housing, grew up there, went to finish elementary school there and then went to junior high and high school in Richmond. I completed my high school education at El Cerrito Junior/Senior High School.

Spent a little bit of time at Contra Costa Junior College, which is located in the county that we lived in. Spent a little bit of time at the University of California, which there was a research department. I went to work first for the defense department at Mare Island Naval Shipyard there in Vallejo, California. Spend about two and a half years there, and then went to work for county government, government of Contra Costa County, which is a major county, or one of the major counties in Northern California. As a part of that work, as I said, went to the materials and research area of the University of California in Richmond, California. And, from there, we went into the involvement with organized labor, initially.

Francis Ryan:

Could I ask you, were your parents involved with organized labor before you?

William Lucy:

No, no. Not at all. My father was a mechanic, but he was a welder in his work for the Kaiser Shipyards, so he may have had some exposure to it, but I'm not aware of it. My mother was a seamstress and, to my knowledge, she had no engagement or involvement with labor.

Francis Ryan:

So tell me about when you first joined AFSCME, which in case any of our listeners don't know, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is the largest union in the AFL-CIO that represents government sector employees at the state and municipal levels.

William Lucy:

It was, by and large, state and local government employees, a smattering of federal sectors. But my involvement with AFSCME was sort of a longer story. When I went to work for Contra Costa County—this was in 1953—I was recruited by the county to come to work. This was the period when the major highway construction program was underway. President Eisenhower initiated what was called the Federal Aid to Secondary Highway Construction Program and states across the nation became engaged in building out their highway systems to meet their local needs as well as meet the federal standards that were being set. So I went to work in the public works department in Contra Costa, not February, but in 1953, worked there for 13 years, and in the course of that became involved with what was the County Employee Association. It was not a union but an association of county employees.

And during the course of that experience, there became a discussion of whether or not the association was meeting the needs of blue collar employees. And '52, '53, a discussion broke out as to what we wanted to do because Contra Costa County was a heavily unionized county and our view was that the civil service system that covered public employees really had gone somewhere beyond their initial responsibility, and that being [to] certify employees who had passed the civil service test and was eligible for employment. And our view was that that system didn't really meet the needs of workers, because it didn't deal with our ability to participate in wage setting programs, it didn't speak to our needs in terms of benefits related to our employment, and we simply thought that the civil service system, as good as it was, was an extension of the employer and we simply thought we had a right to sit down and we'd discuss wages and other conditions.

And out of that grew a broad discussion of whether or not we really wanted to be a regular trade union workforce and activity, or whether we wanted to remain as a civil service system. We opted for both, and as a part of that, we joined into a nationwide discussion about the role of public employees as employees, not public servants. And we thought we had an entitlement to discuss a number of things that were not a part of the civil service process.

Francis Ryan:

So what year did that happen, that you joined the union, joined AFSCME?

William Lucy:

Well, we joined AFSCME about 1958—'57, '58, somewhere in there—because we went through a process of deciding to be a union. And then, once we made that decision, of course, it was, "Okay, what union do we want to be a part of?" And AFSCME, at that time, in 1964 elected a person by the name of Jerry Wurf as its national president and he really believed very strongly in the rights of public employees to have access to the traditional programs of collective bargaining and right to organize. And we believed very strongly in that, so we joined with AFSCME. That would've been 1953 or '54.

Francis Ryan:

Now, I know that when Jerry Wurf came in as the president of AFSCME…

William Lucy:

I'm sorry, it would've been 1963 or '64. I'm sorry.

Francis Ryan:

Right, right. So he comes in in '64 and he comes out of New York City, he's a great organizer, built up District Council 37 there from just about under 1,000 to 10,000 by 1961. And what was happening in New York was happening all over the country with AFSCME. I mean, AFSCME was growing by leaps and bounds at that time. And, as a young person who was involved with the trade union movement at that time, were you aware that there was something special happening?

William Lucy:

Oh, absolutely. As a county employee who was really experiencing a whole new perception of yourself as an employee and the rights that went along with that, we were well aware that there was a mood shift taking place among county employee workers and public sector workers in general, as to how they saw themselves. We used to make the discussion that there's very little difference between a truck driver who drives from First Street to 125th and then a private sector truck driver who takes over and drives from 125th on. I mean, same skillset required, same knowledge and experience. So we started to see ourselves as regular employees entitled to all the rights that private sector workers had under the National Labor Relations Act and their ability to collectively bargain.

Francis Ryan:

Now, the thing about AFSCME's organizing at that time, they were organizing in sectors that included a lot of Black workers, Black men and women who were working in healthcare, in municipal services, and there seemed to be a connection between the Black freedom struggle at that time and the labor movement. There was this merging together. And tell me about that. Was that something that people were really aware of and trying to develop and build community connections along those lines, too?

William Lucy:

Well, I think President Wurf brought to the organizing efforts sort of a new approach to it, and that is that focused on community issues and around community workers, because so many public sectors were on the workers of color side, and so he had the Civil Rights tactics coming out of his background of organizing. Now, the merger of those two things produced a whole new approach to organizing in the public sector, and it caught fire, because people had, while they were working in the public sector, accepted the terms of employment and what have you, but they really believed that there was something better in store and they believed themselves to be well-qualified employees and entitled to sit at the bargaining table. Saw you saw the New York experience where DC 37 hospitals and administrative employees, a sector of the workforce that was heavily dominated by Black and Brown employees who were, as a matter of fact, in the low end of the wage and benefits scale compared to private sector workers at that time.

Francis Ryan:

Did you see that happening in other places outside of New York, as well?

William Lucy:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. It was happening in all the major urban areas: Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and if you tracked our organizing schedule, so often workers were reaching out to the union to say, "We like what you’ve got to say. How does it fit our situation?" And, I mean, the union was organizing by leaps and bounds, as you say, and principally because public sector employees were beginning to develop a different view of themselves as workers. I mean, the public sector was holding to this sovereign doctrine that we were above responsibilities for bargaining of workers. Well, cities and counties and states, they may have a lot of responsibilities, but one of them is managing a rather large workforce and making sure that those workers have access to decency and dignity in the context of the day-to-day issues that affect their wages and their benefits.

Francis Ryan:

Now, we know that AFSCME had large chapters in places like New York City and Philadelphia and Detroit, but we see in the '60s, too, there is really a resurgence of organizing in the South. And there's always been a strong resistance to union organizing in those areas and we see by 1968, in Memphis, a major moment in the history of AFSCME, in the history of American working people, with the Memphis Sanitation Strike. And I know that you played a very significant role in that moment and maybe you could tell us a little bit about what brought you back to Memphis to work in helping those men who were on strike?

William Lucy:

Well, in all candidness, let me say, I, like a lot of staffers, wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and one particular day, I had been assigned to Detroit and got a phone call from the office that says, “There's something happening in Memphis. Can and will you take a look?” And Memphis was sort of symbolic of a large section of the country that got no attention at all and some basic functions, and particularly sanitation work, those functions are almost exclusively reserved for Black and Brown workers and particularly across the South where you're dealing with commercial, not commercial, but private sector garbage collections. I mean, in the downtown section, that's private sector, so it's got better wages, better business, but the public garbage collection responsibility for private homes and what have you, it's almost exclusively reserved for sanitation work of the city.

And Memphis was an area where the workers themselves knew that they really needed something to give them an opportunity to have a better life. The confrontation in Memphis was not inspired by the national union, it was a phenomenon that grew out of the frustrations of the workforce in Memphis. Here, you had men who had worked the better part of their adult life in the city, some working 15 to 20 years. Their wage levels were $1.25, $1.35 an hour. They were confronted with equipment that came from the Stone Age, that they simply could not get the actions that they hoped for just to make the job a little bit better, where they could do it better, a little safer, add some of the benefits that grew with type of work they were doing. And they, themselves, decided that they wanted a union. And they appealed to the city to allow them to have a voice in some of these issues that concerned them.

And Memphis had just gone through an election for a new mayor's form of government. I should say, a new structured type of government, from a commission-run government to a strong mayor system. And, unfortunately, both the election and the union's effort ran head-on together at the time when it was just not the best time. No union in its right mind would have a sanitation strike in February in the South, because workers don't strike because they're angry, they strike because they're frustrated, and this was a classic example. Men had gone for years, some working below the minimum wage, others having no voice in safety procedures, no grievance procedures that we see as a part of every basic contract that exists. No vacation time, no sick leave, none of the things that a worker today would anticipate either existed by virtue of the union or simply by the personal systems of the employer.

So the strike grew out of that. Probably the catalyst was two men who had worked for the city for some time, and in the midst of this were scooped up into the back of their sanitation truck caused, as best as we can tell, by some sort of a faulty electrical system and was triggered by a lightning strike, and two men lost their lives. And then, we discovered that there were no procedures to deal with a situation like this. Therein was the basis and the catalyst of the strike.

Francis Ryan:

Now, as part of that strike, one of the iconic images that a lot of students of history see are the striking men with the placards that say, "I am a man." I know that that was something that you came up with, and I was wondering what the origins of that were, and also when was the exact moment when you realized that that should be something that became a slogan of the struggle?

William Lucy:

Well, two things. I mean, first of all, the city of Memphis and its leadership, particularly the mayor, had no intentions of dealing with a workforce made up of Black men and, by and large, the lowest level on the scale, the sanitation workers. Their claim—and there probably were legitimate claims and problems that any leadership would sit down and talk about—but this city took the position that they had no right to demand that the city address any of these things in the kind of forum that they wanted. And so, they struck. And our role was to try and do all we could to help them win this effort. And we were aware that there was no law in Memphis or probably a lot of other places across the South, but if we wait until somebody wants to pass a law to give us the right to have access to some kind of a bargaining process, we'll never have change.

So the strike took place and during the course it became clear, there had to be something that was going to hold this together. And we came up with the slogan because across the South, you can go from boy to uncle to grandfather without ever passing the station of being a man. And a tremendous religious leader, a fellow by the name of James Lawson, during the course of our meetings, either he or others would mention the point that the refusal of the city to sit down with this workforce is treating them as if they're not men. And one of the great sources of pride among these men were they do some of the most difficult work under some of the most dreadful circumstances and they're just simply not treated as men.

So a pastor by the name of Malcolm Blackburn, he and I were charged with finding some glue to hold this together so they wouldn't have to go back to work with no sense of broad community support. So we came up with the signs, simply said in four words, "I am a man." It was the shortest phrase that we could get that would instill in them a sense of pride, not just for what they had done, but what they were doing to try and change the system. And, needless to say, the city went bananas when the signs showed up. It was a sense of pride to the workforce, and it brought the community into the discussion, because every Black man across the city of Memphis understood the absence of being treated as if they were a man.

Francis Ryan:

This strike was happening in those early, early months of 1968 and there was a larger movement happening here, of course, the Poor People's Campaign that Martin Luther King was really beginning to push at that time, and he came to Memphis to support this strike. And did you have interactions with Dr. King during those days?

William Lucy:

We met during that period a couple of times to talk about the role and function of the union and the support that was coming from the community and what he would bring to the issue. Let me go back to your earlier part. Dr. King, who had really come through the movements across the South, but really came to the point where much of what was happening had to be related to the economic situation of the people who were struggling. And he saw, in Memphis, the classic contradiction between people who work every day, yet not only could not raise themselves out of poverty, but had no mechanism to do that. The National Labor Relations Act and one of its contradictions is it provides a mechanism for folks who are skilled, very professional and it gives them a right to bargain. That's at the higher end of the wage and benefits scale.

At the lower end, the National Labor Relations Act specifically excludes, as you well know, public sector employees and does very little to enhance the ability of low wage workers to find a mechanism. So Dr. King saw those as contradictions and really thought that the workers had a right to not only bargain collectively, but to mobilize around doing that. The Poor People's Campaign, gave an opportunity to demonstrate that. Here are workers who are not arguing about what they do, they simply want to have a voice in how they do it.

Francis Ryan:

So the 1968 strike ends with a contract recognition of the union. Of course, Dr. King is assassinated during that terrible moment in April of 1968. What happened in the days after that? Was this seen as a turning point for AFSCME? Was it a turning point in, let's say, that connection between the community, the African-American community, and the trade union movement in Memphis? Was that seen as a permanent development in your thoughts?

William Lucy:

I really can't say. I mean, in those days, while the national labor movement came to the aid of the strike and the strikers, the Memphis labor movement was a different story, because these workers were not workers who had even recognition by the movement itself, locally. And during the course of the strike, sort of the civil rights association, the political movement of the strike caused some locals in the Memphis area to be very reluctant to reach out and be supportive of this strike. I would say the rubber workers, the retail clerks… were very helpful, but others were slow to come. They came, but they were slow.

How we were able to build the support was based on the community's clear identification with it. For long, every church, every social service organization, every club on the Black side of town were sympathetic to the strike and had tremendous support. Dr. King's assassination triggered another set of concerns, and that is how do we keep this going? Well, once Dr. King's funeral services and other activities were passed, Lyndon Johnson brought somebody from the labor department to try and play a role in getting the two sides to think about what it is we're trying to do. And there was a fellow by the name of James Reynolds, who was the Undersecretary of Labor at the time, just tremendous commitment to resolving these kinds of problems. He not only worked with the two parties, I mean the city and the union, but he played a role in identifying the people across the community who had some experience in these types of confrontations. And he managed to put us all together and started us to work.

Francis Ryan:

Right. Now, one of the things about this moment in the late '60s, AFSCME is beginning to bring in 1,000 members a week sometimes, and it's got about half-a-million members. By 1977, you have a million members, so there's an incredible growth. And I know that a lot of the new members in AFSCME chapters were working class women and I was wondering if, we're talking about the "I am a man" placard from 1968, all the men on strike were, I mean, they were men, right?

William Lucy:

Mm-hmm.

Francis Ryan:

There are women, there are working class women who are coming into AFSCME at that time, too. Tell me about that. Were there particular leaders that you remember or a particular set of ideas that some of these women brought with them?

William Lucy:

Well, I mean, that slogan was specific to that situation. I mean, at a point in time, maybe still true, I'm just not aware right now, a little over half of our membership were women and they were organizing themselves like other parts of the union was doing. We've had on our board, let's say our executive board, almost a majority, for any number of years, were actively engaged women, and they were organizing in areas that were simply ripe for organizing: the healthcare sector, the administrative sector, professional class. And these were people who had decided that as a public sector employee, they were entitled to some things that the civil service and merit system did not give them, and they wanted a mechanism so that they could participate fully.

And it's not all about money, much of it was about safety, much of it was about leisure time issues. I mean, things that would be a normal part of any set of private sector negotiations. Right now, probably 52%, 53% of our membership are women and the leadership level is such that it attracts and brings in other women concerned about the unique problems that the female workforce has.

Francis Ryan:

Now, this is an issue, speaking here at Rutgers, our institution, the School of Management and Labor Relations, has always been at the forefront of research on working class women, labor feminism, and so many of our students are young women who work in retail and food service and it's an important question, I think, to put out there that the role that women are playing and shaping AFSCME and the trade union movement in general, was there any pushback to that?

William Lucy:

Well, I suspect there was, depending on where you were at, but if you look at the growth patterns and you could, early on, see that the growth was among those functions that were, by and large, female related, and our female leadership then and now was really very aggressive and going out to recruit members who had no union, or recruit more to make the union better. And I think we see that across the trade union movement now. And some of the real difficult campaigns, they've been won by women organizer and women administrators.

Francis Ryan:

So in 1972, you come in as an international leader with AFSCME. You come to Washington and you become the international secretary-treasurer. Is that correct? In 1972?

William Lucy:

The timing may be a little off. I came to work for AFSCME in 1966. I came from California to here to start up what we call our Legislative and Community Affairs Department. We noticed early on that the growth of the role that the federal sector was playing in the policy direction and implementation at county level was growing simply because of the financing and grant process that was being developed between federal government, state government, state and counties, county and city. And we didn't really have, nor did we know, the role that we should be playing in those kinds of situations. So the union set up this department, Legislation and Community Affairs, and the president asked if I would come back and be a part of that, and I did. So I had worked for the union for six years or so prior to 1972.

I was asked if I would consider running for national office, because the brother who held the office at the time was looking to do some other things. So I agreed that I would stand as a candidate for election in 1972 for the office of secretary-treasurer. And so, I held that position until I retired in 2010.

Francis Ryan:

As a leader in Washington at that time, when you came in as secretary-treasurer, how was that different? I don't believe that AFSCME had any African-American top officers at that level before that, is that correct?

William Lucy:

We had vice presidents, but we didn't have either of the national offices of president or secretary-treasurer. We had a number of vice presidents who served on the executive board. My election in '72 was unique and was different.

Francis Ryan:

And how old were you at the time?

William Lucy:

33, somewhere in there.

Francis Ryan:

So, in the labor movement, that is very, very young.

William Lucy:

Well, you said that, I didn't.

Francis Ryan:

No, I mean…

William Lucy:

I think it had a lot to do with where the union saw itself trying to go. We had taken on new and different organizing tactics, new and different organizing targets, an additional role of political action within the unions to try and not only secure by legislative means the benefits we didn't have, we were looking at legislation that, in and of itself, created discriminatory systems at work level. So it was not my decision to be in elected office, but I was asked. And by 1972, I think I was familiar enough with the size, scope, and focus of the union that they thought I would make a good candidate and I wasn't going to question their judgments. But I was elected in 1972 and served almost 38 years.

Francis Ryan:

Okay. It's an important moment, I think, not just in AFSCME but in the entire U.S. labor movement. And I'd like to ask you this question about leadership, because I do think leadership matters. Who's in leadership positions makes a difference in an organization, and I want to ask you: would you like to see more women and people of color in leadership positions in trade unions? And how does this help the labor movement if that is accomplished?

William Lucy:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's no question that their ranks ought to be increased. And I think they are being increased. We've got unions who have national officers of color, now, that you would not have guessed five years ago, 10 years ago, but primarily on the male side, I would say. But within the ranks of leadership, you're seeing more and more females, which I think is the right thing to do. And secondly, the workforce now is different than the workforce of 30 years ago. We really should not be spending our time trying to convince people that they ought to be a part of the labor movement, we ought to spend time making those who want to be a part of it, and among that group, you will find women, young people, Black, Brown, who really have the ability to reach out to the constituencies that want to join trade unions now, want to help from organizations that represent the interests of workers.

Francis Ryan:

I know it…

William Lucy:

Let me just say this, too, I mean, usually on the building trade side, for instance, there's always this story, "Well the building trades will never change." Well that's just fundamentally not true. You've got Ken Rigmaiden. You've got any number of new leaders and president and second officer roles.

Francis Ryan:

One of the things that AFSCME was at the forefront of coming into the '70s and '80s, in 1983 AFSCME puts out... one of the first international unions to put out a resolution favoring and demanding equality for sexual minorities in the workplace and in society. And this has become, I know with AFSCME and across the labor movement, a very important part of the consciousness and the policies. And I was wondering what made AFSCME at the cutting edge of that moment and what role did you play in that resolution?

William Lucy:

Well, I think AFSCME as an institution has always been sensitive to the impediments that kept people from getting what was justly their rights. And I've tried to be sensitive to that, not because I was a Black officer, because it's just fundamentally right. And I suspect others saw this in our activity, saw it in our policies. We have always tried to move our national policies down to the local level. And once you get there, you're going to attract an awful lot more people, if they're listening to your message. You made a point awhile ago about our growth rate. At one point in time, we were netting new growth 52,000, 53,000 a year. And sometimes we used to say, and I say it cautiously, we were organizing in spite of ourselves. So the point is, if your message hits the core concerns for potential members, they're going to join.

Francis Ryan:

One of the things I love about Rutgers is that it's a truly international institution. By that, I mean, I have students... I sometimes teach large sections of students, 70 students in some of the working class history classes I do, and last semester I had a class that had students—because I ask them where they're from and where their families are from sometimes—and I had students representing every single continent except from Antarctica. We had students from around the world. We have students who were born in Africa or their parents were from there. We've got students from Argentina and students from Mexico and across Europe and so many students from China, as well, and Korea, across the world. And one of the things I've always appreciated about your leadership is that you're international in your vision. You understand that the working class extends beyond boundaries, which, of course, is an important message in today's moment that we're living through, our historical moment.

And I want to ask you about this. One of the things that I know that you were involved in was placing the labor movement, the entire U.S. labor movement, and placing AFSCME at the fore of this, in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. And it's probably the first thing that I knew about you. I grew up in an AFSCME family and I used to get the magazine at home, and I was aware that you had been arrested, that you had been involved in pushing this policy, and I thank you for that. And I want to say this now that it was part of the change in my own consciousness about wanting to study working class history and having a sense of pride coming from such a family that came out of AFSCME, and I appreciate what you did with that, because it taught me and taught many people in my generation coming into the late '80s, early '90s. Tell me about that effort and the policies that you helped to promote.

William Lucy:

Well, that's a long story, but it's one that's close to my heart. We have always been, of course by and large because of President Jerry Wurf, we've always looked at our work as international work. We believe that the public sector is really, in many countries, an extension of democracy, an extension of the democratic process. That even though it may be a poor country, people and workers are entitled to some very basic rights. I mean right to food, right to clean water, right to clean air. And it's the public sector that's, by and large, responsible for some of this or should be responsible for it. We should not leave quality of life issues in the hands of private sector, particularly when there's a profit margin involved. That's our basic belief. So we've been a part of what we call Public Service International for many, many years, because we thought the public sector would be much more capable or advocating for democracy and democratic process, so we've been a part of that movement.

And South Africa was the ultimate contradiction to that and a lot of other things, and it was my belief, and I was joining other people, it certainly wasn't mine alone, that the U.S. labor movement ought not be a part of supporting a structure and function of government that depressed over half of its people, that gave them no rights to citizenship. And apartheid was not an historical form of government, it was a government and process developed during the '40s, '50s, '60s, and that it was a contradiction to what we believed was right. So we set out to at least raise the level of understanding of what it meant. And I was quite forceful in my views, and I think others had different views, and maybe had the same hopes, but it had to be done.

And we saw our government as close to apartheid as you could get and it was sort of go along, get along, no reason of the real challenges for why we call ourselves a democratic society yet we are aligned with an apartheid government. So we just joined forces with people and thought about ways and means of weakening the apartheid system and also made success. I think the high point of our lives was the release of Nelson Mandela and working with him and some of his folks during the course of the struggle.

Francis Ryan:

I was thinking about that, that when you were engaged in political struggle, sometimes it takes more than a lifetime to see the end result. I think about so many movements, the anti-slavery movement, the struggle to end slavery in this country. But this was a moment where you actually got to see the end. That must've been something. I mean, because Nelson Mandela did come and meet with AFSCME and AFSCME officials and meet with you. Tell me what that was like.

William Lucy:

Well, let me go back aways. Just after his release, we met in Durban to talk about not only where he and the ANC saw themselves going in some of the other movements in the country and how we could be helpful in that part. As you probably well know, the ANC, everybody had a question of who were they and whether or not their politics matched ours. The trade union movement who were affiliates, were unions working to uplift the South African community. And we tried to do what we could do to translate some of our skills and our experiences to those, so they could be on the ground building not only a viable democracy, but participating as the new holders of power in South Africa.

We met with Mr. Mandela, and I've heard a lot of speeches and I've heard a lot of politicians talk and what have you, but very seldom do you get really captured by one, and he did that to myself and, I suspect, others. On his release, he did a Democracy Now tour and came to the U.S. He met with our AFSCME leadership. In fact, he spoke at our convention. And he captured our folks, because it was not a pie in the sky speech or it was not political, it was just about the rights of working people and their role in building a free and democratic South African society. I mean, if there's a high point in my limited life, it's that.

Francis Ryan:

Thank you for sharing that story. I appreciate your time and I know we're kind of coming to the end of our talk today, but I wanted to mention I work mostly with students 18 to 22, 23 years old and the thing I appreciate about what Rutgers students do is that they teach me about the way that that world is today for young people. And any kind of cynicism that one my age might have gets wiped away, because they have a hope for the future in their own lives and also broadly speaking for, I think, everyone else in society.

And we're going through such a transitional and scary moment in world history and certainly our national history and, in some ways, it reminds me of the moment in the '60s when the Black freedom struggle was, as it always has been, so connected to working rights, as well, rights in the workplace. And I wonder if, thinking about our young students here, both Rutgers and around the world, do you have any insight or any thoughts, any advice about how to think and act in this moment?

William Lucy:

Well, in all honesty, this is their moment. The world is changing so fast and in so many different ways that they are the perfect group that's in position to help shape the direction. Right now, we're in the middle of a pandemic, which will end at some point in time, so what's the workforce going to look like at that point in time? Will it be a massive slice of the working poor? Or will we have voices in the global places where decisions about a new workforce are going to be made? That's a job for young people and young leadership to take on. It's also a responsibility, I think, of our current trade union leadership to prepare these folks for the coming world. I mean, sooner or later there will be a new hammer, and who's going to help figure out what to do with it?

My concern is that the politics of trade unionism is to hold on and not develop a deep bench that can help advance your industry or advance your particular union. I think we got to get out of that mindset and really prepare young leaders, and particularly those who have a higher level of education, because the world is changing so fast. The blue-collar approach is going to be necessary, but we need some other things, and to open up the spaces, so these people can get the skills they need right now and hopefully they will be on the trade union side of the ledger. I mean, offering their skills to help build unions.

And I would offer one other suggestion, then I'll quit. I mean, some of our unions who have, unfortunately, wound up in dying industries to how do we help form a stronger institution on the trade union side. I've seen some who, they will hold out, hold out till the bitter end and then they're merge with somebody. So what you've got now is two small, weak, organizations, charged with the responsibility of representing the needs of working people. And we ought to have a broader vision as to what to do before we get so weak we can't represent our membership.

Francis Ryan:

Well, Mr. William Lucy, on behalf of everyone here at Rutgers, I really appreciate your time this morning and all that you taught us in our conversation. I really enjoyed this opportunity.

William Lucy:

Well, thank you. Enjoy. You hear the rantings and ravings of a tired old man.

Francis Ryan:

Thank you, Mr. Lucy.

William Lucy:

Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk. I appreciate it.

Francis Ryan:

Okay. Thank you so much, sir.

William Lucy:

Alright. Bye-bye.

Voiceover:

Thanks for listening to A Third of Your Life, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast. For more information on our academic programs, faculty, and research, visit smlr.rutgers.edu.


Episode 3: Workplace Relationships

Our co-workers can make or break how we feel and what we accomplish on the job. Friends, enemies, two-faced frenemies, even small talk can affect us in surprising ways. Jessica Methot, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, untangles the complex web of workplace relationships.

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Transcript for Episode 3

Jessica Methot:

I always get asked, “Are work friends, real friends?” This is always one of my favorite questions.

Steve Flamisch:

Inside the science of social networks. Next, on A Third of Your Life.

Voiceover:

You spend a third of your life at work. We're all about making it better. This is the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast.

Steve Flamisch:

Who do you trust at work? Where do you turn for help on a project? Do you make small talk with your co-workers? Workplace relationships have a surprisingly big impact on performance and employee wellbeing, but many employers still haven't caught on.

Welcome to A Third of Your Life. My name is Steve Flamisch, and I'm joined by Jessica Methot, an associate professor of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. She also directs the school's Ph.D. program, and she's a Distinguished Research Professor of Management at the University of Exeter Business School in the UK.

Jessica, you should be handing out scrolls, not business cards. Thanks for making some time in your busy schedule.

Jessica Methot:

Thanks so much for having me.

Steve Flamisch:

So you've been studying interpersonal workplace relationships and social network dynamics for 15 years. How did you first get interested in this field?

Jessica Methot:

A lot of the research that we do comes from real-world experiences. So when I was getting my Ph.D. program, my husband and I owned a few restaurants, and of course I was looking at the way that our employees interacted through the lens of the research that I was interested in doing. So I became really fascinated by who started to become friends with each other, who would fill in for shifts to help other people, who would ask each other for advice, who was gossiping with each other, and who just didn't like each other. And so I was actually able to do my dissertation research with data from some of our restaurants because it was such a fascinating way to observe how they were relying on each other, how they interacted, how they communicated, and how it might improve the overall environment and climate of the workplace, how we were operating and managing the employees, and just helping us be more effective as restaurants.

Steve Flamisch:

Wow. So you took what you were doing as part of your dissertation, and you put it into practice in the restaurant and you saw positive results?

Jessica Methot:

Yes, for the most part. Although given that this was about 15 years ago, there was still so much more to learn.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, you sent me some very helpful resources to prepare for this episode, including a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Paul Leonardi and Noshir Contractor. Let me admit right off the top, I skipped over the graphs with the lines and the little circles. Are those called nodes?

Jessica Methot:

They are called nodes.

Steve Flamisch:

Those are nodes.

Jessica Methot:

They represent actors. Yes. So each little node is an actor in the network, and the lines are intended to visualize how they're interacting with each other.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, they look like polymers to me, and I'm no good at chemistry, so I skipped right over those.

Jessica Methot:

A reminder of college days.

Steve Flamisch:

Yes, but I read the text. I read the text, and it was a really good introduction to the topic. So let me see if I understood it correctly. More and more employers are using HR analytics, or people analytics, to make management decisions, and that's really focused on the individual attributes of the employees: their education, their experience, their knowledge and skills. But relational analytics—how the employees interact with each other, where they get their information, this constellation of social networks in organizations—that might be a better tool or at least a good complement to people analytics when it comes to making management decisions. And most employers aren't there yet. Did I get that right?

Jessica Methot:

Yes, that's absolutely right. And so a lot of where we're seeing this shift is historically, human resource management and management in general has been really deeply rooted in the idea of human capital. So focusing on each individual in isolation, thinking about how they can maximize and leverage each person's individual knowledge, skills, abilities, competencies, to help with talent management. So making sure that we onboard correctly, how do we recruit the right people, how do we train each individual, and how do we manage each individual's performance? But in this case, we're starting to see this really big trend in recent years towards this idea of relational analytics, or organizational network analysis, where we can focus more on the relationships between each individual. It's definitely increased over the last probably 10 years. We've seen a much larger proportion of organizations complementing people analytics with the idea of relational analytics. And if you were to Google the top 10 trends in human resource management, numbers one or two will almost consistently be organizational network analysis.

Steve Flamisch:

So how do they work? How do employers collect the data for relational analytics? What kinds of data do they collect? Is that the so-called “digital exhaust” that I've read about? And how do they then analyze that and use it to predict who will be the innovators, and who's efficient, and how do we improve efficiency, and all of that?

Jessica Methot:

So there are two primary buckets or categories of ways that we can gather data on relationships in organizations. So one is an active method. So through active methodologies, we can distribute surveys. We can have employees—similar to the way they would fill out a poll survey—indicate which relationships they have with other people in the organization. So in this way, it is not anonymous. It is confidential. So we try to remove any identifying information, but we would give, say, a roster, a list of the names of their employees or co-workers in their unit. And we would say, "Look through this list and indicate who or the extent to which you trust each one of these individuals. Who would you say you're friends with? Who do you collaborate with? Who do you work well with? Who do you dislike?" And we can map all these different networks.

Steve Flamisch:

I would probably lie on that survey.

Jessica Methot:

Well, right. And so I get that feedback a lot that, "Oh, well, how do you know it's accurate?" Well, one, we have that criticism for all of the survey research that we do. How do we know anyone's telling the truth about whether they intend to quit or whether they're satisfied with their jobs? So there's always a little bit of error in their reports, but you would be surprised how open people are in wanting to indicate who they like and don't like on surveys.

So it's actually pretty surprising, the extent to which we can get accurate reports, and we're able to assess. And there have been studies that have been done comparing the accuracy of these survey reports to, say, the frequency with which people actually interact. So in addition to those active means to gather data, there's also passive means. So this would include things like “digital exhaust” that you mentioned, where we can, say, analyze email exchanges, and if two people or three people exchanged emails with certain types of communication, then we can say, "Okay, these people have a collaborative tie, or they have a tie in this organization," and that can help us map those networks as well.

Steve Flamisch:

That's interesting. It reminds me of the last episode we did with Michael Sturman, talking about employee monitoring software. I can certainly understand where some employees and perhaps unions would be concerned about privacy. How can employers strike that balance between managing performance and respecting privacy if they're doing this passive monitoring that you're describing?

Jessica Methot:

I think it's important with both active and passive monitoring. I think we have a really high ethical standard for ensuring that we're keeping the integrity and the confidence of the people whose data we are using. And so this is where we, again, try to remove any identifying information. All of this is used to provide feedback at a higher level to say, "It looks like there are some bottlenecks here. It looks like we have some potential newcomers who need to be embedded more in the organization. Here's how we might be able to improve onboarding processes. Here's why we might see higher rates of turnover, or what might happen if people retire." But it's not intended to isolate any individual person, and we try to prevent any incidence of retaliation based on the information that we're receiving in these surveys.

Steve Flamisch:

I'm curious then, if it works so well, if relational analytics can have such a positive impact, why don't we see more employers doing this? Is it simply that they don't know about it? Have they heard about it and they don't believe in it? Or do they find that it's somehow more expensive to do this than regular people analytics?

Jessica Methot:

So one of the reasons that organizations aren't implementing this to the degree that we think would be important or valuable, is that there are barriers to entry. So if you decide you want to use a vendor, that costs money. So we have to do a needs assessment. Where do we stand? Where do we need to see changes? And what can we afford to do in terms of making actionable solution-driven or evidence-based changes?

I think stepping back, a lot of organizations, to the same extent that they don't implement people analytics, is that they don't really see the value in relational analytics. “If we manage our employees well, and we think that we are paying them enough, then they should be doing their jobs and they'll be motivated.” And we know that that's not really what creates engagement and motivation in organizations. But that's still the persistent viewpoint of some managers and senior leaders.

And I also think it's not necessarily that they're not implementing it, but for the organizations that are, they're not necessarily sure what to do with it. And we see this with people analytics, as well, is they end up having data but aren't really clear how to create a dialogue or a narrative to interpret that data in a way that creates actionable change.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, let's talk about the networks within organizations even more broadly. Most organizations have a defined structure, but you are interested in the shadow of the org chart. What is that?

Jessica Methot:

We know that organizations are designed to prescribe interactions and communication among employees. So a company's formal structure is reflecting how senior leaders believe that work should get done. But we also all know that we don't always stay within those prescribed solid lines in the org chart. We bridge those functional areas and divisions to collaborate, to build trust, to gossip, to become friends, to develop rivalries, and offer advice. And so basically, employees are building these shadow networks, these informal constellations of relationships, communication and interaction patterns, that ease inefficiencies, help us to avoid bottlenecks in workflow, build climates for psychological safety, improve their wellbeing. And so these networks also help organizations become more agile and adapt to changes more effectively because these networks aren't bogged down by bureaucracies.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, I know there are two broad categories of networks. You've talked to me about task-based and socioemotional. And you've studied the complications that arise when those two overlap and become a workplace friendship. What are the pros and cons of workplace friendships?

Jessica Methot:

So friendships largely form out of being in the same place at the same time. So proximity, frequency of interaction, also having shared interests and similarities. And so this is really convenient when people are co-located. It's not surprising that we have to work with people, we are on a team together, and we have to exchange information, and we have interdependencies to get our work done, but that we also end up developing friendships with each other. We ask about each other's families. We start to hang out after work.

And many offices have strategically designed their workspaces to promote spontaneous interaction, casual collisions like bumping into each other in the hallway or at the microwave. And so pre-COVID especially, they were breeding grounds for friendships to emerge. And I was really interested in understanding what that means in an organization. So if we are relying on our co-workers to get our work done, but then we also not only develop trust, but get to know them personally, learn about their families, learn about their kids, learn about their dogs, what does that mean for how we do our work? Are we able to ask deeper and better questions? Are we more vulnerable to each other?

And so in one of the studies that we conducted back in 2016, that got published in 2018, we were looking at networks that overlaid task and friendship networks—so where task and friendship were occurring simultaneously in a network of relationships. And there had been previous research that suggested that people who have more friendships or more friends at work were less likely to quit, were more engaged, were more committed to their work, but we felt like that might not necessarily be the entire story, especially if we were relying on them to get our work done as well.

So on the one hand, we did, in fact, find that people who had more workplace friendships did develop more trust in their co-workers, did get more valuable feedback, were better able to ask deeper questions and get better answers, and were better able to perform their jobs at work. So they knew there were people there they could rely on and people who were invested in them and the outcome of the work to support them.

But on the flip side of that, we also found that people who had more of these workplace friendships felt really drained. Should I be focused on prioritizing my friend role, or should I be focused on prioritizing my co-worker role? And so this really challenged how people were behaving at work and whether they behaved professionally or whether they gave their friends privileges and favoritism, and also the complexities in, say, rivalry with a friend. And so we saw that they were reporting this made them feel more emotionally exhausted at work as well.

Steve Flamisch:

And what do you do if you find yourself competing with your workplace friend for promotion? Or maybe you are in a position where you have to provide feedback and you don't want to give negative feedback because you don't want to hurt your friend’s feelings?

Jessica Methot:

So this is always one of my favorite questions because I always get asked, “Are work friends, real friends?” And I think these types of experiences at work really show whether they're real friendships or not, but also the fact that we are at work for a reason, and the professional aspect of the relationship really needs to lay the foundation for everything else that happens in that relationship. So really prioritizing professionalism. So if you, say, get that promotion and your friend didn't, and now there's a little bit of tension and you still want to hang out, but now your friend is reporting to you, how do you ensure that you're providing objective performance evaluations? How do you make sure that you're not privileging that friend by giving them better shifts over other people? And so this is where just being transparent and communicative and laying out some of the friendship scripts when something like that happens, can become really important.

So when I realized that there were these tensions in workplace friendships, and people were really feeling torn about the positives and the negatives that come along with workplace friendships, I started to look at the emotions that were implicated in these relationships as well. So if I feel both positively and negatively towards someone at the same time, so this could be, say, a protégé of mine who I'm really proud of, but also really jealous of, for example, because they could become really successful.

One of the really interesting things that prior research had shown is that there are both upsides and downsides to ambivalence. And we've found the same in relationships where we feel ambivalently towards someone else. So on the one hand, ambivalence can be really bad for our health. It can be poor for our cellular aging, it can be poor for our cardiovascular health. It can actually be worse to have an ambivalent relationship than to have a purely negative relationship. So if you know are enemies with someone, you know you can avoid that person or do whatever you can not to work with them and not to interact with them. But if there's someone who you respect, who you like, but who you also feel torn about, then you want to interact with them, but it can be unpredictable. And that's where a lot of the difficulties in having ambivalent relationships come up.

But we also find that ambivalent relationships can spark creativity. So they help us ruminate a little bit more, problem solve, think more deeply, be a little more suspicious of the information that we're getting and more vigilant. And so this helps us maybe be on our toes, but also think outside the box and be more willing to take risks. So there's a balance both with respect to wellbeing and with respect to creativity and performance that we see with these ambivalent relationships.

Steve Flamisch:

This topic really resonates with me because I'm thinking of a former co-worker from a TV news station. We were both reporters, players on the same team. And every morning when the managers, producers, and reporters would sit around a conference table to decide on that day's coverage plans, she and I would surreptitiously text each other during the meeting and coordinate on how to get out of the stories that we didn't want to cover and pawn them off on the other reporters in the room.

Jessica Methot:

Yes.

Steve Flamisch:

But then she would gossip about me, and she would complain to the producers and criticize me. And I simply couldn't understand it. I remember thinking, "It would almost be better if you were just my enemy, and that would be easier." That Jekyll and Hyde was very difficult for me to manage. And I'll bet many people feel the same way.

Jessica Methot:

That's exactly right. And we don't want to entirely lose those people from our networks because they provide a unique value, but that unpredictability can create a lot of disadvantages with respect to how we think and behave and feel at work.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, even with this complex web of relationships you've been describing, one third of our conversations are simply small talk. “We might get snow on Saturday. Did you watch the Giants game?” You've studied the impact of small talk and you've found that it is way more significant than we realize.

First of all, how do you define small talk?

Jessica Methot:

Sure. So small talk is polite, lighthearted, superficial conversation. And so the interesting thing about small talk then is that it has several features that make it unique from other forms of conversation. So one is that it's scripted, so it is polite, it is lighthearted, it follows a predictable script. We know how we're supposed to respond when someone asks us how we're doing. And the important takeaway there is that it doesn't take a lot of effort. It doesn't require any self-disclosure. So we can re-energize through these brief interactions.

And that was where I was really interested in starting to study small talk, because having done so many years of research on workplace friendships and thinking about just how much energy they take, and how much effort they take to invest and support and reciprocate these interactions and these relationships, there was so many other types of interactions and types of communication that were occurring at work that didn't have that same type of depth. So the fact that it's scripted is one really interesting feature about small talk that we don't capture when we are, say, venting to a friend or gossiping with a friend.

And then the other feature is that it's largely spontaneous. So it can occur without being planned. We can bump into someone in the hallway and strike up a conversation. And so these casual collisions, which happened primarily when we were co-located, can really spark creative ideas. They can help us perform better. They can help us realize we were missing something that we can then go back and apply to the work that we're doing.

Steve Flamisch:

How does it differ from gossip?

Jessica Methot:

So that's a really key distinction, and we never want small talk to devolve into gossip. So gossip is really idiosyncratic. We have it with a specific person about a third party who isn't present. Small talk is, again, scripted. So we're following this social ritual where I ask how you're doing, you say you're doing fine. I might even ask, "Hey, how are the kids?" And you'll say, "They're doing well." We can ask for things like news updates. "What are you doing this weekend?" We can also have really superficial conversations about the weather or about network television or about sports, but it isn't idiosyncratic in any way. It's not necessarily specific to the person who we're having a conversation with, and it is directed to that person. So it creates a co-presence and energy that's being transferred between the two people that are having small talk.

Gossip is behind the scenes. It's intended to hide something, it creates suspicion, and it's largely negative in tone. There can be positive gossip. "Hey, did you hear about this great promotion that so-and-so got?" But largely, it could create a negative environment, whereas small talk just creates and builds rapport.

Steve Flamisch:

You did a small talk study right before the pandemic, published in the Academy of Management Journal, and it received a ton of press. I remember The New York Times, Fast Company, Forbes—they all covered it. For that study, you recruited more than 150 people to document their daily interactions at work and how it affected them over a three-week period. What did you find?

Jessica Methot:

So this was really fascinating. Again, because we know small talk can be so polarizing and so stigmatizing, we often find that people mistakenly seek solitude. So they want to avoid it at all costs. They think, "Oh, I don't see any benefit. It doesn't make me feel authentic. I don't want to feign interest in someone else's small talk, so I'm just going to put on my headphones and avoid everyone." But in our research, we found that, on days when people had more small talk than they normally would, they experienced a boost in mood and energy. So they felt more friendly feelings, more pride, and this increased their pro-social behavior—so the extent to which they went out of their way to help their co-workers. And it also increased their wellbeing, so the extent to which they were able to recover from stressors at the end of the workday.

And so this was really interesting because the way that we studied it, we essentially controlled for personality traits. So we might see someone who says, "I'm really introverted. I don't like small talk." That just means their baseline for small talk is relatively low. So let's take an introverted person who doesn't often have small talk. On days that introverted person had more small talk, they felt more energy, they were better able to recover, they engaged in more pro-social behaviors.

Now, of course, there's a flip side to it. So if we are at work—and we did this research pre-pandemic with people who were co-located in offices with their co-workers—they also reported that it was distracting. So not surprisingly, you've got your head down, you're doing your work, someone knocks on your door and wants to chat. It pulls your attention away from the work that you're doing, and it made it more difficult to get back into the flow. So we did hear that it created “time famine” that somewhat pulled away from their opportunity to engage in more of those pro-social behaviors. But for the most part, it was largely positive.

Steve Flamisch:

So if it's largely positive, do you think managers should actively encourage small talk?

Jessica Methot:

So this is one of those questions that I think can be difficult to answer, but requires a balance. So yes, I do think that organizations should encourage small talk or that managers should encourage small talk. And we were seeing that both pre-pandemic and now with the return to work, we are seeing the implementation of things like “space syntax,” where consultants can be brought in to design office spaces where it drives the flow or guides people through different parts of the office to connect, to engage and have small talk, while not distracting other people who are really working heads down, trying to stay in the flow of getting their work done. So very strategic ways of designing workspaces.

This is not to compare to an open office space design. So that's a completely different and potentially detrimental office space design. We see people in open office spaces who are avoiding small talk because it's loud, there's buzz, they have trouble getting their work done. And so it's really difficult for them to focus. So they completely avoid it by indicating that they're busy or in meetings or trying to find a quiet space. So this isn't necessarily that. It's really trying to be strategic about where people have the opportunity to engage in small talk.

Steve Flamisch:

How has small talk changed during the pandemic, and what can managers do to encourage small talk among people who are working from home or maybe splitting their time between home and the office?

Jessica Methot:

So what we witnessed during the pandemic is that we took small talk for granted. So it was something that we experienced but didn't necessarily realize was so important and such a key part of creating the environment that formed our days. And one of the aspects of small talk that was really difficult to recreate was its spontaneity.

So when we shifted to remote work so abruptly, we're not just popping on Zoom and hoping that someone else shows up out of nowhere so that we can chat with them. Our interactions, our conversations, our work interactions became very transactional, very planned, and much less discretionary, much more formal. And so the characteristics of small talk are really difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. When we were physically present in a conversation, it creates that sense of, “We are together. I have this co-presence with someone else who's standing here with me.” People feel like they're in a conversation together. And that natural transfer of energy where we can read each other's emotions, that energy erodes in a virtual environment when we're staring at each other on a screen or staring at ourselves on a screen.

Also, during the pandemic, chitchat just wasn't a priority. We were all pressed for time. We were experiencing Zoom fatigue. We weren't trying to drag out meetings too long. We had family responsibilities. And the important thing there is that we should recognize how meaningful a little bit of small talk can be in combating social isolation and redressing some of that loneliness. A small connection can make a really big difference. So just pinging someone, doing a brief check-in and saying, "Hey, I haven't heard from you this week. I just want to make sure everything is okay."

And also, one of the interesting things about small talk is that it helps us with transitions. So we very rarely launch into a meeting without having small talk to grease the wheels. Small talk is a social lubricant. We have small talk before sales pitches, before negotiations, before interviews, before performance evaluations. We really use it to set the stage for a controversial conversation. It also helped us transition into work. So if we're walking into the building and we run into a colleague, we have a little bit of chit chat before we sit down and do our work. It helps us transition from home to work. But during the pandemic, where we were all working from home, that all blurred together. It was difficult to shift our mindset from home to work as seamlessly. And there were reports of people who would, say, get into their cars and drive around when they didn't have their commute, just to get back home, to be able to make that mindset transition.

And so this is where we want to give people the opportunity to say, "Have a chat on Slack." So create a leisure chat string. I wouldn't necessarily say that the virtual happy hours were effective. We all experienced those, and they were pretty awkward. But I do think that things like daily check-ins are helpful, especially from a managerial perspective. We can also assess our own social health. So how am I feeling today? Have I spoken with anyone? Am I feeling particularly disconnected? And how can I reach out? As leaders, we also want to recreate social rituals for our teams. If this is something that we've lost, how can we ensure that we're still creating and building this social fabric in this sense of psychological safety and trust among our team if we're still working remotely? How can we integrate spontaneous conversations into our remote work ecosystem? So set availability times for when others can connect if they're free, if they're available, if they want to take a break. And so all of these things, we've heard, are working relatively well.

Steve Flamisch:

Should managers build in time at the start of virtual meetings for small talk? Should they actually put that on the agenda?

Jessica Methot:

I do think that these things need to be informal. If you put it on the agenda, we start to experience something called “job creep,” where now the meeting actually feels like it's starting 10 minutes early, and I'm missing an opportunity to have FaceTime with my manager. And so we really want to be able to emphasize, while yes, I think it's an important step and a great way to give people an opportunity to chat with each other and catch up, we never want to make it feel like it's required. If someone wants to join at the time a meeting starts, that is when the meeting should start. We don't want to force them or coerce them into feeling like they need to pop on 10 minutes early.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, overall, this does seem like a really good time to be rebuilding our social networks. Research led by Marissa King found that our professional and personal networks shrank by close to 16%, or more than 200 people, during the early days of the pandemic. Our closest relationships grew stronger, but our network of acquaintances, including those at work, grew smaller. What is the harm in that, Jessica? What is the harm in having our network shrink?

Jessica Methot:

I think one of the primary issues that we see as our networks were shrinking due to the pandemic is that we were losing access to a lot of viewpoints. So we don't necessarily only want depth in our network--so depth being the intimacy that we have with our family members and our best friends and people who we know we can rely on—we want to balance that with breadth in our networks. So having a diverse set of acquaintances and weak ties and viewpoints, that help us see out into the world. And so we get new perspectives, we get information and access to feedback that we wouldn't necessarily have in our really dense, close-knit group of family members and friends.

And so one of the recommendations that I think we were seeing a lot of is to build back our network. So this is a really great way to strategically think about, “Who did I lose? Who do I need? And how do I reassess what type of people and what type of resources and support I need in my network?” And this is really key because there's a lot of pushback about this idea of networking and what it means. And there's a lot of myths around networking that we want to try to bust because it really is critical to have the right people in our network for different types of support. And so, one of the things that we hear is that networking feels dirty, that it's immoral, that it's inauthentic, that it's disingenuous, that we're just connecting with people to ask them for things, to get something from them. And I always like to say, it doesn't have to be used that way. Our networks, we can build our networks by giving back. Is there someone who you can help where you can give and provide support? And that also adds to extending your acquaintance group in your network.

Steve Flamisch:

Do you feel encouraged? Do you think we're going in the right direction? Do you think organizations are going in the right direction and taking these things seriously, especially coming out of the pandemic?

Jessica Methot:

I think there is a really important balance here. So we are seeing organizations who aren't necessarily heading in the right direction with these return to work strategies. So some of them are just saying, "We all need to be back to work. All of us need to be back to work because we all do our work better when we're present, and we can monitor you," playing off of your episode with Mike Sturman. But I think if we can emphasize the benefit of these networks and the value that we get of being co-present in an office, but also giving employees what they now recognize is the flexibility and the autonomy that they need in their work—so having a hybrid work schedule where they get the opportunity to meet with their team in person, but not requiring five days a week of face time, I think is really important.

And I do think that organizations, many organizations, are acknowledging that balance as a really critical touchpoint. But some are just saying, "No, we have to all be back at work." I also think we have to be careful of the companies that are saying, "Okay, let's all stay remote." Because if we don't acknowledge how important these networks and relationships are, then we might lose touch and we might not be creating the climate that we want to, to embed people in that social fabric.

Steve Flamisch:

This is all really interesting. I'm so glad that we touched on all these different topics. And if our listeners want to know more about this, there is a place where they can go to find out more information. I'd like to wrap up with a plug for the website you co-founded. What is workties.org and what can we find there?

Jessica Methot:

Sure. So I'm really excited about this initiative I launched with some colleagues of mine, and we also have a team of Ph.D. students who are supporting it as well. So workties.org is a curated site for all the research that we do on the science of workplace relationships. So we have experts who've published research on relationships at work, the idea of high quality connections and building and boosting these positive relationships at work, how we can manage remote work relationships in a remote environment, how we can use relationships to help us transition into retirement or other career transitions. So it's a really interesting initiative, a really exciting initiative. And this is a website that anyone can visit. You can also find us on LinkedIn and Twitter, and you can find digested, curated posts—blog posts—that are written by us and by other guests and experts who do research in this area.

Steve Flamisch:

Workties.org. Jessica Methot, associate professor of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, thank you so much for being on the show. I enjoyed the conversation.

Jessica Methot:

Thanks so much for your time. This was fun.

Voiceover:

Thanks for listening to A Third of Your Life, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast. For more information on our academic programs, faculty, and research, visit smlr.rutgers.edu.


Epsiode 2: Big Brother at Work

Do you have that odd feeling of being watched? The latest employee monitoring software tracks emails, keystrokes, and mouse clicks. It can even take webcam photos to see if you’re working. Michael Sturman, professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, discusses why more bosses are using it.

Click Here to Listen Now

Transcript for Episode 2

Michael Sturman:

There really are many potentially negative outcomes. First of all, workers just don't like it.

Steve Flamisch:

“Productivity paranoia.” More and more employers are monitoring their workers, but is the software too invasive? Next, on A Third of Your Life.

Voiceover:

You spend a third of your life at work. We're all about making it better. This is the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast.

Steve Flamisch:

Big Brother is watching you at work. A growing number of employers are tracking email, mouse clicks, keystrokes—even taking random screenshots and webcam photos to verify that you're working. But what are they doing with the data and does it really boost productivity?

Welcome to A Third of Your Life. My name is Steve Flamisch, and my guest is Michael Sturman, professor and chair of the Department of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Mike, it's great to have you on the show.

Michael Sturman:

Thanks for having me here, Steve.

Steve Flamisch:

Mike, what are the legitimate business reasons for monitoring employees and managing their performance and productivity?

Michael Sturman:

Well, businesses obviously have always had an interest in ensuring that their employees are productive. They want to know that they're getting what they pay for. They're paying employees to work. They want to make sure that that work is productive. So there's really strong logic there and a real strong need for companies to ensure that their employees are producing what they're supposed to be producing.

Steve Flamisch:

How did employers do this in the old days before artificial intelligence and before employee monitoring software?

Michael Sturman:

Well, mostly just by watching, by having employees in an office, or on a factory floor, or whatever it may be, you can watch employees work and that would show you that they at least look like they're doing their job and not shirking, or doing something else or whatever that might be. For other jobs, people were monitored by their output. So salespeople who are out of the office and can't necessarily be monitored, were tracked by, well, how much they sold.

Steve Flamisch:

Many blue-collar workers have lived with this for a long time. I'm thinking of warehouse workers, package handlers, drivers, food service, cashiers. I know someone who lost her job at a supermarket because her ring speed was too low. She wasn't scanning enough items every minute. But now it seems white-collar workers are under the microscope too. Bankers, lawyers, even physicians. Why is that? What changed?

Michael Sturman:

Well, in part, what changed is that COVID happened, and there's many more employees now working from home, creating this general fear that people might not be working as hard as perhaps the company wants them to. There's also just the general increasing pressure for greater employee productivity, whether that's from a doctor or a lawyer or a banker. It's about trying to get more for the same amount of money out of your employees.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, it's interesting you should mention the perception of the employer. Microsoft surveyed 20,000 people in 11 countries for its annual Work Trend Index. They wanted to know about the impact of hybrid work. Are we still productive if we're working at home or if we're splitting our time between the office and working from home? The results came out a few weeks ago and they revealed a huge contrast. 87% of workers feel productive at home, but only 12% of managers are confident of that. What do you make of that disparity?

Michael Sturman:

I think a lot of this boils down to managers losing the control that they used to have. This is sort of the same phenomenon that everyone thinks they're an above average driver. You have this situation where people like having control, so the employee who's at home and in control of their situation often feels like they're being more productive. The manager who used to be able to walk around and watch these employees can no longer do that, or at least can't do it as easily. And so there's this fear that, well, maybe the workers aren't doing what they should be doing, and maybe they were only doing that because I was watching.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, with so many managers worrying that their employees are not productive, it's probably no surprise that the number of organizations using employee monitoring software has, by some accounts, doubled since the start of the pandemic. The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, calls it “productivity paranoia.” Economic analyst Rana Foroohar has an even uglier term: “surveillance capitalism.”

If you Google the term “employee monitoring software,” you'll see there are numerous companies offering this technology and some are more invasive than others. So Mike, if you don't mind, I'd like to talk about some of these software programs and get your take on the kinds of data that they're collecting and whether it really is valuable to managers. I won't name the companies because there are so many of them—it seems unfair to pick out three or four—but I'd like to start with one of the more prominent software programs and get your view on these features and whether they really are helpful to managers.

Michael Sturman:

That sounds good. Go ahead.

Steve Flamisch:

All right. So they offer email tracking, surveying messages sent to and from your company account. Phone tracking, monitoring phone calls and voicemails. Keystroke counters, tracking the number of mouse clicks and keyboard presses. Active application monitoring tools, showing exactly how employees are spending their time at work. Screenshots at regular intervals, showing what's on the employee's screen. And finally, webcam photos at regular intervals, showing if you're physically at your computer. The company says this is one of the only ways to prevent fraud like outsourcing. They want to make sure that you are really sitting there doing your job—you haven't outsourced your work to someone else. What do you make of all those different features?

Michael Sturman:

Well, most of those features are essentially just different metrics. They're different metrics about how someone is working. The real question is, do those metrics actually relate to how an employee performs? If you measure something, employees will typically do more of it. So if you get paid by sending more emails or sending longer emails or clicking the mouse more or typing more, you're going to get people to do those things. But the issue is, is this really related to what the employee's expected to do or what the employee actually needs to do for their job to be successful in that job? To some extent, these kind of metrics, if it's not well thought out—and sometimes they get adopted because you can measure it, that doesn't mean you should measure it—they may show you that, well, it's kind of the situation where you're making good time, but you don't know where you're going.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, the company defended the software in a blog post, and I'll read you the quote from the blog post. "[Workers] can get away with a lot more nowadays—and while most workers are honest, there are some egregious examples of people playing on their phone all day, moonlighting at a second job, and even outsourcing their existing job to someone else while they kick back and relax… Whether we like it or not, it's not realistic for remote workers to expect zero accountability. These same people are quite content to work in full view of others in a bricks-and-mortar workplace for the same reason they feel no fear at airport security: they have nothing to hide. And the same is true for remote workers. Monitoring software only feels scary because it's unfamiliar. But the honest majority need not fear the systems that are put in place to prevent abuse from the dishonest few. Far from it—now you have concrete evidence of how hard you're working!"

That is directly from the company's website. So Mike, their view is, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. But the other side of that argument is it's still really invasive and potentially misleading. What if you're doing work on paper, not on the computer? The keystroke counter will not capture that. What if you step away from your computer to stare out the window? Maybe you're pondering how to respond to a difficult email. I do that all the time. Obviously, a webcam photo would show an empty chair in that moment. Doesn't mean you're not working. And what if you need to use the bathroom?

Michael Sturman:

I completely agree with your concerns. There is a lot to unpack in that statement. As a manager or as a business, you should have an idea when you hire an employee that they should be producing something or having certain tasks that you need accomplished, and there should be ways to look at what are the results of those tasks? What is it the person's producing? Are they producing a sufficient quantity or quality of whatever it is that they're supposed to do? And if you can't even describe what that is, so you just want to see if they're sitting in front of a computer, then you have bigger problems than worrying about whether they're playing solitaire.

Steve Flamisch:

Let's talk about another one of these companies. This is a different software program now, a company that boasts about 1,000 clients around the world, and on their website, they describe one of their key features this way: "Our computer monitoring software allows employees, field contractors, and freelancers to manually clock in when they begin working on an assignment. The application will take screenshots randomly or at set intervals, which allows employers to observe the work process. The application only tracks activity when the employee is clocked in. No spying, only transparency."

Mike, here we have the screenshots again. Now, I had a boss about 10 years ago who watched porn at work. I caught him. Several of my co-workers caught him. It was well known throughout the office. That's one area where screenshots would find egregious and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Are there any other ways, short of an example like that, where a screenshot is useful to managers?

Michael Sturman:

It depends really on the nature of the job. Yes, I could see certain jobs that really are dependent on the person being on their screen and using their screen in certain ways, and spot-checking could make some sense. But I'm pretty uncomfortable with this kind of approach, and I think it's a crutch for people who don't know how to actively manage the job appropriately but are looking for some quick and easy technological solution to help them feel more comfortable with their situation.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, it's worth pointing out that even routine, everyday office software has some components that can be viewed as employee monitoring. I mentioned earlier that Microsoft's CEO is criticizing what he calls “productivity paranoia.” But let's not forget, Microsoft Teams has the infamous green and yellow dots. A green dot means you're active. A yellow dot means you are away. And Outlook has a similar feature that displays whether you are free or in a meeting. I will admit, I Googled how to turn that off because I don't want to give the impression that I'm sitting around with nothing to do just because I'm not in a meeting at that moment.

But just focusing on the programs that are designed specifically for monitoring: I'm curious, what do employers ultimately do with this information they collect? Do they use it to adjust compensation? Decide on promotions? Do they use it to fire people?

Michael Sturman:

It's really going to depend on the employer, but I imagine this kind of information could be used to build a case for dismissing an employee. I would be really hesitant to say, ‘Well, you were away from your computer once for a three-minute period, so therefore you're fired.” Although with employment at-will, companies could do that if they wanted. But if you're trying to be more proactive about employee performance and you do spot-checking on a fairly regular basis, this could help build a case that, ‘Gee, we did 30 spot-checks during one day and you were not at your computer for 29 of them, and you have a service representative job where you're supposed to be on your computer the whole day.” That could be a case where I think more legitimately, you could be building a case to influence the person's performance or terminate them from employment or whatever it might be.

Steve Flamisch:

But is that effective? I mean, is this good management or are there better ways to manage performance and productivity?

Michael Sturman:

Better management would involve setting goals for employees and being able to check whether those goals are achieved. It involves looking at sort of broader metrics of how the employee's performing—again, more related to the behaviors and the results associated with the job and not just the simple things that you can measure because the technology now allows it.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, there are varying accounts as to how many companies and organizations are using this kind of software. The management consulting firm Gartner says 30% had some version of this technology before the pandemic, and it's now doubled to 60%. The New York Times reports eight of the 10 largest private employers in the U.S. now track productivity metrics, many in real time.

And I think some of the more interesting stats I've seen come from an IDC survey conducted just about four months ago. They asked more than 800 organizations around the world, "Have you deployed employee monitoring software?" These are the results. 48.1% said yes, this software is currently deployed. 21.9% said no, we deployed this software but removed it due to employee pushback. 14.8% said no, we have never deployed this type of software. 14.6% said no, but we removed it for other reasons. And less than 1% said they didn't know. Lastly, among organizations that are using the software, about two-thirds of them are in North America. So all in all, it's a huge number of employers. Are you surprised or does this sound about right?

Michael Sturman:

Well, actually, I'm a little surprised that so many companies are, to some extent, admitting that they really don't know how to monitor their employee performance more effectively, that they have to rely on these kinds of metrics-driven solutions. But the more I think about it, no, it makes sense that half the companies are concerned. They're worried about how employees are performing. They're not used to this “work remote” type situation, and they're grasping for solutions to help them sort of feel better about the situation. It also doesn't surprise me though that 22% of the companies said they did something and there was such employee pushback that they had to remove it.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, the IDC survey also looked at the kinds of data organizations are collecting. Remember, some software is more invasive than others, and here's the tally on that. 38.4% of companies are tracking the software their employees use on their computer. 37.9% are tracking the websites employees visit. 36.4% track the devices being used. 36.1% track logins and logouts. 35.1% track the documents and data accessed by the employee. 33.1% track active and idle time. 32.2% of employers are tracking key logging. 29.8% have technology that reviews emails, messages such as Slack messages, and voicemails. 29.7% have location tracking. And finally, 26.3% use screen capture.

So if you're someone who's generally against this technology, if you think it's way too Big Brothery, I guess it's encouraging that only a third of organizations are doing key logging and only about a quarter are taking screenshots. But still, that's a large number of employers globally who are doing this.

Michael Sturman:

That certainly is a large number. And again, I have to wonder how many of these metrics really relate to actual performance on the job. Are they measuring these things because they can or are they measuring these things because they should? And obviously this kind of survey doesn't answer that question, but that's the key for this. If it's going to be effective, it has to be metrics that relate to what the employee actually should be doing on a regular basis on that job. And until companies can really be confident about defining what the job should be doing and what needs to be monitored to get effective performance, these kind of metrics do worry me.

Steve Flamisch:

The New York Times ran a big story about employee monitoring a few weeks ago, and what jumped out at me is how many different industries are deploying it. Mike, what are the most egregious examples that stood out to you?

Michael Sturman:

Well, there's a number of actually really sort of scary examples out there. One example from that article is about radiologists reading imaging scans, and the software marks them as either active or inactive. Social workers were being assessed based on how much time they were on their keyboard. There was even one really, I think, sad case in Minnesota where productivity points were awarded to hospice chaplains, and these individuals were being essentially disincentivized from visiting people in rural or hard-to-get-to areas. And again, this really shows how the metrics can really hurt the performance you actually want from people on the job.

Steve Flamisch:

Yes. What are the risks beside that? I mean, does this contribute to higher stress? What are the other negative outcomes for workers?

Michael Sturman:

There really are many potentially negative outcomes. First of all, workers just don't like it. And so it indeed could contribute to higher stress and that can cause problems. I also worry about different marginalized groups: individuals who may not have the same access to technology. Maybe you don't live in an area that has broadband at home, and therefore you have less reliable service, which could make it look like you're not working. Individuals with disabilities may have different time that they need to be away from their computer for different reasons. And so you run risks of discriminating against individuals in those kind of conditions. And there's really a host of problems that could emerge from this.

And again, the purpose is because they're worried about a few people who are egregiously goofing off, and that's always been an issue. And if you're actually monitoring performance and the productivity and what people are producing on their job, then I think you have a better chance of catching that egregious behavior than just random screenshots or counting mouse clicks or keyboard strokes.

Steve Flamisch:

Well, the law is generally on the boss's side. The National Labor Relations Board wants to ensure employee monitoring does not infringe on your right to form or join a union, but there is no federal law banning employee monitoring. The Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted decades before this software came into existence. A handful of states, including New York, require private employers to disclose what they're monitoring. The penalties are probably too small to deter large employers: $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second, $3,000 for the third.

And business groups have fought hard against efforts to curtail employee monitoring in other states. Democrats in California tried to pass a bill that states employers “shall not collect, store, analyze, or interpret worker data” unless it's strictly necessary. But the California Chamber of Commerce called it a “job killer bill,” said it would've imposed “overbroad, unworkable mandates” on employers, and they helped to defeat it.

So Mike, if employers are not breaking any laws, then what is the risk to organizations? Is it bad PR? Loss of morale? Loss of talent?

Michael Sturman:

Well, law has always lagged behind technology, and so there is always some time where the law needs to catch up to what the technology is doing to impose what would be actually appropriate regulation. So in the meanwhile, where there really isn't any kind of regulation, the risk, I think, is largely going to be turnover. Because if you don't treat your employees with respect, there are many opportunities, particularly right now, for them to find other jobs. And given how hard it is for some businesses to find their employees, this could be a substantial risk to their productivity.

Also, you may get what you pay for. You may get people who succeed on the metrics you're now measuring, but don't actually perform the jobs that they were doing or the jobs that you really need accomplished. They may stop helping their colleagues out, they may stop doing parts of the job that aren't captured by those metrics. So you may actually be hurting employee performance because you're only measuring certain small aspects of it.

There certainly also is the potential bad PR. If someone's getting docked on their pay or fired because of a very legitimate reason that they didn't happen to be in front of their screen, that can really hurt companies' reputations. There's also a lot of social media opportunities for employees to describe where they work, and this really provides an opportunity for them to publicly say, "Oh, this company's always monitoring me. They're taking screenshots. They yell at me when I'm away from the computer for four minutes." This is going to hurt really future recruitment as well. All of this can add up to a lot of loss of talent and loss of potential talent for the future.

Steve Flamisch:

Where do we go from here? Will employers just keep monitoring more and more and more? Will I be microchipped before I turn 50? Or will this peak at some point and come back down to earth? What do you think?

Michael Sturman:

I think the pendulum always goes back and forth. So I think now there's a lot of companies grasping for solutions, and the technology often presents a simple one to begin with. I think that's going to back off a little bit as companies realize that what they're measuring isn't really what they were hoping for from the job, and that employees don't like it, and that's just not working for them. I think there'll always be this kind of technology because so many employees do work from home now, and there is going to be that concern: are they really producing? But I think the best employers, the best companies, are going to develop better performance appraisal systems so that they will look at: what are the employees doing? Are they doing that well? And assessing, again, what the job should be doing and not just what's the easiest thing to measure.

Steve Flamisch:

Michael Sturman, professor and chair of the Department of Human Resource Management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Thank you for being on the show. Keep that mouse moving.

Michael Sturman:

Thank you so much. It was great talking with you.

Voiceover:

Thanks for listening to A Third of Your Life, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast. For more information on our academic programs, faculty, and research, visit smlr.rutgers.edu.


Epsiode 1: Why Unions are Cool Again

Workers delivered historic union victories at Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s. What’s next? Walmart? Another Striketober? And how will the midterms change things? Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, analyzes the resurgent labor movement.

Click Here to Listen Now

Transcript for Episode 1

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think these workers are saying, "Enough is enough and we're not going to take it."

Steve Flamisch:

Forming unions, walking off the job. American workers flex their muscle. Next, on A Third of Your Life.

Voiceover:

You spend a third of your life at work. We're all about making it better. This is the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast.

Steve Flamisch:

What a year for the labor movement. Rising public support for unions, major organizing victories, and now thousands of workers going on strike heading into the crucial midterm elections.

Welcome to A Third of Your Life. My name is Steve Flamisch, and my guest today is Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. Becky, welcome to the show.

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Thanks for having me.

Steve Flamisch:

What is going on in the American workplace? Why is all of this happening now?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think there's a few things that have led us to this moment. I think working through the pandemic, a lot of people felt like their bosses didn't care about them, didn't handle the pandemic well, whether we're talking about health and safety issues or battles over remote work versus returning to the office. A lot of people had new insight into whether their employer cared about them at all. And that's been coupled with a very tight labor market where it's easy for workers to leave and go get a job somewhere else. And when they're thinking about organizing rather than leaving, when they don't have to fear losing their job because they know it's pretty easy to go and find another job, that changes the calculation and makes workers more likely to organize.

Steve Flamisch:

A Gallup poll released right before Labor Day revealed 71% of Americans approve of unions. That's the highest approval rating since 1965. Yet, union membership has been low for decades, only about 10% nationally last year.

Becky, if most Americans like unions, why is membership still so low?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's really difficult to organize a union. Most people either work in a unionized workplace or a non-unionized workplace already, and they don't experience any change. So for most people, that's a non-unionized workplace, and they don't really feel the ability to go out and organize. Organizing is hard. The law is really stacked against workers who want to unionize. Employers really have the upper hand, they have more resources, and they have the support of the law in doing a lot of things and throwing resources into an anti-union campaign. So it's really, really difficult to make a non-union job into a unionized job.

Steve Flamisch:

In spite of those challenges, we've had a year of really significant organizing victories. Amazon was the big headline grabber early in the year with Amazon Labor Union winning its first election at a warehouse in Staten Island, and we had that iconic image of ALU president Christian Smalls popping the cork on a bottle of champagne.

The union lost the second election in Staten Island, but now we're heading for another election—this time in Upstate New York at an Amazon warehouse in Albany. What do you expect will happen with that one?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's hard to predict, but the odds are always stacked against the union. These are very, very high turnover workplaces where most workers don't stick around long enough to form strong relationships with each other, and they're facing an all-out assault in terms of the anti-union campaign that they hear from the employer. So Amazon has mandatory meetings, they hold them all day long. Most workers will listen to multiple sessions of about a half an hour a piece telling them why they should be fearful of unionizing, telling them that there are a lot of downsides, trying to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt in their minds. So it's very, very difficult to have a successful organizing drive in an atmosphere like that.

Steve Flamisch:

A few months ago we were hearing that traditional labor unions might have to adjust their strategy to emulate ALU's success. Have you seen any evidence of that or is it still business as usual for the heavy hitters?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think unions are trying a lot of different things and they always have tried a lot of different things. I think there's not a single path to a successful organizing drive. Some of the recent organizing has been affiliated with big longstanding unions, and some of it has been independent.

Steve Flamisch:

Let's talk about Starbucks now. More than 200 unionized Starbucks stores all across the country. A huge number. Did you see that coming?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I don't think anybody saw it coming. I certainly didn't see it coming. It's very impressive to organize so many separate workplaces and sort of really build this powerful wave.

Steve Flamisch:

And yet against the backdrop of those successes, we're hearing more and more about allegations of union busting. Starbucks Workers United says the company has fired dozens of union leaders. If that allegation is true, how do they get away with it? And is it scaring off workers in other stores who may be thinking of organizing?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I'm sure the intended effect is to scare workers and to create a sort of chilling effect so workers are less inclined to organize. The problem with current labor law is that it's very slow and the National Labor Relations Board that administers the law is really underfunded and understaffed. So it's hard to move quickly on allegations like this.

If Starbucks is in fact found to have illegally fired these workers that were organizing, the penalty they pay will be relatively minimal, essentially reinstating the workers with back pay for the time they were away. That's not really a significant enough penalty to deter them from doing it again. If it creates a chilling effect successfully, they may decide to keep on doing it. And even if they lose those legal cases, that might be a price they're willing to pay.

Steve Flamisch:

This year, we also had the first Apple store unionize in Maryland, the first Chipotle in Michigan, two Trader Joe's in Massachusetts and Minnesota, we even had the first union victory in a congressional office. Michigan Congressman Andy Levin's staff voted unanimously to join a union.

When you look at the totality of union success in 2022, which is the most earth-shattering union victory? Which one really stands out to you?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's hard to pick one, but I think the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island. To organize a workplace that's that large where you have to gain the support of literally thousands of workers, which means thousands of one-on-one conversations, that is really difficult in any large workplace. And then when you think about a workplace where turnover is so high and many of the workers have not been there for very long, that's another huge hurdle. So I think I'd probably say that the Amazon victory in Staten Island is, perhaps, the most surprising.

Steve Flamisch:

Becky, how much of this is driven by workers who are fed up and how much is driven by unions sensing an opportunity? Noam Scheiber, the labor reporter at The New York Times, reported unions salted Amazon and Starbucks, sending workers there to apply for jobs with the goal of forming a union. Do you think that's the case with a lot of these organizing victories?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think the lines are really blurred. I think young workers now are really more aware of what unions are and the ways they might organize their workplaces. And I think there are a lot of young workers out there who say, "Wherever I work, I would consider trying to organize. And maybe because I'm seeing, for example, Starbucks or Amazon having these waves, maybe I'll apply for a job in one of those workplaces rather than somewhere else."

But I also think that they're workers too, right? So if they got a job there intentionally, they also do want to organize. And I also think in Staten Island and Amazon, there were a few workers, although, the key leaders that are most visible, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, were longtime Amazon workers. But you don't win without getting the support of all kinds of workers.

Steve Flamisch:

What's next? What is the next industry where we will see organizing activity, maybe the next company that will be targeted by unions?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Well, I'm not very good at predicting, but I think we can see certain types of workplaces. I think in the same category as Starbucks, we have places like Trader Joe's, the Apple Stores, REI, the outdoor retailer. Places with a progressive veneer that have really attracted a lot of young workers, many of them college educated, many of them who feel an affinity with the ideals and values that the company puts forward. I think we can see more brands like that facing organizing drives.

Steve Flamisch:

What about Walmart? Why haven't we seen a unionization effort there in recent years and do you think we will?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think previous attempts to unionize at Walmart were really met with brutal anti-union campaigns by Walmart. And I don't think we can rule anything out in any company or industry, but I think the geographic locations of Walmart, which are primarily in the South, in rural areas and that's not as concentrated in cities where, for example, Starbucks organizing has been quite successful or in blue states or in heavily unionized states. That all weighs a little bit against organizing there. It doesn't mean it's impossible or that we won't see it, but it's maybe not top of the list of who's next.

Steve Flamisch:

This time last year, we were heading into Striketober. Workers at John Deere, Kelloggs, and elsewhere, walking off the job over wages, benefits, and working conditions. And now, strike activity is on the rise again, notably in two areas you've studied: healthcare and education.

Let's start with healthcare. 15,000 nurses in Minnesota going on strike for three days in September, demanding higher wages and safe staffing. The union called it the largest nurse strike in US history. What did they accomplish and do you think we will see more of this?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Well, we don't know what they accomplished yet because they haven't settled those contracts, but they certainly brought a lot of attention and public support to their campaign, which was primarily about having sufficient staffing in place to provide quality patient care.

We're seeing strikes not just at many Starbucks stores, but in all kinds of workplaces. So museums, continuing to see strikes in K-12 schools, some higher education strikes. I think we will continue to see strikes and in multiple different sectors. And I think when people hear about strikes, particularly successful strikes, it makes the next strike in a different workplace more likely.

Steve Flamisch:

You mentioned public schools. We're a few years removed from the Red for Ed strikes that swept the country, but we saw 6,000 teachers and staff strike in Seattle and 4,500 in Columbus, Ohio. Do you think it's starting all over again?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I do think so. I think teachers and other education workers are feeling particularly disrespected. They've had a really, really hard time working through the pandemic. They're under attack politically in terms of the content of their teaching and their ability to choose their own books and set their own curriculum. Meanwhile, because working through the pandemic was so demoralizing, many teachers have left or retired. And so in many places there's a pretty severe shortage, which means that the workers that are there are having to work much harder just to keep up and just to educate the kids. So I think the atmosphere is really ripe for more collective action.

Steve Flamisch:

We've seen strikes in other sectors as well. About 1,000 workers at San Francisco International Airport went on strike in late September, demanding higher pay. The union, UNITE HERE Local 2, warned travelers to bring their own food because the airports, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops would be closed.

The hospitality industry took such a hit during the pandemic. Becky, do you think resentment is just bubbling up to the surface now?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I do think so. I think hospitality closed down and many workers faced layoffs and unemployment. And then when it started to reopen for many workers, it was an extremely unsafe environment with really high levels of COVID exposure and illness. And I think these workers are saying, "Enough is enough. You're depending on us, especially somewhere like an airport, and we're not going to take it." And again, the tight labor market helps. If they act collectively, they can really assert a lot of power because they aren't very easily replaceable.

Steve Flamisch:

Arguably the biggest strike news in recent months involved one that did not happen, an 11th hour deal to avert a rail strike. But it sounds like rank and file members are not totally happy with the agreement their leaders hammered out. Is that becoming more common?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

It's hard to assess the total numbers, but it was certainly something we saw last year with the Striketober strikes and something that will, perhaps, continue where workers will demand more. And especially if they've been on strike, they'll say, "We're not going to settle for a contract that's just okay or that feels concessionary. We're going to demand that what we needed all along is actually met. We're not willing to compromise." And in the case of the rail workers, what they're being asked to compromise on is significant. It's about the ability to, for example, go to the doctor without being penalized.

Steve Flamisch:

So that one is heading for a ratification vote and we will have to wait to see the outcome. We could be heading for an even bigger strike next year. The new president of The Teamsters, Sean O'Brien, is taking a tough stance in negotiations with UPS. More than 350,000 drivers and package handlers could walk off the job. What is the key issue in that negotiation?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

The UPS issues have to do with pay, especially pay and job security and other provisions for part-timers, but also some working conditions issues. So right now, especially in time of climate change, the exposure to heat is through a greater and greater part of the year. So the UPS trucks are hot, the workers are not getting sufficient break times, and they want to make sure that their working conditions prioritize safety, not just speed and profit.

Steve Flamisch:

Shifting gears, the midterms are coming up. How does the balance of power on Capitol Hill affect the labor movement?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

The labor movement would love some legislation to reset the balance and tip things slightly less in the direction of employers. And they've been promoting various pieces of legislation in recent years. If they could win a clear majority that could move legislation in the Senate and the House, that means over 60 votes, they have some ideas about what they'd like to achieve, but that's probably not realistic. So for now, they look to, for example, the executive branch and things like appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and rulemaking and more technical pieces of the state apparatus to try to get the climate to be just slightly more favorable to workers.

Steve Flamisch:

I'd like to talk about the demographics of unions. It seems like the labor movement is getting younger and more diverse: women, people of color, LGBTQ+ workers. How does that change the equation?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Yeah, I think that the labor movement is getting more diverse and labor leaders are gradually getting more diverse. So we do have many labor leaders who are not white, who are queer, and I think that does change things. I think the typical union worker is not an older white male steel worker or mine worker, but perhaps a home health aide, a woman of color, an immigrant woman. And that's the reality of who working people are, and that's the reality of who's in unions. The biggest unions are teachers unions, which are predominantly female.

Steve Flamisch:

When the story of this period is written, when historians and future professors look back on what happened in the labor movement between 2018 and 2022, what will resonate the most? What will students be learning about this moment in the history of work?

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

I think one of the things that will be most significant will be young workers organizing. So some of these big victories, especially in places like Starbucks and Amazon, are really led by young workers who are excited to improve their working conditions, are excited to organize, are learning about the nuts and bolts of organizing, and that energy and those skills are really spreading. So I think the importance of young workers in this moment is really going to have a lasting impact.

Steve Flamisch:

Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, thanks for joining us on A Third of Your Life.

Rebecca Kolins Givan:

Thanks for having me.

Voiceover:

Thanks for listening to A Third of Your Life, the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations podcast. For more information on our academic programs, faculty, and research, visit smlr.rutgers.edu.