A Voice of Labor: An Exploration with Diane Krauthamer, Editor, Industrial Worker

Fresh Perspective / March 2013

Russ Volckmann

Diane Krauthamer

Diane Krauthamer

Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Russ: I would like to welcome Diane Krauthamer, who has been involved in the labor movement for many years. We talk a lot about management and leadership and international development in organizations, NGOs, businesses and the like. But I think areas that we have severely neglected is the whole area of labor unions and other organizations that are trying to strengthen the roles of individuals in other occupations other than the ones we most typically represent. I think in Diane, who is the editor of the Industrial Worker, we have found somebody who can help us think about that in some very exciting and fresh ways. So welcome Diane.

Diane: Thank you, I am glad to be here.

Russ: So tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get involved in the labor movement?

Diane: Sure. Well I have a social justice oriented background. When I was in high school I cared very much about social causes such as the environment and politics and that sort of thing. Over the years, I started my career as a journalist with the Independent Media Center. In the course of my work as a journalist, I found myself focusing in uncovering labor issues. Because of this I developed an interest in the local labor struggles around New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I attended college. As I became more attentive to these issues as a journalist, I became more directly involved with activism supporting these struggles .

Eventually I became involved with the IWW Starbucks Workers Union and a few other local campaigns in New York City.

Russ:Are you originally from New York or New Jersey?

Diane: I was born in New York and I grew up in the Washington DC area. I went to The New School in New York for grad school.

Russ: You were a journalism major, is that right?

Diane: Right, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science and a Master’s degree in Media Studies.

Russ: So, you were involved in various union activities, but now you are the editor of the Industrial Worker, how did that come about?

Diane: Around when I became involved with various union activities in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), I found myself writing more and more about local labor struggles for the Industrial Worker. As I was writing, I started to develop an editorial grasp of what was happening in the broader union. So around the end of 2008 the former editor, Peter Moore, asked me to step up and run for the position of editor. I ran in a union election and came out on top in 2009.

Russ:  What was it about labor union activity, the struggles of the working class if you will, that attracted you to this work?

Diane: Well, as I mentioned, I came into it from a journalist perspective, but I also came into this kind of work from the perspective of a low-wage worker. While I was in college and grad school I worked a lot in the food service industry. Here I saw a lot of very common injustices such as low wages, no health care, that kind of thing. I always thought it would be great if it were possible to unionize in such a precarious industry. But I found out through working in restaurants and coffee shops that the turnover rate was very high.

So people were fearful of labor unions. It seemed impossible to actually organize that kind of workplace. But then, when I was in New York, I came across the Starbucks workers who were organizing in that type of workplace. I found that it was very possible. That kind of workplace just had to be organized through very democratic and very non-traditional means.

Russ: And that attracted you?

Diane: Yes.

Russ: That was a process that would fit your values?

Diane:  Yes. That would fall right in line with my values.

Russ: I read recently that in New Zealand, a large number of service workers have successfully unionized with McDonald’s and other food service industries. Is that right?

Diane: I believe so, I actually don’t know too much about that particular campaign, but I think I have heard something about that.

Russ: Maybe we will get to read a little bit about it in the Industrial Worker down the road.

Diane: Right.

Russ: Tell us a little bit about your role as editor. To what degree do you get to be involved in the news about what’s going on in the labor movement around the world?

Diane: Well, I’m actually getting extremely involved in this in a very fortunate way, because I am constantly receiving news from various labor activists and representatives from across the globe. So every day I am receiving new information on campaigns, workplace actions and various struggles, and I find that part of my work with the newspaper is to create awareness and promote solidarity. It’s very beneficial for me, because I am finding that I am learning a great deal while promoting workplace organizing.

Russ: So you have been active in this role since 2009, this has been a really tough period for labor, politically, economically. How could you help us get a feel for what the situation is currently for the working class?

Diane: Like what specifically?

Russ: I am thinking particularly about how the economy, how the politics of today, not just necessarily in the United States but anywhere else in the world, are impacting labor. Are these conditions either reducing or keeping organized labor from making a difference, from growing or facilitating that growth? Are there any patterns that you see?

Diane: Sure. About two years ago an onslaught of right to work legislation was being proposed and passed primarily in the mid-west.

Right to work is a right wing push to curb union rights. It only exists in most of the South, and it hasn’t spread too far yet. So about two years ago, right to work legislation was passed in Wisconsin, and that sort of started a trend as similar legislation was then passed states like Ohio and Indiana. Michigan was the most recent to pass it, I believe. I think this legislation is a significant encroachment on most union organizing in this country, but it doesn’t really prevent groups like the IWW from organizing, because the IWW doesn’t depend on the kind of infringements that Right to Work would impose.

Russ: Could you explain that?

Diane: Essentially, the IWW doesn’t rely on labor laws to organize. It doesn’t necessarily rely on contracts or having the most popular vote to demand workplace rights. When a workplace does become a union shop and when that shop has a good contract it’s always helpful for the IWW but that’s not necessarily always the end goal or the most important thing. If we lose an election or don’t secure a good contract, the struggle isn’t over. The workers continue organizing.

Russ: The Right to Work law has as one of the elements that people do not have to pay union dues. Is that right?

Diane: That’s right.

Russ: So those who are organizing the Right believe that organizing is going to be reduced. The strength of the union will be reduced because people will not have to pay dues. Less dues, less money for the Center and the Left political campaigns. Do you think that’s what’s happening or is that a false hope on the part of the Right?

Diane: I think it has been happening, but at the same time I think that a lot of business unions allow that to dictate how they organize in Right to Work states. I think that they assume that it will be impossible for workers to pay dues, so they just don’t even bother with trying. In the South, there is almost a zero union representation because I think most of the major unions have decided that they will just not be able to build enough union density for it to be worth the resources they invest.

I think this is a weakness of the mainstream labor movement.

Russ: Labor is under a lot of stress from the political challenges that have been laid down and things like automation, increasing use of robots in manufacturing industries, the economic downturn and the impact it’s had on keeping wages low in service industries and the like.

How is the labor movement responding to this? What is it that they think they can do to make a difference in the face of all these challenges?

Diane:  That’s an interesting question, because it’s very different in different parts of the world. In Europe there are a lot of protests against austerity and other measures which stem from economic downturn. A lot of the people in these countries participate in general strikes and student worker marches and that kind of thing. I think the labor movement is actually very powerful in Europe, because it does effect significant change. This is true also in Canada. In Montreal there were student protests around the entire city last spring. The students protested against tuition increases. They went on strike across the whole city and it played a part in stopping the increases.

That kind of protest activity has occurred to some extent in the US with the ‘Occupy Movement’ in the last year and a half. That wasn’t necessarily worker-based, but it did address the economic downturn, and that was the point.

Russ: So we can see varying kinds of labor activity in Europe and North America, Australia and New Zealand where there have been some successes. In the Industrial Worker we read about successes in organizing efforts, strikes and the like in various parts of the world. Yet in the US, the impression I have is despite some successes and the strength of things like the major service and government employment union in California, nurses unions and associations, teachers associations, it just feels like there is not a lot going on. Labor isn’t touching most of the population in the United States in a way that they are making much of an impact. Is that an accurate impression?

Diane: The US is much more geographically spread out than European countries, though in some ways it’s unfair to compare the two. I think that the US in general is pretty fragmented. A lot of people are saying the labor movement in the US is weak and I think that’s true to some extent, but they are up against more. The unions here just don’t have the kind political power that they do in other countries. It’s tough to make that comparison, but I like to believe that unions are stronger here than a lot of people think they are.

Russ: You used to the word “fragmented” and we do have many different kinds of unions. They are often very much associated with particular industries. So there is also fragmented leadership. Isn’t that true for the labor movements in the United States?

Diane: Definitely. It can be disheartening at times with regards to union leadership – there is a lot of infighting amongst the unions. There is a lot of territoriality. There are battles; there are jurisdictional battles. So it’s fragmented and full of conflict because there are those kinds of disputes that ignore the larger issues at hand.

Russ: Is there anything going on that you are aware of that might address that problem – that seeks to bring the leadership of unions together in a more united front?

Diane: Not that I am aware of, no.

Russ: Why do you think that is? Historically there were efforts like the AFL-CIO to bring unions together. Why is there nothing like that going on now in the face of the kinds of challenges that we have been talking about? Where is the leadership for unity?

Diane: Well, I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you that I think the leadership is generally very much focused on electoral politics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I worked for a union for about three years and half of my job involved supporting actual workers in work places and campaigns, while the other half involved supporting local and national politicians and campaigning for them. The union’s resources seem to be directed towards mostly political campaigning versus organizing and fighting for workers’ rights.

Russ: Every now and then I read about situations where the owners and managers of companies and corporations very much support the workers. We have got things ranging from – I don’t remember the name of the company, but it was the factory that burnt down and the owners continued to pay people until the new factory was rebuilt in New England in the United States. There are leaders, business leaders, business owners and entrepreneurs who claim to really have the worker’s interest at heart and take some kind of action accordingly. For example John Mackey of Whole Foods has his salary at 16 times the average worker’s income. Whereas, in other industries, the CEO is getting 200, 300 times the average salary of people working in their companies. Do you see, given all the stories you have been reading, any cause for hope in terms of the executive leadership of business beginning to see organized labor as an important ally as opposed to something to fight?

Diane: Honestly, I would like to see that, but I don’t think that would happen in the near future. I think that a lot of the business leaders and large corporations see unions as a threat that curbs their power. I think that the sort of “corporate social responsibility” that is becoming more and more popular is a way of deflecting union power instead of fostering it. They are saying, “You don’t need a union, because we are treating you just fine and if there are any problems just let us know and we will make sure things are better.” I think it’s a very intentional move to undermine any possibility of unionization by appeasing or pacifying workers.

Russ: Most of what we are seeing out there is efforts at keeping the one percent in power, or the top three percent or five percent, or whatever, in power.

Diane: Right.

Russ: And not doing anything to address the disparity in incomes that has been growing and increasing that we are aware of for the last decade. Is that right?

Diane: Yeah, I think so. I definitely think so.

Russ: Now, this starts to sound pretty depressing. How do you keep up your positive energy in the face of all of this?

Diane: Well, it’s challenging sometimes. But no matter how many doubts I have, there are also these glimmers of hope when workers are empowered even just for a week or so during a successful campaign, or when there is a wildcat strike, or when there a hard-fought campaign has been won for various issues like increasing wages and healthcare and that sort of thing.

So we are never going to fully win. I don’t think we will ever seize the means of production or anything like that, at least not in this lifetime. But I find that it’s important for workers to feel their power on the job and in their day to day lives, because ultimately most of what we have to do is work. When we can work and have small victories, it makes our days and our lives that much easier.

Russ: It does seem like whether we are talking about capitalism, cronyism, socialism, communism or whatever-ism that might be, any of the other things that you will find in businesses and organizations around the world, that there is no path other than one filled with conflict and confrontation for labor to be able to realize the hopes of the labor class. Is that how you see it?

Diane: I think that’s the primary path. It’s not something that we as workers choose. That’s something that these employers impose on us. They force conflicts on us. But at the same time, when they do that and we fight back, that is I think the most effective means of earning the things that we need to get by.

Russ: Recently, I was reading a little book that my grandfather wrote. He was in the military and stationed in Seattle in the early 1900s. In a passing comment about some off the activities of the particular Battalion that he was associated with, one of the things that seemed to happen fairly frequently was that military units were sent out to deal with labor conflicts in the mining industry in the North West. Of course, we know of all of the history of the military being called out to put down worker strikes and rebellions to the point of killing workers to “protect property,” not just in the United States, but elsewhere in the world.

It seems like the forces of government and the forces of the financial elite of the world are just so strong. Labor is so fragmented. It is challenging to think about ways that we can learn from that history and find some additional path that might be more productive, have better results than has happened so many times in history. Are you seeing anything out there where labor is trying to explore new ways of understanding, new ways of thinking about, and new ways of approaching dealing with issues that we have been talking about?

Diane: I think there is a lot to be said with online organizing. The Internet doesn’t replace shop floors or anything, but I think it’s a new means of essentially doing shop floor organizing that has taken off in the past few years. Online organizing includes using emails, social media, and using various Internet tools to have workers join in the same place. Even if they can’t meet face to face they can see each other online, comment on problems using social media platforms and that kind of thing. I don’t think it’s necessarily really strengthening union power or workplace organizing. I think is definitely helping and I think there is a lot of potential for what we can do with new technology.

Russ: That’s a great point because basically in recognizing the potential for new technology, it can also break down the geographic boundaries that have been so prominent in the kind of fragmentation that you talked about earlier. It can be broken down through the use of technology. So that might offer some hope not just say within the United States but even internationally. For example, there has been – especially around social responsibilities – in companies like Apple and Nike and others who have been cited for the abuse of labor in Indonesia and China and elsewhere.

They have been somewhat responsive to the pressure around those kinds of issues to some degree. So as globalization is occurring, so is the globalization of labor. It looks like there may be some potential for the future. This can lead to the alignment of labor unions, but also with other organizations that are concerned about social responsibility, sustainability and other issues that confront us all. Do you see any of that kind of ally creating or connecting going on between labor unions and other types of organizations?

Diane: Definitely. I think that at least in the US that can basically be done. An example is the anti-globalization of the early 2000s, which essentially began in 1999 with the mass protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. That was such an epic movement for anti-globalization activism was because the labor unions, ecological groups, various human rights and social justice groups all came and united against one global corporate entity. I think it was very successful primarily due to the internet, due to the various calls to action and the people coordinating and mobilizing through technology and then ultimately onto the streets.

Russ: Other than looking at government and business, there is one other place to look in terms of future potential for labor, and that has to do with labor itself. There is this report in 2006 that labor unionized workers are earning about 20% more than non-unionized workers and they are 18 to 28% more likely to have employer provided health insurance, and are 23 to 54% more likely to have employer provided retirement plans. They also receive more vacation time and more paid leave. To the best of your knowledge, are those figures in the ball park, and if so, why is there not more effort on the part of the working class to enlist in, to engage in, to participate in labor unions to try and promote this better lifestyle with improved working conditions and life conditions?

Diane: As far as I know those are accurate figures. I don’t have them in front of me but I do know that conditions are much better for unionized workers than non-unionized workers. I think that workers would potentially organize more and would potentially want to be involved in the union activities if they had those statistics and they knew that those statistics could apply to them directly. I think most workers aren’t aware of the benefits of being in a union because they just don’t have that information and they don’t know a lot of labor history. Many haven’t been informed that they have that choice to join a union.

Russ: Employers and people who have more influence and control over media are standing in the way of that broader understanding of the benefits of unionization?

Diane: Employers typically put out anti-union propaganda.

Russ: Many of the people that read this journal are people who, in addition to those who are in management or who are in labor, many of them are people who are not only academics, but they are also students, consultants, coaches and other professionals. The professional classes generally has not seen their organizations as unions per se, at least most of them to my knowledge. What would you say to this group of people, professional, educated, interested in social change, interested in the evolution of our world, of our economy, of our relationships? What would you say to them about how they could help influence and support the labor movements in a way that would be helpful?

Diane: Just like anyone else, they could join a union. I think that this is a message that is not just about low-wage working class people. There are plenty of professional unions out there that do need support from members as well.

The other thing I think is very important is for educators to teach students and their colleagues about labor history and about labor struggles. These are issues that are not taught very much in the educational system. They are very neglected. These issues are ongoing and they apply to just about everyone, no matter what your rank in society is.

Russ: Diane, I want to thank you very much. I really appreciated your comments. For the most part, as you suggested, the knowledge base and the understanding of the role of unions and the importance of unions in the industrial or post industrial society, information society, is really very important. I think you helped us get a feel for that, so thank you very much for all you’ve shared.

Diane: Sure, thank you for taking the time to speak with me too.


In addition to her work as the Industrial Worker Editor, Diane Krauthamer is a freelance writer and communications specialist. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies from the New School, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism/Media Studies and Political Science from Rutgers University. She has devoted the past decade of her career to fighting for labor rights and social justice. She can be reached at iw@iww.org.