This is a transcript of the March 14 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Brogan: Welcome to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working we’ve been talking to people employed in fields, imperiled or threatened in one way or another by the Trump presidency’s agenda. These are the stores of individuals doing difficult, important jobs. Jobs that are likely to get a lot more difficult, and a lot more important in the years ahead. Our guest this week is David Mott, a labor organizer with Service Employees International Union, or SEIU as you might know it. If you’ve ever wondered what a labor organizer actually does, this episode is for you. David talks to us about how he came to labor organizing in the first place and what he thinks unions are really for. He also tells us about how he works to organize a workplace, looking sometimes almost literally mapping out the ways that people relate to one another in their jobs and in their physical environment.
He also talks about how his work fits into and responds to the current political environment between Trump and his own administrative agenda and the role of so-called right to work states, which are pushing back against the ability of people to unionize.
What is your name and what do you do?
Mott: My name is David Mott and I am an organizing coordinator for the Service Employees International Union.
Mott: SEIU, known as SEIU, and for layman’s terms, I mean I’m an organizer. I’m a labor organizer. That’s what I do.
Brogan: If someone has never organized labor before, or had their labor organized, what is it that you’re up to?
Mott: I mean there are a lot of details to the work, but essentially what being an organizer means, I think, is displaying leadership and helping workers build a union, build an organization where they work, and really be able to build an organization that they then use to improve their lives.
Brogan: At a practical level, though, once you’ve built that bedrock, once you’ve established those foundations, what are you hoping that you’ll be able to help people accomplish in their workplaces?
Mott: Number one, it is about having respect on the job. There’re lots of different stories of people who were frustrated for a variety of reasons. It could be about the pay, it could be about health care benefits, it could be about not getting the first shift. Whatever it is that motivated them to start thinking about building a union, but afterwards, once they’ve had the union and been able to work with it for a while, people will say a couple of different things. One, my boss now treats me like an equal because he has to. Two, people have a real sense of being able to speak up about their work, about conditions at work, and be able to speak their mind without having to be worried about getting fired. That leads to everything else, but if you can’t speak up, you can’t advocate for a decent pay. If you can’t speak up, you can’t complain about dangerous working conditions that could put you out of work forever.
It all really comes down to having a powerful organization in your workplace that you really can use as a worker to advocate for your interests.
Brogan: You’re not just advocating when you go into a workplace for specific issues like more money, better health insurance. You’re actually trying to create frameworks in which people can advocate for themselves. Am I understanding right?
Mott: Exactly right. The truth is, a good organizer doesn’t go into advocating for anything. People will say, “Well what’s the union going to do for me?” Nothing. What are you going to do for yourself. I’m not here to do good things for you per se. I cannot do anything in your workplace. What I can help you do is build an organization that you can then do for yourself. It’s not somebody coming in on a white horse saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll get you a good contract or X, Y, and Z.” Quite frankly, I don’t know what workers want. I’ve had conversations where I thought workers wanted X, it comes out to be that they’re really more interested in Y, so part of the process is really listening to what people are telling you about what’s important in their life and then linking that to the union. With the union you can accomplish these kinds of things if you put your mind to it.
Brogan: How did you get involved in this work in the first place? What led you to union organizing?
Mott: I’ve always had a rebellious streak, right? I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. Things, you looked at the Cold War, you looked at the Civil Rights Movement, and then it was the Vietnam War, and you just go through all that and you say, “This makes no sense. It’s absurd how we’ve organized this stuff and how authority in our country and authority in your life just doesn’t listen to you.” That was part of it, but then I began as a reporter in Vermont when I got there. Got hired, and then a week later some guy sidles up and he goes, “Hey, man. We’re building a union here. Sign the card.”
Brogan: Another reporter, another journalist?
Mott: Another journalist, and I’m going, “OK.”
Brogan: From your organization?
Mott: Yeah. Yeah, from there. OK, he talked to me about it. “This sounds good. This makes sense to me. Yeah we should have a voice about what’s going on at work.” Because I came at the same time that the union arrived, management thought that I had brought it. That wasn’t the case at all. I was at that point pretty much a follower, but they made my life miserable.
Brogan: Management did?
Mott: Yeah. Got demoted in different things. So I said, “Well, now I’m into it.” It just became exhilarating to me to really think about what you can do as a group of people that you could simply not do on your own. That’s really the essence of the union. You are able to accomplish things together that you can never accomplish on your own. That’s how I became an officer of my local there and then we went out on strike and quite frankly, it was a disaster. The organizer at the time was somebody that did not exercise leadership.
Brogan: Was that organizer a professional?
Mott: Yeah he was a professional. I remember sitting in the union hall as things were falling apart and just saying to myself, “Workers deserve better than this. I think I can be better than this.” That was the decision, I wanted to become a union organizer.
Brogan: What was the value you saw in it in those first days, though?
Mott: One, it was fun. I mean, don’t discount just having fun. I was elected sergeant of arms.
Brogan: For your union?
Mott: Yeah, for the union when I was a reporter. After a while I said, “Why in the world do we need a sergeant of arms? We all love each other. We get along great. I don’t have to escort anybody out of here.” Because you really do have this sense of being just connected to each other. It doesn’t mean you agree with everybody. There’re all kinds of people that come into the unions. You got the Republicans, you have Democrats, you have white folks, black folks. The union is a slice of life in America. That’s what it is. There’s no criteria to get in except that you want the union.
Brogan: You’ve been working in that environment for decades now.
Mott: Yeah, yeah.
Brogan: Has the dynamic of unions, of union organizing of that work, changed over time?
Mott: Yeah. I would say it has. It has changed to some extent. The basics are always there. It is a labor-intensive job. It is about talking with people, and engaging workers in an organizing conversation. Those kind of principles are the same. Leadership, finding people who are natural leaders. They’re all over the place. It is knowing people well enough to know what their skills and contributions can be to each other. It’s those kind of things. That hasn’t really changed. When I was organizing, I would be out on a nursing home so it was very solitary sometimes. Now, what we call the technology, but really trying to figure out not just how to organize nursing home by nursing home by nursing home, or hospital by hospital, or building, if you’re organizing janitors by building by building, but to organize industries.
Brogan: Are nursing homes the primary workplace that you operated in?
Mott: Yeah. Health care. Not just nursing homes, but health care, generally. Mental health agencies, MRDD group home operations, for example, but basically health care, nursing homes, some hospitals in both public and private.
Brogan: When you go into a space like that, are you generally working piecemeal? Is it this nursing home, and that one, and this hospital, and that one, or are you trying to bring different institutions, different workplaces together?
Mott: When I first started out it was, I would say not so much piecemeal, we did think about the other nursing homes in the area and how to build power in a town or community and so forth, but it is much more so trying to think about it. You still have to organize the nursing home, for example. Our union organizes janitors. They don’t organize building by building. They really do take the industry-wide approach within a geography or city. The ideas that at some point certain, all the employers are now under contract. Workers have a union. They’re representing the entire industry, working with the entire industry to set standards. That’s really what you want to try and do is set standards. Wage standards. Benefit standards. Working standards. Safety standards, and that’s very hard to do piece by piece by piece.
Brogan: When you’re starting with a new workplace, how do you get involved in the first place? Do you just show up one day? I assume not. I assume someone gives you a call and says, “Hey we’re thinking about heading in this direction.”
Mott: Certainly people give us a call and those are wonderful calls. You go, “Oh, yes.” It’s great. Certainly you get a call, but not necessarily. When we look at the industry that we’re organizing, many times, you know, just show up. It’s not like you don’t plan it. You do. It’s a lot of stinking strategy, intellectual work goes into this, but there is this process of trying to figure out who works there. How do you figure that out? Bosses aren’t going to give you the list to go talk to the workers about joining the union. You have to have a way of doing that. To the extent of, where you have members, for example. We have members already in the union. Certainly in my local. We would talk with them and spend a great deal of time helping to train them to think about how do they improve their union by making it larger.
If there’s a nursing home down the street I would say to a member of our union, “You need to go make contact with those folks and just start having conversations. You’ll see them in the grocery store. You’ll see them at church. They’re part of your community. Go talk to them.” That helps generate what we call contact. Somebody will say, “Yes, I’d like to talk to you about this.” There are other times when we just show up.
Brogan: Once you head into a specific place—let’s say a nursing home in Ohio, or something like that—is that mostly where you work?
Mott: Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
Brogan: OK. You go into a nursing home that’s not yet organized, maybe there’s some interest from some employees. How do you start reaching out to people? What’s the process for you of beginning to actually organize the workers in this as yet unorganized, if not disorganized, workplace?
Mott: Person-to-person contact. Standing outside the place with a leaflet is like a dead giveaway. In this country, it is very easy for employers to simply call people together wherever they work, and just put an end to the campaign. Right quick. You want to be somewhat strategic about it. You’re trying to put together this organization very, very quickly because you are in a race against management. The boss. If the boss hears about this, he will attempt to scare workers. There’re all kinds of ways they keep people divided. Their goal is to stop it before it even gets out on the ground. You’re really racing—very, very quickly person, to person, to person. We do a lot of house visits. Just go to people’s homes and knock on their doors.
Brogan: You get the information from other people who are interested?
Mott: Other workers. Sometimes it’s just public information. You can figure that out. You start with one person. Who else do they know? At the same time, this is a process of building leadership with people. Again, it’s not me that’s going to make this union go. It is going to be the workers at wherever it is. You transfer the leadership of this organization in many ways even as its fledgling to the workers themselves. That really is important. Is this a worker calling me? Hey, wait. I want to join a union.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to David Mott. After this phone call, David Mott tells us a little bit more about how he maps out a workplace and brings it together as an organization.
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Brogan: You have to act quickly. You have to be the first to field, as it were. Generally speaking, though, if this is answerable, how long does the process of organizing a workplace, say, that nursing home, that hypothetical nursing home we were talking about earlier, take from beginning to end?
Mott: It depends on the place and it depends on—I can only speak from my experience—if you’re organizing a nursing home, you should be able to file, what we would call a petition, setting up an election where workers have signed on a card, signed a petition, made a physical representation that they want to do this. If we lived in a country that really valued workers’ rights, within two weeks you could have a union. You actually have a union in two to three weeks, but then the process is having management recognize it legally and that involves the national labor relations board and all of that. Workers in this country have to go through a really rough process of proving to the government, and then proving through that to management, that they are serious about having a union.
A nursing home might take three to four months. That time management is full-fledged campaigning against the union, and I would just say this. We’re in this thing with Trump now, right? And all the Russians. Hacking. This is nothing compared to what workers go through in a union election. For example, if a candidate for president, if Trump could have taken, instead of having rallies, he could have taken all the Clinton supporters and put them in a room and threatened their employment. Threatened to take away ours. To lay them off, you know, for voting for the union, or for voting for Clinton. That’s what workers go through.
Brogan: From your perspective, when you’re in a workplace and these threats from management start to come in, people start getting concerned. How do you respond to the fears that they start bringing to you, if they bring them to you?
Mott: The key, you obviously have an honest conversation with them. It is always interesting, after the election. You know you have conversations with people who went through that, have now been in the union for a while, and you just say to them, “All that stuff management told you. Any of it true?” No, it’s not. Of course the person at the time of the campaign doesn’t know that. Management is counting on their authority, but the key is this: The key is that it really is the first conversation you have with someone is explaining to them what’s going to happen.
It’s not like you’re just organizing, “Yay, rah, sis boom bah, let’s go walk into a buzz saw.” You really are having a conversation. Say honestly, “Do you think your boss is going to like you having a union?” They’ll say, “Well”—by the way workers are very fair and so this—“Well, he probably won’t like it but he won’t do anything.” We will take them through a conversation about here are the things we have seen in other campaigns. Here’s what they have done. We’ll give them some examples of things that will come out very, very quickly. Management is not too imaginative. They will say the same things over and over again. Ramp it up so that signing this card is the worse you could have ever done. Union card, I’m talking about.
You have this conversation with them, but the key to this conversation is really setting a context for what’s happening in this workplace now. That is that there’s occurring a shift of power. Workers are building an organization to have power in their life. Management will do anything to prevent that shift and to maintain all the power. They’re fighting to keep their power. They will give you a raise. You want a raise, I’ll give you a raise. Don’t vote for the union. I’ll give you a raise. They’ll do things to stop workers or to think that workers have won. It’s not about money per se, it is about power. Workers are organizing to have power. Bosses are fighting to keep their power.
That kind of context helps people weed through things. Why is he telling me this? Oh, he just wants to keep his power. The other thing that is extremely important, which is just critical, is to have members of the union talking to them. Being involved in this campaign and saying to them, “I’m a nursing-home worker like you.”
Brogan: It’s not just you that’s there, you’re also having other workers from other nursing homes who are already unionized come in?
Mott: Absolutely. Let me tell you something. I’ve been in conversations and it’s funny to watch it if you’re there. Nursing-home worker talking to nursing, and I’m the organizer, right? I might start out and within a very short period of time I am completely out of that conversation. I’m just a bystander. These two are going back talking to each other about their work, about this and that. The message from members is that this works. I went through it. It stops when you win because now there’s no point to the boss doing this, but that I still have my hands, my head. I’m a whole person. It is critically important because people in the union are the best testament for why workers should build the union, and that, yes, you can be afraid, but if you stick together you will win.
Brogan: What percentage of your interactions are these kind of one-on-one conversations or are facilitating other one on one conversations, and how much of this is actually big meetings and stuff? There must be some of that, right?
Mott: You’re really asking me, do I give these dramatic speeches in front of 250,000 people, whatever, right?
Brogan: 250 people?
Mott: 250 people. Well, certainly, that is a part of it. It is exhilarating when you’re out, you do that. Even the key there in meetings, right? If you have 200 people, or 100 people, or 50 people, whatever is coming together to talk and make decisions about what they want to do. If it is just you as the organizer in front of that room, that’s not a good dynamic. They may like you. You may be the best speaker in the world, but when push comes to shove and the boss comes down on them, you’re not going to compete on that. If you have their co-workers up there talking, leading, and so their connection is not to me. The connection is to them. To each other. That and the commitment to stick together. That’s the key. You have to say to people, “If you are not going to stick together, don’t start.”
Brogan: Is all the resistance, though, resistance that’s coming from things that management is saying? What do you say to people who would argue that, say, labor unions have their place when workplace injury and sweatshops were more common, but now they just get in the way of economic prosperity. That must be an argument that a lot of people have internalized or believe in one way or another.
Mott: Yeah, absolutely. You’ll hear that. Sometimes very honestly people will say, “I had a bad experience with unions. It wasn’t good.” People will say that and some of that is second- or third-hand, but some of it is very personal and very real. It’s like, do we make mistakes? Yeah, sure, we do. Are there limits to what a union can do in any particular situation? Absolutely. These kinds of things, people have to make a decision. You are really helping people make a decision. Sometimes people will say, “No, I don’t believe it enough. It’s not a bad thing, but I’m not willing to invest myself, my energy in this.” And, OK. If enough people in a place say that then there’s not going to be a union there.
Brogan: At what point do you want to start talking to management? Is that ever part of your involvement with the process of organizing?
Mott: Not in the way that you mean. There are different things that I think are very important, and one of them is to have workers as a group together. Once they’ve made this decision and they have a majority of people, a majority of their co-workers committed to each other, is to go to management as a group and ask them to recognize the union. I’ve never been in a situation where management said yes. You don’t expect it. That’s not the point. What’s happening here is they’re feeling that shift of power already. Some of these folks—bosses are very, can be very smooth, some of them can be very brutal. Whether you’re just, “I will never recognize you, this union, never. Go back to work or I’ll …” you can run into that situation. That’s OK. Workers just saw what they’re up against and so they have made a decision. Other people are very smooth. “Mary, I’m surprised. I’m hurt, really, Mary, I’m hurt.”
Brogan: I’m convinced.
Mott: Right. Actually the smoother is much more effective because workers want to give people a chance. They’re fair. They’re very decent. They’re fair. What that does it is a test for people and it is a way of them strengthening themselves by stepping out and saying to management, “We have decided to do this and we expect you to respect us in our decision to do this.” When he doesn’t, or she doesn’t, it’s a powerful organizing tool.
Brogan: How do you know, or is it even your place to know when they’re ready to have that conversation? When they’re ready to ask for recognition.
Mott: Traditionally you will have people sign an authorization card, which goes to the labor board to set up the election process. You just have to be very clear with people, that signing this card means you want a union. Signing this card means you are committing to your fellow employees, your co-workers that you are in this with them, and you’re serious about it, and you’re going to stick with it. You have those conversations so that everybody is clear what this means. Yes, it’s a legal thing. Set up the election process through the national-relations board, but that’s the least of it. Based on your experience, you have a sense of what kind of a majority, a supermajority you need, knowing that you’re going to be in a battle for the next three months, and that management will scare some people. Some people will back out. Some people will not be strong enough, or they’ll get confused, et cetera. So that by the time you get to the election, if you have 70 percent, 65 percent, you may have 58 percent.
You have these kinds of benchmarks that you use to give workers the best shot at winning possible. You’re talking to workers about this—this is not a secret—really training people both how to talk to other workers and their co-workers, but you’re also helping them think through why they have to do things. It’s not just because I tell you, it is because this will help you win.
Brogan: Do you ever get to the point, though, where you realize that a particular place just isn’t going to organize? That it’s just not going to happen there?
Mott: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Brogan: What’s that like?
Mott: It’s horrible. It’s just horrible. The effect on workers is—
Brogan: All the ones who want to organize.
Mott: The ones who want to organize, is devastating. I also suspect, you know, I have as much conversation with the people who have decided to opt out or not to do it, but I suspect having known people and talked to them later, that in some cases there’s real remorse. It wasn’t that they didn’t want the union, it was that the boss scared them enough to go underground, so to speak. If you’ve done your job as an organizer, it doesn’t make it an easy conversation, but it makes it an honest conversation in that people will have figured out how to really count, you know, to assess the commitment or not commitment, and that they will see what you see. They may want to say, “Let’s have a vote, we just want to have a vote,” and you’ll have to explain to them losing. Let’s just acknowledge that people aren’t ready here. Let’s calm it down. You’re going to be here. You can have another conversation with them.
We can do this again, but under these conditions, there is no way now to have honest conversations with people because of management’s interference. Losing is horrible. I will say one other thing, when workers lose, yeah, the organizer can go home. That worker goes to work the next day and faces the boss who just beat her. You take this very seriously.
Brogan: Do you have any tricks of the trade to try to prevent those moments of crushing disappointment?
Mott: Organizing is detailed work. It is really knowing who’s there, figuring out relationships, who works with who, charting out the place or mapping it as people, following up with people very quickly, building leadership, and building people’s skills. Their speaking skills maybe, their leadership skills, how they talk to people about the union. People have tremendous talent. When you go into a workplace it is stunning how little of it management wants. All they want them to do is do what you’re told. Underneath so many people is all this wanting to figure out how to do their job better, how to bring their skills or talents to it, and the union gives them that outlet.
Brogan: As you’re helping them develop or helping draw out those skills in those early stages of the process, are you already also working toward the kind of skills that they’ll need down the road once they’re unionized, say, contract negotiation?
Mott: Yeah, you know when people negotiate a contract, members elect their own negotiating committee. They decide what they want to negotiate for, what they want to achieve. They’ll have an organizer who will help them do that, but we really want to train people to speak up. That’s part of the other dynamic.
Brogan: All of the people or just those few that—
Mott: Well, you have your committee. You have your committee, that’s the key. They need to represent. They need to say why this request or this bargaining piece that we want, this change we want is important. We will do role-plays with them on how to talk to other people, how to say this, what it is. It is this constant task of building their abilities, building their commitments, and it just is amazing. Bosses don’t have a problem talking to me. They understand. I don’t work there. Many times, after the union is there, bosses say, “Listen, man, these seven other members of your union came in and can’t you and I just work this out.” They’d much rather just deal with me rather than a really enlivened, now really-conscious-of-their-own-power workforce. That scares the hell out of them.
Brogan: You mentioned that part of what you do is mapping out a workplace. Is that a literal thing? Are you literally drawing out a map?
Mott: Yeah. Yeah, you have to.
Brogan: What does that involve?
Mott: I always say to people, “You can’t organize what you can’t see.” Since you’re not able to go in, you’re not able to see how people relate to each other. In a big hospital, like you have a cafeteria, and you can sit there for a while and watch people, who sits next to who. Jane sits down and five people sit around Jane, or Tom, or whoever it is. You have an idea. Jane collects a crowd. I might want to talk to Jane. You can see it. When you’re outside and not able to be in, you can’t see it and so you literally do map this thing out. You put it up on the wall. This department, whether it’s the extrusion room or whatever it might be, who works there.
In that work area there’s going to be somebody with influence. Who is it? When you’re building this committee, what you’re really thinking about, at this group of key leaders and key people, you really want representation from every work area, right?
Brogan: It sounds like it’s a double kind of map. It’s a literal, physical space of a workplace, but it’s also about the less-tangible relationships between the individuals who occupy and work in those spaces.
Mott: Absolutely, absolutely. The charts will tell you. It says, “As you go through and you learn who’s who and look at a department and nobody’s for the union.” Then you notice that this woman, you see Jane’s a leader or Tom’s a leader, and Tom’s not for the union. OK. Leaders can be not for the union. They have characteristics of leadership. Doesn’t mean—
Brogan: Sounds like you have to talk more with Tom or Jane.
Mott: Yeah, you have to go talk to them and sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t for whatever reason, but it is about leadership.
Brogan: At some point I assume you have to walk away. How do you know when it’s time to say, “I’m done. You all have it under control. Go forth.”
Mott: There really is a point in a campaign where if you’ve done your work right, there is this shift. I actually say it to people about two or three weeks out. I said, “Look, we’re getting to the point where my ability to help you is going to be limited because things will start happening very fast. I will not be able to respond because I can’t go in there with you. If management calls a meeting, if suddenly someone disappears off the floor and they’re in a meeting with two bosses pounding on that, you have to take over. This has to become your campaign or really now.” There is that point when that happens and when that happens it’s very powerful. Because suddenly they have taken it on and you’ve done your job to help them be good organizers.
I will leave and I’ll go to the next campaign.
Brogan: Is that hard to leave? Is it hard to say goodbye?
Mott: Oh, yeah.
Brogan: Do you build relationships with people along the way?
Mott: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. They last. I say as organizers we’re not going there to be friends with people, we’re going there to help, we’re being an organizer, we’re going to lead them. Certainly we have to be very professional about that. You don’t want to have be their friend in a way that gets in the way of telling them the truth about what has to happen for them to win, but you absolutely do develop friendships. In my time in the union, I will have to say this, that a lot of what I know, members of the union taught me. They taught me about the union. They taught me about what it means to them. They help me with my skills. You develop these friendships. I’ve had workers I’ve organized who send my children Christmas cards all the time.
Every time I see them it’s like I just love it. I mean it’s like really a reunion for me. Members do that among themselves. People who never would have met each other across whatever boundaries, racial, whatever, are now the best of friends because the union does that for people.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to SEIU organizer David Mott. After this brief break he talks to us about the current political climate from Donald Trump’s relationships to workers to the status of so-called right to work states.
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Brogan: We’ve been talking about the big picture.
Mott: Yeah, yeah.
Brogan: But what’s a typical day like for you? Is there such a thing in union organizing?
Mott: No, not really.
Brogan: I mean you talk about making calls to people’s houses. I assume that means it’s after-work hours, which also means, I assume, that you are not working a 9-to-5 job as we would ordinarily understand it.
Mott: Right. What is that? What’s a 9-to-5 job?
Brogan: What’s the schedule like?
Mott: We have a saying that you are on worker’s time. Your day is really determined by worker’s time. There is really no normal day, but basically you might have to get up and see someone at a shift change at 6 o’clock in the morning. You’re coming in, you’re doing your planning. You’re figuring out what your day looks like. Who do you have to see to move this? Who do you have to follow up to move the campaign in the organization forward? What work has to be done. Then there are certain time periods where a later shift, you can go see someone on later shift. All during the day you’re planning your work to get to the people that will make this happen.
After 6 o’clock in the morning maybe you have to do an 11 o’clock shift change at night. You want to go see the cook, you want to go see the late-shift person. Sometimes during the middle you’ll take a lunch or whatever it is so you’ll have to plan that out based on when you can see people. How you can get in front of the most people as quickly as possible to get this campaign going. The days are long. I mean you’re talking about 10-hour, 12-hour days sometimes, and it ebbs and flows. Certainly as the campaign becomes to reach a crescendo, those are very long days.
Brogan: How much of your time do you spend on your feet during those long days?
Mott: It depends on the campaign. I was on the fast-food campaign organizing fast-food workers. The fight for 15. The strikes. I was on my feet a lot. You’re walking. You’re talking to people late at night here and there, so you’re on your feet a lot. It’s a mixture. A lot of what you’re doing is finding people. You’re out at night; you’re out during the day. You’re trying to find where people live. You’re driving a lot. There’s a lot of driving. I would say that. A lot of driving.
Brogan: Today you’re wearing a light blue dress shirt and looks like dress trousers.
Brogan: A pair of oxfords, oxford shoes.
Mott: Is that what they are?
Brogan: Technically they’re vultures, but I may be pronouncing them wrong.
Brogan: But dress shoes. You’re dressed business-casual today. Is that typical for you, or when you go into a workplace, do you go into a workplace camouflaged?
Mott: Oh, no. No, no, no. You don’t go into the workplace.
Brogan: Oh, OK.
Mott: That’s the point about it all.
Brogan: Not at all. I should have realized that already from our conversations.
Mott: That’s not the case. That’s why it is all of this figuring out who works there, going to their homes. You want to be in a place where you can have a quality conversation with someone. That will never happen in the workplace.
Brogan: Because it’s not safe.
Mott: It’s not safe. Boss is there, but we can’t go on their property. It’s not our property. If we represent workers then we have rights based on the contract to go and talk with people, et cetera, that changes, but when you’re organizing, you’re outside. Yes, when I was in a local and out organizing regularly in front of members, we always had a rule: You wore a tie. You wore a tie. You were respectful. I’m not going to show up like a janitor in green coveralls, whatever, that they’re, that’s their uni—
Brogan: Even if you’re organizing janitors.
Mott: That’s their uniform. That’s what they wear. I’m going to show up showing them the respect of coming to see them looking neat. Also, I want them to understand I’m serious about this. I’m not going to wear a suit. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I’m not going to look like a businessman, because I’m not, but I do want to be respectful to people.
Brogan: The goal is not look like one of the workers. It’s, be respectful to the workers. You’re not trying to trick them into thinking you’re like them or something.
Mott: No. This is me. I’m coming to you as me, as an organizer from my union. I have a standard that I hold and I hold it because I respect you.
Brogan: When you’re doing field organization, do you have a desk that you go back to?
Mott: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Brogan: You have an office somewhere as well?
Mott: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, an office. When I first started out, I wanted to say this, when I first started out and I was hired as a regular organizer, it was very early in the days. We had a garage, was our office. We had a couple of tables and so forth. We changed a little bit. I now have an office. I had an office when I was in the local, and I used to have one as an international organizer, but as an organizer you’re not spending a lot of time there. If you’re spending a lot of time in your office you are not doing your job. It really is important to understand that your job is outside. It is with the workers, not in an office.
Brogan: Has the rise of Trump affected your efforts or the efforts of other organizers at all?
Mott: I don’t know that it’s affected it immediately. I think that there is really great concern that Trump and the people around him are completely clueless. I think malevolently so about the rights of workers. People say, “The late movement’s having a hard time.” No, late movement’s not having a hard time. Workers are having a hard time. Union rights. They want union rights. Workers. We want workers to have rights to organize. We want workers to have rights to have a functioning, financially stable, powerful organization. All of the attacks. You see Pence, you see other people around him and in states what they call the right-to-work bills.
Brogan: Could you tell us what those are?
Mott: Yeah. It’s a complete misnomer. If it was the right to work, bosses would respect workers and respect their work. If you wanted a job you could get one. In this country if you want a job you have to count on someone hiring you. A boss. It’s always under their terms. Building the union is what changes that. It’s not always on their terms. Now you have a say about it, but the right to work is essentially saying that once workers have made a decision to have a union, the boss really no longer has to honor that. It allows people to decide whether or not they want to pay dues, get in or get out.
Mott: Yeah, workers. Workers. Workers voted to have a union to have a stable organization, to have a strong organization. What right to work really does, it allows the boss to keep the debate about the union going on forever, and to use their authority, their power, their misrepresentations to divide workers, which means workers lose. That’s what right to work is. People will say, “Ah, you should not join the union.” Well, wait a minute. I didn’t vote for Trump. Do I have a right to go set up another country somewhere? Do I have a right, because I didn’t vote for Trump not to obey the laws? No. People make a decision democratically in this country. Workers made a democratic decision in this workplace. That needs to be honored.
Brogan: This right-to-work legislation makes it so that they don’t have to respect the decisions of the workers.
Mott: They don’t. They might have to sit down, but then they know they can split off people. They can as they hire more it never allows workers to solidify their organization. It puts block after block after barricade after barricade in their way. That’s wrong.
Brogan: You think that the Trump administration’s agenda is connected to this movement?
Mott: Absolutely. Yeah, I do. Yeah, it’s been going on for a long time. It’s not new. I think it’s very troublesome and I think that the ability of people to make progress is important and Trump’s—you look at deregulation. That’s just another code word for letting bosses do whatever they want. This idea, the framework for bosses and the rules for bosses, are going to be lessened but workers still have to toe the line. I think, yeah, it’s very problematic.
Brogan: When Trump talks about jobs, as he often does, he almost is always talking about very specific kinds of jobs. He’s not talking about health care workers, generally, even though that’s one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. He’s talking about factory jobs, he’s talking about other kinds of manual labor like coal mining. What does the emphasis on those kind of jobs as the real kind of jobs, the meaningful kind of jobs, do to work that you do to get people to recognize and protect the dignity of other forms of work?
Mott: This is how a lot of manufacturing has gone by the wayside. It’s highly service economy. That’s not anything new. I think that to talk about manufacturing jobs as if they are the paradigm is actually not accurate. The manufacturing jobs that became the paradigm. Autoworkers, steel, they were crap jobs before workers organized the union. It isn’t a matter of the jobs, it is about how much the jobs pay, and about who has the power to set those standards. That really is the more important thing. Having manufacturing jobs is great. Yes, we want them. There’s a whole element of the late movement that really is about that, and it’s important. It is extremely important. The point really is, manufacturing jobs at what standards. Service jobs at what standards. It is a crime in this country that we have people who are living in big, urban areas making $7.25 an hour.
Either we believe in lifting people up, and we believe in sharing the wealth, or we don’t. It’s not rocket science. It really isn’t. It’s hard, but it’s not rocket science. Either you have power or you don’t. Unions give workers power.
Brogan: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Mott: You’re welcome. This was fun.
Brogan: This was delightful.
Mott: I hope it worked. I will say this: I was a little anxious about this because truthfully, there are just so many talented organizers, and you know there are people that are much, much better than me that do this. I just hope that I have represented the work that they do accurately and properly. It is really good work. It is wonderful work.
Brogan: We’re grateful for all of them.
Brogan: Thanks so much for being with us.
Mott: Oh, you’re welcome.