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It's hard to believe that it took until 2023, but the first black female president of any AFL-CIO affiliate nationwide was just elected last year.
And guess what?
She's right here in western Washington.
April Sims represents 660 unions and more than half a million workers in Washington state.
And she is next on Northwest now.
The labor movement has been on the ropes for a good half century now as court decisions and administrative rulemaking have worked hand in hand with natural corporate reluctance to take membership down to only about 10% of all the workers in the United States.
Here in western Washington, though, with a long history as a union stronghold, that number sits at about 18%.
But even so, most of those are public employee unions with smaller and smaller numbers represented in the private sector.
Several new labor laws went into effect this year in Washington state.
And as Northwest now contributor Steve Higgins tells us, rideshare drivers are one of the groups that are really benefiting.
There's no question apps like Uber and Lyft allow drivers a chance to cash in on the gig economy.
Today, drivers in Washington enjoy union led victories that address working conditions across the state.
It is amazing that we made it to this point of today that drivers have a chance to come out of their voice when they are fired.
Drivers union president Peter Kuehl says drivers could find themselves out of work and that a no way to appeal deactivation from the apps before the union came along.
They end up being, you know, bankrupt and end up in a situation where drivers also suicide because of debt.
I mean, they are willing to step on you to just take what they want and move on.
DRIVER Sir Brian Page found himself locked out of his Uber gig for months.
But he says drivers union helped him appeal the activation.
And now he's rolling again.
We're common laborers, really is what we are.
And so they look out for us who have no power against a gigantic company like that.
Nunn says organizing was key to winning drivers, workers comp rights, paid sick time and beginning January this year.
Drivers union in Washington says Lyft and Uber drivers got a big boost in pay.
In Spokane, they got 147% increase per minute and nearly 30% boost per mile.
In Tacoma, drivers saw pay increase of 279% each minute and more than 50% for each mile in Bellingham.
Drivers are up nearly 100% per minute and saw a 14% increase for each mile.
Drivers in Seattle also got a boost.
They're up nearly 10% for both minute and mileage rates.
Cube believes drivers union seized a moment when workers felt empowered and helped to kick off a new wave of organizing.
Now Amazon and Starbucks are adding up, you know with the good thing you know for the employee there and we did started.
We're so proud of ourselves here.
In Tukwilla Steve Kitchens Northwest now.
Joining us now is the new president of the Washington Labor Council.
April Simms, elected last year to a four year term ending in 2027.
April, thanks so much for coming to Northwest now.
Great to have a discussion with the the new president of the Washington State Labor Council.
Look at you.
You so much for having me.
Talk a little bit about your bio, where you're from and how you got here.
Yeah, well, the first thing I want to lift up is that I am a proud, lifelong resident of the gritty city of Tacoma, and I was elected to presidency of the Washington State Labor Council in October by our affiliated unions.
I've sworn into office in January.
Prior to that, I served four years as Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, which is the number two position.
Kind of like the CFO of the organization.
Before that, I was the Political and Strategic Campaign's director, field director, and I've been working in the labor movement for about 20 years now.
Give us a little background, too, on what the Labor Council is this year.
There are many unions and then there's the Labor Council.
Talk about how they relate.
So the Washington State Labor Council is the state AFL-CIO.
We're the umbrella labor organization in Washington State.
We represent about 600 locals and affiliates and over 630,000 unionized workers in every industry sector and corner of our state.
Want to talk to you a little bit about union membership.
Now, the young eyes, in my opinion, were so convinced that they were special that they were different.
They would ride to the top of their professions on golden unicorns.
And then the reality of the employer employee relationship ship kicked in and now you're seeing the young turning toward unionization to some degree.
Are the young going to bring the labor movement back to some degree?
What is your thought about that from a generational perspective?
I certainly hope so.
I mean, I think this generation is the first generation that will not do better than their parents.
Typically, every generation does a little bit better than the generation before them.
In this generation is on course to actually do worse than their parents.
And I think they're realizing that realizing that the the social contract between employer and employee is broken.
And that's why union favourability is on the rise.
I mean, with young workers, 71% of young workers say they would join a union tomorrow given an opportunity.
You know, the gig economy turned out to be a real meat grinder, didn't it?
Really, it did.
I mean, you've got folks that are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet.
And even then, they're living in multi family households, multigenerational households.
It's just really hard for young people these days.
One of the things I want to we asked just the easy questions here on Northwest now.
I love the easy ones between race and class.
Yeah, I know that the union membership in union leadership has been very focused on equity and race, which I think is important.
Don't want to minimize it, but I've always seen the labor movement to some degree as being a message that says, Listen man, yeah, race is a thing, but you and I have more in common because we are so far distant from the CEO and the ownership class.
I don't care what color you and I find a manager, a white manager, and you're a a an ethnic person who's my underling.
We have a lot more in common than we do with the people in the club.
Is this a class thing or a race thing?
I mean, race is directly connected to class.
I mean, if you go back in our history to the early 1600s, when white as a race was originally invented, it was the result of the indentured servants, the Irish and the black slaves joining together and revolting against the ruling class that Bacon's rebellion and several other rebellions.
So, I mean, they want us to talk about race so that we're not talking about class.
They want us divided along racial lines so that we don't recognize that we absolutely have more in common.
And the labor movement is one of those places where workers come together across race.
It's like the military.
I think it played the same role to some.
In a lot of the same ways.
And so when you talk to folks that have spent time in the military or folks that have grown up in military households, they're surrounded by diversity and all brought together for it for a common cause and in service to a common mission.
This rolls me back to the generational question a little bit, too.
I don't think you figure out what we've been talking about, though, until you're a little older.
When you're young, they tell you you're the manager.
You're you're the future of this company for a while.
You believe it?
You're not getting into the club.
Okay, here's the newsflash.
You're not getting into the club.
Yeah, the exclusive club.
Again, if the young figured this out, what does that say about the potential for union membership going forward?
I think our potential is unlimited, and I think the young are figuring it out.
I mean, I think that the what young people are recognizing right now is that the labor movement is the place where all of the good work is happening.
So if you care about climate justice or income inequality or worker dignity or racial equity or reproductive freedom, all of that work is happening in the labor movement.
And the labor movement is the place to be.
And those are the things that young people care about.
They care about wages, benefits and working conditions for sure, but they also care about what's happening in society and on our planet.
And they want to be a part of the solution.
And the labor movement allows them to do that.
Little pushback here.
Yeah, you know me, McDonald's is not a living wage job.
Some of these jobs the unions are calling it should be living wage.
No, they shouldn't be.
They should be something that's a stepping stone to you getting toward a living wage as you build your skills, build your employer employability.
And the answer to this, unfortunately, is going to be automation.
McDonald's isn't going to pay you a living wage.
They're going to build a robot and they're doing it.
Does the labor movement see that?
What's your response to folks who hit you with that?
Well, my initial response is that there's dignity in all labor, and all labor should be rewarded and that anyone who works full time should not have to struggle to get their basic needs met.
There's a wealth of there's an abundance of resources in this country.
It's just that they're all consolidated at the top.
So figuring out how we get those resources into the folks who are working hard to make our economy run is a priority for the labor movement.
I think your other question around automation is that automation is something that workers have always dealt with.
You know, they're early collective bargaining agreements in some of the skilled trades prohibited the use of what is the word I'm looking for automated, you know, like drills and yeah, you know, power tools, purer tools.
Yeah, sorry, prohibited the use of power tools in those contracts.
And so automation has always been a little bit scary, but it's something that we've always dealt with.
I think like something like 50% of the jobs that will exist ten years from now don't exist today, Right?
So there's so much growth and so much opportunity.
I think we have to we as we're so active and not fearful about it.
But that's where the skills training part of union membership comes in to when it comes to apprenticeships and all the things that you can as you apprentice up, you're learning a skill, but you're also learning how to learn.
And and I think that's an important piece to you need to talk about.
I mean our registered apprenticeship programs in Washington state are the gold standard in the nation.
I mean, there are 21,000 ish registered apprentices in Washington state.
90% of those are union apprentices.
85% of that are in the building and construction trades.
These are opportunities for workers to earn while they learn.
And it's a skilled trade.
It's a trade that is, many of these trades are recession proof.
You'll always be able to do this skill, will always need this work.
We're always going to need, you know, reliable plumbing and, you know, a way to get power to sources.
And, you know, so our registered apprenticeship programs are an excellent opportunity for workers to find, you know, a occupation that pays a livable wage and provides a glide path to the middle.
And we talk about that at Base Technical College all the time.
The fact that and Mike Rowe, as you know, has done a lot with dirty jobs.
But man, you know, there was an article in the Seattle Times just recently about a plumber, a young kid, 24 years old, making 120 grand or whatever he's due in a year.
And he'll two years from now.
He'll probably be running two trucks and making and doubling that.
So there is opportunity in things that have been kind of traditional union gigs.
My brother is a journeyman plumber, and before he entered his apprenticeship program, he was working as a landscaper and a mover and doing backbreaking work.
He'll tell me now that he still does backbreaking work, but he makes a lot more money doing it.
He owns two trucks and he it has changed not only his life, but it has changed the trajectory of his family.
This is generational impact.
More pushback for you.
Upper middle class will hit you with this, too.
And I'm sure you've heard it.
You know, we're afraid of France.
France is what we're afraid of.
Uncontrolled union strikes, overreach.
Pensions that started 4020 hour workweeks.
We're afraid of France.
Can the union movement go too far?
I don't think so.
I mean, I think this is all about the union movement, is all about workers coming together so that they can have a collective voice.
So if automation really does reduce the need for so much productivity, then why shouldn't workers have a share of that?
You know, why shouldn't they have an opportunity to work a 32 hour workweek?
You know, in 2000, no, 1907, a group of workers in southwest Washington went on strike for 100 days, these mill workers, and they were striking for a nine hour workday.
And I often think I bet when they were on strike for 100 days for a nine hour workday, they couldn't conceive the possibility of an eight hour workday.
And so I think the labor movement now has an opportunity to really think about what is the thing that is possible for workers that we have not yet conceived.
And maybe a 40 hour workweek isn't necessary anymore.
Talk a little bit about some of the some of the policy and legislative and legal issues that have come up.
The non-compete clause is being discussed nationally.
It was discussed in Washington state where we've got some legislation.
When you look at from a national perspective, preventing workers from seeking their best opportunity, that seems fundamentally wrong.
Where does the union come across on things like non-compete clauses, especially for junior workers?
Yeah, I mean, it is fundamentally wrong.
We believe that all workers should be able to control their labor and withhold their labor when necessary, which is why when this legislation was proposed in Washington State, we worked hard to make sure it was passed so that a worker working at McDonald's isn't prohibited from going to work for another fast food restaurant because their employer because they sign some non-compete clause.
Workers should be able to be mobile and control their labor and go where where the opportunities are.
And if it's not with their current employer, then they should be able to go elsewhere.
Here's one that went against the unions, which is the Janice Decision State employee workers can now opt out of union membership and dues paying.
Is it the disaster that the unions thought it was going to be?
Has it been moderated to some degree?
What's been the if if we open the hood on that, what does the results look like?
Yeah, I mean, I would say that it is it is not the disaster that our opposition thought it would be.
What it meant is that unions had the opportunity to go back to the basics, go back to having one on one conversations and really organizing and engaging their membership.
Unions existed long before there were laws on the books that gave us the right to organize, long before, you know, right to work laws were even a thing.
So this hasn't changed.
This hasn't changed the way that unions do business.
It's just given us an opportunity to go back to the basics.
That's a perfect segue way into right to work.
Montana's got one in the legislature right now.
They're trying to become I don't know what is the 23rd or 24th state.
I think 2420 for a state to have to be right to work, which sounds like it's pro-union, but it's actually not.
Do you think that will ever happen in Washington State?
We're already in at Will state.
Do you think we'd ever become a right to work state?
I think we can't take anything for granted.
You know, we have to continue to organize.
The thing about Washington is we proudly boast having the third highest union density in the nation, which means we're right behind New York and Hawaii, where nearly twice the national average.
So one in five workers in Washington state is represented by a union.
But we can't take anything for granted.
And you know, those right to work laws since we were talking about race and class earlier, the original right to work states were also the original Jim Crow states.
And so there's a direct connection between racism and segregation and these right to work laws, because in the South, workers did not want to have to join in union with with black workers.
And so this was part of that compromise.
More legislation in Washington state this year that cut in the unions favor minimum wage and have the highest in the U.S. at 1574.
I think it is overtime for ag workers.
Rideshare folks get minimum pay, but they're still 1099.
So that was a little bit of a compromise.
Should rideshare workers remain 1099?
Does that help us prevent one of the big companies from coming in in big fitness with a lawsuit?
What's the thinking behind that?
Well, I think it is you know, it is the floor and not the ceiling.
So this is where we start making sure that these workers have a minimum wage, that they have access to a lot of the protections that traditional employees have, that they have a dispute resolution process.
That was one of the things that we heard time and time again from these rideshare workers, is that they could be kicked off the app without any warning, without any recourse, and now they no longer have a way to feed their families.
And so I think it's a starting point.
You know, we would like to see all workers that that want to be classified as employees, classified as such.
So they get all of those protections.
But we have to start where we are and build from there, which is what we've always done in the labor movement.
Do you think there's still a problem with misclassification?
For a long time, you know, people were 1090 nines.
They were freelancers, the gig economy.
And then there was some legislation that says no, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, quacks like a duck, you're an employee.
Has that been resolved or not quite yet?
Where does that stand?
I think there's still a big problem with misclassification And the problem I mean, you know, for for your listeners, right.
I think the problem with folks being classified as 1099 or is independent contractors means that the worker takes on all of the risk and all of the liability, and yet the the owner gets all of the profit.
And so in a traditional employee employer relationship that that liability is shared right that you get some of the wages and the employer covers some of your liability, and that's the contract that's been broken.
So I think we still have a lot of work to do there.
Here's some other pushback that you might hear, because I know you talk to both employers and employees as the president, you're going to be in a lot of dialog with a lot of different interests as you go.
You know, employers make the point, and I think justifiably so, They've taken so much risk, they built that thing from when they were the only guy in the office working nights and weekends.
They took that loan out, put their house on the line, hoping to God that they'd get the customer flow to pay for it.
They scratched and dug and scraped and cried at night.
And I know this to be true.
That's that is what a lot of the story of small business owners is.
And even mid-sized firms.
And then here comes the union wants a big they don't want the risk.
They don't want the pain.
They don't want the suffering.
They don't want the weakness.
They just want the gravy.
How do you answer that when somebody hit you with that?
Well, I mean, I don't think any like I. I don't think any business that is doing well does well without having employees that are committed to the mission of the organization.
And it should be a shared it should be some shared profit like workers deserve to to have some of the benefits and reap some of the rewards of the profit their labor helps create.
And I think that there is you know, I don't think these are workers.
The workers aren't asking for much.
I mean, the minimum wage at 1574 is the highest minimum wage in the country right now.
And you still cannot afford a one bedroom apartment anywhere in this state.
If you're working 40 hours a week at minimum wage.
Is that the employer's problem?
I think I think it's everyone's problem.
It's society's problem.
I think that we have to come up with a solution where workers can make enough money to pay their bills, put food on the table and take care of their housing.
I watched a story this past weekend about a hedge fund called KKR.
Most hedge funds come in and they, you know, got the place and they sell off the land and they do what hedge funds do.
This one comes in and makes all the employees equal owners.
And when they sell the company, when they get it, run and get it in and sell it, the employees get a nice chunk of change.
Some of these guys were, you know, pulling a couple of hundred thousand dollars and more from that is the employee ownership model.
It failed a lot in the eighties and nineties.
I've got family that experienced the failure of ESOPs.
But do you think that there is a better way to do it?
Do you think employee ownership is something going into the future that the union is interested in at all?
You know, I'd have to watch this.
Yeah, I know I'm hitting especially that you mentioned, and I don't know that I've given this a lot of thought.
I think that everything is worth exploring right now in this current economy, and I think it's really the workers will tell us what they want and it's our job to help them build power so they have a voice in the decision making.
And I just happen to consume a lot of media on this topic.
CBS did a really big investigation, both online and on the air, about wage theft.
It amounts to something like a 50 billion with a B dollar a year problem.
Even when the claimants win, they don't recover and the process just breaks them.
And some fly by Night LLC that employed them is reformed and they've moved to another state and recovering that wage theft, even if if they get a ruling in their favor, is almost impossible.
Explain what wage theft is and is it what the scope of the problem Do you what is your guess as to how big of a deal it is in Washington state?
Oh, that's a really good question.
I mean, well, wage theft is when your employer's just not paying you for the work that you that you provide.
So it could be anything from your employer requiring you to clock in 30 minutes early so that you can set up your station if you're working, you know, in hospitality or just flat out not paying you the wages that you deserve for that week because they say something came up on their end or whatever, whatever excuse they offer.
But any time you are performing work for your employer, you're entitled to compensation.
At any time you don't receive that compensation, then that's essentially wage theft.
You know, I had a good friend who was a bartender and she used to complain all the time that she'd, you know, she'd have to clock out at a certain time, but then she would still have to close out her tail and do all of her inventory.
And that is wage theft.
And it is a huge problem and it's a huge problem.
And I think that there's a lot of work being done to address wage theft, but I think it remains a problem.
And I think a lot of workers part of the problem is also that a lot of workers don't know what their rights are when it comes to wage theft.
Some states are better than others in terms of investigating and litigating complaints of wage theft.
Some states just don't even care.
Some do pretty well.
But again, the recovery piece, by the time you go through the process, you just don't have the funds to hang in there and to litigate that and to collect on the back end.
A couple of the proposals that were made is making wage theft something as opposed to a misdemeanor, where it's your business license or your license to practice comes into jeopardy and it's possibly even a felony.
Do you think putting some teeth into the wage theft regulations and laws could be helpful?
I mean, I think exploring the additional consequences I think is important.
I also think it's education is an important piece.
You know, I think educating workers on what wage theft is, but also educating employers.
You know, you mentioned small businesses or these mid-sized businesses that could legitimately be making a mistake they're not aware of making, as opposed to some large corporations that have you know, like entire legal departments and, you know, they know better.
So I think exploring additional consequences is always worth a review.
I'd have to look into the actual legislation, but it is more of the concern.
I mean, especially for, you know, employers where this is consistent and egregious.
I mean, we're talking about workers that are surviving on the bubble as it is.
And for a lot of folks not getting paid for a couple of hours work or four weeks work is the difference between whether or not they can feed their family and whether or not they can pay their rent.
Yeah, and a lot of the stories you hear about somebody who's been out framing a house under Bob Smith, LLC.
Well, Bob Smith LLC is now Smith Bob LLC, and there's no way to collect from the two weeks that you put in framing three houses.
There's no way to get that back.
And that company is still making a profit off of your labor.
What are the big threats to the labor movement and labor?
When when you look out there on the horizon, you know, there are quite a few of the think tanks down in Olympia are thinly veiled anti-union organizations on the conservative side.
But when you look out across the landscape and you say to yourself and the folks with the AFL-CIO in the Labor Council, man, these two are these are problems.
What are those?
Oh, you know, I'm an optimist.
So I think more in terms of opportunities than I do in terms of threats, because I think there's threats.
There are always threats.
We've always had opposition in the labor movement.
So if I could just reframe the question, I think I'd love to.
That's why you're the president of the organization.
I'd love to talk about the opportune entities that I think exist.
And one of them that we mentioned is union favorability and how high union favorability is right now.
Katie Garreau, who's the executive Secretary Treasurer of Martin Luther King County Labor Council, likes to say that union favorability is higher than hot dogs, which is one of my favorite quotes.
So I think there's definite opportunity around organizing young people into the union.
I think one of the challenges that we have, or maybe one of the threats, is our archaic labor laws make it really difficult for workers to organize a union and to negotiate those first contracts.
But the other opportunity that I think exists, particularly here in Washington State, is all of the potential around a post carbon economy and thinking through how we make sure that this next generation of jobs in the clean energy economy are good union jobs that pay a livable wage, provide a glide path to the middle class, allow folks to retire with dignity.
That's a huge opportunity.
Young workers who couldn't be bothered with knowing their history and who plunged headlong into the gig economy, soon learned the reality of the employer employee relationship.
The bottom line organizing success swings back and forth like a pendulum.
Through the decades, and after a few years of no schedule, no benefit, no retirement, no future gigs, workers are starting to figure out that they need a voice larger than their own.
Because times like these, when workers have a little economic power due to a worker shortage, are few and far between.
I hope this program got you thinking and talking, but watch this program again or to share it with others.
Northwest now can be found on the web at kbtc dot org and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter at Northwest.
Now a streamable podcast of this program is available under the Northwest now tab at kbtc.org and on Apple podcasts by searching Northwest now.
That's going to do it for this edition of Northwest now until next time.
I'm Tom Layson.
Thanks for watching.