Expand or Perish: Hamilton Nolan’s Simple Message to the Labor Movement

A conversation with a labor journalist and author eager to see labor seize on the post-pandemic surge of union enthusiasm.

Hamilton Nolan’s debut book has a clear message to the modern-day labor movement: expand or dwindle into obscurity. The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor analyzes the post-pandemic landscape, where workers are pissed off, union favorability is high, and many union campaigns have reached national news coverage in ways the labor movement has not seen in decades. 

Yet, despite this surge of excitement, union density has shriveled and “fortress unionism” is all too common, he says, referring to the phenomenon whereby unions focus their efforts solely on maintaining the needs of their current members while neglecting to invest in new organizing campaigns and expanding their base. 

While this approach is understandable in a climate where labor, in general, is constantly under attack, Nolan argues that if left unchallenged it will inevitably lead to a downfall in American unionism. The power of the labor movement is in its numbers, he argues, and with only 10% of the U.S. population in a union, these numbers will only continue to dwindle, unless unions invest in new organizing and fully saturating industries that already have unions.

Nolan is a long-time journalist and member of the Writers Guild of America, East, covering labor and politics in In These Times, Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, among others. He analyzes the tactics of key unions, including the Las Vegas Culinary Union, California childcare workers, Starbucks Workers United, a failed union drive at a small restaurant in West Virginia, and the burgeoning leadership of Sara Nelson, as beacons of hope for how modern unions have shifted away from the tired models into more radical, expansive, and democratic approaches. 

Workday Magazine interviewed Hamilton Nolan about what labor movement leaders should know, and why all is not lost in the current moment of labor reckoning, reconfiguring, and renaissance. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Workday Magazine: How did you begin to write this book? Was there a moment you felt like, “I need to write this”? 

Hamilton Nolan: I’ve been a labor reporter for a while and I worked at In These Times throughout the pandemic. I saw how the pandemic had been both a crisis for millions and millions of workers, but also had supercharged the energy among millions and millions of workers for what the labor movement had to offer. People are always talking about, “Is the labor movement about to come back?” And it’s sort of this ongoing question that never ends. But after the pandemic, I really felt like there was a legitimate moment of opportunity that I had never seen before. At the same time, I knew the ways that the labor movement itself was failing and not looking like they were going to take advantage of it in the ways that I thought they could. So that was kind of the seed of what led to the book.

Workday Magazine: The main thesis of this book is that the labor movement needs to focus and invest in new organizing and expanding its base, rather than the tactic of fortress unionism, where unions focus on supporting their own members without as much focus on expanding new organizing efforts. Can you say more about why this is an important point to be making right now?

Nolan: If you think about what the purpose of organized labor is, in the context of society, you know, it’s the counterbalance to the power of capital. And so, it’s the responsibility of organized labor to be as strong as the power of capital that it has to balance out. When you’re in a situation where only 10% of the working people in America have a union, clearly there’s no ability to balance out the power of capital. 

I think that the 50 years of rising inequality is proof that organized labor has been failing to fulfill its most basic role in society. The only way to restore that balance is to get more of the people. That needs to be the first job for organized labor as a whole. As long as our density continues to decline, there’s no way that we will ever restore the balance of power. It’s something that I think the labor movement has been hoping that it could accomplish through politics or legislation for a long time. And that has been failing, the numbers tell us that it’s failing. At a certain point, we need to have a little bit of a come-to-Jesus moment and say that we need to throw everything into new organizing, or else.

Workday Magazine: Which industries do you think are the most ready for unionization? And which industries do you think have the greatest need for unions right now?

Nolan: I think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for the labor movement. It’s easy to talk about why it’s hard to organize and why the laws are against us and why there’s right-to-work states and all the things that make it difficult to organize. But on the flip side, there are plenty of jobs, take the Starbucks campaign for example, that are a sort of a proof of concept. That can be applied to all types of different chains, it can be applied to fast-food chains, it can be applied to restaurant chains, it can be applied to all types of chain businesses, where you could use that same organizing model. There is no reason that you cannot replicate that. 

Think of all those service jobs that the bulk of Americans have been working in since the decline of manufacturing—jobs that haven’t been organized for all these years. And think about the fact that those can be organized. There’s tons of grocery industry jobs that can be organized. That’s an example of an industry where there is a union presence, but they haven’t penetrated the industry as much as they could. There are a lot of industries like that, where there are strong unions established in the industry, but the density is only maybe 20% or something. Why isn’t it 80%? All those places are opportunities—healthcare and tech, for example, are both huge opportunities, and need to be organized because of their power in the American economy. Tech in particular is one of the richest industries in the world and it has virtually zero union penetration. So again, it’s important in the context of society, in the labor movement at large and to organize those industries. But I think, basically, if we just follow those places where we have opportunities, the places where we have models already, you are talking about tens of millions of workers already off the bat.

Workday Magazine: So why do you think unions aren’t expanding and repeating these models? You write about how the larger unions and the AFL-CIO especially need to invest in new organizing. What are some of the reasons why you don’t think this is happening at the scale that’s necessary?

Nolan: One of the things I talk about is that there’s a sort of basic mechanism in unions where they are funded by existing members that pay dues and there’s a natural pressure from that to take care of existing members first, which is obviously important. Unions always have to take care of existing members, but the need for new organizing then gets sort of left on the side and it doesn’t have internal advocates in the union in the same way. 

You need to have some kind of people pushing those unions to do that. It’s not something that’s always naturally created; it has to come from leadership within the unions. An interesting thing that I found, as I interviewed a lot of union leaders over the years, is that you can talk to union leaders about all the issues that their union is facing and all the fights that they’re in. But when you ask them about, like, how are we going to save the labor movement? Or, how are we going to organize millions of people? There’s nobody who really sees themselves as having that job. Union leaders think of themselves as being responsible for their own union, which makes sense, but then you start looking around, and you’re like, “Whose job is it to look at the big picture?” If it’s not the AFL-CIO, then you get to the point where nobody sees this as their job. Nobody sees this as their mission, and therefore it doesn’t get done.

Workday Magazine: What do you think is the value of smaller, more independent unions in unionizing these sectors? What is the value and what are the drawbacks? How do you think larger and more established unions could work together better with the smaller, independent ones?

Nolan: A lot of the independent unions that we’ve seen are sort of symptomatic of the fact that there’s more demand for unions than unions are able or willing to handle. Especially in the pandemic era and post-pandemic era, a lot of those independent unions are popping up because somewhere along the line an existing union failed to organize those people or failed to be responsive to those workers when they reached out. So I think that existing unions should see those things as sort of a flashing red sign that they are, in some ways, failing to do their job. 

I think it’s very inspiring to see those independent unions rise up. In the long run, a lot of them will probably join up with existing unions, just because it’s hard to win first contracts, like if the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is going to win a first contract from Amazon, they might have to be at the Supreme Court for twenty years to get it. So even on a resource level, it makes a lot of sense for those unions to eventually join up with bigger unions. But if workers can’t get a response from existing unions, they should definitely form their own.

Workday Magazine: One section I found really interesting from the book was when you listed the five things that need to happen in order for a worker to form a union. First, they have to know what it even is and that they have a right to form one. How did the post-2021 rise of high-profile new unions contribute to people’s ability to take that first step even though union density didn’t necessarily increase?

Nolan: Yeah, I do think that’s really important, because once I really got involved in writing about unions, I did see that it’s a bubble like everything else. And for people who are inside of the union world bubble, it’s very easy for them to kind of lose sight of how far out of mind this stuff is for average working people. When I went around the country reporting this book, I saw people talking about the Amazon union, the Starbucks union, again and again, and just the fact that those campaigns have been in the news is extremely important. It’s sad to say that in a certain way, but just the value of regular people hearing about a union drive on the news or regular people seeing Chris Smalls in a magazine matters. Because you do have to put into people’s minds that first of all, a union is a possible solution to a problem. You have to give them a reason to even want to find out how they might unionize. It’s not something that spontaneously happens. One of the consequences of unions declining for 50 years is that they fall out of the public mind, and they fall out of the media. They just have lost their place as a visible part of society. So every little bit of that helps at this point.

Workday Magazine: Especially with Amazon and Starbucks, using their brand recognition to the workers’ advantage helps, or the fact that many people have been to a Starbucks and have benefited from the service of a barista in a very tangible labor that they know they have needed.

Nolan: Like every Hollywood actor is in the union, most professional athletes are in unions, but yet we don’t use that. It’s another thing where you’re like, “Why aren’t we using this? Like, why isn’t Tom Hanks an ad for unions?” 

Workday Magazine: In the book you write about the difference between electoral politics work as a much more passive consumption—like watching TV, picking your team, and rooting for them—compared to unionism where workers are more active, where they have a much more direct stake. How do you think we might actually be more comfortable in that passive role?

Nolan: There’s obviously a lot of systemic reasons why powerful institutions would prefer people to have that relationship to politics, rather than real ground-up organized relationship to politics. I do hope that one of the things that people will take from the book is that labor power is political power, and trying to get out of that passive relationship with the idea of politics, and understand and think of organized labor as a center of political power that sits outside of the electoral system. I do think that there are so many people who are concerned about political issues, they want to be engaged in the world, they want to do something to make the world better, and they don’t see any alternatives outside of the electoral system. So I just think it’s useful to spread the idea that you can organize in the workplace and use that as a springboard to political power in a way that is probably going to have more influence than whatever you would do, electorally, and is going to be a permanent type of political power, that is not going to change based on who wins the next election. Even if Donald Trump gets elected, the labor movement can still be a strong source of progressive political power. I do think just having that consciousness in the public is an important first step and can also sort of change the electorate for the better and make people buy into democracy in a way that they otherwise would give up on. 

Workday Magazine: I really liked how you focused on the South in the book. Especially in places like the South and some places in the Midwest where you’re dealing with a more conservative political context. Why would you say union growth is especially important in these contexts?  

Nolan: It’s probably the most promising in places like that because, in a lot of red states, the electoral political landscape is so grim. It can turn a lot of people off, it can make people feel hopeless if you’re in a really red state. That is a place where, in particular, even more than in other states, being able to plug into the power of a union is often the only real outlet that people can have to affect that kind of change and to transform the electorate. A red state is not something that’s written in stone. It’s a response to conditions. You can organize people, get them involved in the labor movement, get them to start participating, and get them to start to see how those fights work, and how success can be had in the context of unions. That changes people—it changes how they think and you can change the electorate in those states. 

In a lot of red states, teachers’ unions, for example, are like islands, where they are one of the only points of progressive political power, which is exactly why they’re persecuted so intensely. It’s extremely important to invest in the success of unions in those red states. When you talk to people about how we are going to break out of this impasse we’re in where everybody’s so polarized, it feels like everybody’s locked in. To me, organizing people in a union is one of the only realistic ways that you can give people experiences that can help them evolve their own politics, through lived experience. 

Workday Magazine: I think a lot of similar arguments could be made about immigrant workforces, or highly stratified gig work. I often hear they’re “unorganizable.” Do you think the labor movement is ceding too much to the idea that certain workers or places are unorganized bubbles? And what do you think is the best way to push back against that?

Nolan: There can get to be a little bit of conventional wisdom around that topic, right, like stuff is either an organized bubble or it’s not worth the hassle? You saw that with the Fight for $15, which accomplished a lot of great things. It was a really important movement. But I think that one of the premises of the Fight for $15 was that it wasn’t a union campaign. They didn’t unionize any stores, it was sort of a political and PR campaign—and that’s not a knock on them. But then when you saw the Starbucks campaign come along and unionize 400 stores. It’s like, maybe you miscalculated. That has to make you go back and be like, no workplace is unorganizable. 

Obviously, there is organizing taking place: the Deliveristas in New York, and there’s organizing among Uber drivers, and the fundamental power of organized labor is the ability to withhold your labor. So there’s no area where it is impossible for workers to exercise power, because the fact that your job exists demonstrates that there’s a demand for your work. Of course, it’s harder in certain places, it’s harder when there’s higher turnover. They thought that the Amazon warehouse couldn’t be unionized. Anywhere that people have that image, it’s bound to be overturned and proven wrong. 

We have to start thinking in terms of what the need is for working people, especially when you talk about places like the South, where there is a level of conventional wisdom that it’s sort of throwing money down a black hole to try to organize down South. But that’s also where the greatest need is. So you have to work as hard as you think it is, you have to balance it out with what working people need also.

Workday Magazine: A point you make in the book also is about the pandemic, and that it was a point where you saw the failure of larger American unions to really capitalize on this momentum of the moment. Do you think all is lost to capitalize on this moment? Could the larger unions still kind of hit this moment while it’s hot?

Nolan: Absolutely. I mean, I think that the hangover from the pandemic is still a big contributing factor to the state of the economy and low unemployment, which gives workers more leverage that still exists today. And secondly, the public sentiment behind approval of unions, a desire for unions, and people being curious about unions, I think a lot of that is still an aftermath of what people went through in the pandemic. So we’re definitely not past the moment when we could take advantage of it, particularly in things like new organizing. 

I think that there were some real moments of opportunity early in the pandemic that unions could have seized on if they were better organized, frankly. For example, I always think of grocery store workers. During that first year, early in the pandemic, they could have asked for anything and gotten it because that’s how much leverage they had. And so that I think is just an acute example where unions that don’t think on that sort of strategic level, that are very focused on the contract, those opportunities pass them by. And a lot of those workers got screwed really bad, too. Some of those specific opportunities were lost, but the big opportunity for organizing is definitely still there.

Workday Magazine: Workday Magazine has a readership of a lot of folks who are already involved in unions and worker organizing. Why do you think it’s important for folks in the labor movement to read this book?

Nolan: I think it’s important because the only people who’re going to save the labor movement are us. It’s only the people in the labor movement, who are going to save it. Like, if we talk about wanting to organize millions of workers, if we talk about wanting to give people unions, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Who is going to give these people unions?” It’s us. There’s nobody else there. There is no outside force or outside group or government agency or anything that is going to come in and do the organizing that needs to be done. 

I was on the board of my union for six years. I know that inside every union, there’s always a lot of stuff. There’s always a lot of work as a baseline. And there’s always a lot of fights that are going on that you already have on your plate. And so the question of organizing the masses can seem very philosophical and can easily be pushed off to the side. But it’s most important. 

People who are in the labor movement are ready to push their unions to do this work, because that’s the only way it’s going to get done. When you see what UAW is doing, probably the most prominent example of a union that’s really attacking, organizing in the way that we all need to be doing, that was a product of a democratic, internal reform effort by people in that union, to organize inside the union and change the leadership and change the priorities of the union. That’s the sort of process that we are going to need in a lot of different unions to shake out the resources that are necessary to do this organizing. I hope that everybody reads this book, but one of the most important audiences is people who are already inside the unions, because you’re the only ones who are going to make your unions do the stuff that needs to be done, or else it’s not going to happen.

Isabela is the Senior Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

Comments are closed.