Unlike Romanian labour unions, the American ones have a lot of money

Radu Stochita takes on the labour movement in the USA, on the decreasing prejudice towards left-wing ideas among Americans and on how labour unions answer to the crisis, caused by the Russian invasion in Ukraine

The January 2022 strike of the public transport workers in Bucharest was met with strong resistance by the citizens and other workers of Bucharest (source: YouTube)

Radu Stochita takes on the labour movement in the USA, on the decreasing prejudice towards left-wing ideas among Americans and on how labour unions answer to the crisis, caused by the Russian invasion in Ukraine

Vladimir Mitev

Radu Stochița is a Romanian student in the USA, who pursues a number of initiatives related to the American and Romanian labour movement. He develops a newsletter on labour issues, researches the exploitation in the gaming industry, writes articles and press releases for the Cartel Alfa Romanian labour union.

Hello! At Cross border talks we are today without Malgorzata, but we are now making our second discussion with Radu Stochita on labor union issues, and this time would focus on the U.S. Radu Stochita is the youngest and probably most famous among his generation on labor union issues in Romania. He is associated with Cartel Alpha, which is one of the leading national labor unions in Romania. He’s also a student in the USA. So, Radu, welcome to the program. And if you allow me, let us first start with the significant event, which is going on now. Of course, it’s an event with a very negative mark. It is the war in Ukraine. You are connecting to us from Maine, USA. So what are the reactions in your area among the people you meet? How is this war in our region here echoing in your region there?

Sure. Thank you so much. It’s quite funny, you said I am one of the most famous labor guys at my age. I doubt it, but I would say that I’m stuck between two places. I’m stuck between Maine, USA, and Romania, where I work for Cartel Alpha.

The war in Ukraine is viewed a bit differently in those two places. Romania is very close to Ukraine, which makes the war quite an urgent matter, at least for the people in my own circles, my friends, my family and so on. But if I am to speak specifically about labor unions. Labor unions have mobilized immediately and issued statements against the war in Ukraine. And here we’re not talking only about the big U.S., European Union, the International Trade Union Confederation, where we talk about a lot of publicity. There’s more federations of labor unions back in Romania and some of these federations opinions even went as far as saying that their members, which had discount cards to certain, like Russian gas companies, they should stop using those cards ASAP as a way of boycotting the Russian operations in the region.

Here in Maine, it’s a bit different. I attend college. It’s a very liberal place, I would say. So people are concerned about this issue. The problem is still very much present in terms of identity. I think we’re still lacking that economic understanding of it, especially amongst people my age. But I repeat only in this very small, isolated context. But if you speak about the union, labor unions have been fast to mobilize, at least on social media, and you should press statements. So there seems to be a very strong sense of solidarity amongst union members with the whole crisis in Ukraine. It doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be pro the Ukrainian government, but I would say that unions as a whole have proved that when something of this magnitude happens, there can be urgency. Everything can become urgent, basic when people can take action.

Well, what you say hints at the internationalism of the labor movement, and it is great that your organizations are involved in it. Can you describe what are the main characteristics of the labor unions you are seeing now? Let me just say as a context that in 1983 there were around 20 percent of the labor force in the U.S. who were labor unionized. And in 2020, at the beginning of the corona crisis, they were around 11 percent, a little bit below 11 percent. So that might be a hint that there is a blow to labor unions being done by, let’s call them, in short, those neo-liberal policies, which we all know in our countries. But on the other hand, we also know that the socialist tendency or the left-leaning tendency, especially among young people, people your age and a little bit older, has been getting stronger in the USA. So how exactly do you describe the condition of this tendency in the U.S.?

It’s quite difficult to speak of a united left. I think people tend to align with the left leaning ideals, have this huge desire of calling everything the left. I would say with labor unions, it’s a very specific case. And you’re right, actually we have a decreasing trend in membership and we have, especially in the private sector where this is happening. Public sector tends to be a bit more stable, but just a bit, I would say in this way, because labor unions have lost lots of members, especially in 2021, as a result of the COVID mandates like the vaccination mandates, which some unions have supported. They lost some members among the nurses and policemen. Also some of their unions, for example, Service Employees, International Union (SEIU) – one of the biggest unions in the country, were asked for some kind of racial injustice clauses to their union, I think, which made some of their police forces have quite of an antipathy towards their mission. So they quit.

There has been a resignation from the union ranks. But on the other side of the coin, which is very important as you mention, it’s also the fact that there has never been more interest in labor unions and the approval rating, since 1965 or maybe even since 1947. There is a Gallup poll that’s published every year, and this year it shows that close to 60 percent of the people 65 percent stake and basically have a favorable view of labor unions. I would like to talk about some very specific case studies for us to understand how this is really happening. We have Starbucks organizing right now to form labor unions and at least 100 of their workplaces, which is something very new and unique because Starbucks didn’t necessarily have a strong union presence before. But now people have taken matters into their own hands and have realized they want a decent living condition. Maybe I might speak from a very personal perspective, but I think if I were to work at Starbucks, if I were to get the job tomorrow, I’ve never looked a Starbucks where I work for the food industry, for sure in the U.S., but at a Starbucks, if I were to work there, I would not like to think of that only as a temporary job. Because we have though, because it just becomes a job that you quit immediately and makes being a barista in those places look something that you have to pass through to get to somewhere else?

I think what the workers are also fighting for is for them to even consider that maybe it’s more stable for employment because in certain regions of the country, working at Starbucks might be the only alternative. You know, in my own region, it is not. You have a bunch of factories around, you have a bunch of supermarkets so people can switch workplaces. But imagine if you only have a Starbucks or a Walmart, you know, the typical two American companies like retail and coffee industry, basically. And you have to choose between those two and neither of them plays well, like, of course, would like to fight for something better. 

There’s something also very interesting happening right now with unions and the video games industry. I do my research and the video games industry from my school, and what I’ve noticed is that there is more interest in unionizing nowadays amongst video game developers and players seem to be very supportive, especially with the latest scandal that occurred at Activision Blizzard King, the biggest company, now one of the biggest company of the big companies the video games industry who produce World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Overwatch, Candy Crush, for example, where workers have been trying to heavily unionize for the past months, basically, which is something that has been seen before, but not to this extent and hasn’t gotten that much media coverage in the past.

So what we have nowadays is also an interest in new areas to organize, which haven’t necessarily been particularly pro-union or there hasn’t been a strong union presence before. And then you also have a lot of interest coming from the press about the unions in a sense that all of those, we must say, haven’t only been fueled by the left, you know, talking about socialistic values. Because if someone comes and tells you, Hey, you have to believe in socialism and all of that, I can assure you like a worker is just going to like to slap you or not slap you, but just tell, like, get away from me, like, I don’t want to hear about this. It comes from an economic crisis so people can no longer live on what they’re making. It’s impossible and is literally outrageous. With this inflation rate right now, they are turning to new mechanisms, either they’re quitting en masse, which is happening and they call it the great resignation or they join unions or try to communities and they. But in both ways, they increase their power as workers.

OK, if you allow me a little bit, maybe a bit of an ideological question: generations have grown in the U.S. with the stigma upon socialism or socialism was something like the worst thing. Being a communist suggests you’re somehow anti-religious, non-religious. You know, it is something there is a stigma. Usually there is stigma upon socialism, communism, etc. So how exactly is this overcome, given that people seem to be organizing on this? People have been told for years or for generations to hate socialism, how do they start to become left-wing then?

Mm hmm. How can I say it’s a peculiar understanding because people don’t like people that might be social, but not all people who are brainless are social. This is a thing we need to establish from the beginning. It’s valid everywhere. They’re actually way more conservative people in the labor union movement than we actually would like to believe. Lots of them are actually not Republicans or liberals, as we call them in Romania. What’s happening is that some of those people that joined the ranks of the unions who are socialist are also part of the tertiary organizations such as DSA. So they do their socialist work there where they promote ideas of socialism, and then they do the more practical on the ground work inside the union if they want to do that. 

There are some unions for sure which are openly vocal about their socialist beliefs. You know, they support causes such as Free Palestine that you know, they care about more like almost causes that the left left us a whole alliance with. But that would still be something quite exceptional. But it gives the moral, let’s say, let’s say like that. But if we talk ideologically, it’s become more fashionable. I would like to talk about Left-Wing ideas nowadays. 

There is still a bit of repression. Indeed, it is still impossible to come out as a communist. It’s impossible. It’s quite difficult for yourself to call yourself a communist in this country. But people with the rise of Bernie Sanders for sure have seen an opening to talk, discuss openly about socialist values. And we have people in the West Coast, you know, in Portland, Oregon, where it’s even more favorable than anywhere else in the US to discuss those values. And we also have the inheritance of the civil rights movement and the free speech movement from Berkeley, California, from the South as well, which have been paved. The way for this to happen, though, I must say I would like to. What’s often quite important is not only to talk in terms of ideology because I think we on the left are quite obsessed with ideology. Are we socialists or communists, whatever?

In many cases you want to identify with something in order to be part of a group. I witnessed that my friends, I’ve witnessed that with my past tendencies as well. Well, I was so obsessed with finding an identification just to feel that I belong somewhere. And we just end up discussing these terms for years and years. And I can tell workers, do not care about this. You can have socialist values, you know, you can do it. You would not talk to them. And I’m telling you you might be able to get more workers on your side by starting the conversation and saying, Hello, my name is I am a socialist or communist or anarchist or whatever, and they care about this in that sense.

OK. Of course, people are very pragmatic in the capitalist world, they know their interests and their economic interests, first of all. So it’s always easy to organize around economic interests and you have a lot of practice in communication. You have a newsletter. You have been writing press releases, articles in Romania. I can’t even count everything. You have also collaborated with the Barricade, by the way. So can you make some comparison from the practices you have seen with labor unions in the USA and in Romania? What is to be noticed immediately when comparisons are made? What are the differences? What are the similarities?

Yeah, it’s simple. Money is the difference. The US has so much money that Romania doesn’t have. It’s a little like people. People love to believe that it’s about ideology. Yes, I’m very driven, you know, I’m very driven to work in the world. I’m not going to be able to build a fortune because I work in the union world. But at the end of the day, show me the money. And the US has just so much money for projects and everything that they allow. We know these things exist here, and in Romania we don’t necessarily have them. Not only because of the membership, but we don’t have one. 

It’s also because we don’t have the same state funding. We don’t have the same abilities to invest that unions in the US have. We don’t have the same strike funds that they do. You know, it’s a very different skill we talk about. So I would not only like to focus on ideology because unions in Romania have been extremely powerful in the 90s and still are to some extent today. But we need to be thankful for them for not having an increasingly aggressive or outright aggressive shock therapy, as it was in other countries like unions, were the ones that basically told the people that, “Hey, hey, hey, slow down today with the privatization.” 

I don’t think we’re signed up for this. So they are powerful. It’s a very different style of unionism like we had with a very strong rupture in the US to have to think about the Civil War up until the present, what 150 years? Almost there hasn’t been a huge break, I suppose for Romania, you know, it’s the 1940s and we broke away from fascism. Then we get communism and in 1989 it breaks again and we get a transition to capitalism, democracy, whatever you want to call this thing. And it’s been a very different way for unions to operate. You know, some of them inherited the communist style of unionism. Some of them still preserve it. But when I say that, you know, it’s unions as well on the ground, the source of the big and the big, like the federation were almost like umbrella organizations. Though I myself think unions have been mobilizing more in the past two years, I think they’ve realized at least on the communication side of it, that they realize that we cannot just sit idle and release and just work as a grievance organization like we cannot do that. If we want to actually fight for something, we cannot just wait for workers to be like, Hey, the boss, or ask me, can you file a petition or something with a territorial organization to fight for my rights? 

That’s good. But we also need to be more militant, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do right now. I think I would like to say I’m a very rigorous guide to myself, and I think we’re very far away from where we were, where we should be. But that doesn’t stop us. I think that should actually be empowering. You know, we already have a dream to be more militant. I would say, at least for the union I work for. And to do that, like, I think we need to work very hard in the US. It’s quite similar elsewhere, like you have very militant unions that become, you know, just grievance operations managers and which the workers just pay their dues at the end of the month they come in or they kill the problems of the unions, fix them for them. 

There is no militancy, necessarily. Now you witness more of that. But still what is not necessarily very, very positive, as people would say, is not the dreamland for socialism where you go into a factory and you just say, hello, I’m a union member and everyone is going to be like, as we love you, it’s not. It’s not there. We need to work. We work together. But I think I think there is a lot of potential. I think one thing I hate a lot about the left and I hate, you know, this is actually very strong feelings I have. I hate pessimism. I really hate it. I really hate when people start on the negative ground because this nostalgia for the past, you know, like we can dive into like an ideological discussion and Walter Benjamin, as is beautiful. That’s I think it’s called for a left nostalgia or something in which he says that we’re so obsessed with the past. Like this glorious past that when we analyze everything in terms of failure, we forget to live in the present to see what we have in our hands nowadays. 

And just because we don’t have the strongest unions as people had 60 years ago, that doesn’t mean that we should just stop working and be like, OK, we don’t have them come off. Like, What the heck? That’s not the way you should work for, and I believe, you know, we work with what we have like people back in the 1920s when they were forming unions. We didn’t have what people in the 1960s had, but we still work for them. And I don’t feel that’s an excuse for us to do that. But I was also raised with a very militant mother in a good way. So that’s why I have these very strong accumulated values…

Allow me to see the need for reform in the nation and the renewal of all those tendencies. The theme of change, hopefully positive, progressive change of society. It’s very necessary for these things to happen periodically. And I think Cross-border Talks are very supportive of this approach to look to the future, to have energy, to have ambition as well. So if you allow me, let us end with this ambition issue. What follows for you this year? What do you plan to do on all this activist and educational and maybe work issues that have something to do with left wing and labor unionism?

For sure. If I am to solve the crisis in Ukraine. I think at the time we were recording, this war started like three days ago. I got involved in and I started working in communications for an NGO in the USA. I was volunteering, let’s say, fundraising for the Ukrainian refugees, who are going to come to Romania. I would recommend everyone to get involved. That’s my take. Like, literally, if you have time to do it, like get involved, help those people somehow, you know, even document yourself a bit more, don’t sit idle. You know, this conflict. I just don’t think this conflict is about them. It’s about all of us.

I think people forget about how harsh the economic sanctions will be felt throughout Europe and the world. Second, one of them is the Cartel Alfa activities. Also, we’re working on pushing the government to ratify the convention. of the ILO – The International Labor Organization Convention one zero, which is the Convention against Harassment and Violence in the workplace. That’s a very nasty issue if you allow me to, because a man doesn’t really collect that much data actually on violence and harassment in the workplace. The latest survey we have was made by this job recruiting firm, which is called best jobs or job advertising site, something like that. And they found that 44 percent of the people have been sexually harassed in the workplace. 

Can you believe it is like an issue of one or two people? It’s so crazy. But the Romanian government doesn’t collect anything official, and we don’t have any reports on it. It’s like almost one every five years or something, like an NGO pairs up with an agency in the government, and this is the only time they do something about. Otherwise, it’s nothing. And to me, it’s surprising that we haven’t ratified this convention yet, so that’s actually a long path. We’re fighting, we’re fighting on that with a couple of NGOs, one of them mentioned because I worked with them closely. It’s called Aleg with Georgia Epure and other ladies there. We have done an amazing job. 

You know, some of the most American leaders I’ve seen in my entire life crazy, crazy militant Islam on the ground in on the on the social media, pushing for reforms and understanding that we need also policy reforms not only like beautiful messages from the government. On a personal note, I would like to say that I’m trying to spread a bit more optimism with people. I think people, I’m very privileged to live in the US where I’m able to see and we talked endlessly in manual and private conversations about, you know, the nihilism people have back home. And I would like to just fight against that because sometimes it can be a bit counterproductive. I would say, I think to me, it’s very weird that people my age and your age around everyone’s age become pessimists from every other point in life and just lose all faith, you know, and just lose the desire to fight because nothing. I just think that we owe something to our ancestors in a sense, not like Romanian or Bulgarian ancestors, but people that fought for better working conditions and more just society. And I don’t think and I think we take too many things for granted, like all our rights and everything. But that’s it for me, honestly, isn’t my plan anymore.

Foto: Radu Stochița (sursă: Facebook)

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