Don't Touch That Dial: Organizing the Un-Organized with the Power of Radio

by Amy Wilson

Member, NYC-DSA. Host and Producer, Revolutions per Minute. Elected Staff Representative, WBAI Local Station Board. Member, Red Wave Collective.

One hallmark of my five semesters as a Master’s student at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies is the inevitable discussion at least once in every class about labor movement revitalization. Almost everyone, including my teachers, has their own theory about why the labor movement is where it is and what should be done to return it to fighting strength (definitions of what we should return to and from what era may differ). The labor movement has an obsession with its own decline that often inspires the use of boxing metaphors like “labor is on the back foot” or “labor is on the ropes”. As someone who trains boxing and loves the sport, I find these metaphors funny. If Capital vs. Labor in the late 20th and early 21st century really were a boxing match, Labor’s corner should have long since thrown in the towel by now to prevent our fighter from being seriously injured or killed. With economic inequality soaring, globalized companies operating with near-total impunity, and material issues like lack of access to healthcare and housing crushing the working class, this is not at all a fair fight.

I speculate that the boxing metaphor for labor movement revitalization is attractive not only because boxing has always been a great sport of the working class, but also because it offers hope that if we as unionists could only work a little bit harder, train a little bit smarter, or dig deeper into our courage and stamina, we could pull out an underdog victory against Capital’s heavyweight champion of the world. Maybe it’s this new coach (Sara Nelson as president of the AFL-CIO!); maybe it’s an unorthodox training method (community unionism!); maybe Labor’s champ just needs to reconcile with his long-lost father to heal his inner life enough to fight (pass the PRO Act!). Although these narratives make for stirring sports movies, I think we need to find new ways of understanding the dynamics of labor struggle in order to effectively move forward. To continue the boxing metaphor, Labor is simply not in the same weight class as Capital right now. In the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, private sector union membership remained at just about 6.5% percent in 2020. Although public sector union membership is a bit higher at 35%, public sector unions in many states (including New York) are not able to strike, which dramatically lessens their effective power. In understanding this reality, I always prefer to flip the script and, rather than say that 6.5% of private sector workers are unionized, say that 93.5% (aka the vast majority) are not.

I believe there is plenty of value in studying how to better organize, educate, and democratize workers in existing unions and I hope that my classmates at CUNY SLU and others in the labor movement will continue to tackle that question. Yet it is difficult for me to agree to focusing on what is essentially a tiny minority of the United States population (unionized workers), when the working class itself is so large. After a fascinating semester studying models of worker education from the 1920s ‘til today, what I am the most struck by is the necessity of envisioning labor education beyond existing unions and workers centers. As I’ve learned more about historical models of labor education and reflected on my own experience, what I’m struck by is the extent to which the student pool for labor education has been self-selected. Whether it be enrolling in Brookwood or the Rand Institute, signing up for the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, or sending an email to the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, there is an element common to many labor education programs where the student must display a specific interest and the wherewithal (plus time, money sometimes, childcare) to make their own labor education happen.

I can say with great certainty that there is an appetite for knowledge about labor in the general public beyond the pool of “labor nerds”. Since I enrolled in the Master’s at CUNY SLU, people in my life have been turning to me to answer all manner of labor-related questions, like “shouldn’t I legally get a certain amount of paid breaks during my day?” or “what can I do to make the hiring practices at my workplace more trans-inclusive?”. I don’t believe that in order to get these questions answered well and from a perspective of labor power, your average worker should have to take 30 credits at SLU or enroll in a 6-week organizing training. As much as this may seem contrary to the prevailing mood in the labor movement which (understandably) has been focused on organizing more workers into unions and increasing union density, I envision an approach to worker education that is separate from that goal. A union drive is incredibly hard, and often they either result in an electoral loss or in disillusionment and disappointment of some sort on the part of the workers. What if we started much smaller and focused on helping workers get answers to basic questions related to their everyday experience, then let them decide what to do with that information?

This essay has been difficult to write for a few reasons. One is that, nearing the end of a Master’s program, I’m fully aware of how much I have yet to learn about labor. I know that, for me personally, my labor education will be a lifelong process. I often feel anxiety about ending my program and losing the structure and accountability for learning that formal classwork provides. Thus, I have a personal interest in developing methods of continuing, democratic labor education because I hope to be a student-teacher in them myself. The second reason is that, in addition to being a student and a worker, I am also a very active organizer working on labor, anti-racist/anti-fascist, and cultural organizing at least 20 hours a week every week for the past three and a half years. Just yesterday, I spent eight hours outside NYPD’s 1st Precinct in Tribeca, waiting for the release of a comrade who had been arrested at an anti-fascist counter-demonstration. (The rally we were countering was a rally to “End Political Persecution” of people who had been arrested or were under investigation for storming the US Capitol on January 6.) I’ve hosted radio shows on anti-police campaigns and participated in organizing a press conference in “Columbus” Circle in November 2020 featuring people who were arrested in the NYPD’s election-time crackdown on protesting. I’ve witnessed (but so far been lucky enough to avoid for myself) brutal arrests and the lasting consequences these have on protestors’ minds, bodies, and souls. I know from personal experience that the reign of state repression of the anti-racist left that started under President Trump and has continued under President Biden is having its intended effect, gradually reducing the number of people who are willing and able to engage in direct actions. Although I am most directly involved in anti-police and anti-fascist organizing, my comrades in other parts of the movement such as Indigenous water protectors and abortion clinic defenders report similar dynamics.

All of which is to say that when I return to my unionist perspective for my official studies, I know very well that “engaging with social movements” or “organizing the activist youth” is not an easy prescription for labor. Every social movement is dynamic and has its own internal debates and factional struggles. One dynamic that tends to recur is one that students of labor tend to study extensively: the disconnect between elected or paid leadership and rank-and-file movement participants. This is true of movements like Black Lives Matter or Land Back just as much as it is true of labor. Our professor at CUNY SLU, Stephanie Luce, wrote brilliantly on this when she wrote about the limits of coalition and how coalitions are too often formed “leader-to-leader” instead of “member-to-member”. This is one of many organizational questions I’d love to find the answer to, but at this point in my studies I have very little in the way of concrete interventions to propose – knowing the extent of what has already been tried and the critiques that have been made of those attempts.

But I do have one idea! Labor vs. Capital is not a boxing match where two individuals put their prowess to the test. It is a mass, fractured movement against a coordinated and powerful attempt to subdue that movement. In order to resource that mass, fractured movement with accurate information regarding its position, media interventions are necessary because the existing mainstream media is largely financed by mega-corporations and foundations that have little interest in fomenting worker militancy and reporting accurately on workers’ movements. Although the last five years have seen growth both in union representation at legacy media and in alternative labor journalism outlets such as Strikewave, what is missing is a labor education media program that is rooted in, accountable to, and materially supported by unions. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for unions to have their own radio shows or even to own radio stations and this was a highly effective way for unions to communicate with their members because listening to the radio was an everyday activity for many. These days, social media and podcasts are commonly accepted forms of media for the vast majority of people in the United States, and terrestrial radio stations still have a substantial audience. Terrestrial radio stations like WBAI 99.5fm here in New York City tend to reach diverse audiences due partially to the fact that people who drive for work will have the radio continuously on in their cars. What’s more, terrestrial radio is one of the few mediums that can reach people who are currently incarcerated.

What I propose is something like the classic NPR broadcast, Car Talk, but for unionists. What if there were a regular show carried on a listener-sponsored radio (terrestial or internet) station, where everyday people could call in with labor-related questions and dilemmas and have them answered by experienced unionists? This could not only speak to workers’ appetite for knowledge about their own situation, but also develop a sense of collective consciousness. Trouble-shooting case-studies and solving problems by talking them through is a time-honored educational strategy, classic for a reason. Listeners of shows like Car Talk or viewers of shows like This Old House enjoy them because it’s easy to find personal connections to the advice that’s distributed. Because producing a weekly radio show is a lot of work, it would make sense for resources to be provided by an existing union that could potentially cover 1-2 staff producer positions out of member dues – maybe, the independent union UE which is already working in concert with the Democratic Socialists of America to run the Emergency Workplace Organizing committee? If not, how about a labor studies program like the one at CUNY SLU that could potentially levy a nominal fee on the student body to fund this? From there, listener-supported radio stations generally do not charge for use of their facilities and airwaves when you are producing shows for them, so the economic investment of this project is relatively low.

It sounds like a small intervention, but as an organizer I personally prefer to think in terms of small, actionable steps. Labor vs. Capital is not a boxing match, but if it were, it would be time for Labor’s supporters to storm the ring and change the terms of the fight. One way to do that is to focus on de-mystifying and democratizing information about labor and worker organization for the 93.5%.

Red Wave is a collective of socialist organizers working to connect current struggles to the legacy of movement radio. With four members currently serving on the WBAI Local Station Board and more engaged in base- and network building, Red Wave is a hub for socialist media producers and listeners to connect and envision a future where organizing is carried on the airwaves. Follow us on Twitter @RedWaveWBAI.