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How Rank-And-File Labor Organizers Can Transform Unions

Above Photo: AFL-CIO shop steward and legal representative Tevita Uhatafe stands up to speak during the US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh’s visit to the AFL-CIO Council. Department of Labor Shelby Tauber.

After starting out as a shop steward with few personal connections to the union, Uhatafe is now Vice President of the Texas AFL-CIO.

He wants other rank-and-file workers to start organizing and shake up the labor movement.

For the past five years, Tevita Uhatafe of TWU Local 567 has dedicated himself to advancing the labor movement. Known affectionately as “Mic Guy,” Uhatafe has traveled from coast to coast to rally in solidarity with striking workers in multiple states. Uhatafe entered the union movement as an outsider without family connections, but has nevertheless risen as a rank-and-file leader. He is now the Vice President of the Texas AFL-CIO. Vince Quiles, lead organizer of Home Depot Workers United, sits down with Tefita Uhatafe for an organizer-to-organizer conversation on their respective stories, the barriers impeding deeper solidarity in the labor movement, and why unions so desperately need rank-and-file leadership today.


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Vince Quiles: Hey, everyone. My name is Vince Quiles reporting for the Real News Network, the lead organizer from store 4112 at Home Depot in Philadelphia, most of the interim president, Home Depot Workers United. Today, I have the privilege to speak with a very special guest, somebody who I consider part of the lifeblood of the labor movement. Some of you guys may know him as Mic-Guy. I know him as a friend. Tevita ‘Uhatafe from TWU Local 567, who’s been on the front lines organizing for five years. Again, I very much look forward to this conversation. Without further ado, let’s bring him in here. What’s up, Tevita? How are you, bro?

Tevita Uhatafe: Just so blessed. I’m so thankful, and I’m so honored to join you as a guest on your show. And let’s talk about organizing.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, let’s do it, baby. Hey, look, and just a personal anecdote, I remember when I was going through our organizing drive here in Philly and having a conversation with you. Man, that was a much-needed shot in the arm, the way that you were just able to, again, speak that energy through the phone and help somebody who is very new to this. I think you have a lot of interesting insight to offer others who are looking to organize. And hopefully at the end of this conversation, we can get a couple of them moving.

Tevita Uhatafe: Let’s do it.

Vince Quiles: Let’s go. All righty. Well, so to dig into it, firstly, can we just get a little bit of backstory on you? So talk to us a little bit about your five years organizing. And what area do you organize? And what is it that you do for a living?

Tevita Uhatafe: Okay. So I’ve been a union member for seven and a half years. In the seven and a half years as a union member of my local TWU Local 567, I’ve been doing a lot of organizing, not within the aviation industry where I work… I work for a major airline as a parts distributor. And I’m very recent to my local. Before that, I was working for fleet service in the same airline where we would load and unload luggage, other commodities onto planes.

But the way I got involved was pretty much not because somebody gave me the option to get involved. I had to fight my way into conversations of being involved in the movement. My former Local 513 of TWU, we used to… I was a shop steward there for four years, but I was one of the… So we had this merger between two major airlines, and then they had this hiring spree, and Dallas Fort Worth being a major hub to this airline, I came in with this whole big group of new generation of workers into the workforce.

So I spent the first couple years just as a rank-and-file member before I became a steward. But that wasn’t easy becoming a steward in my local because how young I was in the local. I I didn’t know the contract like those other senior stewards or those on the board, or those who have been members for years. I didn’t have anybody to rely on, to ask for questions like that because there are not many Tongan-Americans who are representatives in my local when I first joined.

So it was tough for me to get involved because I didn’t know who to reach out to or how to even… The first thing I did was to show up to the union meetings. And from there, it kind of slowly… I started going to different, I guess, events that were going on within the local before they finally called me up and said, “Hey, this guy probably is interested in getting involved. He’s young.” And they didn’t know anything about me. There was no history or anything. So they put me in the legislative kind of COPE committee, if you will. It’s the Committee of Political Education. A lot of unions have it, maybe have a different name towards it, but the main thing is to get politically involved and hold people accountable if they’re in office, or to ask for support, make endorsements, things of that sort.

But what was frustrating for me was I had to take a different route, whereas those who were also my age that maybe had a family member who was already in the union, they were automatically given spots as stewards, but we both didn’t have anything to show for it. So how come this person gets to be in a position, but I’m over here having to do all the dirty work, doing… And it’s not no disrespect, but I had to fight to be involved.

Vince Quiles: Well, I was just wanted to ask, so something that I find interesting in what you’re talking about is… One of the things that we criticize when we look at corporate America when we engage in these fights is that there’s this claim of meritocracy, but that doesn’t always quite seem to be the case. And it seems like, even within the labor movement and in the local you were in, you still had to face that. Is that an accurate statement, is to say there’s a lot of nepotism, a lot of favoritism, and not as much leaning on the meritocracy aspect of it? Right? Somebody, like you said, who’s putting in the work, who’s doing the dirty work, getting their hands dirty, and really honestly doing the most important parts of organizing, building those relationships.

And to just piggyback with that, again, knowing you in the capacity that I do, I find you to be a very magnetic person. I’m sure that your coworkers feel the same. Was there ever any consideration to get input from the workers around you to say, “Hey, no, this is our guy. This is the guy that we want when stuff is hitting the fan to sit down and to really advocate for us?” So yeah, just to kind of condense that question, it seems as if though it’s not as much of a meritocracy within some of these unions as much as we would hope it to be. And how much input are they getting from the actual rank-and-file workers in terms of who they want for their representation?

Tevita Uhatafe: Yeah, absolutely. The members will speak. And they may not tell those who are in the positions of power within the local or international or whatever, but if they keep calling the same person like me to come and represent them or asking me questions, they’re telling me they’re trusting me without telling me they’re trusting me. Because otherwise, there’s other places that can get the information. There were stewards out 35, 40-plus years, but yet here we are calling the guy who just showed up, who just found out that the restroom was right there, and now we’re asking him contract issues. Now, you tell me who the workers trust more, or who they trust.

There is an element of favoritism, things like that. And that could be in any movement. Maybe you have a family member, or maybe whatever within the movement, that they made a name for themselves and you’re just another generation. Let’s think of President O’Brien from the Teamsters. He’s a third-generation union member. Of course he’s going to be involved. And his name, over there in Boston, they’re known to be union people. But see, I’m coming from another country. My parents are immigrants. So when you come here, you have no name, you don’t know anything about a movement, but you know that the people who work alongside or work side-by-side with you… We may not work for the same company, like the caterers, for instance, those who load and unload aircraft catering carts to serve the flying public when in the air, a lot of those jobs are tailored towards first-generation or immigrants, newly immigrants to the country because they’re low paid wage jobs, and those are jobs that they’re trying to fill the holes because they got to provide a service to the airline.

Every airline needs caterers. But those are the jobs that usually people from my country will start off working. And they were exploited. They were taken advantage of because of the language barrier, and that happens to many of us. I would see that. You see me stepping back. And I’m in a good local here. I’m in an aviation union. This is hoorah, but I can be standing within three feet of somebody who’s doing another service for the airline just like I am, yet that depression’s making one fourth of what I’m making. And we’re both burning in the sun together, we’re both doing the job that we’re asked to and going above and beyond because of the elements. But yet here we are, and that person, who could live in the same neighborhood with me, makes one fourth less than me. How is that fair, where we can be doing the same job and our kids going to the same school, how could I sit back and allow these kind of things to happen when these are people who are in my community?

So a lot of my organizing was actually not within my own local because I didn’t have any doors open. It was geared towards helping other workers. So I would have to freelance. To stay involved, I would’ve to freelance into another struggle because the doors weren’t open for me. And that’s where really, I learned about unionism and the strength that we have when we collectively fight together, regardless of what our jobs are. And we don’t use… I have this good contract. We don’t sit in our silo and just enjoy the contract while somebody else is suffering.

That kind of thinking, it comes back to who I am as a Tongan, my background, we are people from the islands who don’t have much, but we hold on to the things, to our values. Being together and helping people out, that’s one of the biggest values that we carry on from the islands, and I’m just trying to inject that kind of feeling into the movement that I’m not here… I haven’t been here forever. Just like you, we’re not here, we haven’t been here forever. We’re trying to find our way through this journey. But if we can do it holding each other’s hand together, we can figure this shit out together.

Vince Quiles: Absolutely.

Tevita Uhatafe: At this point, the state of the labor movement, there’s going to be always going to be favor to, there’s always going to be something that is going to keep somebody who’s really hungry away from trying to help people. That’s what we want to do, right? We want to help workers. But if we hold on to the relationships, like you and I have, we build each other up, it doesn’t matter whether we have a title as a president or international president or any of that, none of it matters because the workers will follow those people who they believe will lead them or find the answers for them.

Vince Quiles: Them. I just wanted to say, right? So you’re kind of touching on something I think to be extremely important, and I kind of want to pull that thread a little bit more in terms of the selflessness that comes with being an organizer, right? So a local. You’re already engaged in the fights that are within your own respective slice of the pie, yet you’re still taking the time to help and to fight for others. And I think it’s just such an important question to ask people like yourself. When you’re in the thick of it, when you’re going through these battles, and whether this is in the things that you face in your own personal work environment, or you’re standing at a picket line for another group of people, what are the things that you see just in today’s working environment that really motivates you to speak with the fervor that you do, with the passion that you do in order to try and get people to stand up?

I know there are countless injustices that so many people could really enumerate, but I think it’s so important to hear from people on the front lines like yourself. What is it that you’re seeing in the day-to-day work life? What is it that you’re hearing from the different workers that you’re talking to that is such an animating factor to get you to fight with the ferocity that you do?

Tevita Uhatafe: I think making the connections between struggles, because a lot of the struggles that I get myself involved in, I have no business in because I’m not personally struggling in that. But you find some way, you personalize it, you meet somebody that works in that industry, and you talk to them about… You talk. We talk. You talk, we talk, and we talk about the issues, and I try to find a way outside of my own issues, work issues, to personalize what it is that’s happening with those folks, and how I can connect it with me and how I can make it my issue too. We need to start personalizing. And that’s why it’s so important to get into somebody else’s fight or to support somebody, because you’re never going to learn about real issues if you’re just taking somebody’s word for it on a picture or something.

If you’re really talking to the workers, they’ll tell you. They’ll going on, and then you can go back to your workplace like I do, and we can have conversations with those who think that maybe I shouldn’t be meddling in that worker’s issues because that’s theirs. We like to keep ourselves in silos because that’s not our fight, but it is absolutely our fight because it’s our community who’s involved. Those are the people who work alongside us. Their kids go to school with ours. So our communities are affected by it. If that’s not personal enough for you, then you’re in the wrong organizing movement because you have to personalize the fight. You have to find a reason to be agitated so you can agitate somebody else.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, no, I feel you. I remember talking with a UPS worker when I used to work at Home Depot all the time, and just always constantly trying to check in on him. “Hey dude, how you doing?” I remember he’d come in the summertime, and he would lift up the back door of his truck and you’d feel like this hot air coming, and you’d feel genuine concern for that person. Because to your point, we’re working together. This is somebody that has a family that is a contributing member to society, and ultimately there’s this interconnectivity between everything that we do. And sometimes we may not always see it, but it’s there, right? You being a parts distributor, you doing what you do, I’m sure affected how we received the stuff that we’ve received at Home Depot, right? I’m sure that there were probably things that we sold within that store that passed [inaudible 00:15:36], right?

And there’s just this interconnectivity so important to consider, right? And I think it’s why it’s so important to hear your perspective on that, is to remember that, whether it’s within your own personal work environment or somewhere else across the country, in the end, it all kind of bleeds together. And when you look at the way that our economy is set up, the fact that it’s so globalized, it’s kind of forced to be interconnected. And in the end, it’s not like the people at the top are going to care about us, right? It’s going to be the people like yourself who are showing up to these picket lines, who are trying to fight and inspire people along the way. And I think, again, that’s such a major point to really reflect on. And thank you. Thank you for doing that, right? Again, that’s something that makes a large impact.

Something else I kind of wanted to circle back to that I think is interesting to talk about, and you touched on it a little bit earlier, but one thing I think is really interesting too, when you look at organizing, when you look at the values behind it, the concepts behind it, I think it’s so fascinating to talk to people about what their inspirations are in terms of what we just talked about, what you see in the front lines at work, the issues that you deal with, but what is it also personally like for you, even apart from labor organizing that helps to instill the values that are at the core of it? Things like courage, resilience, engaging in a battle of attrition, staring down Goliath, knowing you’re David and saying, “Nah, we’re still going to do this.” What are some of the personal inspirations for you? I know you talked a little bit about your heritage, if you want to delve into that more, we’d love to hear more about that.

Tevita Uhatafe: Yeah, yeah, sure. So I spoke with Max a lot about my culture and how I connect my culture to the movement. And my idea of solidarity is different, because in the islands, everybody knows each other, and everybody’s family. And if there’s a funeral or something, any kind of event, whether it’s celebrating a birth or celebrating death, everybody in the family gets together. We get together. Not everybody has a lot, but if we put in together, we get the job done. And that’s kind of what I brought here to the movement. I don’t have a lot. People know very well. They’ve crowdfunded me to get two picket lines. But once the workers can get me there, I can talk about my culture and how my journey was helped by a bunch of workers who are listening in and saying, “You know what? Let’s keep this guy going because this is something that we want to see, that the workers need to see, that we do care about each other, and we’re going to find a way to get their voices out or pass along a message that these workers are fighting.”

This kind of organizing is, it’s kind of class, if you will. I don’t know. I hate to toot my own horn, but I guess I got some [inaudible 00:18:53].

Vince Quiles: Go ahead, sir.

Tevita Uhatafe: … in this movement, right? And sometimes it’s taken a threat by those who are in high places. So when I show up somewhere, or if I’m engaging with workers, it’s automatically, “Oh, he wants to go over there so he can go and,” I guess whatever they think. What they’re not taking out of it is I’m going out there to these different fights to go and amplify these fights to work, so I can go and talk to other workers about it, and I share it on social [inaudible 00:19:31]. A lot of work workers follow me. So if I can make it, and I use the help that I get from the public, from other workers, as well as at home. My wife, when she’s… We’re expecting right now. But when she we’re not-

Vince Quiles: Congratulations.

Tevita Uhatafe: When we’re not expecting, she usually is making earrings or anything that’s related to South Pacific. She’ll make earrings with turtle shell print. Or during the graduations, high school or college, she makes lays. We would import flowers in, and we would use the money she would make to fund me going to a picket line. Because although I can fly [inaudible 00:20:21], if a seat is available, I can get on a flight free of charge, but I still have to pay for the ride share or the public transportation to and from a picket line, of course. If I’m stuck in, I can’t fly, I have to get a hotel or whatever, but it’s those fundings that I get from regular workers who want to see me do this work that helps me continue to help amplify the message. There’s fights everywhere. And if I can make it to all of them, I would.

But man, it’s tough being a rank file member and knowing that I can’t just get off the manning and because I’m doing union business. It don’t work out. That doesn’t work for me. I have to take days off. And that’s a sacrifice that not a lot of people can understand because they haven’t done it yet. There are people who think that this comes easy, but it’s not hard being away away from home and spending money on traveling when I can be buying something to put on the table. I’m picking and choosing. I’m going with something, but leaving some without, all in the name of solidarity. And people tell me all the time, “You’re hurting yourself.” The way that I look at it and the way that my family looks at it, my wife, my kids, is this is a collective sacrifice to show people that you don’t have to have money, or you don’t have to be in a position of power to still support people. You can show up with nothing, not a dollar to your name, but as long as you show it up, the people will remember.

And I think that is invaluable to the struggles that we have every day as workers. If I can show them that I can struggle all the way to your picket line and then tell your story down the line, man, that’s power.

Vince Quiles: That is. That is, and that’s the power within this worker movement. And of course, that’s something I think any labor organizer would tell you, anybody who’s looking to get into this. That is a battle that you have to have where you will have the best of intentions in your heart, but unfortunately, some people will still question that. But I think what’s very powerful in what you talk about is remembering the mission, right? In the end, an important thing, I think for organizers to remember, this is something that even I would still struggle with from time to time in my organizing efforts, as you know, don’t worry about the people who are screaming from the bleachers. Worry about the work that’s being done on the court. In the end, if you’re in the trenches, if you’re doing what you need to do and you’re doing it for the right reasons, it’s something that’s very important.

And I can just hear in talking to you, and you can definitely elaborate on this more, but it seems to be something that’s very fulfilling, because in the end, you’re putting something out into the world and not really expecting anything back, and just hoping that if anything, what happens from that is that maybe others will stand up and fight in that way, right? And that’s the thing. I think it’s important to note the type of sacrifices in which you talk about, because that’s how things like this build on itself and how they grow and they become stronger, is it’s because unfortunately for some of us, we’re going to have to put a little bit more skin in the game, but that’s what the hope that the sweat equity that you put in will hopefully mean that somebody else may not have to put as much, right?

It’s the same concept of being a parent. You go through the struggles you go through and the hopes that your child doesn’t have to. And so as long as, again, we remember that mission, I think that’s something that’s super important, right? And that’s a reason to be grateful for brave organizers like yourself, and why it is that we want to encourage others to stand up and to do the same thing, is because the more others can step in, the more it alleviates the burden on those who are ready within the game. And so with that, I guess just moving towards the end of our conversation, what advice would you give to people who are looking to organize in their workplace? Primarily, a big issue that people will face is the fear, the fear of being the one to step out and to have the courage to say something in the fact that they’re going to end up being the black sheep in whatever work environment they’re in, right?

Some things that many organizers have to deal with is going in and, “Oh, you want to protect lazy workers,” or, “Oh, you’re just trying to catch a check.” What advice would you have to give to people who are trying to avoid those labels, but again, just trying to find the courage to do what organizers like yourself do and help make their own part of the workplace a little bit better?

Tevita Uhatafe: Yeah. One most personal pieces of advice I can give anybody who wants to organize their workplace is to know that you feel like you’re alone, but also know that you’re not alone. There is somebody you can call on, somebody who may not have organized in your workplace but has organized somewhere else that may have gone through the same issues you’ve gone through. Reach out, and don’t be afraid to reach out because you can’t do this alone. There’s just no way. Organizing is about finding somebody to help you alleviate the pain of having to organize a whole campaign. You know this, Vince. You can’t do it on their own. You have to find people, and you have to hold on to those relationships and reach out every now and then. Those are the things that I think I’m going to do better in 2023 as an organizer, is to reach out to organizers like yourself, Vince, and those who I know who are fighting right now.

And it’s not necessarily to give you a pointer, but just to say, “Hey, you’re not alone. I just want to thank you for the fight you’re putting in. I don’t know all the details of it, but I know that you’re making it better for somebody else because it could be a whole lot worse. Trust me.” We know just by looking at the numbers, the quarterly earnings that we are not, we’re the ones that they’re trying to enrich in life. In fact, every single time you see a quarterly and they talk about labor, there are people in accounting who are figuring out a way to make your life harder by making you work harder in those eight hours you’re working and cutting somebody else’s job. So if that doesn’t scare you enough as a young organizer to know, that, you know what, we already got shafted with 401k. We don’t have pension/ but if they’re taking all the jobs that we should be aging into when we’re into our careers where we can, I guess, work longer to keep our insurance, if you don’t have it or whatever, but those jobs are being taken away.

And it’s back to us. We have to fight for those jobs, because if they start outsourcing or taking it away and giving it to whoever, you’re worse off, we’re worse off, and we’re forced to either work hard for a long time or forced to quit and start another career. And it’s like you’re starting all over again. So just know as an organizer, you are not alone. Please, please, please, don’t do this on your own because there’s going to be.. And you know what? The organizing, burnout is real. So every now and then, just step back. Because when you come back, when we tag you back in, hey, you got to be ready.

Vince Quiles: Yep, absolutely right. No, I think you’re 1000% right on that, and that is something… I think it’s so honestly beautiful to end on, is the fact that this is a solidarity movement, right? And you have people like yourself who are always there, who are always willing to try and share that energy. And so to anybody who’s watching this who’s considering organizing, remember that. Remember that always. Sometimes you may feel like, oh, it’s the end of the world, you don’t have any backup, but there are a lot of people out there who care. They may never know who you are, but they care, and that’s something that’s really powerful. And so I think if you have the wherewithal to recognize where you are and to recognize the opportunity to organize, it is incumbent on you to do so, just as it’s incumbent on us to make sure that we step up and support you. Tevita, thank you so much, brother. Can you tell people where they can follow you, keep up with what it is that you’re doing?

Tevita Uhatafe: Absolutely. Yeah. You can follow me on Twitter. My handle is my first name, Tevita, last name, Uhatafe. You can follow me on Instagram @TUhatafe. And if you want to read a real badass article/interview podcast, the Real News got one with me on it. They’ll throw it on the link.

Vince Quiles: There you go. There you have it. Again, like Tevita said, he’s done a lot of great work, and it’s been covered here at the Real News Network, so if you get a chance, go back, check that out. I can tell you as a follower of Tevita, he’s got some fire tweets, so you definitely, definitely want to give him a follow. And hey, if you’re somebody who’s feeling nervous, who’s a little bit shaky or apprehensive, I can tell you I’ve experienced one of those Tevita talks. Reach out to them, have a chat with them. So Tevita, again, thank you so much, brother. It was a very insightful conversation. Appreciate you taking the time to talk to us, and I know I’ll be talking to you again soon.

Speaker 3: Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network, where we lift up the voices, stories, and struggles that you care about most. And we need your help to keep doing this work, so please tap your screen now, subscribe, and donate to the Real News Network. Solidarity forever.

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