We’ve heard a lot about “essential workers” during the pandemic. The people who are most critical to keeping our economy going — like warehouse workers, retail workers, employees in meat-packing, and farm workers — are often some of the most exploited and lowest-paid employees.

Andrea Dehlendorf has spent her career organizing retail workers and other low-wage workers now characterized as essential, and she knows first-hand the challenges they face. She is a Director at United for Respect, a national movement of retail employees organizing for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, which grew out of a labor effort to unionize Walmart employees. In this interview, Andrea talked with us about the power of narrative in shaping the national conversation around what workers and corporations deserve, and how organizers can change that narrative to fight for the rights of low-wage workers.

Over the last few decades, corporations like Amazon and Walmart — owned by some of the richest people in the world — have gotten away with paying low wages, undermining job security, and denying basic workplace benefits like health insurance and paid sick days by propagating narratives about the free market. The fight for decent jobs involves changing that story. At the macro level, Andrea told us, we need to pull back the curtain on the real motives of corporate employers and the steps they have taken to enrich themselves at their workers’ expense. At the micro level, narrative change involves empowering workers to tell their stories and connect with each other so they can build the power to win decent wages, good benefits, predictable hours, and access to personal protective equipment. This interview has been edited and condensed. 


Jonathan Heller: Let’s dive right into the thick of this. How do the systems created by neoliberal, financialized capitalism create or exacerbate the crises that low-waged workers are facing? 

Andrea Dehlendorf: I'll start with a story. Two years ago, when private equity firms bankrupted Toys “R” Us, there was a flurry of articles that put the blame on e-commerce, principally Amazon. By their framing, Toys “R” Us was the latest casualty in the transition from brick and mortar to online retail: the forces of technological change were causing massive retail sector job loss. This became the dominant narrative for why jobs were eliminated or part-timed, why wages fell, and why workers lacked access to benefits. This is neoliberal narrative, that erosion of job quality and job loss are inevitabilities when there are market shifts and there's nothing to be done.

But it did not take a lot of digging to get the real story. Many years prior, Toys “R” Us had been bought out by private equity firms. They took what were good jobs — not great jobs, but good working-class jobs that provided decent pay and benefits, in which some people had worked a lifetime — and moved people to part-time to chip away at the benefits while cutting jobs overall. The final blow was when they bankrupted the company after saddling it with over five billion dollars in debt. In doing so, they paid themselves massive amounts, enriching the original private equity firms, and left employees without a dime of severance. 

It's not to say that transitions in the economy — automation and the growth of online platforms — didn't have a role to play. But Toys “R” Us had no capital to invest in catching up with those market trends because all the money it was making was fed back to paying off the debt incurred by the new private equity owners. 

This is one story about one particular company, but it shows how systematically the forces of financialized capital were responsible for destabilizing and ultimately eliminating jobs, devastating the families of tens of thousands of people.

JH: That’s a sad but familiar story that encapsulates financialized capitalism well. United for Respect started off working with Walmart workers. How has neoliberalism played out at Walmart?

AD: Close to twenty years ago, someone leaked a memo from a high-level Walmart executive to the New York Times. In it, the executive laid out a game plan for how Walmart could take away benefits to reduce the costs of full-time employees. The strategy was to drive out the higher-paid, longer-term, full-time people with benefits and replace them with the churn of part-time workers. It was a systematic, profit-driven decision. These were decisions based on enriching shareholders, and Walmart is about 50% owned by the Walton heirs, one of the wealthiest families on the planet.

Over the last fifteen years, the company made a series of systematic decisions to maximize shareholder return, no matter the consequences for workers whose labor made their profits. These decisions were designed to further enrich shareholders, the majority of whom were from one family — the Waltons — by literally taking money out of the hands of their cashiers, stockers, and greeters, who are disproportionately Black or Latinx. As a result, there are fewer full-time jobs and people have fewer benefits.That is the underlying framework of neoliberalism.

JH: You’ve started talking a bit about narrative already. How much do you see the neoliberal narrative itself as enabling what you’ve described, allowing corporations to get away with these things? 

AD: There are individual corporate and political actors who together decided they needed a long-term, systematic plan to ensure that regulatory, legal, and political frameworks favored the maximization of short-term corporate profit. They needed to tell a public story to make it seem inevitable. I don't think the narrative causes these structures and systems, but the narrative enables them and systematically obfuscates the actual driving forces behind these systemic power grabs.

Stories that get told publicly about inevitable technological forces or the logic of the economy create a screen for individual corporate actors to hide behind as they capture the wealth that people produce.These stories invisibilize what is really going on so people are willing to go along with it and vote for candidates who support it. The narrative enables and shields from responsibility the people who are directly responsible for causing the kind of instability that financialization and neoliberal social policies cause.

JH: That reminds me of the Three Faces of Power framework. Narrative and ideology are an invisible form of power. If we could replace that dominant narrative with a more progressive narrative — for example, a narrative based on the idea that everyone in society contributes to the abundance we have, to our social surplus — how would that change your ability to win changes for low-wage workers? 

AD: I'll go back to the story of Toys “R” Us. In order to win anything from the people who bankrupted Toys “R” Us, we had to change the narrative. We were able to take this passive voice narrative about “forces” of technology-driven industry change and turn it into a story of heroes and villains. The villains were the specific private equity firms that bought Toys “R” Us, and the heroes were the workers who dedicated their lives and built the company. The company really belonged to the employees; their labor created the social surplus, the surplus value, that allowed the company to grow and thrive. What these private equity firms stole was the value these working people had created for the company. 

We chose the Toys “R” Us campaign because workers were self-organizing and ready to fight back. And it was also the perfect vehicle to tell the bigger story publicly. It was a popular brand. Almost everyone felt some kind of connection to it. The brand evoked family and home and children. We were able to completely flip the public narrative around this and shine a light on who was responsible for the destruction of these jobs and why. Workers organized actions and met with pension fund investors and garnered the backing of progressive politicians.They got the Wall Street firms to contribute twenty million dollars to a fund for workers who had lost their jobs. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the fees they extracted, but we wouldn’t have been able to win it if the public conversation had stayed in the passive realm of “the retail apocalypse.” We won because workers took action and told the true story that the bankruptcy was the result of particular decisions by particular firms with the particular people who were behind them.

JH: Are you working to change the narrative about Walmart as well? 

AD: Yes. When we first started organizing at Walmart, we were called “OUR Walmart.” Our founders chose that deliberately. The company was built and expanded by the labor of the people who work there. Workers make the company profitable and, as a result, they have a claim on the company. The Walton family owns as much wealth as 40% of American families combined, and workers have a claim on that money. Our leaders did a lot of popular education and narrative work to make sure people understood that the Waltons’ money is their money. 

One of the most powerful actions focused on Alice Walton, the richest woman on the globe and a major patron of the arts. She built this gorgeous, glorious art museum in northwest Arkansas. She bought American masterpieces from all the major museums. During one of our strikes, our leaders went together on a tour of the museum. After seeing the museum, the group formed a big circle in the lobby and asked folks how they felt. Folks talked about why she had the money to be able to build the museum and buy all this art. They reflected on where all that money came from. People began weeping. They said “This is mine! She has this money because of my labor, because of my sweat and blood.” People whose bodies were broken with workplace injuries, people who had miscarriages on the Walmart bathroom floor. They were seeing that this money was extracted and then used to build this beautiful thing — beautiful but still a vanity project for a billionaire at the end of the day. The conversation ended by people talking about how they would have chosen to spend that money if they had real voice and decision-making power. 

Imagine what you could do with half the wealth this one family has, if you were to distribute it. Imagine what would be possible. What if we were not willing to accept that we keep everything in private corporate hands? What if we had consensus that there are more than enough resources to make sure everyone has health care, enough food, and housing? We do have the money to do that; it's just being stolen from workers.

Judith Barish: That is a beautiful example and way to talk about it. Right now, with the pandemic, we’re all discovering who the essential workers are. These are the people that you're talking about, Andrea, right? The exploited, taken for granted, low-wage workers. Lots of women, people of color, people earning low incomes without benefits. Those are the folks who are now forced to sacrifice either their lives or their livelihoods. I wonder how you see this moment as an opportunity to advance that broader message about whose wealth it really is.

AD: This moment puts this conflict in the starkest life or death terms. You've got Jeff Bezos, who’s the richest person on the planet, and the Walton family, one of the richest families on the planet, literally making people go to work who are immuno-compromised, who are in their seventies, or who are at deeper risk because of their race. At Walmart and Amazon, workers are being asked to risk their lives every day to make more money for either the richest family or the richest human on the globe. And you're getting an extra $37 a week at Walmart? Amazon just took away hazard pay and their unlimited, unpaid time off program. You’ve spent the last year, ten years, twenty years, breaking your back for this company and all of a sudden, you're in a life or death situation and it takes them six weeks to get you a mask.

The pandemic strips away all the obfuscation. It is just completely clear. Corporate owners do not care about the core humanity of the people whose work is helping them amass billions. Jeff Bezos’s Amazon can put up a Black Lives Matter banner and the Walton heirs’ Walmart can set up a new center on racial justice, but it is crystal clear they are still not reckoning with the fact that their wealth is accumulated off of the backs of their workers, the most exploited of whom are Black and Latinx. This clarity allows us to have a radically different conversation around work, workers, and their value, and makes it clear why we're fighting for worker representation on the corporate board.

It creates a window for a big intervention. The question is whether the labor movement and working people who are self-organizing will be audacious enough and make big enough demands to shift this fundamentally. There are some good signs. For example, workers are out on strike in a way that they have not been for a long time.

JH: Are you mostly thinking about narrative change after you’ve selected a campaign, on the back end? And/or do you have some narrative or ideological change goals when you’re selecting your campaigns? 

AD: Yeah, narrative is in all of it. It is not just a messaging strategy. It's an organizing practice, it's a partnership strategy, it's a political strategy, it's a communication strategy. 

For example, a dominant narrative for most Americans who are in poverty jobs is about self-responsibility. There is a tremendously powerful narrative of self-blame. If you don't get rich, it's your fault. You didn't work hard enough. You didn’t get enough education. You didn’t do the right things. So it is explicit in our organizing that we have to shift that fundamental narrative to go from blaming ourselves to seeing how we are connected to others. We’re all going through the same thing. It's not an accident. Organizing takes people through that process.

There is a battle of ideas and ideologies and narrative that is playing out as a core part of every campaign we do. It's as much an organizing practice as a public narrative practice.

JH: Let’s go a little deeper into how you do your organizing in order to change narrative. Your story about the art museum was an example of this. How do you work with your members and your staff to change the public conversation?

AD: When I started working with people at Walmart I had to unlearn the idea that the core relationship is between the organizer and the workers you're organizing. I now believe the most important relationship that exists is among leaders with each other, laterally. The organizer’s job is to connect people and get them into community with each other. It is to support their individual leadership, but more importantly, to support and nurture collective spaces where people can work together and “be there” for one another. People need to move out of an individualistic mode into a collective mode as a precondition for making fundamental change. 

One action we did was really powerful. One of our best organizers, and really a backbone of our organization, Angela Williamson, who comes out of Walmart, shared a story at a leadership gathering about what it felt like not to have enough food. Her daughter used the last can of tuna for lunch one day when Angela wasn't there, and it meant they weren't going to have any dinner. She yelled at her kid for eating the meal for lunch: imagine what that would feel like and how tremendously hard it would be to share that story with others. When she shared it, people started saying, “Yeah, me too. I have been hungry too.” So she led an action where people took pictures of their refrigerators and shared them on social media. People could see they were not the only ones who didn’t have enough food and that it wasn’t their fault. It was part of a campaign to show that Walmart was donating to food banks while their own workers didn’t earn enough to have enough to eat. The person who loads the food into the food bank trucks then goes to the food bank to pick up the food he packed.

People sharing with each other and taking as long as it needs for them to process that experience is really critical.

JB: We have been approaching this conversation from the perspective of changing a large public conversation. But you’re reminding us that this shift requires changing both individual consciousness and the larger conversation. 

AD: When we use narrative publicly in a campaign, a very private story can take off and be really significant at changing the framework under which people look at an issue. For example, another Walmart associate in South Carolina said on a call with community leaders, “We're sacrificial, not essential.” We knew that was extraordinary and something the public would respond to. We then got her on a call with the press, and Steven Greenhouse tweeted it out, and it became part of the framework for the public to understand what is happening. Our leaders tell their stories — as well as their analysis and solutions — publicly as well. It's an internal practice, and it's a public practice. 

JH: To successfully change broad narratives, we need to work across social justice movements — not just in labor, but on immigration, racial justice, climate change, and everything else. It’s a puzzle for all of us to figure out how to do that. The life and death issues you're facing day in and day out with your workers feel so important. But there's also a need to do longer term cross-movement work. How do you balance this? Can you take time out to do the longer-term narrative change work?

AD: We are deeply, deeply committed to this, and it is challenging. The work we've done as part of the core group of Athena, which is the coalition challenging Amazon’s vicehold on our economy and democracy, is bringing together disparate communities within the movement. The groups who are part of Athena are aligning on a shared analysis of this particular corporation’s role in creating these conditions, whether it's asthma rates and air pollution in communities that live near Amazon’s transportation hubs or the tools that police departments have at their disposal for surveillance or small firms that are driven out of business because of Amazon’s anti-competitive practices or residents struggling with affordable housing where Amazon is building headquarters, or you're a worker or a consumer. We’re all impacted. The architecture of this campaign is about bringing all these communities together and putting blame where it lies, with the particular person — Jeff Bezos — and the corporation.

As we think about what it will take to change the rules of private equity, there are fights happening in housing, in healthcare, in farming. We need to look at who the particular actors in each sector are and how you expose that. That’s not one organization’s work; we need to make strategic long-term investments in building a movement ecosystem.

I have noticed a growing willingness in different parts of the movement and philanthropy to support campaigns that get at the underlying financial logic of the system. It's a different landscape right now.

JB: What lessons have you learned about how to change the conversation, whether one worker or campaign at a time, or through broader public conversations? 

AD: The most important thing is that we have to let go of some control and really empower grassroots leaders to drive this conversation. They’re on the frontlines, they have the knowledge and experience to know what must change. We have to be willing to tell the real story of what's happening and why in order to fix it. 



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