Tim Lenoch is a dedicated labor organizer and educator who’s spent much of the last 15 years helping labor unions and community groups build working-class power in Vermont, Wisconsin and California. We met up for breakfast at a diner in rural Vermont and spoke about the experiences he’s had and what the future might look like for organized labor in the United States.
Rob: So, what excites you about your current job organizing state employees in Vermont and training them to be union stewards?
Tim: Well, when things are fragile, stewardship becomes that much more important.
We’re tripling down on opposing the privatization of the Vermont Veterans Home, and I support that, but that takes a lot of resources. The whole legislative stuff, I guess that’s new, but I’m always concerned about how much attention we give our dear legislators, especially in this state.
I really believe that there are enough potential leaders in the union. We just aren’t giving them enough opportunities and structures to participate in it. We can help them with the inspiration, and management’s doing a hell of a job with that, but we got to give them an outlet or a structure to get into.
Rob: Totally. How important do you think it is to engage union workers in thinking critically about how their struggles fit into larger struggles like capitalism and imperialism?
Tim: I actually don’t think that’s that important in the labor movement at all, unless you think the idea of collective bargaining is radical, which I guess some people do. But if anything, it’s like the last radical thing that’s acceptable. Collective bargaining should be standard. It should be the default.
Rob: Well, helping middle-class state employees bargain contracts might not be the most radical thing in the world, but I really believe that there are radical things that even middle-class people are hungry for. I mean, what about Occupy?
Tim: Well, a lot of the sixties and seventies radicals went into organized labor when they realized where the problem is. All the problems that Occupy wants to address are structural, and they’re economic. Everything’s going to come back to the economics of the workplace. It’s your job or the lack there of. The analysis might be radical, but you start looking for a solution, and we still have 30 million union members. That’s a huge constituency!
Rob: Yeah, 30 million people is a ton of capacity to do things with, but I wonder if unions like the VSEA are actually working toward the right things. I’ve heard that American workers tend to organize for higher wages; whereas in Europe, workers tend to demand reduced workloads so they can have more time to be with their families. Do you think most American unions are actually fighting for what’s important in people’s lives?
Tim: I don’t think we are directly, but I don’t think we should directly. I always try to separate my life from my work. If you have a decent collective bargaining agreement and a pension, you’re going to work eight to ten hours a day, and then you’re going to go home and forget about it. The more secure, compensated and safe your workplace is, the less you’re going to take your work into your life.
That line has gotten so blurry over the last 30 years, especially for people like us. So many people in our generation are so careerist. I’m a critic of the careerist thing. My girlfriend’s an academic. I live here because of her career. She’s career-driven. Her whole life is dictated by her job, and I hate that, but it is what it is.
I think we’ve got to remember to separate our work as labor organizers from our lives. Our work might be important, but it’s just one of many things in the larger picture. I’m always concerned about people in the labor movement who over romanticize their role in changing people’s lives.
Rob: Where do you see Labor moving in the future?
Tim: The biggest problem that I see in the labor movement right now is deciding to fight for what members have and maybe improving that vs. trying to organize new workers who may never have what people have now. For example, many newly organized workers may never get a pension. That’s the trick – where do we focus our energy and resources? It’s obviously a balance between the two.
Rob: I wonder, though, about the kind of lifestyles that unions are defending and helping workers to gain access to. I mean, the American white middle-class is awful!
Tim: Hey, that’s me! What’s so awful?
Rob: Well, I’m not interested in fighting for a world in which every worker has a private automobile. I’m not interested in fighting for a world in which everybody buys their own individually wrapped styrofoam container of potato salad. I love that stuff, but I also recognize that this economy is really exploiting people in developing nations and destroying the environment. I’m against that!
Tim: Well, I don’t think that if we get paid more, that necessarily means that somebody in the third world makes less. That dynamic has happened, but that’s not based on workers or wages. That’s the world order that’s been created over the last 30 or 50 years. The only way to address that is through collective action and organizing.
What if the labor movement in the US were able to build real alliances with other groups around the world that are working toward the same changes that we want to see? Like the Bangladesh garment workers? There’s a line of things that can happen and are happening. Like the AFL’s Solidarity Center. Things that labor has set up the framework for and provided the funding to.
SEIU has put los of money into the non-profit advocacy world. But do their members give a shit about that? When new members get into a union, union organizers are always under the impression that it’s a good thing. We act like we’re always going to win that argument, but we’re not. I mean, when they see what a shitty union does, and a shitty contract does, that gives them more reason not to want to be in a union.
Rob: Right, I mean, in the 1800s and early twentieth century, The American labor movement used to fight corporations on a much deeper level, but, by the 1950s, Big Labor and Big Business shared a lot of the same goals and both wanted to see corporate America thrive. Do you think that’s changing at all now?
Tim: Yeah, a little, but there are plenty of people who still believe that. That’s still the world that we’re in. A lot of people have never really organized anything – even if they’re in a union. More and more people have opted just to be a consumer.
Rebekah: Work also isn’t as stable as it used to be. Nobody has lifelong jobs any more. People identify less and less in terms of what they do.
Tim: I think that shift started a couple years before me. If you were 20 years old in 1995, IT was exploding. You could do anything. There was the “peace dividend” from the Cold War, like we won and we’re going to binge. But now, unless you’re driven and set to have a career, it’s like all or nothing.
Rob: Yeah, it seems like things were really different in the nineties than when I was first getting into movement work in the early two thousands. In a lot of ways, the Global Justice movement had their shit a lot more together than Occupy.
Tim: Well, yeah, because one was mobilization and the other was lifestyle, a picnic. I didn’t go to Seattle, but I was at the pre-Seattle stuff. There was another economic summit in Denver, I think with the G8, back in 96 or 97. We rioted a little bit, but it was real mild, and then a couple years later Seattle happened.
I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time and working at a collective. I’m not dismissive of collectives because I see them being powerful in places like Madison, but I don’t think everybody could work at a co-op. We’d get our ass kicked!
Corporate power just kicks everybody’s ass. Sometimes, it can be restrained. We can create survival strategies. But you can’t beat corporate power. I don’t think there’ll ever be revolution. There’ll be chaos, but that chaos is not going to be about burning couches in the street. It’s going to be, “Oh, I don’t have a pension anymore. My 401k is drained because I got laid off.” It’s going to be a slower crisis that each individual has to deal with.
Rob: Yeah, there’s this sense that we aren’t even trying to “take it over” any more – we aren’t going to put Angela Davis in the White House.
Tim: Right, Angela Davis wouldn’t even want that. What she’s into right now is community gardening and reading circles with prisoners. Localizing it. She’s still a radical with big ideas and theories about changing the power structure – but she doesn’t apply that. I’ve met her a couple times, and we ended up just talking about gardening.
Rob: Sometimes it seems like the empire will just kind of crash and burn on it’s own, and things will return to a more wild state?
Tim: Well, it wasn’t ever “wild” – that’s a dangerous term. Even if you’re just talking about the fur trade, empire has had an effect on the North American continent for the last four or five hundred years. It created problems, but it also created opportunities.
Things change over time, but we’re still a welfare state. Thank god! But it’s weird because, in our political discourse, the Democrats won’t stand up and be proud of that or even admit it. The Republicans attack it, and they call it Socialism, but they go overboard, so it sort of creates this balance.
Rob: So, what do you think the role of the organizer is in this political landscape?
Tim: I don’t like saying I’m an “organizer” – I don’t like saying I’m anything. We need to understand that the world doesn’t give a shit, and that’s all right. Like, Green Day had that album “American Idiot” with that line about living “in a world of make believe that doesn’t believe in me.” I think that captures a lot of what’s happened in the last twenty years. More than anything, people today want something real that will enable them to believe in themselves again.