Hamilton Nolan believes the labor movement can save our democracy

The longtime labor journalist will read from his new book, ‘The Hammer,’ in an event at Two Dollar Radio Headquarters on Thursday, Feb. 22.
Hamilton Nolan
Hamilton NolanWalter Coker

In The Hammer: Power, Inequality and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor, Hamilton Nolan presents a compelling argument that a re-energized labor movement could present the best vehicle for saving American democracy.

As one model, Nolan points to the Culinary Union of Las Vegas, which bends the typical power dynamic to its will, frequently forcing politicians to its feet and exhibiting as much political muscle as either of our two major parties, much of it directed in service of the working class. 

“They’re such a good example of almost this military-precision level of organizing. They understood the need to organize the whole industry, and that’s the basis of their power, which they spent 80 years building,” said Nolan, who will read from The Hammer in an event at Two Dollar Radio Headquarters on Thursday, Feb. 22, followed by a moderated conversation with Matter News. “And it’s not easy, right? It’s not something that somebody handed to them on a platter, and it’s not like they had it easier than other unions. They understood their ability to exercise power depended on them winning all of those fights, and so they would go on strike for six years if they needed to. And they’re always organizing internally and training their members to be better union activists. Seeing that constant level of engagement and of willingness to fight is such a good model for any union to take.”

A longtime labor reporter, Nolan offers a vivid snapshot of the current union movement, setting readers alongside a wide variety of organizers, including: Cynthia Nicholson, a prep cook who launches a union effort at Tudor’s Biscuit World in Elkview, W. Va.; Felix Allen, a drummer with no background in organizing who rallies workers at a Lowe's Home Improvement store in New Orleans; childcare workers pitched in a decades-long fight with the state of California; and striking laborers at a Nabisco factory in Portland, Ore., described by Nolan as “the most ferocious” when it comes to union battles with the company, owing in part to the political radicalism that infuses all of Portland. 

None of the scenarios presented by Nolan result in easy wins. Instead, progress is typically scratched and clawed for, arriving only through years-long battles that can enact a heavy cost. In the case of Nabisco, the Portland workers slogged on for years absent a contract, working exhausting 60-, 70- and 80-hour weeks while CEO Dirk Van De Put collected a lavish $42 million compensation package. “Sometimes all the labor movement hands you is a heavy burden – an order to fight long and hard, and to take drastic risks to just hang on to what you already have,” Nolan writes.

Nolan has a firsthand understanding of this reality, having been part of the movement to unionize Gawker Media in 2016, an experience he described as foundational to the existence of The Hammer, and the success of which ensured Nolan and his colleagues weren’t immediately laid off when the company sold in the aftermath of Hulk Hogan’s Peter Thiel-backed lawsuit.

“The book probably wouldn’t have happened without that [unionization effort],” said Nolan, whose positive impression of unions was shaped early on by his parents, Civil Rights and anti-war activists who raised the journalist with a strong level of political and social engagement. “As a writer, I’ve always been interested in issues of inequality and poverty and workplace issues and labor issues. And it’s one thing to have that intellectual interest, but going through the union drive at Gawker, going through the process of organizing ourselves, being bankrupted, having the company sold twice to increasingly bad owners, and then going through the process of watching the whole industry begin to unionize gave me a level of inspiration I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

And yet, Nolan also presents a compelling case that unions are not doing enough to capitalize on current momentum, much of it driven by pandemic-era realities that have caused workers nationwide to reconsider their relationships to their jobs. (Nolan described Covid as “the acute phase” of the labor movement – a sharp inflection point that spurred a number of workers to action following a 50-plus-year chronic phase during which inequality stratified our society “in a way that it wasn’t in past generations.”)

Nolan takes a particularly jaundiced view toward the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the largest federation of unions in the United States, and one he views as beset by stagnation and a lack of ambition. In The Hammer, Nolan recounts being in an audience of union officials gathered in Philadelphia in 2022 when Liz Shuler, the newly elected president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., announced the group's goal to “organize and grow our movement by more than one million people” over the next decade – an aim that, given projected job growth, would cause a drop in the percentage of unionized workers. It was reminiscent of Dr. Evil in ‘Austin Powers’ demanding as his ransom request for the entire world, ‘One million dollars!’” Nolan writes.

“If you pull back and look at the entire organized labor establishment, you can point to places where they’re doing it right,” said Nolan, who highlighted the work being done by Sarah Nelson and the Association of Flight Attendants as one example. “But when you look at the A.F.L.-C.I.O. … you don’t see any of that. You don’t see the money coming down. You don’t see big, strategic plans to do multiyear, multi-union organizing campaigns. … The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has essentially become a D.C. lobbying-trade group, and it’s frustrating, because it could be so much more.”

Still, Nolan expressed some hope that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. could step up to better meet the moment, pointing to the new leadership of Shuler, who he said has an understanding of the need to organize, as well as the group’s structural potential and its deep connections to political power and unions across the spectrum. “They have the raw ingredients to do big things,” he said. “They just sort of need the fire to do it.”

The willingness to harness this power could be essential not only to the future of the labor movement in the U.S. but to American democracy, argued Nolan, who positioned labor as the best available cure-all to a host of societal ills, a number of which he believes are rooted in widening financial inequality that has gone largely unaddressed for decades.

“I started as a writer and a journalist with really basic questions: Why is there inequality? Why is there poverty?” Nolan said. “Of course, you can look at these questions through a lot of different lenses, but it was very noticeable to me that so many of these roads lead back to labor power. As long as America is capitalist, if the balance between capital and labor gets out of whack, you naturally have these horrible downstream political and social consequences, which is what we’re living through now. … If you rebuild the power of the working class, it will naturally lead to better outcomes for this whole universe of problems. And I think that’s the shortest road to fixing America. If we continue to go the other way, I’m not optimistic for our democracy.”

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