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A twin cities union militant and anti-racist

An interview with Kieran Knutson

Kieran Knutson is a labor activist, organizer, and the recently elected President of Communication Workers Local 7250. Knutson is also an important voice in anti-racist struggles in the Twin Cities, an epicenter of the movement since the police murder of George Floyd and the more recent police murder of Daunte Wright.

Knutson was one of a small number of labor activists who took action in response to state repression of protests after the murder of Daunte Wright. Their protest led to the eviction of National Guard soldiers and resources housed at the St. Paul Labor Center. Knutson provided a powerful response to the reaction on the part of not only the Right, but also the mainstream of the Democatic Party and the political establishment generally. Following Knutson, in defence of unity and solidarity between the workers’ movement, the anti-racist and abolitionist struggle, and the mutliracial youth in the street, Tempest is excited to publish this interview.

Paul KD: You were recently elected president of your union. Who does your union represent and how many members are there?

Kieran Knutson:We are one of several Communication Workers locals in Minnesota. We are not a huge local—about 500 members. We represent four groups of workers. The majority [are] at an old wireline call center in Minneapolis, that’s where I work. We also represent wireless and the wireline technicians in Minnesota, and some in the Dakotas, Iowa, and Nebraska.

We represent corporate owned AT&T retail stores in Minnesota, 27 stores soon to be 24, because they are on a major kick to close down stores and turn them into non-union franchisees. The last group of workers we represent is a DirecTV call center in Eden Prairie, a suburb of the Twin Cities.

PKD:You mentioned that AT&T decided to shut down some of their Mobility stores. AT&T is a big corporation, how do you fight against that when you are a small union local?

KK: That is the big question. It is one of the things I ran on because last year they closed nine stores in Minnesota. They just announced three more closing a few weeks ago. And they are not just closing them, they are flipping them into non-union stores.

It is a union-busting move. It is about the way that they are going to organize Mobility—the wireless service—the biggest side of the phone business now. It is an existential threat to our union. Not only the store closings, but also the outsourcing, from the technicians to call center work. They just sold a major stake in DirecTV. So, our union is under threat. These living wage union jobs are under threat.

Communication Workers of America (CWA) has not organized to fight back against these job cuts at the district level and international level. There is some language in the wireless workers contract that gives some protection when stores are closed. Workers get some options for jobs elsewhere, but these are jobs that have worse conditions. These are jobs that won’t provide them a career track. So it is an attack on the union, and it is one that hasn’t been answered. What we are trying to do is set some examples; propaganda by the deed, if you will.

We want to show what a fight back looks like. We had our first action on March 10 in West St. Paul, where they are closing the only fully bilingual store in the system in Minnesota. The union jobs that were available to young Latino workers will no longer be available. It is an important store to start with and we are going to ask some community members and some other unions to join us. We are going to make some noise and call out AT&T, and start to mobilize people around this.

AT&T is extremely profitable. They made billions in profits even during this recession because the wireless phone business is booming. To make these cuts of living wage jobs during a pandemic while they’re so profitable is unjustifiable and immoral. We are going to mobilize people on that basis and get community support to demand that any elected officials, no matter their party, take a stand against the cuts. Then we will prepare ourselves for job actions because our wireless contract, the landline contract for that particular call center in Minnesota, and the one that covers technicians are expiring next year.

West St. Paul AT&T Mobility store

PKD: You mentioned AT&T Mobility, which is what the corporation sees as its future. This reminds me of what General Motors (GM) was doing during the 2019 strike as they shipped out the component parts from a striking warehouse in Hudson Wisconsin.  At the time, they were also saying that the future for GM is these warehouse workers and component workers. They outsource jobs to the South and then overseas, and the corporation becomes increasingly dependent on these warehouse jobs that pay really poorly. The jobs that pay well, where much of the union leadership comes from, are the old school production plant workers.

In your case, how do you connect young Latinx people working as cell phone salespeople in these stores with the legacy landline business, and people like yourself, who have been working there for 17 years?

KK: You’re absolutely right, drawing the comparisons with the auto industry. The key difference is how the two-tier system works in each case. Under the two-tier system that got pushed into the GM contract, people in both tiers work next to each other. They are under different sections of the contract making different wages, even though they do the same work.

It is a little different in telecom. AT&T is using this explosion of relatively new technology, the wireless telephone, to push Mobility workers, or anybody working in wireless, to the second tier. They make less money than the old wireline workers. Even though we are in the same union, working for the same company—Bloomington, Minnesota, Mobility call center workers make about $9 or $10 an hour less than wireline call center workers in downtown Minneapolis. It is a striking difference.

Retail stores in particular are employing people that don’t have experience in unions. There are a lot of young people in the sales retail environment, not a place where unions have had much of a presence in this country. Absence of unions and the sales commission [system] breeds competition between workers rather than cooperation and solidarity.

Stores are decentralized. They are not consolidated in one place. Instead, there are 27 stores around Minnesota. I was just driving back from Baxter, which is right outside of Brainerd. It is very different from leafleting the elevator banks at the call center in downtown Minneapolis where you can hit 200 workers in one swoop. All those things make it difficult to organize and reduce the power and compensation of the wireless workers. Nevertheless, these are not insurmountable obstacles, but obstacles that need to be taken on.

We need to take on this challenge. We need to start organizing Mobility. They are in the union through AT&T card check policy. But just because people are paying dues doesn’t mean that there is an organized union presence in the stores. We are trying to get a steward in every store and start building networks of workers who are aware of the issues, who are thinking about fighting. We are making some progress. The company is forcing us to focus and up the ante because of their aggressive posture towards the union.

AT&T says “Wireless is the future. That is where the profits are. So it makes sense to cut back on the old wireline stuff.” But, there is no logic to that argument. Wireless phone calls don’t just bounce from cell phone to cell phone. They travel over the wireline network. A lot of people don’t know that and the company tries to obscure it. But that’s the truth; it is the same telecommunications network. It is still the same landlines. It is just amped up now with the Mobility dishes that are able to channel calls onto those lines rather than being plugged into your home. The workers should be treated the same across the board and we need to start fighting for that.

AT&T and CWA have about a dozen different contracts with each other, with different expiration dates and different wage scales and different benefits. That is in the interest of the company to keep us divided and weaken our ability to fight back. When we went out on a grievance strike a few years ago, they were able to shift calls to another call center under a different contract in Nashville, Tennessee. These were CWA workers and they didn’t know they were taking calls because we were on strike. They might have thought there was some weather issue in Minnesota or maybe we had a system issue. This shows how easy it is for AT&T to pit us against each other, which is why we need to make conscious efforts to overcome that.

PKD: You mentioned a grievance strike. That is not something we really see a lot in the labor movement anymore. Could you explain what that is?

KK: Labor Notes did a story about the wave of grievance strikes at AT&T. A number of locals have gone out on grievance strikes during the last contract. These grievance strikes were not wildcat strikes. They are organized by the locals, usually by local officers and a core of stewards. They are not organized by the national, the international, or the district. The big structure of the CWA has taken a hands-off approach to them.

To the degree that there is a place to be hopeful about the CWA structures, it is in these locals that were willing and able to organize workers to go out on strike. We have seen these on three different occasions in the last five years.

PKD: You mentioned there is this big CWA structure, and beyond that there is the whole structure of the labor movement. Where do you see your place in connecting with the rest of the locals within CWA, and with the labor movement?

KK: The official labor movement is often not serving the interests of the working class. The official labor movement overwhelmingly accepts the parameters of the system and it accepts capitalism. That means they accept the relationship of exploitation and subordination. And that’s our starting point. It’s hard enough if you don’t accept that, but if you do accept it, then you’re already imposing limits on yourself.

We have to be honest about the existence of a bureaucracy within all the major unions—a privileged layer of non-workers who are in command. This layer is not a part of the day-to-day life of workers in this country. Unless they are extremely ideologically motivated—very few of them are—they are not going to wage the kinds of struggles that are needed.

This isn’t to say that all of these bureaucrats are corrupt or evil. But as a whole they’re part of the reason why the labor movement is so stagnant. At a district CWA meeting several years ago, one of the old vice presidents was retiring. They had a session for people to say nice things to him. I said, “look, man, it feels like there is no plan for us to go out on strike. I understand that you don’t want to go out and strike willy-nilly, but it feels like there should be a plan. And if there is not a plan, why isn’t there a plan to go out on strike? Because you can’t successfully go out on strike without a plan.”

He readily acknowledged that there was no plan to go out on strike which is incredible once you think about the amount of resources, organizers, and researchers these international unions have. He said, “We don’t think we can win those kinds of struggles unless there’s a change in the government.”

To me, that’s exactly backwards. There are not going to be any changes unless we’re waging these kinds of struggles. They claim it didn’t make sense for them to plan for that because they didn’t think they could be successful under the Bush administration at the time. But this really sums up how the labor movement and the labor bureaucracy still looks at struggle. Now under Biden, they still pursue the same stale lobbying strategy to push Biden into the various reforms that will make it easier for us to fight.

While removing legal restrictions on unions is welcome, if you look at the history of struggle, in the labor movement or any other struggle, it has been the unauthorized struggles that have won everything. We need a labor movement that is willing to take on the corporations and take on the law.

PKD: Over the last year some of my friends in UNITE HERE Local 17 organized brewery and distillery workers, and we had non-profit unions organizing like Augsburg College and the Walker Art museum. These are not what you would think of as big union workplaces and maybe not connected to the labor movement. What would your advice be to new union members, such as myself? How do you connect with the rest of the labor movement, and with the social movements?

KK: Young workers in the unions should not worry about getting the approval of the labor movement. Connections are always good, if it means building solidarity and meeting workers in other workplaces and other industries and other unions. That is all positive, but people should [not] feel some inferiority complex if they don’t know everybody in the labor movement; they need to start somewhere.

The thing they need to do is to build their own capacity to fight. Solidarity is one aspect of that. But the main thing is to build power among co-workers, and to make sure that these new shops that are being unionized don’t just become another place where dues are collected. They need to turn [them] into places where workers have some confidence and feel like they can organize around the issues that matter to them.

Another important point is that I don’t think we can talk about class struggle in this country, and particularly in Minneapolis, without talking about the George Floyd uprising. There haven’t been many positive examples about the way unions related to the uprising. Unions were not set up to be thinking in terms of how to give solidarity to an uprising. The unions could have provided a lot of assistance to the uprising. If they had a way of participating humbly, partnering with the young people in the streets, the unions could have brought in a whole other layer of the working class. [That] would have made it harder for the state to crack down on the uprising.

It’s a shame that [the unions] didn’t and there were worse examples. When some workers at the Seward grocery store organized a walkout for Justice for George Floyd, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) representative made concerted efforts to stop this from happening.

When the Third [Police] Precinct was under siege by young people, and corporate stores started being looted nearby, there was a union local, not far from the Third Precinct, a mile east on Lake Street. The local was putting up panels over their windows, just like all the small businesses on the street. Instead of finding a way to make the union hall useful to the people in the street—maybe to offer their bathroom or water, or to be a safe place for people scared of getting arrested, medics could have set up to give first aid to people hurt by tear gas or rubber bullets—they looked at the uprising no different than the small businesses. Why would young people look at this union office any different than they look at any of these businesses? They see them acting exactly the same, so why would they treat them any different?

Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis burns in June 2020

Among some union members, there was a lot of fear of the uprising and its power, but also its direction. Some of those fears were not unreasonable. I had coworkers who lived a couple blocks off Lake Street and all the fires there were scary. I get that, and that’s a reasonable fear. That is something that we can talk about and work out. If unions were in the movement and seen as being in favor of justice for George Floyd by any means necessary, the unions would have a right to help dictate what the struggle looks like. Instead unions and their officials hid from the uprising.

You could say that about the labor movement relationship to so many other things going on right now: struggle against Line 3 and other ecological struggles, push back by women at the beginning of the Trump administration,  #MeToo and this consciousness of young women and queer folks about their position in society.The labor movement can’t just tail behind these movements and tug them into respectable politics. That is not a real contribution. It’s like being an anchor around the ankles of the movement.

I want to see a labor movement that is pushing boundaries. The labor movement must be something that is attracting working class people. The West Virginia teachers did exactly what I’m talking about. They organized themselves democratically. When they felt their union structure wasn’t helping them, they did an end around. They were willing to confront the law. They reached out to get support from other workers in the community.

That is more attractive than the typical contract fight which is narrowly conceived and narrowly conducted within the lines and tactics that are currently the norms in the labor movement. It’s good that a lot of the teachers’ struggles have been willing to take on the power structures, including the Democratic Party.

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is funding one of the organizers at George Floyd Square, a teacher who decided not to go back to work because she lived in that community and felt responsible. She realized that you only get one lifetime and that was the best place to put her work. To their credit, the teacher’s union are paying her a stipend as an organizer to keep doing the same work she was previously doing for free.

That is a positive example of a union interacting with the uprising. There are others too; there were unions that organized speak outs and educationals and brought people out to marches and all of that is positive.

PKD: Before they unionized, workers at Tattersall Distillery said that Tattersall put out a statement around the George Floyd Uprising that was one of those empty statements that everyone in the Cities put out. They also put “Black Lives Matter” on the plywood over the windows but they eventually took it down. Later, when workers raised questions about how to bring in more diversity to the workplace, they threatened to fire the workers for asking, which is part of the reason why the workers ended up unionizing. It was another inspiring example to see that coming from the workers.

In contrast, instead of taking on an active role in the struggle, a lot of unions just put out a press release calling for former Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis President Bob Kroll to resign. Even the bare minimum of putting out a press release is usually done by the executive board without consulting the union members. Now that you are in leadership, how do you bring up these political issues? How do you make sure that the union is taking an active role without it being reduced to putting out a press release saying that you stand with this fight or another? How do you bring the members on board?

KK: There are always concrete things we could do. We could have sent a contingent out to be in the street with people. We could have done political education within the union, because there is a mixed understanding of how to interpret what was going on.

During the uprising, when action moved down to the Fifth [Police] Precinct, west of the Third Precinct in South Minneapolis, we had a union member who actually had her windshield shot out. [It was] either the National Guard, one of the Sheriff’s departments, or [Minneapolis Police Department]. It does not matter if this was by accident or if it was because she was out after the curfew. She was an African-American woman and a union member. If it were to happen now with me in this position, we would organize a contingent to go sit in the mayor’s office until they addressed this outrage of a worker getting their windshield shot out by law enforcement only a week after George Floyd had been lynched by the police.

Unions are often thinking in very narrow terms about what their scope of action is. My view is that the union should organize the defense of the working class. Their particular responsibility is for the members of their particular union, but they have a general responsibility to the class as a whole. Certainly, just about every African-American worker would tell you what the murder of George Floyd meant, and many workers who were not Black would also feel that same way. There needed to be a way for us, the unions, to get involved, and not be so chickenshit.

We have to break from this framework that the main way political action happens is through elections, the Democratic Party, and lobbying. Compare the amount of change that’s happening culturally and, in smaller ways, institutionally since the uprising versus decades of lobbying, you can see that the labor movement has a lot to learn from other movements.

PKD: One of the reasons why the labor movement is where it is today is there are a lot of the people in leadership who have been there forever. There is not a large history of contested leadership elections in unions. There have been maybe a few notable ones in recent years in the Cities. Along with yourself, SEIU 26 got a new president last December and my friends in Local 17 won, back in 2017. On the other hand, that is the top level versus building the rank and file movement.

In terms of rejuvenating the labor movement, do you center leadership challenges or focus more on building up rank and file membership?

KK: It’s going to have to be through striking and through struggle. That’s going to be the way we judge the so-called leadership. I ran to be elected in order to help facilitate struggle and help facilitate the internal democracy of our local.

It’s important not to assign too much importance to particular individuals. What’s most important is how groups of workers are able to seize the moment [when] people are willing to organize and to fight. We must also always be clear about what we are fighting against; a ruthless system controlled by the bosses.

Feature image credit: Brad Sigal.

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Paul KD View All

Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.