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Washtenaw United: A Labor Day conversation on the state of unions and a look forward to the future of the labor movement

Ian Robinson
Ian Robinson
Ian Robinson


Ian Robinson has been the President of the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation (HVALF), AFL-CIO, since 2014. He has been a Lecturer and Research Scientist in the Department of Sociology and the Residential College’s Social Theory and Practice program, at the University of Michigan since 1998. He was a member of the volunteer organizing committee and President (2016-2021) of the union of nontenure-track faculty (LEO, AFT-MI 6244) at U-M. He has been a Board member of the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium since 2014, and became the organization’s Interim President in 2022


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to a Labor Day edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and today is the first Monday in September. Which is set aside to recognize and honor the laborers who continue to contribute to achievements throughout the United States. For some, it has simply become an annual three-day weekend, but it is more than that--and for good reason. Our guest today understands that as well as anyone. Ian Robinson is president of the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO. And Happy Labor Day to you. And thank you for making time. I appreciate it, Ian.

Ian Robinson: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

David Fair: What does Labor Day mean to you?

Ian Robinson: Well, it's a day when, nationally, we try to remind our fellow citizens of the many contributions that the labor movement has made over the decades and even centuries at this point to the standard of living and the workplace, safety criteria, and many other things that the labor movement has fought for over the years and time to celebrate our successes and build morale for moving forward. And also, in terms of the energy and the optimism and the desire for union membership that they're bringing to Starbucks and to Amazon and to other places that have been nonunion and spent a lot of money to stay nonunion since the beginning of their formation, that's now beginning to turn as well. So, it's an exciting moment to be in the labor movement and to be part of actually starting to turn things around in this country.

David Fair: You've been in the movement for some time and became president of the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation in 2014. In those eight years in that leadership position, what has changed?

Ian Robinson: Well, you know, just at the level of our own organization, we are bigger now. We have more local unions that are part of us. So, we brought in unions that weren't formerly connected to the Area Labor Federation. I would say there's more unity in that sense. More of the unions are aware of what each other is doing, have personal relationships among their leadership, and, in some cases, our membership. You know, right now on that front, we have the nurses are in bargaining with the University of Michigan and are pushing hard for staffing ratios that are safe for their patients and compatible with having a family life and with mental health for the nurses after two years of incredible stress. We all try to gather together our members, all those members and leaders from the 50 affiliates, 18,000 workers or so, that now are connected through the Area Labor Federation to support one another. I think the other thing that I would highlight--and it's a very recent development--is within the last year we have launched a worker center. It's called Huron Valley Worker Organizing and Research Center, and there are a couple 100 worker centers around the country at this point, mainly in bigger cities than Ann Arbor or Washtenaw County. But I think ours is pretty close to unique. There might be one or two others, but I think we're probably the only one in the country that is entirely supported by the Area Labor Federation, combined with the national AFL-CIO, in terms of the funding of it. It's not a big operation yet. We only have one organizer. That worker center is a reflection of the fact that our labor movement here in our four counties that we represent--Washtenaw, Livingston, Jackson, and Hillsdale--are dedicated to supporting the organizing of workers who are not in unions already and may be in sectors like restaurants, hotels, the new cannabis sector that's emerged since legalization, that, you know, unions are not organizing and at least not right now. And so, it's a new way of organizing. But we're committed to supporting and improving the situation of workers in our area, whether they're in a union or not. And we're putting our money where our mouth is on that one.

David Fair: This is WEMU's Washtenaw United, and we're talking with the president of the AFL-CIO's Huron Valley Area Labor Federation on this Labor Day Monday. Now, I don't need to tell you, Ian, that, all too often, perception is perceived as reality. Now, when we see labor unions portrayed in movies, more often than not, it's not necessarily highlighting the positives. How much more difficult does that make your job?

Ian Robinson: Well, it's a good question. From the point of view of our own members and the people we work directly with, it doesn't really make much difference, honestly, because we have not got unions in our, you know, of the 50 locals that we work with that are subject to those kinds of issues.

David Fair: So, let's talk about the reality of the situation, and that is the story of the American middle class. It was unions that started securing workers' rights, getting fair wages, putting pensions forth. Do you find that you still have to spend some time educating the public on the ongoing purpose and mission of the AFL-CIO?

Ian Robinson: Yeah, very much so. I mean, you know, I teach at the university about political economy, both comparative across countries and international.

David Fair: And you mean the University of Michigan?

Ian Robinson: University of Michigan. Yep. I built it into my classes, and the students, you know, always tell me, "I had no idea" that the way in which we actually for 30 years from 1945 to the mid-seventies, late seventies, managed to align wages with productivity was through structures that unions built: collective agreements, minimum wage laws that unions fought for, pattern bargaining, various other tools that the labor movement developed and then implemented were what managed to keep wages rising in line with productivity, which meant that over those first 30 years of after World War Two, income of working families in this country doubled. The number of working families who could own a house, rather than having to rent and pay money down a rathole every month, that they never had any ownership of the place they were living doubled. You know, that's what it meant to link wages with productivity. And as the power of the labor movement went into decline in terms of their both political influence in Washington and in state governments and also their bargaining power through collective agreements, you saw the machinery that linked wages to productivity fall apart. And, basically, wages have flatlined in real dollar terms after you take account of inflation, even as productivity has continued to rise in the 40 years since then, just as fast as it did in those first 30. But wages are not in any way linked anymore. So, that's your middle class shrinking and shrinking and shrinking because of that linkage that we managed to build has now fallen apart.

David Fair: We're talking with Ian Robinson on the Labor Day edition of WEMU's Washtenaw United. Ian is president of the AFL-CIO's Huron Valley Area Labor Federation. Ongoing evolution in technology continues to take what was traditional human labor jobs, and that will continue to grow in the future. How is the union and labor movement going to adapt to that future?

Ian Robinson: Well, technology is always changing and changing rapidly. That's one of the characteristics of a modern market capitalist economy. But it can be channeled. It can be in ways that drive that change in positive directions that make it more compatible with the needs of workers and the needs of people in general, citizens or not. Like, if you just deregulate everything and let it rip, then technology is going to be extraordinarily disruptive and destructive. I mean, we're going to make a massive technological change to renewable energy. We can do that in a way that takes care of the working families that are displaced. We can also set up the government contracts and the government subsidies that make this industry move as fast as we need it to move in the direction we need it to move with conditions that say if you're going to take this federal subsidy, you need to make sure that your workers are paid a living wage or you need to, as an employer, stay neutral if your workers want to organize, your employees want to organize. You can't hire a union-busting firm and pay them a couple of million dollars to figure out how to bust a union-organizing campaign. You stay neutral, and you don't get the federal dollars if you don't stay neutral. These are ways in which government action, when informed by the will of the majority rather than a small corporate elite, can be used to channel technology in ways that work for us rather than against us as working people.

David Fair: Well, you mentioned earlier Starbucks workers fighting for the right to unionize, Amazon workers doing the same. The resistance to that is strong, well-organized, and well-financed. And, as you just pointed out, all of this has a political element to it. So, as we watch this play out in public, what role does politics play in your job today?

Ian Robinson: Well, politics is a big part of what we do. The Area Labor Federation is responsible for regional political offices, like City Council and County Commission, school boards. At the state legislative level, it's the AFL-CIO--Michigan AFL-CIO--that makes endorsements of candidates. But when it comes to candidates that are going to be running for state office, who are based in our area, representing districts that are in our four counties, we make recommendations to the state. And they listen very carefully to what we recommend, since we know on the ground what those folks have been up to and what our members think. So, politics is a big and important part of what we do.

David Fair: Someday, Ian, you are going to step down and retire, and the mission will be left to someone else. Based on your institutional knowledge and experience, are you optimistic about where unions will be a generation or two down the line?

Ian Robinson: I am. You know, I mean, we face very determined adversaries with a lot of resources. But the thing is, those adversaries have been running roughshod over this country for 40 years or so and really running the show the way they want to. And it's got us to where we are. And where we are is a place where so many people have been hurt that they're unwilling to tolerate an extension of the status quo. But I believe there's a lot of people who are even ones who don't know much about the labor movement and may not think of themselves in terms of labor movement, membership, or activism who are willing to fight for democracy. So, we're going to be a core part of that fight, and that common struggle is going to help them realize we need to support the labor movement, too, because it's an absolute pillar of the democratic system in this country and the defense of that system. So, that makes me optimistic. I think a lot of the people who are going to fight for democracy are going to realize we need to fight for the labor movement, too, whether we're in it or not.

David Fair: Ian, I would like to thank you for your time today, and I wish you and those you serve a very Happy Labor Day.

Ian Robinson: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you. And your questions are excellent.

David Fair: That is Ian Robinson, the president of the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation of the AFL-CIO, and our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on today's conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, wishing you a happy Labor Day. This is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Huron Valley Area Labor Federation (HVALF)

HVALF Calendar (4 Workshop Sessions for Organizing Labor: Starting at 7pm on Wednesdays, Run about 1.5-2 hours each)

  • September 14th
  • September 21st
  • September 28th
  • October 5th

HVALF Endorsements

Huron Valley Worker Organizing and Research Center (HV-WORC)

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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