Alex Gallo-Brown with Nicole Vallestero Keenan-Lai: Variations of Labor

Transcribed by Haley Freedlund.

Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s Civics Series. On this episode, essayist, poet, and author Alex Gallo-Brown talked in our Forum on Labor Day about his new book, Variations of Labor. Alex revealed personal stories of workers with dead-end jobs who have been disrespected and written off, and explored the complex, sobering stories of labor in our country.

Audience: (applause)

Alex Gallo-Brown: Thank you. Wow. This is wild. I’m extremely nervous, and thank you all for coming. I really appreciate it. Wow. In my wildest dreams, I don’t think I could imagine being here with you guys. And now I’m here. So I’m going to try to try to entertain you and inform you and kind of give you a sense of what this book is about. And then, I’m excited to speak with my old boss Nicole. She was my boss at the Fair Work Center, best boss I’ve ever had. This book was truly a collective effort. I want to thank Bruce at Chin Music Press for believing in the book. He’s worked with me all the way through and it wouldn’t be here if not for Bruce. Devin, for the artwork that I think we’re going to be showing up here, this, inside the book. Just stunning work and I’m so honored that she allowed her work to be used in the book. Let’s give her a round of applause, please. (applause) My mom, Laurie Brown, who did the artwork for the cover. Thank you to Laurie. (applause) Edward here, and Town Hall for hosting us. Just a stunning space. Edward is a great boon to our city, so thank you Edward. And then of course my friends and family, but especially my wife Jen. This book took almost 8 to 10 years to write. It’s a collection of work that I’ve been doing for the last decade or so, and Jen has been right there with me the whole time. So thank you to Jen.

So I’m just going to say a few words about the book, then I’ll read a little bit of a story, some poems, and then I’ll sit up here with Nicole and we’ll do a little talking about some stuff. Like I said, this is a collection of work that I’ve done over a period of a fairly long time. Over that time I’ve worked a number of different jobs, almost to an embarrassing extent. I’ve worked many different kinds of jobs and just many different jobs. I think the longest I’ve ever worked anywhere was the Fair Work Center, which was a year and a half, but most of my jobs last somewhere between 3 and 6 months, probably. I’ve worked as a cook, a barista, a server, a caterer, a caregiver for people with disabilities, a union organizer, a server, a number of other things.

Patron: Can you speak up?

AGB: Oh, I’m sorry. Can you guys hear me? Okay. Thank you. Appreciate that. All right. Audience participation. Just what I wanted. My Uncle Alex, who I was somewhat named after, my dad’s brother, passed away in October of 2017. He was a career low wage worker. He had worked primarily as a maintenance worker and a landscaper, had also done some construction. And I began to write a number of poems sort of about him, to him, for him. And that’s where the idea of a collection centered around labor really started to make sense to me, especially as I look back at all the things I had been writing, and how much they really had to do with labor, with class, with social justice and social injustice and so on. And it’s true that there are stories and poems in here explicitly about low wage workers and worker organizing. But there’s also poems in here that have nothing to do with that. They’re more about the interior lives of the speaker, of the characters. I’d hope that it challenges our conception of what work is and expands it. Work isn’t only what you do for money, it’s not only the ways that you participate in a capitalist economy. It’s also, in my view, the emotional work that you do when you’re grieving a lost loved one, for example, or when you’re trying to be a good friend, or when you’re trying to overcome racism or sexism or classism, or when you’re challenging those tendencies within yourself to be racist or sexist or classist. I think it’s the work that you do when you’re trying to organize your workplace, or when you’re trying to be a good parent or child or partner. I think I’m going to end there, and then I’m just gonna read you some stuff.

So I’m going to start with a story. It’s based somewhat on my own experience. I spent a period of time working as a cook inside of Facebook in South Lake Union, which was an interesting and illuminating experience, and that’s where the story comes from. The difference between me and the protagonist is that this protagonist has not left Seattle. You know, he’s grown up, he’s worked service shops his whole life, and finds himself in this very strange, surreal world of South Lake Union, serving highly-paid tech workers who barely recognize him as a human being. So this is called “The Job at the Technology Company Cafe.”

“The Metro bus streaks as it turns onto Boren Avenue, bumping and grinding as it wraps itself around the corner. The phrase, more than the motion, reminds Andrew of his middle school dances and he’s briefly transported back to the vast gymnasium dark, his adolescent body shivering as he tried to match his movement with hers. He has never felt old before, but he feels old now. In three months, he will be 29. Next year he will turn 30. He’s always worked in food service, he’s never made more than $12 an hour. The minimum wage in Seattle now is 15, but there are exceptions, loopholes. At his new job, for example, he will be paid $13.50, even though his employer is one of the richest technology companies in the world. He stares out the Metro Bus window as street lights penetrate the early morning dark. He feels the way that he feels in dreams sometimes, or the way he moves underwater. He is not a morning person and never has been. He is not really a work person either. “He would prefer not to,” as the character in the story from AP English said, and for a moment he’s forgotten why he accepted a job that requires such indecency. He trudges up the office building steps, mist sipping wetly against his cheeks. Inside it is brighter, warmer. He flashes his badge at a security guard before stepping into an elevator and thumbing the button for the 17th floor. Life has changed, he thinks, as the elevator begins to move. Cities are change. Isn’t that what all the newspapers say? He doesn’t know much about other cities, but remembers the moment when his own neighborhood began to change. The squat house on the corner knocked down, and two skinny towers erected in its place. The blue house across the street, shoved onto stilts and literally lifted off the ground. The new Audis and Beemers, the men in suits and ties. One Summer when he was in college at the U, he delivered a pizza to one of the new houses on his parents’ block. The woman who answered the door had been aloof and dismissive and she left him a shitty tip. Life has changed, he thinks as the elevator dings. Cities are change. Maybe this is true. He has only known one city, has only ever thought of Seattle as home. He steps out of the elevator into a silent and unfamiliar dark.”

So I’ll stop there. Some other things happen in that story, obviously. So as I was saying before, there’s several poems. I would say the book is dedicated to my uncle Al. Al’s brother (unintelligible) is here today up from Oregon, himself a union steward at the post office for 30 years or so. He worked at the post office. So this book is dedicated to Al. Several poems are written about him, or to him. This one is for him. He was a worker.

“My uncle was a worker who would have preferred not to work. At the university, he had a boss who lorded over his life’s time. The time he had to be at work was so banal demand, it went unnoticed. To have mentioned it would have violated our country’s code. At the university, he collected the seeds that he found during his time on the grounds. Blackberries are an invasive species in the part of the country where I’m from. When your dog falls down a ravine full of blackberries, you brave the prickers to make sure he is safe. My uncle made sure his boss’s house was plentiful with the thorns those seeds would become. To deploy violence in response to violence is a language most workers would prefer not to learn.”

That’s for Al. Thank you. So I think I’m going to move to the title poem, “Variations of Labor,” which is a fitting title for me, and for this book, given how many different kinds of jobs I’ve worked, but it really comes from a childbirth class that my wife and I were in, and it was talking about a very different kind of labor, a birth labor, right? And this card came up on the screen that said, “Variations of Labor,” and that’s where this poem comes from. And then ultimately, the book. So I’m going to read this poem. This was written before my daughter was born. And she’s here today.

“During our weekly childbirth class, the peppy medical professional tells us that today we will be learning about labor and the variations of discomfort my wife will soon experience. “The first part spent at home watching Netflix,” the professional suggests. “It is important for the partner to remain calm. Before the transport to the hospital, the admission to triage, the placement of the monitor around the patient’s waist. It is important for the partner to remain calm. Before the final push, the contractions intensifying, the effaced cervix widening, the head, a crown, the vulva, a valve. Is important for the partner to remain calm.” While the professional presses on, the phrase ‘variations of labor’ rises in blue letters on the big screen, bringing to mind not future selfless support, but past personal exertion. Not the voluntary worshipful act, but mandatory grudging depletion. So much of the time we’ve been given surrendered to my job or hers, so many of the years spent together devoted to other people’s needs. I think of Jodie, the woman with cerebral palsy, who I bathed and fed and gave medicine to with the attention I normally reserved for a family member towards whom one feels an implacable debt, who thudded tennis balls against the walls in a giddy fervor of delight, who could understand the contempt felt by other caregivers for the people left in their charge, who could understand the love that passes between strangers who find themselves confined to a room. While the professional pushes on, I sense my wife tense beside me as she takes comprehensive notes, and I’m reminded not of the woman who I’ve watched grow, surefooted and child-ready over the past nine years, but the little girl in elementary school who wore glasses coiled all the way around her ears, used to flit from classroom to playground holding an aura that demanded attention beyond what a little boy could give, who has worked hard to become the woman who sustains our child.”

Thank you. Believe it or not, my wife and I went to elementary school. It’s a strange story. Together. I’m sorry, together. Yeah. So I’m going to read a little bit, a couple more of the poems that are more along the emotional side of things, particularly to do with grief or coming out of grief. My dad passed away in 2007, his brother passed away in 2017 almost on the exact same day, strangely enough, October 10th and October 11th. Grief has been a big subject of my work for quite a long time, so I’m going to read a few of those. “Relief.”

“Certain months, the mind goes. It’s hard to latch on to anything, command or compel. Meanwhile, the body wanders, performs, does its daily diligence. Angers no one, its own anger gone, replaced by weightlessness. Calm. The mind says this is progress, a procession forward, but the body resists. First, the stomach begins to shift. Then, the face shows a blankness, those mornings it bothers to look. But the mind isn’t shook. It says, “Grow yourself a beard. Remember to brush your teeth.”

So yeah, that’s that. No, no. You don’t have to clap. That’ll take forever. We gotta keep going. “Triumph.” So this is a poem I wrote quite a long time ago, “Triumph.” But I kind of liked this one. It’s about living in the city, “Triumph.”

“I always forget who lives in my city. No comment on them, my memory is bad. Or good for certain things, like faces, or the items on a grocery list, or the precise feelings a book produced in me once, although, perhaps not its phrases or ideas. But people, you lovely impenetrables, too often I forget that you exist. It’s not hard to reach out to you in moments, to recognize your flesh and flutter as mine. Even still, the grocery list lengthens. Somewhere a party commences. I must store a vast reserve of sympathy for myself, inside myself. I don’t know if this is a triumph of compassion or greed, but I guard it like passion or grief.”

All right, so I’m just going to read. I’m going to end, I think, with a couple more poems. I’m going to read— these more have to do with the labor organizing side of things, and I won’t say too much about this one other than Trader Joe’s is a non-union grocery store. “In the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot.”

“In the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I sit still with disappointment, the day heavy with useful talk. I remember a time when I sought use as a value above all else. I had been given so much already. A house above my head that I could stare at on chilly afternoons, plainly visible against so much sky. Grains raised by family members, to whom I felt no connection and who I’d had no ability to recall. I was all that existed. Some might have called that privilege, but I named it an offense against intrusion, or demands for change. I was tired of all that. I wanted the people of which I was not a part, to form a mass into which I could submerge my disperse life. I failed, or the people did. Inside Trader Joe’s, the manager opens bottled coffee with a simple twist of his knife.”

I’m gonna end, I think, with a long poem. It kind of rhymes with that one, a little bit. It’s called, “In Starbucks on my 30.” I used to work in a grocery store. I cooked chickens in the prepared food section, primarily. Nicole is going to talk about that a little, I think, next. I would walk from— every worker, by state law, gets a 30 minute break every time they work more than 5 hours, and so every day I would get a 30 minute unpaid lunch break, and I would walk out of the store and I would walk down the block to the Starbucks, and I would get a coffee and I would try to write. That was sort of my routine. This is what came out of those writing sessions. “In Starbucks on my 30.”

“1. I don’t mean to be crass, but these dark chocolate peanut butter cups taste really fucking good. Last night I ate too many movie theater Swedish fish, and the difference this morning impresses itself upon me. I get a little weepy thinking about it, actually, although that may have more to do with poor Kay, face-diving onto the express lanes last week, or G’s cancer, or the general, tawdry, fucked-up state of things. Last week I started reading poems again, which I take to be a good sign. At their best, poems stir things in me, which is better, I feel, than walking around dead. Mostly these days, I find myself taking care of business, which is fine. I spent a long time getting up late and walking around thinking about what I was going to make myself for lunch. 15 minutes ago, I sat down. 15 minutes from now, I have to go back to work. Less than that, even, if I don’t want to be late. I don’t not want to be late, but I don’t want another attendance point either, which is the whole purpose of the system, I guess, motivating you with fear. It doesn’t feel like fear when I’m at work though, it feels like a manager’s wink, like, “Hey buddy, would you mind picking that piece of trash up off the floor?” I remember Adorno’s idea about pop culture, how fans don’t understand that they’re enjoying the sound of their own alienation reflected back at them. Tea and bakery likes that idea, too.

“2. Likes that idea too, but to what extent? I don’t know. Since I’ve only begun to get to know him as I have only begun to get to know nearly everyone who I think I know. Even you, dear reader, who I imagine surrounded by strangers who you believe to be unlike you. I’m wary of the individual. I am wary of the individual, yet I recognize the importance of two hands and one heart, of ankles that swell and a stomach that burns. When I lay my hand down on my wife’s thigh at night, I don’t always picture the chickens that had been left too long in the deli hot case, but sometimes I do. The truth is that I take satisfaction in breaking down those broken birds, that I feel affinity for the carcasses that have been consigned to my care. At home, I tell my vegetarian friends I admire them, and I do, I think, sneaking mouthfuls of boiled bird from the walk-in freezer. I am a dissolute and undisciplined creature, but I harbor no illusions that I’m alone.

“3. No illusions that I’m alone in Starbucks on my 30, writing on the back of a brown pastry bag given to me by a barista who was oddly quiet for this Starbucks, when he turned his back on me to pour my small, dark drip. Would it be too much to say that I felt for him a kinship? Would it be unreasonable to think that I experienced his emotions as my own? When he turned to me, his face was pale, the paleness of horror, but also light.

“4. “The paleness of horror, but also light,” I think in Starbucks, again, on my 30. The barista from last week, fired, or dead, or on his day off at home, earbuds plugging his head. Yesterday I found out that G died on my 15, and was not prepared for the sadness that pinned my shoulders back, held them there like a mental patient’s straitjacket. All around me, my coworkers chatted and snacked and played card games on their phones. I thought of how little I knew of them, despite all the time we spent together, and there was further sadness in that. The notion that if I were to speak then, I would have had nothing to say. I closed my eyes and was a child again, at G’s house for dinner, the table set and spread. Lonely aggrieved men shivered their thoughts through the speakers. My parents and their friends nodded their heads. How miraculous, how unimaginable nearly, to have been a child who believed that laughter and communal feeling were human beings’ natural state.”

Thank you.

Nicole Vallestero Keenan: That was wonderful.

AGB: Thanks, Nicole. Thanks Boss.

NVK: I know, you ruined my intro.

AGB: I’m sorry.

NVK: No, it’s okay. I had this whole joke prepared, where by being here, it either meant I was your most favorite or least favorite boss, but you kind of gave it away. So I wanted— before I get into the bulk of talking with you about your book, which I read a few times. The first time to check if there are any stories about me being a bad boss, and then the second time for all of the richness and layers and tensions that are inside of it.

But I have to tell you how I met Alex. So, funny enough, it was during a moment full of thinking about value and meaning and responsibility, AKA his job interview. And I do believe in synchronicity, or things kind of just working out the way they’re meant to. And I couldn’t have thought— you know, when you’re trying to hire, you’re just like, “Please, dear God, let somebody who can do this job apply.” And when Alex’s resume came through, what we were doing was, we were trying to professionalize organic grocery. Any job that is high-paid is because we as a society choose to value it highly, and often because we choose to value it highly. it’s because there is a series of actions taken by a group of mindful people, often labor organizers, who try to make those jobs into something valuable. Thereby, we pay those jobs more. So a lot of the building trades, construction, plumbing, those used to be jobs that might not have paid as much, but through professionalizing it, we made it into something that was a higher paid job. So we wanted to hire Alex to professionalize organic grocery. And so, his job interview, for the final interview, we asked everyone to come in and prepare a training of any kind. And when I saw Alex’s resume, I was like, “This guy was a fucking teacher, and he worked in an organic grocery, he’s perfect.” He comes in and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to train you on how to cook an organic chicken.” And I was like, “Is that different than cooking like a normal chicken?” And, apparently, yes, that’s true. It is absolutely true. I learned something in this presentation. And so, he walks in, and for 30 minutes, he instructed me and my colleagues on how to cook chicken. And now I know, which is mostly just keep the organic separate from the nonorganic.

So that being said, I wanted to throw you a softball question. You talked a lot about all the different jobs you’ve had. Would you tell us about some of those jobs? Just list them, what jobs have you worked?

AGB: I wrote these down. I wrote them down, because I had a feeling you were going to ask me about that. So: I worked in a pizza booth; I worked in 2 Greek restaurants; a German deli; 2 Italian restaurants; 2 grocery store delis; 4 coffee shops; the Seattle Parks Department; as a caregiver for people with disabilities; political canvasser; organizer with 2 unions; a community college instructor; a pizza delivery person; and a smoothie maker; and a caterer; and a freelance writer; and a writing tutor; and a workers’ rights advocate. I think that’s most of them. Yeah. That’s a good chunk. Yeah.

NVK: And then if you think of the other meetings of labor: dad, son.

AGB: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I am now a father. I am a husband, a partner. I’m a son. I’m a nephew, my uncle is here. I think life takes work, right? I think to live a good life, live a meaningful life, it does take hard work and often that work is not work that you’re compensated for. One of the ideologies that I think governs our society is like that hard work is good and you should be valued by whatever the market values you. If you don’t make any money, then society doesn’t value you at all, right? If you make a lot of money, then society values you a lot. I think we need to really challenge that idea. I don’t think you need to work and make a lot of money to live, to deserve a decent life and to be a valuable human being. And I think, more often than not, that is what our society tells us, that people who don’t make money aren’t valuable. And I reject that idea.

NVK: So with that, you may have answered this question already, but what drew you to the labor movement?

AGB: I got my start as a labor organizer, I think, about 9 years ago. Jen and I were living in Portland. We had moved there. I got a job in a coffee shop, Jen was working as a nanny. We made enough money to kind of make ends meet. The recession hit right around that same time. And I think at that time, 50% of young people in Portland were either unemployed or underemployed. I lost my job in a coffee shop for no real reason. They just called me up one day and said, “We don’t need you anymore.” I couldn’t find a job for months. Then I got a job as a caregiver for people with disabilities, and I think I was making about $8 an hour. I got almost no training and I was giving people medicine and bathing them and doing all these things with almost no training. I mean, it was a difficult experience. And coincidentally, I met a labor organizer and I’d been reading a lot about unions. My uncle’s a union steward. My mom was a part of the teacher’s union. My Aunt Laurie in Brooklyn is a long-time union member. I met a union organizer and she said, “Oh, we’re actually organizing caregivers right now. You should apply. We could bring you on.” And so that’s how I got my start, and then I went away from it for a long time. And then I came back into the fold a couple of years ago now.”

NVK: Awesome. Thank you. So I’m gonna— what was that?

AGB: I said, “That sounds like my baby.” Yeah.

NVK: Yeah. One of the things that I loved: I related a lot to your book as somebody who is also a labor advocate and an artist, and a common tension that some of the characters experience is the idea that making art is a luxury. And in one story, a writer struggles to answer a question. He gets asked about his book in progress, and he says, “What’s the point of writing this book?” I totally lifted this from a Crosscut article that interviewed him. My question for you is, what’s your answer to that struggle of “art is a luxury” versus “art is the work?”

AGB: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I don’t— that was probably my baby too. She thinks that’s a funny question. I think it’s a good question. I don’t quite know how to answer it. I can’t remember what I said to the Crosscut person now. I think, for me, art is a necessity. I think for some people, especially people who are compelled to make art, they just feel like they have to do that thing. But I do think it’s important to be also politically active. And sometimes those are the same thing, sometimes they are different things. I am suspicious sometimes of art that is too simplistically polemical. But I think that art should be politically engaged. I think there’s a balance there. But I want to turn the question back to you, because it’s supposed to be a conversation, and I know you’re a musician, so maybe you could answer that.

NVK: Yeah. For me it was a duality. So before I started doing this work, I had a career as a musician for a few years, and I played with people who felt that music and politics were something that needed to be separate. And as I got older, I realized that for the folks that I was playing music with, that was a safe choice, and it was a choice that really was about perpetuating the current status quo by making your art nonpolitical. And there’s no nonpolitical art. It’s just non-controversial or controversial. So non-controversial art doesn’t challenge the status quo, but also doesn’t make you think. And controversial art does challenge the status quo. It does make you think. And thereby to me, good art is advocacy. Okay. So this is a maybe a self-indulgent question, but what makes a good job?

AGB: That’s a good question. I have not liked most of my jobs. In fact, I think that actually comes up in the book quite a bit. I resent, on some level, that people have to work in order to eat and have a roof over their head, and work in this way. I think that we’re always doing work, constantly, in our lives. But to work, to go get a job at a business, essentially, I resent that very much. But one has to do it. For me, a good job— the best jobs I’ve ever had are, no joke, Fair Work Center, and then working for the unions I’ve worked for, because, for me, it’s something I believe in. So the mundane parts of the jobs, the parts that aren’t great, it doesn’t matter as much to me because I know I’m doing something that I believe in at the end of the day. I also think that those jobs tend to be more aware of hierarchy. Some hierarchy is sometimes necessary to make an organization function and stuff. But I do think with those jobs that people seem to be more aware of how that can be toxic and then try to mitigate those hierarchies. And that makes me feel good.

NVK: One of the things, as you were talking and reading, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about, is hierarchy within workplaces, and then also whole personhood versus non-whole personhood. This is really nonprofit lingo. But one of the things that I’m thinking about is: to me, what has made a good job is whether or not I’m seen as a slice of a person or as a whole person. And being able to be more fully whole in a position as opposed to just kind of the slice of you, has made jobs a lot more interesting and engaging. As we’re in a capitalist society, often what we pay somebody is aligned with how much we value them. But then when we think about our actual lives, the things I value the most might be my husband or my grandmother, but I’m not paying them. I guess I’m just wondering how that tension of what we allocate monetary or dollar amounts towards and what we actually value, how that tension has shown up for you in your life.

AGB: In the workplace in particular? Yeah, I mean, I think the only job I’ve ever had— maybe the teaching. I taught community college for a couple of quarters, very part-time. But when I go into those jobs, it takes me a while to realize that my boss and my coworkers actually want me. They want the whole person to come in and I still am kind of in this almost PTSD mode of like, “If I look like I’m busy, they’re gonna fire me.” So, I think that those are the only jobs I’ve ever had where I do feel some semblance of that. Other than that, I think you’re just a cog and you’re measured based on your productivity, and if you’re not cutting it, you’re out.

NVK: Thank you. I’m going to open it up to questions from the audience, after I ask one more of my own.

AGB: Sorry.

NVK: Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m going to just throw one in there. Your book and the subject for tonight’s Town Hall was, “What does it mean to labor in modern-day America?” For you, if you were to just summarize, what would you say your answer to that is?

AGB: I do not have an answer to that question. Like I have said before, this book is very much a personal book. It’s based on my personal experiences, primarily, or things that I’ve observed. Working in labor, I think that what we’re seeing is what they call the precarious, the precariat right. The rise of a workforce that has very little stability. They’re often independent contractors. They don’t even have the right to unionize, for example, or to other basic labor rights that are guaranteed to most employees in this society. I think that’s one part of what’s happening to labor right now. But the good side of it is that right now I think there’s a lot more awareness of labor issues. I think we’re starting to see a rising labor militancy that is long overdue and I think has the potential to really push us forward in productive ways. Most of the labor laws that we have today that govern our paradigm around workplace rights are from the 1930s. And some of those have been rolled back. I think we need another— I think that there are presidential candidates, politicians are talking about these things. I think it’s time for another Economic Bill of Rights, whatever you want to call it.

NVK: Yeah. I’ll just follow that up before I open it up. The Fair Labor Standards Act hasn’t been updated since the 1930s. I am curious, as class issues become reawakened in our country, I remember 20 years ago, people might say something like, “Oh, well, I don’t know. I just felt like being classist was much more common.” As our class awareness increases in our country, as it once had without the labor movement or without workers rights advocacy, we wouldn’t have weekends. We wouldn’t have many of the things that kind of balance out. A high quality of life. So for you, what would you say your hope is for the future of in America?

AGB: Well, other than seizing the means of production, you mean? Hmm. Let me think about that. No, I think making it easier to organize a workplace, absolutely. Right now the laws are not on our side. Um, I hope we’re all on the same side of things here. (laughs) As far as organizing, companies retaliate routinely against their employees for trying to form a union, which is technically illegal and yet they do it anyway. And then, more stringent tests around what it means to be an independent contractor versus an employee, I think, is really important. And you know, there’s numerous other things, but those two things are the most important, probably.

NVK: Ultimately seizing the means of production, though. Okay. (laughs) So, any questions from the audience to close out?

Patron 1: Well, this is really a question of asking for your advice. I work for the City of Seattle in the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, and one of my job duties is to serve on a sub-cabinet of the mayor, which is called The Future of Work. And one of the things that the city is looking at is extending current labor standards to include people who were excluded from federal worker protections, particularly independent contractors and other folks. So there’s gonna be an intention to create a new legislation in Seattle, that would extend labor standards for independent contract workers and others in that category. And, this is— I’m not speaking on behalf of the city, I’m speaking, in a way, as a private citizen, asking you for any advice you might give. And also, part two of that question is the role of culture and the role of workers’ stories and making the case for the city to really do that. So any ideas or suggestions?

AGB: I think the first one is definitely a Nicole question. She’s much better at this. I can add stock to the second one a little bit, maybe.

NVK: Yeah. Do you want me to take that first part and then I’ll take the second part? So ultimately to me, how we define jobs is about power. And so the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was written in the 30s, excluded most jobs that were staffed by Black women, mostly, and Latino women, mostly. So the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t include people who work in-home. So babysitters. It also doesn’t include farm workers. And often, one of the ways that we historically violated rights was by saying, “Oh, no, you’re your own boss. You’re not an employee here. You’re an independent contractor, which means you run your own business, you do all your own taxes and you do all your own paperwork.”

Now over the last hundred years or so, becoming an independent contractor or freelancer has a different sense of power and privilege that’s tied with it. So now that we have a significant number of people who do more freelance or independent contract work who’ve charge much higher rates per hour, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that we’re seeing protections for that particular industry, or that particular class of worker. I’m just going to kind of name my initial reaction to hearing that. Now when it comes to offering or extending independent contractor rights, I actually think it’s a great idea to offer employment benefits to independent contractors because over the last 20 years, we’re seeing a drastic decline in traditional employment benefits. So that means having traditional weekends, having a 40-hour work week, and those regulations and protections were put in place over years for a distinct reason. So, to the extent that we can maintain the benefits of full employment, it does offer more clear protections for workers as a whole.

AGB: To the culture point, I don’t have a super clear answer in my head other than I think that politics are shaped by stories. We understand ourselves and our society through story, through culture, through images and so on. And I think there is a way that the labor world and the cultural world can feel very distinct from each other. Very separate. And I think that I would like to see that change. I want to hear more stories from workers, more stories from worker organizers, I want to see labor unions sponsoring poetry readings, I want to see poetry readings at union halls. I would love to see that. Yeah. Thanks man.

NVK: And then the only other thing I would say on my end of that is, for a long time we’ve been trying to solve a heart problem with our heads. If we have a feeling of societal jealousy, or societal lack, in it in my opinion, it comes related to the idea that we can solve our problems with our heads only and not through connection to each other.

Patron 2: Hi, Alex. I don’t know if you remember me. We sat on a panel down together—.

AGB: I do.

Patron 2: —in the spring. Jose from University of Washington. I had a somewhat-related question. I was curious, on Labor Day, what labor might mean particularly to the way that we value or don’t value certain people, particularly of the undocumented. And what ideas you all might have to better incorporate those populations given that labor has sometimes taken a pretty hard line against undocumented people. There was the perception that they drag down wages, for example. I was curious about how in your own work experience, you must’ve encountered undocumented workers at these various jobs, and what your interactions with them were like.

AGB: I can tell one story. The first thing I’ll say is that my friend Paul, who is actually here, organized a wonderful benefit reading at the Hugo House a little while back for undocumented folks and for migrant justice. And I’d love to see more writers and culture— somebody said we should be referring to ourselves as ‘Culture Workers’—culture workers should be doing more of that. I had an experience when I was at Fair Work Center where we went to Yakima and were working with farm workers, and we were going to deliver a petition to their boss with them. We helped them write it and we were going to stand in solidarity with them as they delivered their petition. And I think we saw, very clearly, how much their status impacted their ability to advocate for themselves because ultimately they were threatened. The word got out that they were circulating a petition. The boss threatened one of the leaders, said “You’ve been making a lot of trouble, and this keeps up, we’re going to get rid of you.” And she backed out, and ultimately the group backed out and we didn’t do anything. Just down in Mississippi recently, there were workers who had been advocating for themselves and against their employer, and then ICE raided their— you know. I don’t hear anti-immigrant stuff in the labor movement, here, anyway. But I think how to serve those workers can sometimes be challenging.

Patron 3: Hi.

AGB: Hey Barbara.

Patron 3: How you doing?

AGB: Good.

Patron 3: I’m so excited to see you sitting here and so—

AGB: We know each other from when we were, what, 14 maybe?

Patron 3: Yeah, probably like 12.

AGB: Like 12?

Patron 3: Yeah. So you know this place so well, and I’m curious. There’s so much effort around the world, but around the country and locally to transition the economy as well. Like, folks working towards non-extractive economies or alternative economics. Some of those things look like, within the capitalist system, like worker-owned cooperatives are an example, but there are so many different projects and experiments that people are doing to shift the way that labor is held and shift towards a non-extractive way of being and working. And I’m just curious if there are any of those kinds of experiments or projects that inspire you or you up, that you know of.

AGB: You wanna take this one?

NVK: You can go first, I’ll follow.

AGB: I wish I had a good answer to that. I mean, I work for a pretty traditional labor union and we organize pretty traditional workplaces. I think worker-owned cooperatives, or I think even Bernie Sanders suggested putting a lot of money into supporting worker-owned cooperatives. I think finding the capital to support those kinds of endeavors is wonderful. I don’t know. You have any good ideas?

NVK: I have one. So, funny enough— I’m feeling just like, the world, and on Labor Day. Maybe five years ago I sat with Congresswoman Jayapal on the 15 Commission that determined the minimum wage for Seattle. And there was this one restaurant called Liberty that was totally against increasing the minimum wage. They fought it tooth and nail. They’d publicly made some stances against it. Anyway, apparently their public comments against the minimum wage incited their workers to organize. And so the Liberty is now a worker-owned cooperative bar. (laughter and applause)

AGB: Be careful what you say, bosses. You might just push them just a little too far.

NVK: Yeah. So, I love that. And actually, just for work, had an event there last week, which felt like a giant irony because four years ago I was like, “No, we can’t go there because they’re against our values.” But now they’re a worker-owned cooperative.

Patron 3: Awesome. Very cool.

AGB: Thanks.

Patron 3: Thank you.

NVK: All right.

Edward Wolcher: That’s a really positive and hopeful note to end on.

NVK: Yeah.

AGB: Thank you all for coming. I really, it means a lot to me. So, thank you. (applause).

NVK: Before— I just have one last request. Would Alex’s mom, who drew the cover, please stand? And would Devin Hale, who drew all the illustrations inside, please stand? (applause, music fades in)

JP: Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle Civic Series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle artist David Bazan, and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. Check out our new season of Town Hall Seattle’s original podcast, In The Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews someone coming to Town Hall. They get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind-the-scenes look into our presenters’ content, personality, and interests. If you like our Civics Series, listen to our Arts & Culture and Science Series as well. For more information, to check out our calendar of events, or to support Town Hall, go to our website at

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