The future of work looks nothing like the past. Technology is changing every industry and few people see that more closely than Jim Araby, the executive director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Western State Council.
The members of his union work on farms and in factories and grocery stores. But instead of buying into the established narrative that business is all about the bottom line and unions are all about protecting the workers no matter the economic realities, Araby believes both sides need to transcend this binary division and work together.
“If we can break through and have a real discussion about what the future of work looks like in California you’d have a lot of people on all sides of the issue say, ‘Yeah, let’s come together,’” said Araby during a talk with CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan.
Araby is helping to shape this conversation. He recently helped push through AB1066 which will provide overtime to farm workers. While some in business may grumble at these kind of pay hikes, Araby points out that California has always had the most progressive labor laws in the country and the state was still responsible for 34% of all new jobs in the last jobs report.
That’s because despite what we sometimes read, these issues aren’t black and white. Araby spoke to Rajan about examining those grey areas and how government, unions and business leaders, need to come together to solve the problems that affect them all around housing, the environment and job growth.
A Step Ahead: Jim Araby
Hi everyone. This is Kish Rajan chief evangelist at CALinnovates, and along with our executive director, Mike Montgomery, we welcome you to the new CALinnovates podcast, where we’ll be sitting down with elected officials and policy advocates and other thought leaders to discuss issues of critical innovation, technology and public policy matters that face California and the country. We’ll be talking to guests of all kinds and we’ll be broadcasting this regularly, and we hope that you’ll join us for this important series of discussions about the future of our state and our country.
This time we’re joined by Jim Araby. He’s executive director of the UFCW Western States Council, and as you’ll hear, we had a really great conversation about innovation and technology and the role of labor in helping to usher in a new era that can expand the economy, be consistent with labor’s values, but recognize how do we do all this amidst really difficult change? Jim’s a real leader in this thinking, and I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation we had about this.
Hey, Jim Araby. You’re executive director of the UFCW Western States Council, am I saying that right?
Jim Araby: That’s correct.
Cool. Cool. Tell us what that means. What’s your job, and tell us about UFCW for our listeners who maybe aren’t familiar.
Sure. Well that means I am, it’s a big fancy title that basically means just two things. I am responsible to co-ordinate the work of the United Food and Commercial Workers politics and legislation, primarily here in California. We’re a 160,000 member union, just here in California, all across the state. Most of our members are in, you know, you’re familiar with, grocery store workers, but we also represent workers in retail drugstores, both CVS and Rite Aid.
We have over 2,500 members that work in agriculture, primarily down in Salinas Valley, picking lettuce. Some nurseries down in Oxnard, and then, our other big sector that we represent is food processing. So, Foster Farms Chicken, those are all UFCW members, as well as Hormel Beef Packing here in California, and then, we have affiliates both in Nevada and Arizona. And our union is very similar in demographic. So, that’s pretty much it.
So, these are folks that are working in retail stores, food related retail stores, and then as you mentioned, actually involved in helping to, not produce, but at least process the type of food that we find in those retail stores or restaurants or other places.
Absolutely, yeah. These workers, just to give you a little sense of our demographics too, 38% of our members in California are under 30 years old. A lot of immigrant workers, and first generation American’s work in a lot of the industries we are, and on average, they make anywhere between $25,0000 and $35,000 a year. So, you know, these are the working people of California, and also Arizona and Nevada.
And hard working people.
Hard working people.
So, the jobs you’re describing to me don’t sound particularly leisurely.
Absolutely not. And you know, I’d say the last thing is relative to this discussion that we’re going to have, you know, they’re in the sectors of the economy that are growing.
And so, you know, that puts us sort of in the middle of key critical discussions when it comes to the economy and other things that are happening.
Absolutely, let’s get into that, and as you mentioned, one of your key responsibilities is around politics and legislation. There’s a lot going on in that regard. Looking at the legislative session that just ended as we are recording this conversation, AB 1066 I think was the number. It was drafted by Assemblymember Gonzales and related to overtime for farm workers as I recall. Tell us exactly what that bill did and I trust for you all, you see that as a success, and tell us why?
Absolutely. So, you know, when the National Labor Relations Act was passed and signed way back in 1938 I believe by FDR, there were certain levels of workers in the private sector that were excluded. You know, farm workers being one of them, and historically, here in California a lot of people know about the United Farm Workers and Caesar Chavez, and the struggle of those workers that started back right after the exclusion of the NLRA, but really heated up in the 60’s and 70’s with some great victories here in California.
California’s the only state in the country that actually has a board that is designated to regulate agricultural labor in the whole entire country, because they’re excluded out of the NLRA, states have the right to regulate the work of these workers. So, California’s the only place in the country that actually has the agricultural relations board that gives a certain level of rights to farm workers. But, as a part of the deal in 1939 when this exclusion happened, because it was a way for FDR to get southern Dixiecrats to vote for the National Labor Relations Act. And so, agriculture was very powerful, especially in the South, and these workers were excluded. It was also because a lot of the workers that worked in these fields in the 30’s and 40’s were black, and a lot of the people from the South didn’t believe that black folks had the right to anything. Right? I mean, we all know about the civil rights struggle and everything else that went on for decades after that. And so, this was another part. So, we believe it was very racist, as well as a political decision in the 30’s,
And come full circle in 2016 here in California, we have, through the work and leadership of both assemblymember Gonzales, but also, assembly speaker Anthony Rendon, and pro-tem Kevin DeLeon and then ultimately the governor, who has his own history with this issue, was able to sign a bill, which we believe to be very historic. Essentially, all it does is when farm workers work, after eight hours, they get the same rights as every other worker in California, and they get paid overtime. Millions of people already enjoy that, agricultural workers were excluded. They’re no longer going to be excluded.
Wow, that’s remarkable. And certainly, you look at the agricultural sector, I mean, we could do a whole hour long conversation, or longer about the history of ‘Ag’ in California, both economically, politically, and socially, it’s been a tremendous thing, but certainly, when you look at the size and scale of the agriculture sector in California, it’s massive. I mean, we continue to be one of the world’s, if not the world’s largest producing state of agriculture, I believe.
Absolutely. With a little caveat. I mean, California’s economy’s a two trillion dollar economy. The agricultural sector is 50 billion of that. Actually, the grocery industry’s bigger than the agricultural industry in California.
The grocery industry’s a hundred billion dollar business, the agricultural industry’s 54 billion. Still significant, right? And has an historic relationship with California, who we see ourselves as, but at the same time it is a small piece of California’s two trillion dollar economy. An important piece, but a small piece.
Yeah, interesting. And so, some will say though, I mean, obviously, no bill of any consequence in the state is passed without debate, and you know, many in the business community, I’m putting that in quotes, right? There is no monolithic business community, but many folks, when they look at California as a place that’s competitive, nationally and globally, and looking at the cost of labor, and looking at the rules associated with labor, raise some concerns right? They raise concerns that the types of rules that we have in the aggregate in this state, whether it’s about wages, hours, rules around meals and breaks and things like that are out of step. Are so far beyond what they see in other places that it creates a competitive challenge for California that can result in jobs leaving the state for places that those costs, or those rules are not as stringent. Do you agree with those characterizations, or how do you respond to people that make those criticisms in California?
There’s emotion then there’s facts. And the facts don’t merit that out. I mean California’s economy just this last month, produced…35% of all new jobs produced in the last reporting period were produced in California. Despite the fact we have paid sick days and higher minimum wage, and now farm worker overtime, and all these workman’s comp regulations. I would make the argument actually that it creates a more dynamic economy. I mean, California truly has one of the most dynamic economies out of any of the 50 states. And mind you, we have a tendency to boom and bust. You know, we have very big booms and we have very deep busts.
But I think under the leadership of Governor Brown, I think he’s been very smart about what laws to sign and not, but he also knows, California has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, if not the highest. I just end with you know, it’s funny when Governor Brown… I was at the signing ceremony of the paid sick day bill a couple years ago when Governor Brown started talking to the media, that was really interesting because you know, we’re very lucky to have someone like Governor Brown, who’s served in two different eras of government. And he said, you know, when he was governor back in 1976, the same arguments were used by the chamber that are used today. That’s 40 years later and California’s economy is multitudes the size it was in the 1970’s, and you know, we have a very robust economy, so, I just say the facts don’t prove that out. For every one business that leaves California, ten start, right? You know, we were a place of innovation creativity, and I think we got to apply some of that to some of these other things.
Well, I definitely want to turn to that in a minute, but maybe just to drill into this for one other question. And that is that there also is this notion that someone said to me that a practical concern about overtime payment in this segment, is that it could just flat out encourage employers to cut their hours. Right? To sort of divide the hours, spread them amongst workers so that they’re trying to avoid that type of cost, and that ultimately could, as it’s being argued, be harmful to those individual workers because they’ll find their hours being cut for fear of triggering that overtime cost. How would you respond to that kind of suggestion?
I would say if everything was equal, sure, but everything isn’t equal. You have workers that are much better… I mean, you know, farm work is a skilled work, right? I mean, when you have people that are going to pick lettuce, there’s a way to cut the lettuce and wrap it and move it, and the people that are more efficient are going to get more hours. It doesn’t matter if you have overtime rules or not, right? You know, people that can go out and pick the berries… I mean, there are people that are much more efficient at that. Are you going to tell me as a business owner, you’re going to cut your most efficient workers and bring someone on that doesn’t just because you don’t want to pay them a couple more bucks in overtime? I would say that’s a bad business decision on your part.
Yeah. Got it. Well, you mentioned that innovation and technology, and I’d love to sort of turn in this direction and think about, you’re talking about farm workers and picking crops… I mean, again, God bless these folks that are just doing incredibly difficult work, to be sure. But in this era of increased innovation software technology, mechanization of all kinds of things, I sort of wonder about the future of traditional industries like agriculture and think about, in 10 years, or in 20 years, or certainly 50 years, are those jobs going to even exist anymore, or are we going to be able to find ways to create machines that can do the kind of work that we’re talking about and these folks that are doing it today?
Sure, I mean, you know, I will say a lot of my brothers and sisters in the labor movement sometimes can be Luddites when it comes to technology and technological innovation. I think that’s changing. I think we cannot fight the pace of technological innovation. I actually think in some ways, it could be good. In a lot of ways it’s good. It makes our lives easier, it makes our lives more convenient, right? You know, ten years ago, out here, to catch a cab here where we are in Concord, California it’d be pretty hard. All you’ve got to do now is you go to an app and you can get Uber or Flywheel, or whomever come and get you right? So, I would say that is an efficiency that is a good thing. The question becomes, what does it mean in the greater scheme of things, as technological innovation creates efficiencies, what do we do about the other side of that question, which comes to displacement. Right? Because you still need people to be able to work in order to have our economy thrive.
That’s part of the challenge we’ve had in this economy, right? Is that we are a consumer driven economy, right, where you need more people to have access to… It’s not the millionaires and billionaires that drive our economy, as much as it is the people that make our members. 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars a year. They’re spending all that money, right? They’re the ones that are generating the economic activity. They’re not sitting on massive amounts of money. They actually have to spend the money they make. So, I think, because of that, we have to figure out… I think there’s a responsibility for those that believe in a functioning democratic society to figure out how do we collectively adjust to some of these technological innovations so that we don’t have millions of workers displaced looking for work.
And do you think organized labor in general is feeling that way? Is searching for those answers as well about acknowledging…and by the way, I realize that organized labor is not a monolithic thing either, so, forgive the generalization, but, are there folks there that are realizing, look, what we’re experiencing is a fundamental shift in the economy, away from the industrial into this information technology, knowledge-based world and are folks sort of leaning into that problem and trying to figure out how we help usher in a new era that’s …or…you know, because the frame is that labor somehow is fighting that, or resisting that transition, and I think that it seems too often that the battle lines in places like Sacramento get drawn in that way, and so I would… forgive the length of the question, but I guess I would just love sort of your reaction to, do you agree that that’s sort of what’s characterizing the politics in Sacramento, and how do you assess sort of the state of your colleagues in labor as it relates to where we’re going with the economy?
Yeah. I mean, I think it comes down to two things. One, it comes down to trust. Right? I mean, I think there’s a fundamental… If we could actually break through, and actually have a real discussion about what the future of work looks like here in California, you’d have a lot of people on all the sides of the issue saying, “Yeah, let’s come together.” I mean, I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve been in with business leaders and investors and others who are like, “I wish I could talk to you or someone like you so we could sit down and solve these problems.” And my answer to that is that there are. I’m not the only guy out there right? There are a multitude of people out there. The problem is, is that we’re not talking to one another, right?
I think the other issue is, we cannot just be a bottom line driven economy, right? Where, I feel like we’re in our two ends, where you have the one side going, this is all about the bottom line, right? The investor class. I need… my responsibility’s to my shareholders. And then the unions say, my responsibility’s to my members. Well, those aren’t wrong, right? And that’s all true. But the question becomes, how do the shareholders and the members have different interests? We don’t. So, the question becomes, how do we make sure these are shared interests and values? I’m not going to say… it’d be naïve of me to say that everyone’s going to be on that page, but we have to seek out the people that want to get on that same page. I think there’s a real opportunity, especially with the way that technology is impacting our society, where I think labor, government, and these technological companies have a shared interest in figuring out how innovation creates space to think about how we organize society in a very different way.
Yeah. Well, it just seems that that’s just such a key, because I do think that… and it’s probably a superficial analysis, but I just worry about where do the jobs of the future come from? Right? It just seems like innovation at its nature is about producing more with less, right? By using greater efficiencies and creating orders of magnitude of more productivity with fewer inputs, right? It seems like that’s what innovation’s designed to do, and I agree with you that it seems that that is about sort of trying to re-shape a new economy where there’s new functions inside of that economy that emerge that are the…that’s the fodder for new jobs, but, I just sort of wonder, how are we going to get there? How are we going to bring those folks together to explore what an expansive innovation economy can actually look like?
Well, one, I think it takes leadership. It takes real leadership to have these difficult discussions on both sides and people that are respected from both ends right? I mean, I think I’ve been in discussions with some folks in the tech sector, where I can sit down with them, and they thought I was on one thing and I said actually this is where we want to be, and there was a tone deafness on that side. Right? You know, I mean if you look at what happens, and I think here in the Bay area, it’s sort of elevated because this is one of the places in which these innovations are happening right? And then the experiment is used in our cities. And like whether it’s Airbnb, or Uber, or, whatever, right? There’s a tremendous amount of pressure that people feel on the other side right? Where they feel like, I’m getting my job taken off, I’m getting displaced, or my rents are going high.
There’s’ a combination of factors happening, and I think humans operate in a very binary world, and politically, binary is like, that’s how you get things done. Like you create a binary problem. But the reality is, this is not a binary problem. Right? This is a very complex problem. And I think those that really want to solve these problems need to come together, put our binary aside and say, how do we get, how do we create a more equitable and sustainable world. Right?
Yeah. It seems that then the venues where those conversations can happen need to be identified and need to be supported, right? I mean, we have to respect our friends in the legislature, and the governors, I mean these are people that have to exert leadership, but it’s also very difficult, I think, if that’s the only place where these things are being thrashed about, right? It seems that the presence of non-profit organizations and other venues, academic and otherwise, it seems that that’s what we really need in order to try to further the kind of dialogue that you’re suggesting.
Absolutely, and you know look, I mean, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before. I mean, even think about some things that are happening here. I think, you know, there’s issues, but there’s a labor, management partnership with Kaiser. Right? Kaiser has this very unique relationship, sometimes strained, but it has a really unique relationship with most of its unions, right? You have AT&T. Right? AT&T and CWA right, you know they have… you know, I mean again, these are very broad brushstrokes, but it can happen. Right? I think you sort of have to…I mean grocery chains right? And we’ve had a…you know, there’s been contentions, but we’ve had good relationships with some of our major employers over a long term time, with instances of elevated conflict, which is part of the deal, right? I mean, because there are ultimately, we share a lot in common, but there are also very different ends that we have to achieve. But, I do think that we have to create that dialogue. I think there are issues around housing, issues around job training, issues around the environment that unify us, right? Like if we don’t have housing in which people can afford to live, then you’re not going to have the workers that you need in order to get the job done.
No kidding. It’s a crisis in California.
I mean like environment, right? Environment can be like, you know…what was it yesterday in San Francisco? 90 degrees? You know it’s like, and what does that mean in terms of…
I was in LA and it was raining, so, there you go.
Right. You know, so I just think there’s the big, big picture issues that, we’ve got to have a discussion about. And I also think the other place is job training and re-training. I think that’s a real place in which labor and business and tech and all can come together and say, “How do we solve some of these issues?”
Yeah. You and I were both invited and part of the California Work Force Association meeting not long ago, where you have just incredibly well meaning and hard working folks that are trying to figure out how to develop and execute workforce development strategies. And you can tell that it’s a real struggle. In the sense that we’re just in such a period of rapid and profound change, that to try to re-orient those legacy types of programs and approaches to meet these new challenges, it’s not easy is it? It’s very difficult.
But, you know, you think about it, the other big challenge is demographic.
You have at the same time massive amounts of technological innovation going on, you know, from ten years ago to today, right? The things that we could do even on our phones from ten years ago, have dramatically changed the way we live, work and communicate. And at the same time you have an aging population. Right? You have a population that… I forget what the numbers are, but, how many people every day are retiring?
Right? And what strain does that put? On some of these other things that were from the twentieth century industrial economy, right? And then you have at the same time on the other end, massive amounts of millennials every day graduating high-school and college and, you know, so you have this…
And they see the world completely differently.
You know, one of the venues that you talked about, or that you alluded to, that you and I are connected to is the New Leaders Council, right? A great organization, setting up chapters in all 50 states and both cultivating that new generation of leadership amongst this millennial generation that clearly thinks differently, digital natives, believe in disruption, see the world through a completely different set of eyes than you and I do, and certainly people that are older than us. But New Leaders Council is a place where we have come together. It’s where we met, right? And it’s a place where we’re having these discussions and to their credit…one of the things that’s coming up, again, as we’re recording this, we’re just a few days away from the first Presidential debate, amidst this rather wild and tumultuous presidential campaign. But the goal of the event, and we’re glad that you’re going to be one of our contributors is, to try to bring that millennial voice, which isn’t just a generational voice, but it’s trying to talk about…you bring these issues of the change that you and I are discussing here briefly, into that conversation. I’m wondering your view as we sort of wrap up here of the presidential race and the extent to which you think it’s addressing these topics that you and I’ve been talking about?
I think the presidential race is actually making these topics even more relevant, it’s not addressing it. It’s become a traditional presidential campaign, where you have people going into their corners, but, it’s in some sense traditional, but in another sense, it’s not traditional. You have one candidate who, you know, in Donald Trump, who the other day for instance, lied about a lie about a lie. He basically said Obama was born in America, but Hillary Clinton’s the one who started the rumor.
Right? And it’s like, you know.
And then he solved it.
Right. To me that’s just insanity. And on the other end, you have Hillary Clinton who can’t get out from like, talking about her emails. And it just seems like every day. So, and that’s the media narrative, but then every day, you have people dealing with these issues about like, you know what we just spent the last ten minutes talking about, right, with, afraid about job security, retirement, health care, housing, environment, like these things aren’t being discussed in large media narratives. Instead, we’re talking about building walls and emails. It just doesn’t…
Well, it is this incredible, I don’t know if it’s an irony, or how we want to put it, but, technology seems to have shortened our attention span, or at least the willingness of the mass media to dive into these deeper issues that you and I’ve just spent a few minutes trying to dig into, and there’s a lot more to go, but you’re right, it seems that the presidential campaign itself has been pulled into this very rapid fire, very binary and limited type of discussion, which is unfortunate, given how serious the issues are.
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s up to all of us to…that’s going to happen and it’s really up to those that actually are concerned about the society we live in to participate in that and make the right decision on that, but really come together and say how do we solve these problems despite what’s being talked about, right? because ultimately, that’s what’s going to make the change right? The change is going to come from the top. They’re going to give direction, but they’re really going to be about the innovators, the business leaders, the labor leaders, community leaders going we need to come together and solve this problem. And I actually think California has led on this issue. We are in the midst of solving, or trying to tackle big issues that the rest of the country isn’t. And our economy’s growing, and we’re doing well.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time, if we did that here from California. Well, listen, you talked about the fact that the only way we’ll get through this is to have quality leadership, I think, from all the different sectors and it’s clear that labor will always be at the table, and will be a major contributor to where we go. And so, the leadership of labor and folks like you helping to drive that conversation from that sector is critically important, so, Jim Araby, thanks a lot for spending time with us, and thanks a lot for your leadership on these key issues. We appreciate it.
Absolutely, any time. Thanks a lot.