By COLIN STAUB
As campaign manager for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential run, Faiz Shakir talked face-to-face with Americans across the country about what matters to them. Over and over he heard a common theme.
“They’re talking about how it’s harder to just get by, harder than ever before,” Shakir told the Labor Press by phone. And one other thing: “The media just doesn’t cover the stagnation of the working class, the struggles of the working class, the pain inflicted on the working class.”
When the 2020 campaign ended, Shakir thought about how to create a media setting that would put working class stories front and center. The result was More Perfect Union, a national nonprofit newsroom that takes its name from the first few words of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”
Together with campaign staffers, journalists, activists and video producers, Shakir launched More Perfect Union in early 2021, focused on video journalism. Shakir says only video could communicate stories with the same power and emotion he saw in those face-to-face conversations during the Sanders campaign.
A year and a half later, More Perfect Union’s videos have been viewed nearly 100 million times across all its social media platforms.
“We’re in a great labor moment,” Shakir said. “I’d like to think that we’re helping to contribute to it.”
More Perfect Union’s first video was posted in February 2021. It was about the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. Shakir says that’s where its approach was first tested.
“Let’s show the faces of the Amazon workers. Let’s hear them make the case for what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”
Labor reporter Kim Kelly and a camera crew visited Bessemer and filmed workers explaining their working conditions, what they wanted to change, and their eyewitness accounts of Amazon’s union-busting. It was Kelly’s first foray into video journalism, and she says she was immediately hooked.
It’s not that pro-labor, worker-focused journalism is new, Kelly says: Print and online publications like Labor Notes, In These Times, Dissent and The Real News Network have covered national labor from a progressive angle for years. What’s different about More Perfect Union is its format: short, visually-compelling videos optimized for social media.
“They’re able to provide a slick, impactful platform to elevate workers’ own voices in a way that attracts immediate attention and empathy from viewers, and gives the workers themselves a boost, too,” Kelly said via email. “There’s just something about seeing yourself on video that feels different from a quote in an article.”
The first few videos quickly gained traction. One garnered 2.7 million views.
“It touched a chord across the nation,” Shakir said. Hearing about Amazon workers’ job conditions resonated. Low pay, inadequate breaks, ignored safety concerns, union busting … all those are things other working people could relate to.
First to tell the story
After More Perfect Union’s first Bessemer report posted, former Staten Island Amazon employee Christian Smalls drove to the Alabama facility. While he was there learning about the Alabama union effort, he suggested that More Perfect Union come to New York to report on his effort to unionize his Staten Island warehouse. It did—from its inception—before any other media. (A year later, the Staten Island site became the first U.S. Amazon warehouse ever to unionize, in votes counted April 1, 2022.)
In March 2021, More Perfect Union began reporting on a union campaign at Colectivo Coffee, a cafe and bakery chain with locations in Wisconsin and Illinois. There, workers were organizing to bring more than 300 employees into a bargaining unit with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The campaign wrapped in August 2021, when the election was certified in favor of the union. Just then, More Perfect Union was contacted by viewers pitching a story about a campaign at another coffee shop.
“They say, ‘We’re up here in Buffalo, we’re looking to organize, we saw your coverage of Colectivo, would you be interested in covering some of what we’re doing?’” Shakir recalls.
It was former AFL-CIO organizing director Richard Bensinger, together with baristas at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York.
More Perfect Union published its first Starbucks union video Sept. 13, just two weeks after the workers asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election. Following the campaign so early meant that More Perfect Union was ready to document the company’s response: Starbucks flew in top-level executives for anti-union meetings with workers, and fired outspoken union supporters. The videos—and the union campaign—went viral. Soon, union campaigns were launching at Starbucks locations around the country.
“We didn’t fully appreciate at first that all these other Starbucks stores were watching the videos, and a community began out of just seeing each other, seeing their Buffalo colleagues do this,” Shakir says.
Since that first win, workers at 247 other Starbucks stores have voted to unionize.
A ‘worthy adversary’
It’s not just union supporters taking note of More Perfect Union’s reporting.
In April 2022, the online investigative news outlet The Intercept published leaked audio from a human resources conference hosted by CUE Inc. The event’s keynote speakers included Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, and Ken Hurley, then-head of human resources for Kellogg’s. Session titles included “Impossible Dream or Achievable Reality? A Primer on Union Decertification,” and “Union Strikes: How to Prepare, How to Survive.”
After the Kellogg’s keynote, an audience member asked Hurley what he knew about More Perfect Union, which published videos highlighting the 11-week BCTGM strike at Kellogg’s plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee last year.
“They are incredibly good, a very, very worthy adversary,” Hurley said. He described More Perfect Union as “sophisticated,” producing “very impactful videos.”
“They are a force to be reckoned with out there,” he said.
Hurley said he’d spoken with executives at Pepsi, Frito-Lay and Mondelez, and all came to the same conclusion: “It’s really impossible, I will say, for a company, a large company, to combat kind of the level of cinematography and emotion that comes out of those social media posts, when they’re produced so well.”
Hurley has since left Kellogg’s.
Shakir said Hurley’s remarks are a “great acknowledgement” of the outlet’s impact. But he also laughed at the notion that a massive corporation simply can’t compete with the production quality of More Perfect Union’s videos. More Perfect Union relies on donations for its operating costs. Shakir estimates its current annual budget is between $3.5 million and $4 million.
“These are billion dollar corporations,” Shakir says. “Kellogg’s? I’m sure you have a few dollars to try to produce your video. The problem is, it isn’t the slickness of the video … it’s the substance. You’re on the wrong side of the issue.”
Shakir says corporations are used to fighting union organizing without much publicity, and aren’t used to workers having an outlet to spread the word.
“Once you start to galvanize a movement around those workers, [executives] are suddenly like, ‘Wait, wait, the balance is starting to shift. We’re not supposed to be taking that kind of pressure. That’s not something we’re used to.’”