Do We Still Need Unions? An interview with IUE-CWA President Carl Kennebrew

Apr 27, 2020

Installation view of the exhibition The Last Cruze by artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, with the last Chevy Cruze to come off the Lordstown, Ohio GM assembly line in the foreground

Inspired by the Wexner Center’s exhibition LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Last Cruze, this two-part interview with IUE-CWA President Carl Kennebrew from April 14, 2020, was generated by questions from Ohio State students in Assistant Professor of Art Jared Thorne’s spring 2020 Imagemaker’s Seminar course. The interview is presented here in lieu of Thorne’s scheduled faculty gallery talk on April 1, which was canceled due to COVID-19 closures. Part two of the interview will be published next week.

Why are unions important to the modern worker?

Often relegated to the sidelines as unnecessary bureaucratic institutions of yesteryear, unions are rarely seen for their true dual functions: vehicles for democracy in the workplace and sources of strong independent political power for working people. Unions are just as, if not more, important to the modern worker than ever before.

As our country reckons with the impact of a global pandemic, we are seeing the detrimental impacts of unfettered capitalism not only on our economy, but also on our communities, our families, and our bodies. The US now has the most reported coronavirus deaths in the world. Yet despite this alarming and preventable status, corporations and the one percent still appear to be more concerned with keeping businesses open than flattening the curve. A prioritization of profits over people enabled approximately 20,600 preventable deaths with a death toll that continues to rise. 

As one public health expert noted, “You cannot drive a bus or wash dishes on Zoom.” Those who are most vulnerable to contracting this virus are often the least protected. Low-wage workers, many of whom are workers of color, do not have the lifesaving protections of paid sick days or adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They are not able to work from the safety of their homes, but instead are on the front lines of this crisis, harvesting crops, restocking grocery shelves, producing our cleaning supplies, sanitizing our medical facilities, fulfilling our online orders, and delivering our dinner. Instead of being adequately compensated for their labor, most of these workers are working without hazard pay, without paid leave, without health insurance, and without the safety policies and equipment they need to stay safe.

Labor unions provide an organizing vehicle to ensure that workers have real power in their workplaces and in their communities. We provide protections for workers organizing for better pay, safer working conditions, and lifesaving benefits like health care and paid leave. We provide infrastructure and financial resources for political and legislative campaigns like the Fight for $15, the people’s bailout, and increased access to the ballot.

This pandemic highlights the indisputable fact that workers are more valuable to our economy than CEOs. Imagine for a moment: a global pandemic without agricultural, retail, and transportation workers restocking our grocery stores with the food we all need to survive; without healthcare and domestic workers providing the lifesaving physical, emotional, and medical support to our most vulnerable neighbors and loved ones; without utility workers making sure we have water, gas, and electricity wherever we are during this difficult time; without communication workers ensuring we have access to internet and phone lines, allowing us to stay connected amidst social distancing orders; without manufacturing workers who produce every item we use, from hand sanitizer and ventilators to batteries, toilet paper, and cars; without the warehouse and delivery workers fulfilling each and every online order we make from the safety and comfort of our homes. Workers are essential not only in times of crisis but every day, and labor unions are the backbone support for working people’s political, economic, and social power. Currently we have an economy and a country run by workers but controlled by CEOs. It isn’t working. Workers produce more than we ever have in history, yet half of US households are one accident away from falling into poverty. Labor unions are key to any kind of real transformation to the current economic, political, and public health crises our nation is faced with. 

Considering that many people are being laid off or furloughed due to the coronavirus, and the reality that people increasingly change jobs multiple times in their lifetime, what is the role of unions during this season and moving forward?

The IUE-CWA represents over 40,000 workers in almost every state, most of whom are employed in the manufacturing sector. Amidst state-mandated closures across the country, manufacturing workers are consistently declared essential because we produce the goods needed to keep our economy moving and people safe. In a public health crisis like the one our country is currently facing, our nation is in desperate need of supplies. Our frontline workers do not have personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves, and sanitizer. Our hospitals lack sufficient supplies including hospital beds and ventilators. IUE-CWA workers want to and can produce those things, but instead they are being laid off.

Currently, our union is fighting for safer working conditions and demanding that General Electric stop closing shops and laying off workers and instead let us save lives. Our workers have staged protests across the country, demanding that GE save jobs and lives by bringing ventilator production to our empty shop floors.

As more and more workers (union and non) begin to turn to unemployment benefits and other parts of our social safety net to make ends meet, it is worth noting that labor unions have been on the front lines fighting to protect this public infrastructure for decades.

Additionally, in times of crisis, unions play an essential role in negotiating the best severance, leave policies, and job training packages that exist. IUE locals are currently negotiating and mobilizing our workers around safer working conditions, generous sick and family leave policies, increased health coverage, and hazard pay. Tough economic times are precisely the times when workers want the protections of a union, a contract, and the legal right to negotiate changes to working conditions. This natural desire also explains the dramatic increase in inquiries our union has received over the past several weeks from workers interested in organizing a union at their shop.

At this point in our labor climate, the issues of worker and laborer visibility and compensation are at an all-time high and in constant debate and conversation. How or where does the union exist in this conversation? Within a movement for a higher livable wage, universal healthcare, and other benefits, how does the union push for lasting visibility and economic equity?

The halls of Congress are teeming with powerful special interest groups fighting for regulations, laws, executive orders, and government funding for their respective industries. Big corporations and the top one percent have created massive infrastructure at the local, state, and federal level to lobby for deregulation, lower taxes, and cuts to our social safety net. Labor unions often serve as one of the only voices fighting back on behalf of working people. CEOs in the 1930s did not just wake up one morning and decide their workers should not have to work more than eight hours per day, 40 hours per week, and get overtime compensation; workers fought for it for years until it became law. Weekends, child labor laws, a minimum wage, breaks, safety standards in the workplace—all these things and more that workers (union and non-union) benefit from have been fought for by the labor movement. This is true of our fights in the 1930s, and it is just as true today. 

Recently, on April 9, 2020, IUE-CWA held a national day of action for the PAID Leave Act, which, if turned into law, would provide paid sick, medical, and family leave to all workers and independent contractors to help deal with this crisis now and in the future. Before the coronavirus hit, our members spent several months organizing in support of the PRO Act, which if turned into law, would become one of the most important pieces of legislation strengthening workers’ ability to organize in over 80 years. Currently, IUE-CWA is supporting a statewide ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage in Ohio to $13 per hour, despite the fact that many of our workers already make that amount or more. “A force for working families” is IUE-CWA’s motto, and we strive to live up to it every day.



Carl Kennebrew became the eighth president of IUE-CWA on August 2, 2018. Carl has been a proud member of IUE-CWA for nearly 25 years. He started his union career as an elected delegate and vice president of Local 84755 in Dayton, Ohio. While vice president, Carl graduated from CWA’s Minority Leadership Institute (MLI), a program dedicated to increasing the involvement of minorities at all levels of our union. As vice president, Carl also worked as an organizer, served as the local’s Legislative Political Action Team member, and as an executive board member for the Dayton Miami Valley AFL-CIO. In August of 2013, Carl became the first minority president of Local 755, the founding local of IUE-CWA. He was reelected without opposition in the fall of 2014 and 2017.

Exhibited internationally, Jared Thorne’s work speaks to issues of identity and subjectivity as they relate to class and race in America and abroad, with recent series of photographs exploring Planned Parenthoods throughout Ohio and the idea of blackness as lived in Cape Town. Before joining Ohio State, Thorne taught at the collegiate level in South Africa from 2010 to 2015. Thorne holds a bachelor of arts in English literature from Dartmouth College and a master of fine arts from Columbia University.

More on Thorne’s spring 2020 course

The Imagemaker’s Seminar centers on discussing, analyzing, reading, and critiquing images and ideas. Guest lectures and opportunities for studio visits by professors, curators, and artists guide students down this winding path.

Image: Installation view of LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Last Cruze at the Wexner Center for the Arts

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