June 26 PSN Reportback: "Working for Change: Listening to Workers' Stories

On June 26, Terrell Frazier and Leyla Vural led a PSN titled “Working for change: Listening to Workers’ Stories. Read the reportback below from Groundswell member Patricia Silver. 


The PSN centered around reflecting on lessons learned during the project “Summer for Respect: Organizing and Oral History” which was inspired by the anniversary of the Freedom Summer of 1964. Terrell was working with Columbia sociologist Adam Reich when Reich was approached by the UFCW about working together on a project with student organizers and Walmart workers. Students were to conduct oral histories as part of their work as organizers in the field. Terrell led the oral history component and the union did the fieldwork training and organizing. Terrell started the PSN with a description of the project.

Students came to Columbia for a week-long training in fieldwork and in oral history as a tool for creating change. The training included developing skills in interviewing people differently positioned socially and economically from oneself. This included reflecting on the Freedom Rides and the white students who put their bodies on the line. They worked together to make the interview guide before students left for the field. Some students became very passionate about oral history work and others were more into the organizing. They ended up with over 150 narratives with both workers and organizers. The decision to interview organizers as well as the workers was in order to gain a multi-perspective approach to how Walmart can orient the global market because of how huge it is.

The interviews focused on talking about the interviewee’s life in an unstructured way. They wanted the Walmart piece to emerge naturally in the interview in order to see at what point in the worker’s life Walmart became salient and how this was framing life experiences and daily activities. To interviewees expecting a more journalistic style of interviewing, their opening questions like “tell me something about your life and where you were born” or “where did you grow up?” were confusing. But this helped to orient interviewees to the frame of the life history interview. The interviews asked about the interviewee’s past, family and home life, and family economic status. They wanted stories about family and community and how the person’s past had impacted life choices. They asked about obstacles faced and what people wanted to see for themselves and for others from Walmart. They wanted to use the oral history to capture change and the community before Walmart and questions about how Walmart impacted their community. The more future-oriented questions facilitated the union’s ability to use workers’ narratives to communicate a sense of urgency and a collective voice. Terrell talked about this not being a “giving voice” model – workers know what they need.

Themes that came out of the narratives included labor, globalization, the triangulated labor market with subcontracted work, incarceration, addiction and recovery, co-production of gender at the workplace.  Some of these themes were anticipated but others were not.  For instance, one interviewee’s response to a question about what a perfect day would be like was to say that would be lying in bed with her cat and watching TV. Set in relation to other narratives, this piece was telling because it illustrated that the way that Walmart schedules workers makes it hard to have any control over the rest of life. One interviewee with a child and separated from his partner had visiting rights on particular days. The Walmart scheduling made it literally difficult for him to be a parent.

It was very intense work for the interviewers and the pace was fast. Among the unexpected themes to emerge was addiction and abuse. These were hard narratives for the interviewers to receive, and the feelings accumulated. Interviewing skills include not only the interview itself but also what happens afterwards when the interviewer is left to sit with the difficult stories. Terrell did check-ins with the students every couple of weeks and they ended up needing a secondary training in the field about interviewing with issues of trauma.

Another piece of the project to be reflected upon was what happened to the narratives collected and the issues around the time it takes to process a life history interview. As part of training, digital media strategists talked to students about how they can move people on line and use shorter pieces of larger narratives while still being faithful to the full narrative. Students were encouraged to think about what would make a good interview segment to link with images and video from protests and songs. Terrell started a sound cloud and students had HD cameras in the field. The document of record is the full interview, and this approach was to respect the archives as the living record but then have these segments and links that could be more quickly communicated. The release agreement was also an issue. Walmart had done retaliatory firing and they had to be responsible about how they used people’s stories.

Following this overview of the project, we discussed a series of questions. There are plans for a book that will draw from the interviews and the workers’ experiences. A big piece of this is that because of Walmart’s employment practices, people can be transitory. So keeping in touch in order to show the work and get release forms takes alot of work. The methodology piece of the book will talk about the multi-perspective approach. An example of that methodology is in the collaborative work on 911 narratives in the book After the Fall.

The book will also include discussion of the fact that the narratives are not all negative. People take pride in their work and some were excited to have someplace to go outside of home. The workers also have a Facebook page and post selfies with their shelf space well used. They post complements to each other. It’s a community. And for many workers, the interview process was transformative to know that the narrative of their life will be in an archive. Interviewers would ask people what do they want people 50 or 100 years from now to know.

A large part of our discussion was around the tight schedule of a union working on a campaign and the labor-intensive demands of oral history. This was an unusual project for that reason. Unions are not always supportive of participatory methods. Things can come out in the interview that are at cross-purposes to the union’s objectives. In this case, the UFCW put a great deal of resources into the project for housing, transportation, and training students in five cities. It is interesting that the union was not only willing to let the project happen, but actually funded it.

The point of the oral history component was worked out in headquarters but not always well communicated to the fieldsites. It was alot more work than the union had anticipated and it took alot of conversation, but things did begin to turn around partway through the summer. The students were in the field with archival-level recording equipment and cameras. Having the students interview the field organizers before interviewing the workers helped the organizers to understand better the benefit of collecting the stories. In some places, Walmart had injunctions that kept the organizers from entering the property. The students could get access when the organizers could not. This also meant, though, that the stores sometimes called the police on the students.

Terrell also talked about discriminatory practices among the workers, and having to deal with shop floor racism. The interviewers worked to let that come out and be aired. And that led to commenting on how Black and LGBTQ organizers are marginalized in the larger New York activist network. They make their own satellite networks within the larger network. Terrell believes the union is starting to see intersectionality and how people are constituted in multiple selves.

We closed the PSN with a discussion about oral history and digital storytelling. The latter is sometimes critiqued for being manipulative, but it seems that doesn’t have to be the way it is. If it’s done right, it can be a collaborative experience.

For a full description of this PSN and to read bios for Terrell and Leyla, click HERE.  

Patricia Silver received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from American University in Washington, D.C. As a faculty member at University of Central Florida, she co-directed the oral history project, “Puerto Ricans in Central Florida from 1940s to 1980s: A History.” She also consulted on the oral history projects, “Cultural Foundations of Puerto Rican Orlando,” and “Puerto Rican Political Participation and Civic Engagement.” She served as co-editor of the spring 2010 special issue on Puerto Ricans in Central Florida in CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Her publications have appeared in American Ethnologist, Identities, CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Southern CulturesLatino Studiesand Memory Studies