Drop your cards, shake out your note-taking hand, and get ready to tell a junior employee that HR ultimately works for the boss, because we’re calling it now: 2021’s hottest trend is being pro-union. Don’t believe me? Ask any of 17.1 million people who watched Meghan Markle drop a very special shout out into her exclusive, tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey about the pain she suffered as a working member of the British Royal family: “At my old job, there was a union and they would protect me,” Markle said.
She contrasted this experience with her time as “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex,” where she described feeling lonely, suicidal, and totally thrown under the bus by employers who failed to support her—a surprisingly relatable scenario for anyone who has struggled with mental health issues on the job, only to have management ignore their pleas for help.
By referencing her time as a union member, Markle neatly and casually illustrated the primary reason unions exist: to support workers when their employers fail to do so—a fantastic piece of advertising that her former union, the Screen Actors Guild, was apparently thrilled to highlight.
Markle isn’t the only celebrity who’s hopped aboard the labor train in recent memory. She’s just the latest supporter in a pretty sweet and eclectic run of stars. In July 2020, Fiona Apple signed an open letter in support of the New Yorker Union. Three months later, SMASH MOUTH [sic] did the same, adding their signature to the BuzzFeed News Union’s October 2020 open letter that specifically demanded just cause protection for its unit members.
Celebrity union support has extended to the actual picket lines, too. On January 23, TV host Padma Lakshmi showed up alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to support striking produce workers at New York City’s Hunts Point Market. Those workers, members of the Teamsters Local 202, ended the strike the next day with a three-year contract union leadership lauded as a victory. A month later, on February 22, actor Danny Glover was spotted on the picket line alongside Amazon workers fighting to unionize a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama.
Stars have put the heft they normally reserve for promoting Beats Pills or alternative medicine towards supporting unions before—see Matt Damon’s sexy-ass 2011 press spots at the pro-teachers union Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C., or Chance the Rapper’s ardent support for a 2018 Chicago Teachers Union strike on an episode of SNL, which Mic called “the most useful kind of activism a celebrity can do, behind donating their money.” But three things, in this union member’s humble opinion, make this wave of celebrity support especially exciting.
First, there’s the fact that all of these shows of pro-union sentiment have happened relatively close together which is... what a trend is, to state the obvious. Second, there’s the nature of the support: unflashy solidarity that seems aimed more at elevating the demands of workers than creating good PR for the famous people supporting them. Take Markle, who could not possibly need more press; or Glover, who has long used his celebrity status to boost progressive causes, worked in Hollywood for more than four decades, and already has a Young Thug song named after him—he already has all the clout a man could ask for.
Finally, there’s the fact that not supporting unions, especially in your own workplace? So uncool you might have to permanently leave your award-winning podcast for doing it, a lesson Reply All co-host PJ Vogt and longtime producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni learned the hard way in February. The pair resigned from Gilmet’s flagship show after former coworker Eric Eddings took to Twitter to detail Pinnamaneni and Vogt’s aggressive opposition to the union drive he helped lead, involving tactics like anti-union organizing and outright bullying over Slack.
“I deeply failed as an ally during the unionization effort at Gimlet,” Vogt wrote in a tweet announcing his departure from Reply All. “I was a baby and a jerk about it in myriad ways.”
Actually, there’s a more precise word for what Vogt “was” in labor terminology: a scab, or a worker who opposes unionization or steps across the picket line during a strike. The way things seem to be trending, Vogt won’t be the last powerful person to learn how uncool it is to undermine other workers.
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