Sep 1, 2022 - Podcasts

A pivotal moment for labor in America

Labor Day is just around the corner, and unions haven't been this popular in 50 years. Almost 71% of Americans now say they approve of unions. That's up almost 10% from pre-pandemic levels. And this week, the California Senate passed a bill that could raise wages for fast food workers to as high as $22 per hour. It has the potential to revitalize the way unions work in the US.

  • Plus, players in The Sims are bringing abortion to their virtual world.
  • And, Serena’s last twirl.

Guests: Axios' Emily Peck and Stephen Totilo.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Robin Linn, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday - the first of September.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: how a popular video game is handling real-life political issues. Plus, Serena’s last twirl.

But first, a pivotal moment for labor in America. That’s today’s one big thing.




NIALA: Labor Day is just around the corner. And this year, the low unemployment rate has shifted the balance of power between workers and employers. That's laid the groundwork for recent union formations at corporate giants like Starbucks and Amazon. In fact, unions haven't been this popular in 50 years. Almost 71% of Americans now say they approve of unions. That's up almost 10% from pre-pandemic levels. And this week, the California Senate passed a bill that could raise wages for fast food workers to as high as $22 per hour. That has the potential to revitalize the way unions work in the US. Axios markets correspondent, and sometimes Axios Today guest host Emily Peck has been reporting on all of this. Hey Emily!


NIALA: Emily, how did the pandemic contribute first of all, to not just this shift in the labor market, but this rise in support for unions?

EMILY: Yeah, so I think we all know about this actually, if you take a moment to step back, right? The pandemic hit. So many people were thrown out of work. And so many people weren't thrown out of work. There were all these essential workers, fast food workers. Yes. But all kinds of hourly workers that we came in contact with every day that we saw working through the pandemic in some really kind of horrific conditions. Everyone kind of felt this mistreatment or saw this mistreatment or knew someone who was mistreated. And then coming out of that period, there's a labor shortage. Unemployment is really low and people feel empowered to get what they want from their bosses and their managers. And I think this whole kind of swirl contributed to this increase in support for unions.

NIALA: So in California, there's this movement towards something called sectoral bargaining unions, push for this. It's where workers from different companies in the same industry negotiate for pay and other benefits together. How does that fit into all of this?

EMILY: Yeah. So unions have been trying to organize fast food workers in California for a long time. Mostly unsuccessfully because they're spread out, in restaurants and fast food stores throughout the state. And because turnover is very high in that industry. So they've been pushing for this bill, which would essentially bring together union members and advocates along with fast food industry representatives onto what's called a council. And they would then sort of set wage standards for the fast food industry. Those wages could be as high, according to this bill as $22 an hour. And this is, it's not the same thing as a union obviously, but, advocates, labor unions are really, really excited about this bill. And the industry is really vehemently opposed.

NIALA: We also saw news yesterday of different layoff announcements from companies, and we're starting to see more of those. We know that the federal reserve is trying to decrease inflation and slow down the economy. All of this is like signs of maybe a recession. How would that impact the balance of power between workers and employers and union popularity? Yeah, I mean what the federal reserve is doing could increase unemployment. That means workers have less leverage, true. Would that mean that support for unions would necessarily go down? Union support was very low during the great recession in 2009. And that makes me think like, oh, maybe when unemployment is high people don't support labor as much. But I know that support in the US for labor unions during the great depression was high, that's when there was tons of organizing. So I'm not sure what lesson to take away from those two examples. I think it's too soon to say that a rise in unemployment would take away some of this leverage. People saw what workers went through in the pandemic and that's a lesson that's gonna be hard to shake.

NIALA: Emily Peck is an Axios markets correspondent. Thank you, Emily.

EMILY: Thank you.



In a moment, how the abortion debate is playing out in the popular videogame The Sims.


Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Republican candidates across the country are trying to soften the hardline anti-abortion messages they took up during the primaries, as we get closer to the midterms. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow. But in the meantime, the abortion debate continues in the virtual world, too.

Add-ons to the popular video game The Sims allow players to get an abortion, among its other real life simulations like getting married and having a baby – and it’s got players, as well as Axios Gaming’s Stephen Totilo, thinking about how this all connects to the real world.

Hi Stephen!

Stephen: Hi Niala

Niala: Steven, you were last here to talk about how Wordle is so popular in part, because it's apolitical. I'm guessing this is the opposite.

Stephen: Yeah, so the remember Wordle did I think have to make a statement when they put the word fetus in there, because that got people talking as well. But we have a game series in this, which has been around for over 20 years. And they've largely tried to stay away from, I guess, making active political statements. But some of it just does come through, regardless. For example, when they created the game, they didn't code a difference between gender in terms of who can get married. So men and women could get married to each other. Women could marry women, Men can marry men. They've never allowed players who play this virtual dollhouse of a game to terminate a pregnancy. And as you noted, some fans have decided, no, we want that to be possible when we play these scenarios,

Niala: From a practical matter, I think we should back up because it's actually hard to have an unplanned pregnancy in the Sims world when you're playing the game, right?

Stephen: That's right. You have what's called Woohoo in the game, and again, developers make rules. So Woohoo in the game is consequences free. You can't get an STD. You won't have a baby unless you go a different route. if you choose to try for a baby, there's an 80% fertility rate and then you can have a baby.

Niala: So how many people have added this option and why?

Stephen: Well, this option, as you mentioned, was not created or supported by the developers of the game. There's never been a way officially to terminate a pregnancy. But you have modders. These are, this is a subset of the player base, and this is exists for all games basically. And there are some players who they know just enough about coding or they learn how to code. So that they can modify the game that they're playing. Maybe they wanna change how the main character looks. They want to add a piece of furniture or clothing. And so a lot of players do this for the Sims. Various modders have introduced this idea of the virtual abortion.

Part of what fascinated me was they then have to decide how it works. What are the rules for a virtual abortion? One motto I spoke to said, well, I wanted to make sure people just didn't, uh, handle this irresponsibly. So she makes it cost in-game money. She makes it so that you can't have a virtual abortion in the third trimester, by the way, pregnancies are only three virtual days long.

Another modder I spoke to said, I want there to be a wider range of emotional reactions amongst the virtual people iIf they have an abortion – sadness, but maybe relief for some, depending on where they are in their virtual. Guilt, wistfulness about what could have been the work of a game developer and even the work of a model is about creating the rules of how a virtual world could work. And when you do that kind of work, you're really thinking about what matters, what doesn't, what systems you believe in and maybe how you think things should function.

Niala: And what kind of response have these modders gotten?

Stephen: This has been a perennial request. Players have asked for this. One of the mods that has abortion and miscarriages has been downloaded 250,000 times in the past year. Some players have asked the makers of the game to officially add it into the game. Uh, I don't think they're gonna do that anytime soon, though.

Niala: Steven to is the author of Axios gaming newsletter. Thanks, Steven.

Stephen: Thank you. My pleasure.

C BLOCK [slug] [time]

Before we go — a quick update from the US OPEN last night where Serena Williams beat world number 2 Anett Kontaveit [[CON-tah-vitt]] to win her second round singles match.

Of course fans have all been preparing for the star to, as she put it, “evolve away” from tennis. But when she was asked about it after the incredible tennis she played last night –


So we have at least a little time left with Serena yet. She now advances to the US Open third round. As always, I’ll be watching.


That’s all we’ve got for you today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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