Dec 19, 2022 - Podcasts

A remarkable year for organized labor in the U.S.

From Amazon employees forming their first union in Staten Island this April to Congress intervening to stop a railroad workers' strike just a few weeks ago, it's been quite a year for labor. Axios' Emily Peck takes a look back at the year that was and what's to come.

  • Plus, the surprising history of America's favorite flowering Christmas plant.
  • And, Lionel Messi finally gets his World Cup.

Guests: Axios' Emily Peck and Marina Franco.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Alex Sugiura. 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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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, December 19th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: the surprising history of America’s favorite Christmas flower. Plus, Lionel Messi finally gets his World Cup. But first: why 2022 was such a remarkable year for organized labor in the U.S. — that’s our One Big Thing.

NIALA: From Amazon workers forming their first union in Staten Island, this April, to Congress intervening to stop a railroad worker strike just a few weeks ago. It's been quite a year for labor. So much so that there was a 37% increase in worker strikes compared to last year. Axios’ Markets Correspondent Emily Pack has been following this all year and is here to look back at the year that was and what's to come. Hey Emily.

EMILY PECK: Hey Niala.

NIALA: So 37% increase, where does that data point come from?

EMILY: So Cornell has this Labor Action Tracker, throughout the year they track any work stoppage at a company involving two or more people, and they're doing that all year. It's probably the most comprehensive real-time tracker of this kind of thing that's available. There will be official statistics from the labor department in February, but this is a good indicator for where we are right now.

NIALA: Can you put that in context, how much of that is because of the pandemic?

EMILY: Workers have more leverage and power now than they did before the pandemic because there are workers missing from the workforce. There's a labor shortage. A lot of companies are desperate to hire and workers are taking advantage of that leverage and asking for better working conditions and better pay.

But that's not the only reason, a lot of these workers that went out on strike this year were in, worked in healthcare. They just made it through a brutal pandemic, there were worker shortages. One labor expert said to me, you know, some nurses saw more deaths over the past two years than they would in a lifetime of working. And you know, there's burnout and they feel unsafe. And, and there's a through line from the healthcare workers who went out on strike to the Starbucks workers who started to organize really in earnest in 2022. And the through line is those workers also say they didn't really feel safe or protected at work during the pandemic. and so it's not just about pay, it's really this issue of safety and health and working conditions and life issues that I think has sort of pushed a lot of people to do this.

NIALA: Are there any reforms that you're surprised we didn't see happen this year?

EMILY: The United States is the only developed country that doesn't offer paid sick leave or have a paid sick leave policy for its workers. And I figured when the pandemic came around, I was like, it's gonna happen. And it wasn't just me saying that it was advocates, policy people. They're like, this is the moment, and, you know, it didn't happen. There was a temporary policy, but it expired.

NIALA: So, Emily, you've been talking about the momentum that workers have built up this year. Now that we're seeing increasing layoffs as the year comes to an end and concerns about a recession, how does that affect worker organizing momentum going into 2023?

EMILY: I was asking about that with sources, and one source pointed out that probably the biggest moment in U.S. labor history. The time when organizing was a force was at the height of the Great Depression, something to think about. So, I think another maybe headwind for these movements though, is just labor policy in the United States, which really doesn't favor workers. Like I talked about Starbucks a bunch already, but because of the way the labor law is, Starbucks workers can't negotiate a contract altogether nationwide. They have to go store by store and that really can like crush the momentum of that movement. And, the labor laws generally are fairly weak and that would be like a worry that some of the momentum around organizing is gonna come and like hit a wall.

NIALA: What else are you gonna be watching for next?

EMILY: One thing I'm gonna be watching, there are some very big contract expirations coming up next year, including one of around 350,000 teamsters at UPS, their contracts expiring, so I'm curious what will happen there.

NIALA: Axios’ Emily Peck on the labor beat for us. Thanks Emily. Happy holidays.

EMILY: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: In a moment, the history of the ubiquitous poinsettia.


The surprising history of America’s favorite Christmas plant

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

It's the holidays, and I'm sure you've seen plenty of poinsettia around. The iconic red plant is one of the best selling flowers worldwide, and the US market was worth an estimated $153 million in 2020. But have you ever wondered how they became the designated Christmas plant? Axios’ Latino Marina Franco is here to explain the forgotten history of the poinsettia. Hi Marina.

MARINA FRANCO: Hi Niala. Thank you for inviting me.

NIALA: Marina, can you tell us where the poinsettias come from and how they got their name?

MARINA: Yeah, the poinsettia was originally called cuetlaxóchitl which is a Náhuatl name. And it's native to Mexico and the northern parts of Guatemala. And there it was just considered mostly a decorative plant or sometimes a sap, which is latex was used for medicinal purposes. But no one really associated it with a Christmas like thing, even though it blooms towards November and December, until the Spanish came and because it blooms in November and December started using it in nativity scenes.

And cut to about 300 years later, when Mexico became an independent country. The first U.S. Ambassador came, his name was Joel Roberts Poinsett, and the story goes that he saw it in Tesco in a Mexican city once during Christmas time. And he was enamored with the red plant that he saw everywhere during Christmas time and started taking seeds, and samples back to the U.S. where it became the sort of phenomenon that is now what everyone knows as poinsettia in honor of the U.S. diplomat.

NIALA: And so what is it like for Mexican growers? I thought it was so interesting from your story to learn that even though this flower originated in Mexico, we don't import those flowers from Mexico here in the U.S.?

MARINA: Yeah. It was exported from Mexico, not by Mexican growers, but by Poinsett and then people that he knew, botanists that he knew. And it was patented in the U.S. by a German immigrant family, the Ecke family. And because of that patent, there are like international protections for plant patents and varieties, which means that even though it's a plant native to Mexico, Mexican growers in order to be able to grow and sell certain varieties now have to pay royalties and fees to U.S. growers. In Mexico right now, there's a movement to sort of reclaim the plant. A lot of Mexican growers and botanists have been working to cultivate new varieties, special varieties that they can patent themselves so that they no longer have to pay royalties to U.S. growers.

NIALA: And so I also think the other interesting part of this story is that you all don't use the word poinsettia. What's this Mexican name for this plant?

MARINA: Yeah. So here it's always been known as flor de nochebuena, nochebuena is Christmas Eve. So Poinsettia here is actually not known in reference to the plant. Poinsettismo was used for quite a long time here because Poinsett, because he came to Mexico right after Mexican independence. He was seen as meddling in how the government of Mexico was going to be structured, during his first years. So here, Poinsett and poinsettia isn’t a plant, it's U.S. meddling.

NIALA: Axios’ Latino Marina Franco joining us from Mexico City. Thanks, Marina. Happy holidays.

MARINA: Likewise. Feliz Navidad.

Lionel Messi finally gets his World Cup

[SINGING: Muchachos]

NIALA: That’s Argentina’s national team celebrating their World Cup win yesterday in Qatar - as broadcast on Instagram Live from their locker room by player Nicholas Otamendi. It’s the third championship title for the South American nation, and the first for Lionel Messi, its star player who is one of – if not the – greatest soccer players of all time.

And maybe - like me - you were curious about this song that’s been adopted as the unofficial national anthem for the team. It was created by a fan who adapted the lyrics to a pop song after the death of the team’s other greatest player, Diego Maradona. Here, from the music video, is my favorite line in the song: about how Maradona is looking down on Messi - rooting for Argentina to be champions again.

[SINGING: Y al Diego, desde el cielo lo podemos ver con Don Diego y con La Tota, alentándolo a Lionel.]

NIALA: I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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