Donavan Caver Interview
Interviewed by Alex Kim
Donavan Caver is a long-term organizer with Black Power Collective IE, formally known as Black Lives Matter Inland Empire. He currently works as a dock worker and serves as a board member for Warehouse Workers Resource Center (WWRC).
Alex Kim is a designer and writer pursuing a PhD in History & Theory of Architecture at Yale University, jointly with a certificate in Film & Media Studies. Outside of his research work, He is a member of the coordinating committee for the Local 33 campaign to win a graduate worker union at Yale University.
Donavan, last time we met at the Labor Mini Conference you were talking about the nomadic housing situation of the warehouse worker community in San Bernardino. How’s that going recently?
Recently we’ve been having these evictions in the city of San Bernardino. The city will work with the developers behind the scenes. The whole time, property owners and property management have been working to deteriorate the conditions of the property. The property ends up being condemned, and then the sheriff comes in and evicts all the residents. The residents end up being displaced—all these people are homeless now. We’ve had it happen twice in the last five months. It happened at an apartment complex in the Del Rosa area first, and then it just recently happened at a downtown apartment complex. So that’s kind of what we’ve been dealing with.
How do you fight that back with a lack of legal support on the housing front?
It’s not looking too good. There are attorneys out here that do housing rights, but they almost exclusively work with property management, versus working with the tenants.
If the building is condemned as uninhabitable, is that just an excuse for the landlords to seek new tenants after people get evicted? Or is it no longer going to be a residential building?
That’s what’s going to be interesting. What are we gonna have afterward? Are we gonna end up with a gentrified apartment complex because the residents aren’t there anymore?
A lot of that happened in Oakland, in the last couple of decades. More and more property developers gobble up a bunch of single family residences and then do absolutely zero maintenance on it. There’ll be long time tenants who have been living there for many years whose property managers and developers will just stop responding to their maintenance requests. Eventually, this exact same thing happens: it becomes a public health issue, and then they leverage public health problems of space becoming unoccupiable because of structural damage or whatever that accumulates from total lack of maintenance.
Then that becomes a way to fast track a house getting demolished. Over time these developers might even demolish an entire neighborhood block and then replace it with new development. That kind of transition very quickly takes place. As I understand San Bernardino is not a particularly tenant friendly city government either, right?
To put it in perspective, a couple of years ago we fought because we wanted the city of San Bernardino to take this housing funding from Ben Carson, and the conservative city council still turned it down. Their whole premise was once we cater to the homeless, more homeless are going to come. That kind of struck the chord for what it’s like within the county. It’s really bad in San Bernardino.
I grew up in the Bay Area, and then worked in Los Angeles for a few years as an architectural designer before moving out to the East coast for grad school. Even in ostensibly progressive cities in the Bay Area or in Los Angeles itself, there is a strange mixture of these socially progressive values with a fiscally conservative “don’t touch my taxes” kind of mentality.
That I think results in a lot of Nimbyism, but there’s also another side of this, that is the people who ostensibly want progressive housing models put into place, which I am on the same page with, but then also propose housing or development freezes like unilaterally. That just doesn’t help to solve the problem at all.
You see a contrast between the political class and the public: the political class has interests in business and developers, and the public has an interest in the people. I see that clash in Los Angeles, and I think that’s a good thing; It’s healthy. But when you get out to the Inland Empire, we don’t have it because we don’t have that majority of people that even want us. They don’t like poor people out here. Poor people of lower class; people that are socially and economically stratified are not welcomed here in particular cities. That’s how we ended up in these cities like San Bernardino, which is drastically different from Redlands even though they are right across from each other.
I grew up between Ontario and Pomona. If you go to Pomona, it is drastically different from Claremont, or La Verne. That’s kind of how social class has impacted development out here, but it’s really been to the benefit of the business class. If they want to put a warehouse in a poor neighborhood, they’re gonna put a warehouse in a poor neighborhood. If they wanna put it next to a school, they’re gonna put it next to a school. Are we gonna try to fight it? Yes. We are gonna try, but we are not able to really counter what they want to do.
It’s interesting you mentioned NIMBYism —I kind of laughed. At one point Amazon tried to somehow place a hub facility underneath Upland Cable Airport, located in a predominantly upper-middle-class, white area. If you showed up to those city council meetings, you would have seen that they fought that back with ferocity. I couldn’t believe it. There were people that were employed as developers and contractors showing up to city council meetings, and they were telling their neighbors, “Don’t listen to anything these people say, that they’re lying to you. We do the same thing. We’re trying to take advantage of you, and they’re trying to take advantage of you.”
When they pushed Amazon out of the area, Amazon just moved down. They started taking up more space south of Upland near Chino Airport. I don’t think they can expand too much more at Ontario airport, but it looks like they pretty much have San Bernardino airport. If you aren’t aware, we have an international airport that’s not used. There are no incoming and outcoming passenger flights, but Amazon uses it extensively for cargo and logistics. That was a big controversy because you could see how Amazon saw the business opportunity in an airport that was put together with a lot of tax dollars. And who’s gonna benefit from it? It’s not gonna be the people or the taxpayers—it’s gonna be Amazon itself. And Amazon is not offering any type of equitable jobs to the community, neither is the warehouse industry as a whole. The only equitable jobs offered in our industry out here are unionized jobs.
We’re trying to expand a union-drive effort to the warehouses to make it more equitable. But, there’s a lot of resistance.
I think that’s maybe a good moment to transition more formally into having this labor organizing conversation.
But first, Donvan, I just wanna thank you for spending your Saturday afternoon with us. I know you’ve got other places that you would probably like to be on a weekend, so I really appreciate you making time.
Just for some background context, I was doing some research in my master’s program on one particular logistics firm called Quiet Logistics — Quiet 3PF now after they changed their name. They don’t have that much of a presence in the West coast, I don’t think. They started out in Massachusetts. But without getting too in the weeds of a particular company, one of the things that we see a lot across the board in a lot of logistics industry corporations, is a really intensive managerial strategy in the fulfillment industry that pits worker versus worker, leveraging competition on the warehouse floor as a means of dividing workers. The example that I’m thinking of, with Quiet 3PF, is a particular managerial game-based interface where they actually turned the fulfillment job into what they literally call “a horse race” in their patent documents.
The interface they use for labor management monitors how efficiently you’re doing your picking tasks, what your error rates are…All of these things are constantly measured through the interface and tracked as a way to rank you relative to your coworkers.
And that ranking system then is deployed to dole out things like benefits that with a union job contract would be guaranteed, such as paid time off. But instead, you can win paid time off based on how you’re performing. So that, by default, sets up a kind of baseline condition of competition.
The interface is also multilingual, so colleagues who speak different languages never need to interact. I imagine this maybe is something that you’ve encountered as well of trying to build organizing infrastructure across language and cultural barriers that may present challenges as you’re trying to organize a workforce.
Management practices like these form a kind of continuous anti-union strategy that precedes even the existence of any labor organizing. I’m wondering if, from your experience organizing warehouse workers, if you could comment about these kinds of systems.
It’s interesting because you expanded on some stuff I’ve been looking at—even recently in my own job.
I can say, out here you’re gonna see a division of workers along racial lines. I haven’t been able to really grasp that because we have some cities in the Inland Empire where there’s lots of warehousing, and there is a deep divide—stigma against—Black workers and Hispanic workers. But then you can go to other cities and other spots of the Inland Empire, that’s not the case.
There is working-class solidarity. I’m looking into trying to get a better understanding of the individualized strategy that management deploys to divide workers. That has always been interesting to me. I’ve been looking at it because it exists, but it also exists in this weird predicament: In the logistics industry, if you want to be more successful and you want to be competitive, then you need to work collectively. There’s no way around it. But once you have people working collectively, I think it naturally builds this type of human bond between workers. “Hey, if we work together, we can get this done,” or, “we’re more successful if we work together.” However, there’s this divide where I’ve seen management try to individualize the work in the logistics industry. I had to ask myself sometimes, is this the only reason this is being deployed? To keep workers divided? Because at the same time, they’re telling people to work together—work as a team. But they’re individualizing the work, so you can’t.
You don’t need an education or academic background to understand it. They’re dealing with these contradictions when they go to work. “You’re telling me one thing, but you’re forcing me to act another. You want me to act this way and work this way, but you’re forcing me to act another way.” That’s one thing that I’ve really looked into, and I’ve kind of picked up on the timing of it. When is it that they individualize the work? When work slows down or when it picks up?
If there are unionizing efforts, then all of a sudden they’re unstandardized bathroom breaks. Now, these workers to take their break at 1:50…these workers take their break at 1:55, and so on. Strategically, I’ve seen that done. I’ve talked to people about that—the contradiction is so glaring.
If you want to be successful in logistics, you need people to work together collectively. But once they start doing it and they’re successful, they see it as a risk. And they start to push individualism to counter potential worker solidarity.
I’ve even seen them do stuff on the union side of things. They’ll deploy a strategy where they’ll push seniority. By basing everything on seniority, you’ve individualized the workers—it becomes this direct hierarchical class. One worker over another worker, over another worker, over another worker…
We should respect the older workers that have been working at a job for longer, but to maintain solidarity among the workers I’ve leaned into creating a tiered class of workers. Workers that have been employed for one to three years are all together…workers that have been employed for 3 to 7 years; 7 to 10 years; 10 years+. I try to explain this to some of my coworkers, and they’re like, “What’s the point? If we want a better position, you have to be here longer than the next guy.” And I’m like, well, no. If you want a better position, or you want a better working facility, you can get it, but you’re not gonna get it if you’re grouped by yourself, right? If you’re grouped with your coworkers, you have the power to move the company.
I imagine the work that you’re doing often falls under practicing inoculation against these kinds of anti-union tactics — finding ways to preemptively get ahead of anti-union rhetoric that employers might try to leverage.
Knowing is half the battle — there are certain kinds of strategies that employers use to divide workers, like calling the union a third-party, outside influence that isn’t a collective movement building effort that’s coming up from within the company.
There’s a whole laundry list of anti unionization tactics that we could talk about, but I wonder if you could say a little bit more about this almost environmental thinking that you have to do. Poking at certain things and saying, “Hey, have you noticed that change that the company’s taken on? Isn’t that a little strange?” Once you see it in your coworkers — once they start to ask questions of their employers — it starts to shift the impression that they have about going into work and tracking the changes that they see in their own working environment. That really does build trust amongst yourselves, as organizers, and the colleagues that you’re trying to organize. Amongst workers themselves, it just inverts the whole equation.
The logistics industry is the industry in our entire area. We have become the West Coast hub for logistics. And I can say—for the younger people, even for myself—the goal isn’t to remain here. We gotta make it out of here. People don’t want to remain in the area because of this industry. People want to leave. And if I had the finances to do it, you best believe I would probably be right there with them. I’m not above this. Even though I believe in building equitable relations for workers and people having better lives. You know, I still probably would leave. I’m right there with them.
We’re dealing with an industry that’s directly developed with a structure of exploitation, but also of displacement. And they exploit our labor and at the same time, they’re displacing the people that engage in that labor. Where do we go? Where do we live? These warehouses take up so much space—it’s literally driven up the housing market.
People think that the housing market has just been driven up by demand—the political solution is always to build more housing. And the developers are right there because that’s where their profit is.
But, the demand hasn’t just been driven up by housing demand in general. It’s been driven up by the displacement of land, by these warehouses in and of themselves. We’re stuck, and we don’t have solutions. The only thing we know that we can all agree on is we’re better off if we stick together versus if we remain divided.
I guess there’s two kinds of dimensions to the question of transience that come to mind here.
One, the continual displacement of logistics workers further and further away from the place of work. You were mentioning that a lot of the workers in certain warehouses often are not locally based, which I imagine presents challenges in organizing, of finding time outside of the workplace to have organizing conversations. That just becomes much more of a challenge, that kind of transience.
And then there’s another level of transience that as you’re saying, many of the people working logistics jobs aren’t interested in remaining in those jobs. And so I imagine a second logistical challenge as an organizer is how you deal with movement building when the turnover of the workforce that you’re a part of is really high.
So what I’ve tried to do is—this is difficult, but I think it’s more successful if I go about it this way—when I talk to people and I try to assess the situation, I look at the overall structure versus just the job that the individual is at. Because overall, we are dealing with an entire industry that is the most powerful industry in our region—the number one employer. More or less, they’ve gained political power, though they’re very discreet with it. So I try to show them the structure because that’s one thing they’re not aware of, even if they’re not employed as a logistics worker.
When they drive around the area—even though there are a ton of warehouses—most aren’t even aware of the warehouses. I wish I could give you some pictures of this because this directly ties into the architecture thing for you all. These warehouses integrate themselves to the point where people don’t see them as threatening or displacing. They see them as, “We’re developing jobs”…“Job security, job security.”
When you drive by, you would be astonished at how many trees surround these warehouses. Now if you look at the ratio of how many trees there are outside compared to the space that the warehouse actually occupies, it would still be ridiculous. The grass is ridiculously green. The plants are extremely green. The trees that surround them are all green.
If I remove those trees from around the warehouse, I still have a warehouse that’s occupying how many square miles of space? How much pollution is it putting out? But they have this green image. It’s eco-brutalism. These are definitely brutalist structures—look at all the concrete! I look at the facade and all I have are trees, green grass, and plants. But if I walk right past it, I see nothing. Emptiness, concrete, trucks, and diesel…
The crazy part about that too, is that San Bernardino County is not a place where grass should grow. So the kind of greenwashing that’s taking place at the perimeter of this to present this friendly, innocuous face to the warehouse industry is starkly apparent, right?
The environmental impact of the warehouse itself is one question, but even managing that greenwash perimeter that has all these beautiful green trees and beautiful green lawns that set up this kind of protective perimeter of the warehouse, is itself actually contributing to the facility’s water consumption.
I don’t know the numbers, but the water consumption is contributing to the environmental footprint that it already takes up—to keep those lawn green is probably astronomical. We’re in a water shortage right now where they’re begging people to conserve water.
If you drive down the 15 freeway, you can see the warehouses. If you look to the right off the freeway, you see nothing but the dry grass, California landscape. But then you look at the warehouse, it’s just a stark contrast of green. Most people don’t look at this type of stuff, but it’s not normal; Something’s out of place right here. I realize that there’s some type of synthesis of art and structure in these facades of environmentalism.
If it were just one warehouse, I would understand, but it’s so many of them where it’s just like, how is your grass so green? Some of them can only have a 3 ½ foot little planter that extends for a hundred or fifty yards of warehouse, but I can guarantee you that it is all going to be green.
There is this one warehouse that’s not too far from Amazon off of the 15 freeway around Eastville; They have so much greenage surrounding them, I would never know that warehouse displaced the farmlands. I look at it, and I’m just like, wow, that’s a nice warehouse. But the reality is, all that it’s brought in are more low-paying jobs, more smog, and more pollution. There’s no end to it. People realize when you point out that, “Hey, something a little bit deeper is going on,” or “you think that this industry is beneficial to us?” But that’s just on its face. In reality, it’s not.
We have to address this sooner than later. But when some people start to see that something is going on, that this isn’t the green wall of trees that they’re trying to project, but a big business and big industry operating under the guise of some type of environmental populism—people start to look at it differently. “Yes, it’s green on the face, but it’s gonna bring an insurmountable amount of particle pollution to your area or to your residence.” Those numbers don’t lie, they’re measurable. When you tell that to people and start saying, “Hey, these are the health impacts of this building and this expansion,” then they start to look at things differently. But again, this image is fostered to make people believe that these brutalist structures are somehow environmentally friendly.
I don’t want to criticize people that are involved in trying to make these structures more environmentally friendly, but at the end of the day—with respect to making the choice of what’s more equitable in a certain area for the community in that area—no matter what, they’re always gonna place the building over the people. If the most reasonable choice for that area is not to build a building at all, they’re never gonna go with it. The choice is always gonna be to develop and try to make it sensible to pacify the people.
This leads me to another question. I’m seeing an interesting parallel here between what it’s been like organizing graduate workers at Yale.
Just for some background context, Local 33 - the graduate worker union that we’re trying to have formally recognized by the university here - organizes in coalition with Locals 34 and 35, which are the clerical and technical workers and maintenance and food service workers at Yale University. We also do a lot of coalition work with community organizations like New Haven Rising, which is a kind of broad-based community organizing group in New Haven that has been making demands of Yale for a very long time to pay its fair share of taxes to the city. For example, as it stands now, they don’t pay any property tax on the immense amount of real estate that the university owns, and only makes a voluntary contribution to the city that is a fraction of what they would be paying if they were to actually pay property taxes.
I’m giving you all this background context because what I find really interesting about the kind of predicament - and maybe it’s not a predicament - maybe it actually works to help to build both sides of the equation that you’re working across, which is, it sounds like there’s a lot of community organizing work that you’re doing that is about trying to build community of residents and tenants that are being displaced by the developments of warehouses in the Inland Empire, while also trying to build a labor organizing infrastructure in the warehouses themselves. Similarly here, those aren’t necessarily always the same interests, right? Workers at Yale University are seeking good paying jobs with contract protected benefits at the university; and community organizations in New Haven may actually make other demands of the university that have to do with their role as effectively a landlord that doesn’t pay taxes in the city. It’s been exciting to see that, largely, despite our separate goals, we’ve been able to build power collectively because the disparate groups recognize that we’re stronger in solidarity.
I’m wondering how or if that sort of organizing has taken place in tandem for you, too: the community organizing against the land grabbing of the warehouse industry in of itself, and then the labor organizing within the warehouses.
Locally, there’s a coalition between a lot of the labor unions and environmentalists. I should note that not all of the labor unions are in support of that coalition. Two labor unions, in particular, are opposed: a local of LIUNA! and a local carpenters union. They are very pro-expansion and pro-warehouse. But the majority of the labor unions are on the other side of the aisle… They try to find that dynamic of organizing industry with respect to the community.
We don’t have enough labor unions organizing in this industry. We have a focus on Amazon, but when l look past that there is a massive industry out here and we do not have enough support from labor. Probably the last successful labor campaign that I’ve seen out here has been with the Teamsters. The most interesting one was the UE and their labor organizing out of a local coffee shop, which was just amazing.
We work out of this coalition, but we’re up against so much. How do we overcome that? It’s a huge hurdle, and everyone does what they can. Everyone is committed in the way that they can be committed. Between the airports, logistics, truckers, and development of our freeway systems out here, it’s monstrous… It’s developed solely for the industry. Residents and communities that work in the industry are non-existent. It’s kind of baffling to me. Everything works to serve that industry and very, very, little works to serve the people.
Facing something that can feel totally insurmountable, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how you and your peers contend with burnout in organizing in this sector. Part of what I’m thinking about a lot these days is that my own experience as an organizer, particularly this past semester and past year, has been in some ways where actually the organizing itself is really the thing that keeps you going as other dimensions of work and life feel really exhausting. But in some part, that’s been thanks to the tangible forward momentum I’ve felt amongst graduate workers. When you’re seeing just the scale of capital operation that you’re trying to build a movement against, that can seem totally impossible. How have you or how have people around you in organizing been contending with issues of burnout?
I’ve kind of removed myself from the populous waves that come. I support them—let me be clear. I know there’s a wave of graduate workers organizing right now, and I support it, and I appreciate it. But as much as I support it, I also know if I get involved or if I jump on a wave, I probably would get burned out.
I really wonder strategically, where does the funding or the intellectual capital come from to push back against these waves of organizing? Because I’ve seen it so tailored to every type of organizing, whether it be a teacher, food sector, farming industry…
I try to maneuver long-term, but not everybody can occupy that position, and not everyone can hold a position because you do have to have people that are in the moment—that are engaged with the people that are like, “Hey, this is the time where we have to do something and the time is now.” I’m just not that person anymore. The last strike I went to, I didn’t get in front of the camera. I picked up my sign and marched the picket line. That was my contribution.
If you can find the position that you’re comfortable in or operating from, it can become fulfilling to yourself and within your own life. That’s kind of what I’ve figured out, how to pace myself. If I didn’t do certain things, I probably would be unhappy. If I didn’t get to a strike and weren’t on the picket line, I probably would be unhappy with myself. I would feel I missed out. I like doing it, but I also know I wouldn’t like being the person to do the organizing for it—the planning—and I definitely don’t want to be the person who staples all the signs together on the picket rods. (laughs)
So yeah, find something that you are good at, that you like engaging in, and that is more fulfilling. It can become equitable, and you’ll probably be more productive if you would approach it that way. That’s kind of how I’ve been able to survive burnout—doing the things I like to do.
In many ways, becoming an organizer was just kind of like, I never should have done it because the three things that give me the most anxiety are the things that I have to do the most: cold emailing and cold calling people, prolonged meetings, and talking to strangers. Email and phone anxiety — in addition to general social anxiety — is so real for me but it’s so much of what I have to do. We’re getting through it though.
It’s funny because the Yale graduate worker unionization campaign in the various forms that it’s taken, is, I think, effectively one of the longest running campaigns to form a union, maybe in academic labor history. This campaign actually has been going on for over 30 years.
And we’re really optimistic about the moment that we’re in because of the huge resurgence that we’ve been seeing in this moment, but also we’re here because of people that have been putting years of infrastructural work into this. I think a big part of the resurgence in the academic labor movement is a part of a broader resurgence in interest in unions and union popularity across this country. That really seems to have stemmed potentially from the pandemic, where people’s relationship to work and their sense of what a fulfilling life looks like has really changed. I’m wondering if that’s been similar because I think the warehouse industry had a very different relationship to the pandemic than did most other industries. It was actually probably, I imagine, one of the most challenging times to be a warehouse worker, as the scale of operations exploded during that time. So I’m curious how, in your experience, how you’ve seen the pandemic change people’s relationship to warehouse work or people’s relationship to their co-workers.
I would say the people that worked through the pandemic, by and large—and I would put grocery store workers right there with this category—realized that their labor was essential to the function of society. When they were praised for their labor, it was essentially a type of worker nationalism that was deployed by the state to encourage these workers to continue to do what they were doing. Now, down the line, that worker nationalism that was deployed by the state is no longer there. These workers are no longer praised as essential. A lot of them have come to realize that they’re being exploited. Regardless, a lot of them still know that “If I am not working in this grocery store” “If I am not moving this product” “If I’m not moving these packages”…“Without my work, without my labor, society doesn’t function.” The workers—hats off to them because they did overtime upon overtime, and now that there’s less attention on the pandemic—realize it’s back to business as usual. It’s like, “Well, yesterday I was a hero, and today I should be thankful to have a job.”
Talking about graduate workers, we could look at the medical side of things. My cousin, she’s a Ph.D. from UCSF. The graduate workers were essential in the pandemic. They started pulling graduate workers like, “Hey, we need you to research,” “We desperately need you. What are you researching right now?” If you look at it, they were already engaged in that type of work, but the short term risks weren’t as great with the work they were already doing. For instance, cancer researchers are a big deal, but at the time people were looking at it with a utilitarian view and said, “Right now Covid is more important, and we have to move resources over to address Covid.”
In the world we live in today, with the challenges that we’re facing, graduate work is essential. So why are we creating unproductive environments for them to work in? It just baffles me.
I appreciate your words of solidarity, and I think in many ways it reflects back on the issues that warehouse workers are experiencing as well, right? The fact of the matter is, if you have an hour-, two-hour-commute because you can’t afford to live in the city where you are, where the logistics job is, that dramatically impacts your functioning of just supporting yourself, and it impacts your ability to do the work that during the pandemic was deemed heroes work, right? If those jobs are as essential as they have been made apparent to us during the pandemic and remain apparent, it should be that those workers can afford to have not simply a living wage, but an actual thriving wage, that enables them to actually do the essential work that helps sustain all of our lives. And that can be true simultaneously with the fact that the logistics industry itself is part of a really broken machine that also needs to be addressed simultaneously with the conditions of the workers that are a part of it, Right?
We laugh about it, but it’s me having to sit in 15 minutes of extra traffic to get to work because it’s blocked up with freight. And I’m trying to get to work so I can move freight.
The same thing that is sustaining me is the same thing that’s slowing me down. And again, it goes back to my saying earlier, the amount of space that these warehouses take up—they’re not equitable. At the same time, while they’re providing us with some type of income or jobs within the industry they’re also displacing our living conditions. So how can you deal with that? I’m sure it somehow can relate back to the graduate students, but I always tell people to engage in the contradictions. Some of this stuff just doesn’t make sense. And when you realize it doesn’t make sense, you can logically show that it doesn’t make sense—especially in academia. Let ‘em have it. (Laugh)
That feels like an appropriate place to bring this to a close. I just wanna say again, Donavan, thanks so much for doing this kind of labor download with us. This has been really a super interesting conversation for me. I think many lessons hopefully continue to be shared across different sectors of labor.
 “Not In My Backyard” or the behavior of someone who does not want something to be built or done near where they live, although it does need to be built or done somewhere.