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labor A Bunch of Union Organizers Explain What's Wrong with Unions

We asked the real experts about the gap between public enthusiasm for unions and the lack of actual union members.

A picket line in Flint, Michigan on June 25, 1998.,ANDREW CUTRARO/ AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Here is the most fun­da­men­tal quandary of unions in Amer­i­ca: Polls show that 65% of Amer­i­cans approve of unions, and half of work­ers say they would join a union. But only about 10% of work­ers are actu­al­ly union mem­bers. In the yawn­ing gap between those num­bers lies the entire sto­ry of the Amer­i­can labor movement’s decline. 

The sys­tem­at­ic decades-long assault on labor pow­er by right-wing busi­ness inter­ests is the biggest con­trib­u­tor to union weak­ness, but by itself it is not a suf­fi­cient expla­na­tion. Why is there such an enor­mous dis­par­i­ty between the num­ber of peo­ple who want to be union mem­bers, and the num­ber who are union mem­bers? And how do unions close that divide? There is no short­age of opin­ions on these ques­tions, but we asked the one group of peo­ple who know the most and appear in the media the least: pro­fes­sion­al union organizers. 

A dozen orga­niz­ers respond­ed to our call and shared their thoughts about how unions got so deep in a hole, and how to get out. 

How did we get here?


“I do not hon­est­ly believe it is pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate ​‘polit­i­cal issues’ from that gap between sup­port and mem­ber­ship. Yes, stuff like Right to Work and anti-work­er Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board appoint­ments harm work­ing peo­ple, but right-wing aus­ter­i­ty, gut­ting of the pub­lic safe­ty net, and lack of uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age is a huge fac­tor here as well. To me, the biggest rea­son peo­ple don’t join a union or orga­nize their work­place is because their boss has too much pow­er over their lives. When I worked on an exter­nal new orga­niz­ing cam­paign at Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers West I spent a ton of time talk­ing with work­ers who were ter­ri­fied of los­ing their job if they orga­nized or pub­licly sup­port­ed the union because it would mean los­ing health­care cov­er­age or finan­cial ruin for their fam­i­ly. A lot of peo­ple tru­ly just feel lucky to have a job. And while in the­o­ry, yes, they would love to have a union, they are more afraid of rock­ing the boat. I went to work on the Bernie cam­paign with the pur­pose of try­ing to change that. While card check or the Pro­tect­ing the Right to Orga­nize (PRO) Act would cer­tain­ly make it eas­i­er to win unions and first con­tracts, until los­ing your job does­n’t mean los­ing your health­care cov­er­age and abil­i­ty to cov­er rent, it is always going to be an uphill battle.”

— Dan­ny Keane, orga­niz­er-rep­re­sen­ta­tive with Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) 221

Ser­vice unionism

“I’ve seen union-bust­ing both hard and soft, and these employ­ers have got­ten so good at nar­row­ing the focus of the union. Sure, peo­ple sup­port unions in broad strokes, but when it gets down to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of you form­ing a union, the boss is so good at either scar­ing peo­ple or con­vinc­ing peo­ple that union dues are not a worth­while ​‘invest­ment.’

While right-wing forces have eager­ly tried to turn unions into irrel­e­vant third par­ties, unions have alien­at­ed them­selves from work­ers as well. I think that unions have sim­ply shift­ed away from empow­er­ing work­ers. Through an overzeal­ous focus on con­tract enforce­ment through griev­ances and through some anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures, unions have, in effect, made them­selves a third par­ty to the work­ers. These shifts did­n’t hap­pen overnight, and I think inten­tions behind them were good, just misguided.

Take griev­ances, for instance, which appear to be a win-win: Work­ers get their issues heard with legal sup­port, and unions get to jus­ti­fy their increas­ing­ly bureau­crat­ic struc­tures by bog­ging them­selves down in the drawn-out griev­ance pro­ce­dure. But in the long-term, rely­ing too much on the griev­ance sys­tem hurts work­er pow­er. Griev­ance pro­ce­dures are pur­pose­ful­ly slow and bureau­crat­ic, and, by design, griev­ances are lim­it­ed sole­ly to nar­row con­tract enforce­ment. They take the pow­er out of the work­ers’ hands and put the deci­sions into the hands of lawyers and an osten­si­bly neu­tral arbi­tra­tor. They lim­it work­ers’ imag­i­na­tions from dream­ing of ways to improve and trans­form their work­places. And they turn the union into a third-par­ty ser­vice that tries to clean up mess­es for the price of biweek­ly dues.

Unions have also tak­en anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures inter­nal­ly. I think that work­ers are large­ly shut out from the cam­paign deci­sion mak­ing that union staffers lead. As orga­niz­ers, we’re trained to fol­low the work­ers’ lead, but I see that teach­ing only goes so far. While I respect the per­spec­tive that trained orga­niz­ers know the best prac­tices for orga­niz­ing, I believe that work­ers know their employ­ers and their indus­tries best and need to be more includ­ed in the deci­sions that affect orga­niz­ing campaigns.”

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— Daniel Luis Zager, Cam­paign Orga­niz­er at SEIU Health­care-Illi­nois Indi­ana Mis­souri Kansas

The nature of the mod­ern workplace

“Even before the pan­dem­ic length­ened aver­age hours worked by those still employed, work­ing an eight-hour work­day does­n’t leave much time for all else that needs to get done. Com­mit­ting to week­ly orga­niz­ing meet­ings and hours of one-to-one con­ver­sa­tions with cowork­ers — the back­bone of any union cam­paign — is daunt­ing, and for many, unten­able. The work­ers who have the most to gain from a union at their com­pa­ny — those who are over-worked, under­paid, and under-val­ued — are also the most like­ly to take on sec­ond or third jobs and man­age care-tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties that make it hard­er to engage in a sus­tained union cam­paign. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, because of the nec­es­sary clan­des­tine nature of orga­niz­ing efforts, these meet­ings must take place out­side of the work­place, off work time, and through tedious (yet illu­mi­nat­ing) conversations.

Those who see issues in their work­place and would be most sup­port­ive of a union are often ones who are on their way out of a com­pa­ny. While there’s sim­i­lar­ly a con­tin­gent of work­ers who orga­nize because they love their com­pa­ny and want it to be a place they can remain employed long-term, there are always work­place lead­ers whose per­sis­tent griev­ances push them to sim­ply find a new job instead of com­mit­ting to a long campaign.

Along those same lines, the ​‘career jobs’ of the past are large­ly lost in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Even those who are sat­is­fied with their jobs and enjoy the work are encour­aged to con­tin­ue gain­ing skills else­where for fear they’ll lose their edge, or miss out on oppor­tu­ni­ties else­where. The decline in long-term com­mit­ments to employ­ers pos­es chal­lenges for union cam­paigns, whose core philoso­phies rely on work­ers dig­ging into their own self inter­est and orga­niz­ing around the kind of work­place they desire. If employ­ees already see them­selves leav­ing with­in two to five years at any giv­en com­pa­ny, putting in the work it takes to build a union may not add up.

We are taught to see our­selves as mobile employ­ees who are poised to climb the lad­der in our work­place. Receiv­ing a pro­mo­tion to a man­age­ment posi­tion is aspi­ra­tional. And once in that man­age­ment or super­vi­so­ry posi­tion, employ­ees are no longer eli­gi­ble for a union. Even if a major­i­ty of work­ers sup­port unions and would like to see one in their own work­place, the dis­tance between see­ing them­selves as ​‘work­ers’ who would be part of that, and their own endeav­ors to pro­mote out of the union-eli­gi­ble des­ig­na­tion, can be great.”

— Grace Reck­ers, north­east lead orga­niz­er, Office and Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union


“Over 20 years of gen­er­a­tional change, [the old demo­graph­ics of affin­i­ty for unions] has fad­ed a lot, and atti­tudes to union­iza­tion break down much more clear­ly along con­ven­tion­al right to left lines. Younger peo­ple and non­white peo­ple and lib­er­als or Democ­rats — espe­cial­ly African Amer­i­cans — are the main sup­port­ers, and white, work­ing-class peo­ple — espe­cial­ly old­er ones — have as a group slot­ted unions in with the rest of right-left issues. The same polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion that exists in most oth­er issues, basically.

Addi­tion­al dynam­ics have been: The youngest gen­er­a­tion in the work­force now is the most left-wing and inter­est­ed in redis­tri­b­u­tion, but also has the least famil­iar­i­ty with any of the con­cepts of unions and is not nec­es­sar­i­ly strong like­ly union supporters.

There is an increas­ing­ly region­al back­ground to whether unions are a thing you see oper­ate. Blue states and red states have become much more polar­ized on labor stuff than the sim­ple Right to Work map indi­cates. Blue states like New Eng­land, the West Coast and the North­east have become much more proac­tive in work­ing with unions to union­ize more peo­ple and get them some stuff, and red or pur­ple states (espe­cial­ly the whole Mid­west) have got­ten much more hos­tile to that stuff.

The edu­ca­tion­al polar­iza­tion we see on right to left stuff has become a huge fac­tor in whether young, work­ing-class peo­ple want to union­ize. Indus­tries pop­u­lat­ed with poor, younger adults who are gen­er­al­ly overe­d­u­cat­ed like (ahem) dig­i­tal media or high­er edu­ca­tion, are super ripe slam dunks where you can trans­form an indus­try with hot-shop orga­niz­ing. Ones with most­ly poor­er, younger adults who are not edu­cat­ed, and are not most­ly based in urban areas, like retail and sup­ply chain logis­tics, have had cold work­ers that are not respon­sive enough to union dri­ves to make win­ning a pos­si­bil­i­ty. (Part of the equa­tion hold­ing them back, of course, is how that gen­er­a­tion of big-box retail and its sup­ply chain were built from scratch in such a way that unions could be kept out com­plete­ly and any rare com­po­nent that got infect­ed could be eas­i­ly shut down and dis­solved. But there’s an atti­tu­di­nal dif­fer­ence in the con­stituen­cies as well.)

A bright spot excep­tion to this has been fast food where, despite the work­force being young and not edu­cat­ed and rarely stay­ing long at par­tic­u­lar jobs, peo­ple just hate their job and boss so much they are eager to unionize. 

What I find myself want­i­ng to impress upon fel­low labor-fan left­ies is this: It is tru­ly not just the unfair play­ing field, or the pow­er of the boss’s fight to scare peo­ple, that pre­vents a major­i­ty of a work­place from vot­ing to union­ize. In many many work­places, skep­ti­cism and dis­in­ter­est in doing a col­lec­tive fight thing is wide­spread, organ­ic and real among the major­i­ty in the mid­dle. Not among social sci­ence adjuncts, or jour­nal­ists, or in large urban ser­vice job clus­ters where almost all the work­ers are poor and non­white. In those types of work­places, I think any com­pe­tent orga­niz­ing pro­gram should be able to grow the union. But in places that reflect the edu­ca­tion­al or polit­i­cal diver­si­ty of the coun­try as a whole, I think you’re work­ing with few­er total sup­port­ers and that’s why you wind up chas­ing stuff like card check neutrality.”

— Jim Straub, vet­er­an union organizer

The orga­niz­ing model

“The shop-by-shop mod­el of union­iz­ing in the Unit­ed States makes it real­ly hard to scale orga­niz­ing. It sad­dles both union orga­niz­ers and employ­ees who want a union with a ton of strate­gic, legal and bureau­crat­ic work just to orga­nize a work­place of even five or 10 peo­ple. It’s as if any work­er who want­ed health­care had to form their own insur­ance com­pa­ny before sign­ing up. We need to build a new mod­el — like sec­toral or mul­ti-employ­er bar­gain­ing — so we can orga­nize entire indus­tries together.

Often those most in need of unions have the least resources and band­width to form them. Staff work­ing long hours in dan­ger­ous or over­whelm­ing jobs just don’t have the band­width to sit on a bunch of evening Zoom calls to learn the ins and outs of deter­min­ing an appro­pri­ate bar­gain­ing unit under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA). The only way to bridge this gap would be if unions had the resources to offer more orga­niz­ing sup­port to work­places that need it.

A lot of work­ers ​‘sup­port unions’ but think they are for oth­er work­ers. ​‘White col­lar’ work­ers in par­tic­u­lar think unions are for work­ers in oth­er eras, in oth­er indus­tries, at oth­er work­places. Help­ing peo­ple under­stand that if they sell their labor then they are a part of the work­ing class and deserve a union is often the first hur­dle. More broad­ly, our coun­try doesn’t teach or cel­e­brate col­lec­tive action as some­thing peo­ple should aspire to par­tic­i­pate in. In fact, many peo­ple inter­nal­ize the idea that orga­niz­ing is incon­sis­tent with the idea of becom­ing a leader in their field.”

— Daniel Ess­row, orga­niz­er, Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union

No pop­u­lar labor history

“I find that there is a huge gap between peo­ple’s gen­er­al sup­port for unions and hav­ing any idea of how they real­ly work, what it takes to start one, etc. I think there are two pri­ma­ry and relat­ed rea­sons for this. One is that labor process­es are com­plex and arcane to most peo­ple. Elec­tions, griev­ances, Wein­garten rights, just cause, right to work — all of these terms are either total­ly for­eign to or com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stood by most non-union work­ers. I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on a cam­paign in a Right to Work state, and many of the work­ers there thought Right to Work means unions are for­bid­den! Oth­ers tend to think that unions are some­thing for just fac­to­ry work­ers and the like, even though the ser­vice indus­try is [a rapid­ly grow­ing union­ized sec­tor]. Relat­ed­ly, I think many who sup­port­ed unions in that poll might have answered dif­fer­ent­ly if asked, ​‘Would form­ing a union improve work­ing con­di­tions at your job?’ I see a lot of folks who gen­er­al­ly sup­port unions, but don’t see their field or com­pa­ny as being a place to organize. 

The oth­er is that labor his­to­ry and process­es aren’t part of our basic edu­ca­tion, nor are they ever explained or even real­ly ref­er­enced in the media. I think it’s a big issue that our his­to­ry lessons don’t gen­er­al­ly address the role of labor in increas­ing liv­ing stan­dards for work­ers glob­al­ly, nor any of the big laws (NLRA, Taft-Hart­ley) and what they have done. Why don’t we learn about the NLRA in high school when we study the New Deal or McCarthy­ism? How come we don’t learn about the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions and the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World, and the gains made by the work­ing class in that era?”

— Steven More­lock, orga­niz­er, Nation­al Nurs­es United

Hold my jacket…

“There’s always going to be a gulf between sup­port­ing some­thing in the abstract and being will­ing to risk your ass to achieve it in a real way. This is a dynam­ic that plays out on the ground dur­ing orga­niz­ing con­stant­ly, as you have plen­ty of peo­ple who are will­ing to sup­port the union, but don’t want to actu­al­ly be pub­lic about it. The anal­o­gy I use is some­one offer­ing to hold your jack­et before you get into a fight. Get­ting work­ers to over­come that fear is a key part of orga­niz­ing, and it maps out to the broad­er trend. Insti­tu­tion­al­ly, the union move­ment has tried to nar­row this divide through pass­ing laws like the Employ­ee Free Choice Act or the PRO Act that reduce the risk of orga­niz­ing a union. I don’t think that approach is a viable or real­is­tic option: I severe­ly doubt Con­gress will pass a ver­sion of the PRO Act if by some mir­a­cle Biden wins and the Democ­rats have undi­vid­ed con­trol of the Congress.”

— Bryan Con­lon, union organizer

How do we fix it?

Start ear­ly

“Stronger vis­i­bil­i­ty ear­li­er in peo­ple’s lives. When I talk to my friends about whether or not they’re union­ized, even those who are real­ly pro­gres­sive or social jus­tice inclined, they often tell me that their wages are good enough or that they already have good ben­e­fits. They don’t real­ize all the things that unions can do just in terms of mak­ing your work­place more liv­able (griev­ance pro­ce­dures, etc.) or how cru­cial unions will be in bring­ing about the change we want to see in the world. This means stronger alliances with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, the Sun­rise move­ment, and stronger pres­ences on uni­ver­si­ties, com­mu­ni­ty col­leges and trade schools. It also means strik­ing more often or mak­ing use of oth­er vis­i­ble direct action. The more back­room deals that are cut between union pres­i­dents and man­age­ment, the less vis­i­ble unions are to the pub­lic, and the less work­ers see a role for them­selves in the work of the union. Basi­cal­ly, we have to fight hard­er, fight more vis­i­bly, and fight in a way that real­ly relies on union mem­ber­ship and makes peo­ple see the val­ue and the pow­er of their union membership.”

 Joey Flegel-Mishlove, polit­i­cal orga­niz­er, SEIU

We’ve done it before

“*Part­ner with work­er cen­ters to orga­nize and build unions with folks con­nect­ed to them and com­mu­ni­ty organizations.

*Fight for orga­niz­ing rights, i.e. the PRO Act.

*Vis­i­bly fight for leg­is­la­tion that helps work­ers not in unions — e.g. high­er min­i­mum wage, Covid relief, anti-pover­ty. Con­nect with Biden now on seri­ous job pro­duc­ing indus­tri­al pol­i­cy and gov­ern­ment pur­chas­ing policy.

*Adopt best orga­niz­ing prac­tices and train to them.

*Invest in orga­niz­ing. Nobody grows with­out invest­ing in growth.

We grew the labor move­ment in 2007 and 2008 by more than in 30 years. We can orga­nize, but it ain’t easy.”

Stew­art Acuff, for­mer AFL-CIO orga­niz­ing director

Embrace social justice

“In order to cap­ture the grow­ing pro-union sen­ti­ment in the Unit­ed States and get new mem­bers, a few things need to hap­pen: Unions need to invest resources in new orga­niz­ing, unions need to take a social jus­tice ori­en­ta­tion to the orga­niz­ing by direct­ly sup­port­ing and con­nect­ing the union to the move­ments like the Move­ment for Black Lives, the fight to abol­ish ICE, the fight for a Green New Deal, and the move­ment for eco­nom­ic jus­tice and social­ism. Unions need to be open to new mod­els of orga­ni­za­tion and orga­nize work­ers in the growth areas of the econ­o­my: tech, etc. We also need com­pre­hen­sive cam­paigns and a real invest­ment in orga­niz­ing from the AFL-CIO that meets our moment.” 

 Justin Moli­to, orga­niz­ing direc­tor, Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca, East

Stronger union staff

“What a lot of union staff who don’t grow up poor or work­ing class — and a ton of the kids they bring in to do these jobs aren’t — don’t under­stand is how big of a risk it is for the peo­ple they’re orga­niz­ing. When you don’t have rich, mid­dle-class par­ents or a col­lege degree to fall back on, rock bot­tom is a lot clos­er. I’ve also, unfor­tu­nate­ly, learned through the years that a lot of the fears these mem­bers have actu­al­ly play out more often than we as union reps would like to admit. One strat­e­gy for SEIU at least is to make sure your exter­nal orga­niz­ers have a lot of turnover so they lit­er­al­ly don’t know that’s the case so they just repeat what­ev­er line they’re giv­en to get the work­er past it. It also does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean the risk isn’t worth it, obvi­ous­ly, but peo­ple can tell when you’re giv­ing them a rap and they can def­i­nite­ly tell when you’re full of shit. A lot of these orga­niz­ers are doing one or both. Ulti­mate­ly the solu­tion for me is hon­esty, trans­paren­cy and more mem­ber involve­ment. The more the mem­bers and work­ers who are orga­niz­ing — are gen­uine­ly, tru­ly involved in the deci­sion-mak­ing process — the less like­ly I think you’ll have fear win­ning out. If they trust the peo­ple they’re work­ing with, then they’ll be less like­ly to believe the bull­shit their boss­es spin. In my rel­a­tive­ly long expe­ri­ence, the way to build trust is through hon­esty, trans­paren­cy and collaboration. 

We in union cir­cles always talk about ​‘mem­ber pow­er’ but that’s very often used by peo­ple who lit­er­al­ly don’t under­stand what it means because they’ve nev­er been a mem­ber or even worked direct­ly with mem­bers in their lives or they under­stand mem­ber pow­er but just as a tool to some lofti­er goal — whether that be their own pow­er with­in the move­ment or gen­er­al­ized work­ing class pow­er. Real mem­ber pow­er would be mem­bers work­ing with staff (some of whom used to be mem­bers, maybe some who weren’t) in an open, trans­par­ent, hon­est way to keep their union strong. The teach­ers have done that and they’re the strongest union in the coun­try. Ser­vice work­ers and oth­er unions need to fig­ure out how to do that too or they’ll nev­er get past the astro­turf stage. Pop­u­lat­ing the staff with peo­ple who can actu­al­ly relate to work­ing peo­ple would be a great start.”

 Chris, a union rep in Chicago

Bar­gain for the com­mon good

“In addi­tion to shop-floor con­tract enforce­ment, unions need to engage with work­ers’ broad­er com­mu­ni­ties in their cam­paigns, such as in the mod­el known as Bar­gain­ing for the Com­mon Good. Part of the way that unions have alien­at­ed them­selves from work­ers is by nar­row­ing the focus of orga­niz­ing cam­paigns to work­place issues like wages and ben­e­fits — not being ful­ly recep­tive to the issues that affect work­ing peo­ple at home. But by engag­ing the com­mu­ni­ty and orga­niz­ing work­ers as whole peo­ple, unions can tap into and become part of the poten­tial­ly pow­er­ful com­mu­ni­ties to which work­ers go home out­side of their time at work. Unions can form coali­tions with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and make them­selves avail­able as resources for work­ing com­mu­ni­ties beyond just mem­bers. Work­ers could see unions as not only vehi­cles to build pow­er at work, but also resources to build pow­er and improve their lives in their home com­mu­ni­ties. I ful­ly believe in the mod­el of Bar­gain­ing for the Com­mon Good as a strat­e­gy to uti­lize the pow­er of the com­mu­ni­ties that sur­round local unions. The boss has his mon­ey invest­ed in places that affect every aspect of peo­ple’s lives. So why can’t unions expand their orga­niz­ing to include more aspects of work­ers’ lives?”

 Daniel Luis Zager


“*Re-sort all unions to clear indus­tri­al lines so that we have a pub­lic sec­tor union, a health­care and longterm care union, an edu­ca­tion union, a con­struc­tion union, a retail union, a trans­porta­tion union. Also, no more sep­a­rate fed­er­a­tions and free-rid­ers: Every union is in one Federation.

*Focus­ing on non-off­shore­able indus­tries, every union increas­es its bud­get spend on new orga­niz­ing, with a chunk of that pooled and direct­ed to low­est hang­ing fruit or places we’re hav­ing most suc­cess. Pos­si­bly make a new orga­niz­ing depart­ment an enti­ty that exists across dif­fer­ent unions.

*Focus heav­i­ly on blue states where there is low hang­ing fruit to pick up, and on pur­ple states where we can flip the leg­is­la­ture. It is more mean­ing­ful for us to get 20,000 new mem­bers in North Car­oli­na or Penn­syl­va­nia than New York or California.”

 Jim Straub

The world breaks

“How do you get peo­ple to over­come their fear and take action? One way is things get so bad that most work­ing peo­ple have noth­ing left to lose. The human mis­ery it’d gen­er­ate is incal­cu­la­ble, but it might pro­voke a fun­da­men­tal rup­ture in how things are done sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in 1934. It could also be the death knell for labor unions in their cur­rent form and noth­ing imme­di­ate­ly takes their place. For obvi­ous rea­sons, this is not an out­come the union move­ment should active­ly work towards, but it does need to plan for it.”

 Bryan Conlon

HAMIL­TON NOLAN is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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