Meet the Volunteer Organizing Team Helping Non-Union Workers during the Pandemic

By Eric Dirnbach

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns started in March, a new class of “essential workers” continued to go to work across the United States under new dangerous conditions. As stories came out about workers lacking personal protective equipment, or PPE, and working in crowded workplaces, union workers began to take action. They stopped work, organized sick-outs, won hazard pay, protested employer COVID-19 policies that left them unsafe and negotiated for improvements.

Unions have made workplaces safer, as research has shown that unionized essential workers have had better COVID-19 workplace practices during the pandemic. The presence of unions makes conditions safer for the general public as well. For example, unionized nursing homes in New York were found to have a 30 percent lower COVID-19 mortality rate among residents. When the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and other government agencies failed to take adequate steps to protect workers, these workers had to take action. But 90 percent of U.S. workers are not union members, and millions of these non-union workers still need help. For too many of them, essential has meant expendable.

There was a clear need to find ways to assist workers in confronting this new unsafe world at work. That’s when the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, or EWOC, was born. A joint project of the Democratic Socialists of America and the United Electrical workers union, EWOC recruited volunteer organizers to talk with workers who wanted to organize around COVID-19 concerns. It created a request form for workers to fill out, which it spread through social media. Inquiries from workers started coming in every day.

Organizing with EWOC

When EWOC receives the form, there’s an initial intake conversation, and an advanced organizer is assigned to collaborate with the workers on a plan to organize for improvements at work, on COVID-19, or any other issues. This takes the form of a series of phone and Zoom calls where they work through the basics of organizing.

Dawn Tefft is one of the leaders of the EWOC advanced organizers team. She was involved in the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association during the Wisconsin uprising of 2011, the movement that formed in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation. However, the massive protests at the capital failed to stop the new law. That experience taught her that protest wasn’t enough, and that workers and union leaders throughout the state should have done more to prepare for a strike wave, as her union did.

She brought this focus on rank-and-file workplace power-building to EWOC, as part of a team that has developed the strategy for organizing with workers. On a recent EWOC call for volunteers and workers, she described that at the beginning of a campaign, an advanced organizer and the workers would rank issues and draft a set of demands. Together, they begin building a list of workers, divide up workers to contact in order to ask them to join an organizing committee or sign a demands petition, and begin planning a first action or a series of escalating actions. The organizing process is built around conversations among coworkers, and throughout these steps, the workers themselves must run the campaign, with EWOC organizers playing an advisory and mentorship role.

Since its launch, EWOC has already racked up a number of significant victories. Taco Bell workers in Michigan won PPE, paid sick leave and hazard pay; Jimmy John’s workers in Utah received better plexiglass barriers and rules allowing fewer customers in the store at any one time; Sprouts grocery store workers in Texas demanded and got PPE and store customer limits; and Good Vibrations store workers in Massachusetts had their concerns with COVID-19 and other issues addressed after a six week strike. While most of these campaigns are organized at fairly small workplaces, they provide lessons for growing and sustaining organizing at larger employers, which is always a tough challenge.

I have been involved as an EWOC organizer for several months, talking with workers to develop their campaigns. It’s clear from these conversations that most workers don’t have a solid understanding of unions or what workplace organizing is about. Rarely do people learn much about the labor movement, and much of what they do hear is distorted and filtered through corporate media. For the workers who want to move forward, it’s been inspiring to see them start to learn the art and science of workplace organizing.

These workers have faced a variety of issues. One university worker wondered why her department couldn’t continue working from home. A retail worker realized that coronavirus issues showed the real need to have a union at her store. A health care clinic worker has started talking with colleagues about the danger of the new surge in COVID-19 cases, and how they could be safer at work.

I worked with one woman who is employed at a small retail store. She organized with her coworkers for a better sick leave policy. “It was extremely empowering, as a low wage worker,” she said. “You often have a sense of powerlessness that there’s nothing you can do. But with organizing, it’s the one thing you can do to actually give yourself the things that you really need in the workplace.” She went on to describe the solidarity developed between her colleagues during their fight for sick leave. “Having conversations with team members really built that sense of comradery and power amongst ourselves. Realizing that we actually wanted the same things was a big deal too.”

I interviewed another worker at an agency that provides social services. The workers there had a number of COVID-19 safety concerns and other issues. She organized with her department to write a letter to their supervisor, and won regular health and safety meetings to design better COVID-19 protocols, more PPE, and paid travel time to their various work sites. She says this process has had a tremendous impact and folks feel more confident in bringing up issues. This has led to broader conversations with workers at other agencies about the systemically bad working conditions and treatment of clients in the industry, and how they can better advocate for, and organize with, their clients.

“[EWOC] has really helped give us a framework to understand how to start making changes about issues and grievances that we have about the care industry and treatment of people by organizing the workplace,” she said.

This work is not complicated, but it is challenging. Organizing is built on something as basic as having conversations with coworkers, but with an eye toward building power. It involves developing relationships, assessing concerns, understanding workplace social networks, identifying leaders and agitating toward collective solutions to the personal problems everyone has at work. It requires forging common demands and building the confidence of the workers with escalating collective actions that may lead to a strike if necessary.

EWOC has developed a training series to teach these organizing skills. It sees this project as not only helping workers to improve working conditions now, but also disseminating an understanding of workplace power and collective action to a large network of non-union workers. They can spread these skills and may want to organize or join more formal unions later on. Some of those workers eventually join EWOC as volunteers.

Now over six months old, EWOC has a few staff coordinators and has grown to involve hundreds of volunteers serving as intake and campaign organizers, media strategists, database administrators, trainers, researchers and other roles. So far over 2,000 workers have reached out to EWOC, and 25 workplace campaigns have won some of their demands, impacting about 1,000 workers. Currently there are 60 campaigns running, and over 500 workers have been through some EWOC organizing training.

Where does this go?

EWOC is an experiment in running a labor organizing project through a large network of volunteers outside of formal unions or worker centers. Moreover, during the pandemic this organizing work necessarily occurs on the phone and online. When the pandemic subsides, EWOC will have to coordinate a transition to some in-person conversations and events.

As the network of workers involved in EWOC-assisted campaigns grows, organizers face a number of questions about the evolution of the project, including whether this group should evolve into a dues-funded membership organization. We need to ensure that when workers win gains, they maintain an “organized workplace” over time as turnover happens, and possibly solidify their victory through unionization and a contract. We have to find ways to grow linkages of solidarity between all these workplaces and develop the capacity to initiate successful organizing at huge employers with thousands or tens of thousands of workers. Can we distill some lessons from the growing list of campaigns, so we can learn how to win more effectively?

EWOC is exploring ways to incorporate workers from the campaigns directly into these conversations. EWOC has developed an encouraging new model in worker organizing that also draws from militant rank-and-file labor traditions. As we continue through this horrific pandemic, workers are demonstrating that they can save themselves. They just need the tools and training to do it.

Eric Dirnbach is a union researcher and labor activist in New York City. He has published in Jacobin, Labor Notes, New Labor Forum and Organizing Work.

This article was published on November 30 at WagingNonviolence.

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