By Ella P. King
A DAY IN THE LIFE – UNION ORGANIZER
Every single day I wake up to new emails, voicemails, and text messages from workers all wanting the same thing – to form a union.
This pandemic is pushing many workers to fight for what they have always deserved; a democratized workplace, dignity and respect, safe working conditions, a living wage, and more.
I, and others in our local union’s organizing department, have the privilege of supporting workers who are ready to fight and organize to win their union. The COVID-19 crisis brings even more uncertainty for the working-class. In spite of that, I can’t remember a time in my organizing career in which the potential was this large for building organization, a strong working-class movement, and a society that works for all of us.
COVID-19 has made it clear that unions have always been essential and that labor must approach this pandemic centering racial justice, the common good, and social justice unionism (an approach and philosophy to union organizing that centers fighting for political demands that are broader than the workplace).
According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute less than 30 percent of the US workforce can work from home.
Furthermore, 1 in 5 Black workers and roughly 1 in 6 Hispanic workers can work from home, and higher wage workers are 6 times as likely to be able to work from home as lower-wage workers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017-2018).
A majority of the new organizing (workers coming together to form a union) campaigns I’m supporting right now are with frontline low-wage workers in the human service industry. Workers I’m organizing with provide services for clients with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.
Additionally, a majority of folks in this industry are people of color and are also facing injustices in their communities such as: police brutality, environmental racism, immigration, education, and more. Therefore, social justice unionism is an obvious way to engage in union organizing.
LESSONS FOR TODAY’S FIGHTING UNIONS
It’s been extremely challenging determining the best ways to support union organizing campaigns during this pandemic.
Some of the best practices and lessons I have learned along the way include:
Be bold and aggressively organize; Be willing to try new and difficult tactics
We are living during an extremely hard time, and in some ways, we have nothing to lose. Right now, we’re building campaign strategies that try a wide range of tactics from private Facebook groups to parades to social media campaigns. If it’s not going to put the workers at high risk or harm the campaign, then we’re trying it. We want to be able to say that we tried everything we could to support workers winning their union. Because this situation is new for all types of organizing efforts, it’s likely that someone else is thinking about a radically new tactic – learn from them.
Relationship building can still happen even when everything feels urgent.
I work with a large organizing department, but we still find ways to build together. This is really important because we need to trust each other in order to have good foundations for our campaigns. We only meet virtually now but have done game nights, happy hours, show and tells, and often do appreciations at the end of meetings. We do wellness calls to check in with the workers we are organizing with and to build stronger relationships with them. For our campaigns in which staff are working from home, we encourage “Zoom lunches” for folks to get to know each other more.
Have a short term and long-term strategy
I’ll expand more on this in the next section. Even though I just want to solve what’s happening in the moment, I know that just isn’t helpful for the long-term. This pandemic brings an opportunity to also be on the offense and push for the things that workers need. We are trying to win union campaigns, but also taking a look at what needs to be addressed beyond the moment.
Connect every moment back to why all workers deserve to have a union
Rather it’s threats of layoffs, not enough sick time, issues with safety at the workplace, or hazard pay, our narrative during this moment is “this is why workers need unions.” We are pushing for things across industries in solidarity with workers who are not union members, and this has led to many workers contacting us ready to learn how to win in their union.
Encourage debate during the development of campaign and organizational strategy and consistently critique the work
I don’t think my local union (or really the labor movement) is great at this, but my organizing department is definitely trying to grow in this area. This is maybe one of the most important things we as organizers can do right now. Healthy debate and critiques are giving us the best shots at having good campaign strategies. It’s especially helpful to broaden who is part of the campaign strategy conversation because it can help produce fresh, exciting, and at many times, the best ideas.
WHERE DOES THE LABOR MOVEMENT GO FROM HERE?
I can’t lie, I’m really nervous how unions and labor organizations will respond to the pandemic as a movement. History shows us that at important moments some unions and labor organizations don’t always make the best decisions to advance a multi-racial working-class unity.
The ideas that inspire me most for what’s possible for the US labor and working-class movements include:
Create new labor laws
If we want to continue to grow as a labor movement, then we must rewrite the rules. Labor law in this country has always left out the most vulnerable workers- many who are people of color. Many things being proposed in the COVID related bills are short term solutions to address the next month, year, and so on. We can really build on making it more accessible for workers to democratize their workplace. This could be done through a coronavirus stimulus bill as well as other federal and state outlets. My local union is currently working on legislation that would give collective bargaining rights to a group of public sector workers, and COVID has not stopped us from moving forward. We must demand the right to organize and collectively bargain for all workers, end right-to-work, and push for other changes that will assist workers in building power in their workplaces and communities.
Build long-lasting strategic alliances that address systemic issues, not just a contract fight
I’m going to cry if I’m asked one more time to call a community partner to sign a petition without thinking about how we can build alliances that go beyond one action or campaign. Capitalists (corporate leaders, some elected officials, etc.) work and plan together to exploit working people and the poor, and they do this by operating with a long-view. Unfortunately, they put us against each other and attack us on many fronts, so our resources are pulled in many directions. We don’t get to build a vision that works for all of us, but this pandemic offers an amazing opportunity to build long-lasting strategic alliances.
These alliances can be across unions, but also with other social movements and community groups. We must also organize unemployed people and those workers who are incarcerated as they are a part of the working-class as well.
In addition to this, mutual aid networks are engaging some folks who have never organized before and building alliances with these networks are crucial for common good organizing as well as new leads for union organizing campaigns.
We (workers, communities, etc.) will not win without long-lasting alliances.
Center racial justice in our organizing
The labor movement cannot address the evils of capitalism without fighting for racial justice. We must acknowledge both the historical racism and modern-day racism and take responsibility in using resources that fight for racial and economic justice.
And this also means that we need to follow the leadership of Black, Brown and Indigenous folks. These communities have been telling the labor movement (and society) for a while about oppression and ways to organize. Many members of these communities both experience racism and classism, so they are positioned well to lead a labor or working-class movement.
Develop short term and long -term strategies
During a pandemic it’s easy to just think about what workers and communities need immediately. Of course, this is important, but if we don’t start to build a vision of what’s possible, then we will not get any closer to reaching the collective liberation that we all deserve. This is difficult because most activists and organizers struggle to be able to think about both the short term and long-term in effective ways. Someone once told me, “be revolutionary but effective and accessible.” I took this advice to mean find the right balance between organizing in the moment, and building towards something bigger. I personally struggle with this because it takes patience, and it can be frustrating to know that revolution or the changes that we need can’t happen overnight.
I am inspired by the workers I get to hear from every single day. Folks are ready to organize and win unions and fights in their communities. In a moment in which profit is being valued more than workers’ lives, our movement has no choice but to give this fight everything we have.