COVID-19 put a spotlight on worker vulnerability, but creates challenges for traditional in-person organizing tactics

By Hannah Lebovits

On March 7,  the Minnesota SEIU Local 26, which represents Twin Cities-area sanitation workers, won a historic labor fight—including pay increases, more paid sick leave, reduced health insurance costs, and sexual harassment policies. Less than two months later, the union lost one of its most influential members, Armando Solis, to COVID-19. The union again moved to demand additional protections and prevent more deaths. But organizing now is more difficult than before. Gatherings must be limited, active members are sick or quarantined, and childcare is the main priority during non-work hours. “Unions are scrambling to be strategic in this moment without unduly exposing more people to COVID,” Sam, a service industry union organizer in Ohio, told me. “Organizers meet in groups and do one-to-ones with members and I don’t know how we can responsibly do that right now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit workplaces hard. Countless employees have been laid off, unemployment is at a Depression-Era high, and for those who still have jobs, the lack of childcare further complicates matters. Much of the discussion about the impact of the novel coronavirus has been economic in nature, often focusing on the need to ‘re-start the economy.’ But the pandemic has also highlighted the important role of workers doing low-wage and often-underappreciated jobs in challenging and sometimes dangerous conditions—cashiers, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, healthcare personnel. And, too, it has sparked increasing awareness of, and energy around, labor rights and collective power.

Though many sanitation workers, food service employees, healthcare workers, educators, transit employees, and others have been deemed “essential workers,” and are required to go to work or risk being fired, they have often not received a fair wage, protective equipment, or hazard pay. Yet, their normal mechanisms for collective action are severely limited. Many workplace organizers are not only barred from the places where they used to work, they also feel a sense of duty to protect their constituencies, which requires them to encourage members not to gather and protest. And that distance is antithetical to the nature of organizing.

“So much of organizing is relationship work and building connections with people, but social distancing and stay-at-home orders are adding a real complexity to that relationship-building work,” says Kent State University political science professor, Dr. Ashley Nickels, an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University.

Sam, who requested we use a pseudonym because of their organizational affiliation, feels lost without the ability to meet people in person. “We had to overnight change how we were doing things completely. We just closed the office one day and didn’t open it again,” they told me. Sam shared that the organization can’t do much in this state. It isn’t actively organizing, but rather focusing more on administrative activities. “Things we had planned had to be cancelled, and now we’re trying to figure out what it looks like to organize digitally.”

Sam’s job typically involves visiting worksites and connecting with members, and they’re worried that won’t be a safe option for years to come. These days, the only workers Sam can reach seem to be those who have been laid off or fired. And even though the employers of laborers Sam works with have, for the most part, provided safe and stable workplaces, Sam worries that the inability to meet laborers at their job sites and to work with them to maintain a high level of collective identity and action might minimize worker power. “Circumstances tend to have process creep, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this develops processes that limit access to our members,” Sam noted. And it makes creating relationships with workers on non-union sites almost impossible.

But it is exactly those non-union workplaces—open, active, and providing services during the pandemic—that some organizers say could benefit the most from labor support right now. For Alex, a reproductive health care worker in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania—who also requested anonymity to protect themselves—the lack of a union at their workplace means that, while they are considered an essential worker, they lack any significant amount of power over their work conditions. “It’s all very overwhelming, doing direct care and providing essential services,” Alex said. “Already long and hectic days have become longer and harder since the pandemic began.”

Though they work in a liberal-leaning field, Alex has long felt that the progressive movement has not done enough to support workers in reproductive health care who work in clinics and other non-profit, non-union sites. “We have similar gripes as any health care worker, but it’s difficult because people don’t realize that reproductive health care and clinics are sites with really progressive people, but without good work conditions.” Like hospitals, clinics and small community health care facilities provide essential health care services, as well as care work, while also tending to educational and social needs. Yet Alex has found it difficult to enter the world of workplace organizing. Today, Alex is struggling to get PPE and to work stable hours, but feels it’s difficult to criticize their employer because, “we can’t talk about it without it becoming fuel for the people against our work; [reproductive health care is] controversial, and we’re siloed off, so it’s difficult to organize.”

Progressive organizations have largely not yet figured out what to do with nonprofit, non-union spaces—where workers themselves are often more in line with leftist agendas than management. And while the frontline workers at these clinics tend to be low-wage workers, Alex has repeatedly been told by their fellow progressives that they don’t want to work with NARAL, Planner Parenthood, community clinics. But in the current pandemic state, Alex argues, the workers at these organizations need as much support as they can get.

One field that has a long history of labor support is education. But it the new, rapidly changing state of distance and online learning, teachers are struggling as well. COVID-19 has dramatically affected both teachers and students—and in many cases exacerbated inequities that were already present. And Kenzo Shibata, an executive board member for the Chicago Teachers Union, wants his union peers to be open about this. “Distance learning is not working,” he told me. “Teachers have a tendency to work themselves half to death because they don’t want principals or students to see that we’re not up to the task. But teachers have to be very vocal about how this isnt working so that districts don’t start to adopt this model thinking that it is.”

Shibata played an important role in the CTU strike last year and is dedicated to labor strength and organizing efforts. But he never expected this. The Chicago school district has already notified teachers to prepare for distance learning in the fall, according to Shibata, and the model they adopt might lead to massive layoffs.  The district, like many of its Midwest and Northeastern peers, might decide that it’s cheaper to hire new, younger teachers, or otherwise change the structure of teacher employment. And Shibata wants to protect his union brothers and sisters from such a fate by encouraging his co-workers to push back against efforts to make this model the new standard. But without the ability to meet in person, this organizing work is more difficult.

Still, the pandemic can present new opportunities for organizers, as it exposes the inequities baked into the U.S. economic system, and the vulnerability of workers. “All organizations are looking for policy windows,” Nickels explained. For organizers, a lot of what they do is think about is ‘what is the world we want to be creating,’ and there are opportunities right now because these issues are very salient.” And, Nickels said, organizing efforts can leverage this visibility in powerful ways.

Providing healthcare and other forms of care work during this time has brought Alex’s coworkers together. Some have already been strategizing for better work conditions, Alex said, while others are just beginning to recognize that the circumstances of their employment could be better. “I feel like it’s a field that’s really ripe for organizing and uplifting, if we could take these organizations oriented around women’s issues with a lot of workers who are members of minority groups- and who are being exploited- and support them.” But internal support isn’t enough. Alex hopes this crisis will generate support that can extend beyond their organization.

Sam, too, is hopeful about the future of organizing. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to shift the understanding about what work means to people, and the kind of society we want to live in—and we need to employ our own radical doctrine around it,” they said. “We need to be thinking properly about how we build out of it, not just respond to daily crises…I am looking forward to what good can we get out of this in the future in terms of a more secure world for our members and for workers.” ■



Hannah Lebovits is a PhD candidate in urban studies and public affairs at Cleveland State University. Originally from Pittsburgh, Lebovits and her family now reside in the Cleveland area.

Cover illustration by David Wilson for Belt Magazine.

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