The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many workers over the edge, with employers subjecting them to a litany of unsafe working conditions: crowded spaces lacking social distancing, poor ventilation, lack of PPE, unruly customers, ailing colleagues forced to continue working due to a deficit of paid sick days (or none at all). The list goes on. Millions quit their jobs while other workers remained but began to speak out against poor working conditions. Although the fear of becoming infected with COVID-19 and getting sick or dying was the original spark for protesting employees, many have decided there’s no normal to go back to and want to organize their workplaces.
The burgeoning new labor movement — which involves many Gen Zs and millennials — is grappling with how to channel this organizing fervor. The traditional path still trod by many is to organize elections for union recognition overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB was established in 1935 to facilitate the organization of unions. However, employers have long since learned how to exploit legal loopholes to thwart the majority of union organizing drives, safe in the knowledge that the understaffed NLRB will only give them a slap on the wrist even when they are caught breaking the law.
Another less-known approach to organizing workers is solidarity unionism, a model in which the workers organize themselves on the shop floor, strategizing and taking collective action directly against their employer without mediation from government or paid union representatives. While this method circumvents cumbersome NLRB processes, it can be harder to garner long-term support from workers.
Solidarity unionism “is available to everybody starting right now. Workers can talk to their coworkers, form a committee, think about the demands, gather a majority and then go meet with their boss or take an action and hopefully start winning some things,” says Eric Dirnbach, long-time labor organizer and volunteer with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee. “When workers do that, they are acting like a union. Believe it or not, they are already a union.”
EWOC was founded in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic by former Bernie 2020 organizers who didn’t want to stop organizing. The initial idea was simple. “Don’t Quit. Organize.” Give workers who want to organize the education and support they need to do so. EWOC employs a gamut of approaches, from one-time petitions demanding workplace improvements to solidarity unionism to the NLRB election process.
Since that auspicious beginning, more than 1,400 EWOC volunteers have received queries from more than 3,400 workers and helped workers at hundreds of workplaces organize unions or otherwise organize fightbacks against abusive bosses.
In a country where the union-membership rate — 6% of private-sector workers and 10% of all workers — is the lowest it’s been in more than 100 years and an estimated 50 million unorganized workers would like to belong to a union but don’t, EWOC’s approach has been flexible: make use of all paths to worker organization and help workers find the path that best suits their situation.
“When folks are absolutely miserable at work, they should quit. But, I think overall it would be better for society and the working class if more people stuck it out and organized for improvements,” Dirbach told The Indypendent. If you’re already at a breaking point, and especially if you and your coworkers are on the verge of quitting en masse, “go on strike,” he says. “If they fire you, you’re no worse off. … Most non-union workers do not know they can form their own union.”
EWOC operates under the aegis of (but isn’t funded by) the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has grown rapidly since 2016, and UE, a militant, member-led national union founded in 1936. It fills the void left by conventional unions that don’t want to allocate the time of their paid staff to following up on large numbers of random queries.
“EWOC will help any worker in any workplace to learn about organizing. Established unions are not really well set-up to do that,” Dirnbach said.
“Most unions will help workers get from steps 51-100 in organizing a union,” said Wen Zhuang, another volunteer organizer with EWOC. “We help get workers from steps 1-50 and then reference them to the union that is the best possible fit for them.”
To receive support from EWOC, a worker fills out an intake form via workerorganizing.org and a volunteer that has some knowledge about the corresponding labor sector will follow up with that worker within 72 hours. From there, workers have the chance to attend organizing-in-the-workplace trainings and to have access to experienced organizers who will support their campaign.
“My overwhelming sense was that a lot of people involved with EWOC have professional experience,” said Julie, a former Target employee who was supported by EWOC. “My point person became invaluable in terms of understanding what to do, forming a committee, what it looks like to organize box retail, and how that is different than supermarket, pharmacy, warehouse or a bank.”
One unionization campaign Dirnbach has helped with as an EWOC volunteer was with an independently-owned bookstore in Santa Cruz, California whose workers began organizing at the onset of the pandemic. They reached out to EWOC after hearing about the group from people at Santa Cruz DSA. While organizing under Dirnbach’s guidance, the bookstore workers decided to seek formal union recognition. Dirnbach then connected the workers with the Communication Workers of America, and a successful union election was held.
EWOC organizers tend to be quite discreet about their activities. Of his local endeavors, Dirbach says, “My main EWOC project in NYC for the past year has been to talk with workers and help build a worker network at a large company with multiple NYC locations, that we can’t discuss publicly yet.”
A sprawling network
EWOC is most strongly concentrated in California, Illinois, Texas and New York. In New York City, the group has over 500 people — workers, volunteers and trainees — involved in its network. Its volunteer organizers have successfully organized workers at Sara Lawrence College and at Bright Horizons, the nation’s largest provider of employer-sponsored child care. Some of the REI-Soho worker-organizers who would eventually see through a successful union drive with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union went through EWOC’s training program. EWOC volunteers also help to funnel Starbucks workers who reach out to them to Starbucks Workers United, the newly-formed, independent Starbucks union.
Not all organizing efforts have happy endings, but for many workers standing up for their rights has its own intrinsic value.
Megan, a reporter for a nonprofit newsroom learned about EWOC on Twitter, was fired from her job for “performance issues” after self-advocating for fair pay. While working at the nonprofit — the name of which she asked be secluded — she began fostering solidarity dialogue with the other workers. She reached out to multiple coworkers and set up a Slack messaging group, in an effort to create a setting where workers could communicate with each other without having management present.
“No one ever asked us what we wanted, or what we needed and there was no space to actualize our needs as workers,” Megan recalled.
“I was committed to being paid what I’m worth and being recognized,” said Megan, who found out from talking to a co-worker who saw the value of sharing their salary with her that she was being paid around 25% less than every other full-time reporter at her job. New York law stipulates that it is illegal to pay an employee a salary of less than $60,000 unless you provide that employee with access to overtime. Megan was only paid around $45,000 a year with no access to overtime and was expected to work long hours to finish stories on time. This, despite her former employer running a nearly $400,000 surplus in 2021, according to fiscal reports reviewed by The Indy.
Megan says it would be difficult for her to take a new reporting job that isn’t already unionized. “But if I liked the job enough to take it and I thought it could benefit from a union, I would absolutely be part of that drive,” she said.
“Basically I thought unions were for government employees, or that you had to be a part of a really big workforce to be a part of a union. … So many newsrooms have unionized and it makes a lot of sense. I see why it’s necessary and I see what happens when you’re not unionized. All these papers have been gutted. Local news is dying without a union,” Megan told The Indy.
Immediately after being fired in mid-May, Megan attended a training with The NewsGuild union on how shop stewards should handle grievance procedures.
Because union membership has been declining for decades, younger workers are less likely to have any personal experience of being in a union. Overworked, underpaid and often burdened with debt, they are nonetheless the ones revitalizing the labor movement. Younger workers across many different sectors — from laundry workers to baristas to tech workers — are coming out of the woodwork saying they want a union and better working conditions.
Julie spent months forming an organizing committee at Target, where she was making around $15.30 per hour. She says the company’s management “treats the people working there somewhere between a child and a mechanical hand. What is shared [with Amazon] is breaking things down into the most monotonous little task and giving you no agency in how you’d like to make things easier for yourself or the workday.”
Julie’s committee had a handful of members that were meeting with each other regularly and engaging their coworkers in worker-rights conversations. However, when one of the organizers quit, Julie and another lead organizer saw the situation crumbling around them. They also saw that the turnover rate at their store had notably increased since they began the campaign — and both moved on to different workplaces, feeling they could make just as much of an impact elsewhere. Julie now works in the nonprofit sector and is putting feelers out about organizing her new workplace. She knows of efforts across the country to organize Target and thinks a unionization drive might be successful there in the next few years.
While her first union organizing attempt didn’t succeed, Julie still considers her interaction with EWOC valuable. “As far as I’m concerned,” she says, “the core function of EWOC, the thing that makes it great, is that [workers] will take the skills they’ve learned, the contacts they’ve made, the relationships they have formed, the consciousness they have developed… into their working lives,” she said. “There are now a group of people there that now have knowledge of labor organizing at Target.”
Evan Grupsmith was working at a Brooklyn grocery store when the pandemic hit. With the guidance of EWOC, his workplace organizing committee petitioned for and gained some COVID- 19-related workplace safety protections. He no longer works at the grocery store and soon will enter nursing school. He was so fond of his experience with EWOC that he is now a volunteer organizer and part of a project to set up a New York City branch. “I’m a socialist. That means workers have to control their own society, that workers should be organized and able to exercise power on their own behalf… It’s imperative that we have a powerful workers’ unit to build out democracy,” he said.
“Tens of millions of workers want a union, but unions have struggled to organize them. Some of that has to do with a misunderstanding of unions, some has to do with the history of organized labor in the US. We shouldn’t be shy about naming these problems, undemocratic unions and racketeering have been real problems,” said Grupsmith. “The way I put it to workers is, What do you want? Do you want to have freedom and rights in the workplace? A union gets you that. Even a bad union is better than no union at all.”
“But, we should recognize that two workers working together to collectively better their conditions is already acting like a union, and that a union is not a third party, it is the workers,” Grupsmith added.
While the number of workers who see through a successful campaign is far fewer than those that initially reach out to EWOC, the group has managed in its first two years to foster 115 worker-rights campaigns in New York state. (They define a campaign as any collective action taken against a boss.) More than that, they have created a template for worker engagement that others, including traditional labor unions, can build on.
EWOC saw an increase in contacts from both workers and potential volunteers when the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) won its union election at the JFK8 Staten Island warehouse on April 1. “I think this is a really exciting time,” said Dirnbach. “Old folks like me that are in the labor movement — folks that have been around 20 years — will often joke every five years, ‘Oh we think this is the upsurge. We think this is the year!’ So, we’re saying it now. And the thing is — it might be this year. Maybe it is happening. It does seem really exciting, what’s going on in the labor movement.”
Whether EWOC prepares a group of workers to become part of an already-established union, encourages them to form their own or promotes some type of solidarity unionism, its volunteers generally recommend workers take action collectively in order to realize demands. And, they say, one-on-one conversations with coworkers are the best way to organize, no matter the scale of the workplace or organizing effort.
EWOC has a long-term vision with short-term goals and strives to support workers with a sense of immediacy. At the end of each year, says Dirnbach, the organization regroups and decides how to continue their operations.
What will they discuss next time they have that conversation?
“Here’s my guess,” Dirnbach said, “We will probably wonder if we should really be helping workers form their own independent unions, like the ALU. I think that’s a really interesting question that’s forming, that is: How do you help them figure out their bylaws? How do you help them fundraise? There’s all sorts of logistical and practical concerns that go into that but hey, ALU has shown it can be done.” Forming an independent union gives workers the option of either taking the path of solidarity unionism or going through the NLRB officiation process, which ends in an election.
“This moment needs to be sustained. We need to make sure all the people being inspired to move have the support they need,” said EWOC volunteer organizer When Zhuang. She believes unions need to experiment and take more risks to find what kind of organizing strategies and tactics work best for the moment we’re in. “In general, being a part of EWOC has given space for people to cultivate more of an appetite to try things out.”
Visit bit.ly/3s0pMb8 for an extensive outline of EWOC’s goals and vision.
Julie is a pseudonym. John Tarleton and Lachlan Hyatt contributed to this report.
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