Something Is Stirring in the Labor Movement

A coronavirus-era partnership between the United Electrical Workers and Democratic Socialists of America has given birth to what may be the most innovative labor organizing campaign since the '30s: the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.

Workers at Taco Bell have been aided by the Emergency Workers Organizing. Yum! Brands

If you have to work during this pandemic, it’s best if you have a union. Research from the Columbia University Labor Lab found that essential workers who belong to unions were more likely to receive testing for COVID-19, be provided protective personal equipment on the job, practice good social distancing at work, and be guaranteed paid sick leave in the event that they contracted the virus despite all precautions.

Unfortunately, the US unionization rate is at a historic nadir. And with lives on the line and time of the essence, workers facing danger on the job can’t simply snap their fingers and get unionized to protect themselves, their families, and the broader public from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, non-unionized essential workers need to improvise.

Enter the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, founded to provide logistical support to workers who want to organize for better pandemic-related working conditions, but don’t have a union to rely on. EWOC was started and is run by a group of independent members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and organizers for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). 

Colette Perold, EWOC’s National Coordinator and a member of DSA, says many of the initial EWOC organizers had gotten to know each other on Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. That’s also where many of them became familiar with the “distributed organizing” model that they’re using to help workers across the country mount pressure campaigns and win demands on the fly.

“The people volunteering to do EWOC include a lot of former Bernie staffers and volunteers and a lot of members of DSA,” two groups with significant overlap, says Perold. “Many of these people have no labor organizing experience, but we’ve created a structure to train them and equip them with the organizing tools to help run a project like this at scale.”

When people sign up to volunteer for EWOC, they’re asked to give information about their organizing background “so we can place you where you’ll be of the most use and gain the most out of EWOC,” says Perold. “For those without organizing experience, you’re doing initial intake calls with workers, meaning you’re getting an initial assessment of the situation. But we don’t want to put any workers at risk by having someone without experience work on their campaign. So if you’re inexperienced, you’re not escalating anything with them.”

Not at first, anyway. EWOC also has a comprehensive training program, an organizing curriculum complete with assignments and assessments. Then there’s a shadowing and mentorship program to prepare trained volunteers for organizing in the field. For socialists and other committed pro-worker activists who want to learn how to coordinate workplace-based campaigns, EWOC functions as a sort of ad hoc school of labor organizing.

Essential workers reap the benefits. After filling out a form requesting EWOC’s assistance and describing their situation to an intake volunteer, workers are assigned trained organizers who can help them figure out what demands to prioritize and the right strategy to win them. In the two months since the project was launched, EWOC has received over 500 volunteers and heard from over 1,500 workers looking to organize their workplaces in thirty states.

Perold says the goal of EWOC is twofold: to foster a new generation of shop-floor leaders by taking advantage of the spontaneous militancy of this unprecedented moment, and to teach a new generation of dedicated activists the nuts and bolts of labor organizing. 

“This crisis has produced so much devastation, but it has also produced new opportunities for building working-class power,” says Perold. “If we can actually channel the enthusiasm of good organizers to tap into the needs and desires of militant workers in this moment, we have no idea where the labor movement could go.”

Jimmy John’s

“I have to go home to my sister every day and risk and contaminating her,” says John Alger, nineteen, of Millcreek, Utah. Alger is a delivery driver for a Salt Lake City branch of the fast-food sandwich company Jimmy John’s. “She and I are both immunocompromised. The virus is potentially fatal for us. So that’s one of the main reasons why I organized with my coworkers.” 

“My coworkers and I were afraid for our lives,” says Alger. “Customers were coming into the lobby without masks on. We had barriers up but they weren’t effective — most of us could look over the top of them. And we had markers on the ground,” to keep customers separated in line, “but they were only four and a half feet apart.”

Alger and a few other coworkers started talking to each other about their concerns and created a group chat to make plans to do something about it. Their original plan was to stage a small walkout to protest the lobby being open to the public. Around the same time, one of Alger’s coworkers came across the EWOC form online and filled it out. They heard back quickly, and with EWOC’s assistance they got down to business.

EWOC organizers helped Jimmy John’s workers in Salt Lake City identify four demands on management: higher plexiglass barriers, proper spacing of the markers, closing the lobby until it was safe to reopen, and paid time off for workers who get sick. They drafted these demands into a petition, and then Alger and other workplace leaders began talking to their coworkers. Most were on board, but some required extra convincing because they were afraid they would lose their jobs in retaliation for organizing. “We told them, ‘Hey, we’re within our rights to do this. We’re protected,” says Alger. They had role-played these conversations with EWOC organizers ahead of time.

Once they got a majority of their coworkers to sign the petition, Alger and the other workplace leaders delivered it to management. They were asked to attend a meeting a few days later, and in the meantime they promoted their petition on social media, with the assistance of EWOC organizers who arranged for DSA to share supportive content on all its channels. Throughout the entire process, Alger says, “EWOC helped us keep on track and stay organized.”

At the meeting the workers stood up, read their petition aloud, and shared their personal stories. They even grilled their boss about how much PTO he can take if he gets sick. Their forceful action took their boss by surprise. After their meeting, they increased the pressure by talking to the press — interviews that were arranged by EWOC’s media team, and for which EWOC helped them prepare.

As a result of their efforts, management met three out of four of Alger’s and his coworkers’ demands: installing new plexiglass, setting the markers the proper distance apart, and keeping the lobby closed to the public — though not for as long as the workers wanted. Alger says he and his coworkers plan to continue organizing for the rest of their demands: keeping the lobby closed for longer, and securing PTO for workers who get sick.

This was Alger’s first experience organizing his workplace. In his view, other essential workers should do the same if they have concerns about safety or compensation during the pandemic. In particular, Alger says, “EWOC has helped us tremendously. I would highly recommend that workers who are out there going through something similar reach out to them.”

Taco Bell

Thirty-year-old Jon Foster works at a Taco Bell in Romeo, Michigan, north of Detroit. When the pandemic hit, he says, management declined to take additional measures to keep workers safe. For example, they barred workers from bringing their own personal protective equipment (PPE) from home, while also failing to provide enough on site. “I also reached out to my regional manager about hazard pay and paid sick leave, and their response was, ‘No, we can’t do that. That’s not an option.’ That’s really what caused me to organize,” says Foster.

Foster is himself a member of DSA, and came across the EWOC petition online when the national organization tweeted out the link. He filled out the form, he says, “because I wanted to win better working conditions for myself and my coworkers, and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.”

With EWOC’s help, the Taco Bell workers came up with a strategy that was similar to that of the Jimmy John’s campaign. “We decided to make a petition, send it to the bosses, but also make a public petition because that adds pressure to the boss as well,” Foster says. 

After being trained by EWOC, Foster and other workplace leaders set about gathering signatures. There were difficulties. “In fast food in general, especially where I’m at, it’s a lot of high schoolers,” says Foster. “This is their first job. They don’t have any experience with bosses or companies, good or bad. So I would say something to them and at first it would be not registering at all. That was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge. I enjoyed being able to educate my younger coworkers.”

Foster adds that his coworkers of all ages were generally unfamiliar with unions, workplace organizing, workers’ rights, or the labor movement. “Sometimes they would offer pushback because they were afraid. I would say ‘Actually did you know that if we come together we have federally protected rights under the National Labor Relations Act?’ And they didn’t know that.”

Despite the difficulties, Foster and the other lead workplace organizers got nearly 90 percent of their shop to sign onto the petition demanding safer workplace conditions, $3 hazard pay increase plus back pay, and four weeks of paid sick leave. Within hours of receiving the petition, the area manager threatened two of them with retaliation, and sent a passive-aggressive text message to everyone warning them against a walkout. However, the text message also conceded on a few smaller demands, including being able to wear their own PPE.

In response to the threat of retaliation, EWOC’s Tristan Bock-Hughes, a DSA member and former regional field director for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, led a workplace rights training. He also role-played organizing conversations with the workplace leaders, training them in how to organize groups of workers on their own and prepare everyone for the big push.

Meanwhile, the EWOC media team arranged interviews for the following day. In these interviews, Taco Bell workers stressed that their demands were not only about their own safety, but about that of the whole community — a pandemic-specific iteration of what’s called in the labor movement “bargaining for the common good,” or relating demands to the needs of the broader public.

“On that same day that we contacted the press,” says Foster, “we had thermometers in store to begin doing health check screenings, which we hadn’t had for like a month. Once they saw that we were serious and we were willing to do whatever it takes to win, our boss reached out to us and we ended up getting a hazard pay.” The victories weren’t restricted to their shop, either — seven Taco Bell locations and a Sonic location were affected by the demands.

“It was $2 an hour with back pay instead of $3, but that’s still huge,” says Foster. “And we got two weeks of paid sick leave instead of four, which again is more than some places are getting.” Like Alger and his coworkers at Jimmy John’s, Foster says he and his Taco Bell coworkers will continue organizing for the rest of their demands.

“I’m diabetic,” says Foster, “so my complications from COVID-19 are potentially higher if I catch this.” He says that his stress about the virus itself has not gone away; the baseline fear of getting sick or losing loved ones to the illness won’t go away until we have a vaccine. “But it’s a huge relief for me to win these demands.” He feels more protected at work, and better compensated for the risks he’s taking. “Plus, we have elderly customers coming through the drive-through,” says Foster, “and it makes me feel better to know we’re protecting them too.”

Foster says that he thinks EWOC is meeting workers’ needs during this moment of crisis, but that it’s also contributing in a bigger way. He says, “Building the labor movement is the natural evolution of protecting your coworkers.”

As long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, EWOC plans to help workers organize around pandemic-related demands. But the group is also proving flexible as conditions rapidly change. In the second week of the George Floyd protests, the organization put out a new call on social media. It read, “Are you facing retaliation at work for taking a stand during this uprising? Are you fighting against racism on the job? We are here to support any worker taking the movement for Black lives from the streets into the workplace. Fill out our form.”