Millions of workers—grocery clerks, bus drivers, fast-food cooks, delivery workers, and many others—felt newly appreciated when society suddenly deemed them essential. But for many of these essential workers, COVID-19 soon trained a spotlight on the many ways they were being shafted.
The coronavirus crisis made them see many things all too clearly. They lacked paid sick days. Their employers often paid little heed to whether they were adequately protected from the pandemic. OSHA was doing next to nothing to assure their safety. Their employers showed little interest in what they thought or felt.
These “essential workers” grew angrier and angrier, and feeling newly important and newly empowered, they soon erupted. They have engaged in more than 100 walkouts, sickouts, and callouts at some of the nation’s best-known companies, including Amazon, McDonald’s, Instacart, and Domino’s. Their message: “You’re not doing enough to protect us, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
It’s been one of the biggest explosions of worker militancy in decades, and what has made it all the more extraordinary is that it’s been fueled by low-wage, non-union workers.
These workers are crying out for massive changes—in worker power, in various laws, and in how their companies treat them.
This surge of anger and activism has also spurred a great deal of discussion and debate about the future of workers. One possible scenario might be called the status quo scenario, the other the resurgence scenario.
Under the status quo scenario, the current surge of activism would largely blow over once companies, however belatedly, take the steps demanded to protect their workers from COVID-19 and provide some much-deserved hazard pay. With this scenario, unions and worker power in America—already the weakest in the industrial world—would grow weaker still.
Under the resurgence scenario, today’s newly emboldened workers—seeing ever more clearly that their employers don’t have their best interests in mind—would remain angry and militant. Then, with all the new worker leaders and networks developed during today’s pandemic-fueled activism, these workers would move to unionize or pursue other forms of worker power. The hope is that today’s surge of activism will be so large and passionate that it will create a renewed workers’ movement that will take worker power to a new level and reverse labor’s decades-long slide.
It’s impossible to know which scenario will play out, and it is very possible that we’ll see a scenario somewhere between status quo and resurgence.
The huge explosion in unemployment complicates the picture. On one hand, the soaring jobless rate might make an already precarious workforce feel considerably more precarious and thus erode the new militancy we’ve been seeing. On the other hand, if unemployment climbs to over 20 percent, as some economists predict, that might generate mass anger akin to that of the Great Depression, and with the Trump administration mishandling the crisis in so many ways, that mass anger might generate mass protests similar to Depression-era ones. Some advocates are hoping that a possible wave of mass protests could fuel a huge wave of unionization, as happened in the late 1930s—although corporations since have grown far more sophisticated at beating back unionization.
Let’s not forget to add social distancing to this equation. Will workers, even furious ones, be willing to take to the streets en masse if it means they might contract COVID-19? Again, it’s hard to predict how that will play out. It’s worth noting that some socially distanced workers have gotten creative in their protests—McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland, angry about not being given PPE and paid sick days, protested from behind the steering wheel by blocking their restaurants’ drive-through lane.
With all this worker anger, unions and organizers—if they truly hope to build a bigger, stronger movement—should be reaching out in a concerted way to collect the names of every worker who joined a walkout, sickout, callout, or protest. The Communications Workers (CWA), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Coworker.org, and Gig Workers Rising have all been gathering names—but if there’s a larger, overall effort to pool names, I haven’t heard of it.
For this article, I asked several organizing experts to assess the current upsurge and what needs to happen to transform it into lasting, positive change.
Michelle Miller, co-founder of Coworker.org, a fast-growing group that promotes internet petitions to advance workplace change, said unions aren’t making the most of the moment. “This has the potential to transform working conditions permanently,” Miller continued, saying today’s situation is comparable to the Triangle Fire of 1911, whose horrors produced an anger and mobilization that led to increased unionization and far-reaching improvements in factory safety.
Now as then, Miller said, it’s vital to support today’s outraged workers by “organizing for the long haul.” “That’s how we keep people’s attention,” she said. “I don’t rely on people’s outrage long-term. Outrage inevitably begins to dissipate.”
The hope is that today’s surge of activism will be so large and passionate that it will create a renewed workers’ movement.
Andrea Dehlendorf, co-executive director of United for Respect, a nonprofit group battling to help retail workers, said the callous way many companies have acted during the pandemic will darken how workers and the public view corporate America. “What’s been happening to working people in this country is like a frog in boiling water, where there has been this slow burn of declining stability and voice,” Dehlendorf said. “This crisis turned up the heat and exposed just how unconscionably corporations treat workers in a way that working people are not going to accept again.” That, she says, creates fertile ground for a larger movement.
Daniel Gross, executive director of Brandworkers, which organizes food industry workers in New York, said, “I see COVID-19 as an accelerant. Will it lead to long-term power? It will if we organize hard enough for it and intentionally enough for it. The working class is very mobilized right now. And so is the employer class.”
Even though many employers are on the defensive for not doing enough to protect their workers, corporate America remains as fiercely anti-union as ever. Amazon has fired four worker leaders, including the courageous worker who led the walkout at its Staten Island warehouse. Trader Joe’s CEO has sent an anti-union letter to all employees, while Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, has a “heat map” of all its stores that uses two dozen metrics to determine which stores are most likely to unionize.
“We can’t just take for granted that these worker upsurges will translate into long-term power,” Gross said. The chances of succeeding increase “when you do emergency organizing with a long-term end,” he said. But he added that emergency organizing “just amounts to treading water day to day: When the emergency passes, the stuff you’ve built, it doesn’t endure.” (Gross recently convened a coronavirus-inspired seminar on Zoom on how to organize that 350 people joined. It’s more inspiring, and does considerably more to build solidarity, to hold an actual meeting with 350 people, he conceded, but he said organizers are getting better and better at working with Zoom.)
Even if workers are worked up and want to unionize, it’s often as if they approach that goal with a 200-pound load on their backs. Many employers fight relentlessly against unionizing, while the federal judiciary usually sides with corporations, and the Trump NLRB is the most aggressively anti-union NLRB in history. Moreover, it’s one thing to get 25 workers to walk out at an Amazon warehouse, but it’s quite another to win a union by getting a majority of a warehouse’s 4,000 workers to vote to unionize—especially since the Supreme Court said companies have a right to bar union organizers from setting foot on company property.
On the bright side, the current burst of anger and activism comes on top of a two-year rebound for labor. The RedforEd, Marriott, General Motors, and Stop & Shop strikes constituted the largest eruption of strikes since the mid-1980s. A Gallup poll last year found that public approval for unions has climbed to 64 percent—close to a 50-year high. Moreover, there’s been a surge of unionization among many groups: adjunct professors, journalists, grad students, museum workers, nurses, employees at nonprofits, cannabis shop workers.
Unions and organizers will need to step up in a big way, however, if they hope to transform today’s surge of anger into longer-term organizing and organization. It would of course help greatly if the nation’s laws were overhauled to make it easier to unionize (and to guarantee all workers paid sick days), but that won’t happen so long as Republicans control the White House and Senate.
There’s extraordinary energy and promise right now, but formidable obstacles remain in place. As Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” But getting it done is going to take a lot of vision and hard work.
Source: American Prospect