Christopher Thomas, a call center operator in Lawrence, Kansas, said his employer has been dismayingly slow to protect the center’s more than 400 workers from Covid-19 – slow in making sure workers were at least 6ft apart, in getting them personal protective equipment and in assuring emergency sick leave.
That dismay, Thomas explained, comes on top of long-festering anger over pay. His employer, a federal contractor named Maximus, has discussed reclassifying many workers in order to hold down their pay. Thomas and many co-workers have not received a raise for five years, he said. He makes $15.36 an hour after seven years on the job helping people from across the US apply for health insurance through the Obamacare marketplace.
To Thomas’s mind, there has been one positive outgrowth from all this dismay – far greater interest in unionizing. In the last four weeks, he said, membership has nearly tripled in a workplace committee that includes many union supporters and is calling for increased pay and benefits and more transparency on basic work issues.
“I support a union because I love what I do, and it would be nice to have better pay and benefits,” said Thomas, 32, who supports efforts to unionize with the Communications Workers of America. “If we have a union, we will have more power to tell Maximus to stop throwing us bare bones.”
In recent weeks, there has been an extraordinary surge of anger and activism nationwide as workers have protested what they consider inadequate safety protections against Covid-19: at meatpacking plants, McDonald’s restaurants, Amazon warehouses, bus depots and grocery stores. Labor leaders applaud the walkouts and sickouts, and many of them are asking whether this spike in activism can be converted long-term into increased organizing and unionization and somehow reverse labor’s decades-long slide.
The answer depends in part on how vigorously unions and other worker groups respond, but also on how successfully America’s many anti-union corporations respond in quelling this new militancy and any push for unionization. Some prominent companies have responded aggressively – Amazon has fired four outspoken worker leaders, including the leader of a walkout at its Staten Island warehouse, while Trader Joe’s CEO sent an anti-union letter to all employees.
Monica Harris, who handles calls about Medicare at a Maximus facility in Chester, Virginia, cited another obstacle to unionizing: social distancing. “People are very interested in the union right now because we’re being required to come in under bad conditions,” Harris said, speaking last month. But she added: “You’re not really able to get in one-on-one, face-to-face contact with people right now.” Another impediment to expanding union support is that many Maximus employees are transitioning to work at home, although union organizers are increasingly using Zoom to speak with workers and even hold rallies.
Covid-19 has already spurred new organizing. With the virus spreading and his grocery store getting more crowded, Ryan Hartson was growing worried about getting infected in his job as an Instacart in-store shopper in Chicago – he gathers fruits, vegetables and other groceries for customers. Hartson and several co-workers grew upset that Instacart hadn’t given them a mask or other PPE, hadn’t provided hazard pay and made it hard to get paid sick leave. So he joined the nationwide Instacart strike on 30 March involving in-store shoppers (whom Instacart considers employees) and Instacart food deliverers (Instacart says they are independent contractors). Federal law gives employees a right to unionize, but not independent contractors.
At the time of the strike, “I was already in the middle of trying to organize my store,” Hartson said. Instacart shoppers at a Mariano’s grocery store in Skokie, Illinois, voted 10-to-4 to unionize in February, becoming the nation’s first Instacart workers to unionize. Hartson said Covid-19 gave added momentum to the effort at his store, and he was soon discussing unionization with Instacart workers in Austin, Boston, Miami and Orlando.
“The pandemic led to the strike, and the strike led to this opportunity to organize workers all over this country,” Hartson said. “No question the pandemic has opened up a whole new dynamic in the labor movement.”
Todd Crosby, organizing director for the United Food and Commercial Workers, said that with regard to Instacart’s in-store shoppers and its delivery workers – who he says are misclassified as independent contractors – “we are building a real organization at the workplace to win collective bargaining rights.” He added, “In some other places, like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, we’re working with activists to engage in rebellion and protest that may lead to a permanent organization and collective bargaining.”
Tom Smith, national organizing director for the communications workers union, said coronavirus-related activism was setting the stage for longer-term organizing. “It’s changing people’s calculus,” he said. “Workers often sense they’re taking a risk when they’re acting collectively. But Covid-19 has turned some of that calculus on its ear. Yeah, maybe the boss will hold it against me. Maybe this will put my job in jeopardy. But I’m not going to put my life or my newborn’s life or my immuno-compromised parent’s life in danger.”
Smith oversaw a conference call with 1,000 largely non-union workers about Covid-19 and near-term and longer-term steps. “All of this is leading folks to really step forward and take action,” he said. “This will be the first workplace confrontation for tens of thousands of people.” The result, he said, will be many new workplace leaders, groups and networks.
Edan Alva, a Lyft driver in Alameda, California, helped organize recent protests to make sure Uber and Lyft drivers obtain unemployment benefits after many stopped driving because of a sharp drop-off in business and fears of infection. After those protests, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, pledged to make unemployment benefits available to these drivers, despite Uber’s and Lyft’s efforts to block such benefits.
Alva, a leader of Gig Workers Rising, hopes California’s state legislature will give Uber and Lyft drivers a right to unionize, even though the Trump National Labor Relations Board has embraced Uber and Lyft’s view that the drivers are independent contractors and shouldn’t be allowed to unionize. “Our No 1 goal is to organize and unionize,” Alva said. “Drivers are increasingly seeing that nothing prevents Uber and Lyft from taking what they want unless we have a union.”
Andrea Dehlendorf, co-executive director of United for Respect, a non-profit fighting for low-wage workers, predicts that Covid-19 will change how workers and the public view corporate America – and that that will in turn inspire more activism.
“What’s been happening to working people in this country is like a frog in boiling water, where things get more dire and extreme, where there has been this slow burn of declining stability and voice, and this crisis turned up the heat and exposed just how unconscionably corporations treat workers in our economy and society,” Dehlendorf said. “This is not just a momentary surge in reaction to this particular crisis. This crisis is exposing just how inhumanly corporations are treating workers in a way that working people are not going to accept again.”
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