Building worker power and solidarity in the face of the pandemic

Just when workers were making huge gains, bouncing back after decades of eroding collective power, the pandemic struck. 2018 and 2019 were historic in recent decades for labor strikes and worker organizing. Then, in 2020, COVID-19 came along, thrusting us back in the other direction at a dizzying speed: further consolidating wealth in the hands of a few and making work scarce – if not deadly – for many everyday people. 

But this critical moment has not gone unchallenged: organizations and unions have launched innovative programs, funds, and campaigns to build power and security for workers and everyday people. Below are some of the most inspirational, powerful, and useful initiatives to come out of the past year.

This of course is not an exhaustive list; these are just highlights of some of the ones we know about. We are always happy and excited to learn about more!

Jobs with Justice: Money to workers, controlled by workers

Jobs with Justice is a national coalition “leading strategic campaigns and shaping the public discourse on every front to build power for working people.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, JWJ launched the Worker Solidarity Fund, and they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that is directly paid out to workers affected by the pandemic. But what makes this fund unique is that it is directly governed by “leaders from the most-impacted sectors.” According to Jobs with Justice:

In the short-term, donated funds will be distributed directly to impacted people through our local coalitions who are facilitating cash assistance programs in various locales around the country.  

In places like California, Massachusetts, Long Island and DC, funds are being distributed to affected immigrants, while other locations like Missouri, Tennessee and Chicago are supporting restaurant and hospitality workers. As unemployment numbers soar, each week brings new demand for funds.  

In the medium and long-term, Jobs With Justice will support efforts that fundamentally shift economic paradigms and power dynamics through new organizing models like Unemployed Councils and Gig Worker Councils. […]

Any money you contribute will go to these affected workers who need help right now – giving them the power they need to continue to demand better of corporations and help slow down the spread of the Coronavirus.

We are proud to have worked together with Jobs with Justice to create and publish STRIKE! The Game of Worker Rebellion

National Domestic Workers’ Alliance: Creating a coronavirus resource center

The National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA) is “the nation’s leading voice for dignity and fairness for the millions of domestic workers in the United States.” As the pandemic worsened and extended, they launched the Coronavirus Resource Center for domestic workers. As they describe it:

As nannies, home care workers and housecleaners, we’re on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. Together, we’re learning how to be safe on the job. We’re pushing for government policies to help all families survive this crisis. And we’re leaning on our community to stay strong, together.

Through the Coronavirus Resource Center, domestic workers can gain access to online trainings and guides for working as safely as possible throughout the pandemic; they can find relief sources specifically for their state as well as emotional support; and they can get critical information on vaccine access.  

US Federation of Worker Cooperatives: Forming rapid response cooperatives

As a worker-owned cooperative, TESA is proud to be a member of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), “the national grassroots membership organization for worker cooperatives.” The work the US Federation has been doing to help keep worker-owned businesses afloat as the pandemic punches keep rolling has been truly imaginative – and the kind of work that is needed to transform the economy as a whole. Back in May of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, we wrote an article on how worker cooperatives were a model better suited to weather the unfolding crisis, and we specifically highlighted how the USFWC was building resilience for the co-ops, their worker-owners, and the movement at large: 

On the national scale, the worker co-op federation is mobilizing and advocating for existing worker co-ops. Together with a coalition of other cooperative organizations, they successfully lobbied to have cooperatives included in the stimulus funding for small businesses. As a result, Samamkāya was able to be included in the first round of stimulus relief offered by the Small Business Administration, while Community Printers and Mariposa were approved in the second round of funding.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is how the worker co-op federation has been helping to repurpose cooperatives that are temporarily closed to aid in relief efforts.

“We’re trying to organize our members into rapid response co-ops,” says Kelly of the federation. “So taking workforces that are not viable during social distancing and repurposing them into some of the value chains that are needed, like more meal delivery co-ops.”

One of the best examples of the formation of rapid response cooperatives is the above story of CHCA and Opportunity Threads. But beyond that, others have emerged as well, such as Sustainergy, a green home improvement cooperative based in Cincinnati, which has pivoted some of their operations to grocery delivery services for the time being. This is in response to the fact that many people will not be looking to do home improvements while belts tighten, but an increasing number of community members need food brought to their doorsteps.

While that article was written in the early days of the pandemic, the federation has continued to develop resources and build initiatives to help the movement weather the storm through solidarity and mutual-aid.  

Resilience Force: COVID-19 safety jobs for those out of work due to the pandemic

Resilience Force is “a national initiative to transform America’s response to disasters by strengthening and securing America’s Resilience Workforce—the millions of people whose work, heart and expertise make sustainable recovery from disasters possible.” You might have even recently seen them in the Netflix documentary, Immigration Nation. And what they are doing to aid those who have been directly impacted by COVID is unique: they are earning a living by helping others stay safe from the pandemic. A pilot program they launched in New Orleans is described this way in an AP article:

Service workers in New Orleans who were laid off because of the coronavirus’s impact on the economy are earning a living again by helping others survive during the pandemic.

Unemployed bartenders, musicians and casino employees who were among the thousands of service industry workers left without jobs when the city closed its bars and nightclubs in late March have been recruited to train and work with Resilience Force. The national nonprofit puts people to work in disaster recovery programs that focus on Black and other minority communities.

As a member of the New Orleans Resilience Corps pilot program, former French Quarter bar manager Dazmine “Daz” Allen spends his days handing out COVID-safety flyers and personal protective equipment to residents and Hurricane Laura evacuees sheltering in the city.

Allen said he filed for unemployment and food stamps and was “barely getting by” when he was recruited.

“I feel like I can provide for myself, help my family … and working for an organization that has the primary goal to provide health care, health services to the community, to me is everything right now,” Allen said.

Because of the pandemic, the New Orleans Corps is focusing heavily on community health, said Resilience Force’s executive director, Saket Soni. Instead of clearing flood damage or swinging hammers to rebuild homes, workers are canvassing churches and neighborhoods to educate people about how to stay safe during the pandemic, Soni said. Among their duties is distributing personal protective equipment to especially vulnerable members of the community and informing people about where to get free COVID testing or seek emergency care.

Resilience Force has also put a wide range of resources together to help local governments and advocates campaign for resilient policy solutions to the impacts of COVID-19.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United: Curating resources and guides for restaurant workers

Undoubtedly, one of the most impacted sectors of workers throughout this pandemic has been restaurant workers. From losing their jobs to having tips vanish or working in unsafe conditions, an already often fraught industry has been upended.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United is a “a national nonprofit organization, works to improve the lives of millions of workers in the restaurant industry.” They have launched a direct cash assistance program to restaurant workers, and they have also curated this incredibly in depth COVID-19 resource guide for struggling restaurant workers as well as people who want to support them. So if you’re a restaurant worker in need in this troubling time, or someone who wants to pitch in, you can even sort the guide to see what your options are on a state-by-state level.

Movement For Black Lives: Calls for just policies in response to COVID

The Movement For Black Lives (M4BL) was “created as a space for Black organizations across the country to debate and discuss the current political conditions, develop shared assessments of what political interventions were necessary in order to achieve key policy, cultural and political wins, convene organizational leadership in order to debate and co-create a shared movement wide strategy.”

In response to the widening crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, they put together a powerful call to action and list of policy demands. Here’s how they describe it: 

In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Black people we fight to prepare and save ourselves and our communities. We know, like in all other crisis, that Black people will be hit hardest. We often suffer the worst because of the state’s failure to protect us and oftentimes the states targeting of us—like during Hurricane Katrina and many other atrocities. Everyday, we are still recovering from the tragic and unnecessary theft and loss of Black life. 

These demands are a product of collective work and reflect demands made by numerous other groups including the National Council, Communities United for Police Reform, Arch City Defenders, St. Louis Action, Prison Policy Initiative, Color of Change, Law for Black Lives, Coleman Advocates, Justice LA, Working Families Party, United We Dream, No Kids in Prison Campaign, Equality and Transformation and others.

From housing to healthcare, the policy demands lay out both the problems and their solutions – and what action needs to be taken on a local, state, and national level. 

Chicago Teachers’ Union: Protecting teachers, students, and their community

As working parents, we at TESA know the juggle of trying to work at home while having kids around. To put it mildly, it’s not easy. And teachers across the country have been put in increasingly difficult positions: many have to simultaneously teach online and in person without having received a vaccine. This not only makes an already challenging job more difficult, but dangerous as well. That’s why The Chicago Teachers Union, who over the past few years have been one of the most dynamic teacher unions in terms of organizing, fought hard to win concessions that would ensure the safety and wellbeing of teachers and students. According to an article in Chalkbeat:

“This is the most comprehensive agreement for reopening schools that we have seen around the country,” said Brad Marianno, a professor of education policy and leadership at the University of Las Vegas, who has been tracking district reopening agreements since spring with a team of researchers. “It’s really setting a new standard for other districts.”

Chicago ceded significant ground to the union on a number of issues, perhaps most notably by delaying the reopening for most elementary students by a month or longer to allow more teachers and staff to get vaccinated. It also committed to weekly vaccine dose shipments, beefed up its school testing plan and gave schools more flexibility to accommodate employees who are not ready to return to school buildings. […]

Some of Chicago’s dynamics may be unique. The city’s union gained leverage after members narrowly backed refusing to work remotely and going on a strike if the district locked them out virtually — a confrontation unions elsewhere might be more loath to force.

There is, of course, plenty of more work to be done to protect teachers, students, parents, and the overall community with a school reopening plan. Still, it’s clear that the Chicago Teachers Union is leading the charge to both keep their community learning while safe and healthy. 

So while the pandemic has been a boon for many billionaires and, to put it lightly, a burden for everyday people, we’ve also seen the power of collective action: from organizing to protect teachers to developing rapid response cooperatives to raising and distributing funds to those who lost their jobs. And as it has many times throughout history before, it’s become clear once again: our only true path out of this crisis is solidarity and mutual aid.

Image via Joel Muniz on Unsplash.

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