Organize or Die

Nurses performing drive-thru tests for COVID-19 at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.

Nurses perform drive-thru tests for COVID-19 at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. Photo: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest workplace issue of our lives. Across the country, it is throwing into relief the cold capitalist logic of American workplaces, where the health and safety of workers, their families, and the public is subordinate to the employers' need for profit. The success or failure of our organizing at work today could be a question of life and death for hundreds of thousands.

The outcome of our organizing today is also potentially a question of life and death for the labor movement. In this crisis, signs of life are popping up everywhere. Workers around the world are walking out or threatening to. Major unions are winning new protections. The new political terrain puts longstanding demands, from paid sick leave to universal health care, on the table.

Yet it’s not an exaggeration to say that COVID-19 could be fatal to the labor movement as we know it. The Trump administration has warned that unemployment may reach 20 percent, and in the hardest-hit sectors unions are already bracing for catastrophic job losses of 80 to 90 percent. A social crisis of this magnitude could eliminate millions of union jobs, and there is no guarantee that our movement—small, weak, complacent, and politically isolated—can benefit from the recovery.

In this moment unions cannot hunker down to focus on servicing members, even as the crisis creates enormous need and taxes our resources. We have an obligation right now to take leadership and speak for the whole working class. If we do nothing, or we do too little, or we act too late, we die.

IF THEY WERE APATHETIC BEFORE, THEY'RE NOT NOW

If you are a union leader or staffer or member, this means organizing with creativity, now. It means getting people in motion even if we don’t have a perfect organizing plan. It means organizing in our shops, and in non-union shops, and in the political arena, and online. It means putting tactics like striking on the table even if they haven’t been for decades. If the last week is any indication, it probably means a lot of conference calls. But we need to get started urgently.

If you don't have a union and your employer's response to the COVID-19 pandemic is inadequate, now is the time to talk to your co-workers about organizing a union. You can reach out to locals in your area or your industry, or you can start organizing independently. Just don’t leave your life in the hands of a boss who will put profit above anything and everything else. (At least one union, the Communications Workers, has put together helpful resources for non-union workers looking to organize during this pandemic at cwa-union.org/covid19organizing.)

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If you are a member of one of the many unions that are taking action to protect members and the public, now is the time to get involved. Talk to your co-workers. Call your union and ask to help. Get a list of members and start calling them to discuss their needs, their safety, and what actions they are willing to take. Talk to non-union workers about what your union is doing and how they can join the movement.

It goes without saying that not every union is prepared to face a crisis of this magnitude. If you are a member of a union that is inadequate to the task of protecting members and the public from COVID-19, now is the time to talk to your co-workers about how to change that. Working to strengthen your union at the same time as you work to change it can be an enormous challenge, but it is hard to imagine a more urgent or more promising moment to start.

If your co-workers were reluctant to get involved before, try asking them now.

Sam Lewis is an organizer with a public sector union in New York City.

Want help organizing your workplace to respond to the pandemic? Email us at organize[at]labornotes[dot]org. For helpful organizing tips, sign up for our online course, Beating Apathy.

To see a direct feed of the latest coronavirus-related coverage from Labor Notes, click here.

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