How E-ZPass Workers on Staten Island Are Building Power During the Pandemic

A coalition of 14 unions, immigrant rights groups, and community organizations came together for a procession of essential and excluded workers on Staten Island on May 16. Photo: CWA Local 1102

Trauma would be the best way to describe the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the working class. Suddenly workers found ourselves in a situation beyond our control. But it’s also a moment of opportunity to actually take more control over our work lives and push for a more democratic society. Workers and unions have to hit the streets and organize.

As the pandemic ripped through New York City in March, the 280 members of Communications Workers (CWA) Local 1102 at the E-ZPass call center on Staten Island were terrified that the coronavirus would quickly spread throughout their workplace, and furious at their employers’ actions (or lack thereof).

Conduent, the government contractor that runs New York’s E-Z Pass toll collection system, cut workers’ hours and forced those with childcare issues to take unpaid leave. The company refused to spend the money it saved to properly clean the call center. Like many other corporations, Conduent was eager to transfer the economic and social liability of the pandemic off its own bottom line and onto workers and the taxpaying public.

Awakened by the crisis and facing life-or-death choices, workers at the call center were emboldened to take action.

DEMANDING TO WORK FROM HOME

Our members decided to push to work from home, as call center workers all over the world have been demanding. In the earliest days of the pandemic, the union approached the company about protocols that included plans for workplace safety, no co-pays for testing, and paid leave for workers who were affected by COVID, including those who were at high risk or who had to stay home to take care of children. The company was completely dismissive and very tight-lipped about how it was going to handle the crisis. As union officers we reported that to the workers, who appreciated that the union was providing them with information, since the company wasn’t providing any.

Realizing that information was going to be key to dealing with the pandemic, we started putting out memos and holding daily video calls to keep people as up to date as possible. After the company didn’t even immediately notify workers about the first reported case of COVID-19 exposure in the call center—a worker who was asked to stay home and self-quarantine—union officers (including myself) drove to the center to warn members ourselves. The company called the cops to have us removed from the property.

In a workplace where we have struggled for years to build up the union’s strength—only finally winning a closed shop in 2017—members really began to understand the power and importance of the union.

THE SOLIDARITY CIRCLE

At the height of our organizing, we had 90 members joining our nightly Zoom calls. These were important not just for the union to share information but also for us to hear how workers were feeling and stay connected to them. On the calls, members discussed how they could collectively demand more information from management, better cleaning, and other responses to their concerns.

One of the more visible actions organized through these calls was called the solidarity circle, where members joined together prior to their shift in a large circle in the parking lot. Socially distanced and wearing their masks, members used the solidarity circle to plan out their day’s actions in full view of management, who watched from the fourth floor window.

As part of our push for safer conditions and to work from home, workers organized delegations to management demanding proof of cleaning, threatened several safety strikes when COVID began to spread in the call center, engaged in targeted social media campaigning, and collectively they swayed our state senator to pressure Conduent. Members were inspired by the many stories of workers striking in our community, including the Amazon workers who walked out of the distribution center nearby.

AN ISLAND COALITION

LABOR NOTES RESOURCES

ORGANIZING IN A PANDEMIC

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On May 2, Conduent finally agreed to allow workers to work from home. Members were relieved that they would no longer have to put themselves at risk by physically going to the call center. But, along with our members at Verizon, they were ready to help other workers push for safe working conditions, too.

One member, whose husband is a bus driver and a member of Transit (ATU) Local 726, proposed that we do something across the island for essential workers. The fear she and her husband had lived through was fresh. Now, seeing right-wing groups pressuring governors to prematurely open up, she and other rank-and-file members were motivated to act.

We decided to reach out to other unions and community organizations on the Island to organize a procession of essential and excluded workers on Saturday, May 16. We wanted to ensure that the voices of workers were heard by those in power debating reopening the economy.

The coalition behind the procession consisted of 14 labor unions, immigrant rights groups, and community organizations. Over the past few years, we’ve built strong ties between our unions and the broader community, in part through our organizing with Sustainable Staten Island, which came out of connections our local built during the Verizon strike of 2016.

In the weeks prior to the procession, immigrant workers from La Colmena worker center handmade hundreds of face coverings that they disseminated to essential workers from our local, ATU Local 726, the New York State Nurses (NYSNA), and other essential workers. The generosity of these immigrant workers, many of whom were jobless and left out of any pandemic relief because of their immigration status, paved the way for the solidarity behind our caravan.

A 100-CAR CARAVAN

Our procession was an example of what mass worker solidarity could look like. We started by paying homage to health care workers from NYSNA, SEIU 1199, the teachers (UFT), and CWA at Staten Island University Hospital. Along the route we showed solidarity with ATU Local 726 at the Yulon bus terminal; workers organizing at a T-Mobile retail store; our Verizon members, who applauded the procession as it passed a central office; as well as the call center where Local 1102 members work every day. We streamed the caravan on Zoom and Facebook.

The pinnacle of the action happened at the Amazon distribution center when the procession, perhaps 100 cars deep, stopped, blocking all entrances and exits. People got out of their vehicles and began dancing in jubilation, solidarity, and resistance to the system.

The procession ended at La Colmena worker center in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island, home to a large Mexican diaspora. Members of the community greeted each vehicle with brightly colored signs, music, and an outpouring of love and gratitude. For a moment in time, all workers, native-born and immigrant, shared a connection of solidarity (albeit a socially-distanced one).

Ironically, on the same day, a right-wing rally was held in a parking lot to call for reopening the city’s businesses, organized by wealthy developers. They had no caravan and no masks. Many held up Trump signs or posters with slogans like “Back to work, back to school.”

The crisis for the working class was literally life or death. The right-wing movement to reopen is selfish and manipulative, forcing workers to choose life or their livelihoods, with little concern about their health, safety, or economics.

But it’s critical that we not cede the terrain of public protest to the right wing. We are living in extraordinary times. As this article is being written, our cities are in chaos after the murder of George Floyd by police. Whether it be COVID or civil unrest in support of Black lives, organizations and institutions, from corporations to our unions, will be judged by the way they responded in the time of crisis, how they either stepped up or failed workers and the broader public. There’s a lot of chaos and trauma these days, but there’s also the opportunity to rebuild the labor movement behind the principles of safety and solidarity.

Steve Lawton is the president of CWA Local 1102 in Staten Island, New York.