In mid-March, as workers across the U.S. began to feel the effects of COVID-19, organizers from the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were flooded with inquiries about unsafe working conditions. Workers’ concerns varied: workplaces with no running water, non-essential workplaces that refused to shutter, grocery stores that failed to provide PPE or hazard pay. In response, the DSA partnered with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) to form the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee — EWOC, as some affectionately call it. 

In short, EWOC is an attempt to apply the lessons and tactics of volunteer-led distributed organizing to the workplace. Our goal is to bring the model of organizing developed in the Bernie Sanders campaign to workers and to facilitate short-term workplace actions that build their capacity to fight and win. Our hypothesis is that, through a distributed model, we can scale short-term workplace organizing, identify “hot shops” where workers are ready to take action, and seed networks that build worker power, working class leadership, and infrastructure, especially in non-union sectors and workplaces.

To handle the influx of requests for organizing assessments, we standardized our intake to a simple Google Form that asked some basic assessment questions and fed into a single sheet. In the first 24 hours, hundreds of workers signed up to seek assistance, but only a few volunteers signed up to do outreach. We quickly recruited volunteers from DSA and Bernie circles to reach out to workers, assess their workplace conditions, and encourage them to organize their coworkers. 

Without much more of a plan than that, we began reaching out to workers; we quickly found that we needed more structure. The challenge we ran into was: with such a high bar for action, as organizing one’s coworkers during a pandemic certainly is, how could we streamline the process and open it to distributed organizing, especially among volunteers with uneven skill sets and levels of experience?

After some trial and error, we settled on a system that allows us to reach every worker who expresses interest, assess whether they are likely to organize an escalating campaign, connect them with an experienced workplace organizer, and keep them in our training and communications networks regardless of whether they are ready to take short-term action. The outward-facing Google Sheet forms the kernel of our “triage hub.” This is where all workers land initially. Everyone who fills out this form receives an assessment from a team of “sweepers” to see if they fit the basic criteria of our organizing project. If they are still going into work, are non-union, and don’t belong to a network of worker organizers (as already exist at certain large employers), they are sent to our “intake hub.” From there, one of hundreds of “intake callers” reaches out to each worker and follows a short (10-15 minute) script to collect additional information: has anyone in the workplace already taken action, how many coworkers share this issue, and is there a plan in place to organize? For each worker who has this initial follow-up conversation, our team of intermediate and advanced workplace organizers do a second sweep, assessing which workers seem likely to escalate in the near term. 

After these initial assessments, a more traditional workplace organizing model comes into play but with different goals than a formal unionization campaign. An EWOC campaign relies on short-term action and communications strategies to build pressure on employers. We then share the experiences and skills we gain in each sector with other workers. Unlike a union campaign, EWOC does not focus on building the kind of organizing structure that can win an absolute majority at a workplace for a sustained period, although workers and EWOC organizers have been able to quickly build majority support in grocery stores, fast food restaurants, museums, and retail stores. Unlike other media-heavy advocacy models, however, we also do not rely solely on media attention or public pressure — we build local, temporary majorities. Our aim is to organize workers to win concrete victories through effective communications strategies and short-term workplace actions like majority petitions and marches on the boss.

The broader organizational goal is to create sectoral networks of non-union workers who are ready to take workplace action. We hope to train a layer of workplace militants who will be able to carry their organizing skills into workplaces around the country. We also hope that the organized labor movement will take note of the possibilities of organizing in non-union workplaces in times of crisis and invest in new organizing among non-union “essential” workers.

So far, our successes have been limited but instructive. We have seen wins among grocery workers, fast food workers, and graduate students, illustrating the range of workers who can move into action through distributed organizing. In late April, a shift manager at a Taco Bell in Romeo, Michigan, reached out to EWOC with concerns about safety and fair treatment at his workplace. After an initial discussion with a “sweeper” to identify natural leaders in his shop and roleplay the organizing conversations he would need to have to get his workplace organized, the shift manager recruited three other respected workers. They then solidified their demands into a petition, began having assessment conversations with their coworkers, and recruited them to sign the petition. After just a week, 90 percent of their shop had signed the petition. After delivering their petition to the franchise owner, they did several media interviews that ramped up pressure on the franchise to accede to workers’ demands. A week later, just before workers were set to engage in another public action, the franchise owner sent a letter conceding to all of the workers’ demands and guaranteeing two weeks emergency paid sick leave, a two dollar hazard pay increase plus back pay, and stricter safety measures within the shop itself. This shop floor victory was not, however, only limited to their shop; 250 Taco Bell workers in the same franchise also won retroactive hazard pay, among other gains.

EWOC has also helped share strategies among grad workers across the country. Through EWOC, the grad workers at the University of Texas at Austin learned about the impact bargaining campaign and wins of the University of Illinois at Chicago Graduate Employees Organization, which they used as a model when creating their own campaign. With weekly input from an EWOC organizer, the UT Austin grad workers drafted a set of demands and organized a campaign, including a petition that garnered 1,400 signatures. As a result, UT-Austin announced $1.2 million for creating graduate worker jobs, a 65 percent tuition reduction, a more expansive healthcare plan, time-to-degree extensions, and more. 

The innovation of EWOC is to distribute the work of intake evaluations across a large group of lightly-trained organizers. As a result, we can process more workers and make credible evaluations of their likeliness to build winning campaigns much more quickly than traditional inquiry forms. We have been somewhat successful in getting our intake form in front of diverse kinds of workers, though we continue to build towards scale. The UE and DSA have invested some resources, but nothing compared to what larger unions would be able to do, which limits our ability to bring on experienced organizers. With more paid staff organizers, we could reach more workers and build more successful campaigns. 

A fundamental challenge of our project is how to convert short-term action into long-term organization. EWOC aspires to create sectoral networks and a layer of militant workers who are ready to bring the skills learned through short-term organizing to more permanent forms of organization around workplace and employment issues. In our most expansive vision, EWOC would become a permanent organization filling the gaps in what the labor movement has been unwilling or unable to do. Unlike traditional unions, EWOC is capable of acting in the interest of diffuse, non-union worker organizers and can take on organizing campaigns as they come up, absent any particular industrial or jurisdictional strategy. 

Because EWOC is fueled by volunteers, it is also not subject to the same incentive structures as unions, which need to self-fund through new dues-paying members. At the same time, there are drawbacks to accepting funding from foundations and other outside sources. These funding models can create organizing pressures that incentivize earned media and political advocacy rather than shop floor organizing, which is less visible and less mediagenic. One way out is the “Bernie model” — small-dollar donors who are politically committed to the project and give on a recurring basis. This would maintain EWOC’s political independence and build a base of allies — and potential new leads — while sustaining the project financially.

There is also the question of how much workplace militancy will continue when the threat of COVID-19 has passed. EWOC was born of this moment — thus the “emergency” in its name — when the threshold for taking workplace action has lowered dramatically as the stakes of having a say over working conditions have become all the more clear. We have seen spontaneous worker activity of a scale and intensity unfamiliar to the U.S., with its employer-friendly labor laws, weak labor movement, and anti-worker political parties. If workers go back to a more docile posture, EWOC will have a smaller sea to swim in, fewer workplaces open to taking action, and a smaller network of workers to train and connect.

For now, EWOC is focused on turning leads into campaigns into wins. Some of this is material, guiding workers through an experience of planning, fighting, and winning. Some of this is inspirational or aspirational, showing the broader multiracial working class that workplace organizing can deliver the goods. And some of this is organizational, showing the labor movement — and UE and DSA — that there can be productive models of new organizing that break the staff-heavy, slow-build model without abandoning the principles of shop floor power and worker-led activity.


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