Strike Watch: From Food to Fashion, Workers are Countering Corporate Talking Points with Organizing for Economic Security and Protection
Updates from the Front Lines & How Funders can Support Growing Movements
As mostly-conservative state governors and the federal government enforce rapid re-opening and block closures in some sectors like meatpacking, workers continue to put their livelihood on the line to protect themselves through strikes and other actions. Employees are coalescing under the banners of established labor (including in the first union election since the pandemic), worker advocacy and organizing non-profits and a new crop of grassroots unions. These endeavors are exposing the hollowness of multinational companies like Walmart’s public relations campaigns thanking workers or making conspicuous donations, while ignoring their own worker demands for basics like paid sick leave. Even marketers are taking notice and asking if, in one industry analysts’ commentary, “employees and these coalitions, specifically, will become just as influential as shareholders on some levels.”
In some manufacturing sectors, the benefits of strong organizing and early strikes are showing. In GM plants, strikes and United Auto Worker pressure have meant a total reorganization of production towards manufacturing protective equipment, and the company has responded to worker and union demands for sanitized, safe, streamlined conditions. But such measures are going to be tested as thousands go back to auto work in the next week (even while the global supply chain stutters due to closures in Mexico and other areas).
The fight is only growing in a range of other production sectors, including apparel factories from Selma, Alabama to Bangladesh. The clothing manufacturer Everlane saw it’s progressive brand image focused on an ethical supply chain vaporize when it fired 300-plus workers in the midst of the crisis, targeting most who were trying to unionize via the Communication Workers of America.
In the service sector, the SEIU-led Fight for $15 has continued actions that include one-day strikes, protests and lawsuits targeting McDonalds and other fast-food companies – the latest held in 20 cities on Wednesday, May 20th. In dozens of states, workers are falling sick in these restaurants, but neither workers nor communities are being informed. Workers are calling for “$15 x 2” hazard wages, protective gear, and paid 2-week work-site closures when there is illness. Companies are falling back on the same excuses of franchising, while instituting almost-comedic “incentives” like a free meal or, even worse, themed days like “crazy sock days”.
Receiving most media attention has been logistics and grocery workerslike Amazon, Instacart and Whole Foods workers who have staged many recent strikes, including a walkout May 1st. Part of this is in response to the limited nature of reforms instituted – including the planned expiration of hazard pay in early May – that have become even more glaring with Jeff Bezos’ soon-to-be-trillionaire status.
Multiple warehouse work sites in at least four states continue to organize under a new umbrella, Amazonians United. These are linked to both a global Amazon Workers International and the tech-worker led Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. The Amazonians United organization has released an article detailing its approach: they note their work in fact predates COVID-19, when workers organized in Summer 2019 in Chicago for water during the hot summer, and that their strategies include bottom-up worker committees that are the hallmark of a solidarity unionism model.
Meanwhile, when major grocery chains like Kroger (which owns Ralphs, Fred Meyer and QFC) also attempted to roll back their $2-hazard pay on May 17, unionized workers under the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 in Los Angeles struck across grocery sites in Southern California – including in stores where several workers lost their lives. They were able to get additional $400 bonuses nationally, now labeled “thank you” pay,” with continued organizing planned by the union. UFCW scored another striking win when cereal packing workers for the private-equity created Hearthside Food Solutions in Memphis voted to unionize this week in the first union election since the pandemic, frustrated with issues including the reliance on temp employees and a lack of pay increases (except for management) post-COVID-19.
Newer to the supply-chain strike lines are truck drivers – who have blocked roads and held caravan protests. Among the first industries deregulated in the 1970s, they have challenges including fragmentation and independent status, yet coordinated grassroots protests in at least 8 states are showing signs of new worker-led integration. Such efforts open up the question of how independent workers can be better represented in now-growing labor movements. Some aren’t waiting for the answer: the budding home-based childcare union in California that gained recognition last November has shifted its organizing on a contract to helping the small business owners it represents survive, as its’ caregivers advocate in support of shifting their state-subsidized services to support other essential workers.
Agriculture and meatpacking continue to expose the areas of production that are often invisible from an urban lens. In the rural Yakima Valley of Washington (an area that has seen significant Latinx demographic shifts in the state), new independent farmworker unions like Familias Unidas por la Justicia - led by mostly by women – have shut down at least six apple picking sites. With the rural area now hardest-hit with COVID-19 in the state, workers are asking for testing, paid sick leave, and protective equipment, and have already secured additional pay after a walkout at one company.
Meatpacking workers are organizing in response to massive outbreaks in US and Canadian factories, facing down sustained lobbying and advertising campaigns by billion-dollar global food conglomerates JBS (and subsidiaries like Pilgrim’s Pride), Smithfield, Cargill and Tyson. Following massive walk-outs, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 in Greeley, Colorado and other sites are pushing the state government to enforce measures, with some success in securing massive cleanings. Organizations like the Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA) are turning to legal avenues to sue Smithfield for its continued unsafe conditions, like scheduling breaks at once that cramp workers into one location. The sporadic closure of other plants has led to speed ups at others, like the Milan, Missouri plant under the RCWA suit, with employees receiving short breaks totaling 60 minutes for 11-hour shifts. Unfortunately, the case was recently thrown out by a federal judge of the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri.
Packing plant workers are pushing for a re-organization of work, including staggered starts, shifts and breaks, as well as physical investment in partitions and expanded meal and break space. Like many sectors, employees are also calling for full pay for vulnerable and sick workers. Farm work and meatpacking have historically seen vehement anti-union efforts by companies, while relying upon a multi-racial (Latinx, indigenous, Black, and Asian) mostly-migrant workforce. Successive migration laws criminalizing workers and new waves of raids terrorizing work sites have added to a climate of fear and exacerbated existing labor shortages. These realities converge to create a disastrous situation for immigrant and/or Black workers who, via growing women-led multi-racial organizing, are refusing to let their market and policy-created vulnerability be confused for expendability.
Over 200 strikes have occurred since March 2020. Although the increase in strikes is significant and specific to the coronavirus crisis, it’s important to note that it follows a surge trend in strikes since 2018, as reported on by the Economic Policy Institute, showing that even before the public health crisis workers have been escalating their tactics to win improved rights, standards and job quality.
The Coordinating Committee of NFG’s Funders for a Just Economy is calling on its members to proactively respond to the growing demands of workers. We’ve developed a set of responses that you can take to support workers in this moment, including:
- Support organizing and power building efforts and infrastructure, specifically among Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities and worker-led organizations, as they are hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis.
- Support, strategize and collaborate with labor unions and worker centers. To learn more about how, save the date for the FJE co-hosted labor and funder strategy call on June 10th at 10am PT.
- Move resources to organizations educating and advocating for specific federal policies that will permanently impact and protect workers, like: unemployment insurance for all, permanent paid family and sick leave (not just as an emergency measure), pay guarantees for all, PPE for all workers, and negotiated protections and worker voice through stimulus funds that go to particular industries. FJE will be coordinating with you and other philanthropic affinity groups to share specific strategies to support workers in particular industries.
- Support workers on strike through direct relief and general operating grants to community and worker-led organizations and/or union collaborations. Check out NFG’s COVID-19 relief resources page for the latest information about how funders can support groups and the JustFund Portal to learn about the resource needs of community groups.
For more information and/or to join NFG’s Funders for a Just Economy network, please email Robert Chlala, Program Manager of Funders for a Just Economy: firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow us on Twitter: @FundJustEconomy