Unionizing during the pandemic

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Image: Used with permission of SEIU Local 2 and Unions Are Essential.

Christine Bro is the lead organizer with Local 2 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and she is based in Vancouver. Quentin Rowe-Codner is a sales associate at a private liquor store in Maple Ridge, B.C. Scott Neigh interviews them about SEIU Local 2's Unions Are Essential campaign, launched to support the unionization of essential and front-line workers during the pandemic, and about the recent successful organizing drive at Rowe-Codner's workplace.

A lot has been changing for workers over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, though of course different workers have experienced it all quite differently -- working from home for some, lots of job losses, changes to work processes, and in particular, new kinds of risk that just weren't there before. And, despite the loosening of public health restrictions, risk remains. Many experts believe that it is likely that we will see a renewed wave of infections in the fall. And the details of the toll that the economic downturn will take on workers are still emerging, including the threat of a wave of austerity and government cuts that will target programs and services that working people depend on. So whether it is better safety measures, pay that reflects their importance and the risks they take, or just basic dignity, many workers have a lot of concerns.

In this context, it is more important than ever that workers be able to stand up and demand their rights. What exactly it looks like to stand up and demand their rights also looks different for different groups of workers. But one absolutely crucial recourse for lots of workers, even as pandemics rage and economies crash, even through political turmoil and all manner of uncertainty, is organizing into a union.

SEIU Local 2 represents workers across Canada, particularly janitors in numerous cities, but also a broad range of other workers doing a lot of what could mostly be characterized as service jobs.

Union organizing at its best involves a lot of person-to-person interaction. You meet with a worker in a café or at their home, you listen to their concerns about their job, you answer any questions they have, and you build a relationship. When a lot of that in-person work suddenly became impossible back in March, Bro knew that a lot of workers were about to need union protections more than ever, and the union couln't just tell them to stop and wait.

As quickly as they could, SEIU Local 2 launched an online platform and a campaign called Unions Are Essential. The site offers some basic information about workers' rights and the advantages of belonging to a union. More importantly, it offers mechanisms to be in direct touch with a union organizer, by either sending a message or through live chat. This has served as an initial contact point in a revamped organizing process that has had to adapt to the changing public health circumstances.

The union drive at the store where Rowe-Codner works started with a conversation between him and one of his co-workers. They both recognized some not-great things that had been true about their workplace all along, and that the pandemic was making more stark. Plus, they were way busier, so the store was making a lot more money, but the workers were having to work a lot harder, were less safe, and were not being paid accordingly. Rowe-Codner called Bro, whom he already knew, and got things started. They signed up a majority of the workers at their location, handily parried the anti-union campaign from their employer, and ended up winning their certification vote.

Bro says that connecting with workers through the Unions Are Essential site and doing organizing through videoconferencing platforms, chat services, and other online tools has definitely been working. Rowe-Codner's workplace is only one of several where they have won votes in recent months. That said, she is also very clear that "the best way to organize is the traditional face-to-face." More recently, they have been happy to be able to return to a physically distanced version of in-person organizing. Still, with the course of the pandemic uncertain as we move into autumn, SEIU Local 2 is ready whatever happens, and they now have more tools to engage with a wider range of workers moving forward.

Image: Used with permission of SEIU Local 2 and Unions Are Essential. Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out their website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list. Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

 

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