The workers forming unions in the wake of COVID-19 working conditions

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred numerous worker organizing efforts around the US, as the spread of the virus created a sense of urgency in improving working conditions, safety protections, and job security.

These conditions have contributed to a surge in support for labor unions. According to data from the American National Election Surveys, public support for unions is at an all-time high since the surveys were first conducted in the 1950’s, with public opinion toward big business in the US at an all time low. 

At the same time, President Joe Biden, Democrats and labor leaders throughout the US are pushing for the passage of the PRO Act, which would be the largest labor reform legislation since the Great Depression, aimed at facilitating workers’ ability to organize unions and rein in interference from employers. The bill passed in the House of Representatives in March 2021 and is currently awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate. 

Several of the worker organizing efforts that were incited by the coronavirus pandemic have culminated into labor union elections through the National Labor Relations Board in some industries with low unionization rates. 

Over 460 insurance agents with AAA Northern California, Nevada, and Utah filed for a union election to join the Teamsters on March 24, an industry with a low unionization rate at 2.4 percent as of 2020. 

Workers explained the union drive began in response to lack of job security for employees who have been with the company for years, intimidation and threats of termination, and increasing pressure placed on employees during the pandemic. A union, the workers explained, would provide job security and a voice on the job in response to the conditions they’ve faced at work. 

“Our goals never changed. In fact, they increased for a lot during the pandemic,” said an insurance agent who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “We're not able to go ahead and do our job because we are overworked, over scrutinized, and over stressed. As your book of business grows, we're never given support. So we're literally doing the work of four to five people.”

Another worker described a work environment in which they’ve been reprimanded for clocking in just a few minutes early, while employees work long hours to try to meet performance metrics or risk losing their job. At the same time, if employees clock in too much overtime, the employee claims they are placed on a blacklist and reprimanded. 

“Our CEO has this philosophy of managing people out and using this constant state of anxiety to do it,” said the employee, who also requested to remain anonymous. “They started hiring a massive amount of agents during the pandemic, because they knew by the time 2021 came out with the new compensation plan if agents didn’t catch on and sell products within the timeframe they designated, they would get fired.” 

The worker cited an example of a long-time employee who was fired and committed suicide shortly afterwards to demonstrate the pressure workers are increasingly placed under. AAA Northern California, Nevada, and Utah did not specifically comment on complaints regarding firings or layoffs. 

“AAA NCNU has a proud history of serving its Members and supporting our employees for over 100 years. While we absolutely respect our employees' right to join a union, we do not believe a representative organization is necessary to realize what's in our employees' best interest. We have a strict company policy that prohibits retaliation against employees for any reason and are committed to making AAA NCNU a great place to work,” said a AAA NCNU spokesperson in an email. They added compensation plans are required by state law for all employees who receive commissions. 

In the Midwest US, around 375 workers at the small coffee chain, Colectivo, with 16 store locations in Illinois and Wisconsin, recently finished their union election to join the international Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) after a contemptuous union organizing drive that has involved alleged firings, retaliation, coercive actions, and anti-union meetings by management. 

Counting began on April 6, with the results contingent on 16 challenged ballots in the election as non-challenged votes resulted in a 99 to 99 vote tie. A hearing on the challenged ballots is scheduled for April 27. 

Food preparation and serving related occupations in the US also have among the lowest rates of unionized workforces, at a rate of 3.4 percent in 2020. 

If successful, the workers at Colectivo would form the largest union at a US based coffee chain.

“I've been working in coffee for about six years. And within the last couple years, I've noticed that there's a hole in accountability in the industry at large,” said Caroline Fortin who has worked at Colectivo in Chicago, Illinois since September 2020, and supported unionization efforts since she started working at the chain. “I think something that is really prevalent in the service industry is the concept of working in this industry is like a family as a store, and getting away with certain things because of that like erratic scheduling. Workplace rules are subject to change at any given time by management. The benefit of the union would be having a legally binding contract so management can’t change the rules or procedures on you at the last minute without any input from workers.”

She cited job security is a significant issue in the service industry for workers that having a union would help resolve, as employers can fire workers at-will with little to no recourse for workers.

Patrick Zastrow, a worker at Colectivo in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, explained the union organizing effort started during the pandemic amid the uncertainty workers felt in job security and communication breakdowns between management and staff, and he expressed disappointment in the opposition to the union from Colectivo ownership, which has framed themselves and the company as progressive.  

“It's been an incredibly, emotionally challenging year and the uncertainty of not knowing whether the cafes were going to shut down because of lack of sales, because of people getting sick, or because of any kind of retaliation from the company. It was tough,” said Zastrow. “It seems like they've gone to great lengths and great expense to stop this union from happening, rather than going with what they've said, of letting their employees have the opportunity to have their voices valued.” 

A statement provided by Colectivo from their ownership argued several of the charges filed by workers through the union at the National Labor Relations Board were withdrawn. 

“We want to be clear that as people with progressive values, we are not

against the right to organize, and we are not anti-union. However, we do believe very

strongly that this union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, will not

solve the challenges of this company and will not make our co-workers' Colectivo

experience better,” said the Colectivo ownership in the statement. 

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, workers at non-profits around the US have sought to unionize in response to the job uncertainty and erratic working conditions posed by transitioning to remote work. High profile non-profits such as the Sunrise Movement, the ACLU, the Animal Legal Defense Fund have unionized or announced intentions to do so during the pandemic amid a reported surge in union activity in the industry. 

Many of these campaigns have been successful, some with voluntary recognition from their employers, and others in the face of staunch opposition to the idea of their workers forming unions. 

In March 2021, around 400 workers at the National Audubon Society publicly announced their union organizing drive with the Communications Workers of America after mass layoffs during the pandemic and complaints from workers in regards to how diversity, equity, and inclusion programs have been handled by management. 

“There were widespread layoffs last spring. More than 100 employees were let go and I think those widespread layoffs were a driving factor for galvanizing employees to form a Union,” said Alisa Opar, features editor for Audubon Magazine for nearly 13 years. “They demonstrated just how little job security we have.” 

Refugio Mariscal, conservation data coordinator for Audubon Great Lakes, explained in addition to job security concerns, he wants better paid leave policies guaranteed for employees as he only received two weeks off last August when his daughter was born. 

“It's just work, but because of that I couldn’t be there for my wife, for my daughters. I felt helpless,” Mariscal said. 

He also took issue with the National Audubon Society purporting to be an anti-racist organization, but hiring union avoidance law firm, Littler Mendelson, in response to predominantly workers of color seeking to form a union. 

“We’ve asked them, our leadership, board and CEO, to drop Littler and Mendelson, and to voluntarily recognize the wishes of their employees, who are the heart and soul of this organization. Without us being experts in what we do, we can’t really do much to save birds, the environment, and people,” he added. 

A spokesperson for the National Audubon Society argued the Littler Mendelson hired to offer legal guidance and claimed the unfair labor practice charge alleging interference and intimidation from management was ‘contrary to the official guidance we provided to managers.’

They added in an email, “we respect the  right of workers to make a case for forming a union, and appreciate employees’ commitment to Audubon’s work and workplace. Audubon’s view is that this is a decision for employees to make for themselves, and management will not interfere with that decision in any way.”

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