Carolina Rodriguez said she had never thought much about joining a union until a co-worker lost his job.
The colleague, a fellow teacher at a charter school system in San Jose, told Rodriguez that his contract had not been renewed, and he feared it was in retaliation for speaking out about a pay issue.
Although Rodriguez had never been a big fan of unions, she soon found herself on a Zoom chat with other teachers and an organizer, who began to tell them about the process of forming a union. Talking from the privacy of her own home made her feel more comfortable about organizing.
By May, teachers at all four of the Downtown College Prep system schools, including Alum Rock, the middle school where Rodriguez works, had voted to join a union. The efforts were all organized virtually; the campaigns took place almost entirely over Zoom.
Union organizing is typically an old-school art form of engagement: one-on-one meetings and home visits, where organizers walk a delicate line between persistence and persuasion. But like so much else during the pandemic, that work has moved online, complicating what organizers say is a potentially promising time for organizing after the pandemic created new dangers in workplaces and revealed existing shortcomings in the treatment of workers in the United States.
Still, organizers are pushing through the challenges, using new software and tools to keep mobilizing workers.
In addition to teachers in San Jose, who joined the California Teachers Association, other workers who have organized mostly digitally during the pandemic include stagehands in Washington via the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, as well as nurses and medical technicians in Louisiana with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who negotiated new bargaining units over Zoom. Museum staff members with the United Steelworkers in Pennsylvania held a digital rally on Facebook, and hospitality workers with Unite Here have been connecting to share tactics and struggles on video conference calls across multiple states.
Despite the climate of enthusiasm for activism, the process of forming unions during a crisis that has shuttered workplaces across the country and left some 20 million people without jobs has not been easy, organizers said. They said they’ve had to stretch themselves beyond the person-to-person skills they’ve developed over decades.
“It’s definitely more challenging,” said Juan Eldridge, an organizer with the Machinists, which successfully unionized medical workers at a veterans hospital in Monroe, La., during the pandemic. The bargaining unit, which includes doctors, nurses, lab technicians and other medical staff, was motivated in part by concerns raised about a lack of masks and protective gear, as well as safety during the pandemic.
“There’s no replacement” for organizing face-to-face, Eldridge said. “You get a good read and reactions — you can tell by their body language and how they’re reacting to what you’re saying. So we’ve had to pivot.”
Gone are big employee meetings, in break rooms, lunch areas, or even rented hotel conference rooms, that organizers often put together to help workers get to the same page and hash out disagreements over workplace issues and the business of forming a union. Much of that work unfolds virtually now.
Chats on Zoom or other digital meeting apps are not a perfect substitute for real life. For example, the vocal employees who often take central roles in campaigns are sometimes more shy online, making the process of winning over skeptical employees more difficult.
“Some of these people, they don’t feel comfortable, they might not even have their camera turned on,” he said. He has been spending more time coaching people to prime them for big group meetings on Zoom.
The software does have some features that make it conducive, or at least functional, for union business, organizers said.
“It’s sort of like an electronic home visit,” said Jamie Horowitz, a former union organizer who consults with unions now in Washington.
Contract negotiations in the physical world often take place in a three-room setup — a common meeting room, with two caucus rooms for each side to adjourn to privately. Zoom doesn’t quite offer that kind of setup, but it does have a waiting room feature, which organizers use, to control when the opposing side is allowed back into the main chat room, after a confidential check in, for example.
Zoom also has a polling feature, which can be used to take informal votes among prospective members, organizers said.
There are some clear perks to activism online, too.
Digital meetings are easier to attend than weeknight gatherings for people juggling work and family responsibilities, and some organizers said they thought attendance at these events was up because of it. Virtual rallies can be attended by supporters all over the country, like one put on by the United Steelworkers during a union campaign by workers at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, which 14,000 people tuned in to. And the discretion that can be fostered online can also be helpful for employees worried about managers and bosses looking over their shoulders.
“This pandemic really was pivotal in our success because, you know, where we would have to just watch our backs and make sure that no one in the administration was walking around the corner when we’re talking with our colleagues,” Rodriguez, the teacher in San Jose, said. “It really was the reason why we were able to organize.”
Of course, there are the usual mix-ups, too.
“There’s a lot of, ‘Hey man, I can’t hear you, still can’t hear you, there you go, your mic is back on,’ ” said Ryan Chavka, an organizer with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which organized stagehands at a Washington-area theater in the spring. Other times, he’s had to quickly mute people who began speaking before company managers left the room during bargaining.
The pandemic presents a bit of a paradox for workers hoping to organize.
On one hand, it has revealed new problems with the way that workers are treated in the United States, including the health risks that many now face. Yet, the high level of unemployment and job insecurity can reduce the appetite of people to put up the fight it often takes to form a union.
Statistics back up this complicated moment for worker activism.
At Coworker.org, a platform that allows employees to crowdsource campaigns to publicly pressure companies to treat workers better in terms of pay, safety and benefits, data demonstrates a surge of enthusiasm for workplace-related action during the pandemic. User activity on the site has spiked, including about 300 campaigns that have started up since the pandemic began, said Jess Kutch, the co-founder of the site.
“We’ve never seen this kind of surge in activity on our platforms,” she said. “It’s a strong indication that workers feel like they’re on their own and that they have to pressure their employers, in many cases publicly, to take corrective action and protect their health and safety.”
But data from the National Labor Relations Board shows a decrease in union activity this year.
The board has run about 18 union elections a week since April 6, when it reopened after shutting down for a few weeks. That’s below the rate of 21 elections per week before March 2020, spokesman Edwin Egee said. The number of case intakes, a metric that the NLRB uses to track labor activity like complaints and union elections, has dropped significantly this year, to 14,600 at the end of July, compared with 17,300 during the same period in 2019.
Labor experts, such as Janice Fine, the director of research and strategy at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University, said the data speaks to larger trends in worker activism.
Organizing energy is increasingly concentrated in less traditional forms of activism that are taking places outside of or adjacent to traditional unions — like the Fight For $15, protests and petitions at technology companies, and actions organized through co-worker. Whereas traditional union activity, measured by statistics such as union participation, has been on the wane for decades.
“You can’t only look to those numbers about union density and how many new workers were organized into unions as a way of understanding the vitality of worker organizing,” Fine said. “It is about collective action, not necessarily collective bargaining. And there’s been a lot of collective action.”
Still, Fine said, downturns that cause high unemployment and weak job markets result in less leverage for workers hoping to organize.
The process of taking a vote to finalize a new union has changed during the pandemic, as well. What were mostly in-person affairs are now mostly done by mail. And the unions’ experiences could foreshadow mailed-ballot issues in November.
Maria Somma, the director of organizing at the United Steelworkers, said counting mail-in ballots added three weeks to the election process at the Carnegie Museums. And this was for a bargaining unit of 89 people, not a fractious country of 300 million.
For the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees unit that Chavka helped organize in Washington, mail-in ballots had to be sent to multiple addresses for workers who had moved during the pandemic. If two ballots had been returned for a person, the completed ballots would have been contested, although that never came to pass, Chavka said.
Eldridge, the organizer who worked with medical workers in Louisiana, said he thought it was harder to get workers to vote by mail than in-person, because co-workers can more easily check in and encourage voting in person.
“You’re rolling the dice,” he said. “If they are at work, they’ll take time to vote on site, but since it’s in the mail, you don’t (know) if people are going to return it.”