Some US workers are breaking from generally accepted union procedures to respond to coronavirus-related risks.
On March 20, employees from the newly formed Voodoo Doughnut Workers Union (VWU) delivered a letter to management announcing the formation of a union and demanding higher wages, safety improvements and severance packages for employees laid off because of the coronavirus and Oregon's ongoing "shelter-in-place" order.
What they did is significant because it breaks from generally accepted union procedures in the United States and may serve as a blueprint for how employees will respond to virus-related risks in the workplace. Instead of first going through the arduous process of a union election and contract negotiations, these workers used pressure tactics to push their bosses to meet their demands directly.
"We want a security guard stationed at the Old Town location. We want severance pay and access to our paid time off when we're laid off. We want hazard pay, and we want a living wage," Katherine Nadj told Al Jazeera. She wants Voodoo management to negotiate directly with her and her coworkers and is prepared to get aggressive if the bosses do not agree. "We truly hope it doesn't have to come down to this, but refusing to bargain in good faith with our union the VWU could lead to escalation," Nadj said.
As unemployment in the US soars because of measures designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, many workers worry the shrinking number of jobs makes them vulnerable to workplace abuses. Some, like Katherine, believe so-called "pressure campaigns" are the best way to ensure safe working conditions.
The Voodoo Doughnut employees’ union is an affiliate of a labour union, known for its use of rank-and-file organising as opposed to union staff. The larger organisation is called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It is not just another labour union, where workers campaign to win recognition and negotiate a contract. The IWW is a vehicle for a worker-led organising effort where workplace action is prioritised. Conventional unions operate under tight federal regulations. Before they can address many workplace issues, most unions in the US have to hold elections and work through established mechanisms. That procedure can take years, and unions are at a legal disadvantage. By not following the established rules, VWU members are forgoing traditional barriers: in effect, they are taking action without asking for permission.
Robert Ovetz, a labour researcher and lecturer at San Jose State University, explains, "They have been really effective organising around a shared grievance," said Ovetz. He says their ability "to take immediate action to disrupt the workplace" and "extract some sort of concession" appeals to low-wage service workers in Portland and across the US. This model is called "solidarity unionism," where workers gain bargaining strength by taking action on the job, such as confrontational demand deliveries on their bosses or holding rallies, rather than following only federally sanctioned union elections or strikes.
Because many of the workplaces employing solidarity unionism are small, the benefits of union contracts may be years away. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that governs unions, is filled with conservative appointees from the Trump administration who have imposed difficult restrictions on unions. And that was before the coronavirus made low-wage service workers “essential”. These are just some of the factors increasing the popularity of solidarity unionism.
In Portland, the IWW has been organising workplaces that are often ignored by larger unions because of low wages, high turnover and small size. This is how the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) formed four years ago; employees at the popular local chain were frustrated with low wages and demanding schedules. They rallied the entire city behind a campaign centred on strikes and public actions, including a multi-year boycott, all tactics that would usually accompany an immediate union election and contract fight. They believe they largely won their tug of war with their employer because they started pressure tactics from the beginning. Now that they are in contract negotiations, they are continuing this direct action approach.