Photo by Gina Esquivel Yisel Pomier Maren
Photo by Gina Esquivel

“We’ve definitely seen a lot more people inquiring about labor rights: how to join a union or how to create a union.”

Isael Mejia is an organizer with the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. He points out the stark realities of what it’s like to work in a pandemic. “You have the folks who can afford or may work from home, and stay healthy and out of the public,” he told COURIER. “And then you have essentially like a serving class: people who can serve the people who can afford to stay home and stay healthy.” 

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare and shone a light on the persistent economic and health disparities that have been plaguing this country for centuries, as well as the conservative battle against labor rights that has worsened both the fight for decent working conditions, pay, and benefits, and worsened the pandemic itself.  

But Mejia, who lives in North Carolina, and other organizers say the pandemic has ushered in a new moment for the labor movement. According to a recent Gallup poll, 65% of Americans approve of labor unions—the highest approval rating since 2003.

“I think it’s spawned a lot of really interesting conversations, hopefully, amongst people and their peers,” he adds. “I know we’ve definitely seen a lot more people inquiring about labor rights: how to join a union or how to create a union.”

Organizing Amid a Pandemic Is Difficult

But the pandemic has also meant organizers like Mejia are having a harder time helping workers find union jobs: tighter restrictions mean less work, especially for out-of-state workers. While this may be good news for worker safety, it also means many union members have had to rely on non-union work because it’s the only available option.

That often leaves workers finding themselves left choosing between two bad options. 

“As long as I can ignore maybe the fact that they don’t have water on the job site or maybe that the health care is not all there—as long as I’m making money, I might be more concerned about being able to keep that roof over my head, then, you know, trying to create a more equitable job site for … me and my co-workers,” Mejia explains.

Other issues that continue to limit his work as an organizer include cultural barriers and state laws: North Carolina and South Carolina join 26 other states in being “right to work” states. Not only do organizers have to battle false beliefs—such as that unions are illegal in the South, which they aren’t—they also run into workers who have never heard of unions. Those individuals aren’t aware of the potential benefits they could enjoy by joining one and having a stronger collective voice with other workers via collective bargaining. 

“It just goes to show that the non-union side has done a really good job about indoctrinating people about the ‘evils’ of a union. That sets up a challenge for us to then overcome that messaging that’s been ingrained in people’s minds. I think we’re trying across the board to spread that message that, ‘Hey, we need to all come together and stand up for each other as workers.’” 

Mejia hopes the conversations taking place now around worker safety and what it means to be essential to the economy but not be paid accordingly will focus more attention on the value of unions, and raise awareness around their existence and legality. But he also acknowledges that millions of Americans are struggling to find and keep any kind of job right now, union or not, and many may not be so interested in trying to lead an organizing effort.

“It definitely has dealt a big blow to some people … who’s to say if they can even organize?” Mejia said.

The recent Gallup poll found that only 10% of Americans say they are members of a union.

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Image via Isael Mejia

An Increase in Numbers

Yisel Pomier Maren, a field organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), told COURIER that her group has seen not only more awareness but also an increase in members. They recently announced over 200 new dues-paying members, which she credits in part to the NDWA’s emergency care fund, which provided $400 to qualifying domestic workers who applied for the grant. 

“That was one of the first things we did back in March,” Pomier Maren explained, adding that people have shown they want to support an organization that is supporting them and are therefore willing to pay the $60 annual fee to be members. 

Domestic workers were among those hardest hit early on, she explained, as working from home became a new norm, thus diminishing the need for home healthcare workers, nannies, and housekeepers. 

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“Domestic workers are the ones that allow others to work,” said Pomier Maren, “because if you don’t have someone taking care of your loved ones, how are you going to go to work?” 

Since labor regulations associated with the New Deal were passed in the 1930s, domestic workers, who are largely marginalized Black women and women of color, have been excluded from labor protections.

“That’s because domestic workers and agricultural workers, as the descendants of enslaved people, were very systematically and explicitly left out of those laws,” Nicole Kligerman, director of Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, told COURIER last year. “We’re talking about centuries of extreme, racialized, gendered worker abuse. Our fight is really about upending the very violent, racist building blocks of this country.”

That’s part of the reason why NDWA launched We Dream in Black, a project dedicated to Black women organizing for domestic workers. 

A Labor Day That Feels Different

Pomier Maren believes this Labor Day—a federal holiday aimed at recognizing the American labor movement—will have a different feel to it than perhaps those in the past because of the current climate: Many people in the United States have been affected by layoffs, while those still employed are being asked to show up to work in spite of the increased risks they are facing due to the coronavirus. 

“I know that here in the US, people will mostly have a cookout and enjoy [as in years past but] Labor Day this year will be about fighting—about fighting for labor rights [plus] better pay, hazard pay for workers, correct PPE for workers, and Medicare for all,” she said.

To that end, the Charlotte NDWA chapter will be holding a workers’ speak out event on Monday, Sept. 7, at 9 a.m., beginning at the Black Lives Mural, on Tryon Street, in Uptown Charlotte, North Carolina.