Seattle Worker: What was workplace organizing like before COVID?
William Clayworth (customer service): Before COVID I was doing customer service, and we were making progress. It was easy to talk to my coworkers during the down time. We had been talking about our grievances, and some of us were meeting in a space the IWW rented. I took a training and pitched in by working on spreadsheets—grievance lists and that kind of thing, to help out the committee.
Seattle Worker: How has COVID changed your workplace?
Jessica (nonprofit): Everyone is working from home now, including two new people we onboarded since the lockdown started. It has been a tough transition for me, having less access to my coworkers. I’m autistic and some aspects of the work that were already hard have been amplified by not being able to be near my coworkers on a regular basis. In general there is too much work, so we have constant issue prioritizing and refocusing. It’s a collaborative process that is hard to do without the same type and level of contact.
We have a hotline that people can call into, with a lot of people who have problems where there aren’t good answers to, within our current legal framework and world order. It’s sad and frustrating and hard to get those calls in my house.
Gavin (retail): At the start of the pandemic about half the staff of the company took time off, cashed out their sick time. Then the employer sent us all an email saying, “if you feel uncomfortable working you have to quit, and if you want to stay employed you have to come back to work.” They wouldn’t even do a furlough because “it costs money to keep people on payroll.” It couldn’t have been much. I was pretty sour about it, and a couple people I talked to were pretty sour about it too.
The way they did it meant there was no way to collect unemployment—if you quit your job or are fired for truancy you don’t collect it, so in effect, they didn’t want us to get paid.
We were given a temporary two dollar an hour bonus. They made it sound like it was going to be for the duration of COVID and it wasn’t. Instead it was “Here’s an extra $200 in your paycheck, thank you so much for being willing to risk your life to serve your community.”
At work the biggest thing they did was enforce an occupancy limit in the building, keeping the number of customers in the building down, which has been rather helpful, and also giving us a little more leeway when dealing with customers. They had a mask mandate and made customers line up outside before getting admitted to the building. For a while we were doing regular disinfectant of everything—we had spray bottles of medical grade disinfectant everywhere. We also have hand sanitizer at every point of sale.
William Clayworth (event venue): I remember our New Years’ 2019, with our event venue full of people, we were talking about what 2020 will look like and imagining grand plans—are we gonna go to Mars? Little did we know as we were ringing in that year what was already upon us. In February there were little signs. Why are all these parking spots opening up? And all the tech workers were staying home. The city was changing. It felt apocalyptic.
Then events started getting cancelled, and then the managers had me take the weekend off, and then I came back to meetings that were really different. Our manager was saying,
“Hey, we should all be keeping six feet apart, socially distanced, because we don’t want to spread this.” A few people started wearing masks.
Then we closed. They paid us for a few days and then they laid us off. They told us to collect unemployment, but that was a shitshow. Then we got our jobs back and the managers started talking about reopening. For months we kept having all these reopening procedures for when it was “safe to come back.”
There’s plexiglass everywhere now. They put arrows on the floor showing us where to go. And there’s an intercom with my manager’s voice that keeps repeating the safety instructions for the customers—”Wear a mask, stay six feet apart, use hand sanitizer—and enjoy your visit.”
William Clayworth (warehouse): After I was laid off from my old job, I got a warehouse job, and I was waking up at 4 am, commuting 50 miles to Renton. They gave us gloves and masks and took our temperatures. We had all these safety procedures, but every two weeks we’d get an email saying that so-and-so had tested positive for coronavirus and what their last day had been. I didn’t like the parking situation. They wouldn’t let us use their parking lot—I don’t know why, it was big—so we had to park two miles offsite and take a shuttle.
Seattle Worker: What are your biggest grievances, post-COVID?
Gavin (retail): Issues with customers is the biggest thing. We still have a lot of customers who just kinda get up in our faces and don’t respect our six foot space rule.
I’d like to see workers having less time on the sales floor, less time interacting with the public—more workers, more time off, or more workers cycling between “behind the scenes work” and customer-facing work. During the busy season we’re at the customer service desk four to five days a week. It’s exhausting and you’re on your feet on concrete for eight hours. But now, having 8 hours in front of random members of the public every day made me feel unsafe.
Most customers do have masks. We have had a few customers try to come in refusing to wear masks and we’ve had to kick them out. Some people gripe about that but management backs us up.
Seattle Worker: What does workplace organizing look like under COVID?
Jessica (nonprofit): We had been organizing before COVID and had built up some relationships. After the pandemic began, my boss tried to fire me and one of my coworkers. I found out about it on a Saturday and spent the weekend on various phone calls and google docs. We were able to put together a formal letter to the board before we had officially been fired. We used terms like “without cause” and “retaliatory” and that touched off a month-long grievance process. In the end no one got fired.
Gavin (retail): I was just starting to have one-on-ones with my coworkers. The week before all the lockdowns started going into effect I had my third or fourth one, so I was starting to build a committee.
Before COVID our biggest grievance is our employer has absolutely no training program at all. For most of the people I’ve talked to it’s one of their top three, the others being pay and respect for our dignity.
Seattle Worker: Has COVID made workplace organizing easier or harder?
William Clayworth (event venue): Well, they laid off all the part-time people so our organizing committee was much smaller. But we had kept right on organizing. Our committee is starting over to figure out what our biggest grievances are.
William Clayworth (warehouse): Organizing at the warehouse was hard, with everyone tired and supposed to keep six feet away. I saw new people come and go. I was trying to map out the workplace, get peoples’ names. It was so early in the morning I didn’t feel like talking to people. I was either working or on break to eat food and chill out, and talking to people just felt like more work. So I struggled with one-on-ones but at least I was laying down the framework. Then my old job reopened and I went back to it.
Gavin (retail): It’s made my life a little bit easier because we’re still all in person. We can’t work remotely, so in a sense very little has changed. But it’s been easier to nail down times because my coworkers aren’t doing anything after work any more. Right now, I’ve got one coworker signed up with the IWW and I’m working on a couple more, so we’re on the cusp of having an established committee.
In the media I see people saying COVID is going to be the death of unions, so we just have to focus on electing Democrats in November, or else they’re saying it’s the biggest opportunity in a generation. But in my perspective it really depends on what your workplace looks like. There are some opportunities and some hurdles wrapped up in one big bag.
Jessica (nonprofit): In some ways it’s harder to have organizing conversations when you don’t see each other as often. It’s hard to have more organic conversations with people, figure out what our grievances are. An upside is we are very used to videoconferencing at this point and so we’re able to hold our union meetings remotely. We have pretty good lines of communication and we were able to bring those two new hires into our organizing efforts pretty easily. It sort of helped that my boss tried to fire me right after one of them got hired, and she got to watch that whole episode. Nothing can organize like your boss can!
Seattle Worker: What gives you hope for the future?
Gavin (retail): I’m hoping that when COVID starts to tail back, by then we’ll have had enough time to have reached a supermajority of the workforce and take some action over whatever our grievances may be. One thing I’m interested in is being able to retain our newly granted ability to kick out customers if they’re mean or rude, which happens all the time. Anyone who’s working customer service knows that having just one rude customer in a day can absolutely ruin your day. That . . . and wages!
A final note . . .
Covid has disrupted workplaces everywhere, but solidarity unionism is still going strong. Workers are continuing to hold one-on-ones with new hires, build their committees, and brainstorm actions. The Seattle campaigns committee has a new “external organizer” program and is helping other branches expand their organizing capacity. Moving forward, we’ll have online meetings as a new tool in our toolbox. -ed