Online Exchanges Bring Workers Together Across North America

June 23, 2021

From March 20 through June 9, the North American Solidarity Project (NASP) held the Worker Power Online Exchange series. Each event was a Zoom webinar featuring rank-and-file workers from UE and our NASP partner unions, as well as a few notable guest speakers.

The series began with an organizing exchange in which staff from UE, Unifor, National Nurses United, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and Mexican trade unions discussed various ongoing campaigns. The particular focus of this exchange concerned how the pandemic had altered organizing by forcing unions to use virtual tools more often instead of meeting in-person. UE reported on the successful first contract fight at the Kentucky Consular Center by members of Local 728, who conducted a virtual strike to press their contract demands, because most of them were working at home.

The first public event, “Together for Racial Justice,” occurred just days after a racist attack on Asian workers in Atlanta, GA. Participants from Unifor, the Utility Workers Union of America, NNU, and UE shared stories of racism they have experienced, both on the job and as children. The event was chaired by Unifor Human Rights Director Christine Maclin.

Asked by Maclin what it meant to be a good ally, Reid Magette, UE Local 667, said it meant listening, not trying to speak for workers of colour and using your privilege to help. “Be out there and be at those protests – and let the white power structure that exists know that you will not be complicit in their games,” said Magette.

The panel concluded with an address from social justice advocate Dr. Linda Murray, who told the story of her granddaughter, who is committed to fighting racial injustice despite her father’s worries for her safety. “She understands racism. She is tired of it. She’s going to do something about it. She’s 18,” Murray said.

The attacks in Atlanta show that white supremacy is alive and well, Murray said. “Fury, not pride, is in my heart. As we look at last week’s events in Atlanta, we have to be clear what is going on here,” she said. “It was an act of racism.”

In the second event, “Always Essential: Frontline workers across borders,” front-line workers from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico shared experiences from the last year and discussed using what they've learned to improve working conditions for all workers. This was a more intimate exchange with representatives from Unifor, NNU, UE and the FAT from Mexico. Jock Hill, part of the UE organizing efforts in Virginia Beach, shared his challenges as a public utility city worker during the pandemic.

The series included an Earth Day event, “From COVID-19 to climate, workers respond to crisis.” This event was moderated by Catherine Abreu of the Climate Action Network Canada, who led a discussion of how many of the same systemic problems of capitalism are fuelling both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. John Miles, UE Local 506, discussed the local’s efforts to bring new, climate-friendly work into their shop. Irene HongPing Shen from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy closed the session with insights about replacing profit with people's needs as the top priority of global energy development. Shen said government intervention is critical to halting the ongoing pattern of energy development in which the financial and social costs are borne by workers but the benefits are hoarded by elites.

The May Day event was celebratory and focused on organizing in the present moment. It opened with music from Fruit of Labor, which features UE Local 150 members. Members on the panel included one from a newly organized Unifor local; James Lewis, part of an on-going UE organizing drive among graduate workers in New Mexico; an organizer from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a joint project of UE and the Democratic Socialist of America; and a UWUA member from southern California. Longshore worker Viri Gómez of ILWU-Canada Local 519, who is also the International Transport Federation youth representative, stressed the need for health and safety on the job for all workers. Labor historian Rosemary Feurer told the story of the Haymarket protests in Chicago in May 1886, when workers took to the streets to demand basic rights, and were met with a violent police response.

On May 19, panelists described wide gaps in health care systems in North America, exacerbated by COVID-19, in “Everybody in, nobody out: Public health care and Medicare for all.” Dominic Harris of UE Local 150, described some of the terrible choices his family and friends have had to make because they lack access to affordable, quality healthcare. Leaders from NNU and ILWU participated, as well as a Unifor member who is a paramedic. Despite having a single-payer healthcare system in Canada, working people still face challenges accessing prescription drugs and long term care, which are not included in the Canadian system.

The final panel, “Class war in a time of COVID-19,” brought together a panel of workers to share their experiences building union and worker power and the lessons they learned during COVID-19. “The time of crisis is not when we hunker down,” said moderator Puneet Maharaj from NNU. “It’s when we rise and organize our members into action to win the strongest protection.”

María Ovalle, leader of a UE organizing campaign at a bottling plant in New Jersey, related how in the early days of the pandemic, second-shift workers walked out because management was hiding the fact that cases of COVID-19 had occurred in the plant. “Nobody wanted to continue working under those conditions,” she said. During the pandemic, workers received a paltry $1/hour in additional pay, while the company was receiving plenty of money from the government.

Although the pandemic initially made it difficult to continue their organizing campaign, Ovalle said that this year, “We started working really hard again in organizing ourselves and creating a union.”

“Yes, we’ve had a really bad year, we’ve gone through really hard times, but we are on the eve of reaching what we wanted which is that we get respected as workers and that we be able to fight for the improvement of our working conditions, for us but also for everybody who will start working there in the future.”

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