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Building Worker POwer in NY State during the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond

Building Worker Power in NY State during the Covid-19 Crisis and Beyond

“Support us so we don’t have to choose between dying and working, between getting sick and paying our rent, between taking care of our children and forfeiting our own lives,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, President of the New York State Nurses Association during her opening remarks on April 30th at Building Worker Power in NY State during the Covid-19 Crisis and Beyond.

This virtual convening, hosted by the Worker Institute at Cornell University, ILR School, featured national and local labor leaders sharing insights on how workers have acted collectively during the Covid-19 crisis and exploring the potential to advance a workers’ agenda during and after the pandemic. The event was attended by over one hundred labor leaders and activists.

“Labor’s voice needs to be heard to ensure that all of us are kept safe as the economy starts to open up and employees begin going back into workplaces,” said Dean of the ILR School, Alexander Colvin who began the meeting by speaking about the vital need for unions during this time in not only protecting their members but also helping to shape the policy landscape. 

“We need to rebuild our infrastructure for the long term growth of the economy and we have to make the case that from this point forward the wealthiest share the financial burden because right now, lower-income and middle-income workers and families in this state are paying the entire price here, socially as well as economically,” said Mario Cilento, President of the New York State AFL-CIO who spoke next and expressed admiration for how union members had worked together to support one another during this crisis while commenting on the urgent need to rebuild the economy from a worker’s perspective.

The first panel focused on the immediate response from worker organizations on the frontlines of the crisis. Panelists included Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, President of NYSNA, Stuart Appelbaum, President of RWDSU, and Executive Vice President of UFCW, Allison Julien, founder of and organizer for NDWA, and John Samuelsen, international president of TWU. The speakers talked about how essential workers have had to fight to gain access to PPE and other protective equipment, including taking collective action to ensure they received proper protections. 

“We’ve known since the beginning of time that domestic workers are frontline workers. They are the ones that hold down many families so that employers can go to work, and they often don’t get the recognition, respect, and pay that is deserving of them. At this moment in particular we see how domestic workers in New York and across the country are on the frontlines of this pandemic. They are the ones being tasked with risking their lives in many ways for a paycheck,” said, Allison Julien, founder of and organizer for National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Worker organizations’ leaders described how working people have undertaken a myriad of strategies such as online organizing, refusing to work, strikes, lawsuits, and public campaigns to ensure their safety and that of their communities. The discussion also centered on how the pandemic has changed the perception of essential workers, creating an opportunity for future action and worker power. However, panelists noted that some workers, such as domestic workers and undocumented immigrants, have been excluded from programs created by the government and often ignored during this crisis.

The second panel highlighted organizing and policy responses to the pandemic. Panelists included Lucia Gomez, Political Director for the NYC Central Labor Council, Abdullah Younus, Director of Political Engagement for the New York Immigrant Coalition, Joe Canovas, Special Counsel for the New York State AFL-CIO, and Dave Hancock, Director of the Warehouse Campaign of the Laundry Distribution & Food Service Joint Board for WU-SEIU. The panelists spoke about different policy options for addressing the crisis, such as leveraging New York’s worker compensation laws or implementing a New York City Essential Worker Bill of Rights. 

“We have to ensure that our workers never suffer again because the state is ill-prepared. We have the opportunity here to expand workplace protections for all working people,” said Joe Canovas, Special Counsel for the New York State AFL-CIO.

Speakers elaborated on how this crisis moment could create a potential opportunity to shift from measures of austerity to a progressive vision of politics that includes all workers. Speakers also discussed the uptick in non-union workers who are eager for representation during the crisis and emphasized the new forms of organizing that have occurred. Unions and workers have intertwined labor activism with organizing for undocumented workers, creating new partnerships for the future.

“In the last six weeks, we have been inundated with calls and emails and Facebook messages from non-union warehouse workers, many times over the number of workers who have reached out to us in the previous 12-14 months. Workers in non-union warehouses and other essential occupations are on the frontlines with no protections. Workers are terrified,” said Dave Hancock, Director of the Warehouse Campaign of the Laundry Distribution & Food Service Joint Board for WU-SEIU. Leaders and activists also participated in small group discussions where participants could engage in greater depth on these topics.

“As Allison Julien said, COVID-19 has really exposed how our current political and economic system is failing us. It has exposed the extreme levels of inequality that currently exist in our society and the vulnerability of millions of workers. So suddenly paid sick leave, unemployment benefits for gig economy workers, freezing evictions and foreclosures, canceling student debt, are on the table. Although these are temporary victories that include too few workers, it’s pretty incredible that we are seeing these opportunities,” said Lara Skinner, Executive Director of the Worker Institute, in her closing remarks who illustrated the opportunities for new political action and organizing a diverse coalition of working people during this time.

"We are the Worker Institute are really proud work with our partners to convene conversations like this and we hope to do more. We think that this allows for an important exchange of experience, strategy and vision to protect workers during this crisis, advance workers rights and collective representation and ultimately build a more powerful, inclusive and diverse movement coming out of this pandemic," said Skinner.