Across the country, service workers in retail and delivery jobs are staging protests, organizing sickouts and even walking off their jobs. At any other moment, this kind of risky collective action among precariously employed, nonunion and low-wage workers would be surprising. But it is even more astounding in the middle of a pandemic with a skyrocketing unemployment rate. Our ongoing research on worker organizing sheds light on why these workers are striking and what it could mean for the U.S. labor movement.
Not all workers can shelter in place
A month into the covid-19 pandemic, many Americans are adjusting to the new routine of working from home. But not all workers have this option. That is especially true for the low-wage, service-sector workers responsible for providing the food and basic home necessities needed to keep society going. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 73 percent of working-age adults with a postgraduate education said they had worked from home because of the virus, while only 22 percent of those with a high school degree or less reported the same.
Well before the coronavirus crisis, retail and food service jobs endured poor workplace conditions. Barely any of these workers were unionized: The union membership rate for the retail sector in 2019 stood at 4 percent, compared with 6 percent for all private-sector workers.
But the covid-19 pandemic has introduced a new, serious risk for these workers. Even as they faced heightened exposure to the virus, many employers did little to provide necessary protections such as hand sanitizer, soap, masks or gloves. Some large retail chains, including Walgreens, Target and Office Depot, asked — or demanded — that workers not wear masks or gloves on the job. Other employers have even fired workers for wearing protective equipment. Workers were expected to continue showing up to work, day after day, as the pandemic worsened.
Now workers are beginning to take action
Some of the first rumblings of discontent happened at Instacart, the app-based food delivery platform. Thousands of its workers stopped responding to delivery orders on March 30, saying they would stay offline until their demands for things such as protective equipment, hazard pay and better paid sick leave were met. Instacart shoppers were quickly joined by Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island and later by Whole Foods workers calling for a nationwide sickout, held Tuesday. Workers in other stores across the country are following suit.
These actions are happening under difficult conditions. However, the same is true of other recent labor actions, including recent teacher protests and strikes that swept across conservative states in 2018 and 2019. We have been studying the teachers’ uprising. Our research revealed several reasons teachers in those states were able to organize for — and win — important concessions. Our findings offer lessons for the ongoing mobilization in low-wage retail jobs, despite the different labor markets faced by service workers today.
Bargaining power and public sympathy are key
The teacher strikes tended to happen in states that had cut education spending and pay so deeply that those states faced teacher and school staff shortages. Teachers in those states thus had a degree of labor market power — and they used it.
The same is true of retail workers today. Quarantine has led to surging demand for essential food and home goods — and especially for the workers who can deliver those products to Americans working from home. It should come as no surprise, then, that the initial organizing and action have happened among delivery workers.
The teacher strikes also revealed the importance of public awareness and support for worker action. Our research has revealed just how much teachers tried to build up goodwill in the run-up to their strikes by emphasizing the worthiness of their demands. In particular, teachers stressed how they were fighting for changes that would benefit students and families, not just themselves. Teachers were able to do this because of the public role they held in their communities and the close interactions they have with students and their families.
Service employees, especially retail and delivery workers, can and are using a similar strategy. Although they do not have the same relationship to customers as teachers have with students, they do have regular, interpersonal exchanges that make it easier for customers to sympathize and support their demands. And just as with teachers, protesting service workers have emphasized how their demands for basic protective equipment and better sick leave options will protect both them and the customers they serve.
Finally, our research on the teacher strikes documented that the teachers succeeded not just in building more support for their demands in their communities. The teacher strikes also led parents with affected children to become more interested in labor action, including strikes, at their own jobs. We speculate that the retail actions may similarly build interest in unionization, including among other retail workers and the customers they serve.
Unions that want to turn this interest and energy into gains that last beyond covid-19, however, will probably have to start investing in organizing new workers and mobilizing based on the discontent among their current members. That is something that many unions have not prioritized in recent years.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez (@awh) is an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a member of Scholars Strategy Network. His most recent book is “State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States — and the Nation” (Oxford, 2019).
Adam Reich is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University. His most recent book, with Peter Bearman, is “Working for Respect: Conflict and Community at Walmart” (Columbia, 2018).