News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
January 05, 2024
by Chris Mills Rodrigo
Taking a glance at how the spike in union activity over the last few years has been described in traditional media — a wave, a surge, a boom — one could be forgiven for thinking that the process is natural. Anyone who has organized their workplace will tell you the opposite. Organizing is hard work, from covertly building support amongst colleagues to weathering management retaliation to navigating the byzantine process of formal elections. Desire to unionize can only go so far without organizers willing to put in the work to make it happen.
Few places experienced that disconnect between interest in unionization and successful campaigns as acutely as the Bay Area in the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite exciting organizing activity across the nation — particularly at chains like Starbucks and Trader Joe’s — and a rich local history of organized labor, new unions in the area were still few and far in between.
Fearing that the Bay Area was at risk of missing out on a special opportunity to build durable labor power, the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) started asking itself what it could do to help.
“There was this huge wave of new organizing happening across the country, and to some extent in the Bay Area, but not quite as much as we were expecting,” Zach Weinstein, one of the co-chairs of the organization’s Labor Committee, explained. “We were having a conversation: what do we do in terms of engaging with this wave of organizing that’s happening? How do we do labor work that isn’t just sitting around waiting for workers or a union to ask us for help?”
Taking a look at what was working elsewhere in the country to motivate unionization, members of the labor committee were taken by the successes of the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.
At the height of the pandemic, when the contempt of many employers for their workers became harder to ignore, the DSA and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America teamed up to create a one-stop-shop for workers with the desire to organize that lack the know-how to make it happen.
Since its inception in March 2020, EWOC has helped over 70 organizing drives win demands and aided almost 100 successful unionization campaigns by providing resources, training and individual help to workers.
In the spring of 2022, the East Bay DSA members began discussing whether forming a local equivalent would be a good way to help turn the rise of pro-labor sentiment in the area into concrete organizing wins. By September of that year, a resolution establishing the East Bay Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee was approved.
A little over a year in, based on the raw numbers alone, the project has been a success. The group has played a part in seven successful unionization campaigns, aiding workers in successful efforts to win union elections at three Peet’s Coffee locations, a Starbucks, a Trader Joe’s, Berkeley’s Ecology Center, and Urban Ore.
After becoming the first local EWOC in the Bay Area – and the second nationally after New York City’s – the organization has helped the San Francisco and Santa Cruz DSA chapters launch their own local affiliates.
Those behind the campaign say the next goal for East Bay EWOC is to bring some of the workers they have helped organize into the DSA to help the group better represent the region’s working class.
East Bay EWOC provides a variety of services to workers fighting to improve their workplaces. The group utilizes the national organization’s online support form, which workers can fill out to get help from trained organizers. Requests for help from the region are forwarded to the local EWOC, which then has volunteers contact workers directly.
The group’s volunteers have helped give workers interested in organizing direction, turning get-togethers that would often devolve into aimless complaining and gossip into more structured discussions with clear targets in mind, according to workers who spoke with Majority for this article.
“They gave us tools and resources to structure our meetings to make them productive and to envision the arc of the campaign, to have goals to be constantly working towards,” one worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said.
The organization has also hosted a series of workplace organizing trainings, three of which were adapted from Labor Notes’s Secrets of a Successful Organizer and a fourth which focused on contract negotiations. The training not only helped upwards of 30 workers develop the skills necessary to organize their workplaces, but it also helped spread awareness about the assistance that East Bay EWOC offers.
Another worker at a not yet public unionization drive, heard about one of these trainings through a friend, showed up, and then was connected to a local organizer who helped get their campaign to the next step.
“There’s been a lot of different things over the years that have had people talking about the benefits of unionizing,” they told Majority. “But previously in those conversations, it was a small group of people and when we looked into what it would take to actually unionize it felt really overwhelming.”
The local organizer assigned to the campaign was able to provide strategies for how to reach new colleagues, answer questions about eligibility and give tips on how to keep shop lists organized.
As East Bay EWOC heads into its second year, there is still a lot more to achieve.
For one, none of the union campaigns that the group has aided have secured their first contracts yet. Helping get those challenging negotiations over the finish line is a priority.
Once those contracts do start getting ratified, East Bay EWOC organizers hope they can convince some of the workers involved in the process to join the local DSA chapter and contribute to the fight to grow worker power nationwide.
“I think EWOC has the power to make an organization like DSA actually feel and look like the working class,” Taylor Henry said. “When you have something like EWOC that focuses on supporting and growing the power of the working class, that will have a big impact on our membership.”