Mark Meinster

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Mark Meinster


As shoppers crowded into the McAllen, Texas, branch of Sprouts Farmers Market in mid-March to stockpile food, store clerk Josh Cano grew alarmed at the lack of safety precautions in place.

Cano, 24, worried about bringing the coronavirus home because his mother has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. He had heard of an online form that activists from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the United Electrical Workers union (UE) were using to help workers organize to make their workplaces safer as the Covid-19 pandemic spread. The two groups—which had previously worked together on the Bernie Sanders campaign—were calling their joint effort the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC).

The experience many EWOC organizers gained from the Sanders movement had a direct impact on their work. Officials from the DSA and UE said the group took ideas from the Sanders campaign—such as building a largely volunteer operation to do complex organizing—and applied them to workplaces rather than an election. Many former Sanders staff members also volunteered to help workers organize. It's one example of a possible path forward for the grassroots movement that powered the Sanders campaign—a way to channel its insurgent energy into new battles for social justice.

Cano filled out the form, and Michael Enriquez, former deputy field director of the Sanders campaign in Iowa and a member of the EWOC planning committee, responded to assist the Sprouts workers. With guidance from Enriquez, who previously ran the Fight for $15 office in Kansas City, Cano and a co-worker, Michael Martinez, soon got 44 of their store’s 50 workers to sign a petition demanding personal protective equipment, a $3 an hour increase for hazard pay, 14 days of paid sick leave and an in-store safety committee. “We started the petition out of fear,” Martinez says.

Colette Perold, a DSA activist and member of the EWOC planning committee, explains the project began when some DSA members started hearing from friends worried about the dangers at their jobs. “They were being forced to do a lot of dangerous things,” she says. So the DSA and the United Electrical Workers decided to reach out to workers. “The campaigns that workers are leading in their workplaces are life or death fights, and we want to support that self-activity and help them win,” Perold says.

Mark Meinster, an international representative with the United Electrical Workers, says his union helped form EWOC because “we’re seeing so many workers take risks to protect their own lives.”

“Unions have a choice right now,” he says. “We can either hunker down and ride out the storm, or we can get on the side of the workers in struggle, many of whom are nonunion workers. If we can help workers wage a broad, militant fight back, we can hopefully set the stage and make some changes in society for the common good.”

Since launching in early March, EWOC’s organizers have helped several hundred workers fight for improved safety at warehouses, fast-food restaurants, hospitals, bottling plants, supermarkets and child-care centers across America.

Dani Shuster, a cashier and customer service worker at a Mom’s Organic Market in Philadelphia, says she is thankful for the advice the workers at her store received from EWOC. For two weeks in early March, panicked shoppers flooded the grocery. (One day, Shuster says, actress Kate Winslet entered the store wearing gloves and filled up four shopping carts.) Many workers were putting in 10- or 12-hour days to meet the surging demand.[1]