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Building worker power from the ground up

From staving off emergencies to building unions, EWOC’s path to organizing heights


Only weeks after Bernie Sanders ended his campaign in the 2020 Democratic Party primary, the pandemic began, much of the country shut down and hundreds of thousands of Americans started laboring in unsafe conditions. 

As the pandemic spread, former Sanders’ staffers, campaign volunteers and canvassers affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America suddenly became inundated with pleas for help and guidance from those workers. 

"When Covid hit, it was really clear that there was a need to support non-union workers who wanted to organize on a mass scale,” Megan Svoboda, a former canvasser for Sanders and DSA member told The Chief last fall. “It felt like life or death.” 

The former staffers and volunteers quickly saw a unique opportunity to apply the lessons of widespread volunteer-led organizing to the American workplace and help workers build grassroots rank and file power so they could stand up for themselves. 

Just days after the nation shut down, Svoboda, along with a group of former Sanders’ staffers and DSA members, with help from United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), formed the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a project aimed at organizing thousands of workers and turning rank and file employees into the organizers of the future.  

The committee was a direct reaction to the crisis facing American workers. Its goal was to help workers out of their emergencies and “provide the tools for the working class to organize itself,” said Patrick Cate, one of a small group of staff organizers at EWOC.  

On the first day that EWOC opened a form for workers to file their complaints, more than 600 people reached out, Svoboda, now a staff organizer at EWOC, said.  

More than 5,200 workers have contacted EWOC since March 2020, resulting in more than 2,100 organizing campaigns at over 1,500 workplaces across the country. Through last year, there have been 32 campaigns that resulted in union representation, 42 groups of workers who marched on their boss and 108 concrete demands won, according to the group. 

'A collective sense of power’ 

Many leaders of EWOC, including Cate, a former organizer with the Service Employees International Union, have organizing experience and the group gets regular advice from organizers at UE, an independent rank-and-file union. To support workers who reached out to EWOC, the group tapped into a network of volunteer organizers that already populated the rolls of DSA and Sanders’ campaign. 

In EWOC’s nearly four-year existence, over 2,000 people have voluntarily organized with the group and there are over 300 volunteer organizers active in campaigns across the country. 

In New York City, the organization has supported workers at board game cafés, climbing gyms, bookstores, pizza restaurants, grocery stores and elsewhere. In 2023 alone, EWOC provided support to workers in 87 workplaces in the city, four of which unionized. 

“They’re developing a collective sense of power,” Sam Fleischman, the former co-chair of NYC EWOC, said of employees at these workplaces. 

Most of the workers who reached out to EWOC in the early stages, including those at the Essex Crossing Trader Joe’s, on Delancey Street, did so with no intent to unionize.  

“At that time, unionizing wasn’t even in the question, we were just figuring out how could help us,” Diego Ramirez, an employee at the Delancey Street Trader Joe’s for five years told The Chief last week. “They gave us everything we needed.” 

The Starbucks effect 

In 2020, many workers across the country were raising concerns about lack of personal protective equipment, paid sick days and hazard pay, Svoboda said. They were mainly focused on making material changes without officially unionizing. Workers counseled by EWOC organizers held off-hours meetings, created petitions demanding change in their workplaces and marched on their bosses. But while they were employing collective power to make demands, their efforts, lacking the traditional organizing structure of a union, sometimes failed to lock-in long-term gains.

But, around a year and a half after EWOC established itself as a worker-empowering organization, volunteers across the country started noticing a difference in what workers were asking for: many were now explicit in their desire to unionize. 

The spur for that shift, Svoboda said, was Starbucks workers in Buffalo filing for a union election in August 2021. "Starbucks workers expanded the world of who thought they could organize,” Svoboda said. “There was a big spike in people who wanted to talk about unions and form unions.” 

The successful union votes at several Starbucks stores at the end of 2021 and the unionization of Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island a few months later built on that momentum and encouraged workers who had been getting help from EWOC to unionize their workplaces.  

“Our outlook didn’t change, but workers coming to us were asking more about formal union recognition, not actually fully knowing what that means most of the time,” Cate said. “We see our role as education and explaining what a more formal union can do in solidifying workers’ wins.” 

Ramirez, the Trader Joe’s worker, said that transitioning from organizing around emergency issues to organizing a union at his workplace “felt natural.”  

"As we progressed and saw that things were not getting better, we figured that that route was the best place to go, and helped us figure that out on our own,” he said. 

‘Filling the gap’ 

Ramirez and his colleagues eventually decided to try and unionize with Trader Joe’s United, a small independent union, but many other workers being aided by EWOC have filed for elections with the United Auto Workers, the Communication Workers of America and Workers United, an affiliate of the SEIU that has unionized hundreds of Starbucks stores.  

Workers at the Brooklyn pizza restaurant Barboncino and nearly 100 workers at several different board game cafés, including at the three Manhattan locations of Hex & Company, unionized with Workers United last year after receiving help from EWOC. 

Workers at the Brooklyn pizza shop Barboncino celebrated their union victory last summer. Duncan Freeman/The Chief
Workers at the Brooklyn pizza shop Barboncino celebrated their union victory last summer. Duncan Freeman/The Chief

Malcolm Emerich, the organizing director of Workers United’s New York-New Jersey joint board, said that EWOC is crucially supporting workers who otherwise would have few resources. 

“Workers United NY/NJ Joint Board stands with all workers and their organizations dedicated to advancing democratic grassroots organizing to fight the boss,” he said in a statement. “EWOC has become a powerful structure through which workers, like those they recently helped at Barboncino and Hex & Co, can find their power and improve their lives — and working with Workers United and other labor unions, formalize that power for the long term.” 

Now that workers are keen to unionize, and EWOC organizers have developed relationships with several unions, EWOC sees its role partially as “filling the gap,” between workers and unions, Daphna Thier, the organization’s labor education coordinator, explained. If completing a unionization campaign is 100 steps, EWOC guides workers through steps 1-50 and then lets the union that workers select take the lead the rest of the way while still counseling workers in the background.  

“The contributions we make don’t stop when the union steps in,” Thier said. "We build up strong bases so it's more possible for workers to run these campaigns themselves.” 

Turning workers into organizers 

Crucial for EWOC's rank and file structure is that workers who organize their workplaces through the organization then go on to join it to help empower and organize workers at other, similar workplaces.  That’s why EWOC hosts frequent organizing trainings over Zoom staffed by workers-turned-organizers like Ramirez, who said he’s lectured at several different virtual trainings attended by over 100 people. 

“It’s super cool to see how many people are interested in doing what we did at their stores too,” he said. EWOC has also hosted worker socials at New York bars including one in October where workers at various points in their organizing campaigns with EWOC swapped organizing tips and strategy with seasoned organizers over pints of beer.  

A few of the workers who unanimously unionized Barboncino have gone on to help workers organize at other workplaces in the city, with several of those efforts not yet disclosed. Alex Dinndorf, a member of Barboncino’s organizing committee, was recently named as one of nine new NYC EWOC co-chairs along with other workers-turned-organizers. 

Cate said that workers organized by EWOC taking on leadership roles within the organization is proof that EWOC’s grassroots organizing strategy has worked. 

“This is the only way the EWOC project will work long-term,” Cate argued. "If you want millions of people organizing in the United States, you can’t have a gatekeeping expertise model where you wait for people to have experience.” 

The appointment of nine co-chairs — there were previously two — is also proof of EWOC’s ambitions to grow nationally as an organizing force for young workers. One worker in a Brooklyn restaurant who’s gotten organizing advice from EWOC said the group has been incredibly helpful in educating him and his colleagues about how to organize, but he feels that EWOC could be “supercharged,” if the group had more volunteer organizers who were fluent Spanish speakers.  

“The help that we really needed and the support and infrastructure that we really needed was translation services and I think that's a huge gap in the project,” the worker, who asked to remain anonymous because their organizing campaign is not yet public, told The Chief. “They aren’t equipped to handle Spanish-speakers.” 

Engaging with Spanish-speakers could become crucial as EWOC expands and continues to organize workers in the retail and restaurant industries, the worker argued.  

And not every EWOC campaign is deemed a complete success by the workers who undertake it. Ramirez and his coworkers lost their union vote in a tied election despite years of organizing, though workers there could still have their union certified. 

But despite that failed vote, Ramirez has remained hopeful and dedicated to the labor movement largely because of EWOC. “Doing those trainings and being a part of this community reminds me of why we organized, and I’m really inspired and motivated by the network that exists here,” he said. “EWOC connected us to something that’s much bigger than our little store.” 



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