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Pandemic or not, working people are Always Essential

At the outset of the pandemic, working people who have long been overlooked and undervalued in America’s economic system were suddenly considered “essential,” and met with applause and national pressure to keep working while the rest of the country stayed safely at home. These are the factory and agricultural workers, delivery drivers and grocery store clerks, restaurant employees and first responders who have always kept society running.

And yet, these same working people do not have the basic protections or bargaining power in their companies and sectors to voice concerns about their working conditions. They want—and deserve—wages that would allow a decent standard of living, access to benefits, paid leave, and health care. Too many have been forced to work without access to childcare and, in too many cases, left to work without safe, healthy working conditions. When the voices and needs of workers are valued, companies and the economy will run more efficiently. Case in point: Health Affairs recently shared a study of how healthcare worker unions working with 355 nursing homes in New York contributed to a 30 percent relative decrease in the COVID-19 mortality rate compared with facilities without unions.

While over the last few months we’ve seen more focus on the needs of working people, millions have experienced unemployment and deepening poverty. With the nation starting to reopen, many fear we will build back, but not better, and the voices, contributions and needs of essential workers will once again be ignored.

Always Essential is a campaign formed to turn this moment of crisis into a moment of opportunity for working people, and bring national attention to the people who keep the country running.

Always Essential is working people, activists, and organizations joining together to transform what’s possible for essential workers, especially those in low-wage sectors who are disproportionately Black and other people of color. Supported by Ford, the campaign works at every level—from cities to states to the federal level—to make the workplace more democratic and fight for better pay and working conditions for essential workers.

To get to know more about the campaign, we sat down with Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs with Justice Education Fund, a member of Always Essential. She shares how this movement formed, some of its notable wins, and its ultimate goal to reimagine an economy that works for all.

What is the mission of Always Essential and the meaning behind its name?

COVID-19 and the resulting economic fallout created unprecedented challenges for working people. For those in sectors like retail, restaurant, hospitality, construction, health care, and education—to name a few—they were suddenly deemed “essential” by governments, media, and the industries where they worked. While the designation was new, the pandemic forced us all to consider what should’ve been clear from the beginning: these are working people who were always essential to a functioning economy and country.

As the pandemic unfolded, essential workers were in increasingly dire conditions. In almost every conceivable sector designated “essential,” workers were contracting COVID and, unfortunately, many were losing their battles with the disease. Lives were on the line and we knew we had to act.

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As a result, Jobs With Justice Education Fund—alongside other national and local partners—formed what ultimately became the Always Essential campaign. Always Essential seeks to transform what’s possible for essential workers, with significant impact on Black and other workers of color, who disproportionately make up low-wage sectors.

The pandemic presented a unique and historic opportunity to finally address the chronic undervaluing and insecurity of low-wage work in the United States—and ensure working people can emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position to make decisions about their working environment—now and always. And that’s why Always Essential works at every level—from the policy and legislative arenas, to worker-led campaigns fighting for the Essential Workers Bills of Rights, to championing stronger health and safety protections in the workplace, and taking on corporations that for too long have rigged the rules in favor of profits over people.

Through the campaign, working people are fighting for and winning seats at decision-making tables to demand the health and safety standards, hazard pay, and union representation in the workplace that they deserve.

Winning includes raising standards in key sectors like retail, agriculture, health care, and manufacturing. It also means improving safety and ensuring working people have power and influence over their conditions. For the first time in a long time, because of COVID-19, low-wage workers in essential industries are being recognized and have the support of most Americans. We believe this is a once-in-several-generations opportunity to address the chronic undervaluing and insecurity of low-wage work in America.

Why have worker organizations joined forces in this campaign, and why is it important for philanthropy to support these kinds of unique collaborations?

Well before the pandemic, a variety of local, state, and national organizations saw the power of working in coalition to fight for labor rights. For instance, Jobs with Justice worked alongside anchor partners like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and United for Respect to win better pay and working conditions, and strengthen the bargaining power of Black and brown workers.

We’ve established what we call the four lanes of Always Essential:

  1. legislation and policymaking at the local, state, and federal levels
  2. worker-and organization-led efforts aimed at holding corporations accountable for putting profits before people
  3. bargaining for updated and new contracts that ensure standards for essential workers are inserted into contract negotiations
  4. workers coming together with government and industry and corporate leaders to establish local boards with decision-making power, and enforceable workplace health and safety standards, among others.

While the goals vary from campaign to campaign, there is one overarching ambition: no matter what happens in the future, working people are better prepared to lead the way and prevent similar tragedies from ever happening again.

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  • Videos from third-party sources (those not produced by the Ford Foundation) may not have captions, accessible transcripts, or audio descriptions.

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When philanthropy supports campaigns like Always Essential, funders are making a direct investment into worker-led efforts to shape the policies and systems that impact their lives, and ultimately win crucial victories for working people. It presents an enormous opportunity to create a foothold for workers to influence decision-making and rewrite the rules of a system that’s too often rigged against working people. As a result of philanthropic investment into Always Essential, Jobs With Justice Education Fund, for example, has been able to regrant to 39 different campaigns and organizations, ensuring campaigns have the resources they need to cross the finish line.

What has the campaign achieved so far, and what’s top of the agenda right now?

As federal COVID-19 relief and recovery efforts began to develop, Always Essential saw opportunities to build upon the work happening in Washington, DC to win protections for essential workers. Key to this was Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ro Khanna’s push for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights—something the campaign considers critical to long-term protections. Since the start of the campaign last fall, we have made significant progress in local, state, and federal advocacy. We’ve adapted the Bill of Rights framework at the state and local level, while continuing our corporate campaigns and sectoral bargaining efforts. We’re also identifying and encouraging authentic connections with essential workers, who are some of the leading voices in campaigns.

Under the leadership of Justice for Migrant Women, legislation for the Essential Workers Bills of Rights have passed in cities like Dayton, Toledo, Lakewood, and Columbus (Ohio). Massachusetts Jobs With Justice has been pushing for a fair scheduling bill to ensure workers have reliable work schedules, so they can plan their lives, especially women who were disproportionately pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic because of childcare.

In New York, undocumented workers also recently won a massive victory. After the state failed to provide relief money for undocumented people, workers took action. With Always Essential partners such as Make The Road New York, New York Communities for Change and the Alliance for a Greater New York (a Jobs With Justice local coalition) by their side, undocumented workers launched a hunger strike. Their incredible efforts generated national support and they ultimately won, with the state allocating $2.1 billion to undocumented workers, often some of the most vulnerable essential workers. This has been one of the most significant victories since we launched Always Essential and it’s inspired undocumented workers in New Jersey to start a campaign of their own.

How might Always Essential set up workers to better prepare society for future crises of any kind?

The pandemic provided an unprecedented opportunity to transform how labor is valued and treated. It is often historic moments like this where we can expose the faults of the current system and build something new that rights decades—or even centuries—of wrongs.

Always Essential isn’t just about building worker power for the duration of the pandemic— this is a long-term paradigm-shifting event, where workers are the decision-makers, pushing for significant economic, systemic, and cultural reform. These new pathways allow workers to directly set the agenda moving forward, having a profound impact on how society responds to crises affecting workers.

COVID-19 may be the crisis we face today, but we know there are other threats—seen and unseen—that can and will affect working people. The pandemic laid bare a system that didn’t value working people and too often put workers in harm’s way, without proper health and safety precautions, decent pay, or benefits like paid sick leave. This movement is supporting working people to set new and improved standards across sectors that will leave all workers—organized and unorganized alike—better protected and prepared for the challenges we face now and in the future.

The Always Essential campaign includes: National Domestic Workers Alliance, Bargaining for the Common Good, United for Respect, Jobs With Justice Education Fund, American Federation of Teachers, Action Center on Race and the Economy, Justice for Migrant Women, SEIU, and over 50 local organizations and affiliates.