A group of six essential workers and labor leaders stood in front of McDonnell Hall in San Jose Wednesday—the same church labor activist Cesar Chavez started his now-iconic labor organizing more than 50 years prior.
The workers are looking to craft the future of the labor movement among essential workers for the next 50 years, starting with combating unfair treatment from employers, elected officials and corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They announced Wednesday the launch of a new initiative called the Essential Workers Council, a collective of 14 members from diverse professional fields in the South Bay, including medical workers, security, grocery workers, childcare, construction and education. The council has been established by Silicon Valley Rising, a collective of leaders who advocate for workers’ rights and affordable housing.
“As workers on the front lines of this crisis, we need to be the ones setting the agenda for recovery,” said Deo Agustin, a childcare worker and member of the new council. “We can’t let business leaders decide how things should be run.”
The group, with local labor leaders’ help, hopes to lobby elected leaders for more essential worker protections during and after the pandemic, such as higher wages, more widespread hazard pay, rent relief, stronger eviction protections and affordable childcare.
“Even as mostly Black and brown people put their lives at risk, dying at disproportionately higher rates, too many corporate executives and elected leaders have ignored their needs and their voices,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, director of Silicon Valley Rising, on Wednesday. “They call this work essential, but not the people, their families and our communities.”
The coronavirus has killed Black and Latino residents in the county at a far higher rate than other races. Latinos in particular make up 25% of the county’s population but account for 51% of cases and nearly 29% of deaths, according to county numbers. Those racial groups are overrepresented in essential work.
The council, frustrated by the lack of clear leadership from their employers to combat COVID-19, such as providing enough personal protective equipment and socially-distanced workspaces, spoke out about their experiences in working while living in fear that they would contract the coronavirus.
"Fast-food workers have suffered during the pandemic. We had to go on strike to get PPE.
We will not be ignored, we don't get dignity at work.
— Fight For 15 Nor Cal (@NorCalFF15) March 31, 2021
“We’re tired of being left in the shadows and being overlooked,” said Olivia Garcia, a local fast food worker in Spanish through an interpreter. Garcia said she and her coworkers organized a strike when management ignored several workers who were showing COVID-positive symptoms, failed to provide enough masks for them and didn’t coordinate sick days for workers who fell ill. When one of Garcia’s coworkers asked management for more PPE, Garcia said the worker was fired.
“How can that happen?” Garcia asked. “She was just trying to keep herself and her workers safe.”
While some workers have been vocal about their “forgotten” experiences during the pandemic, the council said too many of them have been ignored. The council is looking to change that through grassroots organizing and speaking out at city, county and state meetings.
“Ultimately it’s about building power,” said Fernandez. “These workers represent thousands of workers that aren’t going to go away quietly, that are going to be pushing for change and legislation and a real seat at the table.”
Editor’s Note: Silicon Valley Rising is a campaign of Working Partnerships USA, whose executive director Derecka Mehrens serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.