During the COVID-19 pandemic, you'd be hard-pressed not to run into one of these signs honoring the sacrifices of essential workers. We need to convert the momentum of these sympathies into action. Care of: Wikicommons

Just as the place you call home is surrounded by your neighbors—an interconnected group of people who live near one another—so is your workplace.

Think about an office softball league that sponsors a local charity or cause, or a factory spewing unregulated pollution into a local environment. Your organization has direct effects on greater systems of people, politics, and space, and a smart organizer will know how to tap into them.

The stronger a bond your union has with the communities it functions within and interacts with, the stronger a case you’ll have at the negotiating table or in the streets if a campaign requires such an action.

The material benefits

If you take “community” to mean colleagues in similar jobs, then let’s get the facts right. Despite what your supervisor might say, unions not only provide unique protections on the job to you and your coworkers, but the more like-minded unions there are out there, the more likely the safeguards they fight for are to become industry standards. This may be a cliche, but it rings true: a rising tide lifts all ships.

While the immediate, material upside of unionizing is clear, a concrete example of unions benefitting the physical spaces they occupy becomes apparent when you look at wages. With the higher income that often comes from a unionized job, according to a report out of the University of Minnesota, these workers contribute more in taxes, are less likely to need public assistance, and have more spending power. So there's more of a chance that a worker may put some of their salary into a bakery or small business on their way to or from work. It’s a little different for remote workers, but the concept is the same: there’s more of a likelihood they’ll stop by a coffee shop near their home during the workday.

Recognizing need in your area

“Communities are the lifeblood of movements,” says labor theorist Douglas Williams.

A study out of American Rights at Work looked at how union involvement in communities and partnerships with local organizations can better the quality of life of people whose roots extend beyond any given workplace.

  • The Steel Valley Authority in Western Penn. brought unions, faith leaders, and mayors together to advise manufacturers and local businesses on investment, retention and redevelopment services, resulting in 10,000 jobs for the region.
  • The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership came about when businesses and unions joined forces in 1992 to create jobs, match workers with the right positions, and increase benefits. Since their inception, they’ve helped thousands of workers.
  • The Ella Baker Center in Oakland Calif. partnered with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 2008 to train 40 at-risk youth to install solar panels and weatherize buildings.

How smaller unions can build community

Some smaller labor organizations may not be able to support the same type of initiatives like those listed above. With that said, there are many ways you can support your community. Here are some examples.

  • Build solidarity! Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW) expressed solidarity with striking workers of GEO 3550 at the University of Michigan. Despite being hundreds of miles away from one another, they built relationships with people facing similar struggles in a similar workplace. “Finances should not be put ahead of worker safety,” wrote GWC-UAW in an open letter.
  • Volunteer! New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) joined up with a local food pantry to deliver meals to families in need. “Right here in the Capital Region, we’ve had staff laid off in our own backyard of headquarters,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “Schenectady lost 440 staff, and Albany lost over 200. This is for them, and for members of our community in need of food.”
  • Make your voice heard! The Virginia American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) endorsed candidates for office during the 2019 legislative elections, offering financial and other campaign support. “We have a chance to elect the most worker-friendly state legislature in at least 25 years here in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “As a labor movement, we have more momentum and stronger wind at our back than any time I can remember, with presidential candidates embracing unionism and a rising wave of worker activism across the country.”

If building a union is all about growing a sense of shared stakes, then taking on actions like these will extend this effort outside the walls of your job and make the case for unionizing that much more apparent in the lives of everyday people.