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San Antonio Workplace Organizing Committee to support local union efforts

Members of the San Antonio Workplace Organizing Committee.
Courtesy photo
San Antonio Democratic Socialists of America
Members of the San Antonio Workplace Organizing Committee.

The San Antonio chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) voted last week to establish the San Antonio Workplace Organizing Committee (SAWOC), which supporters said will serve as a local hub to help workers form unions in their workplaces.

SAWOC is a local chapter of the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a volunteer-based organization which was established in 2020. It aims to help workers around the country form unions because the possibility for in-person organizing was diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was created through a collaboration between the national DSA and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.

Alex Birnel, a former co-chair of San Antonio DSA and one of the authors of the SAWOC resolution, said the EWOC model provides more capacity to organize workers that many large unions don’t currently have.

“EWOC was a way of bridging the gap between appetite for unions and the inability of some of the bigger unions to bring on new drives, organizing in a traditional fashion with traditional tactics and traditional strategy,” he said.

A UT Austin Texas Politics Poll from December 2023 found that 64% of Texans believe unions are good for workers, but only 3.2% of workers in the private sector and 19.3% of workers in the public sector were in unions last year.

Results from the December 2023 UT Austin Texas Politics Project poll on Texans' beliefs about unions.
Courtesy of the UT Austin Texas Politics Project
Results from the December 2023 UT Austin Texas Politics Project poll on Texans' beliefs about unions.

Despite the large coffers of major unions, according to labor union researcher and activist Chris Bohner, union organizing staff have declined over the last few decades, and only a handful of unions — like the United Auto Workers — are aggressively organizing new workers.

Birnel explained why San Antonio DSA decided to create their own local version of EWOC.

“The cool thing about localizing the EWOC model is it allows you to work with your local union community and build more relationships with union organizers — people that know how to form unions, how to help workers do everything from map their workplace to prepare for a contact campaign — to connect those folks with the existing labor community and all the organs of that community,” he said.

Alejandra Lopez is another co-author of the SAWOC resolution, the first vice president in the San Antonio AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, and the president of San Antonio Alliance, the union representing San Antonio Independent School District educators and support workers.

Lopez said the San Antonio AFL-CIO passed a resolution last week that supported the SAWOC and appointed a liaison to maintain communication between SAWOC and the San Antonio AFL-CIO.

“We want to ensure that there’s a strong relationship between the people who are being plugged in through the EWOC program and the organized, established labor locals here in the city, because we’re only going to build worker power by bringing all of those different groups of people together,” Lopez said.

A dais on the left where the SAISD superintendent and trustees sit facing a podium on the right where teacher union President Alejandra Lopez speaks.
Camille Phillips
San Antonio ISD Superintendent Jaime Aquino and trustees listen as San Antonio Alliance President Alejandra Lopez speaks during public comments Sept. 18, 2023.

She said the ultimate dynamic between SAWOC and the San Antonio AFL-CIO will become clearer as communication between the two groups continues, but that step one is education about what SAWOC can be.

“We want to ensure that the Central Labor Council knows what the project is, what the positive impacts of this project will be, and how necessary this project is to continuing to build worker power in the city,” she said.

One possible route for the partnership is financial support for SAWOC from the local union federation to professionalize the organizing efforts.

“EWOC is, in its inception [and] almost on purpose, a volunteer-led effort,” Birnel said. “But with more resources, you can put together locally branded materials that have the endorsements of all the local unions on it. And this is for the formation of a common identity here locally. … It can also allow for things like scalability, where if you need to rent rooms at the public library to do trainings — things like this — it can make doing in person EWOC trainings a possibility.”

He added that SAWOC was still just getting off the ground, but that because the world of labor organizing goes beyond pay levels and layoff protections, political education will also be key to its operations.

“Oftentimes when someone is union-interested or union-curious, and they start to take the first steps of forming a union, they find themselves in a world with a ton of new vocabulary, a ton of new agencies that are relevant to think about, a ton of new ways of thinking around organizing politically, acting strategically,” Birnel said. “Not only in the confines of their particular campaign, but how do they fit in as part of the landscape?”

He said the next task for SAWOC is to establish its training materials and to build a volunteer base.

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