New York, NY – Two organizations, Jobs with Justice and UnionBase, have come together during the coronavirus pandemic to offer a new website, WorkersMemorialWall.org, where people can post pictures of their co-workers who have been lost to COVID-19.
LaborPress recently talked with Jobs with Justice Executive Director Erica Smiley to learn more about the project, why it was started, and how it has filled a gap at a time when people desperately need a place to honor, mourn, and grieve.
LP: Can you tell us a bit about Jobs with Justice and UnionBase?
ES: I’ll start with UnionBase. We have been partnering with them on different things. They came out of a new generation of trade unionists, creating an online platform that’s almost like Facebook. That’s what I appreciate about it. Because of the founder [Larry Williams Jr.] and other staff it has a kind of an edge about it and is exploring some of the tougher issues. It is a place where union members can talk to their leadership, and also a place where they publish – The Worker Leader – a fantastic resource. A lot of millenials or Gen Z-ers don’t know what a union is. UnionBase has been a powerful bridge for them to find themselves and the union movement.
Jobs with Justice is a national network of community and labor coalitions. Our mission is to expand the ways in which, and the people who can, collectively bargain. We have coalitions around the country. We, like everyone else, have evolved to try to meet changing demographics of the work force.
LP: How did the idea for WorkersMemorialWall.org come about?
ES: It came up from a colleague of mine. He was lamenting [the death of] a co-worker in the ATU (the Amalgamated Transit Union). Beginning in March, people were dying, and he felt like he didn’t have any way of grieving. He couldn’t go to his colleague’s funeral. There was no way to say ‘I knew this guy and this is what he meant to me.’
I talked to UnionBase about a possible site and they said they could help. We found there were other sites people were beginning to put up, but they were impersonal. We felt we could fill a unique role – [to honor those] lost to COVID-19, but for co-workers, where someone could say, ‘as we go back to work, there are people missing.’
LP: The site specifically mentions a need to address “the extreme inequality exposed in this moment.” Can you elaborate on that?
ES: There are a disproportionate number of black and brown faces gracing the Wall, and the types of jobs are largely essential workers. These are real human beings. Access and care – such as cases of acute respiratory distress – in these cases distance to a hospital matters. Also, there are those who didn’t have access to a doctor already, before a hospital visit. The structural nature of essential jobs is that those workers have long been the lowest paid and the least unionized sectors. A lot of workers who were exposed were the least protected, and black and brown, and had the least choice as to which job they took. [We want to be] community driven and work with our base].
LP: What has the response been so far?
ES: People are grateful there’s a place for it. It’s hard at the same time. It’s not like we’ve come out the other end yet. It will take some time. That’s to be expected.
LP: Find the link to the website here, at www.WorkersMemorialWall.org