Service industry workers in Grand Rapids, Michigan began organizing around access to vaccinations because our lives were being put at risk at our jobs. Through the process of forming a campaign, we learned that not only is organizing in the service industry possible, but it can make a big difference. Here is the story of this campaign and how our organization, the Grand Rapids Service Industry Workers Coalition (GRSIWC) came together.
Bars and restaurants in our state were allowed to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity. Only one week prior, cases of Covid-19 had risen in our state to 552,556 – including 14,405 deaths. Many workers in our industry were uneasy about going back to work, which meant being face to face with the public and with the undetectable threat of the virus. With only our facemasks to protect us, we began asking why service industry workers were not being vaccinated before being sent back to work.
Despite having been told since the beginning of the pandemic how essential we are, service industry workers somehow did not qualify as frontline essential workers, which meant we were not eligible for vaccination in our state. One day after Governor Whitmer announced the return of indoor dining, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan declared that all food service workers who live or work in that city could now get the shot. The news from Michigan’s largest city got a lot of us in Grand Rapids, the second largest, asking why our city government hadn’t done the same.
To answer that question, a co-worker and I brought other comrades in the industry together to start a campaign for the vaccination of service industry workers in our city. This was the founding of GRSIWC. We formed to present a unified voice of workers’ interests in our industry. As a novice organizer, I turned to my DSA chapter and IWW branch for advice and support. Comrades from both groups generously shared organizational knowledge and went on to endorse and help promote our campaign.
With help from GRDSA, we drafted a letter to local officials demanding vaccinations. GRSIWC began a social media campaign asking for service industry workers to share their thoughts and feelings about working in the face of Covid-19. People submitted heartbreaking stories of unsafe work conditions, rude customers, and indifferent owners, and illustrated the mental, physical, and financial stress that resulted from these circumstances. These testimonials played a large role in our campaign and brought the voices of workers to the forefront.
A month after the return to indoor dining, Covid-19 cases statewide increased by nearly 29,000, with nearly 1,000 fatalities. At the same as the virus rates were rising, the Governor announced that bars and restaurants could raise indoor dining capacity to 50%, with no further protections in place for workers. Even though many workers in the state were feeling increasingly unsafe at work, we could not afford to stop working. Michigan’s unemployment agency, like those in states across the country, left countless workers frustrated and without benefits or receiving inadequate claims which weren’t enough to live on. It was clear that if we were going to to change our high risk situation, we were going to have to organize.
We took our first collective action. We delivered a letter to Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and city commissioners demanding immediate vaccination eligibility. We received same-day responses from the Mayor’s office and several commissioners that extended passive support for our cause, but informed us that the vaccination program was not administered by the city. This was an oversight on the part of the GRSIWC, we expected the city government to follow Detroit’s example without determining if the city actually had the power to do so.
The GRSIWC quickly pivoted our target to Kent County Health Department. We began an online petition that used much of the language from the initial letter including several of the worker testimonials we had collected. We were still gathering signatures when the state announced that they would be expanding eligibility to all adults starting April 5th. While this was good news, service industry workers were already at work and the open enrollment was still almost a month away, not to mention the inevitable wait times to get an appointment.We needed to be vaccinated sooner than that.
We delivered our letter and petition with 300+ signatures to Dr. Adam London and other health department officials. We sent a version of the letter, with a petition, to city officials asking them to lobby the county on our behalf. A response from Dr. London came the same day expressing sympathy for our cause, saying “You will be hearing more from us shortly”. This response promised us nothing and was insufficient and unacceptable to us, so we responded demanding a commitment to opening vaccinations to service industry workers at least two weeks before the April 5th open enrolment.Two days passed with no reply. So we began calling on residents to email Dr. London directly to pressure him to support our demand.
The Kent County Health Department finally announced that service industry workers were now eligible for vaccination. After a month-long campaign, our collective action yielded results! This victory proved to be partially symbolic since many workers are still on waiting lists for vaccination appointments even though we are eligible. But it is an important victory none-the-less. Our story is an example of the power workers, unions, and socialist organizations working together can wield. Through solidarity we were able to affect change in the second largest city in Michigan. We still have much work to do in the name of service industry workers but this successful campaign, and the new organization that we are building in GRSIWC, is a good place to start. Together we are capable of great things!
I would like to personally acknowledge the following comrades and organizations for their help and support of the vaccination campaign: Kim D, Jen K, GRDSA, IWW GR-GMB, On Guard Magazine, and Grand Rapids Mutual Aid Network. My roommate/coworker and I received our first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine on March 29th.