Black Women, Mutual Aid, and Union Organizing in the Time of COVID-19

The pandemic has lent new urgency to demands for a just future.
By Donna Murch

This article is part of a series, "Reflections on Faculty Life in a Pandemic." 

In my life, the pandemic has been a study in paradox. “Social distancing” and all of the trauma wrought by COVID-19 have created disorienting isolation and loss for many people in my immediate circle. At the same time, precisely because of this pain, the pandemic has engendered extraordinary networks of support, survival, and mutual aid that remind us of just how essential human connection is.

As COVID-19 hit New York like a hurricane, especially in the Black and brown outer boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, I experienced it as a personal assault on the people I cared about most. Three people I knew personally died from the consequences of the novel coronavirus in early March. One of them was a well-known musician who had lived in my dorm during my sophomore year in college; his loss reminded me that we are all vulnerable. I watched homemade videos of people speaking about the deaths of family members who had been denied care (and tests), despite life-threatening pneumonia and hypoxia, and I talked with friends whose stories echoed these testimonies. Such accounts underscore the enormous racial disparity of our highly segmented, privatized health-care system.

Across the country, death and injury rates of Black and Latinx people outstripped those of white populations by two- or threefold. In the summer, we learned that Hispanic children died at eight times the rate of white children on the West Coast. These disparities stemmed not only from preexisting conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, which disproportionately affect populations of color, but also from direct discrimination in the health-care system. New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to locate overflow hospital facilities in the center of Manhattan, where they were little used, rather than in places with soaring mortality rates like the Rockaways, East Elmhurst, Pelham, and Baychester, was a reminder of how profoundly race informs life and death in our country. In New York, the overrepresentation of nonwhite people in lower-paying “essential jobs,” combined with the enormously high rents, also meant that social distancing was impossible for many. A meme floated around social media showing a tightly packed subway car filled with Black and brown people with the words “racial capitalism” scrolled across the top in lurid magenta letters. Like the shock of Hurricane Katrina, the global pandemic is a devastating lesson in the lethal consequences of systemic neglect and racial inequality.

Needless to say, those first few weeks of the pandemic were unbearable. During a typical academic year, my life consists of running to and from lecture halls, commuting from Philadelphia to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, meeting with students and faculty colleagues, attending union meetings, and navigating Rutgers’s far-flung geography. Abruptly, this all came to a halt in the second week of March. I began to spend my time looking out of windows and staring at screens, trying to make sense of my own grief and the enormity of what was happening.

Two things got me through one of the most difficult times in life, and they are still sustaining me: mutual aid and our faculty and graduate student union. In March, Crystal Hayes, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut whom I have known through social media for many years but have never met in person, asked me to start a Black feminist writing group with her. Significantly, she made this request not in the mode of professional networking but in the long tradition of Black mutual aid, by reaching out to women (especially those who are single) to provide a network of connection and support. After many long phone conversations, we started the group in mid-April. We placed a public call on social media, because we wanted to build an intentional community rather than simply using our existing networks. We ended up with just under forty Black women academics and teachers and one creative writer. Participants varied widely in age and location and were at various stages of their careers, from graduate students to full professors and administrators. Together we wrote (or tried to write) for the first three hours of each day. We shared our thoughts and words, including specific verses or songs addressed to the ancestors that inspired our writing practice. The regularity, the thoughtful exchanges about speaking and silence, and the practice of community were profound. The activities in which we were collectively engaged shifted our focus away from the pain and fear we were all feeling and opened up new digital intimacies as we sheltered in place.

While the first half of my day started with this meditative space, the amazing, frenetic activism of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT and the Coalition of Rutgers Unions dominated the remaining hours. The need to respond to the economic crisis engendered by the pandemic solidified the nineteen-union coalition, which includes twenty thousand workers ranging from dining-hall staff and clerical workers to medical residents and tenured professors. Although its roots stretch back more than a decade, the coalition was christened on May Day in 2014 in a coordinated effort that linked the Rutgers AAUP-AFT to the many staff unions across our three campuses. In the last six months our coalition has blossomed and matured with the efforts of our union leadership and organizing staff. Counterintuitively, the widespread adoption of virtual meetings and telecommuting fostered political opportunities that would not have existed in face-to-face organizing contexts. With so many people compelled to live and work at home, round-the-clock online union organizing also became possible.

The fight for a work-share plan was the other important element in the strengthening of our coalition. Our union leadership proposed to the Rutgers administration in May that, rather than lay off thousands of employees, the administration could work with the unions to implement a provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that would supplement furloughed workers’ pay by $600 a week. In our plan, the entire twenty-thousand-member coalition would take structured furloughs to prevent layoffs of the most vulnerable workers. By combining the CARES subsidy with New Jersey unemployment benefits, the work-share plan would allow most people to be made whole. In exchange for this shared sacrifice, the unions insisted that the Rutgers administration agree not to lay off any Rutgers workers for fiscal year 2021 and to extend funding for graduate students for a year. Sadly, the administration refused and, rather than take the $100 million in savings, embarked on a brutal plan of mass layoffs and austerity that produced a fraction of the savings of our work-share proposal.

Nevertheless, the fight for a compassionate response to the pandemic, drawing on principles of solidarity and industrial unionism, exhilarated the leadership and activist wing of our union. We held multiple meetings each day, maintained constant communication with the other unions and the rank and file of our own local, and produced media to get out the word about work share. As the cochair of the committee tasked with shaping the media narrative, I spent much of the spring and summer writing member emails, press releases, and bulletins in addition to our statement about the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was exhausting but also exciting, because there is nothing like working together toward the collective good. Ultimately, even though it was never adopted, the work-share plan profoundly affected the union by providing a glimpse of a different future—a future beyond the cruelty and austerity of the corporate university.

These past six months have been filled with both heartbreak and possibility. The white supremacist violence of the Trump administration, combined with the president’s abdication of any responsibility for protecting the population from COVID-19, has had catastrophic consequences. Yet the shared pain of the past decades and the shared belief in an alternate future has mobilized the Movement for Black Lives, which has become the largest social protest movement (in total numbers) in the history of the United States. As we move into the fall and winter, which will undoubtedly carry new rounds of layoffs, illness, and death, we have to take heart and inspiration from the way terrible events can produce their opposite: mutual aid, solidarity, a recognition of the importance of human connection, and the demand for a just future.

Donna Murch is associate professor of history at Rutgers University. She is currently completing a new trade press book titled Crack in Los Angeles: Policing the Crisis and the War on Drugs. A book of her essays, Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Mass Incarceration and the Movement for Black Lives, will be published later this year.