U.S. Labor in the Time of the Corona Virus
Union responses to the pandemic reflect the relatively weak state of the U.S. labor movement, but also reveal the potential for new militancy and growth!
By Peter Olney and Rand Wilson
President Trump proclaimed on March 24 that the U.S. would be open for business by Easter Sunday with churches filled with devout worshippers. Not only was this a massive slight to the millions of non-Christians, it was fundamentally a toxic recipe for escalating the COVID-19 public health menace. Only a few days later, the reality of the escalating public health disaster got the better of his foolish narcissism: Trump now says that the country must remain on lock down through April 30. It may go much longer.
Signaling both growing anxiety and the need for solidarity brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, workers across the country are protesting what they see as inadequate safety measures and insufficient pay for the risks they are confronting. The response by American workers reflects the relatively weak state of the U.S. labor movement, but also reveals the potential for a new militancy and growth.
U.S. unions only unite 7% of private sector workers and some 35% of public sector workers. In the private sector, the structure is characterized by “enterprise” bargaining rather than national sector or “category” bargaining that is seen in Italia or many other European countries. This has meant that instead of U.S. unions acting together under the aegis of the AFL-CIO, the response has been fragmented. Nevertheless, there have been many impressive initiatives both legislatively and by industry and in geographical areas.
When the U.S. Congress passed a nearly $2 trillion financial bailout bill for corporations, labor was able to attach a “union neutrality” clause for companies employing more than 500 workers who seek to unionize. Winning union neutrality has long been one of labor’s major legislative goals. Given the already weak enforcement of U.S. labor laws, this provision will be even harder to enforce, as the National Labor Relations Board has been all but shut down during the Corona crisis.
Where the U.S. labor movement still has membership “density” and particularly in sectors now considered essential because of the virus, unions have been able to achieve some impressive results. Transportation is one of those sectors. The airline unions, led by Sara Nelson, the dynamic President of the Flight Attendants, won a provision in the massive industry bailout to pay all direct airline employees (pilots, mechanics, flight attendants) through September 30. Even more impressive is that airport contract workers like cleaners, food service workers, and other ground personnel will also be paid through the same date.
Bus drivers and train operators in many urban areas have demanded protections from infection while operating their equipment. On March 17, Detroit bus drivers declared that they were not going to work without safety precautions. Bus service was cancelled and within 24 hours, workers won all their demands, including an agreement that fares will not be collected during the coronavirus crisis. Passengers will now enter and exit from the rear entrance — avoiding contact with the operator. Sadly on April 1, Jason Hargrove, a rank and file Detroit driver, died of the virus after being coughed on by a woman entering his bus. His video of that event went viral on March 21 and helped to spread awareness of the need for protection for essential workers.
As the public has come to understand that grocery store workers are essential, it’s put their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers in a good bargaining position. UFCW has won significant raises and protections for its stressed-out members selling groceries. Workers also won additional paid time off (PTO) and generous provisions for sick leave. Los Angeles took the lead by mandating sick leave and other benefits far beyond the usual contractual requirements for grocery workers.
The response by construction unions has been uneven. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former construction union leader, shut down all non-essential construction on March 16 while his counterpart in New York City permitted construction of non-essential luxury condominiums to continue until March 27. On April 6, the Massachusetts Carpenters Union went a step further and walked all of their 10,000 members out in protest of continuing hazardous conditions. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35 followed suit, with the union issuing a stay-at-home order for its thousands of members the next day.
Automobile assembly has been shut down throughout the U.S., however auto parts production continues in many areas supplying assembly plants that continue to operate in Canada and Mexico, a reflection of the United Auto Workers weakness.
One of the most inspiring actions during the crisis was the walkout by thousands of General Electric workers who make jet engines in Lynn, Massachusetts on March 30. Along with a vigorous protest concerning their safety at work, they demanded that their employer convert to making ventilators!
The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) representing 34,000 employees at the telecommunications giant Verizon won paid leave for workers unable to work during the crisis.
These examples are a reflection of the low level (currently under 7%) of union representation in the private sector. In places where unions are still strong, like transportation, communications and grocery, labor is winning victories, but the 93% of American workers without representation have had to make do with valiant initiatives despite having no pre-existing or formally recognized organization.
So often dismissed as low-skilled and now on the frontlines of a pandemic, many not-yet-union workers in the U.S. are discovering the power of collective industrial action. Despite their lack of formal organization, many workers in the so-called stars of the new economy are demonstrating the capacity to rise up. Amazonians United, a warehouse-based organization with strength at distribution centers in Chicago, Sacramento and Queens, NY has waged a long fight for paid time off (PTO) for warehouse workers. As a result of their actions and others, Amazon finally agreed to grant PTO to all employees in mid-March.,
Thousands of drivers for the online grocery delivery service, Instacart also struck on March 30. On March 31, Whole Foods workers engaged in a global sickout to protest their working conditions and publicize their fear of working and contracting COVID 19. In nearly every example of the new militancy, workers have used online organizing tools and social media to reach their co-workers and gain public support. For example, workers at Fred Meyer launched an online petition for hazard pay.,
Workers are also showing compassionate solidarity in the midst of the pandemic. For example, the restaurant support group One Fair Wage is providing cash assistance to restaurant workers, car service drivers, delivery workers, personal service workers and others who have lost their incomes.
Along with the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, the pandemic is happening at a moment that working-class politics are on the rise. Sanders, and the movement behind him, have introduced a set of bold initiatives into the mainstream of political discourse. Now the public health crisis has added additional credibility to his proposed policies.
In a first for an American political campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (who dropped out of the race on April 8) has reached out to his enormous campaign base to raise millions of dollars to support many of these workers. He has used emails and texts requesting contributions to a variety of worker relief organizations and urging supporters to make phone calls and send letters to shame corporate executives.
Labor for Bernie, the trade union support coalition for the Sanders candidacy, is working with its member unions and allies to promote a national program of demands on the federal government regarding health care, sick leave and extended unemployment benefits. At the end of April, as many as 35 million Americans will lose their employer-based health insurance. The scale of that crisis is an opening for legislation to provide emergency health insurance to all Americans who do not have it. The price tag of over one trillion dollars no longer seems extraordinary after the two trillion-dollar bailout for American corporations!
Crisis can birth opportunity, and there is the potential for game changing political demands on the state to strengthen the horribly weak U.S. social safety net and build new membership and power for labor. Many on the left in the U.S., particularly the young members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are aggressively organizing. Activists are finding strength, encouragement and support in countless online video hookups that enable organizing nationwide while sheltering in their homes.
American society is getting a large and dramatic lesson in who is “essential” and “non-essential.” The lowest paid workers, often immigrants, women, and people of color make up the ranks of the service and agricultural sectors. Now the public is discovering these workers are far more crucial to the functioning of society than the owners and their professional managerial class. American workers are getting a powerful lesson on the power of collective bargaining and unionization. They are finding that without a union they are employees at will with little right to address their challenges in the workplace.
There is obviously great potential for radical change and restructuring to emerge from this crisis. The need for dramatic federal intervention on behalf of working people has probably not been this keenly felt since the 1930s. But without escalated organizing and action, the end result of the crisis will be another massive corporate bailout, similar to what happened in 2009 after the Wall Street meltdown. We believe the potential for renaissance and revelation has never been greater for American labor: but only if we seize that opportunity and organize!
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 “General Electric Workers Launch Protest, Demand to Make Ventilators,” By Edward Ongweso Jr, VICE, March 30 2020, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/y3mjxg/general-electric-workers-walk-off-the-job-demand-to-make-ventilators
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 Bernie campaign volunteers texted the author on April 2, 2020 “Hi Rand, it’s Sydney with Bernie 2020! Thank you so much for standing with Amazon workers this week by signing their petition and emailing Jeff Bezos. Adding your voice is how we win. Will you amplify our message even further by calling Amazon and demanding that they take every measure possible to protect their workers during this crisis? We can help you with what to say!”
 “COVID-19 job losses could drive down employer plan enrollment by as much as 35M, report shows,” by Paige Minemyer, FierceHealthcare, April 3, 2020. https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payer/covid-19-job-losses-could-drive-down-employer-plan-enrollment-by-as-much-as-35m-report-shows