‚ÄúMaybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they’ve been told they have no value and that they‚Äôre replaceable,” one union official said.
CHICAGO ‚ÄĒ Amazon warehouse workers in New York walked off the job to demand protection against Covid-19. A county judge in Illinois ordered a McDonald‚Äôs franchise to work out an agreement with its employees to supply more masks and hand sanitizer. And grocery store workers at Publix and Trader Joe‚Äôs in Florida have haggled for hazard pay as they work public-facing jobs.
Across corners of the labor market traditionally without unions, the coronavirus is spurring new interest in organizing for safer workplaces and better pay as the nation embarks on a long economic recovery.
Most states have already crafted or kicked off plans to reopen their economies after shutting them down to curb the spread of Covid-19. Now, many among the millions of people who toiled away at invisible low-wage jobs stocking shelves or setting up medical equipment the whole time are looking to capitalize on how ‚Äúessential‚ÄĚ they‚Äôve become.
‚ÄúIn literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‚Äėjust a job,‚Äô to having a job that‚Äôs incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,‚ÄĚ said Damon Silvers, the policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. ‚ÄúThe nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‚ÄėIf I‚Äôm going to risk my life, how about paying me more?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIn literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‚Äėjust a job,‚Äô to having a job that‚Äôs incredibly stressful, demanding and scary.‚ÄĚ
Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.
Union membership across the country has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s but organized labor has attracted the national spotlight in recent years thanks to series of teacher strikes, including in conservative states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Unions are happy to leverage the new angst brought on by the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO‚Äôs Department for Professional Employees launched an initiative to educate nonunion workers about how organizing can protect their health and safety as Covid-19 persists. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters offers an online resource guide for nonunion workers. And the California Labor Federation has a team responding to nonunion workers trying to file for unemployment, spokesman Steve Smith said.
Despite the new energy, organizing efforts are slow and may ultimately falter. No one‚Äôs yet formed a union based on not being able to get PPE. If employees do try, they may face new hurdles enacted by the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration, which many labor officials interviewed for this report see as anti-union. The agency recently issued rules unions complain would prolong the election process. NLRB argues the changes will increase transparency.
Coronavirus hit the U.S. at a time when the labor market was tight ‚ÄĒ unemployment was low and employers were actively looking to hire. But in a matter of days, companies shut down and hundreds of thousands of people across the country were laid off. For those still on the job, it created fear and anxiety among low-wage workers, and raised questions about the value they provide in a crisis and the risks they‚Äôre forced to take on at a moment‚Äôs notice.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a disconnect in what people think of workers ‚ÄĒ they‚Äôre heroes ‚ÄĒ and what they‚Äôre being paid,‚ÄĚ said Zach Koutsky, political director for Local 881, which represents retail food and drug store workers in Illinois as well as employees in the cannabis industry. Calls come in from frozen pizza plant workers, cannabis workers and nonunion grocery employees, he said. They say, ‚Äú‚ÄôDear god, we need to meet with you.‚Äô It‚Äôs always been there, but it‚Äôs definitely picked up.‚ÄĚ
The uptick in union phone calls isn‚Äôt likely to translate into membership, labor experts say.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs very hard for them to join because the laws are imbalanced, the NLRB is incredibly hostile right now and a good number of states have governors and legislative bodies that are very antagonistic toward labor,‚ÄĚ said Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Employers ‚Äúaren‚Äôt afraid to spend millions to keep their operations union free.‚ÄĚ
Still, members of Congress have also taken note of this workforce in the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act, legislation introduced last month to setup a victims fund for a wide range of essential workers.
‚ÄúOn September 11, it was the heroic firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,‚ÄĚ Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor, told reporters on a conference call hyping the bill. ‚ÄúToday, it is the hospital workers, nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs a mishmash of industries. Steel mill workers in Gary, Ind., have called the AFL-CIO asking how to get more personal protective equipment because their bosses didn‚Äôt supply enough. Ride-hail drivers in California are asking union shops how to get gear too. Employees at the Pilgrim‚Äôs Pride chicken processing plant in central Minnesota have protested working conditions. And while larger grocery store chains like Kroger or Jewel-Osco have a unionized workforce, people employed at smaller stores in St. Louis and restaurant workers in Chicago want to know how to organize.
‚ÄúI was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,‚ÄĚ said Bob Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
This wouldn‚Äôt be the first time safety issues would become a lightning rod for the labor movement, of course. Union organizers have leveraged the works of Upton Sinclair, the safety hazards of the mining industry in Appalachia and the difficult farming conditions in California to secure new worker rights and safer conditions.
In Chicago, where hundreds of nursing home assistants are calling for pay increases to at least $15 an hour, the heart of their concerns was about safety.
‚ÄúWorkers are worried they could lose their house and their family‚Äôs health,‚ÄĚ said Diana Tastad-Damer, director of organizing for UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota. ‚ÄúSo, it‚Äôs being put in a bigger picture than just wages or livelihood. Now it‚Äôs about their family‚Äôs livelihood and survival.‚ÄĚ
Dave Cook, president UFCW 655 in St. Louis, Mo., hopes the pandemic will change the way the country looks at low-wage jobs and how low-wage workers look at themselves.
‚ÄúWithout your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn‚Äôt be fed,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúMaybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they‚Äôve been told they have no value and that they‚Äôre replaceable.‚ÄĚ
Greg Ferrara, CEO of the National Grocers Association, says the 1,600 independent grocers in his organization were attentive early on to safety issues and as a result haven‚Äôt heard calls for union representation. But he acknowledges employees have a renewed interest in safety.
‚ÄúWhen you‚Äôre working in a place where you have a shield in front of you or you‚Äôre wearing a mask and doing enhanced sanitizing procedures, employees are much more aware of the important role they‚Äôre playing,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWhether it ties to an interest in organized labor, I can‚Äôt say.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs too early to say whether Covid-19 concerns will lead to a rise in union membership, said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council in Chicago.
‚ÄúOur current history is providing a compelling picture of more and more workers who are not able to earn a decent living, whose jobs are fragile and in jeopardy and who don‚Äôt have retirement security, who have been turning to unions more and more with the pandemic,‚ÄĚ Lynch said. ‚ÄúI think there‚Äôs every reason that that will intensify.‚ÄĚ
This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 15, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Shia Kapos is a reporter for POLITICO and author of POLITICO‚Äôs Illinois Playbook, the most indispensable morning newsletter for influencers in Illinois government and politics. Prior to joining POLITICO, she wrote the popular Taking Names column for the Chicago Sun-Times (and before that Crain‚Äôs Business). She‚Äôs also had stints at Dealreporter and the Salt Lake Tribune. Shia‚Äôs career has been built on breaking news and landing sit-down interviews with notable names and personalities. She‚Äôs covered billionaires on the rise and lawmakers‚Äô precipitous falls‚ÄĒand all the terrain in between.