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How Workers and Management at One Company Teamed Up to Fight the Pandemic

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For months, Penny Burroughs kept a close eye on working conditions at PCI Pharma Services and worried about her colleagues contracting COVID-19.

Burroughs and other representatives of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 286 collaborated with the pharmaceutical packaging company on intensive safety plans—including on-site medical care and a shuttle service—to protect workers.

And because these cooperative, proactive measures helped to keep the virus out of the Philadelphia plant, PCI had hundreds of healthy, energized workers ready to leap into action when pharmaceutical manufacturers sought assistance packaging and distributing COVID-19 vaccines.

While the pandemic drove home the need to reinvigorate the nation’s manufacturing base, it also underscored employers’ obligation to keep Americans safe on the job.

The foresight demonstrated by PCI and Local 286, for example, will help the nation vanquish a virus that’s claimed more than 374,000 U.S. lives so far and pushed unemployment to the highest level since the Great Depression.

Since the first shipment of vaccines arrived at PCI’s facility in November 2020—escorted by U.S. marshals—its workers have already helped to distribute “hundreds of thousands” of life-saving doses.

Even as they do their part to battle the pandemic, Burroughs and her colleagues also continue labeling, assembling, packaging and shipping their regular customers’ orders for items like blood pressure medications, auto-injectors, over-the-counter pain relievers and other products that consumers still need every day.

Union members always performed their jobs with the utmost diligence, realizing that the medications they provide to hospitals, doctors’ offices and pharmacies helped to keep fellow Americans—maybe even their own friends and family members—well.

But the exceptional dedication and loyalty they demonstrated during the pandemic highlighted just how much the company relies on them.

Helping to distribute COVID-19 vaccines—a process that involves labeling the vials before packaging them for shipment—created new levels of pride and enthusiasm at the plant.

“It’s an exciting job, a very important job,” said Burroughs, a shop steward and packer who’s worked at PCI for 35 years and considers her coworkers a second family. “It’s something that’s going to be in the history books.”

Many companies across the country refused to take basic safety precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, recklessly exposing workers and their families to infection and allowing mass infections to disrupt production.

But PCI and Local 286 recognized early on the importance of protecting workers from the virus and preparing for a possible role in distributing vaccines.

Instead of their monthly labor-management meetings, company and union representatives began holding twice-weekly conference calls that allowed them to voice concerns, share ideas, roll out safety initiatives and evaluate the results.

Burroughs and her colleagues already wore gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent contamination of the medications they packaged and shipped. But when the pandemic struck, the company went even further, issuing face shields and installing plexiglass dividers to separate workers accustomed to laboring almost shoulder to shoulder on the production floor.

In addition, because the company and union shared a concern about union members contracting the virus during commutes on crowded buses and subway cars, PCI began reimbursing them for Lyft and Uber trips. It also set up a shuttle service that picked workers up at the city’s major bus stops, dropped them at the plant before their shifts and provided return rides afterward.

PCI not only checked workers’ temperatures before each shift but brought in a mobile health care unit to provide immediate help with health concerns of all kinds. And the plant, which operates around-the-clock, cut each shift by a half-hour to prevent one group of workers from having unnecessary contact with another at entrances, break rooms and other locations.

“This was unprecedented, in my experience,” Local 286 President and Business Manager Carlo Simone Jr. said of the comprehensive safety plans.

“They really stepped up. But I think they’re reaping the benefits of doing so in a variety of ways. It benefits them as much as us, no doubt,” Simone said, noting that the safety measures enabled PCI to maintain the robust workforce essential to maintaining regular production while also taking on the emergency vaccine packaging work.

PCI, he observed, also had the foresight to make $25 million in facility upgradesin recent years that provided the capacity crucial to handling the vaccine orders.

The plant and Local 286—a union that traces its roots in paper and packaging to the 1930s—collaborated so effectively on COVID-19 safety because of a productive relationship they built over many years.

Simone takes pride in the rapport he’s built between his local and corporate managers and pursues similar arrangements with other companies employing members of his amalgamated local.

“It is the M.O. of this local union to attempt to establish good working relationships with the management of the companies we do business with,” he said. “It has paid dividends, and PCI is the perfect example of that.”

“What we basically say to these companies—PCI being one of them—is that we have common goals. We have common interests. It’s not ‘us versus them,’” Simone said.

But these good faith efforts accomplish little unless companies also grasp the need for collaboration and strive to be good partners.

Burroughs said some of her coworkers proudly tell friends and loved ones about the role they play in defeating the coronavirus.

She believes the collaboration that’s kept workers safe and enabled them to distribute COVID-19 vaccines will make the company even stronger, and more competitive, in the future.

“It’s worked out,” she said. “It’s helped to save lives.”

This blog originally appeared at Independent Media Institute on January 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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