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Unions tap into burst of worker angst over coronavirus

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“Maybe 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’re replaceable,” one union official said.

CHICAGO — Amazon warehouse workers in New York walked off the job to demand protection against Covid-19. A county judge in Illinois ordered a McDonald’s 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’s 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 “essential” they’ve become.

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,” said Damon Silvers, the policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. “The nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‘If I’m going to risk my life, how about paying me more?’”

“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary.”

 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’s 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’s 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 — 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’re forced to take on at a moment’s notice.

“There’s a disconnect in what people think of workers — they’re heroes — and what they’re being paid,” 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, “’Dear god, we need to meet with you.’ It’s always been there, but it’s definitely picked up.”

The uptick in union phone calls isn’t likely to translate into membership, labor experts say.

“It’s 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,” said Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Employers “aren’t afraid to spend millions to keep their operations union free.”

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. 

“On September 11, it was the heroic firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor, told reporters on a conference call hyping the bill. “Today, it is the hospital workers, nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers.”

It’s 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’t supply enough. Ride-hail drivers in California are asking union shops how to get gear too. Employees at the Pilgrim’s 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.

“I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” said Bob Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

This wouldn’t 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.

“Workers are worried they could lose their house and their family’s health,” said Diana Tastad-Damer, director of organizing for UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota. “So, it’s being put in a bigger picture than just wages or livelihood. Now it’s about their family’s livelihood and survival.”

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. 

“Without your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn’t be fed,” he said. “Maybe 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’re replaceable.”

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’t heard calls for union representation. But he acknowledges employees have a renewed interest in safety. 

“When you’re working in a place where you have a shield in front of you or you’re wearing a mask and doing enhanced sanitizing procedures, employees are much more aware of the important role they’re playing,” he said. “Whether it ties to an interest in organized labor, I can’t say.” 

It’s 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. 

“Our 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’t have retirement security, who have been turning to unions more and more with the pandemic,” Lynch said. “I think there’s every reason that that will intensify.”

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’s 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’s Business). She’s also had stints at Dealreporter and the Salt Lake Tribune. Shia’s career has been built on breaking news and landing sit-down interviews with notable names and personalities. She’s covered billionaires on the rise and lawmakers’ precipitous falls—and all the terrain in between.


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Bernie Sanders will present proposal on behalf of Walmart workers at annual shareholders meeting

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Every year, Walmart stages a massive, multi-day meeting in Arkansas for the company’s shareholders, not far from the corporate headquarters of the world’s largest retail store. The company’s top executives deliver speeches, its board of directors hears various proposals regarding corporate behavior and governance, and special guests make surprise appearances to keep the masses entertained.

The shareholders’ meeting is also when the company’s 1.5 million U.S. workers — many of whom work for poverty-level wages with few benefits and employment safeguards — are given a chance to directly confront the billionaires whose fortunes they helped build.

This year, they’re bringing a megaphone with them to amplify their message: Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I).

For years, workers have appeared at the shareholders’ meeting to propose new corporate policies designed to help lift the retailer’s army of hourly workers out of poverty and provide them with greater protections on the job. Every single proposal they have put forward has been voted down and ignored by the Walton family, which controls the majority of votes on the board.

Sanders will appear on the workers’ behalf this year to present their latest proposal: give hourly workers one seat on the company’s board.

For years, Sanders has fought on behalf of the country’s 80 million hourly workers, pushing for increases to the minimum wage, strengthening unions, and capping executive salaries which have skyrocketed in the last 25 years. Walmart, by virtue of employing more of these hourly workers than any other company in the country by a wide margin, has been a specific target for Sanders.

Last year, he introduced the subtly-named “Stop Walmart Act” designed to pressure the company to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The bill would prohibit large corporations from buying back their own stock — a popular mechanism for boosting share prices — unless they introduce a series of benefits for hourly workers first, in addition to the wage hike.

For their part, Walmart executives appear less than thrilled that Sanders will be in attendance to directly criticize their corporate practices on the biggest day of the year.

“If Senator Sanders attends, we hope he will approach his visit not as a campaign stop, but as a constructive opportunity to learn about the many ways we’re working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates — as well as our widely recognized leadership on environmental sustainability,” the company said in a statement.

The proposal Sanders will be introducing isn’t the only one shareholders are expected to vote on next month. Another one calls for the company to strengthen protections against workplace sexual harassment.

The company is advising shareholders to vote no.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on May 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adam Peck is a deputy editor at ThinkProgress who works with politics reporters.

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Labor Unions Champion More than Union Members

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berry craigLabor haters love to claim that unions only care about their own members.

The claims are baloney of course. Unions advocate for more than just men and women who pack union cards.

Unions champion the whole working class. No one understood that better than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said:

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”

On March 5, 1964, Dr. King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Jackie Robinson, the first African American Major League baseball player, helped lead more than 10,000 people – including several union members — in a march to the Kentucky state capitol in Frankfort. The march was in support of a bill introduced by State Rep. Norbert Blume of Louisville, a union-card carrying Democrat, that would outlaw racial discrimination in public places such as stores, restaurants, movie theatres and hotels.

Blume had been president of Teamsters Local 783 in the Falls City. Some of the union members who joined the procession were Sam Ezelle, secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO; Jimmy Stewart, business manager of Louisville Laborers Local 576; and union and civil rights activist W.C. Young of Paducah.

Blume’s bill didn’t pass, but the Louisville lawmaker didn’t give up. Too, the march helped provide important momentum for passage of the Blume-backed Civil Rights Act of 1966, the first such measure approved by a Southern state.
Union members, including Bill Londrigan, state AFL-CIO president, are expected to help swell the ranks of a 50th Anniversary Civil Rights March on the capitol on March 5. The special commemoration is sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission and the Allied Organizations for Civil Rights, a coalition that includes the state AFL-CIO, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

“The historic March on Washington for Jobs and Civil Rights where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic ‘I have a Dream’ speech included the input and close participation of trade unionists such as A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Walter Reuther,” Londrigan said. “The participation and support of organized labor was also evident fifty years ago during the March on Frankfort when trade unionists such as Norbert Blume, W.C. Young, Sam Ezelle and Jimmy Stewart had significant roles in the march as well as strong support for passage of Kentucky’s historic Civil Rights Act of 1966.”

He added, “The upcoming March 5th march and rally in Frankfort represents another significant event when organized labor will again rise to the occasion to support and participate in this fifty-year commemoration of the 1964 March on Frankfort.  On March 5th, organized labor will again demonstrate our long and deep commitment to civil and workers’ rights, because organized labor knows that civil rights and workers’ rights cannot be separated and Kentucky’s labor movement is proud to stand for and struggle for both.”

I don’t know if union marchers in 1964 included Bill Sanders, Young’s good friend and union brother. Sanders headed the West Kentucky Building and Construction Trades Council in Paducah for many years.

Dubbed “Mr. Western Kentucky Labor,” Sanders once told me a story that’s another good example of how unions change “misery and despair into hope and progress.”

He recalled a Detroit woman, a stranger almost penniless and down on her luck, who got drunk in Paducah and ended up in jail. She had hurt her knee and needed medical attention.

Sanders’ office was close to the lockup. He remembered:

“The jailer came over to me and told me about her. He said, ‘Bill, you’ve got a union meeting this morning. Will you see what you can do?’ I said I would, and I asked him how much money she would need. The jailer said ‘$500 for her hospital bill and she’ll have to have some traveling money, too.’

“Well, we made up all that money. So I went down to the hospital and gave this money to that lady, and she said, ‘Mr. Sanders, when I get better, I’m going back to Detroit and go back to my husband and try to work things out.’ When she got well, she went back to Detroit, joined the church and got back with her husband. That’s the kind of things unions do that never get in the paper.”

Author: Berry Craig, AFT Local 1360


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IBEW Father and Daughter’s Long Journey to Sochi Short Track

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Image: Mike HallSpringfield, Mo., Electrical Workers (IBEWLocal 453 member Craig Scott is in Sochi, Russia, this week watching his daughter Emily compete for Olympic gold in several short track speed skating events.  But it wasn’t an easy journey for father or daughter

Emily, 25, was a world champion inline skater before taking up short track speed skating about five years ago. But with the U.S. Speedskating cutting her funding last year, a part-time job not bringing in enough to pay the bills or give her time to train and a crowdfunding effort falling short, Emily was on the verge of giving up her dream.

But a USA Today profile of her struggles sparked nearly $50,000 in donations and allowed her to quit her job and focus on training and making the Olympic team.

Now with Emily whose events run through this week, and with Scott in Sochi to cheer her on, he says:

It’s taken a little while to sink in. It’s 20 years of hard work, and finally everything has sort of come together.

Read more coverage from the News-Leader here and here, and check the paper’s website for updates.

See Six Fun Facts About Short Track Skater Emily Scott from NBCOlympics.com and more from U.S. Speedskating.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 17, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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No Fancy Commercials, but Super Bowl is Brought to You by Union Members

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Image: Mike HallSunday is the first outdoor, cold weather site Super Bowl in the game’s 48-year history. The frigid weather in the weeks leading up to the game and expected temps in the 20s and 30s won’t stop the thousands of union members who are bringing you the game. On the scene at MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands or behind the scenes at many facilities in the Metro New York-New Jersey area, union members are making the nation’s national party day possible.

So, as a preview before you sit back, open a beverage and eat far too many snacks that are far from healthy, we introduce Sunday’s starting union lineup.

Of course, on the field, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos players are members of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and the men in the striped shirts are members of the NFL Referees Association.

The announcers, camera operators, technicians, field workers and other hardworking folks bringing the game to your flat-screened football cave or favorite Broncos or Seahawks bar include members of SAG-AFTRA, Broadcast Employees and Technicians-CWA (NABET-CWA), Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Laborers (LIUNA).

The annual over-the-top halftime show is a down-to-the-second, choreographed, on-the-field, off-the-field 12-minute extravaganza made possible by the skills of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) and other performing artists. Anyone who takes in a show in the city likely will enjoy the talents of Actors’ Equity (AEA).

For the fans who head for the concessions, their hot dogs will be served and their beer will be drawn by men and women from UNITE HERE Local 100.

Away from the stadium, union members are making an impact, too. Folks taking the area’s huge mass transit system are being safely delivered to their destinations by members of the Transport Workers (TWU), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and United Transportation Union (UTU).

A large number of the area’s hotels are staffed by members of unions of the New York Hotel Trades Council. Many of the firefighters, emergency medical personnel and other public service workers who are ensuring a safe and efficient Super Bowl week are members of the Fire Fighters (IAFF) and AFSCME.

The first class work of members of the Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) Local 90 in Springfield, Ill., is on display on Broadway as part of Super Bowl Weekend. The IUPAT members at Ace Sign Co. crafted the 9-foot-tall, 38-feet wide aluminum and acrylic XLVIII (48) that spans one end of the legendary avenue, renamed Super Bowl Boulevard for the festivities. Click here to read more.

Of course, the fans who flew in for the big game got there safely, thanks to aviation workers from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Air Line Pilots (ALPA), Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Transport Workers (TWU) and Machinists (IAM).

Also, a big thanks to AFT and NFLPA for raising awareness about human trafficking during large sports events such as the Super Bowl.

Finally, check out how one Seahawk fan and Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 191 member has transformed himself into to the large, green and angry SeaHulk—far more frightening than the Seattle secondary.  Our friend David Groves at the Washington State Labor Council’s The Stand has the story of how the local, area contractors and others came together and raised the funds to make sure the SeaHulk (aka Tim Froemke) and his crew of body painters made it to the Super Bowl. Groves also points out that the Seahawks players are affiliates of the WSCL.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 2, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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Is That a Union Nutcracker?

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Image: Mike HallHere in the holiday season and stretching into the New Year, a lot of folks decide it’s a good time for a night at the theater or to take in a concert. A lot of us want to look for the union label, too. Here are some links that might help.

Most of your big city ballet companies—which are likely finishing up their run of “The Nutcracker”—and operas employ dancers, singers and production workers who are members of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)Click here for a list of those companies.

The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) represents musicians in most major metropolitan symphony orchestras and many regional orchestras in the United States and Canada.Click here for a list of the big-city U.S. orchestras, here for the regional orchestras and here for the Canadian orchestras.

While the cast, crews and pit orchestras for most Broadway and off-Broadway shows are made up of Actors’ Equity (AEA), Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and AFM members, that’s not always the case when one of these shows rolls into your town.

Click here to find out the current touring shows that feature an AEA cast and here for a list of shows employing IATSE members. AFM does not have a similar site, but does list current tours without AFM agreements here.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on December 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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