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How America Can Stop Violence Against Health Care Workers

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The young man in Cleveland Clinic Akron General’s behavioral crisis intervention unit hadn’t communicated much during his hospitalization, but he showed no signs of violence until Brian Eckley tried to draw his blood early one morning.

The patient stood up, sat back down, rose again and then punched Eckley, a state-tested nurse aide and senior technician, in the left jaw.

Keeping his cool despite the pain, Eckley dodged more punches as he held the needle and tourniquet out of the patient’s reach, banged on the treatment room windows and called for help.

Legislation is Pending

Attacks on health care workers have reached epidemic levels across the country, exacerbating turnover, turning caregivers into patients and further fraying systems of care already worn thin by COVID-19. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, twice passed by the House and just reintroduced in the Senate, would require employers to implement the safeguards needed to help keep Eckley and millions of his peers safe on the job.

The legislation—supported by numerous labor unionstrade groups and other stakeholders—would direct the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop a standard requiring health care providers to implement safety plans for clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other treatment facilities.

The bill calls for facilities to consider measures such as alarm systems, physical barriers and strategic staffing, including having workers in hazardous situations operate in teams. To ensure the plans are as comprehensive and effective as possible, facilities would have to devise them with the input of workers on the front lines and address the specific hazards in each work area or unit.

“Having a safety officer on the unit 24/7 would be a wonderful first step,” observed Eckley, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014L, who had calmed down his combative patient by the time a security guard in another part of the hospital complex arrived at the behavioral health unit.

“They just don’t have what we need to do the job safely,” he said of health care employers around the country. “They do the bare minimum, and it’s more reactive than proactive.”

Even before COVID-19, health care workers faced five times more violence on the job than their counterparts in most other professions. Incidents skyrocketed during the pandemic. The crisis exacted a heavy toll on Americans’ emotional health and patients, relatives and community members grew frustrated with staffing shortages at medical facilities.

Violence Against Workers is Increasing

The violence is now so pervasive that many health care workers are victimized over and over again.

Eckley, for example, has been punched repeatedly, stabbed with a pen, and bitten by an HIV-positive patient who disliked the meal he was served. He’s also witnessed numerous attacks on coworkers and once watched a patient batter a door to get to a jar of candy on the other side.

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, the legislation’s chief sponsor in the Senate, said of the surging number of assaults. “We know we need to do more to protect these workers.”

Under the legislation, employers would not only have to implement safety plans but also train workers to report assaults, conduct real investigations when incidents occur, keep records of injuries and ensure workers get immediate treatment when harmed.

Right now, as Jackie Anklam, president of USW Local 9899, knows all too well, many facilities across the country minimize incidents, dismiss assaults as part of the job, or try to pin the blame on the victims.

Anklam recalled getting a frantic phone call late one night from an emergency department technician at Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan. The technician was pushed and threatened by about 20 highly emotional family members who gathered at the facility after a loved one arrived there with a fatal gunshot wound.

The victim’s relatives somehow managed to enter a locked treatment area off the waiting room, and Anklam said the technician was roughed up while following a doctor’s orders to usher them out. Anklam said she expected a robust investigation given the family members’ dangerous breach of a secure area.

Instead, she said, “we reported it, and their investigation was, ‘they don’t know who pushed the button and let them in.’ I think it was downplayed and swept under the rug.”

Action is being Delayed

Amid tireless advocacy by health care workers and their unions, the Democratic-controlled House first passed the violence prevention bill in 2019. But the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, refused even to bring it to a vote.

Under the leadership of Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney, the House passed it again last year with bipartisan support. Now, it’s more crucial than ever that the Senate swiftly take up the bill and pass it.

Some states have attempted to address the crisis by considering or passing laws imposing stiffer penalties on people who assault health care workers. But Eckley and his coworkers know it’s even more essential to prevent violence in the first place.

“As time goes on, it will grow,” Eckley warned, noting attacks are becoming not only more numerous but also more brutal. “The severity seems to keep going up. It doesn’t go down.”

This is blog was originally produced by the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

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

Visit our page on Workplace Fairness to learn more about workplace safety.


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Unionized nursing homes were safer in the pandemic, this week in the war on workers

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Laura Clawson

Unions have increasingly bargained for the common good in recent years, as when teachers negotiate lower class sizes and more school nurses or counselors, or nurses negotiate for improved staffing ratios so they can give every patient the attention they deserve.

Union opponents often try to claim that these are really self-interested measures that only benefit workers (as though there’s anything wrong with benefiting workers), not also students and patients. These are of course the same people who always come up with excuses for how larger classes and more patients per nurse are reasonable, as they are hostile not just to workers but to investments in the public good.

All of which is to set up why this study of resident mortality and worker infection rates in union versus nonunion nursing homes in 2020-2021 is interesting and important.

As the study, by Adam Dean, Jamie McCallum, Simeon Kimmel, and Atheendar Venkataramani notes, “nursing home residents have accounted for roughly one of every six COVID-19 deaths in the United States,” making nursing homes a major site of mortality.

So, how did union and nonunion nursing homes compare? After a lot of data and statistics, “we found that unions were associated with 10.8 percent lower resident COVID-19 mortality rates, as well as 6.8 percent lower worker COVID-19 infection rate.”

Imagine if 1 in 10 of the nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 … hadn’t.

Laura Clawson

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on May 14, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor. 


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Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate to go before Cincinnati-based federal court

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The mandate will be tested before a court with a majority of Republican appointees.

The legal fight over the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate will be heard before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, after a lottery conducted Tuesday by an obscure federal judicial panel.

Nearly three dozen lawsuits have been filed in multiple federal appeals courts against the requirement, triggering the lottery to consolidate the cases before one court.

The rule, released by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Nov. 5, requires private businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly for Covid-19, starting Jan. 4.

The lawsuits — brought by several Republican-controlled states, private businesses and religious groups — argue that the rule exceeds the Labor Department’s authority and Congress’ ability to delegate to federal agencies, as well as the First Amendment, the Constitution’s Commerce clause, and laws protecting religious freedom, among other legal arguments.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation selected the 6th circuit as part of a random selection where each court’s name was entered into a drum.

The New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay against the requirement earlier this month, and further instructed the Biden administration to “take no steps to implement or enforce” it, finding that the states and businesses challenging the rule “show a great likelihood of success on the merits.”

The Biden administration will now issue its response to that order in the 6th Circuit. The Cincinnati-based court has 16 judges: 11 appointed by Republican presidents and five by Democratic presidents. Six of the judges were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

However, the three-judge circuit panel that will hear the arguments is unlikely to be the final arbiter, since the losing side can request a rehearing before all the judges in that circuit and request Supreme Court review.

While it’s unclear what specific judges on the panel will hear the consolidated challenge, notably, three judges on the 6th circuit struck down a court order late last year that would have allowed Kentucky religious and private schools to reopen for in-person education amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based group that takes up court battles on behalf of Christian issues, represented one of the parties in that Kentucky school case and also filed one of the challenges against the OSHA vaccine-or-test rule in the 5th Circuit.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

This blgo originally appeared at Politico on November 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Biden vaccine mandates will hit after holiday season, offering relief to businesses

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The announcement follows weeks of pressure from business leaders who complained the rules would wreak havoc on the supply chain and possibly aggravate worker shortages.

The Biden administration’s forthcoming vaccine mandates for millions of private employers, certain health care workers and federal contractors will not be enforced until after the holiday season, following weeks of pressure from business leaders who complained the rules would wreak havoc on the supply chain and aggravate worker shortages.

The administration released two new rules on Thursday that will be enforced starting Jan. 4 — one setting up new vaccination-or-test requirements for businesses with more than 100 workers and another implementing a vaccine mandate for health care workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid. Together, the rules are expected to affect over 1 million workers.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on workers, and we continue to see dangerous levels of cases,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said. “Many businesses understand the benefits of having their workers vaccinated against COVID-19, and we expect many will be pleased to see this OSHA rule go into effect.”

Officials also said the administration is pushing back the Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated, so that all three mandates will go into force on Jan. 4.

While employers were given a brief reprieve from immediately implementing the test piece of the rule, the administration clarified that businesses must be in compliance on Dec. 5 with all other requirements, such as providing paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and requiring unvaccinated workers to wear a mask in the workplace.

Under the rules, workers at private businesses with more than 100 employees will have the option to wear a mask at work and submit to weekly Covid-19 testing in lieu of getting vaccinated. Health care workers and government contractors do not have the testing option.

Unvaccinated workers who claim they have a legally protected exception to getting the vaccine could be fired if their employer says it would be an “undue hardship” to offer remote work or some other accommodation.

Companies that fail to follow the vaccine-or-test rules can be fined up to $14,000 per infraction.

The temporary rules for private employers go into effect immediately and stay in place for six months, but can be directly challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Private employers will not be required to pay for weekly Covid-19 tests for employees who refuse to get vaccinated, according to the new emergency temporary standard released by the Labor Department on Thursday. Whether insurers will cover the cost of testing for unvaccinated workers is up to individual insurance plans, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick.

Private employers subject to the emergency standard must also provide paid time off for workers to receive and recover from the Covid-19 vaccine, according to the rule.

Senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the vaccine-or-test requirement for private businesses alone “will protect more than 84 million workers from the spread of the Coronavirus” on the job and estimate that it will prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations.

The requirements, which President Joe Biden announced in September as part of his latest campaign to combat Covid-19, have already ignited a legal battle with conservative states and businesses over the government’s authority to impose such directives.

Shortly after the emergency rule for private businesses was announced, the Job Creators Network, a small business advocacy group, filed a lawsuit on behalf of several businesses in federal appeals court seeking to block the requirements from going into effect, arguing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have the authority to issue the rule.

“The Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate is clearly illegal and will have a devastating impact on our small business community and our entire economy,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president and CEO of the group, in a statement on the lawsuit.

“The Administration’s mandate will exacerbate the worst labor shortage in recorded history by requiring small business owners to terminate some employees who wish not to get vaccinated while also shrinking the pool of job applicants available for hiring,” he said.

Nineteen states, including Florida and Texas, sued the Biden administration last month over the vaccine mandate for federal contractors, arguing the requirement was an unlawful overreach. And 24 state attorneys general and various business groups have warned the administration that it would face legal challenges if it moved forward with the vaccine-or-test rules for private employers.

Some Republican governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Alabama’s Kay Ivey, have tried to preemptively block private businesses from imposing mandates of any kind via executive order, although legal experts and the administration say those state rules are preempted by the new federal requirements.

“I expect to see battle royale in Texas, in Florida or anywhere else that wants to try to stop these” rules, David Miller of Bryant Miller Olive P.A., said. States are likely to argue the federal mandate violates the First Amendment, as applied to states through the 14th Amendment, Miller said.

“I really think that’s where it’s finally going to come to the nub in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s the only way this is getting settled,” he added.

The administration’s move to delay the federal contractor mandate comes after trade groups, businesses and Republicans complained that the requirements will force employers to fire workers who refuse to get the vaccine or lead to mass resignations among workers who don’t want to comply, leading to more disruption in the labor market and the supply chain ahead of the crucial holiday season.

“In response to similar state and federal mandates, many private companies have begun firing workers who refuse the Covid-19 vaccine,” said Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), during a labor subcommittee hearing on the mandate for private employers last month. “This federal vaccine mandate will worsen the supply chain crisis, almost guaranteeing Americans will go without this Christmas.”

But Biden brushed off those concerns Thursday, arguing that vaccination requirements are popular and also good for the economy.

“As we’ve seen with businesses – large and small – across all sectors of our economy, the overwhelming majority of Americans choose to get vaccinated,” Biden said in a statement on the new rules. “There have been no ‘mass firings’ and worker shortages because of vaccination requirements. Despite what some predicted and falsely assert, vaccination requirements have broad public support.”

Unions, labor advocates, health officials and even some businesses have lauded the effort from the administration, calling the vaccine-or-test rules for private companies long overdue and finally unifying a state-by-state patchwork of requirements.

“One of the biggest struggles of the last two years is that we are dealing with an ever-changing patchwork of health and safety regulations that, in many cases, have differed not just state to state, but county by county,” Richelle Luther, chief human resources officer at Columbia Sportswear Company, told lawmakers during a hearing in October.

“A federal mandate is needed,” she added. “We do not believe it is more regulation for business, but rather, less. A quilt of local laws and approaches created vastly more regulation of business, more uncertainty, risk and inefficiency.”

Some economists predict the federal vaccine mandates could have a positive effect on the labor force. Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in September that “an increase in vaccination and almost full vaccination at workplaces should encourage many of the 5 [million] workers that have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic to return.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency that polices employment discrimination, has given employers the greenlight to mandate Covid-19 vaccination in their workplace, so long as they provide accommodations for workers who say they can’t get the shot because of their religious beliefs or a disability.

Last month, the EEOC clarified that “social, political, or personal preferences” are not considered protected religious beliefs under federal anti-discrimination law.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with policing worker safety, has the authority to issue emergency temporary safety rules that go into effect immediately if it determines that workers are “in grave danger” due to exposure to something “determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards.”

Emergency temporary standards are rarely issued by OSHA. Before an emergency Covid-19 workplace safety rule went into place for health care workers earlier this year, the agency hadn’t released an emergency standard since the 1980s.

OSHA has issued 10 emergency temporary standards in its five-decade history. Of those, at least five were stayed or blocked by the courts, according to the Congressional Research Service.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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How Workers at Beverage Giant Refresco Defeated a “Notorious” Union Buster

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Refresco has waged a prolonged and costly fight to stop the workers from unionizing.

As the spread of Covid-19 forced millions of workplaces to close in March 2020, Cesar Moreira continued to report to a bottling plant in Wharton, N.J., where he works as a batching technician. During 12-hour shifts, Moreira mixes vats of powdered concentrate and sugar to churn out brand-name beverages like Gatorade and Arizona Iced Tea.

Management for Resfresco Beverages Inc., the owner of the plant and one of the largest bottling companies, told workers these operations fell under the umbrella of “essential services.” Moreira was incredulous.

That the company would risk the health of its employees to maintain the supply of sugary drinks angered him. In mid-March, as workers at the plant began to call in sick with coronavirus symptoms, Moreira says plant management ignored their concerns and refused to temporarily halt production. 

On March 21, 2020, Moreira and his coworkers walked off the job to demand adequate protections and contact tracing, part of a wave of safety-related stoppages in the first months of the pandemic. Workers at a Perdue chicken plant in Georgia and a meatpacking facility in Nebraska soon followed suit, the food production sector being a particular hotspot for Covid-19 cases and emergency organizing by a heavily immigrant workforce. 

But workers at the Wharton plant didn’t stop there. Their spontaneous protest quickly blossomed into a full-fledged union drive. In June, 15 months after the walkout, Refresco workers voted 114–101 to join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Their 250-person bargaining unit is one of the biggest victories of blue-collar organizing during the pandemic.


To win the election, Moreira and his co-workers also had to overcome an aggressive anti-union campaign targeting their predominantly Spanish-speaking workforce. The company pulled out all the stops, posting anti-union flyers and a fake UE contract—and hiring Lupe Cruz, a union avoidance expert who specializes in “bilingual consulting.” In These Times obtained more than eight hours of recordings from six weeks of mandatory anti-union meetings led by Cruz at the Refresco plant this spring. The recordings provide a window into an especially insidious union-busting strategy: exploiting ethnic and linguistic differences to sow doubt and confusion among immigrant workers.

The tactic is old, but it speaks to the increasing specialization of a multi-million-dollar union-busting industry. Labor activists say Cruz, himself a former union organizer, is infamous for his attempts to thwart organizing in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers.

Alejandro Coriat, who encountered Cruz in 2017 while organizing a union at his job at a Hilton Hotel in Stamford, Conn., even coined a term to describe this approach: “intersectional union-busting.” In a workplace dominated by Latino and Haitian immigrants, Cruz and his team “divided us according to two language groups, and with each group, they tried a different tack,” Coriat says. The workers ultimately won their union by a near-unanimous vote.

Cruz’s strategy also failed at Refresco, but the workers’ fight isn’t over. After the union won the election, Refresco moved rapidly to scrap the results on a technicality. While a representative for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recommended certification of the union in September, Refresco has signaled that it intends to appeal.

That leaves the Refresco workers in limbo, unable to start contract negotiations. At a time when essential workers are reporting more willingness to take collective action, the Refresco drive shows just how many hurdles they still face.

Licinia Ochoa has worked as a machine operator at the Wharton bottling plant for 22 years. It was her first job after she moved from Colombia to New Jersey in 1999. UE estimates that, of the 250-some workers who mix, bottle and pack beverages at the Refresco plant, more than 85 percent are Latin American immigrants.

Work at the plant, which opened in 1980, was never easy, Ochoa says. But until recently, it was dignified. Her schedule was regular, the hours weren’t too bad and she knew she would be covered if she got injured or sick.

Then, in 2016, the plant’s original owner sold it to Refresco.

The beverage giant has grown rapidly by gobbling up smaller companies in North America and Europe; its gross profit in 2020 was 1.9 billion euros, according to an annual report. Refresco operates more than 60 plants worldwide, including about 30 in the United States. The majority of workers in the U.S. facilities are not unionized.

“Many things changed since Refresco came,” Ochoa says.

Soon after acquiring the Wharton plant, Refresco switched the company’s healthcare plan to one with high deductibles and skimpier coverage. Later, the company replaced many 8-hour shifts with 12-hour shifts. For many workers, wages stagnated below $20 per hour.

Cesar Moreira immigrated to the United States from Ecuador and has worked at the plant for seven years. He suffers from sleep apnea. “I’m paying $750 [for treatment], plus $1,500 to the company that makes the mask that sends oxygen to my brain,” he says. “That’s $2,200.

“We are talking about a multinational corporation. So why couldn’t they keep our health insurance [from before]?”

Ochoa, 62, was among those assigned to 12-hour shifts. Ochoa makes $17 an hour and says her healthcare copays are so high she avoids seeing a doctor. But she had no choice after becoming seriously ill in March 2020, eventually requiring hospitalization for Covid-19. The virus put her out of work for two months.

Ochoa and several coworkers had reached out to UE in 2019, beginning talks over healthcare and scheduling concerns. But the drive didn’t kick into high gear until spring 2020.

Anthony Sanchez, an employee of 15 years, says when he tested positive for Covid-19 in March 2020, he tried to alert the company. “They didn’t talk to the coworkers I interact with all the time,” he says. “They didn’t give tests. They didn’t put anybody in quarantine.”

For months, workers kept their intentions to unionize quiet, while distributing and amassing signed union cards to demonstrate majority support.

“They never would have thought we would do this under their noses,” Ochoa says. “It was brutal when they found out.”

When workers attempt to organize a union, it’s almost a given they’ll face resistance. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute reveals employers spend about $340 million on anti-union services annually. Hiring professional “union avoidance” consultants to interrogate workers and carry out so-called captive audience meetings is an especially common tactic.

As the union avoidance industry has grown, it’s also become increasingly sophisticated. Richard Rehberg, a researcher for the International Union of Operating Engineers, says he first encountered Cruz and his special brand of culturally competent union-busting while working for Food and Allied Service Trades, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in the early 2000s.

“It was a new thing,” Rehberg says. “Basically, the union-busters were pandering. You know, ‘OK, how are we going to deal with these Latino workers and Spanish speakers?’”

Now, says Rehberg, this kind of specialization is common. Employers can hire union-busters to appeal—sometimes crudely—to almost any demographic. On campaigns to organize construction and building trades, for example, Rehberg says he has repeatedly encountered one man with a “pseudo-biker look” apparently intended to help a well-paid consultant relate to blue-collar workers.

In 2020, employers gained another anti-union strategy: They could simply lay off workers attempting to organize and blame it on Covid-19. That appears to have successfully stalled active union drives among nurses in North Carolina, truck drivers in New Jersey and a host of others, according to an April 2020 New York Times investigation.

“This is a continuation of behavior that has become all too common, of employers being willing to use increasingly aggressive tactics to stop unionizing,” Sharon Block, a former NLRB board member, told the Times. “The pandemic has given them another tool.”

The situation creates a kind of paradox: While unions report workers increasingly want to organize (spurred by the pandemic), the number of actual union drives has declined.

The number of union representation elections fell by 30% from 2019 to 2020—partly due to a total stoppage of NLRB elections in March 2020 and the new challenges that in-person organizing faced. The Refresco workers’ campaign was a bright spot amid the lull.

Soon after Refresco workers submitted their union cards in May, management ushered them into the first of six weeks of mandatory meetings. In a recording of one of the first meetings, obtained by In These Times, Lupe Cruz introduces himself.

“Where are you from, sir?” Cruz asks employees in the audience in Spanish. One is from Ecuador. Another is from Peru. Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico are also represented.

“All different countries—six for six!” Cruz says. The workers’ immigration backgrounds will become an ongoing theme.

“One of the first things we’re going to teach you is, What is the process and the system here in the United States,’” Cruz says. “Because the way this works in Mexico, in Colombia, in Venezuela—it’s very different.”

Throughout the meetings, Cruz and the other consultants refer to the sessions as “classes,” saying they intend to provide the workers an education about U.S. labor law.

In one session, a worker chimes in with a story about how Refresco changed the plant. Cruz interrupts him: “I’m giving you a legal opinion, not an emotional one. There’s a difference. This is objective.” 

“They wanted to trick people with an image that they were neutral,” says Anthony Sanchez, who sat through multiple anti-union meetings.

In another session, Cruz presents a truncated history of UE, implying that thousands of workers jumped ship from the union after learning about U.S. labor.

“You know what the highest number of members this union has had?” Cruz says. “Six hundred thousand. What happened with those members? They left. Those who understood the system left.”

In fact, UE’s steep decline in membership, beginning in the 1950s, followed a wave of plant closures and vicious anti-Communist attacks, including by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the same session, Cruz suggests UE is incapable of defending workers: “If this union isn’t one of the big ones, and Refresco is the biggest in the world, what kind of funds does this union have to help you in a fight?”

In an apparent attempt to cast doubt on the union, a document with the header “legal and binding contract between UE and the employees of Refresco” was posted at the plant. It contained a list of benefits and raises, as well as a blank signature line for the union—as if to say the union couldn’t actually guarantee improvements.

After casting the union as underfunded and impotent, Cruz describes a hypothetical scenario in which Refresco loses its big clients, like Pepsi, and workers are laid off.

“Who’s the real boss?” Cruz asks. “The real boss is Pepsi. If you’re Pepsi, you’re in the best position to negotiate [with bottling companies] because they all want your business. So if Pepsi looks into contracts with other businesses, what if they like them? They steal Refresco’s business. And then what happens to your jobs?” According to UE, the possibility of layoffs came up frequently in anti-union meetings.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from threatening workers with layoffs or reduced benefits if they join a union. Because of this, “employers are more likely to make implied rather than direct threats of job loss,” explains Kate Bronfenbrenner, labor scholar and director of labor education research at Cornell University. “They are much harder to prove [as legal violations], because so much is dependent on the culture and history of a particular workplace.”

In a statement emailed to In These Times, a spokesperson for Refresco says the company’s actions are entirely legal. “As it has done throughout this election process, Refresco has and will continue to follow all the legal rules governing its behavior in connection with and arising out of the union’s efforts to organize employees at its Wharton, New Jersey facility,” writes Antonella Sacconi, Refresco’s communications manager. “This includes, but is not limited to, neither retaliating against nor rewarding employees based on their union sympathies or support.”

Neither UE nor pro-union Refresco workers allege the company’s anti-union campaign broke any laws, just that Refresco and its hired consultants sought to confuse and manipulate workers—the legality of which, they say, serves as evidence of the weak labor protections for U.S. workers.

Cruz did not respond to multiple requests for commentBut to union organizers and labor activists, he is a familiar figure. Bronfenbrenner calls him “notorious.”

Cruz once worked as an organizer for the hospitality union Unite Here but has been battling the campaigns of his former union for more than a decade. In 2006, the owners of a Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles paid Cruz $480,000 during a particularly bruising anti-union fight, according to reporting by the Los Angeles TimesHilton fired an employee active in the union drive who had allegedly been caught stealing by a “mystery shopper” posing as a guest. When workers gathered in the cafeteria to protest the firing, management suspended more than 70 of them for a week.

Cruz has since gone on to consult for such employers as Trump Hotels, the auto club AAA and others. His involvement helped quash high-profile union campaigns at American Apparel in 2015 and a New Seasons Market grocery store in Oregon in 2019.

Cruz is associated with at least two firms that have filed disclosures with the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), which requires third-party labor consultants to report income from employers. The firm Cruz & Associates reported more than $3.5 million in income in 2018 but has not filed additional reports since 2019. Quest Consulting, established in 2019 with Cruz as its president, reported $1.4 million in revenue for 2020, according to OLMS records.

Workers who have encountered Cruz on other union campaigns report seeing similar tactics to those at Refresco.

During a union drive at Tartine Bakery in 2020, workers say monolingual Spanish speakers were siloed for separate captive audience meetings. OLMS data shows Quest collected $243,363 from Tartine in 2020.

Refresco has since hired Seyfarth & Shaw, a prominent employer-side law firm, to appeal the union election results to the NLRB, which Bronfenbrenner says is an “extremely common” tactic. “It gives the employer more chances to raise questions about what the union really wants. And [make] the workers who voted for the union feel less secure,” she says.

For their part, workers on the organizing committee are preparing for steward elections and the eventuality of contract negotiations.

“I’m OK, but I’m uneasy,” Moreira says. “The only way to make a change is to pressure these people into understanding that we aren’t … animals to control at their will.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alice Herman is a 2020–2021 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow with In These Times.


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No, Striketober Is Not About Vaccine Mandates

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The recent wave of militant labor action has been over workers demanding better pay and working conditions—not opposing Covid vaccine requirements.

This month, the United States has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of strikes by fed-up workers at companies like Kellogg’s and John Deere—a phenomenon many are calling “Striketober.” As a result, the U.S. labor movement is getting an unusual amount of attention. 

But because of the corporate media’s often spotty or ideologically slanted coverage of workers’ struggles, combined with the fact that only a small minority of Americans have any personal experience with unions, there appears to be some confusion among the general public over what Striketober is really about. 

A troubling number of Americans seem to have the false impression that tens of thousands of underpaid and overworked employees are going on strike in order to resist Covid-19 vaccine mandates—when they are actually walking off the job to win decent raises, equitable pay structures and relief from mandatory overtime.

Some of this confusion was on display last week as HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson appeared on C-SPAN to discuss the current wave of strikes. When host John McArdle opened the phone lines for viewers to call up, the vaccine-specific questions started to roll in.

“I wanted to know how much the vaccine mandates are playing in these strikes? What is the role of the vaccine mandate?” asked the first caller, a woman from South Carolina. 

About fifteen minutes later, another caller from Kentucky asked, “Do you think this vaccine is causing most of the strikes?” 

In response, Jamieson patiently explained that, “the vaccine is essentially a non-issue in these strikes we are seeing.”

“As someone who’s been following these strikes closely, I was a little surprised by the assumption that vaccines might be at the center of this,” Jamieson told In These Times. “But I probably shouldn’t have been. There’s been outsized media coverage of workers defying vaccine requirements, even though they seem to be quite a small share of the workforce.”

Indeed, since this summer there have been numerous news reports about unions “opposing” vaccine mandates, and many similar stories about individual workers who would rather get fired than be vaccinated. But in reality, employers across the country are reporting that 90 to 100 percent of their workforces are complying with vaccine mandates. 

And then there’s media coverage that collapses the distinction between workers walking off the job to demand better working conditions and resistance to vaccine mandates, such as this CNN story titled, “Here comes the anti-vaccine requirement solidarity movement,” which spends dozens of paragraphs recounting opposition to mandates before stating that the recent strikes have actually not been over such objections. At the end of September, Fox News published a story falsely claiming that healthcare workers at Valley Health in Winchester, Va., went on strike over their employer’s vaccine mandate, when in fact only a small number of workers protested the requirement, rather than taking part in an official or large-scale walk out. 

Much of the media hype about supposed union opposition to the mandates stems from general misunderstandings about the nature of collective bargaining. Unions that have asserted their right to bargain with employers over the implementation of vaccine mandates have inaccurately been accused of opposing the mandates altogether.

Reacting to news that public sector unions in Portland, Oregon were demanding to negotiate implementation of the vaccine mandate, journalist James Surowiecki tweeted: “Organized labor has been on the wrong side of the vaccine issue almost across the board.”

“Maybe some unions have been captured by the cranks in their ranks,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell opined in response to unions wanting to negotiate vaccine mandates. “If ‘Big Labor’ obstructs this effort, it will fail not only its own members, but also the many admirers and political allies it worked so hard to win over,” she warned.

But as the Economic Policy Institute’s Dave Kamper explained, “Demanding to negotiate the impact of something isn’t the same as refusing to do it, or even being opposed to it.”

Unions seeking to bargain over vaccine mandates want to determine specific policies like whether workers can use paid sick time to get vaccinated, what they will be expected to show as proof of vaccination and whether those working remotely will also need to be vaccinated.

“Even when an employer offers something unmistakably good to employees…unions still can, will, and SHOULD demand to negotiate it, get it down in writing, formally agree to it,” Kamper wrote. “At its very heart, collective bargaining isn’t about money. It’s about power. It’s about WHO DECIDES. The principle of collective bargaining is the boss is not and should not be the unilateral decision maker. That’s what a demand to negotiate means.”

Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Tyson Foods recently hammered out an agreement on implementation of the mandate, and now report that 96 percent of the company’s workers have been vaccinated, exemplifying that negotiating over vaccine mandates does not mean opposition to them.

“Working together, the UFCW and Tyson set a new standard with this vaccine mandate and have proved what’s possible when we listen to workers and negotiate the implementation of vaccination mandates fairly and responsibly,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.

Meanwhile, it is true that some unions have been extremely vocal and adamant in their total opposition to vaccine mandates—but these are almost entirely right-wing police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which are already pariahs to many in the labor movement. Importantly, while these police unions may be holding protests and making noise, they are not on strike and are therefore completely unconnected to the current wave of work stoppages.

“I think people are conflating the labor strife they see with these highly politicized mandates,” Jamieson said. “Unfortunately, that can overshadow the important labor story that’s unfolding: workers finding their leverage and demanding a better deal.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke


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Covid means remote workers can live anywhere. So where’s ‘anywhere’?

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SEATTLE — In spring 2020, just as the first Covid-19 surge was peaking and businesses, schools, and whole countries were shutting down, a young couple named Elizabeth and Anton made a bold move. Little did they know it would put them in the vanguard of a pandemic-enabled geographic dispersion that demographers, economists, employers, developers and local governments are still figuring out.

Elizabeth grew up in a Seattle suburb and, after college and a spell working in Hawaii, returned to settle where she always wanted to live, in Seattle itself. She and Anton seemed to be living the Cascadia dream. Their apartment, in a walkable neighborhood packed with hip restaurants and bars, was small, but it had an iconic view of Mt. Rainier and the downtown skyline. She biked around the city’s scenic Lake Union to her job in the city’s shiny new tech district, helping oversee clinical trials at a biopharma company, and grew vegetables in a nearby community garden. On weekends they escaped to the woods and mountains.

But with each return to the city, her spirits fell. The dark, damp winter days depressed her: “When it rained, I smelled concrete rather than earth. It stressed me out to eat from my plot — two or three times I found needles there. I have a really bad image of leaving work in South Lake Union and seeing a man shooting up in his mouth. People like me were just walking by. It filled me with despair.”

Then the pandemic hit, and everyone who could was told to work at home. Elizabeth and Anton faced the prospect of living and working together, 24 hours a day, in just 550 square feet, or looking elsewhere for more space and the life they really wanted. Suddenly all options were open. They took an exploratory road trip around the Mountain West. “The call to Colorado kept getting stronger,” she recalls.

The tech giant Anton works for reluctantly agreed to let him stay remote indefinitely. Elizabeth asked the same but got shot down. She quit and landed at a smaller biopharma that was glad to let her work from home. They looked at a remote mountain village, but the broadband there was too slow to support online work — a critical factor in remote workers’ relocation choices. So they settled for a ranch house on the edge of Boulder with space for gardening and mountains nearby. Her urban blues evaporated. “Now the stressor of the day is building a barricade to keep the bobcat out of the chicken coop,” she says, laughing.

Just one hitch: Elizabeth and Anton, already priced out of Seattle’s real estate market, hoped to buy in Colorado. But prices have surged in Boulder, as they have in most of the country. They’re now looking south to New Mexico.

Meanwhile, another young tech-industry couple, Andrew and Amy, reached the same decision Elizabeth and Anton did, but it took them in the opposite direction. They’d had enough of life in San Jose, where they lived and worked for a streaming service: the sprawl and freeways, the wildfire smoke and surly neighbors, the general anomie of Silicon Valley. And with a 2-year-old daughter, they dreaded school prospects in California.

So they persuaded their employer to let them go remote permanently and chased their dream up the West Coast. They wanted to stay in a diverse, liberal coastal city; for many on the right and left, ideological compatibility is an important consideration in moving. But they also wanted a safe, cozy neighborhood and beautiful wild places to go camping.

They found it all in a quiet, leafy district of century-old bungalows with a prized public elementary school, a Carnegie library and a plethora of shops in easy walking distance, with water and mountains to east and west. With no income tax, their tax burden fell. Their immaculate three-story neo-Craftsman home cost $2 million, but they say it’s twice the house they could have gotten in a comparable Bay Area neighborhood. They still marvel at how friendly their new neighbors are. “Walking around, we get into conversations with strangers all the time,” says Andrew. “Everyone we pass says, ‘How you doing?’” All in all, the move “was a pipe dream come true.”

And not just for them. “When we sold some stuff we didn’t need on Craigslist, everyone who responded had just come here from California,” says Andrew. “Even Waffles, the neighborhood cat,” adds Amy. “His tag says 408” — San Jose’s area code.

Their dream came true in much-maligned Seattle, just two miles northwest of Amazon’s headquarters and a mile south of the apartment Elizabeth and Anton fled, on a hilltop haven overlooking the same urban landscape that oppressed her. One couple’s ordeal is another’s idyll.

Millions of Americans moved during the last 18 months, many of them spurred or influenced by the pandemic. But these two reciprocal moves to and from Seattle point up just how personal such choices are, and how they’re steered by individual circumstances. Amy and Andrew wanted a more urban setting; by selling the ranch house they’d fixed up in San Jose, they could afford a Seattle that was out of reach for Elizabeth and Anton, who longed for the country anyway.

As these divergent moves also suggest, it’s perilous to seek simple patterns and easy takeaways in complex demographic processes such as Americans’ response to Covid-19. But the pandemic has reset the residential choices and aspirations of millions of Americans, in ways that will last long after the Covid-19 emergency recedes. Those millions of individual choices together add up to forces that can sustain, reshape — and sometimes unmake — cities and communities around the country.


In March 2020, as the novel coronavirus spread from its initial beachheads in the Seattle, San Francisco and New York areas, a dire meme also spread: Americans were fleeing en masse from crowded cities to the supposedly safer suburbs and countryside. Island communities from Maine to Florida closed bridges and raised road blocks to keep outsiders out.

It’s tempting to draw early conclusions from incomplete data when something as dramatic as a pandemic intrudes. LinkedIn News’ editor was one of many to call it an “urban exodus.” The Washington Post announced the “Great American Migration of 2020” and predicted that it “might contain the seeds of a wholesale shift in where and how Americans live.” Even then-President Donald Trump weighed in from the debate podium. “New York is a ghost town. … It’s dying, everyone is leaving.”

Such sweeping statements were bound to elicit a counter-narrative. “There is not a widespread movement of people prospecting to move out of urban areas,” Bloomberg’s CityLab declared in September 2020. In April 2021 it stated the case more boldly: “There is no urban exodus; perhaps it’s more of an urban shuffle” — movement within and between metropolitan areas, rather than away from them.

But this conclusion also rested on some shaky foundations. Its first iteration relied on data from Apartment List; the renters it tracks may be more dependent on transit, more rooted to the sorts of fixed, lower-paying jobs deemed “essential” and less able to take advantage of remote working opportunities than homeowners. The second version cited census and postal data showing 84 percent of those moving from cities stayed in the same states, 7.5 percent of them in the same metropolitan areas, while 6 percent moved to other large metros and less than 1 percent left metro and micro urban areas altogether. But that tally left roughly 10 percent unaccounted for. And staying in the same state, even the same metro area, generally means radiating out to suburbs, exurbs, smaller towns and rural areas within metro counties.

It also turned out that some of the headline-grabbing early outflow was temporary — students at closed colleges and laid-off young workers returning home, affluent urbanites sheltering in beach cottages and second homes. And as Brookings Institution demographer William Frey noted this past May, plummeting immigration levels under the Trump administration had already depressed population growth in the large cities where immigrants tend to land. Then, in the words of Matt Mowell, a senior economist at the national real estate firm CBRE, “immigration ground to a halt in 2020” under pandemic restrictions, contributing to steep population dips in New York and other immigration hubs.

That’s just one of the ways the pandemic has mostly reinforced and accelerated trends that were already underway, rather than creating new winners and losers in a grand reshuffle between metropolitan areas. As Frey’s tallies show, Sunbelt and Western cities that were already growing robustly — Tampa, Sarasota, Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, Phoenix, Boise, Sacramento, Riverside — kept growing (with an extra boost from coastal California for the last four). Rust Belt and other post-industrial cities that had lost inhabitants for decades — Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee — kept losing, though the outflow slowed in some. Mowell notes that “people just stayed put” in many shrinking or slow-growth cities, such as Dayton, Ohio. “The chaos of the pandemic and labor market uncertainty likely encouraged many households to delay moving plans,” he said. As a result, despite the much-publicized disruptions in some cities, about the same number of people — 35 million — filed address changes with the Postal Service in 2020 as in 2019 and 2018.

San Francisco, San Jose, New York — in particular Manhattan — and Boston were another story. Their populations, boosted by the tech and financial booms, had held strong until the pandemic, but then suffered the highest out-migration rates among major metro areas.

Boston’s loss has begun reversing as colleges reopen, and New York is showing signs of recovery. “More people are choosing to go there now,” says LinkedIn’s chief economist, Karin Kimbrough, who tracks workplace shifts through its millions of job and résumé listings. The University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, who prophesied the rise of the “creative class” in cities like New York, is confident the Big Apple will get its mojo back: “NYC is special,” he told me via email. “It is the world’s most dominant global center. It has a diverse economy spanning real estate, finance, media and entertainment, tech and more. It is the magnet for the young and ambitious.” And it has ample experience recovering from crises.

But San Francisco, which lost residents faster than any other major city after the pandemic hit, hasn’t gotten them back, and San Jose’s recovery also lags. Tech jobs have continued to proliferate there as in other hubs, but those jobs (unlike New York’s finance and arts) are especially suited to remote work. Florida likens the West Coast’s tech meccas to the once-dominant single-industry towns of yore — more versatile and adaptable, certainly, than Pittsburgh and Detroit were, “but still not New York.”


One of the most timely indicators of how the work-from-home revolution is affecting America’s cities is key card swipes. Kastle Systems, a national office security firm, uses them to track workplace occupancy in its largest markets.

In March 2020, office attendance plummeted from nearly 100 percent to a little over 20 percent in Houston, Dallas and Austin, 10 to 15 percent in Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, lower still in New York — and just 4 percent in San Francisco. Those numbers have slowly risen since (aside from sharp drops in Texas during its February cold snap). Kastle clients’ office attendance is now about 50 percent in the Texan cities. It tops 30 percent in most of the others — except San Jose, with nearly 27 percent, and San Francisco, at just 24 percent.

San Francisco’s empty offices reflect other factors as well: its scarce housing, high land-use hurdles, nosebleed rents and home prices, and strict Covid rules (which gave it the lowest infection and death rates among big cities). But even there, the net flight seems to be abating, though not reversing. Apartment asking rents, which plunged 27 percent last year, “are almost halfway back up,” says Ted Egan, the City of San Francisco’s chief economist. “The flow now is both ways.” According to USPS change-of-address records, 12,058 individuals, households and businesses left San Francisco in January 2021, 4,442 more than arrived. By August that gap had shrunk to 1,752.

But none of the experts contacted expect San Francisco to fill up again soon. And none expect America’s suburbs to lose their growth edge over San Francisco and other cities. In 2020, according to census data crunched by the Brookings Institution’s Frey, suburbs grew 43 percent faster than central cities in the 55 largest metropolitan areas. The online real estate listing and data firm Zillow recently reported that “the ZIP codes with the highest page views per online listing … became increasingly suburban over the past 18 months.”

Frey’s lone outlier was Seattle, which experienced more growth in its center than its suburbs in 2020. Since then, however, even this exception has fallen into line. The Seattle area has charted record home-price growth even in 2021 — but prices rose more than twice as fast in the suburbs to the north as in Seattle itself, reflecting higher demand for suburban housing. In January 2021, the Postal Service received nearly 2,000 more address changes from those leaving the center city than those entering; by August that gap had grown by a fifth. Incoming and outgoing address changes were roughly balanced in Seattle’s inner suburbs, but arrivals outpaced departures in the outer burbs.

Nationwide, all this accelerated a trend that began in 2015. For nearly a decade before that, central cities had grown faster than suburbs, a trend Frey credits in part to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. He believes it left many new graduates and other young adults “stranded” in the cities scraping together what work they could, putting off forming families, and living “la vie bohème.” Also, the outsize millennial generation, a.k.a. the baby boomlet, was at just the right age to relish trendy cities’ restaurants, nightlife, and meeting and mating opportunities — and to put up with cramped apartments and shared housing. Then, as the economy recovered and the tech boom spread beyond Silicon Valley and Redmond, they were perfectly placed to take advantage. Yesteryear’s barista became today’s six-figure programmer.

But now the suburbs are hot again. As Frey told me, this seeming change actually marks a “return to normal” — to the pattern of suburban growth and urban contraction that began in the postwar years. The late ’00s and early tens, when young people and empty nesters flocked to revitalized urban centers, was actually an anomaly. Now those millennials are mostly in their 30s, ready to seek family-sized houses and yards and fret over schools.

“We know millennials move when they set up households, looking for more space,” says Kimbrough.

Remote working has added a new imperative (and another advantage to the suburbs): home office space. And it’s given those in tech and some other white-collar fields undreamed-of choice in where they look. “Everybody’s kind of dreaming right now,” says Andrew in Seattle, “because you have this opening.”

Employers have pushed back, fearing they’ll lose control and their companies will lose their edge without the secret sauces of spontaneous collision and workplace culture. “We’re hearing CEOs say that creativity and innovation wane as a result of not working in groups, especially for millennials and GenZ-ers, who like socialization and miss the ‘creative collision,’” consultant Jay Garner told ChiefExecutive.Net.


Tell that to the millennials and GenZ-ers. Survey after survey finds that majorities of workers — 68 percent in one study — would choose remote over in-office work. The same survey finds that 70 percent of those who are already working remotely would forfeit benefits to continue, and 67 percent would take salary cuts.

It’s become a point of pride: “The people who want to go back are the ones who don’t do that much work,” one tech worker told me. “Who spend their days in meetings.”

As a result, going remote can give employers a recruiting advantage. In July, only 11 percent of the jobs posted on LinkedIn were remote, but they got 21percent of views. They included about 26 percent of software and IT services jobs and 23 percent in media and communications and wellness (all those Zoom Zumba classes).

A study by researchers at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México concludes that “the mass social experiment in which nearly half of all paid hours were provided from home between May and December 2020” proves that remote working works. They predict that 22 percent of workdays will remain remote after the danger passes, up from 5 percent pre-pandemic and 1 percent in 2010.

“I think companies are losing qualified applicants, so they’re conceding to that as an option,” says Anton in Boulder; he sees a “much, much higher number of permanently remote jobs advertised in the environmental field” for which he studied than he did in spring 2020. “And they’re saving on office space.” Or seeing the light: 52 percent of bosses surveyed by the consultancy PwC in December said productivity improved during the enforced work-at-home period.

“Remote work is the biggest shift in the nature of work in decades,” says the University of Toronto’s Florida. “It gives some workers more flexibility. And in these cases it shifts the balance of power from companies to workers.” And, to various degrees, from New York to upper New England and the Hudson Valley, from the Bay Area to Boise and Billings. In this way, the world is becoming flatter; remote work is leveling the field of opportunity.

Many more workers in manufacturing, service, retail, and some white-collar fields can’t join this shift. But what Susan Wachter, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Institute for Urban Research, calls “the new urban dispersion” will affect more than just the fifth or so of workers who will join it.

Kimbrough believes it will “be really healthy, a spreading-out of skills across the country” from places like New York. Will cities now compete less for job makers and more for jobholders — lavishing money on schools, parks and arts rather than tax subsidies for new factories and warehouses?

“Towns near amenities are the new hot spots now and for some time to come,” Wachter said by email. “I think cultural capital will be a continuing pull,” says San Francisco’s Egan. “I’ve told people you need to think about office workers as the new tourists. Instead of traveling they commute.” Or don’t.

Egan’s watchword may be prophetic in an unintended way. Well-paid remote workers, like affluent tourists, retirees and other transplants, can drive up property prices, pricing out those dependent on local labor markets. This introduces new class divisions, within rather than between regions. “There’s a widening affordability gap throughout the Mountain West,” says CBRE economist Mowell. “A city like Phoenix never had an affordability problem. Now it does.”

Dispersion may bring other changes, for better and worse. As Florida notes, “remote workers do not just work from home. They work in coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, libraries, each others’ homes. Communities need to focus on building more effective remote-work ecosystems.”

It takes more than such “ecosystems” to adapt to the influx. The Boise area, with by some measures the nation’s fastest rising rents last year and biggest home price surge in the first half of 2021,is still reckoning with its own success. “This is no longer an affordable city,” says Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University, who leads the annual Idaho Public Policy Survey. “We’ve asked since 2016, do you think pace of growth is about right or too fast? Responses were evenly split in 2016. Now 75 percent say ‘too fast.’” Longtime residents grumble endlessly about rude, impatient newcomers overrunning the town and spoiling its traditional conviviality, but as Lyons notes, “the same stories about Californians ran here in the ’70s and ’80s.”

“People always think immigrants from places like California will help turn red states blue,” says Erik Berg, the Democratic Party chair in Idaho’s Ada County, which includes Boise. “But those coming here are predominantly conservative.”

Lyons’ research confirms that. “What we see in our survey data is that people who are moving here from California, Washington and Oregon tend to be Republican” — 55 to 60 percent, with 10 to 15 percent independent and 25 to 30 percent Democratic. Idaho and other mountain states beckon to those fed up with what they see as runaway regulation, taxation and disorder in a California where even Republican bastions like Orange County and San Diego have turned blue.

By contrast, argues Mowell, for liberal émigrés like Amy and Andrew, Seattle and Portland are “very easy places to adapt to. It’s the same social and economic ecosystem.” Covid-19, he adds, “has mapped onto these existing political divisions. People who were dissatisfied with government in California tend to be dissatisfied with the way California has dealt with the pandemic.” And attracted by the more permissive, mandate-free approach in Idaho, which has one of the lowest vaccination and highest infection rates in the country.

Such tendencies don’t bode well for any hopes that dispersion will soften the hardening ideological divides between regions. Rather the opposite: “We’ll see more people living in communities of choice as we disconnect from the workplace,” predicts UPenn’s Wachter.

That would reinforce prevailing political cultures, promoting local homogeneity rather than diversity. Work and the downtown areas that once depended on office workers will serve less as social mixing bowls.

So, for all the churn the pandemic has caused, the Great Dispersion may leave us even more economically and politically stratified than before, compounding, rather than easing, Americans’ isolation from people who aren’t just like them.

About the Author: Eric Scigliano is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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“It’s Time to Turn This Tortilla Around”: El Milagro Workers Walk Out, Demanding Fair Treatment

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Alleging abusive conditions and staff shortages amid the pandemic, workers at the iconic Chicago tortillería walked off the job—only to to be locked out by management.

On Thursday, food production workers at El Milagro—Chicago’s most popular tortilla company—staged a temporary walkout, alleging years of workplace violations and abusive conditions made worse by the pandemic.

After leaving their shift early, nearly 100 workers picketed outside El Milagro’s flagship taqueria and neighboring tortillería in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, promising to escalate their protests unless management meets with them to discuss their grievances by September 29. They were joined by local faith leaders, community supporters and democratic socialist 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the nearby Pilsen neighborhood.

Laura Garza, director of Arise Chicago worker center—which has been helping the non-unionized El Milagro workers organize over the past several months—said that 85 workers contracted Covid-19 on the job last year, and five died. With employees getting sick or resigning, the company has been understaffed, leading to a widely reported scarcity of El Milagro products at grocery stores across the Chicago area earlier this month, with eager customers lining up outside the company’s facilities to get their hands on however many tortillas they could. 

Along with picket signs, the workers carried a giant burrito and tortilla chips made of carboard. They led chants changing the company’s name from El Milagro to “El Maltrato,” which translates to “mistreatment.”

“You’ve heard there’s a shortage of workers over and over on the news, but the fact is there isn’t a so-called shortage of workers, it’s a shortage of good wages, good benefits, good working conditions, and being treated with respect and dignity on the job,” said Garza. The worker center also recently helped organize non-union food production employees at the popular Portillo’s restaurant chain, who staged a seven-day strike this summer.

The workers allege that in order to keep production going amid the staffing shortage, management has been illegally forcing them to work up to seven days per week, as well as violating the city’s paid sick leave ordinance and speeding up the production machines to dangerous levels.

“With the extreme speed of the machines, people are having health issues, especially back pain from having to go so fast,” El Milagro worker Alfredo Martinez told In These Times. Martinez added that he and his coworkers have also suffered health problems from having to work quickly in temperatures over 90 degrees, without being allowed breaks to drink water.

“They’re cranking up these machines to produce more tortillas, but we’re not machines,” said Martin Salas, an El Milagro employee who has worked at the company for ten years. “I’m packing 80 packages in one minute. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s my fault.”

The workers also claim that management is advertising new job openings at $16 an hour—higher than what workers who have been at the company for years make. Martinez, who has worked at El Milagro for 13 years, said veteran employees like himself are also expected to train the new hires without any extra compensation.

“The new people don’t stay for long because it’s too hard and too hot,” Martinez said. “We know the work; we do the work well. It’s insulting when you’ve been working here for years, doing a good job and new people who have barely been trained are making more than you.”

The workers reported numerous other abuses at El Milagro, including sexual harassment and intimidation. With the help of Arise Chicago, they have organized a committee and are demanding that management implement a fair wage scale based on seniority and experience, increase wages to at least $20 per hour, stop all harassment and hire more staff. The workers claim that despite issuing multiple letters to management, the company has so far refused to meet with them to discuss their concerns.

When the employees who walked out of the El Milagro plant in Little Village attempted to return to complete their shifts after the protest rally—as they had earlier informed management they would do—they were locked out. Arise Chicago says this is illegal retaliation by the company. Upon learning that their colleagues had been locked out, five cleaning workers arriving for the late-night shift decided to join the walkout.

Salas said that when he and other first-shift workers went into work on Friday morning, prepared to walk out in solidarity with their locked-out colleagues, they were greeted by an armed security guard. “That is simply a tactic the company is using to intimidate us, and it’s creating a lot of fear,” he said.

As the locked-out workers reported to human resources on Friday morning seeking to return to work, they were joined by 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez, whose district includes the El Milagro plant, Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson and Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes.

“We stand with you,” Williams-Hayes told the workers. “What you’re doing is not wrong. Stand in solidarity, stand up for your rights, do not be afraid.

Management promised to allow the locked-out employees to return to work at the start of their 2 p.m. shift on Friday, with no loss of pay, according to an Arise Chicago spokesperson.

El Milagro did not respond to a request for comment. The company has also faced complaints at its facility near Austin, Texas, where it was recently fined $218,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe machinery exposing workers to amputation dangers.

The struggle at El Milagro is reminiscent of attempts to unionize immigrant workers at Tortillería Del Rey in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood 40 years ago. That campaign was led by legendary organizer Rudy Lozano, who, before his murder in 1983, famously helped build Black and Latino unity in support of Harold Washington’s successful run for mayor.

Jorge Mújica, Arise Chicago’s strategic campaigns organizer, said the workers are exposing El Milagro’s “greedy” side. “In English, we say ‘the other side of the coin.’ In Spanish we say ‘el otro lado de la tortilla’ [the other side of the tortilla],” he explained. “It’s time to turn this tortilla around.”

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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For Many, the Pandemic Was a Wakeup Call About Exploitative Work

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By the time Covid-19 hit, Lily, 28, had been with her employer for four years and in her part-time role for the past two. Not once in those four years had her hourly wage moved above the state-required minimum in her upstate New York town— currently, $12.50. Lily was living with her parents to save money, and, because her job was in ticketing sales for professional sports, it was competitive. She hadn’t given much thought as to why she was paid so little; she was just grateful to work in the industry she loved.

But when Lily was furloughed during the pandemic, she had a creeping suspicion her labor had been undervalued. With professional sporting events shut down, she took on remote work, first as a customer service agent, then as a New York contact tracer — jobs that paid nearly double what she had been making. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m worth more than minimum wage,’” Lily says. (Lily is a pseudonym requested in fear of retribution from future employers.) “I didn’t even realize how bummed I was. A plane ticket was 25% of my net worth. I was worrying about putting gas in my car to get to work.” 

These remote jobs were temporary, however, and when Lily started interviewing for new positions, she was disappointed to find many companies still only offering just about minimum wage. One job offered an extra $2.50 after negotiation, but Lily turned it down—the venue was also an extra hour away, and she still needed to cover gas. 

Lily has mostly been relying on savings to get by after spending over a month hunting for full-time work, hoping to find a job that allows employees to work remotely on a permanent basis. Her goal is a $20 wage, but she worries whether that goal is realistic. She had a “big, revelatory moment” when she was earning more money, she says: “I started eating healthier. I bought myself workout clothes for the first time in years. You can have all the therapy sessions in the world, but an influx of cash will really change the way you feel about yourself.” 

A pernicious corporate narrative suggests that workers like Lily—who ask for a decent wage and marginal flexibility from an employer—are simply lazy. Many understaffed employers have chalked up their problems to workers coasting on unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. They complain about the federal unemployment supplement and the states that have loosened the strings on unemployment payments (such as requirements to continually search for a job or to accept any offer).

But the 26 mostly red states that recently terminated the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the American Rescue Plan, purportedly to incentivize workers, did not all see an immediate increase in job searches. Many workers have valid reasons not to return to work regardless of any “incentives”—one of the top reasons being the exorbitant cost of child care. As the pandemic closed daycares and schools and left parents in the lurch, many two-parent households realized it would be cheaper for one parent to stay home rather than work. Others are wary of exposure to Covid-19.

To be fair, there’s evidence that for some people, pandemic relief measures (or pandemic savings) have enabled joblessness by choice. A June survey by the jobs website Indeed.com found a fifth of job seekers were not urgently searching for work because of their “financial cushion.” A Morning Consult poll that same month found 13% of people receiving unemployment checks had turned down job offers because of that short-term stability.

To deem this unemployed behavior “lazy,” however, one must be predisposed to thinking work is some sort of moral imperative. Rarely have workers had the freedom to be selective about where, when and how much they work—to decide their own fates. In light of this profound shift, perhaps it’s understandable that workers are unwilling to settle.

There are more existential questions, too. Workers are re-evaluating what role work should have in their lives, whether it’s important to their sense of self, what they would do with their time otherwise. Some may decide the jobs they left are what the late anthropologist David Graeber termed “bullshit jobs,” work “that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.” After such a revelation, how could employers expect workers to return to business as usual?

In her seminal 2011 book The Problem With Work, Kathi Weeks argues that wage labor (one of the least-questioned arrangements in U.S. culture) is actually a social convention, not an economic necessity. As workers have become more productive and automation has picked up more slack, not much serious consideration has been given in the United States to the idea of reducing work hours. Instead, people work more and more. According to Weeks, having a job confers moral goodness and other virtues upon those who perform it, which is why people rarely question whether work is, in itself, good. If they did, they might see how work limits their pleasure, creativity and self-determination.

The post-work future Weeks imagines, citing the scholarship of Paul Lafargue, would allow us to expand “our needs and desires beyond their usual objects”—to understand how we want to spend our finite time in the world, then go do it. The refusal to work is an important step toward getting there, according to Weeks. When workers reduce the hours they spend working (or stop working altogether), they are rejecting the idea of work as our “highest calling and moral duty … as the necessary center of social life.” It also allows workers to organize toward their revolutionary visions while improving their present circumstances.

The current historical moment isn’t without its precedents. A kind of mass work refusal took place in the 1970s, when one in six union members went on strike, demanding more control over their workplaces and more dignity. But the anti-work flashpoint was quickly “co-opted by managerial initiatives as an excuse for work intensification,” Weeks tells In These Times. Employers attempted to make work “more participatory, more multi-skilled, more team-based so that you could work even longer and harder.”

The pandemic-era shift seems more promising, Weeks says: Today’s workers are fed up with intensification. They are not merely thinking about what other kind of job they might have, but about whether they want to work at all (and how little work they can get away with).

“So many of the criticisms we are hearing about are focused on both the quality of work, the low pay and brutally intensive pace of so many jobs, and the question of quantity—for example, the long hours needed to make enough in tips in restaurant and service work and the added time of commuting to most jobs,” Weeks says. “The overwhelming response to the prospect of returning to work as usual is that people want more control over the working day and more time off work to do with as they will.”

Without work taking up 40 or more hours each week, those who lost their jobs to the pandemic have discovered other ways to fill their time. Baking bread became such a popular quarantine hobby that it verged on cliché, but many who tried it found it comforting and deeply satisfying. One might say the bakers were not alienated from their labor for once—they got to eat the bread at the end. Others found themselves with more energy to dedicate to activities like yoga, gardening and roller skating.

“I … got really into cooking at home, because I really do love to cook,” Caleb Orth, a 35-year-old in Chicago, told the New York Times’ podcast The Daily in August. “It was a hobby of mine before I lost my job,” he said. But at the restaurant where he’d worked 80 hours a week, he’d tired of making “somebody else’s food, the same thing over and over and over. So during Covid, I’d be making meals at home, and I got really into it.”

Many like Orth expressed amazement at how good it felt to be doing things that were good for their well-being. Work suddenly seemed like it might just be one element of life, not the center of it.

When the bar where Jessica McClanahan worked shut down in March 2020, she set about creating a small art studio in her home in Kansas City, Mo. She filled a corner of her living room with drawing and book-binding supplies, acquired an antique desk from a friend and assembled a small altar for cherished objects. McClanahan’s boyfriend, who had worked with her at the bar, got laid off around the same time; he fixed himself an art studio upstairs. While the two collected unemployment—about $325 weekly, each, plus a $600 weekly federal supplement—they fell into a routine. They would wake up each morning, have breakfast, then make art in their respective spaces.

“Sometimes I would just mess around and not really do anything,” says McClanahan, 37. “But I got to be like, ‘Oh, do I want to draw a picture? Yes. I’m gonna do that. Do I want to paint? Make a book? Take photographs? I also taught myself how to embroider. It was just a free-for-all for creativity, which I haven’t had in a long time.” She made a leather-bound sketchbook for her boyfriend for Christmas, a guestbook for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and dozens of postcards to send to friends across the country.

McClanahan, who has a master’s in library science and went to art school, had long intended to spend more time on creative pursuits. When she started her bartending career in 2005, she saw the service industry as a reliable way to make rent and pay off student loans. While her friends were making minimum wage at art galleries, she made hundreds in tips in a single night. But it got harder to make time for art, especially when she became a bar manager. McClanahan says she felt glued to her phone even when she wasn’t on the clock, troubleshooting crises at work, fielding texts from people who called in sick and answering emails from vendors.

After trying out a few other jobs during the pandemic, McClanahan decided to go back to bartending when restaurants reopened—but quickly realized she couldn’t return to the lifestyle she had as a manager. “I was really stressed all the time, and I kept saying to myself over and over, ‘I don’t know why I am spending so much time worrying about something that isn’t even mine,’” McClanahan says. The downtime while she was unemployed gave her “freedom and peace of mind.”

“That really got the ball rolling for me in terms of thinking about what I’m willing to tolerate at my job going forward,” McClanahan adds.

Some employers are starting to see obvious solutions to their so-called labor shortage: better conditions, signing bonuses, higher wages, stronger benefits. The federal minimum wage is still not $15, but a growing number of companies have begun offering it (including giant corporations like Target, Best Buy, CVS Health and Under Armour). In a press release, Under Armour executive Stephanie Pugliese called the move a “strategic decision … to be a competitive employer.”

With the federal unemployment extension set to expire September 6, as this issue went to press, the 13% of workers who have refused jobs because of that stable income may no longer be able to simply opt out. Regardless, the new skepticism of work as a de facto good will likely stay. Our time, after all, is our lives.

Neither Lily nor McClanahan is presently receiving unemployment, and they both now work in the service industry. Lily believes this job is a temporary arrangement, while McClanahan plans to continue as a bartender.

“After having five different jobs during the pandemic, I’ve come back around to the idea that this is the kind of work I want to be doing if I have to work at all,” McClanahan says. “But my attitude toward devoting all of my lifeblood to work has definitely changed.”

About the Author: Marie Solis has written for the New York Times, The New Republic and The Nation.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Biden Has Abandoned His Covid Worker Safety Pledge

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Biden’s much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workers—and some in the labor movement are not happy.

Until she got her first Pfizer shot on July 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without a vaccine—working unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

“In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still, “Seaboard wanted a certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.” Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, she says.

Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughly 500,000 U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In a sector described as “essential” during the pandemic, at least 50,000 have been infected and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat Institute lobbied successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19 worker safety rules enacted this June.

Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant. 

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order promising to enact new emergency safety rules “if such standards are determined to be necessary” by March 15 to protect millions of “essential” workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on June 10, after heavy lobbying by many industry groups—Including the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers Association—Biden issued a narrow rule covering only health care workers.

This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic. “Almost all my coworkers have gotten it,” Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19 symptoms. Yet, she says, “a lot of workers I work with have not gotten the vaccination” for a host of reasons. Some are “skeptical,” and “think it’s got a chip in it or that it’s not going to work.” 

It’s not hard to get a vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Large shares of Hispanic adults—particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented—express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.” Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nation’s most dangerous Covid-19 states, with just 40% of the population fully vaccinated, and “high transmission rates,” according to the CDC.

In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the company “proactively” notifies workers of any Covid-19 cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields at “select line workstations.” 

Eaheart acknowledged that in May 2020, testing at the plant identified 440 employees with “active cases of Covid-19,” the plant’s “highest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.” During that week, he said, “overall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.” More than 1000 workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, Eaheart confirmed. 

Since March 15, when Biden’s promised Covid-19 workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more than 15,000 working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). “Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of Covid,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a June 9 press release anticipating Biden’s rule. “Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”

The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reported—but then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.

As the Department of Labor’s draft standard stated, “For the first time in its 50-year history, OSHA faces a new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half a million people in the United States in barely over a year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States.” 

Citing rising vaccination rates—60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though just 49% of the population overall—Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said the new rules focusing on healthcare workers “provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs were excluded.

“That’s kind of ridiculous,” says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton. “They should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowing it.”

In Louisiana, where new Covid-19 cases are double the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton, 45, toils in fear every day at a Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says, “I come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people a week.” Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, and “Walmart is acting like the pandemic is over.”

While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections and “breakthrough cases” are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDC’s befuddling guidance making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasn’t helped. Furthermore, the CDC explains, “no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from Covid-19.”

For Naughton and millions of other “essential workers,” laboring in the pandemic has been a mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19 was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning were “never enforced” at Walmart, says Naughton. “They never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesn’t protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. I complained about it and the manager said, ‘Don’t worry about it, let the customers do what they want.’”

Several of Naughton’s coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, but “management never said a word to any of us,” he says. “Most of them I came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. … We all should have known about it.” Naughton says he filed a complaint in November 2020 requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, but “I never heard back, nothing ever happened.”

To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by a 102.4 degree fever—but he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees can “lose our job” after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, he says.

Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmart’s senior manager of global communications, insisted to In These Times, “We encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associates… We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19 cases would come from the local health authority.”

Unions Sue to Protect More Workers

Naughton isn’t the only person disappointed by Biden’s exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.

On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration. 

Biden’s decision to cover only health care workers “represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,” stated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule was announced. 

That day, the AFL-CIO added, “we are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19 infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 exposures and infections.”

On June 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed a petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currently “fails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face a similar grave danger from occupational exposure to Covid-19.”

Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (DVa.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standard “too little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,” including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added: “I am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.” The rule, Scott said, “is long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

Biden’s decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted. “With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Much of this “essential” workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19 has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low. “Workers in this industry have a very low vaccination rate,” as low as 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2 representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. “I don’t know who in their right mind would think we’ve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.” Rosas adds, “The federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workers” by leaving them out of the final emergency standard. “I’m extremely disappointed in the Biden administration.”

Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but a Department of Labor spokesperson emailed a statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only rule “closely follows the CDC’s guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most at risk.”

The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agency’s existing (yet unenforceable) “guidance” and the “general duty clause” protect other workers adequately, particularly in “industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.” But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite: “existing standards, regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19 hazard.” In its original draft, the agency insisted, “a Covid-19 ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address these inadequacies.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSH’s co-executive director, says President Biden “is responsible” for the 15,000 workers who have died from Covid-19 since Biden’s March 15 deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes, “promised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workers’ safety needs aren’t over, and we’ll be continuing to demand accountability from the administration.”

This post originally appeared at In These Times on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Christopher Cook is an award-winning investigative reporter who also writes for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis


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