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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Trump’s transgender military ban met with backlash

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President Donald Trump signed a long-awaited directive Friday evening that bans transgender people from enlisting in the U.S. military and bans the Department of Defense from providing military treatment to current transgender service members. The directive follows an announcement Trump made on Twitter last month, blindsiding the defense secretary and the public more broadly — and like last time, there Trump was met with a wave of backlash.

A draft of this memorandum was reported on Wednesday, and there has been widespread criticism from trans activists, lawmakers, and current and former members of the military over the last few days.

“When I was bleeding to death in my Black Hawk helicopter after I was shot down, I didn’t care if the American troops risking their lives to save me were gay, straight, transgender, black, white, or brown,” Sen. Tammy Duckwork (D-IL) said in a statement on Wednesday.

“It would be a step in the wrong direction to force currently serving transgender individuals to leave the military solely on the basis of their gender identity rather than medical and readiness standards that should always be at the heart of Department of Defense personnel policy,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also said in a statement on Wednesday. “The Pentagon’s ongoing study on this issue should be completed before any decisions are made with regard to accession. The Senate Armed Services Committee will continue to conduct oversight on this important issue.”

Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), shared an essay from his brother on the ban. “This is not about politics,” he wrote. “This is not about military readiness or cost. This is a calculated decision to discriminate against an already vulnerable group of people, one that will have devastating effects for countless Americans.”

Chelsea Manning, perhaps the military’s most famous trans service member, said Trump was “normalizing hate” and questioned its timing.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will have wide discretion on whether transgender service members can continue to serve, and he has six months to develop a plan to implement Trump’s memorandum.

As ThinkProgress reported last month, Trump’s decision to ban transgender service members from the military was about electoral politics, using transgender people as pawns after congressional infighting over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The military currently spends ten times more on erectile dysfunction as it would on transgender medical care.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on August 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Amanda Michelle Gomez is a health policy reporter at ThinkProgressAdrienne Mahsa Varkiani is a Senior Editor at ThinkProgress. Before joining the team at ThinkProgress, she served as an editor at Muftah Magazine and worked in the Iranian American community. Varkiani received her master of science in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and her bachelor’s degree in international studies from American University in Washington, D.C.


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A Day in the Life of a Day Laborer

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Come sunrise, the men fill the street corner, among them Luis, quietly sitting by himself, nurturing hopes for work today.

There was no work yesterday, nothing the day before and nothing for weeks.

Still, the 50-year-old Guatemalan, who didn’t want his last name used, waits in the growing heat, saying he has no other choice.

He waits even though he hates day labor work, because he says it is sometimes dangerous, barely enough to live on, and some of the men on the street corner have bullied and hurt him on the job.

The factory where he worked for almost a decade shut down a few years ago, he can’t find any work as a caregiver, and, he says, the factories aren’t hiring or they are shutting down.

He says he has papers to show he is a legal resident in the United States, but he suspects that many of the men standing around him don’t have that status.

That’s not the case for Carlos Sanchez, 70, and Gustavo Almaraz, 28, who are standing nearby. Carlos says he is Puerto Rican and Gustavo says he was born in the United States.

But they say that many workers lack papers and so they suffer. Often, the contractors who hire the men off the street corner “automatically think you don’t have papers,” explains Almaraz. And that’s a problem, because they want to take advantage of you. “Some of the people here (doing the hiring) are mean,” he adds.

The two also say they know how to take care of themselves.

Sanchez says he knows how to do a lot of jobs and how to deal with people, starting out decades ago as a migrant worker earning 35 cents an hour. And Almaraz says he has picked up enough skills that he can virtually take every job offered on the street corner.

“It’s all on you,” Almaraz explains. “You see a car coming in and you have to go up and say, ‘Hey boss, what do you need?’”

The secret is finding a good boss and somebody who needs you for a long time, he says. It also involves knowing, he says, when to walk away from someone who abuses you. “I had a good-paying job with an electrician, but he started to become disrespectful. He started to yell and insult me.”

Almaraz says he won’t work for less than $15 an hour, but surveys indicate laborers often earn minimum wages or less, and sometimes nothing. “Nobody can live on less than $100 a day,” Almaraz says.

Near them is a 65-year-old Mexican: a short, stocky, balding man, who says he has been doing day labor ever since coming to the United States without papers 12 years ago.

He hasn’t been able to find work and so he says he will take less than the others. “Sometimes they don’t pay. It’s very difficult. There is no work and everything is expensive,” he says in Spanish.

Time passes, and the men disappear from the street corner. Some are off to work, getting into the trucks and vans that pick them up.

As soon as someone pulls up onto the gasoline station’s street corner, the men rush them, huddling by the vehicle’s windows, bargaining furiously as they tout their skills. And some just wander off.

Not Luis. He sits waiting. Some jobs he won’t take.  “I have friends who were injured doing roofing, and they went home (to Guatemala) handicapped,” he says.

Not too long ago, he took a moving job with another worker. It was supposed to be an easy three-hour job. But the items they moved were so heavy, he sat at home for three days afterward, his hands shaking.

“A lot of people will do this work. They don’t speak the language so they have to. But I don’t have to,” he says.

He waits along with more than 100,000 others who gather daily on dozens of street corners across the United States, according to figures from 2006. It is a world, where workers are often cheated out of their wages, injured on the job and then left without medical care, according to a 2006 survey. Where workers who complain often suffer retaliation by employers who fire them, suspend them, or threaten to call immigration officials.

As the hours pass, Luis huddles in the scorching sunlight, watching out for anybody looking for a worker and a job he can do.

Most of the men are gone, but not him.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on June 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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