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Gov Phil Murphy, Edwin J. Torres / Flickr cc

Unions: Vaccine Mandates Must be Bargained

As employers consider mandates, unions say they must engage in talks first

Brian Young's picture
Aug 02, 2021

As COVID cases are once again spiking across the nation and vaccine rates plateau, the effort to get people vaccinated has moved from the reward phase to the penalty phase. Just in the last week, numerous states, the federal government, and private companies have issued notices that workers will be required to get vaccinated. In some cases, workers who refuse may not be allowed to work while others will require weekly testing. However, companies and governments are getting pushback from unions who say that mandates can’t unilaterally be instituted.

Following President Biden’s announcement on Thursday that all federal workers and onsite contractors would need to attest to their vaccination status, with those not vaccinated being required to wear masks, social distance, and be subjected to regular testing, federal unions began to push back on the President.

“We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units before implementation,” said AFGE President Everett Kelley in a statement. The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) also released a statement saying that they have “a lot of questions about how this policy will be implemented and how employee rights and privacy will be protected.”

The union that represents workers at the Post Office, the APWU, went a step further saying that they outright oppose mandating COVID-19 vaccines, “it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent.” This position was backed up by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) who called a vaccine mandate on federal workers “a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it.”

To be clear, none of the unions say they are opposed to the vaccine, in fact, all of them encouraged their members to get vaccinated in their statements, however, they believe that it is their right to negotiate the terms of any testing and vaccination policy within federal departments. Under Biden’s order, the vast majority of workers would still have the ability to remain unvaccinated, but they would be subject to more restrictions like weekly testing and having to wear a mask all day. While not a clear threat that people would start to lose their jobs if they are not vaccinated, it is clear to the federal unions that we are moving past the point of voluntary compliance, and they want to make sure that they have a role in any decision that forces their members to do something.

However, not all of the federal unions have come out against the President’s order. According to The Hill, the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents foreign service officers, welcomed the measure, citing last month’s COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. They were joined in supporting the order by IFPTE, a union that represents 25,000 federal workers at NASA, the Justice Department, the Government Accountability Office, and other agencies, who released a statement saying “We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot,” Paul Shearon, IFPTE president, said in a statement.

In addition to federal workers being subjected to mandatory vaccine or testing requirements, some states and cities are instituting these same rules for their workforce. As UCOMM previously reported New York City recently issued a similar order to President Biden and received mixed support with the city’s teachers union being supportive of it, while their AFSCME affiliate, DC 37, said that this needed to be negotiated between the city and the union. New York State and California have also told state workers that they will need to be vaccinated or tested to return to work.

Private businesses are also moving towards requiring vaccines. Just in the last week Google, Facebook, Netflix, Lyft, and Wal-Mart have announced vaccine policies and Disney announced that non-union and salaried employees at Disneyland and Walt Disney World would be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to keep working at the Disney theme parks and other U.S. locations. However, union employees at the park, which in the case of Disneyland is about 28,000 of the 32,000 people employed there, will have to wait for guidance as Disney continues to negotiate with the unions on a vaccine policy. Unlike office workers, many of the people at Disney will be coming in near-constant contact with tourists from around the world, making them particularly susceptible to contagious variants.

Instead of mandating vaccines, which courts have held that private employers have the right to do, Disney released a statement saying “We have also begun conversations around this topic with the unions representing our employees under collective bargaining agreements. In addition, all new hires will be required to be fully vaccinated before beginning employment.”

According to an interview with Unite Here Local 362, which represents workers at Disney World, President Eric Clinton, said part of the discussion around vaccine mandates involves protecting workers who might claim a medical or religious exemption. This would include workers who are immunocompromised from things like recently beating cancer or being allergic to the shot.

As more and more businesses reopen, discussions about vaccine mandates are sure to continue. While unions have made it clear that they support getting all of their members vaccinated, they are insisting that they must be at the table for any discussion about mandates or penalties in regards to vaccine status.

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