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In a Pandemic, Unions Matter

During the pandemic, Unions have expanded the safety net for all workers

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by Guest Post on
Sep 08, 2020

On this Labor Day, with our economy struggling under the weight of a spreading deadly virus, America’s workers need more of what inspired the holiday to begin with: we need more unions.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped daily life, nearly half of the workforce has been labeled essential workers. They have been lauded as heroes, and those working for some companies — about one in 10 — received pay increases because of the hazards they faced. But even as the danger from the virus remains, the kudos of appreciation have begun to fade and extra pay has mostly ended.

It is clear that the coronavirus has exposed an economic inequality crisis that has been eating away at the American Dream for more than a generation. When the battle for the first Labor Day began in the 1880s, activist workers soon concluded that neither employers nor the government would grant their demands for better working conditions, and they would have to fight for and institute change themselves. That is what workers are finding today.

After retail employees tested positive for COVID-19 and many died, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union developed its own member contact-tracing system, stepping up where government and employers failed.

Construction trades unions developed new training curricula and protocols to help block the virus — and workers walked off the job until those measures were adopted.

Unionized nurses have exposed health-care facilities ill-equipped to protect caregivers with simple items such as face masks, while unionized Postal Service workers have united to protect themselves on the job and expose undermining of their mission.

Teachers’ union members have become a voice to keep school children and communities healthy, threatening to strike if expert-advised safety measures are ignored.

But 90% of American workers do not have a union and cannot be confident of safe workplaces. Millions of essential workers earn less than $20 an hour, and those making the lowest wages are least likely to have safety gear or health insurance. Black workers are twice as likely as other workers to be punished for raising safety issues. And restaurant workers have little choice other than to work even when sick because more than 80% of them have no sick leave.

Most essential workers don’t see their employers putting action behind kind words or sharing the burden. Corporate marketers appear to have spent more money praising essential workers than they have in hazard pay. At a McDonald’s in California, for example, workers concerned about the lack of safety equipment were given diapers to use as masks — while CEO compensation at McDonald’s was $18 million in 2019, or 1,939 times that of the average employee.

Most essential workers don’t see their employers putting action behind kind words or sharing the burden. Corporate marketers appear to have spent more money praising essential workers than they have in hazard pay. At a McDonald’s in California, for example, workers concerned about the lack of safety equipment were given diapers to use as masks — while CEO compensation at McDonald’s was $18 million in 2019, or 1,939 times that of the average employee.

Too many political leaders want working people to accept the false choice of risking their lives or being unable to put food on the table. Even as unions help save lives, officials continue to scapegoat organized labor as a yoke around the economy’s neck, one that suffocates productivity and drives up costs.

But unions have long fought for a better way: a stronger safety net of health care, paid leave and unemployment insurance so workers don’t have to make a cruel choice.

If there’s a lesson for workers in this horrible and cruel crisis, it is that you should join a union — not just for better wages or a real voice on the job, but because your life may depend on it.

Edward Smith is president and CEO of Ullico Inc., the nation’s only labor-owned insurance and investment company. This editorial first appeared in the NY Daily News.

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