Ultimately, one of the biggest issues in COVID-19 so far has been workplace safety. Meatpacking, groceries, warehouses, Walmart–all of these workforces have been declared “essential” and thus exposed to a lot of COVID infection opportunities. In all cases, this reflects an already powerful anti-worker mentality that has sacrificed their safety for profit. As I’ve said before, the only reason that the horrible conditions of the meatpacking plants are getting attention now as to before is because you the consumer may get the health conditions spreading there, as opposed to the broken limbs and knife accidents that are only on the worker themselves. Even now, the pathetic “hero pay” that groceries were giving workers is being taken away, even though if anything, workers are going to need it more than ever with states reopening and family members unemployed.
One thing that is clear is union workers have more ability to fight back and gain protections than non-union workers. This is a couple of weeks old now, but still a highly relevant piece from Gary Perinar, an officer with the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters:
Of all the injustices exposed by the pandemic, the risks faced by non-union workers have become the most apparent. Non-union workers are being asked to risk their safety with little or no protections of their own. This is why we’re seeing a groundswell of strikes and walk-offs from delivery drivers and other workers on the front lines.
The construction industry is no different. Many non-union construction workers do not have health insurance — about 54%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Because they often are paid under the table, non-union workers also can struggle to access unemployment benefits. Their unemployment insurance, Social Security and other benefits are not withheld from their paychecks.
Compare the experience of non-union construction workers with what building trades unions across the country are providing for their members. The Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters has a dedicated safety department and staff working round the clock answering questions and visiting job sites to make sure they are compliant with CDC health and safety guidelines. We’ve also extended health insurance eligibility for members who lost coverage due to a reduction of hours worked and are providing 100% coverage for testing, office visits, ER and urgent care visits relating to COVID-19, among other benefit adjustments.
As a member of a unionized faculty, the difference between what is happening at our institution, where a spirit of cooperation is the rule of the day, versus schools such as the University of Arizona that unilaterally forced massive pay cuts and announced they were fully in person in the fall without working with faculty is night and day.
Meanwhile, workers keep standing up for themselves, such as Washington farmworkers who would rather not die picking your apples. They are demanding hazard pay and safer working and living conditions. Like the meatpackers, these problems were issues long before COVID existed, but we just mostly didn’t care. Now that we have to care, let’s keep doing so.