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The Loss of Collective Solidarity


I’ve been wrestling with the impact of toxic individualism on our society for some time now and the response to the pandemic is a perfect example of this. Freedom now means “I can do whatever I want and fuck you if you don’t like it.” Compare that to FDR’s Four Freedoms, about collective ideas of freedom. Any connection between freedom and the collective is long gone in our society. The vaccine is a perfect example of this, where the position of resisters is “my body, my choice.” We can talk about how they borrowed such language from the pro-choice movement. Obviously, this balance between the individual and collective is tremendously complicated and gets reflected in those politics too. But we have reached a point where even unions, which are supposed to be about collective action, are taking positions to oppose vaccination mandates because members don’t want to get the shot and their stupid beliefs are taking priority over the collective health of the workers represented by the unions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s declaration on Monday that more than 300,000 municipal workers in New York City must get vaccinated against the coronavirus or agree to weekly testing was an unwelcome surprise to many of the city’s municipal unions.

Unions representing a diverse city work force of firefighters and paramedics have come out against the mayor’s mandate.

Some unions have made demands: Exemptions for workers who have antibodies after recovering from Covid-19; workplace testing paid for by the city; overtime for workers who get tested outside work.

And just about every major union has argued that the mayor cannot unilaterally impose the mandate without first negotiating with labor leaders.

“The unions are really, really aggravated that the mayor sprung this on everybody,” said Harry Nespoli, the president of the sanitation workers’ union.

But Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat in his final year in office, expressed confidence on Tuesday that the city could legally require vaccination or testing for its workers, and that his administration would sort out how to implement the mandate with union leadership.

“We’re quite clear that we’re procedurally in a strong place,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We have the right as an employer to guarantee the health and safety of our employees and everyone they serve.”

Mr. de Blasio said the mandate for city workers — starting Sept. 13, when schools reopen — was necessary to combat a troubling rise of cases as the contagious Delta variant spreads in the city. Officials in California and at the Department of Veterans Affairs also moved to vaccinate government workers.

The opposition from unions — based in part on a general reluctance to force members, many of whom are Black and Latino, to get the vaccine — is more rooted in the logistics of offering vaccines or weekly tests, and the discipline for those who do not comply. For now, it seems unlikely that it could lead to lawsuits or strikes.

There’s obviously room to work around some of these issues and the mayor’s office needs to do that. But let’s be clear what a lot of this really is–exactly the workers you’d expect:

The Police Department appears to have one of the lowest vaccination rates among city agencies. The department has administered the vaccine to 43 percent of workers, though other officers have likely received the vaccine on their own.

The city’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, has so far declined to comment on the new mandate. Other unions have made their opposition clear: The firefighters’ union said the city should allow members who test positive for antibodies to receive exemptions from the mandate. The paramedics’ union said the city was disregarding its members’ civil liberties, and asked for overtime if workers must get tested outside of work hours.

The city should provide the tests onsite. It should provide every opportunity for vaccination (which it’s already doing). It should talk with labor leaders. It could offer pay incentives for a vaccine. But there are higher principles than allowing cops and firefighters to just refuse to get vaccinated because they don’t want to. That’s not union solidarity to stand with these unions.

See, solidarity is about the collective. The collective is not just the unions, though it very much includes the unions. We are not obligated to support whatever unions want to do out of some abstract notion of worker solidarity, especially when those workers are expressing no solidarity with the public by refusing to be vaccinated. Like with police unions, you can oppose what they do without being unionbusters. Simply put, vaccine mandates are necessary, unions are wrong to oppose to them, and when unions are wrong, we are not required to support them. What is unacceptable is calling to bust their contracts or unions like so many want to do with the police unions or the teachers unions. We can negotiate. We can collectively bargain. But in the end, if these unions want support from others, they have to embrace ideas of solidarity too. Solidarity does not mean “do whatever I want you to do when I want it.” It means standing together in common cause to support us all.

When workers choose not to get vaccinated, their unions should not support them. If their unions support their selfish workers instead of the collective, they are not acting in a culture of solidarity. To summarize:

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