I’ve talked about my disappointment in many unions opposing vaccine mandates. It’s been very frustrating. But there is one union that is typically leading the way and that’s the Painters. The most politically progressive among the building trades (not that political progressivism has led left-leaning unions to support vaccine mandates), the Painters have come out for mandated vaccines in order to preserve health and safety on the job.
As the country continues to wrestle with efforts to increase vaccination rates, an international building trades union took the rare step on Wednesday of stating clear support for vaccination mandates for its staff, its national collective-bargaining unions, and its affiliated local unions.
The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), which represents 140,000 active and retired craftspeople in the U.S. and Canada, issued a statement urging the labor movement to “lead by example.” It goes further than other unions, which have generally stated that any vaccine requirement should be negotiated first at the bargaining table.
“We’re not looking for anything at the bargaining table, and we’re not looking at our support in return for something else,” said incoming IUPAT General President Jim Williams Jr. “We feel COVID is a true health and safety risk on the job site, and if the employers mandate it, we want to be supportive. There’s a ton of mandates that employers already put out for health and safety.”
Look, unions have to protect the contract. But the contract is not the only thing unions do. However, that’s where most unions are.
But for now, most international unions, even those actively encouraging vaccinations, have not gone as far as the IUPAT. Earlier this month, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), issued a statement saying that, with the delta variant spreading, vaccination is “more essential than ever.” But he stopped short of expressing support for employer mandates. “As employers establish vaccination policies, AFSCME will address the impact on workers through bargaining to ensure that the front-line heroes of this pandemic are treated fairly,” Saunders said.
Likewise, when Tyson Foods issued a vaccination requirement for its U.S. workforce earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 24,000 Tyson meatpackers, issued a critical statement, saying employers should negotiate such policies with their workers first. “While we support and encourage workers getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and have actively encouraged our members to do so, it is concerning that Tysons is implementing this mandate before the FDA has fully approved the vaccine,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone had said. “This vaccine mandate must be negotiated so that these workers have a voice in the new policy.” (The UFCW separately supports a national mask mandate, and Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, Comirnaty, was approved by the FDA on Monday.)
SEIU, which is strongly encouraging vaccination for its members, also warns on its website that “employers may commit an unfair labor practice if they fail to bargain with the union before implementing a mandatory vaccination program.” Last week, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a new vaccine mandate for all health care workers, nursing home workers, and public-school employees, the local SEIU affiliate president released a statement noting, “When it comes to the vaccine mandate, there is no consensus among our membership. People strongly support the mandate and people strongly oppose the mandate. But I think we can all agree that having a say in how this new policy impacts our lives is a good thing.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents unionized federal workers, said in late July that any new vaccine policy must be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is currently negotiating a vaccine mandate with AT&T, and attempting to find solutions like permanent at-home work for workers who oppose the mandate.
I will say, without being able to give specifics here, that sometimes unions are actually out ahead of the employer on these issues and the employers feel they need to have their bases covered before coming out with something like that even if the union wants it. So this is a complicated situation overall. But good on the Painters for seeing through the parochialism of contract-only unionism to the higher plane of keeping everyone safe and healthy.