How Union Workers Fought for All Workers During the Pandemic

By Ryan Hollander, Washington State Organizer

“For years and years and years, people that we call ‘essential workers’ were invisible. It was as if no one knew they existed. They did their jobs every day to keep the country and the economy going. And then Covid came and everybody was staying home except people they called ‘essential workers,’ people that were driving buses, and delivering food, and taking care of sick people, and making us better. This pandemic…showed how helpless workers are without a union.” – Richard Trumka, President AFL-CIO

What price for a paycheck

As the COVID-19 virus spread in the United States in 2020, it radically altered our experience of where, how, and even if, we did our jobs anymore. Many higher income workers were able to retreat to home offices or living rooms to work safely away from public interaction. Others did not get that option, laid off by the millions from industries impacted by the pandemic, even those that received federal money to keep workers employed. 

Another group, who we now refer to as “essential workers,” stayed on the frontlines, risking their lives every day to make sure our society would keep functioning. In spite of the dangers these workers faced, they were offered little additional protection from OSHA, who delegated workplace safety to employers that were, in turn, downplaying or ignoring risks. It was organized workers who stepped up to protect workplaces by securing safety standards, fair compensation and job security during the exploding crisis.

Vulnerable workers deserted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

The Trump administration tried to downplay the pandemic by manufacturing doubt about the severity of the COVID-19 virus. In lockstep with that strategy, the federal office in charge of workplace safety, OSHA, took a hands-off approach in responding to the crisis. In April 2020, the agency announced they would be reducing most workplace inspections, and urged companies to handle COVID-19 related issues on their own. OSHA also gave health care employers wide latitude on whether or not to report staff who died from COVID-19. One study revealed that ⅓ of health care worker deaths were not being reported to authorities, dangerously misrepresenting the severity of the virus.

Employers offered minimal protection 

Setting the tone for employer response to the pandemic was the National Restaurant Association, who waged an ongoing war against paid sick leave for restaurant employees, already unavailable to 4 out 5 workers in that industry. Meanwhile, retail giants like Walmart reluctantly established but often failed to enforce mask mandates that would protect their own employees from the virus. 

Faced with a spike in positive COVID cases, warehouse workers at an Amazon facility in New York City walked off the job, demanding their employer thoroughly clean the building and start alerting co-workers when new cases were confirmed. In the meatpacking industry, where some of the worst outbreaks have occurred, corporations were refusing to pay workers compensation to the families of employees who died from the virus. 

Organized workers step in to protect all essential workers 

Across industries and across the nation, labor unions recognized the new dangers to essential workers and fought against uncooperative employers to install new safety procedures, establish hazard pay and protect workers from lay-offs. Here are just a few examples from the thousands of battles won during the pandemic:

  • Hospitals: The National Nurses United union was one of the first to criticize hospitals’ lack of preparation against the pandemic and demanded more protective equipment for health care workers. In Chicago, for example, they negotiated a new contract that boosted safety by hiring more shift staff and ensuring sufficient PPE supplies on site for employees.
  • Grocery Stores: The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) won premium hazard pay for thousands of workers at Kroger, Giant, Safeway, and Shoppers. UFCW units across the country pushed grocery corporations to adopt safety measures for workers and customers while also lobbying local governments to enact critical safety policies
  • Public Transportation: In New York City, the Transport Workers Union successfully fought a prolonged battle with the city to implement social distancing protocols and a supply of 41,000 masks to protect each city transit worker. By the time the city relented, 131 transit workers had already died of COVID-19.
  • Schools: As the virus raged in Washington State last summer, the Washington Education Association (WEA) protected the 120,000 public educators, and over 1 million students, in the state’s schools by demanding a safety-first approach for any return to school plan. They’ve promoted crucial safety requirements like personal protective equipment and proper ventilation, as well as advocating for accelerated vaccinations for educators. 
  • Deliveries: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters negotiated agreements with multiple delivery service companies to protect workers’ paychecks, paid sick leave and avoid layoffs. The union reached an agreement with UPS guaranteeing paid leave for any worker diagnosed with COVID-19 or requiring quarantine. They also negotiated with DHL Express to minimize potential layoffs through authorizing a more flexible use of accrued vacation days.
  • Government Operations: State and local governments were forced to rapidly adapt to the swell of new demands on health departments, unemployment support and sanitation services. In Washington State, AFSCME Council 28 went proactive to protect its frontline members and their families by negotiating expanded workers’ compensation, telework options and paid leave for those forced to quarantine.

The power of collective bargaining during crisis

As the pandemic descended on our country, workers stuck on the frontlines faced a vacuum of safety oversight from the Trump Administration and negligent employers hesitant to change. During a once-in-a-generation national emergency, it was organized workers who stepped in to prioritize the physical and economic health of America’s workforce. 

Through the power of collective bargaining, workers have been able to win enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, and paid sick time. These gains allowed families to navigate the pandemic while saving an incalculable number of lives. In schools, hospitals and grocery stores, we’ve come to think of essential workers as heroes. As we praise our heroes that kept the country running, we should also thank their union, who had their back when very few others did.