Unions are giving workers a seat at the table when it comes to the coronavirus response

We have never seen such immediate and sweeping changes at so many workplaces in modern history. What are unions doing to ensure that workers have a seat at the table?

EPI reports and blog posts have documented the ways that workers through their unions solve problems and make changes that improve their lives and their communities. This includes ensuring broader access to paid sick leave and health insurance, two issues of particular importance in the current pandemic. This blog post, culled from public news sources, summarizes just a few ways unionized workers are using their bargaining rights to have a say in how they are going to safely and effectively do their jobs during the pandemic. We encourage readers to share their stories to add to these examples.

  • Teamsters have negotiated an agreement with UPS providing paid leave, and are pressing UPS for extra protections. The Teamsters’ UPS and UPS Freight National Negotiating Committees and UPS reached an agreement that provides for paid leave for any worker who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined because a family member in their household is ill with the virus. According to Transport Topics, “the paid-leave agreement applies to about 300,000 full- and part-time hourly employees, primarily drivers, package handlers and mechanics, if they should become directly impacted by the novel coronavirus.” The leave pay includes pension contributions. Workers who use paid time off to self-quarantine and are later diagnosed with COVID-19 can get that time back in their leave bank.

    UPS is also implementing other protective measures, such as altering delivery requirements to minimize direct contact with customers, specifically by not requiring signatures from customers. Efforts to keep workers safe are ongoing. For example, the president of a local Teamsters chapter in Boston is insisting that UPS step up its cleaning of trucks and equipment  These protections are especially important, as UPS union members will reportedly be delivering and picking up test kits and supplies for COVID-19 drive-through testing sites.
  • Teamsters have secured job security commitments from Waste Management. The Teamsters Waste and Recycling Division represents more than 32,000 workers in the private sanitation industry. The division sent a letter to the three largest companies in the industry—Waste Management, Republic Services, and Waste Connections—asking the companies to outline what they are doing to ensure the safety and health of sanitation workers and requesting specific changes to attendance and paid-time-off policies. Subsequent communications with Waste Management have secured proposals for job security, guaranteed pay, and excused absences for workers.
  • The United Auto Workers (UAW) is negotiating plant operations with Ford, GM, and Fiat Chrysler, including plans to make face shields and ventilators. The UAW represent about 150,000 auto workers at General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler. In mid-March, UAW officials urged the companies to shut down their factories for two weeks to protect autoworkers from the spreading coronavirus. The request followed union members’ concerns that continued work at the plants would expose them to the virus (a worker at a Fiat Chrysler transmission plant in Kokomo, Indiana, tested positive for COVID-19) and was made the day before UAW members at a Fiat Chrysler factory in Warren, Michigan, went on strike to protest the unsafe working conditions caused by working in close quarters. Initially the companies agreed only to creating a joint task force with the union to implement protection measures for workers and cutting shifts so that factories would be cleared of workers on a rotating basis for deep cleaning of the facility and equipment. But shortly after that agreement was announced, the automakers announced plans to halt production at plants across North America.The UAW and the automakers also said they would work together on plans to restart the plants when it is safe to do so, according to a statement from Ford.
    Meanwhile, Ford and the UAW announced that they will start assembling plastic face shields —clear plastic shields that can be used to protect health care workers and others who deal with the public from virus-containing droplets—at a Ford manufacturing site, and start making ventilators at another Ford plant. As Reuters reports, Ford officials say the safety procedures followed to keep workers safe as they produce the ventilators “will be adapted from work Ford and the UAW have been doing to prepare for the automaker to reopen other U.S. factories.” These efforts are part of a recently announced entree by the automakers into production of ventilators, face masks, and face shields for health care workers and first responders.
  • Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have won paid leave for Verizon workers. According to Labor Notes, “the unions representing 34,000 workers at Verizon have negotiated paid leave for union members who can’t work during the COVID-19 outbreak.” Telephone workers, like many health care workers and grocery workers, are considered essential workers and thus must stay on the job. The agreement between the unions and Verizon specifies that workers will get paid leave if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, are directed by a doctor to stay at home due to underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable, have to care for a child whose school or day care has been closed due to the pandemic, or have to care for a person in their family who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Labor Notes quoted a statement from Teamsters for a Democratic Union: “The paid leave won by the union at Verizon surpasses anything even raised by our International Union for Teamsters working in parcel, trucking, grocery, food, beverage, waste, and other essential frontline services that put workers at risk.”
  • Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) has secured masks for health care workers. SEIU UHW represents more than 97,000 front-line health care workers in hospitals, clinics, and other facilities in California as well as patients and health care consumers. After hearing from members about the lack of protective equipment, the union found a supplier and secured 39 million of the N95 masks, according to the Bay area NBC affiliate. The masks will be distributed to state and local governments and health care systems. Union officials also said they found suppliers of protective masks and face shields.

A broader seat at the table for all workers

Not only are unions helping workers at individual workplaces, they are also seeking a broader seat at the table for all workers.

For example, the International Trade Union Confederation, which represents 200 million members of 332 affiliates in 163 countries and territories, joined with the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to send a letter to G20 leaders. They called for coordinated action through International Labor Organization, World Health Organization, OECD, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank to “protect the health of all people and the incomes and jobs of all working people as the key to stability of business and the real economy.”

The letters calls for urgent investment in public health and measures to support all workers regardless of their employment status, including those in the informal economy, including paid sick leave from day one; wage/income protection; managed reduction of hours where necessary, with government support to maximize income security; mortgage, rent and loan relief; universal social protection and free access to health care; and, child care support for front-line workers working in health care, supermarkets, pharmacies and other vital areas.

Keep the vital stories coming

Stories keep coming in of ways union workers are demanding protections and winning health and safety protections. In her recent blog post on the very ill-timed and harmful rulemakings affecting union organizing, my colleague Celine McNicholas notes how “grocery unions have won personal protective equipment, paid sick time, and hazard pay for their members.” That is the kind of seat at the table that is so crucial—at all times, but especially now.

Please keep these important stories coming. If you have examples of unions winning critical provisions to help their members stay safe and navigate workplace changes during this crisis, please email me at lengdahl@epi.org.