CHICAGO — Amazon warehouse workers in New York walked off the job to demand protection against Covid-19. A county judge in Illinois pressed two McDonald’s franchises to work out an agreement with their employees about the supply of masks and hand sanitizer. And grocery store workers at Publix and Trader Joe's in Florida have haggled for hazard pay as they work public-facing jobs.
Across corners of the labor market traditionally without unions, the coronavirus is spurring new interest in organizing for safer workplaces and better pay as the nation embarks on a long economic recovery. Most states have already crafted or kicked off plans to reopen their economies after shutting them down to curb the spread of Covid-19. Now, many among the millions of people who toiled away at invisible low-wage jobs stocking shelves or setting up medical equipment the whole time are looking to capitalize on how “essential” they’ve become.
“In literally a day, grocery store workers have gone from ‘just a job,’ to having a job that’s incredibly stressful, demanding and scary,” said Damon Silvers, the policy director and special counsel for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. “The nature of the job has been transformed. Employees are saying, ‘If I’m going to risk my life, how about paying me more?’”
Union membership across the country has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s but organized labor has attracted the national spotlight in recent years thanks to series of teacher strikes, including in conservative states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Unions are happy to leverage the new angst brought on by the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO's Department for Professional Employees launched an initiative to educate nonunion workers about how organizing can protect their health and safety as Covid-19 persists. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters offers an online resource guide for nonunion workers. And the California Labor Federation has a team responding to nonunion workers trying to file for unemployment, spokesman Steve Smith said.
Despite the new energy, organizing efforts are slow and may ultimately falter. No one’s yet formed a union based on not being able to get PPE. If employees do try, they may face new hurdles enacted by the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration, which many labor officials interviewed for this report see as anti-union. The agency recently issued rules unions complain would prolong the election process. NLRB argues the changes will increase transparency. Coronavirus hit the U.S. at a time when the labor market was tight — unemployment was low and employers were actively looking to hire. But in a matter of days, companies shut down and hundreds of thousands of people across the country were laid off. For those still on the job, it created fear and anxiety among low-wage workers, and raised questions about the value they provide in a crisis and the risks they’re forced to take on at a moment’s notice.
“There’s a disconnect in what people think of workers — they’re heroes — and what they’re being paid,” said Zach Koutsky, political director for Local 881, which represents retail food and drug store workers in Illinois as well as employees in the cannabis industry. Calls come in from frozen pizza plant workers, cannabis workers and nonunion grocery employees, he said. They say, “'Dear god, we need to meet with you.’ It’s always been there, but it’s definitely picked up.”
The uptick in union phone calls isn't likely to translate into membership, labor experts say.
“It’s very hard for them to join because the laws are imbalanced, the NLRB is incredibly hostile right now and a good number of states have governors and legislative bodies that are very antagonistic toward labor,” said Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Employers “aren’t afraid to spend millions to keep their operations union free.” Still, members of Congress have also taken note of this workforce in the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act, legislation introduced last month to setup a victims fund for a wide range of essential workers.
“On September 11, it was the heroic firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the sponsor, told reporters on a conference call hyping the bill. “Today, it is the hospital workers, nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers.”
It's a mishmash of industries. Steel mill workers in Gary, Ind., have called the AFL-CIO asking how to get more personal protective equipment because their bosses didn’t supply enough. Ride-hail drivers in California are asking union shops how to get gear too. Employees at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in central Minnesota have protested working conditions. And while larger grocery store chains like Kroger or Jewel-Osco have a unionized workforce, people employed at smaller stores in St. Louis and restaurant workers in Chicago want to know how to organize.
“I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” said Bob Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
This wouldn’t be the first time safety issues would become a lightning rod for the labor movement, of course. Union organizers have leveraged the works of Upton Sinclair, the safety hazards of the mining industry in Appalachia and the difficult farming conditions in California to secure new worker rights and safer conditions. In Chicago, where hundreds of nursing home assistants are calling for pay increases to at least $15 an hour, the heart of their concerns was about safety.
“Workers are worried they could lose their house and their family’s health,” said Diana Tastad-Damer, director of organizing for UFCW Local 1189 in Minnesota. “So, it’s being put in a bigger picture than just wages or livelihood. Now it’s about their family’s livelihood and survival.”
Dave Cook, president UFCW 655 in St. Louis, Mo., hopes the pandemic will change the way the country looks at low-wage jobs and how low-wage workers look at themselves.
“Without your Dollar General or your Amazon warehouse workers, Americans wouldn’t be fed,” he said. “Maybe these workers will start to understand the value they have for society, because for decades they've been told they have no value and that they’re replaceable.”
Greg Ferrara, CEO of the National Grocers Association, says the 1,600 independent grocers in his organization were attentive early on to safety issues and as a result haven’t heard calls for union representation. But he acknowledges employees have a renewed interest in safety. “When you’re working in a place where you have a shield in front of you or you’re wearing a mask and doing enhanced sanitizing procedures, employees are much more aware of the important role they’re playing," he said. "Whether it ties to an interest in organized labor, I can’t say.”
It’s too early to say whether Covid-19 concerns will lead to a rise in union membership, said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council in Chicago.
“Our current history is providing a compelling picture of more and more workers who are not able to earn a decent living, whose jobs are fragile and in jeopardy and who don’t have retirement security, who have been turning to unions more and more with the pandemic,” Lynch said. “I think there’s every reason that that will intensify.”