Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Pandemic highlights need for unionization

4 min read

During the pandemic, workers deal with difficult conditions and a higher risk of contracting the virus without many labor protections. | Lasseter Winery @lasseterwinery on Unsplash

By LAUREL MEYER

Staff Writer

You wake up at the crack of dawn, gulp down whatever caffeinated beverage that will get you through the day, and drive to work. You begin your shift, with a mask on of course, and as you bag groceries and restock the shelves, you try your best to keep a distance from customers. A woman yells at you as you try to explain to her that she needs to have a mask on in order to shop there. As you head home for the day, you keep your fingers crossed that you haven’t come in contact with the virus. This is the reality with COVID-19 plaguing our nation.     

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, with the most notable impact on jobs. Whether you’re working several retail jobs in order to pay the bills, a teacher working countless hours in order to adjust to virtual teaching or a healthcare worker on the frontlines, you risk coming into contact with the virus each day you’re on the job. While most businesses enforce social distancing and other precautions such as mask wearing, there is still a risk for workers of coming into contact with the virus. However, getting this potentially deadly virus isn’t the only thing many Americans are dealing with at this time. 

Millions of Americans have been furloughed from their jobs and rely on unemployment checks while trying to find new jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 13.6 million people were on unemployment in August, and this was with an 8.4 percent dip in the unemployment rate, which was due to the resumed economic activity as many businesses have reopened. Many workers are receiving more money on unemployment than they would make at their jobs, despite any overtime work they may have done as a result of the pandemic. 

Fires sweeping along the West Coast, with California and Oregon being the most heavily affected, also jeopardize workers’ health. Workers who pick our fruits and vegetables are still required to go out into the fields. These farmworkers are out in the field, rain or shine, pandemic or wildfire, and are not getting any extra compensation or even personal protective equipment for these conditions, as discussed in an article from the Guardian. The United Farm Workers of America has released photographs of workers harvesting lettuce and other vegetables while fires are approaching and the air is filled with smoke.  

Many of these essential workers have requested hazard pay. Over the past six months, Congress has passed three COVID-19 relief packages, yet did not allocate hazard pay for essential workers who are risking their lives at work each day in order to keep our country running. People in all different lines of work, from postal workers to nurses to the people picking our fruits and vegetables or keeping our grocery stores fully stocked, are working long hours without any extra compensation. The Senate has sat on this for weeks, making it clear that the workers deemed essential are still not being treated as such. Workers should have the right to collective bargaining, which would allow them to negotiate wages and other conditions of employment.

The U.S. has had a weak system of labor precautions in general. Labor-law protections for organizing and bargaining are often denied, as too often policymakers debate over labor laws and whether they are good for the economy. This is an issue because basic human rights such as the freedom of association should not be linked to economic outcomes. 

Many low-wage workers in particular, who are disproportionately people of color, have largely borne the costs of the pandemic while providing the essential services we rely on.  To combat this issue, many workers consider joining various labor unions in hopes of gaining better pay and safer conditions. This comes at a cost to workers, as the vast majority of employers discourage unionization, and workers risk being fired for attempting to unionize their workplace. 

This is especially important now, as the labor challenges of COVID-19 are more severe. During a crisis, unionized workers have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional pay, paid sick leave, and a say in the terms of furloughs, as explained in the journal article Collective Bargaining during Times of Crisis: Recommendations from the Covid-19 Pandemic by Daniel Fay and Adela Ghadimi. Policymakers must enact reforms that promote workers’ collective power, and there must be an end to the restrictions against unionization. We need to continue the fight for labor laws and the right to unionize. 

It’s time that we make the lives of America’s workforce a priority, because if not now, then when?

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