Remember when flight attendants helped end Trump’s government shutdown early last year by threatening to strike? At the time, Sara Nelson, president of the flight attendants’ union, noted that if the shutdown grounded the air traffic controllers, private business would try to take over this part of the industry. Capitalists would be happy to have this work done poorly — for example, they’d probably shorten the training time required for the air traffic controllers — and thus let many of us die. “Unions are the last check against that kind of greed,” Nelson told Jacobin at the time. “And we are also there for the public good, because we are the public.”
During the coronavirus health crisis, Nelson’s analysis has held up. Union members have been fighting for their own lives, as they should be, but also for all of us, whether or not we are union members. If not for their efforts, many more people would surely be dying.
Nurses all around the country are some of the people most at risk of catching the coronavirus, for obvious reasons. Equally obviously, our whole society urgently needs nurses and all hospital workers to stay healthy right now. With public and private hospitals emerging from the double wreckage of austerity and profit-making, nurses have been in a political battle for their lives, fighting for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and many other safety measures. National Nurses United even held a socially-distanced protest at the White House on Tuesday demanding PPE, and they’ve held similar protests at hospitals throughout New York City.
The nurses and their union won a victory for all of us in New York when, in the middle of this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo decreed that every hospital worker providing direct care must be provided with one new N95 medical mask each day. They have won similar victories in other states as well. In New York and elsewhere, they are still fighting for other types of PPE; nurses have posted photos of themselves on the internet wearing garbage bags over their uniforms.
Other workers whose health and safety affect all of us right now are grocery store workers. If you’re still shopping at nonunion stores like Whole Foods, you’re probably risking your life (although Whole Foods workers have recently won some victories through their own strikes and other actions). The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union has been demanding stricter guidelines for grocery stores from the Centers for Disease Control.
In addition to pay increases, more financial assistance for employees for childcare, and expanded access to mental health care services, the union has won — from major supermarket chains like Kroger — a number of demands that unquestionably benefit the whole community by lowering the spread of coronavirus. These include emergency paid leave for any employee with symptoms of COVID-19, better sanitizing protocols in the stores, shortened store hours, Plexiglas partitions to protect both cashiers and workers, and more social-distancing signage within stores.
Of course, some unions have failed to protect either their members or the public. Teachers’ unions in New York City stood by for far too long as public schools and colleges stayed open through much of March, against the advice of many public health experts around the globe. More than eighty union members working in the K-12 public schools have died, and these have disproportionately been paraprofessionals and teachers’ aides, who tend to be women of color and are paid horrifying low salaries. It’s impossible at this writing to quantify the role of schools in helping the virus to spread throughout the city, but it’s clear the union leadership punted their responsibility to save lives. A timely walkout or strike could have made a big difference. Those union leaders should be swiftly replaced by the membership.
Every night at 7 p.m., many people have been going outside on their porches, leaning out their windows, and standing on fire escapes to cheer for our essential workers. It’s a heartening act of solidarity — neighbors emerging from literal isolation to recognize those who are risking their lives and laboring on behalf of the public. This nightly ritual offers a glimpse of how we might, in our daily lives, honor workers responsible for protecting and sustaining life, rather than worshipping the survivors of the military death machine, as we have for so long. “Essential workers” deserve this respect and newfound cultural salience. But they need good unions even more. We all do.
Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.