What the virus demands — workers need protection

As more and more people face potential infection by the COVID-19 virus, workers in the U.S. need to fight for a program to protect our health, our lives and our income during this crisis. While the coronavirus can infect anyone, it is workers on the job — especially those who cannot stay home and whose jobs put them in touch with hundreds, even thousands of people every day — who will be most exposed.

Workers in unions need their representatives to draw up demands on the bosses right away to mitigate their exposure to the virus, to provide whatever protective equipment or gear may be deemed useful, and to continue to pay their wages and salaries so there is no loss of income in the event of illness or quarantine. The unions need to review what their health plans cover and make sure that every member gets the diagnostic tests and medical treatment necessary to combat the virus.

There is already movement by unions in that direction.


Hospitality workers in New Orleans stormed into Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s news conference on March 9 to demand emergency sick pay and health coverage, and an emergency order from the city that no one be fired or evicted from their homes due to COVID-19 illness. Credit: Gavrielle Gemma

Unions mobilizing against COVID-19

The Association of Flight Attendants states that it “continues to call on government to coordinate response and resources to stop spread of COVID-19” and has developed an extensive list of demands to protect the health and income of airline workers. (afacwa.org)

“Now is the time to use every possible tool available to guarantee the highest level of protection . . . to prevent the spread of infection, to protect health care workers, and to preserve our capacity to respond to a potentially widespread outbreak,” said Jane Thomason, an industrial hygienist with National Nurses Union. (Buzzfeed.org, March 6)

United Steelworkers Local 8751, the Boston School Bus Drivers Union, has prepared a thorough list of demands to the company that operates school transportation. “As we have throughout our proud 45-year history, Local 8751 members are pledged to protect ourselves and the most precious cargo we carry, by every and any means necessary, with a scientific and justice-minded approach that allows us and the communities we serve to proceed with hope for the best, while preparing for the worst,” the local explained.

Medicare for All now!

The federal government needs to cover the medical costs of anyone not fully insured who requires diagnosis and/or treatment for the virus. It must also cover loss of income during illness and recovery and/or quarantine — an important measure to limit the spread of COVID-19 is to allow sick people to stay home rather than go to work.

The government must guarantee the salaries and health care coverage of any workers who lose their jobs due to the virus. People from oppressed communities, low-wage workers and fast food workers — often predominantly women of color — are at special risk of losing their jobs.

Also at special risk are im/migrants being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement concentration camps — most of them workers in their home countries — as well as people incarcerated in the prison-industrial complex, who are being exploited as workers there by state and corporate powers. In these confined situations, the health care provided is already less than minimal. A worker-initiated campaign to “Close the camps! Shut down the prisons!” needs to accompany demands for protection for those trapped in them from the evolving epidemic.

This country, unlike most other developed nations, has no overall national health care program. All workers–with or without health care insurance, with or without unions–need to band together and fight for free health care for all, based on the current emergency. This can stimulate the broader mass campaign for ongoing, universal, free health care, popularly known as Medicare for All.

We don’t need to wait for the elections to raise these demands. A health crisis is unfolding before our eyes, and the time to act is now!

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