All over the country, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, workers are fighting for and winning safer working conditions, the right to stay home and income protection. They are both unionized and nonunionized and work in a range of occupations. Here is a sampling of their successful struggles.
Cleveland construction workers win right to stay home
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a “stay at home” order on March 22 that went into effect at midnight the next day. All “non-essential” businesses were ordered closed.
The order, however, deemed housing construction “essential,” meaning that construction of new, expensive condos in areas being gentrified would continue.
Construction workers, fearful for their safety, were being forced to continue working without proper sanitation, on jobs where safe “social distancing” was impossible. The workers, who argued that their work is in no way essential and they should not have to work under unsafe conditions, had been told by officials in Cleveland’s building trades unions that if they took a voluntary layoff they could not collect unemployment benefits.
On March 23, workers reported to work as usual at a construction project in a Cleveland neighborhood recently reinvented with the made-up name “Hingetown.” This small section of Ohio City is undergoing a second wave of gentrification, forcing many residents to seek housing elsewhere and tying up traffic with an abundance of luxury apartment construction.
Unwilling to continue working unsafely, the union electricians walked off the job, while union plumbers began a sit-down. Before morning’s end, and after workers met with construction company management and union leadership, the workers won the right to take voluntary layoffs and collect unemployment.
Workers at other construction sites have reportedly been taking similar actions. They need supporters to call Gov. DeWine at 614-644-4357 and ask that he declare this unsafe work non-essential.
Trader Joe’s workers win hazard pay
Under the banner “We won!” on March 20, the Coalition for a Trader Joe’s Union announced a victory won from the company in response to a petition seeking a “special bonus pool” for all the company’s employees. The concession was time and a half pay in recognition of the hazards Trader Joe’s workers face by keeping stores open in the midst of the pandemic.
The coalition is still seeking paid sick leave for workers who are at high risk and paid family leave for workers who have children at home from school but no access to child care.
Another key issue concerns workers’ right to wear gloves when working cash registers. While the corporation claims to have a policy providing this minimal protection, workers complain of still being sent home without pay for refusing to work registers without gloves.
Amazon workers win paid time off for all
With so many workers temporarily out of work, the struggle for paid time off is of primary importance, especially for low-wage workers. Amazon warehouse workers at the DCH1 warehouse in Chicago began demanding PTO in January after reading in the employee handbook that everyone working 20 hours or more a week was entitled to it. The company tried to claim only full-time workers could take days off with pay.
Most of the workers at DCH1 are Black and Latinx. When they met with the company, “They talked to us like stupid workers who can’t read.” (Amazonians United) The workers’ group, DCH1 Amazonians United, distributed leaflets and wore buttons that read “Amazonians United for PTO.” Strike talk was part of the conversation.
The campaign for PTO picked up steam when the COVID-19 crisis really hit, and Amazonians also began demanding protections to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On March 20, the company issued a memo informing all Amazon workers — not just workers at DCH1 — they were eligible for PTO.
NYC’s $12 billion emergency relief
A $12 billion relief plan to help businesses and workers impacted by the pandemic in New York City was proposed at the March 19 City Council meeting. The multipronged plan includes a temporary universal basic income for all New Yorkers and unemployment protections for those who have had their hours cut, workers in the gig economy and freelancers.
The plan is projected to be paid for by the federal government. But if that doesn’t come through, it can be funded by city bonds, which helped the city rebuild after the 9/11 disaster in 2001. Based on the council’s estimates, over 500,000 workers and more than 40,000 businesses are among the hardest hit in NYC.
A broad coalition of worker justice advocates also held a virtual press conference on March 20 to call for expansion of New York City’s Earned Safe and Sick Leave Act. That would expand unemployment insurance, extend paid sick leave to workers at gig companies, and establish a fund for workers who otherwise would not qualify for assistance, such as undocumented workers and those categorized as independent contractors: Uber and Lyft drivers, Amazon Flex delivery drivers, food delivery workers, nail salon technicians, home care workers, janitors and others.
Teamsters Local 804 fights for New York UPS workers
For workers deemed “essential,” the fight for safe working conditions is paramount. This included package delivery workers. Because they are unionized, United Parcel Service workers are better-protected from COVID-19 than their counterparts at FedEx and Amazon. Representing UPS workers in New York City, Teamsters Local 804 President Vinnie Perrone sent an update to members on what the union has demanded from the company.
Demands included cleaning and sanitizing trucks and buildings, staggered start times to reduce overcrowding and cleaning work to be done by union members.
Management has agreed to the demands, but Perrone reminded members: “We all need to stick together and keep the pressure on to make the company comply with CDC and OSHA guidelines and protect members and the public.” (teamsterslocal804.org)
Grevatt, trustee of UAW Local 869, retired last year from FCA after 31 years. Sue Davis (UAW Local 1981, National Writers Union) and Betsey Piette contributed to this article.