There’s no doubt that, in years to come, so much will be written on the effect of the pandemic in all aspects of our lives, that entire libraries will be filled with books on the subject containing countless facts, findings and personal accounts of this dark time in history. But surely, there will also be some “silver-lining” stories: How self-quarantine meant more time spent with loved ones; or discovering that effective office work does not have to emanate just from the office or looking forward to watching your beloved sports teams in-person again, with the anticipation you had as a youth. The pandemic brought feelings of horror, hope, fear and joy, as well as many losses and even some gains.
To some degree, unions can excel in hard times––economic and otherwise. For example, following the Great Depression in the 1930s, with so many workers unemployed, the historic wisdom that such a time would be less than desirable for union organizing, since workers are usually fearful of “rocking the boat,” was overshadowed by the excessive numbers of unemployed. They actually sought union protections and a voice. This placed pressure on legislators that resulted in New Deal reforms such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which gave workers enhanced rights, including an expanded ability to engage in collective bargaining. Union membership began to grow in the U.S. at that time and peaked in the 1950s. Unfortunately, since then, union membership has been on a steady decline. Compared with the mid-20th century, when about one in three workers nationwide were union members, just one in 10 are today.
But the pandemic may have helped to change that for several reasons. Among them, deadly working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic during which, for example, nearly 5,000 workers at meatpacking plants in 19 states had tested positive for COVID-19. Plus, many large corporations and local businesses began slashing salaries and benefits. Unemployment filings reached record highs. Faced with fears about unsafe conditions, new job responsibilities with limited training, inadequate information made available by government leaders and agencies and the unfortunate need for health and death benefits, many workers and their families turned to their unions for support.
The net result is that after a drop in union membership in recent decades, worker activism saw a resurgence as COVID-19 ravaged the U.S. economy and endangered its workforce. It is ironic to some degree, that, at the same time when so many U.S. workers lost their jobs due to the pandemic, the essential role that unions play was highlighted as well. This public health crisis amplified anguish over workplace safety and underscored the fact that unions provide the necessary comfort, care and supplies that government often fails to deliver. Many unions, like my own municipal workers union, Teamsters Local 237, bought and distributed personal protective equipment for our essential worker members, where City agencies’ supplies were lacking or nonexistent. We helped arrange appointments for our members to receive free vaccinations when they became available. Now, using our social media platforms and our latest members’ newsletter, we are encouraging members to get vaccinated with a special feature in their own words and photos that answers the question: “Why I got vaxed”. (Most answered: “I got vaccinated to protect myself, my family and my co-workers.”)
To say that COVID-19 has inflicted incalculable social, economic and structural damage comparable to a world war would be considered by most, a fair statement. And taking a cue from Sir Winston Churchill, who said, as we were approaching the end of World War ll, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” perhaps it’s time for labor unions to look to lessons learned as we approach the end of COVID-19.
Unions provided a lifeline for so many during this crisis that it’s no stretch to say, just as we helped to build the middle class from the economic ruin of the Great Depression, we now could have an important role to help reinvigorate labor––bringing it back as a movement, not just a moment. Unionization has become a partisan issue, but it really should not be one. Workers may privately vote Democrat or Republican, but their protections and their rights belong to members of all parties. The Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that public-sector employee unions can no longer charge “agency fees” to workers who choose not to join was a victory by big business in its efforts to erode membership and collective bargaining power. Similarly, the move in many states to pass “right to work” laws also strives to diminish union membership. Both must be combated with the examples of how unions, as demonstrated during this world-wide disaster, positively affect the lives of so many workers and their families. For us, the pandemic is indeed, a crisis NOT to waste.
Gregory Floyd is president, Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.