While there are indeed individuals and entire groups out there who deny either the COVID-19 virus itself outright or its deadly impact, NYC Transit workers have no such luxury. Over 160 MTA employees/mostly transit workers have died, many friends and colleagues. While such deniers belong to another conversation, their logic needs to be noted. They invariably rest their case on denying science and any information or facts that do not comport with their world view. That world consists of endless rabbit holes of mostly senseless, circular arguments. But we should also admit that there are also many individuals and entire groups out there who oppose the wearing of masks and who do so on the grounds of personal choice and freedom.

Here, the implicit logic must be noted, as it props up elsewhere. The logic is that individual choice/discretion should trump regulation, regardless of origin, impact or science and purpose. In important respects, this argument disregarding science actually enjoins that of COVID deniers. The logic––individual choice thumps regulation––can be a very slippery slope. In many parts of the country protest movements have been spawned with threats and attacks directed against parents and children who choose to wear masks. What is that, if not some political agenda that doesn’t have anything to do with freedom of choice? Certainly not when someone espouses individual freedom but then threatens the lives of those who actually exercise it in ways not approved by others.

Finally, as a practical matter, unions have fought for decades for regulatory measures and standards, from PPEs to policies, procedures and engineered solutions to protect the health and safety of workers and of the public. If anything, too many unions were late or absent in bringing all pressure to bear to forcibly protect their members through most of the pandemic. Yet, no one can reasonably dispute that wearing masks, under the current conditions, properly falls under required PPE. Yet some argue that that too, should be subordinate to their rights and personal choice––i.e., their “right” to infect others. 

Just for the purposes of this conversation, we consider appropriate preventive measures as falling into the categories of invasive and non-invasive measures, with the former being the most controversial. The opposition to non-invasive measures to combat the pandemic is wholly irrational and absurd. But keep the underlying logic in mind––because it lives on.

So, let’s move on to invasive measures such as the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Let me state from the onset, that those people who have lived their lives opposed to taking vaccines or whose religion prohibits it, should be accommodated for it goes to their deeply held personal belief system which should be respected and defended. Unions should not compound their past failures by failing to militantly police and protect to ensure that that happens. But before folks sign themselves into that category, they should consider that vaccine mandates have been required for school attendance in the U.S. and almost everywhere else (it’s called your Immunization Card, and we all have them buried somewhere in our personal belongings; it’s how smallpox, measles and a host of other diseases have been suppressed in the population) and for most international travel for many decades. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, for all arms of the U.S. military as many as up to 17 vaccines (seventeen!!!) were required in order to deploy. I don’t know how so many would have possibly evaded such requirements. So, without venturing down rabbit holes about “messenger RNA” or discussing the very valid concerns about abuse and profiteering by the pharmaceutical companies where strong controls are entirely lacking and are needed, clearly such vaccine mandates are hardly new. 

All of which begs the question: What is this all about and how did this big hullabaloo come about? I’ll address that next but there are clues right in front of your eyes, right before you: just look at the most vociferous organizers of the anti-vaccine protests and check to see what else they oppose and you will find that they are coming after YOU, your loved ones and your rights, in the end. You may be marching for some other agenda and under some other banner, neither of which is about your interests. You may be rallying and marching under the agenda of enemies of social justice, equality and human rights. And there would be nothing progressive or progressively militant about that!

Roger Toussaint is the former president of the Transport Workers Union Local (TWU), Local 100.

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