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The Challenges Posed By COVID-19 Pushed Many Workers to Strike. Will the Labor Movement See Sustained Interest?

17 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Cerue Cotton never expected to find herself on a picket line. As a forklift operator for Cash-Wa, a regional food distributor in Fargo, North Dakota, she enjoyed the physical challenges and responsibility of her job, and was used to working overnight hours. But this fall, everything changed.

The coronavirus, which had seemed like a far-away problem last spring and summer, began spiking in her community in September. Cotton has a newborn baby and two older children at home, both of whom have asthma. She no longer felt safe going to work. Cash-Wa had for months failed to require masks in its warehouses, enforce social distancing rules or otherwise screen employees. The company’s only precautions were handing out cloth masks and placing two bottles of hand sanitizer in the break room. By late November, Cotton and her fellow workers—all deemed “essential,” under guidance from the federal government—had reached a breaking point: they banded together and refused to work for 24 hours.

“I was super nervous because it was my very first time doing a strike,” Cotton says.

Across the country, workers like Cotton, who have never gone on strike and did not consider themselves activists, have been moved to organize protests, sick-outs and strikes over COVID-19. Unions report a surge in workers taking action and an increased interest in organizing. Grocery stores, warehouses, hospitals, nursing homes, fast food restaurants, schools, and health clinics—unionized and not—all saw walkouts in 2020. While the National Labor Relations Board temporarily froze union representation elections last spring, and COVID-19 has continued to complicate some elections, unions of all types say the pandemic has fueled interest in their work. National unions across industries including health care, food service and retail say they are continuing to field more calls from from workers who want to join up and seeing thousands of current members eagerly volunteering to take action.

Cerue Cotton, a forklift operator for Cash-Wa Distributing in Fargo, N.D., on Jan. 2.
Cerue Cotton, a forklift operator for Cash-Wa Distributing in Fargo, N.D., on Jan. 2.Nina Robinson for TIME

The labor turmoil has followed the course of the pandemic. Last spring, Amazon warehouse workers, Whole Foods employees, and gig workers at Instacart and Shipt refused to work in protest of their companies’ lack of coronavirus safety precautions. In July, workers at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, Colo., one of the country’s largest meatpacking plants, walked out following a deadly COVID-19 outbreak, and in the fall, as the third wave of infections began overwhelming much of the American heartland, a coalition of five unions across six Midwestern hospitals joined forces to demand in a series of letters that the Catholic hospital chain Ascension Health improve staffing levels and infection control protocols.

The complaints rise from an awkward reality: With certain exceptions, such as doctors and nurses, many of the workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic earn relatively low wages and lack access to employer benefits, like paid sick leave or compensation for working under hazardous conditions. While the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) eased at larger hospitals by the end of 2020, many essential workers who are not directly in the medical field are still struggling to consistently access masks or face shields.

Meanwhile, many employers of these essential workers, including Walmart, Amazon, Kroger and Costco, have raked in record profits. The Brookings Institution found that 13 of the largest retail companies in the country earned a total of $16.7 billion more in 2020 than they did in 2019, while raising workers’ pay an average of just $1.11 per hour since the start of the pandemic.

The federal government has, for the most part, declined to erect any safeguards for the workers it said should keep working during a pandemic. While Congress included paid sick leave in its first coronavirus relief package last spring, large loopholes left millions of essential workers ineligible. Lawmakers passed no federal hazard pay requirements. The Trump Administration’s National Labor Relations Board, the agency tasked with enforcing private sector labor laws, further rolled back and weakened worker protections, while the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been criticized for its lax treatment of worker complaints during the pandemic.

Just 10.3% of U.S. employees belonged to a union in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and many of the people who went on strike or organized walk-outs work in industries that do not traditionally have union presences. Tech workers, for instance, organized at least 43 protests, actions or work stoppages related to the coronavirus last year, including a number of small, upstart operations, independent of any formal union, according to Collective Action in Tech. Because many of these tech companies do not have unions, most of the workers who lead or participated in the protests were not labor activists, but workers responding to the perilous situation in which they found themselves.

“The billionaires have gotten much, much richer over the course of the pandemic, and workers are still struggling. They’re scared to leave their jobs because they need their health insurance. And they’re doing work that’s essential, yet treated as disposable,” says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers. “All of those factors coming together has created a moment with a lot of potential.”

Advocates say the past year’s burgeoning, if partly ad hoc, labor movement will outlive the pandemic that gave rise to it. “Anytime workers participate in collective action and succeed, they learn a lifelong lesson,” Givan says.

‘At some point, you have to do something drastic’

The choice to strike is never easy. Even prior to COVID-19, surveys showed that between 50 and 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Giving up a paycheck and benefits during a global pandemic, when hundreds of thousands of businesses are shuttering and tens of millions of workers are being laid off, is a risk of another order altogether—especially when the work you’re leaving has been deemed vital.

From lockdown, people leaned out of their windows to cheer for health care workers, hospitals bought ads celebrating their employees, and school kids painted posters for grocery store clerks and delivery drivers, thanking them for their service. “The nurses ourselves were like, this is a serious time, we’re needed. We can’t be striking,” says Tonia Bazel, an infectious disease nurse at Albany Medical Center in New York. In March, when COVID-19 cases were first rising, she and her coworkers put off talk of a strike.

But in November, after months of sharing ill-fitting and sometimes dirty PPE and raising concerns about other infection control failures, Bazel’s union filed an OSHA complaint and voted to strike. “Not only our hospital, but the CDC and everyone else around us were decreasing the standards, so that we could work in these horrible conditions,” she says.

After the MultiCare providers went on strike in November, the company ignored their demands for weeks. But after finding itself under media scrutiny, it reversed course and offered urgent care providers N95s starting Dec. 14.
After the MultiCare providers went on strike in November, the company ignored their demands for weeks. But after finding itself under media scrutiny, it reversed course and offered urgent care providers N95s starting Dec. 14.Courtesy Zack Pattin

In Washington state, a group of physician assistants, nurse practitioners and doctors faced a similar dilemma. “Honestly there was a lot of reluctance from everybody about going on strike. It’s a thing that you don’t think about people in our position doing,” says Dr. Amir Atabeygi, who works in MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinics. “People wanted to keep working in the clinics and seeing all the patients who were lined up out the door.”

But like the nurses in Albany, the Washington providers’ situation worsened as COVID-19 cases rose. MultiCare continued refusing to provide clinic employees with N95 masks or address concerns about infection control procedures or long hours, and by mid-November, the urgent care clinic workers, who are represented by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, voted to strike. “At some point, you have to do something drastic to sort of bring attention to the problem,” Atabeygi says.

Marie Watson, who works in the maintenance department at the Mission Foods plant in Pueblo, Colo., says that, for her and her coworkers, the increase in union solidarity was driven primarily by fear—for herself and her community. Over the summer, she says, a supervisor who tested positive for COVID-19 was permitted to return to work; Watson worked “practically back to back with” the infected employee. “I was worried as hell,” she says. The collective bargaining agreement at her plant doesn’t allow workers to strike, so her options were limited. But in December amid an outbreak of COVID-19 at the plant, the union publicly called on Mission Foods to close for 14 days to sanitize the facility. The company refused to close, and when the virus hit the plant for a third time this month, the union called once again for Mission Foods to pause operations for cleaning. (Armando Garza, regional director of manufacturing for Mission Foods told TIME the company has conducted weekly plant cleanings and that the Pueblo Department of Health visited its facility Dec. 2 and was “satisfied with our prevention measures.”)

Kim Cordova, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, which represents 25,000 workers in supermarkets, packing houses, food processing plants, health care facilities and barbershops across Colorado and Wyoming says the problems Watson and others face is born of the disconnect between the federal government’s decision to label certain workers essential and its failure to prioritize their safety.

“They’re being forced to go out there,” Cordova says, “but nobody’s protecting them.”

An uptick in interest in labor organizing

Walk-outs and strikes tend to have an add-on effect. When workers see their peers advocating for themselves and winning benefits, labor experts say they’re more likely to consider organizing, too.

This past fall, for example, nurses, respiratory therapists, radiologists and other workers who belong to Teamsters Local 332 at Ascension Genesys Hospital near Flint, Michigan banded together with unions at five other regional hospitals to push administrators to implement hazard pay and guarantee higher staffing levels. Workers at those six hospitals had never collaborated in that way before. After the Local 332 union secured a letter of agreement from Ascension Genesys guaranteeing some hazard pay, other unions used that agreement as leverage to get their hospital to extend the same bonuses to them, too. “The coalition is definitely picking up momentum amid the pandemic,” says Nina Bugbee, president of Teamsters Local 332.

Many unionized workers also began to see an increase in outreach from nonmembers interested in joining their ranks. National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the country, won six union elections in 2020, up from four in 2019, and says it saw members engage in more than double the number union actions from the previous year.

The New York State Nurses Association, which represents the nurses in Albany and around the state, says it had 100 nurses at a hospital in the Hudson Valley vote to join the union in August, and in North Dakota, the Teamsters Local 120 got a new request from workers at another Cash-Wa facility who wanted to organize their own bargaining unit—a rare occurrence in a state where just 6% of workers are unionized. Joe Crane, a representative for UAPD says that, during the first month of the pandemic alone, his union heard from as many doctors reaching out to learn about organizing as it does in a typical year. Bazel, the nurse at Albany Medical Center, also reports a surge in union membership from nurses who didn’t previously think the union was necessary. “A lot of them are now right with us,” she says.

Cash-Wa had for months failed to require masks in its warehouses, enforce social distancing rules or otherwise screen employees. By late November, Cotton and her fellow workers—all deemed “essential,” under guidance from the federal government—had reached a breaking point: they banded together and refused to work for 24 hours.
Cash-Wa had for months failed to require masks in its warehouses, enforce social distancing rules or otherwise screen employees. By late November, Cotton and her fellow workers—all deemed “essential,” under guidance from the federal government—had reached a breaking point: they banded together and refused to work for 24 hours.Courtesy Paul Slattery

Notably, some of the newly organized workers’ groups have sprouted up in conservative states, where right-to-work rules tend to limit traditional unions. Steve Sandman, a delivery driver for Cash-Wa in North Dakota, had never belonged to a union before he took his current job and hardly considered himself an activist. But when his employer failed to take adequate safety precautions, Sandman says he took it upon himself to lobby his non-union coworkers to join the union and hold the company accountable. “They’ve seen the benefits and the number of union employees has increased,” he says.

Matthew Carey, a physician assistant in Lacey, Washington didn’t know his union existed when he took the job at the MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinics, and he wasn’t excited about joining. He’d always thought unions were mostly just “extra work.” But in 2020, after MultiCare management repeatedly refused to provide N95 masks or address providers’ other concerns, Carey stood on the strike line with his colleagues. Multicare’s “main goal is to preserve profits, which I’m fine with profits, but you can’t do it at the expense of the workers,” he says. Carey later tested positive for COVID-19, which he says he picked up at the clinic after working without proper protective equipment. (MultiCare told TIME it could not comment on Carey’s situation but suggested that workers who fall ill are likely getting infected through socializing with other staff or out in the community.)

For Carey, the decision to strike was driven not only by concerns about his own safety, but the safety of his community. It’s a sentiment that dozens of workers and labor activists expressed. “If we can’t take care of ourselves, how can we take care of patients?” says Dr. Atabeygi. Brian Nowak, who works for Teamsters Local 120, the union representing the 75 Cash-Wa workers who went on strike in North Dakota, made a similar point. “If drivers come in contact with somebody in the warehouse who is infected, and they take this back out to their customer, that affects our community,” he says. “This could in essence become a hub” for the coronavirus.

In September, Adam Dean, a professor of political science at George Washington University, co-authored a study in Health Affairs showing that unionized nursing homes were associated with a 30% relative decrease in mortality rate at the height of the first coronavirus surge compared to nursing homes without unions. The unions were also associated with greater access to PPE and a relative decrease in the COVID-19 infection rate. “Labor unions provide protections that not only benefit workers in the union, but have broader benefits for society,” Dean says.

Two steps forward, one step back

In some places, organizing has paid off. In West Virginia, Kroger employees’ strike threat earned them raises and limits on health care premium increases. In Chicago, nursing home workers’ 12-day strike earned them hazard pay, paid sick days and an agreement that they not be required to work without PPE. After the MultiCare providers went on strike in November, the company ignored their demands for weeks. But after finding itself under media scrutiny, it reversed course and started rolling out N95s to its urgent care providers on Dec. 14.

But in much of the country, labor activists say, progress has been ponderous. The patchwork system of coronavirus-inspired relief, combined with the government’s lax enforcement of workers’ right to organize, has weakened what might have been more robust national momentum, says Dean, the George Washington University professor. “Even if there’s an increase in individual interest to join unions, there’s still major obstacles in American labor law that make it difficult for workers to actually form or join a union,” he says. Some hospitals, grocery chains and other employers offered limited versions of hazard pay or incentives for employees to pick up extra shifts, and some states provided money to help employers offer bonuses, taking the steam out of some cooperative efforts.

Workers also faced hostile community responses. In Meridian, Idaho, for instance, hundreds of teachers called in sick in October to protest unsafe working conditions, shutting down the state’s largest public school district for two days. Eric Thiess, a high school physics teacher and president of the West Ada School District teachers union, says the move resulted in some positive changes—including a spike in union membership. But the teachers also faced withering blowback. A group of parents sued the West Ada teachers union, claiming that the walk-out constituted an illegal strike and that it caused undue emotional and financial stress on families. The lawsuit was later dropped, but it took several contentious school board meetings and a recall effort before the district adopted a new plan for handling the coronavirus this semester.

Members of the teachers union, parents and students participate in a march through Brooklyn, N.Y. to demand a safer teaching environment for themselves and for students during the Covid-19 pandemic on Sept. 1, 2020.
Members of the teachers union, parents and students participate in a march through Brooklyn, N.Y. to demand a safer teaching environment for themselves and for students during the Covid-19 pandemic on Sept. 1, 2020.Spencer Platt—Getty Images

But labor organizers say that even incremental progress in 2020 is good news and perhaps portends a changing landscape. Last February, the Democrat-controlled House passed legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, limit employers’ anti-union tools and increase penalties for companies that interfere. President-elect Joe Biden supports that bill. Before he was elected, Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” and he recently announced Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as his pick for Secretary of Labor, making Biden the first Democratic president in close to 100 years to nominate a former union president for the role.

“Marty understands like I do, the middle-class built this country and unions built the middle class. He sees how union workers have been holding this country together during this crisis,” Biden said when announcing his economic team on Jan. 8. “Marty knows worker power means not just protecting the right to unionize, but encouraging unionization, and collective bargaining.” Biden has said he’ll create a Cabinet-level working group to “solely focus“ on union organizing and collective bargaining, and this enthusiasm has labor activists optimistic.

The Democrats now control Congress, too, which could potentially help the incoming Administration accomplish progressive goals like reaching a $15 an hour minimum wage, passing paid family and medical leave, and enacting hazard pay. And while Democrats will still need Republican support for some measures due to their slim majority, labor experts say the pandemic may have created a more fertile ground for that to happen. Gallup found that public opinion of labor unions reached a high in 2020 that it had not seen since 2003.

Even if workers didn’t win every fight in 2020, Rutgers’ Givan says even unsuccessful attempts at organizing can have a lasting impact, since their frustrations, once laid bare, don’t just disappear. “By starting to understand the big picture, and how hard they’re working and where the profits are going, they’re more likely to engage in fighting for fairness in the future,” Givan says. Already there are signs that the labor momentum is continuing this year. In Washington, UAPD filed an Unfair Labor Practice report after MultiCare made changes to the urgent care clinic providers’ work hours and patient loads, and the union says it is considering future actions if the situation doesn’t get resolved. The nurses at Albany Medical Center have seen encouraging changes to the hospital’s PPE policy, they say, and OSHA is continuing to investigate the hospital over their complaint. And next month, about 6,000 Amazon workers in Alabama will vote on whether to unionize in a move that would create the first U.S. union in the giant company’s history.

Cotton, the forklift driver in North Dakota, is perhaps emblematic of this shift. When she returned to work following the November strike, nothing much had changed. Cash-Wa still did not screen employees for health, managers did not enforce social distancing, and the two bottles of hand sanitizer remained unused in the break room. The only difference, Cotton says, was a box of disposable gloves by the kitchen sink and a prickly attitude from her supervisor. But Cotton says she doesn’t regret joining her colleagues on the picket line. It was important to show the company that she and her coworkers know they deserve to be treated fairly, she says, adding, “I knew what I did was the right thing.”

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com