Labor’s Lost Leverage: Why were Union Warnings on COVID Ignored?

Labor's missed opportunity.

This Labor Day, days ahead of the anniversary of Sept. 11th, comes as we face an unprecedented existential socio-economic crisis brought on by a once in a century public health crisis that reduced a ‘superpower’ into a global pariah.

What has been reported by the media as a public health story, is now months in, more of a story about how the lives of workers have been devalued because they are supposed to now just ‘suck-up’ the additional risk they face if they must work outside their home in the midst of a pandemic.

On the fly, the risk of COVID infection has radically altered how the labor market defines the acceptable risks that workers are now compelled to take if they have no choice but to work outside of their home. And this ‘oh, by the way’ requirement comes without even the basics of universal health care as a safety net even though essential workers choosing to work also puts their family at risk for infection.

Labor’s clout has been on the decline for decades and the consequence has been dire not just for the workers put for the broader community which benefits when unions speak up on issues like occupational health for their workers. Such is the circumstance in our current COVID crisis, where some unions spoke out early about their members vulnerability to the virus but were dismissed or ignored.

Had those warnings been heeded we’d likely have a much different reality on the ground.

A half century ago, one third of workers were represented by a labor union. By the early 1980s’, thanks in part to President Ronald Reagan’s mass firing of the striking air traffic controllers, it dropped to 20 percent. Today, it’s down to just over 10 percent.

As multiple research studies have confirmed, as the percentage of unionized workers dropped, so did wages in general which since the 1970s either declined or remained flat even as the concentration of individual and corporate wealth accelerated dramatically.

But what the pandemic has now brought into sharp relief, as we approach 200,000 dead Americans, is that the diminishment of organized labor’s clout meant that they could be largely ignored when they sounded early alarms that the Trump administration’s failed response to COVID would not just cause illness and death for their members but for the public at large.

Even before New York was in lock down mode mid-March the New York State Nurses Association warned that the CDC’s emergency guidance that nurses should re-use N-95 masks, and not dispose of them after each clinical encounter, would result in their members catching COVID and dying and in the process the hospitals where they worked would become vectors for the deadly disease.

Both things happened.

A reporting collaboration between the Guardian and Kaiser Health News has estimated that one fifth of the known coronavirus cases are health care workers on the job in hospitals and other congregant care facilities like nursing homes. The study identifies 922 such occupationally related deaths like that of 56-year-old emergency room nurse Pamela Orlando who worked at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood and spent the last weeks of her life using video to document daily her losing battle with COVID.

The seasoned nurse’s poignant video diary starts with her being upbeat about here efforts to treat herself at home at the end of March according to press reports. By the end she has lost a sense of what day it was. She died on April 16, 24 days after she had been diagnosed.

Even now, several months into the pandemic, we have yet to fully come to terms with how it has forever altered the social contract implicit in employment. It’s just rationalized into our brutal market economy as part of the price to be paid for the return to “normalcy, much like the way the horrific loss of life of Africans to the Middle-Passage was incidental to the economics of slavery.

Historically it’s been people in sectors like the construction trades or mining that we associated with having an elevated risk of death or severe injury on the job.

Yet, because of the catastrophic failure of President Trump to lead a national public health response to COVID, nurses are not the only victims. Now, every first responder, EMT, doctor, respiratory therapist, corrections officer and every other essential worker all now face a similar more elevated risk of dying or becoming disabled long term.

Talk of hazard pay that came when New York was reporting the worst of the daily COVID death count and dozens of New York City Transit employees were dying, has faded when the Trump/McConnell axis of avarice blocked Speaker Pelosi’s proposal to extend it. Their primary objective was to reduce the flow of local federal aid to households by ending the $600 weekly unemployment supplemental to force more workers to end their personal lock down and join the workforce in time to pick up the economy in time for the election whether they lived or died.

Just more Middle Passage.

And in the isolated instances like the Stop & Shop grocery chain, where the corporation extended a 10 percent pandemic pay premium for their workers, that inducement was suspended on July 4th even though the chain’s workforce all had to continue wearing masks as the pandemic continued to rage.

In Donald Trump’s 21st America these workers and their families are just as expendable as the dozens of U.S. Secret Service agents sidelined by COVID thanks to the president’s selfish campaign antics.

The man running the government believes that soldiers that die in combat are “suckers” and “losers” has also demonstrated by his actions a reckless disregard for the well-being of the essential workers that put themselves at risk to protect the public safety and health.

In the process he accelerated the spread of the deadly virus in all 50 states because as the CEO of the Federal government he has the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of every federal employee and contractor on the payroll.

This only becomes apparent if you have been doing what I have been doing 24-7 since the pandemic hit for the Chief-Leader, tracking down every report I could find documenting the COVID related deaths of civil servants across the country.

There is no central data collection on this. When it does get reported it shows up usually in local newspapers. Generally, national news organizations which have robust benches dedicated to covering the ups and downs of the stock market, don’t have labor reporters.

It’s only by piecing together these local accounts that you get the essential COVID tick tock of death and misery that has blown up the lives of thousands of these essential workers and their families from coast to coast. And, tragically the numbers will only get worse as President Trump takes aim at pulling FEMA money being used to provide PPE to protect them.

Every step of the way as the virus spread, the unions that represented these front-line workers did their best to get the word out about the implications of Trump’s Malthusian strategy of playing the states off each other while slowing down testing.

On April 2, 39-year-old Frank Boccabella, who worked out of Newark Liberty Airport as security dog handler, was the first Transportation Safety Administration’s COVID fatality.

At that point there were just 4,700 COVID related deaths.

Weeks before COVID-19 got traction in states like New York and the nation’s congregate-care facilities, it showed up in the air-transportation sector even as President Trump repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, comparing it to the flu.

On March 10, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration used a tweet to announce that “three Transportation Security Officers who work at Mineta San Jose International Airport have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.”

Four days earlier, officials confirmed that two British Airways baggage-handlers at London’s Heathrow Airport had tested positive for coronavirus, requiring the testing of their co-workers.

On March 12, the American Federation of Government Employees blasted the TSA for not doing enough to protect officers and the flying public from COVID-19. The union called upon TSA Administrator David Pekoske to provide workers on the “front-line” with N95 protective masks.

“Despite our union’s numerous requests for adequate masks and protective equipment, TSA has failed to properly equip our officers with the resources they need to prevent infection,” Everett Kelley, AFGE president, said in a statement at the time.

The agency denied the request.

It was not until May 7, after several TSA screeners had died, that the agency implemented an on-the-job mask requirement, a policy that private-sector airline carriers began adopting weeks earlier.

On April 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rescinded its initial COVID-19 guidance against members of the public wearing masks, noting that additional research had revealed that 25 percent of those with the coronavirus showed no symptoms but could easily spread the disease.

“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” the agency said in a statement. “In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

In an interview Kelley said his union had entered the kind of fight it had with the TSA over personal protective equipment, but this round was about getting the tens of thousands of TSA workers tested for the COVID-19, something he claimed the agency still resisted, even as transit agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit had embraced it.

“These airport screeners might be infected and not know it because they are not testing them,” he told me. “This means that as the flying public comes through every day that passes, the virus can get passed on that way.”

To this very day there is not a federal mask requirement for the nation’s airports and terminals.

The AFGE has had to fight similar battles across the nation with multiple Federal agencies, Kelley added. Meanwhile, as the Trump administration ignored the union, the death and infection rates rose exponentially.

Congregate-living facilities operated by the VA and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons have been hotbeds for the deadly virus, which is particularly lethal for those with pre-existing health conditions. There have been well over a thousand veteran and inmate COVID-19 deaths, and dozens of Federal workers perished by May when I spoke with AFGE’s president.

There’s no requirement that the government disclose these deaths.

“It appears that they [Trump administration] don’t want to know the truth at this point,” Mr. Kelley said. “It has come to the point where in this administration where we have agency heads telling their subordinates, ‘I don’t want you to tell me how many deaths there are,’ which continues to put our members and their families lives at risk.”

He contended that “denial as a strategy” was not confined to the Federal Government. In Nebraska, Mr. Kelley said, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has refused to disclose the COVID-19 employee infection rates in meat-packing plants even though across the country such plants have proven to be incubators for to the virus.

“He was hiding the infection rate from the public and that does not make the infection go away,” Dr. Kelley said. “If anything, it helps this deadly virus spread, by giving the public a false sense of security.”

The USDA finally disclosed that as of May 5, 197 Federal meat inspectors had been infected, with deaths reported in New York, Illinois, Mississippi and Kansas.

What would have happened if after President Trump signed the Defense Production Act, that let the meat producers ignore local public health officials concerns over the COVID outbreaks in their plants, we all decided in solidarity to not buy the meat they produced? What if truckers had refused to take their loads and grocery workers not put any of it out?

The lives of essential workers should matter but in Trump’s 21st century America they don’t. We fancy ourselves as evolved, so far beyond the barbarism of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in lower Manhattan when 145 mostly young women perished. But are we really?

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