PERTH AMBOY – It was five weeks before election day and there was the mayor, Wilda Diaz, addressing about 100 union workers outside their plant on Washington Street.
It was one of those classic political moments when a mayor seeking to keep her job rouses up the troops.
But not this time.
This event was all about COVID-19, not the municipal election.
So said Diaz.
“Right now, COVID is the most important thing,” Diaz said after speaking to the workers, mostly in Spanish. “COVID is here. You’re not going to get rid of COVID until there’s a vaccine, election or no election.”
It was the pandemic that brought Diaz to the Med-Apparel laundry processing plant on a rainy afternoon. As workers, who are represented by the Service Employees International Union, left the plant at the end of the work day, they amassed across the street.
Union leaders said COVID is the issue.
Employees are considered essential workers. Their duties include cleaning bed linens, gowns and other material used in hospitals and nursing homes. These garments can be contaminated with COVID-19, according to the union.
The union claims that Unitex, the company running the plant, has refused to say how many employees have contacted COVID-19 and that it is also refusing to keep employees at least six feet apart from each other. Unless things improve, the union says it may call for a strike.
Diaz didn’t go there.
But she did tell the workers that the company’s alleged indifference to employee concerns was an affront to them and to the entire community.
At one point, workers chanted, “Si, se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” in a show of support and defiance.
Company officials were still in the building as employees rallied outside. A representative declined comment on the protest.
The event may not have been directly about the election, but Megan Chambers, a union representative, said the mayor always has supported the concerns of workers.