Unions Help Pandemic Weary Workers Reframe Work’s Social Contract

This Labor Day, more  than two years into a pandemic that killed more than one million Americans, our workforce is still reeling from the impacts of this once in a century mass death event and workers appear to have realigned their values, elevating their own wellbeing and that of their families above the goals of whatever revenue targets their employer may have. 

That’s seems particularly true here in New Jersey, the initial epicenter, along with New York, where for a long stretch we had the highest per capita death rate in the world. Over the arc of the ongoing pandemic, according to a report from the  Rutgers Unity  Labor Education Research Network, New Jersey’s percent of unionization has increased at a rate that out performed all but five states.

Fran Ehret, the New Jersey state director of the Communications Workers of America which represents 70,000 workers including 40,000 state employees and 15,000 county and municipal workers, is optimistic this Labor Day.

“Some of the positive things that have come out of the pandemic and what we have lived through has inspired people to really organize,” Ehret said during a wide ranging interview with InsiderNJ. “It has made them sort of reflect on their own personal lives and their own worth and what their real value is in the workplace.”

According to the CWA’s COVID Memorial page close to 70 members lost their life during the pandemic including employees with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, as well as at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.

It was a unique mass casualty event for workers which Trenton and the nation is still kind of in denial about as we are told to soldier on for the economy as we head back to school and our workplaces as instructed if we have been working remotely. 


America’s C-Suite certainly doesn’t want to lose any more profits to the pandemic that they have their resources to largely insulate themselves from. It’s also a humbling thing for our institutions like government to acknowledge the warning signs and thousands of pages of peer reviewed science that predicted it wasn’t a matter of if we would get hit by something like COVID, but when. 

They are still stumbling around about the actual origins of the virus.

Better it be just a random act of nature, some kind of unforeseeable meteorological event that’s all over now. It’s morning in America.

While hundreds do still die and thousands more are hospitalized from the virus every day in our country, reporting on COVID had to make room for the latest news on Monkeypox and the updates on the re-emergence of polio in the New York region. Here in New Jersey tens of thousands have died from COVID but there’s no registry to know how many first responders, health care workers, or other essential workers died as a consequence of their workplace exposure and there’s no real rush by government officials at any level to get their arms around that data.

We know that it happened thanks to individual unions commemorating their losses on their websites and to Gov. Murphy’s anecdotal remarks throughout the crisis offering his condolences to the families of nurses, EMTs, cops, firefighters, correction officers, and transit workers who gave their full measure, often putting their own household at risk,  so civil society could carry on. 

What else can you do when your labor is the only way to feed your family?

Under the radar largely would be those from the ranks of the undocumented who cleaned and maintained society’s common spaces  as well as made and delivered our food throughout the public health emergency.


Meanwhile, there’s been real gyrations in our state’s labor participation rate which plummeted to 61.2 percent in April of 2020 with 700,000 unemployed in a matter of weeks. By August of 2020 it rebounded to 64 percent, only to plummet back down in September of 2020 to 61.8. The latest state breakdown had us only back up to 63 percent this July.

For context, consider that  back in Jan. 2012 labor force participation was at a relatively robust 65.9 percent. But even before the pandemic, labor economists had flagged a long term decline due to a confluence of factors including the retirement of the baby boomers and the nation’s high rate of incarceration.

It’s been widely reported that 47 million Americans opted to leave their job last year, that’s four times the national enrollment of the AFL-CIO and it’s 57 constituent unions. Close to two million American women left the workforce when public education largely went remote and many childcare centers closed. According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce workforce survey, one in three of the unemployed women they surveyed said the “need to be home and care for children or other family members has made their return to work difficult or impossible.”

At the same time unions, which have been on a decline since the early 1980s when President Reagan mass fired all of the country’s air traffic controllers, are seeing a rebound of generational significance including here in New Jersey. 

During the first six months of Fiscal Year 2022 (October 1–March 31), union representation petitions filed at the NLRB have increased 57%—up to 1,174 from 748 during the first half of FY2021,” reported the National Labor Relations Board. “At the same time, unfair labor practice charges have increased 14%—from 7,255 to 8,254.”

There are practical reasons for this. If you were an essential worker, your odds of somebody making noise about your lack of access to PPE, testing or the vaccine, improved significantly if you were represented.


According to the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive non-profit think tank, “union workers had more job security during the pandemic” even as overall unionization remained “historically low.” A research study published in Health Affairs that studied COVID mortality data for 355 New York State nursing homes, found that the presence of union nurses resulted in a “30 percent relative decrease in COVID-19 mortality rate compared with facilities without these unions. Unions were also associated with greater access to PPE, one mechanism that may link unions to lower COVID-19 mortality rates.”

While we still have no idea of how many essential workers died as a consequence of their occupational exposure, the Brookings Institute reports that based on the most recent Census data, 16 million working-age Americans (18 to 65) currently have long COVID with  two to four million of them in rough enough shape they’ve been sidelined from working.

The AFL-CIO did manage to lobby and get funding for the CDC to produce a first of its kind occupational heat map for workplace COVID exposure that’s due out in a few months.

Debbie White, RN,  is the president of the Health Professionals & Allied Employees, AFT AFL-CIO, which represent 14,000 nurses and other health care professionals. She suggests this Labor Day marks a precarious time for her profession. 

“At HPAE, workplace hazard is not a theoretical or philosophical issue,” White . “We deal with hazards every day in our workplaces. At least eight of our members died from complications of COVID. Countless others were exposed and infected to varying degrees with the disease. Because of the hazardous conditions healthcare workers faced during the pandemic, there has been a mass exodus out of this our profession. The biggest hazard that we now face is a staffing crisis unlike any we’ve ever seen in history.”

White continued. “University Hospital in Newark, the only state-owned hospital in New Jersey, is at the forefront of every public health emergency, yet suffers from chronic under funding. There are frequent floods, power outages and ruptured sewer pipes within the facilities due to a 43-year lack of capital investment. HPAE has fought for funding to build a new campus and for increased annual budget, to no avail. This is a hazard not just to the healthcare workers who are sacrificing to do this work, but to patients and the public that rely on this most important of our institutions.”


Charles Hall is president of Retail Wholesale Department Store Union Local 108 and is a member of the executive committee of the New Jersey AFL-CIO. He says throughout the pandemic, unions rose to the occasion, as did their members.” Over 40 members of RWDSU, the parent union, died from COVID. 

“I think that workers and the American people know that they need organizations like labor unions to push you through difficult times’” Hall said during a phone interview. “I think during COVID labor showed more leadership than any other organization in the country pushing the politicians to make sure funds were available for working people. Labor’s in a good place. People know when the country was at a standstill,  union members were out there doing the right thing.”

Hall’s concerned that there’s not enough attention being paid to the occupational health risks that essential workers face with infectious diseases like COVID.

“There’s still a lot to be learned and going forward we need to do better,” Hall said. “We need to protect our workers ahead of time because you don’t want to playing catch-up with  deadly diseases threatening first responder and essential workers on the front lines.” 

 According to a recent national survey, this Labor Day finds New Jersey ranking 6th in the U.S. for union density with just over 16 percent of its workforce represented by a union. That’s compared to just 10.3 percent nationally, a dramatic drop from over 20 percent in the early 1980s, around the time that then President Reagan fired all of the nation’s air traffic controllers.

In New Jersey, close to 60 percent of public sector workers are represented which gives the union movement its clout in Trenton and beyond. Nationally, just close to third of the public workforce is represented by a union. 

Like the rest of the country, private sector unionization remains anemic here with just 8.3 percent of private employers unionized. But researchers from Rutgers University  Labor Education Research Network point to successful union drives in Starbucks stores in Hopewell, Hamilton, Montclair and Summit as anecdotal evidence of a resurgence already documented nationally.

According to that Rutgers study, more than a three percent increase in public sector density over the last three years helped the Garden State’s unionization rate increase “slightly during the economic upheaval and worker unrest of the last two years, outperforming 44 other states.”

New Jersey is still a union state,” said LEARN Director Todd Vachon, an Assistant Professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, in press release. “We’ve always had a high unionization rate among teachers, police officers, firefighters, and construction workers. That hasn’t changed. But after the pandemic and two years of worker unrest, we’re seeing a resurgence in labor organizing in the service industry, with younger workers at the forefront.”

Something is going on. Yet,  the process of unionization is daunting and can play out over years making it hard to accurately gauge what’s happening on the ground.


“We clearly see with what’s going on at Starbuck’s—what’s happened at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, and a couple of Trader Joe’s locations that have organized, there’s a movement of workers that are willing to take risks, stand up and say enough is enough and we are willing to fight—and that’s encouraging,” said Kevin Brown, the New Jersey state director of 32BJ SEIU, which represents 13,000 security officers and building service workers.  “Now, in terms of gains that those workers have made in terms of wage sand benefits, well that story still needs to be seen.”

According to 32 BJ SEIU’s website,  100 members of the union died from COVID who all worked in public facing jobs.

Brown says that even during the pandemic, corporations like Amazon and Starbucks play hardball by hiring expensive anti-union law firms and will cross the line and break labor law by firing employees who are organizing in clear violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

“We see it every day,” Brown said. “The only penalty for violating the National Labor Relations Act is that you have ti reinstate the employee and make them whole even though they should never have been terminated in the first place. So, there’s no real retribution for employers violating the act. There should be real penalties in the U.S. and there aren’t and that needs to change.”

Brown says a judge recently ruled that 13 employees of the Beacon, a luxury residential complex on the site of the old Jersey City Medical Center were fired unlawfully and had to be compensated and made whole.

Brown, who is also a 32 BJ vice president, that it will be much harder for unions to build on their recent momentum without Congress passing of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.

“The PRO Act would protect and empower workers to exercise our freedom to organize a bargain,” the late Richard Trumka, then president of the AFL-CIO, told NPR in March of 2021 when it passed the House. “It’s a game changer. If you really want to correct inequality in this country — wages and wealth inequality, opportunity and inequality of power — passing the PRO Act is absolutely essential to doing that.”

The landmark bill would give the unions the right to collect dues in so-called right-to-work states where workers can benefit from the wages and benefits a union wins for them and can simply opt out. The legislation would prohibit corporate tactics like compulsory company anti-union indoctrination sessions and would permit workers to vote at another location other than their workplace about whether they wanted to join a union. 

Under the PRO Act, union resistant employers could not use delaying tactics after a union had won the right to represent a bargaining unit to avoid having to sit down at the table and work out a contract. Unions could seek resolution of an impasse, which is so common now by getting outside arbitration and mediation.

Back in March of last year the PRO Act passed the House by an unusual bi-partisan vote 225 to 206, with five Republicans voting with their Democratic colleagues. Two of the five were New Jersey’s last two Republicans, Rep. Chris Smith (4th CD) and Rep. Jeff Van (2nd CD).

They also won the endorsement of NJ’s AFL-CIO for re-election in November. 

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