Labor's lost power: Why were union warnings on COVID danger ignored?

From the beginning of this pandemic, labor unions have issued clear and urgent warnings. Almost no one listened

Published September 8, 2020 12:20PM (EDT)

General Electric workers hold a protest on Necco Street in Boston, MA out of concerns for their safety on March 30, 2020. The machinists, hand-tool operators, and inspectors who build jet and helicopter engines for the US military were concerned that their shared workstations werent being sanitized between around-the-clock shifts while the highly contagious coronavirus ravages the country, according to their union. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
General Electric workers hold a protest on Necco Street in Boston, MA out of concerns for their safety on March 30, 2020. The machinists, hand-tool operators, and inspectors who build jet and helicopter engines for the US military were concerned that their shared workstations werent being sanitized between around-the-clock shifts while the highly contagious coronavirus ravages the country, according to their union. (Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

With Labor Day just behind us, we face an unprecedented socioeconomic crisis brought on by a once-in-a-century public health crisis that has 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 workers' lives have been devalued because they are supposed to "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 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 as essential workers also put their family at risk for infection.

Labor's clout has been on the decline for decades. The consequences have been dire not just for workers put for the broader community, which benefits when unions speak up on issues like occupational health. 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 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 have wages in general. Since the 1970s, wages in constant dollars have 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 it could largely be ignored when unions 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 lockdown mode, in mid-March the New York State Nurses Association warned that the CDC's emergency guidance that nurses should reuse N95 masks, rather than dispose of them after each clinical encounter, would result in their members catching COVID and dying — and that 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 known coronavirus cases are health care workers on the job in hospitals and other congregate-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, New Jersey, and spent the last weeks of her life using video to document her losing battle with COVID.

The seasoned nurse's poignant video diary starts with her upbeat about her 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 is. Orlando 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 been rationalized into our brutal market economy as part of the price to be paid for the return to "normalcy, much as the horrific loss of life of Africans to the Middle Passage was incidental to the economics of slavery.

Historically, it's been workers in sectors like the construction trades or mining that we associate with 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 or other essential worker faces an elevated risk of dying or becoming disabled long-term.

Talk of hazard pay, 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 since the Trump-McConnell axis of avarice blocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's proposal to extend it. Republicans' primary objective was to reduce the flow of local federal aid to households by ending the $600 weekly unemployment supplemental benefit and force more workers to end their personal lockdown and join the workforce in time to pick up the economy in time for the election. Whether they lived or died was immaterial.

There were isolated instances like the Stop & Shop grocery chain, which extended a 10% pandemic pay premium for their workers. That inducement was suspended on July 4, even though the chain's workforce all had to continue wearing masks as the pandemic continued to rage.

In Donald Trump's 21st-century 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 who die in combat are "suckers" and "losers." He has also demonstrated by his actions a reckless disregard for the well-being of the essential workers who put themselves at risk to protect public safety and health.

In the process, Trump accelerated the spread of the deadly virus in all 50 states because — as the self-appointed CEO of the federal government — he bears 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 almost 24/7 since the pandemic hit, in my job at the Chief-Leader (a New York labor publication): tracking down every report I could find documenting COVID-related deaths of civil servants across the country.

There is no central data collection on this information. When it does get reported, it usually shows up in local newspapers. Generally, national news organizations have robust benches dedicated to covering the ups and downs of the stock market, but 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. Tragically, the numbers will only get worse as Trump takes aim at 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 at Newark Liberty Airport as a 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 Trump repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, comparing it to the flu.

On March 10, the TSA 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 CDC 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. (That proportion is now believed to be significantly higher.)

"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 New York's MTA 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 day, there is no federal mask requirement in 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 unions, 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 1,000 veteran and inmate COVID-19 deaths, and dozens of federal workers had already died by the time of my May interview with AFGE's president.

There's no requirement that the government disclose these deaths. "It appears that they [i.e., the Trump administration] don't want to know the truth at this point," 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, Kelley said, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has refused to disclose the COVID-19 employee infection rates in meatpacking 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," 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 — which allowed meat producers to ignore local public health officials' concerns over the COVID outbreaks in their plants — we had all decided in solidarity not to buy the meat they produced? What if truckers had refused to take their loads, and grocery workers had refused to stock it in supermarket cases? 

The lives of essential workers should matter. But in Trump's America they don't. We fancy ourselves as evolved, far beyond the infamous barbarism of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in lower Manhattan in 1911, when 146 garment workers perished, most of them young immigrant women. But are we really?

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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