Labor During COVID-19: Fight for Safety and Protection On the Job

  • 04/02/2020
  • Mark Friedman

Maintain physical distance, but expand our social and human solidarity

By Mark Friedman, Reporter

Workers around the world are demanding safety precautions on the job as they face the spreading  coronavirus.

In Los Angeles, Newark, La Guardia and JFK in New York and Australia, airport workers have organized public demands for safety measures, explaining that they are vulnerable to the virus that may be carried by plane-loads of passengers and cargo returning from other countries. These workers include baggage handlers, ticket agents, flight attendants, cabin cleaners and wheelchair assistants. Those at the low end earn below $15 an hour with no health coverage.

As reported in the March 19 issue of Random Lengths News, the 150,000-member National Union of Nurses has been demonstrating for more effective protective gear, while at the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been trying to get them to accept looser fitting masks. CDC reports show that coronavirus is most commonly transmitted from person to person via coughing and sneezing, which suggests a surgical mask should be sufficient to protect staff. Federal officials and healthcare workers however are still recommending that staff wear the tighter masks during procedures that may induce coughing and make the virus airborne.

And in Oakland, dock workers, members of ILWU, threatened to shut down the SSA terminal after risking COVID-19  exposure. They are demanding sanitary conditions while working at ports that serve as major shipping arteries. ILWU Locals 10 and 34 hosted a press conference where leaders and rank-and-file articulated their need for proper health and safety in their port jobs. Tra-Pack was forced to clean the equipment and is demanding the same action from SSA. They also discussed the issue of the conditions of the Grand Princess Crew docked at Hunters Point.

Some of the biggest battles have been in Europe, especially Italy, which has the highest percentage of fatalities to virus infections. Workers ordered to continue in manufacturing plants staged strikes and demonstrations to demand safety equipment. At an Italian Amazon warehouse near Milan, strikers protested the company’s reaction to two of their coworkers testing positive for coronavirus.

Union representatives told La Repubblica that Amazon isn’t implementing proper hygiene and social distancing measures.

“For them, business comes ahead of workers’ health,” said Pino De Rosa from local workers’ union UGL Terziario.

Workers in the metalworkers’ union in Lombardy and the engineering, chemical, textile, paper, cardboard and printing industries have announced strikes in Lombardy, the region worst hit by the pandemic, which has killed more than 6,800 people in Italy to date.

In Africa, Zimbabwe’s public hospital doctors went on strike over a lack of protective gear as the coronavirus begins to spread in a country whose health system has almost collapsed. It’s the latest blow to a system where some patients’ families are asked to provide such basics as gloves and even clean water.

In response to collapsing healthcare systems, and appeals from many nations, including France, Cuba has sent brigades of “white coats” (medical teams of doctors and nurses) to more than 50 countries. They are bringing with them thousands of doses of Interferon Alpha 2b, which has been shown to be effective in reducing duration, severity and mortality from COVID-19 and has reportedly been responsible for the massive reduction of cases and recoveries in China. Because of the U.S. blockade of Cuba, this medicine is banned from the United States of America.

In London, postal workers have mounted a de facto wildcat strike/work to rule over concerns regarding coronavirus safety. They did so in the face of the refusal of the Communication Workers Union to mount any protest against Royal Mail management. Workers have accused Royal Mail of inaction over concerns that they are being exposed to the virus unnecessarily.

Pennsylvania sanitation workers refused to show up for work until provided with sufficient gear to protect them from coronavirus. Workers protested at the Pittsburgh Environmental Services building.

“We are risking our lives, we could be contaminated as well,” Sheldon White, a city worker, told CBS News.

While non-essential businesses are forced to shut down across the nation, essential employees still have to show up for work everyday as the virus continues to spread.

“We want better equipment, better protective gear, we have no masks,” White said. “We want hazard pay.”

In Portland, Oregon unionists at Burgerville Workers Union organized a one-day strike, demanding protective measures and issuing demands to the company, including a $2 an hour raise for hazard pay, two weeks severance in the case of layoffs and an additional two weeks of paid sick time to allow workers to stay at home if they fall ill — the union calls it “2-2-2.” Essential workers, for example, at grocery stores, who are exposed to hundreds of people daily, have focused more on pay increases.  The Los Angeles Times reported that at Kroger’s, they were offered bonuses of $150 for part-time workers and $300 for full-time workers, but safety equipment was not discussed. The president of local 1167 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Joe Duffle, responded to the company in a letter that read:

“This is obviously an attempt to make as much money as you can during this crisis. This is not the time to worry about your rich investors’ returns, but it is time to take care of the communities that you claim to serve and of the employees you put on the front lines.”

Other grocery chains increased hourly wage by $2 per hour for the next four weeks. Every grocery store is recording record sales and profits as shelves are emptied daily. This reporter, visiting several stores noticed a significant markup of prices in the big chains for basic staples. I saw no extra protection offered the grocery workers and checkers other than hand sanitizer.

As we all keep our physical distance, we must maintain our social and human solidarity. This means no hoarding … no running to buy ammo and guns and above all supporting every worker’s right to protective gear, free virus testing, expanded paid sick leave, full pay on layoff or to stay home and take care of children. There should be no bailout to the giant businesses making record profits for the past 12 years. Instead there should be regular full paychecks for workers and aid to small farmers. Can the bosses afford it? Sure they can, they have all been making record profits to our detriment for years.

And in Other Labor Matters

This past March, a Portland judge handed down a reduced judgment of $19 million in damages against the ILWU for a slowdown action against terminal operator ICTSI, which began in 2012 in Portland, Oregon. The $19 million in damages, reduced by a judge from the original award of $96 million, is still more than twice the ILWU’s total assets. However the judge offered this settlement to parties and asked for them to agree upon it otherwise the penalty portion of the trial would have to be heard over again.  ICTSI  is reported to have chosen to have a new trial and with the courts mostly closed because of the COVID-19 epidemic it may be months before this happens.  It serves as a stunning reminder how one of America’s oldest and strongest unions can be threatened by a court action by a company that has an internationally bad reputation when it comes to workers’ rights and labor violations.

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