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Is the Pandemic Creating a Resurgence of Unionism? 

Since Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) en masse at the beginning of his presidency “(“Reagan fires 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, August 5, 1981,” Politico, August 5, 2017), unions, which had already seen a decline because of the expansion of the global economy, saw membership numbers begin a precipitous decline (“The PATCO Strike, Reagan, and the Roots of Labor’s Decline,” In These These Times, November 1, 2011). So-called “right-to-work” laws are also the result of the loss of unions’ power over decades.

In 2019 there were 14.6 million union members in the US, down from 17,7 million in 1983. The percentage of workers belonging to unions was 10.3% in 2019, compared to 20.1% in 1983.

A person did not have to have an advanced degree in economics to know that capital was able to move around the world to seek out the cheapest sources of labor and factory facilities. There was a huge demand for cheap consumer goods and the supply seemed almost endless. Gone were the gloves covering the harsh realities of capitalism and command economy “communism.” Gone were the worker protections against abuse and exploitation.

When a unionized workforce mattered and benefited power, they were tolerated, and when the global economy took over, they were discarded. Wages, working conditions, and the dignity of work and workers is what unions are about.

Now, with Covid-19 business reopenings forcing workers back to work, sometimes with poor health protections and poor pay, many workers fear for their health, the health of those they love, and their ability to support themselves and their families. The march back to work puts those already hardest hit by the pandemic at greater risk of falling ill and dying. During the New Deal workers were put to work by a host of government social programs, now they are sometimes forced back to work, often without appropriate protective gear. The treatment of workers in the meatpacking industry is one example of those at the edges of society forced back to work in environments that have seen large outbreaks of Covid-19.

Wildcat strikes, walkouts and protests over working conditions have erupted across the US throughout the coronavirus pandemic as ‘essential’ workers have demanded better pay and safer working conditions. Labor leaders are hoping the protests can lead to permanent change (“Strikes erupt as US essential workers demand protection amid pandemic,” Guardian, May 19, 2020).

Strikes and worker protests have taken place at American Apparel, among truckers who are protesting declining wages from lover freight rates, at McDonalds, at Arby’s, among Uber drivers, and at Amazon warehouses. One early strike at Amazon, on Staten Island in New York (“New York Attorney General Scrutinizes Amazon for Firing Warehouse Worker,” New York Times, April 27, 2020), saw swift retaliation over a worker’s protest.

These walkouts show that essential workers don’t want to be treated as if they are disposable. They are demanding a voice in how their companies respond to the pandemic. Having a voice is a life-and-death matter now more than ever.… Success will be a matter of whether consumers and policymakers will be inspired by these workers’ courage (Guardian, 2020).

Will workers prevail in the fight for better working conditions, pay, and protective equipment as the pandemic continues? The most significant problem facing workers is that as union membership has fallen precipitously over several decades, right to work laws and diminished worker power has resulted. The Supreme Court ruled that workers no longer have to pay a shop fee in unionized workplaces, yet another nail in the coffin of eroded union power. The celebration of everything individual over the common good has also taken a toll of workers’ rights as everyone is seen as being in the workplace and workforce on their own and every worker is seen as their own bargaining agent, a situation that has led to abuse after abuse of workers.

The compact between workers and their employers eroded decades ago when workers’ rights came under attack and workers’ real wages began a decline. Unionization and a booming economy for some had brought about economic security as part of the so-called American dream. It remains to be seen if any reversals in the power of unions and workers, and the conditions in which they work, will result from the pandemic’s hold over this society and societies around the world. The possible discovery of a vaccine could have the unintended consequence of taking the spotlight off of workers and their working conditions, with the larger society going back to business as usual, which could mean the loss of income and bargaining power for masses of workers.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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