In this bleak season of Covid-19, with vaccines on the way but not widely available for some time to come, the protections we have are all the familiar ones: masks, social distancing, the avoidance of large indoor gatherings.
But now another protection has appeared, rooted in a fundamental value: the value of empowering workers.
This winter, worker committees, the first in the nation, will come on line in Los Angeles County, an entity comprising over 10 million people, 88 incorporated cities, and 244,000 businesses. Operating in four sectors (food manufacturing, apparel manufacturing, warehousing and storage, and restaurants), the committees, known as Public Health Councils, will be empowered to report coronavirus-related problems and violations to the County’s Department of Public Health. These violations can result in fines and license revocations for businesses.
The mandate to create these councils came about as a result of several acknowledgments: that workplace transmission was a significant factor in the spread of Covid-19; that a disproportionate number of low-wage workers, many of them people of color, were being exposed at their worksites; and that the County’s Department of Public Health, overstretched for a region of this size, could not adequately monitor the problem with its own resources.
At one workplace, a frozen food processing plant in the city of Vernon, workers reported to their union (United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 770) a host of violations, including a lack of plexiglass dividers on the production line, a failure (in the early days of the pandemic) to provide masks, and a failure to enforce social distancing. From April through August, 26 workers came down with Covid; one died. The company, Overhill Farms, along with its temporary employment agency, was hit with the largest fines for coronavirus violations yet meted out by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
As a result, the workers, backed by their union, formed a safety committee with the company’s management that began meeting last July to address health and safety concerns. The committee has been authorized to halt production if a serious problem is noticed, and it has been cited as a model for the Public Health Councils that will soon be set up county-wide. And, it should be noted, the role of a union at Overhill Farms has been a significant one. As researchers at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center have noted in a recent report, “there is strong evidence that worker voice on the job has a positive impact on compliance. Unionized workers know more about health and safety risks and their rights under the law and are more likely to report violations because they have better protection from unfair dismissals.”
The mandate to create the Councils was authorized by a recent vote of the LA County Board of Supervisors, and, as Councils begin to be formed at worksites, workers will be trained by certified organizations (labor unions or non-profit organizations) about health orders and reporting processes. Worker participation on the Public Health Councils is expected to be voluntary, and employers are encouraged to allow workers to meet at their worksites and on company time. Soon the Board will soon take up an anti-retaliatory policy that will protect workers from retaliation when they do speak up about coronavirus violations.
Needless to say, the mandate to create the Public Health Councils did not come about without a struggle. Many business leaders complained about what they saw as unnecessary bureaucracy, and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce flatly opposed the creation of the Councils. Another business organization, the Los Angeles County Business Federation, claimed that the County should have deferred establishing the councils, saying that by its vote it has, “chosen to apply a fundamentally flawed process to target business owners with increased County scrutiny and frequently changing regulations at the most challenging time.” In response, both labor leaders and public health officials have pointed to the Councils as an essential, cost-effective way of keeping down Covid transmission.
But perhaps the most telling criticism was expressed in an interview by Sarah Wiltfong, the policy manager of the Business Federation, who said that the Supervisors’ motion to approve the Councils would result in a “de facto unionization of businesses.”
In making this statement, Wiltfong raised a fundamental question of value and power. In a pandemic that has already taken a quarter of a million lives, what does it mean for workers, particularly low-wage workers, to take on voice, to assume power, over the very conditions affecting their lives and the lives of those dear to them? If unionization (reinvigorated, more widespread) is the means to such an end, then Covid-19 may well be pointing to the broader struggles for economic justice that lie just ahead.