Unions: our time is now

Across the US, union members are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with the courage and work ethic that made America the most productive country in the world. Without adequate equipment or appropriate government and corporate direction, organized labor has gone to work with grit and determination in the face of a deadly pandemic—no matter the risk.

Here in New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, nurses put their own lives at risk to save their fellow New Yorkers—75,000 lives saved and counting. We sound the cry for safer workplace practices not only to protect ourselves, but to protect the public’s health.

A new study of nursing home deaths in New York State found:

“[I]n 355 nursing homes with available data, the presence of a health care worker union was associated with a 30 percent relative decrease in COVID-19 mortality rate for residents. Unions were also associated with a 13.8 percent relative increase in access to N95 masks, a 7.3 percent relative increase in access to eye shields, and a 42 percent relative decrease in COVID-19 infection rate among nursing home residents.”

The study, reported in the September 10 issue of Health Affairs, was conducted by a political scientist and two MDs. It looks at nursing home deaths in New York State from March through May, and is the first to demonstrate that labor unions are associated with reduced COVID-19 infections and deaths in nursing homes.

“Labor unions representing health care workers perform several functions that may reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” the study states. “Unions generally demand high staff-to-patient ratios, paid sick leave, and higher wage and benefit levels that reduce staff turnover. They educate workers about their health and safety rights, work to ensure that such rights are enforced, demand that employers mitigate known hazards, and give workers a collective voice that can improve communication with employers.”

Members submitting their COVID diaries, participating in virtual Town Halls, and COVID Action Teams, kept us learning, connecting and organizing throughout these months. When we failed to get answers from hospitals and government authorities, we took to the streets and to the press. We filed lawsuits- affidavits from nurses creating a permanent record of their experience and resolve. Notwithstanding the rulings in those cases, and though the defendants loathe to admit it, the litigations brought some important changes.

We are a powerful voice of patient advocacy and our collective power makes a difference in saving lives.

Unions make America safer

We are not alone. We are part of a proud union movement that has stepped up at great personal risk to our health during this crisis.

The United Auto Workers built life-saving ventilators at Ford and General Motors.

United Food and Commercial Workers and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union are keeping the shelves stocked.

Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART) union members are working tirelessly running freight trains to maintain the flow of goods—such as delivering chlorine-based disinfectants for water, enabling e-commerce, transporting food, and other essential products.

And the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union keep us moving.

To name just a few…

The Labor Movement’s commitment in the face of this virus stands in stark contrast to the behavior of corporations and anti-labor politicians. Corporations are busy watching their bottom line while the Labor Movement is busy trying to save lives. CEO pay linked to profit and stock buybacks is the name of their game. Working people, particularly low-wage workers—disproportionately women and workers of color—have largely borne the costs of this pandemic.

Taking off the muzzle

Bloomberg Businessweek chronicled a litany of intimidation, threats and firings directed from corporate suites in “Covid Gag Rules at U.S. Companies Are Putting Everyone at Risk.”

“Hundreds of U.S. employers across a wide range of industries have told workers not to share information about Covid-19 cases or even raise concerns about the virus, or have retaliated against workers for doing those things, according to workplace complaints filed with the NLRB and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).”

The escalations of threats meant to silence healthcare workers were the most egregious.

According to Business Insider, Hospital Corporation of America informed their employees that anyone who publicly discusses their coronavirus policies could face suspension or even termination. Bloomberg news reported that NYU Langone Health system informed employees that they would face disciplinary action for talking to media outlets without prior authorization. NYSNA nurses across New York faced similar threats.

By the end of May, OSHA had received more than 1,600 whistleblower complaints related to COVID-19.

Thousands of OSHA complaints about COVID safety issues have yielded citations against just two companies.

But our resolve remained strong—Union Strong—standing united, we won’t be silenced. We took action.

On June 17, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed into law an amendment to the New York healthcare whistleblower law to create a new protected category, “improper quality of workplace safety,” and to expand protected channels to include news and social media outlets for reporting violations of improper quality of patient care or workplace safety.

Protection for our voices

Under the new amendment, healthcare employers cannot take retaliatory action because an employee complains to the press or on social media about workplace conditions that significantly threaten both patient and employee health and safety. A healthcare employee may seek enforcement in a civil action for an injunction, reinstatement, with back pay and benefits, and legal costs. Employers are also liable for fines of up to $10,000.

Union members raising their voices led to this important victory for all healthcare workers and patients. Two labor women, State Senator Diane Savino and State Assembly Member Karines Reyes, RN—one of our own—heard us and sponsored this legislation. Together, we rallied the support needed to get it done.

Here’s some of the new law’s language:

“…no employer shall take retaliatory action against any employee because the employee does any of the following:

(a) discloses or threatens to disclose to a supervisor, or to a public body, to a news media outlet, or to a social media forum … an activity, policy or practice of the employer or agent that the employee, in good faith, reasonably believes constitutes improper quality of patient care or improper quality of workplace safety”

There is talk already among fellow patient advocates and allies to expand whistleblower laws further.

It will take our union movement to set America right. The time is now.

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