By Alan Rebar
Working people have mounted a growing campaign of labor action, as bosses and governments fail to protect us from the virus. Locally, nationally, and worldwide, both union and nonunion workers are fighting back. A very important note: a rolling sickout is going on all the time, as workers in all sorts of industries, especially medical and cleaning, call out because they are terrified. There is no way to calculate the numbers of workers involved. This writer knows a worker who did it and so did numerous of their coworkers. It is also being reported in some news articles. Also note that workers are taking similar labor actions in the same industries all over the world. This is one of the most important strike waves in the two and half century history of modern trade unionism.
Leading the way among teachers are members of the New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers. With New York developing into the country’s first major hot spot, New York’s mayor and school board refused to close the 1.1 million student school system. UFT members launched an online sickout campaign over the March 14-15 weekend. This appears to have been the decisive factor forcing the sudden closure of NYC schools on March 16th. Just before schools everywhere began to close, St. Paul, Minnesota teachers went on strike for two days to force the local school board to agree to a fair contract.
Locally, our BTU was in the forefront for coronavirus safety measures weeks before the Maryland state shutdown of schools. We were fighting for sanitation measures to be put in place, and for the School Board to plan for the worst. The Board ignored BTU! Since the shutdown, BTU has led in the fight for safety, and for technology equity. BTU is supporting a campaign by and for public housing tenants, to provide emergency food supplies in their own community, against the opposition of the housing authority.
Johns Hopkins University graduate students are workers. They teach or do research for the university. With the campus shutdown, grad students built a campaign to fight for what they needed, such as financial support, extended research and dissertation deadlines, and other protections. Baltimore wastewater workers walked out of the Patapsco treatment plant on March 31, demanding safety measures. The AFSCME union won higher pay and security for state hospital workers in Maryland. Postal workers in Dundalk sicked out on April 2nd. Local Amazon warehouse workers have protested for safety protections.
Suddenly everyone has discovered what unions have always said: Medical workers and low wage workers in cleaning, retail, restaurants, warehouses, delivery, manufacturing and other sectors are ESSENTIAL. These essential “frontline” workers are getting a lot of “free” respect, when what they need is higher pay and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Frontline workers have leapt to the front line of the labor movement. The scale and widespread nature of their protests, walkouts, sickouts, and official strikes is inspiring. We only have room to summarize this upsurge in the labor movement.
- Warehouse workers: Amazon workers at a New York City warehouse walked out and protested for protections. The lead organizer, Chris Smalls, was fired – for fighting for life itself!
- Medical workers are fighting back with protests and walkouts (NYC, Detroit, California) demanding PPE. One NYC hospital “6 feet” protest quickly won protections. Doctors and nurses elsewhere are being written up, suspended, and fired for wearing PPE! Both the IAFF firefighters union and the National Nurses Union have issued national calls demanding PPE for first responders. Individuals and small groups began campaigns to start small scale production of masks and face shields for hospitals, in response to government supply failures. The United Steel Workers and a coalition of building trades unions have made huge national solidarity donations of PPE to medical workers. Medical professionals sent a public letter to ICE calling for the release of detained immigrants, to slow the spread of COVID.
- Public Transit: Detroit bus drivers walked out and won safety protections. They were followed by bus drivers sicking out in Birmingham. (To date, dozens of NYC transit workers have died of Covid.)
- Manufacturing: Fiat Chrysler workers in Ohio and Michigan walked out and protested, after coworkers tested positive. This had a ripple effect in production, shutting down other factories for lack of parts. They pointed out the virus is known to survive 72 hours on steel – which auto workers are surrounded by on the job. Shipbuilders followed with a strike at a Maine shipyard. GE workers facing layoffs walked out and protested, demanding factory retooling so they can manufacture ventilators.
- Sanitation: Garbage workers in Pittsburgh went on strike because of lack of protection and COVID infections among coworkers. This was followed by the waste water workers’ walkout in Baltimore.
- Food and Restaurant: Workers walked out and protested outside a Perdue chicken processing plant and protested outside COVID safety concerns. The United Food and Commercial Workers won protections in Maryland which you can see in local Giants and Krogers. Workers are wearing gloves and masks, and even plastic face shields. Cashiers have plastic shields in front of the register, and the customer lanes are marked with big red warnings to maintain 6 feet. McDonald’s workers have gone on strike in Los Angeles and Florida. Workers struck about 50 Chicago fast food restaurants. Whole Foods workers meanwhile staged a national sickout.
- Delivery: Instacart and Amazon workers carried out national sickouts demanding protections. UPS drivers also tried to organize job actions to protect themselves.
- Paydayreport.com posted an interactive COVID strike wave map. They recorded 81 strikes, including a walkout by workers at an assisted living facility in Loudon, VA; Hershey chocolate warehouse workers in Hershey, PA; fast food workers in Raleigh, NC; and sheet metal workers on the job at a casino in Philadelphia. Visit the website to learn more!
Alan Rebar is an ESOL teacher at Sinclair Lane Elementary and Vanguard Collegiate Middle School. He has been a BTU member for 23 years.