Two weeks ago, back when Donald Trump was still telling Fox News that he had a hunch the coronavirus death rate would be a “fraction of 1 percent,” a nurse in Northern California stepped forward to sound an alarm.
The nurse had recently been placed on quarantine after exhibiting symptoms related to the coronavirus, including a fever. But the CDC had delayed testing for reasons that confounded them. “They said they would not test me because if I were wearing the recommended protective equipment, then I wouldn’t have the coronavirus,” the nurse said in a statement via their union. “What kind of science-based answer is that?” The federal government’s mismanagement of the tests was putting everyone—nurses, patients, and the public—in danger.
In many respects, the only reason the nurse got their message criticizing the highest public health department in the country out was because they belonged to National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the country.
“I have the backing of my union,” the nurse said in a statement. “Nurses aren’t going to stand by and let this testing delay continue.”
Only a few weeks in, it has already become clear that the coronavirus has placed everyday workers on the front lines of a pandemic. Nurses, airline attendants, teachers, and home-care workers have faced the crisis head on and watched as the Trump administration has fumbled its response day after day.
"We wouldn’t have a lot of the story about what’s actually happening on the front line if it weren't for the unions."
In response, these front line workers have done everything they can to set the country on the right course, pushing back against their superiors and speaking out about what they’re actually seeing on the ground. In many cases, their confidence and willingness to do so comes from the protection provided to them by their unions.
“We wouldn’t have a lot of the story about what’s actually happening on the front line if it weren't for the unions,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “People feel like they can speak up.”
After decades of corporations whittling down union power, most people in this country don’t have the protection of organized labor. But right now, unions are showing themselves to be useful beyond the members who they directly represent, whether it comes to informing the public, pushing for safety protocols that would slow the spread of the disease, or advocating for worker-centered relief packages.
Since the crisis began to unfold, it has become clear that the government did not adequately prepare nurses for the pandemic. In early March, National Nurses United released a survey of its front line nurses, which revealed that only 44 percent of respondents had been given information about how to recognize and respond to coronavirus by their employers. Only 63 percent had access to N95 respirators.
The government also failed to stockpile the proper number of N95 respiratory masks that health-care workers need in order to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the disease. Because of the shortage, the Center for Disease Control recently loosened safety regulations and said common surgical masks are acceptable to use instead. Compared to N95 masks, surgical masks provide inadequate protection from the virus, leaving nurses across the country feeling like they are working without the necessary safety gear.
"I’m calling them in the middle of the night and saying, ‘You provide these masks for your nurses or we will not enter the room.'"
Michael Kennedy, an ICU nurse at UC San Diego, has been using his role as a nurse representative for the California Nurses Association to fight for his fellow nurses’ safety.
“I’ve been talking to managers in all the units that are taking care of all the confirmed COVID-19 cases,” Kennedy told VICE. “I’m calling them in the middle of the night and saying, ‘You provide these masks for your nurses or we will not enter the room.’”
Kennedy, who has been agitating for the masks, told VICE that he wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the protection of his union—at a non-unionized hospital, he’s certain he would be fired immediately for speaking out.
During a public health crisis, early and accurate information can mean the difference between life and death. Whether it’s inadequate testing or people working without safety gear, much of that crucial information has come from the everyday workers who are intimately aware of the failures in government response.
Nelson, of the Association of Flight Attendants, told VICE that because flight attendants work on flights that go to hot spots around the world, they were some of the first workers to run into supply chain issues for protective gear on planes. “We were prepared and were working with our airlines right away with the checklist we have for addressing communicable disease even before health care authorities had a handle on what the specific characteristics were of this virus,” Nelson said.
Flight attendants at Delta, which is among the airlines asking for a government bailout, are not unionized, but their organizing drive has been picking up during the coronavirus crisis as they see the protections that attendants at other airlines like United and American Airlines have. One Delta flight attendant who is self-quarantining without pay, spoke to VICE on the condition of anonymity, saying that she felt that the company has been “slower” to adopt safety precautions than other, unionized airlines.
"We’re still serving passengers and having a lot of contact with them and that’s a major concern."
Nelson noted that there’s a vast difference in how unionized and non-unionized attendants are experiencing the crisis. Without a collective bargaining agreement, Delta employees have little structure or pay protection as the pandemic evolves.
“Our voices are not being heard,” the Delta flight attendant said, adding that they’ve asked for the company to discontinue snack and beverage service to help stop the spread of the disease, to no avail. “We’re still serving passengers and having a lot of contact with them and that’s a major concern.”
As the pandemic closed down restaurants, shops, and schools, a public health crisis became an economic crisis, with more and more workers getting laid off and facing the costs of the virus. While the federal government is responding on a seemingly ad-hoc basis, for now, unions and workers groups are offering some modicum of stability where they can.
“Everything’s changing so fast and people are scared,” Amber Chandler, a teacher in Erie County, New York, told VICE. The CDC has not given strict instructions on school closures, but many districts sent their students home anyways, with little guidance from the government as to what was happening and how schools should conduct remote learning. Chandler, who is the president of the Frontier Central Teachers' Association, said she collected 54 emails from her members with questions and concerns they had amidst the widespread confusion. “My titles in my emails were all like: What happens next?’” Chandler said. “I was able to guide people through uncertainty. I certainly couldn’t do that without the support of the union.”
Through the union, teachers are sharing resources and solutions across districts so they can still serve their students as they all tackle the unprecedented closures. “There’s definitely a unified feeling right now,” Chandler said. “The teachers’ union is doing a good job across the board dealing with a lot of poor decisions being made in terms of waiting and worrying about things.”
As the Trump administration considers giving enormous bailouts to corporations, unions from the service industry to the hotel industry are pushing back and fighting to get direct relief for workers. The AFA, for example, outlined a plan that includes direct cash payments and debt cancellations for workers, while noting that any corporation that gets a publicly funded infusion must be required to maintain their payrolls, set aside a board seat for workers, and ban the use of funds for stock buybacks.
Some workers, like undocumented immigrants, are likely going to be left out of any government relief plan altogether—which is especially pressing for undocumented domestic workers, who are also on the front lines of the crisis, cleaning houses and caring for elderly people. “We imagine a lot of those folks will be left out of government solutions,” Julie Kashen, the policy lead at National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), told VICE. “That doesn’t mean they’re not going to get sick.”
Kashen said that many domestic workers who often live paycheck to paycheck told the NDWA that they are now being sent home by their employers or are nervous to go to work themselves because they live and care for their own elderly family members. On Monday, the NDWA launched an emergency assistance fund to help cover workers so they can stay at home and not spread the disease.
The coronavirus pandemic is becoming one of the largest crises in history, seeping into every aspect of everyday life. At the same time, the current administration is as ill-prepared to handle the situation as possible, meaning there are few institutional supports right now for people across the country. Organized labor, which has been decimated over the past few decades, isn’t a replacement for a robust government response. But for now, it’s the only relief that some people have.
“When we’re all in this together it makes it so much easier,” Chandler, the teacher, said. “I personally would be very overwhelmed.”
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