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.
"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."
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.’”
"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.'"
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.”
"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.”