Comment: During pandemic we’ve seen ‘union difference’ in action

Labor in Washington state was key to assuring worker protections, vaccinations and hazard pay.

By April Sims / For The Herald

The covid-19 pandemic hit our communities hard. When cases started appearing in Washington state in March 2020, the labor movement mobilized, fighting for workplace safety protections, personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay for essential workers.

In labor, we talk a lot about the union difference, what it means for a worker to have access to the solidarity and power of an organized workers’ movement. These past 18 months, we’ve seen that difference in action.

When hospitals scrambled for PPE, trades unions came through and delivered protective gear across the state. The labor movement worked to secure hazard pay for workers, and pushed ordinances in Bellingham, Federal Way, Olympia and Seattle to cover hazard pay for grocery workers. At the state Legislature, labor helped secure emergency safety standards to protect workers now and in future crises, plus legal penalties for employers who retaliate against employees for filing workplace safety complaints.

As a Black labor leader in Washington, I know firsthand the union difference. That collective power of working people has been especially important for Black, Brown and Indigenous working folks. Black folks in the U.S. are unionized at a higher rate than any other ethnic group; Latinx folks aren’t far behind. Unions offer job security, a voice on the job and access to resources that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) workers often are denied. The covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the BIPOC community, particularly Black people, in severity, mortality and economic impacts. For many of us, our union jobs and the protections they provide have been the difference throughout this pandemic.

Overwhelmingly, BIPOC are essential workers — including many city, county and state employees — and have been exposed to the dangers of covid-19 since day one. My daughters are essential workers in the service industry, and in November 2020 my daughters, my husband and I were all diagnosed with covid-19. Essential workers like my daughters have been on the front lines doing what has to be done to keep Washington afloat in crisis, regularly exposing themselves and their families to coronavirus. That’s why labor fought to ensure essential workers had access to vaccines as early as possible.

As essential workers and their families face higher exposure rates to covid, we have to do what we can to protect ourselves and our families. One way to do that is through vaccination. I understand the hesitancy; Tuskegee, Henrietta Lacks and our own health care experiences color our choice. Still, my family and I decided to get vaccinated. After asking our questions and considering health outcomes, we knew that getting vaccinated was the best protection for our family and our loved ones.

Labor is committed to providing working people with the resources we need to make their vaccination choice. We provide covid-19 education resources on our website (www.wslc.org) and we’ve partnered with local health districts to run vaccine clinics. As essential workers, we continue to show up every day in this crisis despite the risk.

So this Labor Day, I would encourage you to be gentle with yourselves as you make the best decision for you and your family.

April Sims is secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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