By Terri Gerstein / Special To The Washington Post
Earlier this month, Tyson Foods and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced that Tyson meatpacking workers will, for the first time, be entitled to paid sick leave, as long as they’re vaccinated. They’ll also get paid time off to get the vaccine and any side effects. The deal resulted from a negotiation between the multinational and UFCW in relation to the company’s new vaccination mandate.
Given that lack of paid sick days is an impediment to vaccination, the deal is a great example of how union negotiation over vaccine mandates can lead to better outcomes for workers and for public health.
Recently, though, a misleading narrative has been circulating: the notion that unions are a major problem when it comes to getting people vaccinated. The Daily Beast published articles over the summer criticizing certain unions’ “vax resistance” and framing unions’ position as “repeating an old mistake.” Debates flared on Twitter where writer James Surowiecki, for example, opined that “organized labor has been on the wrong side of the vaccine issue almost across the board.” (After pushback, he partly revised his position.) Even allies and supporters of organized labor may wonder about any scintilla of union opposition to vaccine mandates, since such mandates are essential right now to protect workplace safety and public health.
In fact, many unions have fought to protect workers and communities during the pandemic, including in relation to vaccination. Consider, for example, their overall positive response to President Biden’s order last week mandating vaccines or regular testing for larger businesses. Most unions have strongly supported vaccination efforts, often including mandates. But they also want a place at the table in relation to implementation.
It’s true that some unions, including, most notably, those representing police, have vocally opposed mandates. New York City’s police union has threatened to sue in relation to a potential mandate, and Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara absurdly and offensively compared vaccine mandates to Nazis.
But many other unions and labor leaders have clearly spoken out in favor of vaccine mandates. Richard Trumka, the longtime head of the AFL-CIO (the nation’s largest federation of unions), clearly expressed his support of vaccine mandates the week before he died in early August: “If you come back in and you’re not vaccinated, everybody in that workplace is jeopardized.” The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) announced support of vaccine mandates, informing all employers with IUPAT national collective bargaining agreements that these agreements allow for employer-imposed vaccination mandates, so long as implementation is done fairly.
Although teachers unions have been demonized by some on this issue, they have actively promoted vaccination from the start. When vaccines were in short supply, national teachers unions sought early access for members and conducted extensive outreach and education to boost vaccination rates. The National Education Association (NEA) expressed support for vaccine-and-testing mandates in early August, before the Pfizer vaccine received FDA approval. A recent NEA survey of more than 2,800 members found that 87 percent had received at least one shot, compared with around 62 percent for the general population. “We’ve been pro-vaccination and pro-science all along,” said Damien LaVera, communications director for New York State United Teachers. “The vaccination rates for teachers are higher than just about every other constituency group in the country.”
As democratic member organizations, however, unions’ state and local affiliates may sometimes take their own positions. “Labor unions are a microcosm of the society we live in,” Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of Cornell University’s The Worker Institute, told Yahoo News. “The same political divide we have right now exists within the rank and file of union.”
Generally, though, to the extent there is labor pushback on vaccines, most unions’ opposition is to unilateral mandates without negotiation. NEA President Becky Pringle, for example, clearly expressed the importance of union participation in planning; “Employee input, including collective bargaining where applicable, is critical.” UFCW President Marc Perrone conveyed a similar sentiment: “Vaccine mandates, like all covid workplace safety policies, must be negotiated with workers to build the trust and strong consensus needed for these safeguards to be effective.”
Unions represent and give voice to their members; of course, they want input into how any mandate is implemented. For those immersed in labor issues, this notion is uncontroversial; three management-side lawyers from Proskauer Rose recently wrote in the National Law Review that “it seems clear that anytime an employer wishes to stick a needle into an employee’s arm for any reason, it is considered a mandatory subject of bargaining.” But public debate and media coverage present the issue in binary terms: the available positions are either pro- or anti-mandate.
Wanting to negotiate, though, is not the same as opposing vaccines or mandates. Instead, it’s about addressing important questions. Will there be paid sick leave to deal with side effects, for example? The Tyson/UFCW deal demonstrates the value of negotiation; workers won essential paid sick leave through the process.
And there are still many other questions that unions might ask on behalf of their members: Once workers are vaccinated, will all other covid-related workplace safety measures be dropped? Many workers have unvaccinated children or immunocompromised family members at home (or they may be immunocompromised themselves). Vaccines are highly effective but not perfect, and vaccinated people do sometimes experience breakthrough infections. We know, for example, that masks prevent spread of the virus. Will employers continue to have mask mandates for workers in close quarters, or for customers? Will there be contact tracing if there is a positive case? Will employers continue to improve ventilation in buildings where people work? Will plans change as community infections evolve and as new variants emerge? And what happens when the next airborne virus emerges?
Trying to ensure ongoing workplace safety — during this ongoing pandemic and as we prepare for whatever comes next — doesn’t signify intransigent opposition.
The discussion about unions’ positions on mandates overlooks countless highly impactful but unglamorous vaccination campaigns by unions, from parking lots to picking fields, often reaching low-vaccination-rate populations facing serious barriers to access. The UFCW held community vaccination clinics and organized digital vaccine education town halls focusing especially on Latino and Black workers. The United Farm Workers joined a government-union-employer effort to reach agricultural laborers through mobile clinics. The Service Employees International Union has been mounting a GOTV (Get-Out-the-Vaccine) campaign, similar to get-out-the-vote efforts, with phone banking, door knocking, mobile clinics and multilingual outreach to workers and community members, from nursing home workers in Florida to janitors in California.
More broadly, unions have fought for workplace and public safety throughout this trying period, for personal protective equipment, paid sick days, social distancing and other safety measures at work. United-HERE released guidelines for the safe reopening of hotel, gaming and food service facilities. The UFCW called for free PPE for front-line workers and called on governors to adopt stronger safety standards. The Teamsters reached an agreement with UPS including covid-related paid leave. National Nurses United filed scores of OSHA complaints about lack of PPE and other workplace dangers. The Association of Flight Attendants has repeatedly advocated for mask mandates on airplane, and teachers unions have pushed for masking in schools. The list goes on and on. Given the transmission of covid-19 through workplace clusters, these efforts have surely helped slow the virus’ spread.
There are plenty of culprits in the covid-19 picture. But unions aren’t the problem here. To the contrary, their actions during the pandemic – including their push for a say in workplace policies;have led to masks on faces, shots in arms and more safety for everyone.
Terri Gerstein is an Open Society Foundations leadership in government fellow and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s labor and worklife program.