The COVID-19 pandemic has made unions even more important for defending the interests and the very lives of workers, delegates to UE’s 77th Convention reported. UE leaders from across the country reported on their locals’ efforts to protect the health and safety of UE members — and, in many cases, the communities they serve.
Thayer Reed, Local 1186, reminded delegates that it is not yet time to refer to the pandemic in the past tense, as “we still are” going to work in difficult situations. David Droster, also of Local 1186, reported that after ratifying their first UE contract on the day Wisconsin banned public gatherings due to COVID-19, the local realized they would need to build a strong steward structure to cover the multiple locations at Willy Street Co-op. “I'm very proud of what we've been able to do in bringing people up, we now have a substantially stronger network of stewards, people who really are able to represent the local on the floor.
“As a result of building up that internal structure and having some connections outside [with community supporters], we were able to win our members extra COVID protections and the ability to leave and go get tested without penalty, and hazard pay that we got through October.”
Jessica Van Eman, Local 1477, and Vincent Graves, Local 1077, who locals represent Hallcon rail crew drivers in New Mexico/Colorado and California/Nevada respectively, spoke about their company’s poor safety record, especially during the pandemic, and their efforts to keep members safe.
“Safety is a big concern in our area,” said Van Eman. “We have vans that just aren't productive: they're broken, we have air cabin filters that never get changed, and people are having a hard time breathing. … We have safety issues with COVID, working with railroaders: we wear our masks, but they don't have to — there was nothing put in place for our safety.”
Graves agreed that “safety is a big issue,” reporting that the vans driven by rail crew drivers in California, too, “are in horrible condition.”
“We’ve been filing grievances almost every single day to try to get this changed,” Graves continued, adding that “it feels wonderful to know that we’ve got the good support of everybody to back us up, so that way we don't feel alone.”
Speaking on the resolution, ”A Safe and Healthy Workplace for All,” Sekia Royall, Local 150, reported that “we have a lot of safety issues and concerns within our local within the workplaces.” Local 150 had a meeting with North Carolina’s Labor Commissioner, Josh Dobson to urge him to implement COVID-19 standards to protect the state’s workers. She also reported that two workers had recently died in a workplace incident at Valley Proteins, where Local 150 has been organizing workers over the past year.
Christine Rigsby, Local 170, said “As a healthcare worker in the state of West Virginia, I agree with this resolution 100 percent. Right now I work at the state hospital, which has had a really huge COVID outbreak. I have also just recovered from COVID, my husband currently has COVID and I am expected to go to work, even though COVID is in my home.”
She explained that when she asked questions, she was told she had to come in to work because the facility is short staffed. She added that, in addition to concerns over COVID-19, “Workplace safety is a huge concern — a lot of our employees also get attacked by patients.”
Heather James, Local 119, agreed that “Health and safety is of the utmost importance, especially dealing with COVID. We work with children who don't want to leave their masks on.”
Andrew Moore, Local 770, told delegates that “We had an employee last year get terminated over following company protocol of what to do during the pandemic, and if it wasn't for [the union] she would still be out of a job.”
Pat Pelar, Local 625, asked delegates to “really think about what it means to you when you go home at night to your family ... and know that you're still alive and you're healthy.”
Delegates also emphasized the importance of the right to collective bargaining. Sabir Sabir, one of a group of quality assurance specialists at Stepan Chemical who joined Local 1421 over the past year, said that collective bargaining has “the ability to change people's lives, not only in respect to wages ... but in respect to the workplace environment as well and respect at the workplace.” Brookli Potts, Local 119, reported how she and her fellow paraeducators in the Winslow Township, NJ school district “pretty much had our union stripped away from us” when their jobs were privatized (Winslow paraeducators, who now work for the private company ESS, organized as UE Local 119 in 2019 and won their first UE contract in 2020.)
Karen Rizzo, Local 613, said she especially liked the explanation of “aggressive struggle” in the resolution of that name. “Too many of our members, when they hear ‘aggressive struggle,’ they think we're going to cause trouble and they back down,” she said, but the resolution points out that “aggressive struggle” really means “involvement of the workers and the members.”
Eastern Region President George Waksmunkski declared that aggressive struggle “is fundamental to our moving forward” as a union. Noting comments in the chat about not being able to strike because of no-strike clauses, he pointed out that “you can engage in concerted activity” and “there's thousands of things that can be done to put pressure on the boss.”