Mark Wagner / CC BY

March 16, 2020; In These Times

It might seem crass to talk about capitalizing on the opportunity presented by a crisis, but sometimes big picture concerns outweigh the social niceties. It cannot be denied that the US (along with the rest of the world) is now in a crisis moment that shows our areas of greatest weakness—and gives us an opportunity to fix them.

We’re talking about the millions of low-wage workers in this country and the very real lack of a safety net to protect them. An estimated 33.6 million people in the US have no paid sick leave, and as the coronavirus spreads, those 33.6 million people all have to make a choice between going to work where infection can and will spread, or staying home and forfeiting a paycheck they may desperately need.

Unions have tried to step up this week, to fight for paid sick leave and testing for their members. Many unions represent hourly workers with minimal benefits and are trying to get agreements settled on protections before all their members get sick. The New York Times created a helpful graphic showing the distribution, by company, of workers without paid sick leave.

The Culinary Union, for example, represents 60,000 people and recently saw support from half a dozen Democratic presidential candidates. Labor publication In These Times writes that they “became a union role model by building wall-to-wall power in a one-industry town,” but apparently that power did not manifest itself in paid sick leave and healthcare for all their members. Las Vegas casinos and hotels are shutting down one by one, and In These Times called shutting the strip “the equivalent of a nuclear bomb” for the union because of all the jobs it endangers. The union released a statement calling for casinos to implement protections for workers, including:

  • “Five paid sick days.”
  • “No attendance points/discipline to any worker who calls out sick or who is in quarantine.”
  • “Paid leave (wages & health benefits) if worker needs to self-quarantine or care for a family member who is in quarantine.”
  • “Up to six months of paid health benefits for workers in the event of a layoff.”
  • “Workers may be granted a leave of absence if they wish to request one during this time.”

The Teamsters Union, which represents 1.4 million workers, called for similar protections plus free COVID-19 testing for everyone. United Auto Workers, which represents 48,000 members, is currently in negotiations with Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, and others, and expressed hope that they would come to an agreement for worker protections. Most of the nation’s unions have posted resources on their pages, including links to Centers for Disease Control recommendations and updates on negotiations.

But while unions are taking the “hard and fast” strategy, negotiating for what they need now in hopes of getting it sooner, others are thinking further ahead. Robert Reich spoke for many when he tweeted, “Here’s a radical idea: How about we don’t wait until the next global pandemic to ensure every American has paid sick leave and family leave?”

And there’s where we see our opportunity. Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman at Brookings wrote, “The virus reveals a grossly inadequate safety net and willfully ineffective political system that are poised to leave our most vulnerable workers bearing the brunt of the economic and social impact.” The weakness of our safety net was as true before coronavirus began to spread as it is today—but now it’s harder for people in power to ignore. The coronavirus aid bill proposed by the House originally contained a provision for permanent paid leave, but it was removed before the bill went to the Senate.

Capitalizing on a crisis is not a new strategy. Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine discusses how Milton Friedman and his fellow free-market advocates repeatedly took advantage of crisis situations to advance radical free market principles, many of which have led to the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Many social organizers, advocates, and thought leaders have pointed out the opportunity now exists to right some of those wrongs. Unions, handicapped though they are by the Janus Supreme Court ruling in 2018, are nevertheless showing what their members need. It is time for the sector, and all of us, to listen.—Erin Rubin