Threats and Opportunities: What’s the Post-Crisis Forecast for Workers?

Des Moines custodians go about their work with new precautions. Workers should start discussing now what conditions must be met to make our workplaces safe before we will return. Photo: Phil Roeder (CC BY NCND 2.0)

This pandemic creates openings for privatizers and budget-choppers to make their plays. But it also creates some new openings for workers to build power.

At the same time that we’re all sprinting to meet the urgent challenges of the present, workers and unions should take time to analyze the new threats and opportunities that our workplace movements will be facing in the coming months.

We’d like to hear details about what you’re anticipating in your union or sector, and what strategies you’re devising as you look ahead. Write to us at editors[at]labornotes[dot]org.

Here’s a starting list:

Beyond the Workplace

Some bigger-picture opportunities and threats:

Opportunity: Improve contractual and legal protections about leave and workplace safety. Why not negotiate a permanent agreement on leave for illness in the family, emergency childcare needs, or bereavement? The same goes for language about on-the-job health risks. And why not pass a national paid sick leave bill, so we could catch up with the rest of the civilized world?

Opportunity: This crisis shows the need for well-funded Medicare for All. Even Joe Biden, who recently said he would veto Medicare for All, said last week that “no one should have to pay for their coronavirus treatment.” Why shouldn’t the same principle hold true for all kinds of life-saving or life-improving health care?

Opportunity: Win a large-scale public jobs program. The unemployment rolls now top 16 million. What we need is something on the scale of the New Deal, where a massive public works program put millions of people to work—and built many public highways, trails, and post offices we still use today.

A New Deal for 2020 would include urgent production of masks and ventilators; the many kinds of green jobs we desperately need to stop climate change; home care for seniors; and much more. All those jobs need to be well-paid and union from the start. General Electric factory workers, members of IUE-CWA, have the right idea; they have been protesting to demand that their jet engine plants be converted to ventilator production.

The Defense Production Act shows how private industries could be made public. Since General Motors in 2018 announced the partial shutdown of its plant in Oshawa, Canada, a group of workers there has been demanding a government takeover of the abandoned facilities to convert to green vehicle production.

Opportunity: Get public bailouts that were needed already. Activists are already pushing to include much-needed funding for the postal service and for ailing multi-employer pension funds in the next stimulus bill. The NewsGuild is calling for public financing to sustain independent journalism—as the Internet has sapped away newspapers' subscription and advertising revenue.

Threat: Bailouts will mostly benefit the rich. Unfortunately the CARES Act we got wasn’t the worker-friendly stimulus that Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed, or the even better one that Rep. Rashida Tlaib proposed; it was a compromise that included some relief for working people but a lot more corporate handouts and loopholes. We should fight hard but expect more of this in upcoming stimulus bills, just like in the 2008-2009 bailouts. Look out for the harmful new tricks they will shoehorn in.

Threat: Layoffs and recession. Probably the biggest threat to the labor movement and to workers in general is that millions of people will lose their jobs and never get them back. Think of all the restaurants and other small businesses that will close.

Except in a few sectors where business is temporarily booming (e.g. grocery), bargaining will be tougher—and history shows that even employers who are doing well will take advantage of tough times to demand concessions. The public sector won’t be spared; state budget cuts and layoffs are already being promised.

Rank and filers will have to fight many union leaders’ instinct to offer up concessions. We saw it in the last recession, and it didn’t work. We won’t be rewarded—now or later—for any sacrifices we make. This is a time for labor to fight, not roll over and play dead.

Threat: Death and loss. Already we have lost impressive workplace activists to this awful virus. The losses will be felt especially in essential jobs like transit and in health care most of all. The nurse shortage will get worse. Because Black communities are being hit particularly hard, majority-Black unions likely will be too.

Many members will come out of this period angry and ready to fight for change—but many will also come out traumatized and hurt. Unions will have to figure out how to help members mourn and heal.

Opportunity: Make improvements permanent—and keep workers in the driver’s seat. Workers have forced some positive changes that employers would typically resist. For example, in Detroit, bus drivers went on a wildcat strike and got bus fares abolished for the duration of the crisis. Birmingham, Alabama, bus drivers did it too. In the weeks that followed, many city transit agencies in the U.S. and Canada agreed to skip fares.

The change was to reduce the spread of the virus between drivers and passengers. But it also improves safety in other ways, since enforcing the fare is often the trigger point for conflict that can escalate to violence. Plus, fares are a regressive and wasteful way to pay for transit; it should be tax-funded, so the rich and corporations pay their share. Let’s not let this one go when the crisis ebbs.

Another example: Letter carriers in Winnipeg forced a temporary halt to delivering junk mail. Workers collectively deciding which work should take priority, with their own interests and the public interest in mind—I like it!

Employers will want to revert to their old policies as soon as possible. But where workers now have proof that improved methods can work, we shouldn’t let them put the genie back in the bottle.

Even more important, we should remember the principle: we can get together and change something about our work; we don’t have to wait for the employer’s say-so. Once you and your co-workers have discovered this power, you can do it again and again—crisis or not.

Threat: We’ll show the boss how to run leaner operations. On the flip side, savvy employers will be looking to make their kind of “improvements” permanent—using the strained circumstances to scale down public services and do the job with fewer hands.

If we let them go down to every-other-day mail delivery—as Detroit already has—will we ever get it back? If we show them how one person can do two jobs, why would they bring the second one back? Let's consider in advance how to head the cost-cutters off.

Threat: More telework. K-12 teachers and higher educators around the country are temporarily being forced to “teach online.” Will the pandemic accelerate the transition to this lower-quality but cheaper form of education?

University and college educators have been sounding the alarm for years about the dangerous rise of online education—already the fastest-growing segment of higher ed, and disproportionately for-profit. It’s still more marginal in the K-12 setting, but there are profit-driven virtual charter schools out there, with students as young as elementary schoolers.

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ORGANIZING IN A PANDEMIC

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Unions should get ready to fight this encroachment, which will harm students as well as teachers. The good news is, members will be fired up about the drawbacks of online teaching—everyone now has firsthand experience.

One caveat: For workers with disabilities or kids, the option to work remotely can be a good thing. In that sense it’s a step forward that many office employers have had to set up the technology to accommodate it. We should hang onto this win for those who need it—but not let employers push everyone online. A dispersed workforce is much harder to organize.

Opportunity: Draw new attention to longstanding problems. Hospital administrators have been ignoring and suppressing the safety concerns of frontline health care workers since forever. But now there’s a public spotlight.

People are outraged that nurses can’t get the protective gear they need, and that workers are being threatened with discipline for airing the truth on social media. It’s a good time for health care unions to push for improvements they can hold onto.

Opportunity: Highlight the importance of public services and public workers. Postal workers have been fighting service cuts for years, but the “essential service” designation shows how crucial their job is. People are relying on mail delivery for medications, paychecks, and absentee ballots. It’s a chance to breathe new life into the fight to defend universal, affordable postal service against privatization.

Transit and sanitation workers are among the heroes of the moment. It should be obvious now why these services shouldn’t be contracted out to the lowest bidder, who will slash those heroes’ wages and disregard their safety. With public sympathy peaking, now is an excellent time for unions to form alliances with the communities they serve.

Threat: Austerity will worsen in the public sector. Such community alliances will come not a moment too soon, because a budget crunch is coming.

A recession means tax revenues have dropped—and that means public employees will soon be facing layoffs and concession demands. Temporary drops in customer revenues, for instance on transit and at the post office, will be used to justify cuts to these services—even though they're “essential.”

Unions should arm for a fight. Remember: the scarcity is fictional. The federal government has just demonstrated that, to shore up Wall Street and to hand out stimulus checks, it can find trillions of dollars at the drop of a hat.

We have plenty of options for how to fund a robust public sector. We can tax the rich; we can tax corporations that have been paying $0 up till now; we can take money out of our obscene military budget; and we can run a deficit. Creating good jobs and a stronger safety net, reviving the real economy for working people—these are exactly the kinds of purposes for which deficit spending makes sense and where it can aid economic recovery, shortening the recession.

Threat and opportunity: Sudden growth in certain (often not-yet-union) sectors. While most retail is struggling, the grocery delivery business is suddenly booming; companies like FreshDirect and Instacart are swamped with more orders than they can fill.

The videoconferencing company Zoom is booming too; perhaps soon we can add mask and ventilator factories to the list. There are probably other growth areas ahead that aren’t obvious yet.

In booming sectors, unions must fight to define the standards and control the work process from the beginning—as the Electrical workers (IBEW) has attempted to do with solar power, and the Food and Commercial Workers with legalized marijuana. Unfortunately, labor history is full of many more examples of unions failing to get in on the ground floor—look at the unchecked nonunion growth of Walmart and Amazon, the rideshare industry, and most “green” jobs so far.

Opportunity: Union drives. There are lots of hot shops out there right now. Many employers have bungled safety, been stingy with leave, and placed profits ahead of workers’ safety; many nonunion workers are furious at how they’ve been treated. At Labor Notes we’re getting calls and messages from workers who want to know if they have any legal rights, or how to organize a walkout, or how to form a union; union halls are getting these calls too.

Look for waves of organizing opportunities ahead. Hundreds of thousands of workers have gotten substantial temporary raises—$2 an hour at Amazon, for instance. At some point Jeff Bezos will try to take that away; what happens then?

The recession is likely to have a chilling effect on organizing, because people will be fearful of losing their jobs. But the jolts of the crisis and its aftermath will push in the opposite direction too. It’s one thing to take something away from people gradually over a period of years, but when you take it all of a sudden, people get mad—mad enough to overcome their fear. And organizing sparks can fly from one workplace to another, as workers discover their power.

The Democratic Socialists of America acted fast to set up an online intake form where nonunion workers can ask for organizing help in the pandemic; they’ve gotten 700 requests, and are now working with the Electrical Workers (UE) to answer them all. The Communications Workers and the Food Chain Workers Alliance are doing similar things.

If other unions aren’t setting up an easy way for workers to start an organizing drive, they should! Now would be a great time for the Teamsters to organize FedEx, for instance. If working conditions are scary at unionized UPS and the Postal Service, I shudder to think what they're like at nonunion counterparts.

Opportunity: Organizing in union shops, too. Nonunion employers aren’t the only ones who’ve messed up royally, and shown their true colors. Union workers are scared and angry; there’s lots of ferment in usually sleepy shops.

In the postal unions, for instance, in typical times there are lots of grievances but not a lot of shop floor action. But now that workers are putting their lives at risk every day, walkouts are flaring up. A rural letter carrier started a petition and got tens of thousands of signatures in a day. The petition seeded a Facebook group of 18,000 and a weekly videoconference call where 100-200 workers exchange reports and organizing advice.

In normal times, union activists often fret that their coworkers are “apathetic.” Our popular workshop on “Beating Apathy” teaches how you can uncover what issues your co-workers actually do care about and what’s really holding them back from getting involved in union action. But right now, much of that can be short-circuited. The issues are obvious, and no one is apathetic.

The organizing you do now—gathering your co-workers’ contact info, identifying key leaders, starting group conversations whether in person or online, and taking a collective action together—will pay dividends for months and years to come.

Opportunity: Set our own terms for a return to work. Sooner than is prudent for public health, employers and the president will start pushing to reopen stores, offices, and factories. Workers can prepare for organized resistance—but we can do more.

A proactive approach would be to start discussing now what conditions must be met before workers return. What would it take to make your workplace safe? What else needs fixing? Can you present your employer with a list of conditions?

If you’re united, you and your co-workers potentially have the same kind of leverage you would have if you were out on strike. The ball’s in your court.

Alexandra Bradbury is editor and co-director of Labor Notes.al@labornotes.org