2020 in Review: Workers Struggle Under the Weight of the Pandemic
Workers will feel the ramifications of this unprecedented year long into the future.
The coronavirus pandemic has claimed 300,000 lives, destroyed millions of jobs, busted gaping holes in public budgets, and magnified the myriad inequalities that have come to define life in the United States.
Notwithstanding a few bright spots, the labor movement struggled to find its footing in the biggest workplace health and safety crisis of our lifetimes.
The year started with 3.5 percent unemployment—the lowest in a half-century—and hopes that workers might be able to use the tight labor market to recover some of what had been lost over decades of concessions.
All that came to a crashing halt in March, though the U.S. was slow to impose dramatic shutdowns. Eventually it took a seesaw approach, alternating between periods of lockdown and opening in an attempt to keep the economy going while waiting for a vaccine.
That came at an enormous human cost. Health care workers sustained grueling shifts for months on end, witnessing the havoc this new virus wreaks on its victims while working desperately to connect patients with loved ones to say their final distanced goodbyes. Meanwhile they often had to fight for adequate protective gear.
“Most of us are going to get it and some of us are going to die,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses, as the pandemic reached its early heights in New York City. Overall around 550,000 health care workers have contracted the virus, including 300,000 workers in nursing homes, whose residents account for 40 percent of all Covid deaths. Sixteen hundred health care workers have died.
MOST UNEQUAL RECESSION
Unemployment peaked near 15 percent in April. By September a quarter of Americans would say that someone in their household had lost a job this year.
Even as unemployment dipped to 6.7 percent in November, there were still 9 million fewer workers on payrolls than a year ago, with 3.7 million having dropped out of the labor force. The real unemployment rate, which includes these workers as well as involuntary part-timers, stands at 12 percent. Among the unemployed, 3.9 million have been without a job for more than 27 weeks.
But even those figures understate the pandemic’s impact on workers. According to the Washington Post, this is “the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history, delivering a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom.”
Unemployment rates for Blacks and Latinos are 10.3 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, compared to 5.9 percent for white workers. Retail has lost 550,000 jobs since February and leisure and hospitality 3.4 million.
While Americans got used to seeing cars lined up for miles at food banks—26 million adults reported not having enough food to eat in mid-November—those at the very top saw their fortunes grow astronomically. Since the start of lockdowns in March, 650 U.S. billionaires have tacked on an additional $1 trillion in wealth, led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now worth $70 billion more, and the Walton family, up a combined $48 billion.
Suddenly, just the act of going to work every day became a potential life-or-death question.
That spurred some workers to action. Detroit bus drivers were the first to strike, to force the city to sanitize buses and stop fare collection. Apple packers—working shoulder to shoulder in the county with the highest rate of Covid on the West Coast—walked out to demand safety and hazard pay. Workers in Amazon warehouses, grocery stores, and fast food fought for paid time off.
These were among the hundreds of actions that workers took to defend themselves, their co-workers, and their communities. But it was far from the mass strike wave that some anticipated, a reflection both of the disorienting impact of the pandemic and of how little real organization had been built up heading into it.
Meatpacking and poultry plants stayed open throughout the year, even as the workers, largely immigrants, contracted the coronavirus at alarming rates. A Tyson plant manager in Iowa set up a pool for supervisors to bet on how many workers in the plant would get the virus, according to a lawsuit; over a third caught it, and five died. Tyson’s billionaire owner, meanwhile, saw his fortune balloon by $600 million. OSHA was almost entirely AWOL as 225 meatpacking workers died of Covid. Poultry plants were even granted federal waivers to increase line speed.
None of this is to dismiss the valiant organizing in some workplaces.
In just the week before we went to print, 30 workers walked out at a George’s poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas, to protest the end of staggered shifts (which mean fewer workers have to cram into crowded hallways) and push for wage increases. Teachers organized a sickout in Chandler, Arizona, over their district’s refusal to consider hybrid or remote schooling as cases surge. And dozens of fast food workers in Durham, North Carolina, struck after a worker at a McDonald’s tested positive and management withheld the news; they demanded better virus protections and $15 an hour.
SOCIALLY DISTANCED TACTICS
Many unions and worker centers did their best to adapt by organizing socially distanced rallies and car caravans, including some that jammed up fast food drive-thrus to back workers’ demands. A digital picket line by the New Yorker’s new union won just cause after a two-year push.
Some unions canceled meetings entirely. Others switched to Zoom and reported record attendance. Many negotiated one-year contract extensions, hoping for a better bargaining environment next year. At some big union employers, like Verizon and AT&T, strong unions won model leave policies. Others, like UPS, refused calls for hazard pay—and national union leaders did little to rock the boat.
Some workers frustrated with their union officials’ inaction voted in new ones. Complaining that the six-term incumbent hadn’t “shown his face” and was “totally absent,” members of AFSCME District Council 33 in Philadelphia backed a challenger slate—which included sanitation workers pushing for hazard pay and personal protective equipment—two to one.
No big wave of workers joined unions, though a handful did. National Nurses United had a breakthrough in North Carolina, the biggest hospital union victory in the South in 45 years. A promising collaboration between the United Electrical Workers and the Democratic Socialists of America trained hundreds of volunteers to advise workers looking for fight-back help, but has notched just a few small wins thus far.
Educators were forced to navigate constantly shifting conditions. They worried that open schools could spread the virus, and raged at a politics that placed the economy above their safety.
Some locals, like United Teachers Los Angeles, used the power they had built through years of organizing to quickly win remote schooling. But in many other districts, educators are back in buildings, or shifting back and forth between in-person and remote.
Averting a second term for Donald Trump was a major goal for many in labor.
An election that Joe Biden won by 7 million votes still managed to be a nail-biter, thanks to the archaic and undemocratic Electoral College. While the Biden campaign itself downplayed the importance of face-to-face organizing, a few unions thankfully ignored this advice. UNITE HERE sent 1,700 mostly Black and Latino canvassers—many of them laid-off hotel workers—whose work provided the critical margins in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
But the larger “blue wave” heralded by pre-election polling failed to materialize, dashing hopes for a good terrain on which to fight for labor law reform, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or a massive federal stimulus and jobs program. Absent changes that will actually improve voters’ lives over the next four years, the prospect looms of a swing back to a demagogic right-winger in 2024.
In an ominous development in California, Uber and other gig economy giants spent a record-breaking $200 million to buy a win on Proposition 22 so they could go on treating workers as disposable “independent contractors.”
LABOR FOR BLACK LIVES
The other major story of 2020 was the upsurge for racial justice that began with George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Millions took to the streets, including in small towns where demonstrations are a rarity. Many demanded to cut police funding and redirect it to social needs.
Labor played its part. Many Twin Cities unions supported the demonstrations. Bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York refused to transport arrested protesters. West Coast dockers shut down their ports twice.
Teachers in Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Oregon, Rochester, New York, and Seattle forced their districts to cut contracts with the police. The King County labor council expelled the Seattle police union, and other labor bodies debated whether police unions belong within them.
Union leaders—often hesitant to weigh in on such issues—issued statements backing the protests. A Strike for Black Lives endorsed by eight national unions in July saw actions in 150 cities; many participants stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence to honor Floyd.
As Tim Schermerhorn and Lee Sustar wrote in these pages, “The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace.”
Where does all this leave us heading into 2021? We don’t know how many jobs the vaccine will bring back. In the public sector—a major employer of Black workers—decimated state and city budgets will fuel battles over employee pensions, health care, layoffs, and collective bargaining rights.
Over the past year, tens of millions of workers have been heralded as essential and praised as heroes. But they’ve also seen that they’re expendable—that their lives do not matter as much as ensuring the smooth flow of goods and production.
“We’re up here risking our life for chicken,” said Kendaliyn Granville, a Georgia poultry worker who walked out early in the pandemic.
“All they care about is picking up the garbage. They don’t even care about our health,” said Pittsburgh sanitation worker Fitzroy Moss at a rally demanding protective gear and hazard pay.
Many of these same workers hit the streets in the dramatic protests for racial justice this summer. How will these experiences translate to a post-pandemic world, where workers may have more breathing space to organize?