Amazon workers, Walmart employees, Fedex drivers, Kroger grocery store workers, Instacart shoppers, Uber drivers, and other employees – many of whom have been designated as “essential workers” – are reportedly not being treated as the heroes they are. To the contrary, such employees say that they have been forced to work without necessary personal protective equipment and/or the required physical distancing. In addition, many of these employees continue to labor on the front lines of the pandemic without receiving hazard pay or even paid sick leave. When some employees have sought to address their working conditions to protect themselves, their families, and the general public, their employers have evidently retaliated. The reported retaliation has included terminating employees apparently for being whistleblowers. Such highly unfortunate circumstances have inspired frequent and escalating job actions across the country in the past few weeks. On International Workers’ Day (May 1), for example, many thousands of essential workers across the economy participated in a nation-wide strike for workplace fairness. Even before the recent rolling job actions, strikes have become an increasingly common tool for securing safe and fair working conditions.
These typically spontaneous job actions parallel prior times in the country’s history when concern about employee safety and public health triggered successful union organizing in, for example, meatpacking plants, garment factories, and coal mines. “People’s fears of sickness and death are finally stronger than people’s fears of their employer,” observed a labor historian at the University of Notre Dame about the current situation. In addition, unions are increasingly fighting for and winning industry-wide concessions that help all employees (not only union members) and their communities. According to a recent Gallup poll, approximately two-thirds of people in the United States now have a favorable view of unions – despite the decades of misinformation about unions spread by corporate-financed groups and media outlets. Perhaps even more significant in the context of the continuing labor actions around the nation, MIT recently found that approximately half of non-unionized employees will join a union if they have a meaningful opportunity to do so.