Apr 1, 2020 - Economy

The new labor movement

Illustration of three hands holding cell phones in a propaganda style poster

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on working people, who are increasingly banding together to put pressure on employers and raise public awareness about health and safety issues they're facing on the job.

Why it matters: After years of declining union membership, a new labor movement is rising, amplified by the power of social media and fueled by concerns that workers deemed essential during the crisis are putting their lives at risk to ensure the well-being of others.

Driving the news: Some Whole Foods employees used an online petition to organize a so-called sick out Tuesday, demanding double hazard pay, a day after workers at Amazon and Instacart staged other actions.

Unionized nurses, flight attendants and auto workers have all leveraged their collective voices in recent weeks to try to influence policy and corporate decision-making during the crisis.

  • The United Auto Workers union — which has had at least nine of its members succumb to the disease in the past week — pressured Detroit carmakers to close their factories on March 18 until social distancing protocols could be established.
  • Nurses in New York, Georgia, Illinois and California staged protests this week calling for more personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves and gowns.
  • The Association of Flight Attendants union successfully made its case to Congress to assist aviation employees in the $2 trillion stimulus bill approved last week: even with drastically decreased air traffic, the workers will still get paid.
  • “Hundreds of thousands of people sent letters and made calls. Together, we achieved something unheard of in American history: relief crafted for workers, by workers,” union President Sara Nelson told Yahoo Finance.

The intrigue: Social media is proving to be a new avenue for workers to organize.

  • "I think we could be on the cusp of a whole new wave of worker actions, and organizing, though not necessarily through traditional unions," MIT Professor Thomas Kochan tells Axios.
  • "Yesterday’s break room is today’s Slack chat," agrees AFL-CIO spokesman Tim Schlittner. "It's an incredible tool in bringing people together and can serve a really important role in growing the labor movement."

Yes, but: Noisy protests don't necessarily result in lasting change, notes Kochan.

  • "The upside of these actions is they get the attention of the public. The downside is they don’t build sustainable, ongoing organizations like unions. "

Context: The increased activism comes just as the National Labor Relations Board is taking steps to limit union organizing, according to the AFL-CIO.

  • "In two weeks' time, in the middle of a pandemic, President Trump’s NLRB suspended representation elections and then made it harder for employers to voluntarily recognize unions," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
  • "The board is effectively sealing off any viable path to unionization at a time when workers need a voice on the job more than ever."
  • Union membership among private sector workers fell to 7 percent in 2019, from 23 percent in 1977.

Workers for the most part have been left out of the government and business response to the coronavirus, Kochan writes in a recent blog post.

  • In Europe, workers councils are represented on corporate boards, so they have a say in how companies respond in a crisis.
  • In Germany, for example, unions and companies agreed to shorten work schedules to avoid mass layoffs.
  • In Sweden, Italy and Spain, unions, employers and governments have reached joint agreements dealing with worker safety, work hours and layoff benefits in light of the crisis.
  • President Trump has invited a parade of corporate executives to join the government's efforts to fight the pandemic, but labor leaders say he has not sought their input.

Flashback: At the beginning of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought together business and labor leaders to help convert the economy to wartime production.

  • As part of that effort, he created a National War Labor Board to oversee workers’ relations with management and ensure everything went smoothly.
  • Decisions made by the War Labor Board led to many of today's modern labor practices, notes Kochan.

What to watch: After urging Detroit automakers to shut down, UAW members are now volunteering to produce medical supplies as GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler respond to Trump's demand for their help.

  • "In spite of the lack of engagement from politicians, you still see labor stepping up to help the country, " says UAW President Rory Gamble.
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