The Expendables: In a pandemic, the lack of unions is literally killing workers

Union workplaces are safer, and that’s especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, argues Eric Dirnbach.

The coronavirus pandemic and the current reopening of the U.S. economy are making clear what’s always been true – that a lack of worker voice and power on the job makes the workplace much more dangerous, with deadly consequences. 

With over 100,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 so far, it’s likely that many of these cases have been contracted at work. Adding insult to this great injury, many workers have been classified as “essential,” but that only means that the job is essential, while the worker is expendable.  

For most private sector, non-union workers, the workplace is an authoritarian dictatorship without any semblance of democracy or freedom. Those with skills, educational credentials or personal connections that are valued in the market can often bargain a better deal for themselves at work. But for the vast majority, the owners and managers make the rules and give the orders, and the workers are expected to follow them. Workers have few freedom of speech rights and can be fired “at will” for any reason, or no reason, with a few exceptions for legally prohibited discrimination. Workers can quit, but this only means they will likely enter another workplace dictatorship with a similar lack of freedom. I recently reviewed the book Private Government, which extensively explores these themes.  

Of course some bosses are better than others, and we may sometimes have sympathies for small business owners who work all the time in their stores. But the lack of political freedoms and the powerlessness for most workers at work are still real.

A recent report on worker power and information on the job found that a majority of workers have experienced various acts of “arbitrary or unfair managerial power.”  This can include requiring workers to do unsafe work. When workers are put in these dangerous situations, they feel they must comply. In some cases they can legally refuse unsafe work, but most workers don’t know they have this right, or how to exercise it, and they risk real retaliation from their employer even if they do. In these cases, workers must rely on OSHA, which does good work and has saved many lives, but is also underfunded and has a perpetually weak enforcement record

Work Safe, Work Union

How unsafe is the workplace? The AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report states that in 2017, over 5,000 workers lost their lives due to traumatic workplace injuries and another 95,000 died from occupational diseases. Coincidentally, this 100,000 matches the current COVID-19 death count, but it happens every year. Furthermore, nearly 3.5 million workers had work-related injuries and illnesses, but due to underreporting, it’s more likely to be 7 – 10.5 million.  This is the relentless death and injury on the job that stalks the working class.

Under these prevailing conditions, workers’ main hope of having a meaningful voice in improving their working conditions is to organize a union. A majority of Americans think workers have too little power and would vote to join a union if they had the chance.  Of course, a union doesn’t bring full democracy to the workplace, but collective negotiations with owners, backed by strike threats, allow workers to substantially improve their working lives. This includes making the workplace much safer. During the coronavirus pandemic, in many workplaces unions have negotiated for and enforced workers getting PPE, closing and cleaning workplaces, paid sick leave, and other urgent remedies. Otherwise, too many employers are doing too little because they can get away with it.

In a pandemic, there’s a clear public health benefit for workers to have this power to make their workplaces safer. But the Economic Policy Institute estimates that of the 55 million essential workers, only 12% are covered by a union contract, similar to the low rate of 11% for all workers.

Of course we should acknowledge that many union worksites have still not been safe enough during this pandemic. Many COVID-19 cases have been found among union transit workers, nurses, grocery workers, and meatpacking workers.    

But how much safer is a union workplace? That actually turns out to be a tricky number to pin down. One reason is that it’s more likely for OSHA violations to be unreported and uninvestigated at non-union workplaces, while union workers are more empowered to report. This dynamic helps make union workplaces safer but also distorts the data. Another problem is that the union status of the worksites where fatalities occur is not complete or reliable in government records. 

Some studies have looked at specific industries, finding safer union worksites in coal mining and construction. Others have looked at the correlation between overall union presence and workplace fatalities. One recent analysis of state-level fatality data over time found that a 1% increase in the unionized workforce was associated with a 2.8% decline in the rate of occupational fatalities, and that recent increases in state “right to work” laws have weakened unions, leading to a 14% increase in workplace mortality. 

Human Capital Stock

With states reopening, many prematurely under conservative pressure, currently unemployed workers are caught in a tough spot. If they hesitate to return to a potentially dangerous workplace, they could lose their unemployment benefits. Furthermore, employers are pushing for liability immunity for workplace COVID-19 cases, so they will have less incentive to make things as safe as possible.  A Trump advisor said the quiet part out loud when he referred to workers as “human capital stock.”

Thousands of COVID-19 OSHA complaints have been filed, and a complaint tracker shows the closed cases so far, with some information. These reports reveal a sample of employer impunity and worker insecurity during the pandemic. Common cases involve workers getting sick, no proper PPE, work that is too close together, and unclean workplaces. Here is a typical case from a Walmart in PA.

Saving Themselves

The working conditions of any workplace are the result of the balance of power between employers and workers, on that job and in society at large. Workplaces are safer when workers are organized, because they have built the power to advocate for themselves, and employers are forced to respond. This is also true during the coronavirus pandemic. One recently announced initial finding is that “unionized essential workers were more likely to receive/use PPE at work, receive paid leave, and get tested.” In the coronavirus era, the ability of workers to protect themselves has even more widespread positive effects in general. The more workers can protect themselves through unions, the safer we are as a society.

Eric Dirnbach is a labor movement researcher, activist, campaigner, organizer, educator, writer & socialist, based in New York City. Twitter: @EricDirnbach Medium: