COVID-19 outbreak shows importance of unions

COVID-19 outbreak shows importance of unions

Without organizing, workers have little clout



Feb 3, 2020
Construction cranes at a tower going up above the TD Garden in Boston. (Photo by Michael Jonas)


IF CRISES EXPOSE the underlying dynamics of a society, the coronavirus pandemic has starkly demonstrated the different options available to workers in unions and those who are not. Unionized nurses, factory workers, grocery workers, and janitors have, in recent weeks, demanded increased compensation as well as protections in terms of sanitized workplaces, gloves, masks, and other equipment. In some cases, the voices of these organized workers have been heeded, in others they have been resisted, but the power of their collective expression means they cannot be ignored.

In contrast, the sporadic walkouts and threatened strikes by the now indispensable workers at Instacart, Whole Foods, and Amazon have garnered publicity but are doomed to limited success in the absence of organizational clout and the inherent difficulties of protests limited by social distancing.

Developments in construction illustrate the yawning chasm. As with so many other public health policies and recommendations, industry conditions vary widely from state to state. As of April 9, three states had shut down all construction projects, 13 have allowed projects deemed essential to stay open, and the remainder have left the industry largely untouched. Since most construction workers live paycheck to paycheck, they face the inevitable tension between the need to stay financially afloat and concern for infection and their families’ health.

Construction is unsanitary and unhygienic in the best of times. Workers share portable toilets; work in mud, dust, and confined spaces; carry out tasks in pairs or teams; and drink coffee and eat snacks from canteen trucks that travel from job site to job site. Until now, there have never been hand-washing stations, provisions made to sanitize doorknobs and horizontal surfaces, or any concept of social distancing. These are conditions built into the nature of the work and virtually impossible to transform.

Construction sites are infectious vectors on steroids. A University of Texas epidemiological study released in April concluded that allowing all construction work in Austin to proceed, in the context of an effective all-city stay-at-home order, would be expected to triple the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations. The result is that many trades workers around the country have been forced to make decisions about the safety of their work on their own.

A carpenter working in Washington, DC, told the Construction Dive website: “Some employees still have to take public transportation to get to work. There’s no social distancing, and there is not water on the job to do hand washing.  Everyone shares a portable toilet. Everyone works together on the sites to help each other get the task done for that day. How is making a high-rise apartment or office building essential? We should not be going to work at this time.”

In an anguished letter, a building supply wholesaler wrote to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez: “Over half of the construction workers are not going to work because they are either feeling symptoms of the virus or because they are afraid to contract the disease. Maintaining the job sites open only prolongs the inevitable in that the people working the sites will continue to get infected.”  And a Northern California specialty subcontractor simply said: “My guys want to do their part, but they don’t want to crawl over everyone at the end of a project. They just want to stay home.”

On March 17, Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh was the first major elected official in the country to shut down non-emergency construction in his jurisdiction. As the former head of the Boston Building Trades, Walsh is more sensitive to the safety issues faced by construction workers than most politicians. Cambridge and Somerville followed suit, but on March 23 Gov. Charlie Baker defined construction as an “essential service” and directed work on job-sites to continue. In response, the Massachusetts Building Trades Council voted unanimously on March 31 to call on the governor to halt all non-emergency work. Shortly thereafter, the carpenters and painters unions instructed their Massachusetts members to stay home. Similarly, sheet metal workers in Philadelphia walked off a casino site after they learned some of their fellow workers had tested positive.

Non-union trades workers have no parallel voice. In the absence of a publicly mandated shutdown, they face the dilemma of working in a potentially unsafe environment or choosing to stay home and face possible disciplinary action.

In many parts of the country, the non-union sector of the industry has been plagued by the conditions of the underground economy. A recent comprehensive national study by the Institute for Construction Economic Research concluded that between 1.3 to 2.2 million construction workers are either improperly classified as independent contractors or compensated informally off the books. Fortunately, the new federal CARES Act provides for unemployment benefits for independent contractors who have been previously unable to collect, but those who are paid in cash know that a layoff or individual decision to stay home means the immediate loss of any income.

Developers working from the safety of remote home offices continue to expect construction employers to meet schedules and deadlines Some contractors have attempted to assure their workforce that they have taken precautions, but there were never adequate regulatory resources to monitor safety conditions on jobsites in the past. Under the current circumstances, enforcement is out of the question. As an example, on its $80 million project in Lynn, the Procopio Companies adopted state and city guidelines that include a strict prohibition on carpooling. Yet videos that have been posted on social media clearly show large groups of workers from an out-of-state drywall contractor with a long history of wage violations arriving at and leaving the site in company vans on a daily basis. As a result of the controversy, the project was temporarily shut down on the evening of April 10.

No one can predict what post-pandemic life will look like and what lessons will be learned. Employers will have suffered financial losses and will seek ways to survive and recover. In office-based industries, firms may discover that remote work can be productive and, therefore, may consider institutionalizing real estate cost savings by proposing that their employees work from home as independent contractors on a permanent basis.

In construction, upticks in the misclassification of employees as independent contractors have historically been associated with recessionary periods. But, hopefully, an alternate lesson can be learned, that workers deserve a voice and an organization when confronted with unprecedented challenges, let alone the daily issues of wages and working conditions. Will workers turn to unions to find that voice? Will unions grow as a result of the coronavirus epidemic? As Albert Einstein said years ago, “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.”


Mark Erlich is the Wertheim Fellow at the Harvard University Labor and Worklife Program. He is the retired executive secretary-treasurer with the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and a member of the board of MassINC, which is the corporate parent of CommonWealth.


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