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NLRB suspends unionizing amid COVID-19 crisis

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

Just as delivery personnel, medical staffers and just about everyone who has to be out in first-responder roles is raising serious questions about lacking proper protections, the federal government has found this is the time to suspend union elections.

Given the date, it sounds like a cruel April Fools’ Day joke.

But it is a serious, if temporary move. The National Labor Relations Board approved suspension of all unionizing elections, including those by mail ballot, for the two weeks—exactly out of health concerns for its own agency employees in regional offices who would otherwise oversee union elections.

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It may not have been an intentional signal to worried nurses, doctors, cops and emergency personnel, but it could not have come at a more worrisome notice. Delivery people for at least two national services for grocery chains are essentially going on strike for a couple of days this week to highlight the lack of any protective gear from their employers.

As one social mediq post had it, as a society, we’re now dependent on the very people to whom we still refuse to pay $15 an hour.

The NLRB, which now has a Republican majority, said the action is “necessary to ensure the health and safety of our employees, as well as those members of the public who are involved in the election process.” The NLRB said it may extend the suspension time, depending on virus spread news.

At the same time, the board implemented substantial changes to union election rules that favor employers. Generally, the changes require a quicker election once an election has been called for by workers, making it easier for “ambush” elections that generally favor employers.

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Of course, the timing of the suspension of union elections may be more about symbolic than practical in this very week, but it sure does underscore a disregard for worker concerns.

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In criticizing the move, the Economic Policy Institute said, “The decision to finalize this rulemaking at a time when the agency is failing to fulfill its most basic statutory obligation—to enable workers to organize—is a disgrace. Congress must hold the agency accountable for this decision.”

EPI added, “This is a moment when more and more workers are voicing concerns over the terms and conditions of their work as the entire country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers are being forced to work without adequate protective gear or sick leave if they or their family members get sick.”

Workers at Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods were staying home yesterday or walking off their jobs to protest a lack of protective clothing.

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Clearly this is an issue in workplace behavior, and well could be seen as a reason for immediate unionizing efforts.

There are about 200 reported coronavirus cases among medical staff in New York City hospitals, and hundreds of New York City police and emergency workers reportedly ill.

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Historically, unions have played an important role in seeking protections for employees who face unsafe working conditions. One nurses’ union recently located 39 million N95 masks after their employer failed to provide them, and unions for grocery workers have won commitments for equipment, sick time and a hazard bonus.

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Eerily, at the same time unconcern for workers was playing out at Labor, there was rank disagreement in Washington about whether the government actually cares about workers altogether.

Donald Trump called for passage of a sizeable infrastructure bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed, adding that type of bill would contribute to a large recovery effort she wants to sponsor, but then there was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told all parties that he wasn’t voting for any more government programs for workers.

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Just as Pelosi said we should start crafting a fourth stimulus package, McConnell told a conservative talk show that “I think we need to wait a few days here, a few weeks, and see how things are working out.”

It is interesting to hear how all politicians vow to help workers right up to the moment that they oppose the very policies that would make it so.

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