A Supreme Court ruling that's right out of the 19th century

Sitting in their air-conditioned offices with stewards who serve coffee and tea on request, a majority of our Supreme Court justices have come to an awful decision. They ordered an essential class of workers into slave-like isolation—unseen, unheard and unprotected—as they toil in scorching heat harvesting crops.

The justices, exploiting a single incident, turned back the clock on farmworker rights nearly a half-century.

In an under-reported 6-3 decision, the justices drop-kicked the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 into the trash bin. That California law gave farmworkers access to labor organizers. The court decision assures farm owners that they once again reign over their employees like plantation owners in the antebellum South, just without bullwhips.

"It seems like a return to indentured servitude," Rev. Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural and Migrant Ministry in New York State, said after the U.S. Supreme Court's June 23 decision in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid.

In practical terms, the ruling means that farmworkers cannot access union organizers unless they leave the farm, creating a legal barrier that segregates the workers from the right to organize a union.

Are we going back to an era where only those who own land get to have their voices heard?

The majority ruling ignored human rights, including the right to form a union, and reaffirmed the court majority's view that property rights reign supreme. It furthers the high court's long history of favoring property over people.

Think of this decision as judicial backing for a modern economic version of slavery, just without the right to murder employees or sell them off. Sharecropping after the Civil War was slavery 2.0. Think of this ruling as American slavery 3.0—work without meaningful labor rights.

Just what did this California law do that required striking it down as unconstitutional? It allowed union organizers to walk onto farms to talk with workers during the hours they are not toiling in the fields. These visits by union organizers were limited to 120 days per year, each for no more than three hours.

A Visit During Working Hours

The case arose after an incident when some labor organizers met with workers during work hours, causing a ruckus in which some of the laborers walked out. Throwing out the California law over this incident would be akin to the high court invalidating stoplight traffic laws because one driver ran a red light.

Migrant farmworkers, like slaves and sharecroppers, often reside in temporary housing on the farm owner's land. Recognizing that, California gave union organizers access to workers during their off-hours.

But the court conservatives' have now effectively barred unions from approaching workers at all as long as they are on the owner's property. Assuring access to workers, the majority said, is a "taking" of the owners' property rights, which our Constitution allows only with "just compensation" to property owners.

Up to now, the Constitution's prohibition on uncompensated "takings" was limited to government acquiring private property for uses such as highways, public buildings or, in some instances, new private developments with government support. But assuring mere access to private property was not considered an unconstitutional taking.

The ruling harkens back to antebellum days. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who wrote the opinion, is the current champion of oppressive property owners who want to grow more prosperous by ensuring employees don't get paid fairly or have safe working conditions. Achieving those exploitive goals becomes difficult if farmworkers form unions to argue for their rights.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in dissent, pointed to a fundamental legal problem with the idea that letting union organizers walk onto farmland to meet with laborers when they are not picking crops is what our Constitution's Fifth Amendment calls a "taking" of property.

"The Takings Clause prohibits the Government from taking private property for public use without 'just compensation,'" Breyer noted. "But the employers do not seek compensation."

Witt sees the bias in the way Chief Justice Roberts framed the high court ruling. "What about [farmworkers'] property rights?" the reverend said. "If they're living on the farm, don't their property rights count?

'No Trespassing'

Rural and Migrant Ministries is a non-profit interfaith organization advocating for the working poor and disenfranchised in New York State since the 1970s.

As soon as the court issued its ruling, Witt says, his ministry encountered newly posted "No Trespassing" signs on farms across New York State.

"Employers can control who can come and see" farmworkers, he said. "Are we going back to an era where only those who own land get to have their voices heard?"

Even at its most militant and anti-capitalist, the American Labor Movement has never been able to secure the same hard-fought rights and protections for farmworkers that other workers won through decades of struggle.

In 1935, persistent collective action from below forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get behind the National Labor Relations Act, which granted collective bargaining rights for workers.

But the bosses, albeit a little bruised, held onto enough sway to exclude farmworkers from that law. The exclusion is a solid example of structural racism since many, if not most, field hands are Black and Brown people.

The exclusions — fueled by Jim Crow racism and the desire of many business owners to ensure a permanent underclass of cheap labor — continue to this day in federal law. The result of this is virtually universal abuse of farmworkers, including violent attacks, sexual assault and an entrenched sub-minimum wage.

Farmworkers Excluded from Labor Law

These awful conditions amount to an economic extension of slaveholder rights, just without the legal right to sell off farmhands. The result of this has been shortened lives and needless misery.

According to labor activists in New York, Covid has infected more than 13,000 farmworkers nationwide. The death toll? Unknown because our governments pay so little attention to the essential workers who harvest the food we eat.

The pandemic had the unexpected effect of bringing the plight of farmworkers to public attention and brought widespread acclaim for their labor during the shutdowns.

But little has been done to remedy this enduring American evil of exploiting farmworkers. Now our Supreme Court has struck a blow against decency and fairness.

Farmworkers were among the majority of American workers left out of enforceable Covid safety measures that the Biden administration announced in June.

The 1975 California law that the high court struck down grew from 40 years of work on behalf of California farmworkers by the determined labor activist Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union he founded. The collective bargaining rights the UFW won applied only in the Golden State.

Owners Happy

The high court ruling thrilled the American Farm Bureau.

Zippy Duvall, president of the Farm Bureau, said the organization "appreciates the U.S. Supreme Court for reaffirming private property rights, which are foundational to our nation and critical to ensuring secure and well-managed farms. We hope this decision sends a message to state regulators that it's simply wrong to give outsiders access to farms, where families live and work hard to safeguard their animals and harvests."

Advocates for farmworkers see it very differently.

Edgar Franks, political director of Familias Unidas for la Justicia, an independent farmworker union representing workers from indigenous families across Washington State, was appalled by the court decision.

"We definitely think this is an anti-worker ruling," Franks recently said. "But it also goes beyond that. Chief Justice [John] Roberts redefined the 5th Amendment 'taking clause.' What if there were a health and safety violation? Would that mean they would be denied entrance to check on worker safety? This makes life harder for many workers."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also took issue with the view that farmworkers' fundamental right to organize at the location where they work constitutes an unconstitutional "taking of their employers' property.

"As the state of California recognized more than 45 years ago, meeting with the union during off-hours at their workplace is the only practical way for workers to organize when they must regularly move from farm to farm throughout the growing season," Trumka said.

More to Come?

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy organization for farmworkers based in Washington, D.C., believes Roberts wrote so broadly that the ruling invites employers to test its limits.

"The court says it's not much of an issue — but given the breadth of their opinion, it's difficult to understand what the limits are on the power of the employer to limit anyone coming onto their property," he says.

That is what Witt worries about because the high court ruling seems to have First Amendment implications in the free exercise of religion.

Suzanne Adely, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, thinks farm owners and other property owners will take an extreme view of how much the ruling limits access to workers. The alliance is a coalition of 31 worker-based organizations advocating for more than 3750,000 food workers in the United States and Canada. Adely fears that the ruling set a corrosive precedent.

"Employers say they are not going to that extent — but that won't matter much if conservatives in the future try to utilize this ruling for their case. It's utterly anti-union and anti-democratic. Globally speaking, a lot of countries around the world would consider this to be shocking."

Louis DeJoy strikes again: How our postal service helped Amazon win controversial Alabama union battle

After the failed union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, the critical postmortems ignored a reality that may result in another election: Amazon cheated.

And Louis DeJoy, the Trump-era holdover dismantling the U.S. Postal Service, helped.

A May 7 labor board hearing will consider a request for a new vote sought by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Its complaint details a campaign of intimidation to pressure employees to reject the union.

The Labor Board has a long history of looking the other way when given evidence of cheating by employers in union elections. But this time may be different because of who helped cheat --- from local on up to national officials.

The Jeff Bezos company installed drop boxes to collect votes on company property. Amazon placed these boxes despite being told by the National Labor Relations Board staff not to do so.

The drop boxes were placed with the connivance of the service led by DeJoy. Former President Donald Trump installed this high-rolling donor to worsen mail delivery during the fall presidential election Trump was hellbent to win. Less mail, less votes; less votes, less competition.

Here, we use the pejorative verb connivance because the drop box installed inside Amazon's Bessemer parking lot did not carry any postal insignia.

Amazon can leverage the Postal Service because Amazon has made itself crucial to USPS finances.

The Postal Service generated nearly $4 billion in revenue from Amazon in 2019 and counted an eye-popping $1.6 billion of that in profit. The volume of business Amazon delivered grew bigly last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This reliance on Amazon for highly profitable business likely explains why, beyond his well-documented anti-union animus, DeJoy would help Amazon fight the union.

The struggle between American workers and the bosses has been, and continues to be, fantastically lopsided.

A pro-union worker, Jennifer Bates, told reporters last month that colleagues at the Bessemer Fulfillment Center were reluctant to deposit ballots in the mysterious drop box that suddenly appeared in the parking lot.

Workers Feared Amazon

"Some of the people are afraid to put them in there," Bates said. "The 'yes' voters feel that Amazon will probably try to steal their ballots."

Labor lawyer Brandon Magner tweeted: "If Amazon did install these mailboxes, or if they exercise control over the mailboxes, such as having a key to the ballot box, that would clearly merit setting aside the election if the union were to lose."

During the voting, which lasted from Feb. 8 to March 29, Amazon demonstrated just how crucial controlling the Bessemer warehouse parking lot — and what went on inside it — was to the company.

'Coercion and Intimidation'

The union made the following claims:

  • Amazon hired police officers to patrol the parking lot and surveil interactions between employees and union organizers. The constant presence, according to the union's protest filing, "created an atmosphere of coercion and intimidation thereby interfering with the right of employees to a free and fair election."
  • The company used local government officials to change policies governing employees exiting the workplace. Amazon got the timing on a traffic light located outside the facility changed so union organizers wouldn't have much time to approach departing workers.
  • Workers were forced to sit through hours of mandatory indoctrination meetings. These sessions, often used by companies to scare workers into believing their jobs will disappear if they vote for a union, are often effective with workers who have not yet experienced the benefits of collective bargaining.

Without a union, individual workers have no power. And while some who voted against the union told journalists after the vote that Amazon paid them well, the issue is whether it should pay them even better along with improving their benefits and work rules.

Record Profits

Last year, Amazon reported a profit of $24.2 billion before taxes, up from $13.9 billion in 2019 and almost 10 times its 2016 pretax profit.

Amazon pays little in federal income tax. In 2020 its "effective federal income tax rate of just 9.4%, less than half the statutory corporate tax of 21%." So said Mathew Gardner of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy earlier this year when Amazon announced its latest financial success.

Amazon has been so successful that a dollar invested when it first sold stock in 1997 has now grown to $2,300, making it one of the most fantastically profitable investments even in this era of high profits in high tech.

While the company doesn't want to share more of its gains with the blue-collar Americans whose labor makes its profits possible by quickly fulfilling orders, it does lavish money on its executives. One reason to favor the top is that the way Amazon pays executives provides a stealth financial and tax subsidy.

Costly Stock Options

The company showered so many valuable stock options on its highest-paid people that the tax savings alone came to more than $600 million last year, Gardner calculated.

Stock options save companies on corporate income tax. The companies get to deduct their value even though the cost is borne by existing stockholders. The stockholders' share of the company is diluted by the new shares given to executives. In other words, it's a tax deduction that costs the company nothing.

Options are also a form of compensation that cost the company nothing, unlike the hard cash it must pay out to rank-and-file workers like those at the Bessemer warehouse.

What's most troubling about this union election is that a federal government corporation worked with management against the workers. That's a troubling sign of authoritarianism.

Remember Amazon worked in concert with the service to install the dropbox to collect ballots on company property. The service acted after staff at the Labor Board, the federal agency tasked with protecting the rights of American workers in the private sector, told them they couldn't do it. But just as it pressured workers, Amazon pressured the service into pleasing Bezos, the richest person in America.

No Answers

Dave Partenheimer, a postal public relations manager, would not talk about who ultimately gave the go-ahead to install the dropbox in the Amazon warehouse parking lot.

Partenheimer declined to say whether the service knew that the Labor board already denied Amazon's request for such a dropbox. He also declined to identify who ultimately approved installation.

Instead, Partenheimer reiterated an earlier statement about a "Centralized Box Unit [CBU] with a collection compartment" being "suggested by the postal service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point."

The Labor board isn't talking about the dropbox either, at least not while it considers the 23 separate objections filed by the Retail Store, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The Labor board spokeswoman, Kayla Blado, declined to comment on whether the Postal Service has the authority to supersede her agency's decisions. She would not even confirm that the agency did, in fact, deny Amazon's request to have a ballot drop box installed on its property.

DeJoy Strikes Again

The persistent controversy about the dropbox and the Bessemer vote overall, however, parallels the madness that surrounded mail-in ballots during the last presidential election. DeJoy ordered the removal of mail sorting machines in the run-up to the vote, while the rest of the Trump administration whined about the supposed inability of the Postal Service to properly deliver ballots.

Trump also complained throughout his four years in office that the Postal Service was subsidizing Amazon. This was to advance his attacks on the aggressive reporting by The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, but whose newsroom he has never influenced according to the top editor and reporters working there.

We now know that the prices Amazon paid generated outsize profits for the Postal Service, exposing yet another Trump lie though only a few Americans, like DCReport readers, know this.

Fought Mail-in Votes, Then Didn't

At first, Amazon fought hard to block mail-in voting. It dismissed the potential dangers of in-person voting during the pandemic. Then it reversed course and challenging the ability of the Postal Service to deliver mail-in ballots in a timely fashion. Taken together it was a classic case of Amazon talking out of both sides of the company's mouth.

Lisa Y. Henderson, the Labor board's acting Region 10 director, dismissed the company's contradictory arguments in January and ordered that balloting be conducted by mail.

How the Labor board rules, and whether the long list of federal rules that hobble union organizing, will be addressed by President Joe Biden's administration. Decisions will be crucial to whether Americans as a whole prosper, or we continue to create inequality through policies that tilt heavily to the side of business owners and investors.

The struggle between American workers and the bosses has been, and continues to be, fantastically lopsided.

The Economic Policy Institute's Unequal Power Project, for instance, notes an "inherent imbalance in bargaining power between employers and employees" that creates "a lack of freedom in the workplace."

Pro-union workers at Amazon's Bessemer Fulfillment Center remained undaunted after losing the initial vote, declaring, "This battle has just begun."

"I'm not discouraged, Linda Burns told reporters after losing the vote by a more than 2-to-1 margin. "This is the beginning. [Jeff] Bezos, you misled a lot of our people. We're going to fight for our rights."

Co-worker Emitt Ashford said if the Labor board does order a new election, "We would see a change in the tide now that people have the information."

"We would win," he said.

Nurses and other healthcare workers face increased violence on the job

Covid-19 is already responsible for killing some 3,500 healthcare workers across the United States. Now America's nurses say they're being subjected to another chilling aspect of the ongoing pandemic — increasing workplace violence.

The National Nurses United (NNU) surveyed 15,000 of its members last fall. As astounding 20% responded said they have been physically attacked on the job.

Healthcare workers are five times more likely to be victimized on the job than other workers overall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS found that healthcare workers accounted for 73-percent of all nonfatal workplace injuries and illness due to violence in 2018. Nurse labor leaders say the pandemic has made matters worse.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating violent outbursts from patients.

On February 9, Gregory Patrick Ulrich, a 67-year-old man grappling with opioid addiction, was arrested after he shot up the Allina Clinic Crossroads health clinic in Buffalo, Minn. Lindsay Overbay, a 37-year-old mother of two and medical assistant working at the facility later died. Four others recovered from gunshot wounds.

Ulrich is facing second-degree murder and attempted murder charges, but that's the criminal justice system's swift and clear response. The worker safety side of the equation is entirely different, an underfunded and hobbled system that could protect workers better in many ways, reducing death and misery.

Assaults in ERs, Offices

Assaults in emergency rooms, doctor's offices, and even hospital lobbies all add to the dangers facing nurses in the tense social conditions fostered by the pandemic.

NNU insists that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating violent outbursts from patients and that hospital employers aren't doing enough to protect long-suffering healthcare workers. NNU is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses with 170,000 members.

Allysha Shin, a member of the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee, is a registered nurse who's still dealing with the trauma of being battered and kicked in the face while attempting to care for a distraught patient at the University of Southern California's Keck Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Shin's entire ordeal, in which hospital security was reportedly slow to respond, lasted what to Shin were 30 very long minutes. The blows the veteran nurse suffered ultimately forced her to miss the next two shifts at work. Shin blames hospital bosses for failing to have adequate safety standards in place. She and other nurses want enforcement of safety standards – and the writing of adequate standards by each employer of nurses.

"They will say it was inevitable," Shin says of her attack in 2016. "But I'm here to tell you, nothing could be further from the truth — the patient's history made this incident predictable."

Underreported Workplace Violence

News about working conditions gets spotty attention in America where labor reporters at major news organizations have gone from few to virtually extinct. So DCReport has been documenting America's weak worker safety enforcement and the unnecessary risks faced by w0orkers because the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration has far too small a budget to fulfill its duties.

A half-century ago about 190 workers died on the job each week. That number was down to about 100 in 2019, BLS data shows. But that's still a costly toll on society aided by members of Congress who have held down the budget for enforcing job safety laws and imposed rules that weaken enforcement, all in the name of fighting supposed overregulation of business.

Many of the most ardent foes of more effective worker safety enforcement proclaim their devotion to the sanctity of human life yet disregard the safety of workers in occupations from construction and mining to nursing.

Jean Ross, NNU co-president, says that the threat of criminal prosecution alone cannot prevent workplace violence — and that several factors directly associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are, indeed, contributing to an ugly escalation of violent incidences like the kind Shin endured.

Not Enough Workers

A disruption in mental health services is one of the factors. Short staffing — a chronic pre-existing condition at hospitals nationwide — is another.

"If they're not going to supply us with enough staff, this is going to make it 100 times worse," Ross says.

Back in June, when the Covid-19 death toll was around 100,000 people, Michelle Gonzalez, a 31-year-old nurse at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, described what it was like trying to care for multiple patients in the middle of a pandemic.

"The days that I had up to four [patients], I came home and cried like a baby," Gonzalez said at the time. "Your body cannot physically do that. You can't be at two places at once. So, you just run to room to room to room — neglecting your own body's needs. Not eating, not drinking because you can't take off the mask. Not going to the bathroom for 12 hours."

Tens of Thousands Hospitalized

As of March 1, there were 47,352 Americans hospitalized with Covid-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Of that number, 9,802 were in Intensive Care Units struggling for life — 3,245 of them on ventilators, a last-ditch treatment which few survive.

Fear of Covid-19 is also forcing some patients to delay seeking necessary medical attention and that, too, is adding to simmering tensions, according to Ross.

"People aren't coming in early enough" to get vital care at hospitals, Ross says. "Maybe they're in sepsis. That's hard to control. A simple UTI (urinary tract infection), can make people go off the wall."

Sepsis occurs when the body's response to infection goes into overdrive and assaults organs. Unless treated early it can result in death.

Visitor Issues

Visiting family members can be both a hindrance and a help to nurses and other healthcare workers aiding the sick.

"There are more things we have to say no to — [some] people don't respond well (to being told), 'You must wear a mask,'" Ross says. "More patients and their families are acting up. Employers don't want to hear about it and sweep it under the rug."

Reporting violent incidences is voluntary, however. So, the actual number of healthcare workers being attacked on the job is probably a lot higher than statistics show.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) pointed out that nurses are often told to just "shake it off."

Nurses and their allies hope that the change in presidential administrations will put Courtney's 2019 Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act on the fast track.

The measure, updated and reintroduced last month, seeks to compel employers to investigate workplace violence incidents, risks, or hazards as soon as practicable. It would also mandate training and education of employees who may be exposed to workplace violence; impose record-keeping requirements; and prohibit discrimination or retaliation against employees for reporting workplace violence incidents, threats, or concerns.

The bill garnered enough votes to pass in the House in the previous Congress but died in the Senate during the Trump administration.

"The Senate was a graveyard for lots of good bills," Rep. Courtney says. "This one failed [when] the Trump administration was doing nothing at the Department of Labor. For four years, he just basically dismissed this as not a priority. I hope [incoming Labor Secretary Marty] Walsh gives this attention."

States Lead

Similar legislation aiming to establish enforceable safety standards and training in deescalating violence has already been adopted in California and Minnesota. But the nurses' union says national standards are necessary because while nurses are taught how to recognize medical needs, they aren't taught criminology.

"I've been a nurse for 40 years — I didn't take violence 101," says Ross.

NNU, along with 44 allied unions and organizations, continues to push the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] to update its Covid-19 safety guidelines to reflect the dangers that aerosols — fine particles emitted when breathing, speaking, coughing, sneezing or singing — pose to healthcare workers.

Nurse Pat Kane, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, says many of the thousands of healthcare workers killed by the novel coronavirus could have been saved had the CDC recognized the threat of aerosols before the long-predicted pandemic was recognized more than a year ago.

"The healthcare and other essential workforces have been devastated by Covid-19 infection and thousands have died due to their occupational exposure," Kane said in a statement. "Many of those exposures could have been avoided if the CDC had recognized the wealth of data that proves that SARS-CoV-2 is spread through inhalation of airborne virus particulates."

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes Covid-19, its number derived from the year when it was first identified as a novel, or new, coronavirus.

Kane says her 42,000 members and all other healthcare workers "deserve federal guidance that fully recognizes the risk of airborne exposure and recommends controls that effectively limit this exposure."

The American Hospital Association frets the costs of the pandemic. It recently released a report estimating that the pandemic could cost hospitals between $53 and $122 billion in 2021.

Ross noted that the hospital owners have not issued a similar report focused on the lethal risks their nurses and others take every day. Evidently, says Ross,

"Our lives aren't as important as money."

Trump administration's vaccine failure leaves workers unprotected

The Trump administration's failure to develop a plan to distribute COVID-19 vaccines along with persistent problems with the rollout are spreading fear among American workers forced to risk exposure to the killer virus.

"I don't feel safe," Phil Andrews, a Petco dog groomer in Miami, said last week. "I don't feel that the companies have our backs. I don't look forward to going in."

Nearly 200 cases of the pernicious British variant of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Florida. Other variants, including problematic ones from Brazil and South Africa, are also spreading fast.

Public health officials worry that pernicious and highly infectious mutations will spread faster than Americans are vaccinated because of the Trump failure to create a plan to get vaccines into people's arms.

Public health officials worry that pernicious and highly infectious mutations will spread faster than Americans are vaccinated.

The stress and anxiety of having to interact with customers all day without vaccination or adequate personal protection equipment have made life small for T.J. Daniels, a Petco employee in Colorado.

"I'm going to work and heading home so I don't have to deal with any more people than the hundreds I have to see at work," he says.

No Vaccine Soon

Daniels expects he'll have to wait until summer to be vaccinated.

COVID-19 sent Daisy Cruz to a Tennessee hospital last July. "I don't wish that on anyone," said the Honduran immigrant, who used to do construction work. "When you are there on the bed, the boss is not telling you how you are going to pay rent. The boss should support us in surviving."

Cruz and her colleagues at the Workers' Dignity center in Nashville, like millions of other workers across America, say that they have no idea how they will obtain the vaccine or when.

The Biden administration took steps to expand vaccine distribution and establish a new Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to protect workers on the job. Its goal is 1 million vaccinations a day for 100 days, while the Trump administration reached that level only once in its last 40 days. But even at the pace Biden proposes, it would take all year to vaccinate Americans, many of whom have said they will refuse to be inoculated.

Worker advocacy groups, however, are not content to simply let the process play out. They are determined to keep applying pressure.

On Feb. 3, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) issued its own eight-point National Agenda for Workplace Safety and Health. The same week, United For Respect (UFR), a national non-profit advocating for the rights of U.S. workers, called for a mass vaccination effort that prioritizes public-facing retail workers.

Now in its second year, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of more than 465,000 Americans with another 3,000 dying each day. It's also upended the lives of roughly 27 million other people who survived, but still don't fully understand the lasting implications of being infected.

Workplace Spreading

The workplace is a known vector for virus spread, but it's unclear how many American fatalities represent frontline workers. COVID-19 killed more than 2,900 American healthcare workers last year, according to an estimate by the nonprofit Kaiser Health News. The actual figure may be much higher.

Lack of hygiene for the homeless adds to the dangers faced by many essential workers in hospitals, transit and other front line jobs, an expose in the San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit news organization, showed in graphic detail last spring.

So far, the distribution of vaccines seems not to align with essential worker risks.

In New York City, where people of color dominate in healthcare and other essential services jobs that come with the greatest risk of infection, white people account for 48-percent of the 300,000 vaccine shots administered thus far. Whites are less than 43% of the city population and their share of jobs at high risk of infection is lower, illustrating the structural racism in fighting the virus.

Transit Workers' Risks

Transit workers are among those most at risk. The Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York recently began posting an ongoing memorial throughout the transit system honoring 136 bus operators, conductors, motormen and others the virus has killed so far.

Some MTA workers have long contended that the agency failed to stress the importance of personal protection equipment during the early days of the pandemic. Others, including Jersey City train operator Hannington Dia, say their union let them down, too.

"We asked for protection," Dia said at a Tax the Rich rally in January at New York's Zuccotti Park, site of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. "We asked for masks at that point when it got really bad in March. But you know what the union said? They basically parroted management's line.

"Management said that since the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] said we don't need masks, we're not going to give them to you. We wanted to be secure and we told the union, and the union did nothing but parrot their goddamned lies."

TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano, however, says the union has been at the forefront of safety throughout the pandemic and that Dia is simply wrong, and his anger is misdirected.

Union Gets Masks

"While the MTA mishandled the pandemic in the early stages, TWU Local 100 fought and pushed them on the issues of masks, work rules, cleaning, you name it," Utano told me in an email. "The union even went out and obtained 10s of thousands of masks during a global shortage and started distributing them before the MTA did."

According to Utano, some 20,000 at-work COVID-19 tests have successfully identified hundreds of asymptomatic workers and more than 5,000 transit workers have been vaccinated.

TWU Local 100's membership is 46% Black people, 17% Hispanic people and 12% Asian people.

Black people age 45-54 face a nine-fold higher risk of dying from the virus than the public overall. The awful statistic is "no doubt driven by who had to keep working during the pandemic," said Dr. Mary Bassett, director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. "It's a sad statement on where we are now,"

"This disparity has not only held for who gets exposed and who gets sick, it has also carried on to who gets vaccinated," Dr. Bassett said.

Dr. Bassett also noted that President Joe Biden wears an N95 mask under his cloth mask to protect himself from the virus.

A White House spokesperson confirmed the president's practice as a matter of personal preference.

"If he thought that made him safer, you can imagine that a person doing deliveries, stocking shelves, interacting with irate customers, might feel a lot safer if they got to do the same thing," Dr. Bassett added.

A study in The British Medical Journal found grocery store workers in customer-facing roles are five times more likely to test positive than peers who don't come into contact with customers.

That small study also found that problems with depression among workers who used public transportation or ride shares to commute while "those able to commute on foot, by bike or in their own car were 90% less likely to report depressive symptoms."

Deadly Distinctions

Andrews the dog groomer is HIV positive, but at 54, he just misses the age criteria for early access to the vaccine.

Restaurant workers, first responders, public safety workers, home attendants and people over 65 are among those eligible for a shot in New York City. But obtaining an appointment is virtually impossible due to a reported lack of vaccine. That problem extends across much of America, although some states that voted for Trump seem to have better supplies of vaccine.

Allegra Brown delivers groceries for Amazon Fresh in New Jersey, a state that has so far confirmed 11 cases across six counties of a more contagious variant of COVID-19. She says workers like her need N95 masks and a vaccine "now — today."

"Of all the people in New Jersey who have gotten the vaccine so far, only 3% have been Black," she says. "My workplace at Amazon is full of Black and Brown people who are getting COVID and bringing it home to their families all the time. There's no reason for the shortage of vaccines other than structural racism, corporate greed and political gain."

Those applauding the actions Biden has taken thus far to roll out the vaccine and strengthen workplace safety standards say it's still too early to access effectiveness of Biden's approach.

Biden "inherited a very chaotic process from the previous administration," Bianca Agustin said. She's research director at United for Respect, a multiracial group seeking to improve working conditions, especially for women and people of color.

"We need more vaccines immediately, and Biden should be doing whatever it takes to make that happen. I think that he has acted swiftly. So, in the coming weeks we'll see if that produces significantly more vaccine available to the public across states," Agustin said.

The nation has "completely failed" its workers, according to Rep. Andy Levin, the suburban Detroit Democrat who is vice-chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

"What matters is workers taking action, workers taking to the streets," Levin told me. "We need a lot of change and we need everybody in the game."

He wants to "activate people" in his district to "get involved in direct action."

Change can't come soon enough for workers like Brown, who says her job delivering groceries for Amazon is more dangerous now than it was last summer.

"This needs to be fixed now," Brown said.

Here's what federal workers want from Biden in the wake of Trump's union-busting tactics

Federal workers who saw their rights to collective bargaining, due process, and workplace representation eviscerated under Donald Trump have an enormous hill to climb to reclaim all they've lost.

As president, Trump — who had a decades-long history of sticking it to workers long before entering politics — did all he could to hurt the federal workforce.

Trump issued three union-busting executive orders on May 25, 2018, that affected some 700,000 American Federation of Government Employees members at Defense, Environment, Social Security, Veterans Affairs and more.

'There is a certain amount of trust we need to regain. Not only trust … but respect.'—Linda Ward-Smith, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1224

The damage became clear less than two years later when union members needed workplace safety measures to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19. Their right to health protections had been gutted.

Felicia Sharp, president of AFGE Local 1410, said that when the pandemic hit Defense Department management had a blunt message to union representatives: "We don't have to talk to you."

Workers Died

The results were predictable. "Employees have died because of the protections ripped out of their contract," David Cann, an AFGE field director, told reporters.

"The great majority of contacts have been gutted as a result of the Trump executive orders," Cann said. "We've been hamstrung by the outgoing administration to do the mission."

Workers with grievances or facing dismissal, including concerns about their risk of contracting COVID-19, found they no longer were entitled to union representation under Executive Orders 13836, 13837 and 13839. Team Trump kicked union representatives out of their government offices, increasing labor-management antagonisms rather than working to smooth them over. Individual workers found themselves alone and facing off against bosses, personnel specialists and government lawyers.

President Joe Biden revoked Trump's trio of anti-union executive orders on his second full day in office. Team Biden says that was just the first step in helping government workers get back on track.

Everett Kelley, the union's national president, said: "The last four years have been incredibly rough on our civil servants." Biden's revocation of the three Trump executive orders marked "a new day of hope — and we are glad to have our seats at the table."

The National Treasury Employees Union, which has 150,000 members, also elated. It said Biden's Jan. 22 actions "restored balance and stability to labor-management relations in the federal government by revoking a series of executive orders that had done nothing but disrupt the workplace and disrespect career civil servants."

Tony Reardon, president of the Treasury Workers union, said "This is a good day for public service because the President of the United States has declared, once again, that working for the federal government is a noble pursuit and that our government will respect your service."

Trump Era Contracts Remain

Union contracts signed under the Trump regime remain in effect. The AFGE wants to renegotiate. But agencies that spent the Trump era aggressively tuning out their employees and their union representatives aren't rushing to reestablish good communications with AFGE locals, union leaders told me.

"We have not heard from agencies that they are ready to negotiate," Cann said.

Linda Ward-Smith, president of AFGE Local 1224, believes Trump's executive orders emboldened government managers to be openly hostile to union members and dismissive of their input and concerns. "Management decided they didn't need to talk to the union," Ward-Smith said. "As a union president, I feel like I've been fighting a war for the last three years."

Ward-Smith and others worry that the damage from the anti-union Trump era may be lasting, perhaps fatal to resolving disputes without extensive litigation. The reason? Relationships that depended on trust on each side have been weakened and, in some cases, shattered in good part because Team Trump held unions in contempt despite Trump's carefully polished image as the champion of what he called the Forgotten Man.

"There is a certain amount of trust we need to regain," Ward Smith declared. "Not only trust… but respect."

Ralph De Juliis, president of the AFGE Social Security Administration Council of union locals, was blunt: "Agency leaders are being given a pass. There is no working with these people. Kick them laterally — but get them out of labor relations."

No Respect

De Juliis wants both Social Security Commissioner Andrew M. Saul, whose appointment by Trump lasts into 2025, and Deputy Commissioner David F. Black replaced.

According to De Juliis, the Trump appointees are responsible for undermining employee morale, creating an anti-union environment and forcing Social Security Administration workers to accept "the worst labor agreement in a decade."

"They have no respect for SSA public servants," De Juliis said. "The management/employee relationship is terrible."

Asked about this, Mark Hinkle, a Social Security Administration spokesman, said there would be no comment.

Nicole Cantello, president of Local 704 with 430 members who work for the EPA's Region 5 headquarters in Chicago, said her member's woes are tied to Trump's attacks on that agency, especially scientists. Trump appointed the notorious climate change denier Scott Pruitt to run the agency 2017, then stripped EPA workers of their collectively bargained contract and "inserting the worst provisions from [Trump's] executive orders."

The struggle, she said, became to keep the union from collapsing. "We kept enough of the agency intact, so that when help came after four years, it could be resurrected. Biden acted quickly to right a wrong. EPA scientists can now put their full weight into battling climate change," Cantello said.

The AFGE wants the Biden White House to direct all federal agencies to "review, suspend and revoke" any actions and policies that resulted from Trump era actions. We'll watch for further Team Biden actions affecting the collective bargaining rights of federal workers

Biden Administration hampered in rolling out COVID-19 workplace protections

U.S. workers continue to get sick and die from COVID-19 largely because the Trump White House refused to safeguard them with federally enforceable protections.

That isn't going to change immediately under President Joe Biden's executive order aimed at Protecting Worker Health & Safety because rules made by Congress say it takes time to implement life-protecting policies.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) should have moved months ago to establish an "emergency temporary standard" governing workplace protections in the time of COVID-19.

The Trump Administration did very little to protect people. Trump left office with no plan to distribute the vaccines for which Trump claimed credit.

Because of the incompetence, delays and inaction by Team Trump the pandemic has already killed more than 425,000 people in the U.S.—more Americans than died in World War II. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention now predicts the death toll will reach 500,000 people by March 1 and that deaths will continue for months to come.

Teamsters Union Plan

On Jan. 19, Trump's last full day in office, the Teamsters released a set of national legislative priories that include strengthening OSHA's enforcement capabilities, as well as establishing a new emergency temporary standard to deal with the coronavirus. OSHA has long been under attack by corporate interests who claim it adds costs to business, cutting into profits.

The Trump Administration did very little to protect people. Trump left office with no plan to distribute the vaccines for which Trump claimed credit.

A year ago a new emergency temporary standard was urged by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor. In a letter to then Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Scott said that OSHA's infectious disease standard had been left to "languish" for about a decade. "OSHA must take swift action to protect healthcare workers, and by extension, the American public," Scott wrote.

OSHA Failing Workers

"The safety of America's frontline healthcare workers and, by extension, the health of the entire nation will depend on OSHA's ability to ensure the safety of the nation's health care infrastructure," Scott wrote. "Absent timely action, OSHA will be failing frontline healthcare workers, its mission, and the nation."

That sense of urgency, coupled with the botched rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program, has only grown more acute with time. Still, there is a process, and it could be another two months before OSHA, its budget well below what is needed to protect workers, establishes the kinds of enforceable workplace protections that Trump didn't enact.

"We want more, of course — we know that there is an extreme amount of urgency," Jessica Martinez told me. She is co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, which plans to release its own national agenda for worker health and safety on Feb 3.

"There is a process of setting a standard and we hope that it moves quickly through the bureaucracy of government," she said, acknowledging how procedural rules hinder the speed with which the Biden administration can act.

Labor groups last year called for action from the Trump Administration. The failure to act contradicted Trump's inaugural address promise that "I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down."

States Act on Their Own

Several states decided not to wait for federal action. They moved earlier to expand worker protections in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. California established a new emergency standard for COVID prevention on Nov. 19. A new Virginia work-safety rule takes effect this week, but without paid leave provisions like the California law.

Although more than 25 million cases of COVID-19 nationwide attest to the need, insiders argue that Biden is prohibited from circumventing required analysis and outright directing OSHA to establish a new emergency standard because employers would only challenge its validity in court.

"There is nothing on paper at this point that makes any of this proposal enforceable," Martinez conceded. "Now, with that said, I think that it's important to note several factors: One is that the government has been intentional about including these guidelines — something we have not heard from the former administration. Second, there is some real leadership that has been announced — folks that have been committed many years to understand the importance of engaging workers, worker advocates and the process of putting priorities around worker safety and health."

In addition to issuing the executive order on Protecting Worker Health & Safety on his first full day as president, Biden also tapped three people with extensive backgrounds in worker health and safety to protect workers. Jim Frederick will be OSHA's deputy assistant secretary; Chip Hughes as named deputy assistant secretary for pandemic emergency response; and Ann Rosenthal was appointed senior advisor.

"We're hopeful that with this leadership it is a step in the right direction and there will be a more concrete commitment to making many of these processes more enforceable," Martinez added. "Also, some clear guidance in ways that allows workers to have a seat at the table."

Interest in workplace safety and competent leadership have never and likely never will be enough to safeguard American workers, however. That is going to take the kind of "street heat" from working people that earlier this month compelled the California State Assembly to introduce a bill aimed at protecting fast-food workers and the organized labor action that secured a roughly 10% raise for members of Teamsters Local 202 working at the Hunts Point Produce Market in New York City.

"Only strong worker participation is really going to get anyone anywhere," a congressional aide with extensive knowledge of OSHA's operations recently told me. "It's harder than just snapping fingers — nothing happens by itself in Washington."

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