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Labor unions are on the front lines in battle over worker protections

As other U.S. workers stage protests, labor unions are seeking to balance the need to save jobs with the need to protect workers.
Medical professionals and their supporters demand safer working conditions and policies during a May Day protest near Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia on May 1, 2020.Matt Rourke / AP

As the coronavirus pandemic derails the nation's economy, workers bearing the brunt of the crisis are banding together in levels not seen in a generation, striking and holding sickouts at meat processing plants, fast-food restaurants and warehouses to demand better protection and safer working conditions.

For its part, organized labor, which has seen its ranks decline in the U.S. for years, is suddenly and visibly at the helm of a multifront battle — trying to preserve jobs amid the worst economic contraction in years, while defending workers deemed “essential” but being given inadequate protection as the virus spreads.

At the same time, many workers who may have never contemplated union membership or were ineligible have begun organizing to demand better treatment and safer working conditions, prompting strikes across the country.

Workers planned a nationwide strike on Friday targeting retailers like Amazon, Target, Whole Foods and Instacart. Workers at those companies and others, mostly nonunionized, were expected to walk off the job to protest inadequate safety conditions.

“We’re seeing workers fighting back when the companies are deciding that they want to go back to work and they’re willing to risk their workers’ lives,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. “It seems like there’s no path to turn to in government, so who will they turn to? So they’re turning to unions.”

While the pandemic has resulted in staggering job losses across the country, many union workers have found various protections are afforded to them by their collective bargaining agreements, including from outright firings. Many union contracts also have clauses that allow the “right to return” to a job, making the job loss a furlough rather than a termination.

Even when furloughed, union workers are typically offered some relief by their collective bargaining agreements.

Nearly 150,000 United Auto Workers members at Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler have been laid off in the pandemic, but continue to receive health insurance and supplemental unemployment benefits (SUB) payments from the automakers. The contract gives members at least six months of extra pay on top of unemployment insurance that adds up to being 85 percent of their hourly wages.

In Las Vegas, where the gambling and entertainment strip has been closed since March 18, the politically influential Culinary Union Local 226 has offered strong protection. The Wynn Las Vegas resorts, which employ about 5,500 Local 226 workers, have continued to pay full salaries. Union members also continue to receive generous health care coverage through the Culinary Union’s health care plan.

For workers deemed essential and still on the job, often in health care or customer service, unions have fought for protective gear that could mean the difference between life and death.

Andrea Leach, a nursing assistant at a Pennsylvania nursing home where many residents have tested positive for COVID-19, said that at the beginning of the pandemic, she and her colleagues were given only one disposable mask each at work.

“We put it on in the morning and we have to wear it all day long,” Leach said. “At the end of the day, we put this little mask in a baggie — that's not even a Ziploc baggie — and they're tossed in a box.”

The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a vexing problem for workers across the country on the front lines of the crisis. But Leach, a member of the executive board of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 199, said the union is now fighting to get her and her staff better PPE, negotiating with both her nursing home and state officials.

“I think the only way we're going to get through this pandemic safely is because of our union,” said Leach. “They're out there fighting every day while I'm in my nursing home. I don't see anybody else — no other industries or corporations or federal government — nobody's out there pushing to get us help but our union.”

Mary Kay Henry, international president of SEIU, told NBC News she believes that more than 75 percent of the union’s 2 million members would be considered essential workers and have to go to a work site. Henry said that as the pandemic continues, furloughs would probably occur in waves, starting with airline workers and janitorial staff, but that the union would help workers even if they lose their jobs.

“We're trying to use our political power to bargain with the federal government, city government and state government to cover all service and care workers,” Henry said.

Henry also said that while health care workers on the front lines can’t hold protracted strikes to protest inadequate protective gear, some members do “scattershot walkouts” and share stories about the conditions they face.

“We have lots of member videos in the health care sector that tell the conditions that people are facing is just inexcusable,” Henry said. “You know, thousands of front-line health care workers are going to needlessly die.”

Despite the widespread economic disruption the coronavirus has caused, union leaders are hoping that organized labor will strengthen after the crisis, as it did following the Great Depression.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at University of California, Santa Barbara, told NBC News that there is “enormous sentiment and appreciation and recognition” right now for essential workers, but warns that the warm feelings may not last.

“The trick is always transformation of sentiment into institutions, or laws or administrative rulings or unions,” Lichtenstein said. “And that's always the difficult thing. And there have been moments when the kind of surges of a sentiment have passed by.”