“There’s a disconnect in what people think of workers — they’re heroes — and what they’re being paid,” said Zach Koutsky, political director for Local 881, which represents retail food and drug store workers in Illinois as well as employees in the cannabis industry. Calls come in from frozen pizza plant workers, cannabis workers and nonunion grocery employees, he said. They say, “’Dear god, we need to meet with you.’ It’s always been there, but it’s definitely picked up.”
The uptick in union phone calls isn’t likely to translate into membership, labor experts say.
“It’s very hard for them to join because the laws are imbalanced, the NLRB is incredibly hostile right now and a good number of states have governors and legislative bodies that are very antagonistic toward labor,” said Robert Bruno, director of labor studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Employers “aren’t afraid to spend millions to keep their operations union free.”
Still, members of Congress have also taken note of this workforce in the Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act, legislation introduced last month to setup a victims fund for a wide range of essential workers.
“On September 11, it was the heroic firefighters and officers who ran into the burning buildings to save lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the sponsor, told reporters on a conference call hyping the bill. “Today, it is the hospital workers, nurses, doctors, EMS, janitorial staff, pharmacists, technicians and all essential workers.”
It’s a mishmash of industries. Steel mill workers in Gary, Ind., have called the AFL-CIO asking how to get more personal protective equipment because their bosses didn’t supply enough. Ride-hail drivers in California are asking union shops how to get gear too. Employees at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in central Minnesota have protested working conditions. And while larger grocery store chains like Kroger or Jewel-Osco have a unionized workforce, people employed at smaller stores in St. Louis and restaurant workers in Chicago want to know how to organize.
“I was just talking to a dental hygienist who wanted to know how she can get a union started,” said Bob Reiter of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
This wouldn’t be the first time safety issues would become a lightning rod for the labor movement, of course. Union organizers have leveraged the works of Upton Sinclair, the safety hazards of the mining industry in Appalachia and the difficult farming conditions in California to secure new worker rights and safer conditions.