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COVID is a Painful Reminder that Unions are Essential for Workers

By Rashi Turnianski and Franca Muller Paz

As communities and schools shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators, students, and their families feared how it would affect our children’s education. Schools pivoted quickly to virtual learning, but as the long-term nature of COVID became clear, we began to consider what the next year would bring. Fearing unsafe conditions for teaching and learning and the possibility of students and teachers spreading the virus to loved ones at home, especially grandparents, the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) approached Baltimore City Public Schools to plan for the crisis in good faith. We provided 46 proposals that detailed how  we could ensure the safety of our students, teachers, support staff, and the communities in which we live.

Unfortunately, the school district brought no proposals at all.

 Some employers have approached the pandemic responsibly, giving priority to the safety and health of their employees and the public. Others have pushed a business-as-usual approach, putting workers, their loved ones, and the public at risk, and in the process accelerating the hundreds of thousands of deaths we now mourn. Far too often, Baltimore educators have encountered a school district that falls into the latter category of employer. Thankfully, we have a union to fight for us, and partnerships with supportive organizations like the Parent Community Advisory Board (PCAB) and student advocates like The Youth and SOMOS. Through their advocacy, the dangers we faced have been significantly mitigated. 

Over the course of the pandemic, our union won several key protections, including a virtual start to the 2020-2021 school year, an agreement to adhere to CDC safety protocols, and a requirement that the district notify the BTU of positive cases in our schools–of which we now have hundreds. The district hadn’t even committed to ensuring classrooms had hand sanitizer until the union stepped in. It was a BTU member-led initiative in partnership with the Baltimore restaurant community that secured over 20,000 high filtration masks for educators, when the school district refused to provide them. This reluctance on the part of employers like Baltimore City Public Schools to respect and protect their workers demonstrates exactly why workers need unions.

Many essential workers lack basic protections which unions, like BTU, successfully demanded for their workers. The consequences for workers who lack this advocacy is deadly. A California study from March to October of 2020 revealed that “essential workers” had a 40% increased risk of death during the first two months of California’s re-opening in comparison to “non-essential” workers. The workers that took on the highest risk were from the food, transportation, construction, manufacturing, and shipping industries. Facing even greater risk were Latino, Black, and Asian employees in these job sectors. 

The threat of death and economic instability driven by the pandemic has further revealed the critical need for workers to have union representation. Without unions, there is simply no guarantee workers will have an advocate for their rights, or a seat at the bargaining table when decisions are made that have literal life and death impacts. This is why the Baltimore Teachers Union and many other local unions and labor councils are fighting for the PRO Act.

If the PRO Act passes, it will protect workers from union election interference by employers, ensure workers in new unions can bargain their first contract, stop companies from misclassifying employees to evade worker protections, allow gig workers and freelancers to unionize, provide protections to immigrant workers who try to organize, overturn misleadingly named right-to-work legislation (a relic of the Jim Crow era), set financial penalties for the abuse of workers’ rights, defend solidarity strikes between unions, protect the right to due process, and more.

Strengthening and expanding unions is about the well-being of our community as a whole, not just union members. When benefits and wages improve for unionized workers, so do those of industry employees who aren’t unionized. The union-led fight for a $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, and protection against medical debt wage in Maryland are perfect examples of union advocacy that benefit non-union workers. And as more workers earn a fair wage and other necessary conditions of economic stability like retirement benefits, more people can become homeowners, secure discretionary income that allows them to support local businesses, and invest in the places they live. Moreover, career stability and economic security deter crimes of desperation, which delivers more stable communities in cities like Baltimore. 

While we continue to fight for the PRO Act’s national protections, there are things we can do now to support the economic and physical wellbeing of workers, and by extension, Baltimore: 

1. Support Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) that ensure contractors utilize union labor with union benefits, especially on government projects that are funded by our tax dollars; PLAs have the added public benefit of consistently delivering projects on time, on budget, with a higher quality of work. 

2. Protect workers from wage theft by encouraging state and local governments to hire inspectors and permanently ban companies that engage in this practice from receiving city or state contracts;

3. Fight for Maryland teachers unions to have the right to negotiate for smaller class-sizes, which would benefit the educational outcome of students state-wide;

4. Index the $15 minimum wage to inflation, so that we guarantee a fairer wage once and for all, and end the cycle of business owners passing costs onto consumers, thereby increasing the cost of living, and leading prior minimum wages to no longer provide a decent standard of living. 

Every worker deserves union advocacy and protection. Whether through the PRO Act at a federal level, or the examples above at a state level, there is no shortage of opportunities for elected officials to prove they care about workers.  Pro-union lip service is not enough; we need concrete policies.