If I Were a Rich Man:
Coronavirus Can’t Be a Cover for Union Busting

If I Were A Rich Man: A Series
By Serena Saunders

Join Feminist Majority Foundation intern Serena Saunders each week in If I Were a Rich Man as she explores the topic of money–as it relates to feminism–to provide young people with the information and resources they need to survive, thrive, and fight economic injustices. This week, Serena’s discussing how some employers are using COVID-19 as a cover for union busting tactics. 

How Are Workers Organizing in Response to COVID-19, and How Are Employers Reacting?

Gig workers at grocery delivery service Instacart and Target delivery service Shipt went on strike. Hundreds of workers at fast-food chains in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, as well as Barnes & Noble warehouse workers in New Jersey, staged protests after some of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19. General Electric workers walked off the job to demand they make much-needed ventilators for coronavirus patients. 

Their demands across the board? Safer conditions like implementation of 6 feet between workers for social distancing, more frequent cleaning of facilities, increased access to hand sanitizer and limited contact with customers. Hazard pay, which is additional pay for performing work that’s dangerous. Paid sick leave if they do test positive for coronavirus. These aren’t unreasonable demands for workers literally putting themselves in danger to continue providing food and other essentials to those who are dramatically increasing demand for such services.

Employers aren’t handling this well, to say the least. There are three ways in which companies have typically responded to coronavirus-related work stoppages and public outcries: first, many insist that they’re doing everything they can, which workers dispute. Second, some make concessions to workers’ demands, which workers say aren’t coming quickly enough to protect them in real-time. And third, some try to shut down workers’ organizing efforts to stifle their voices once and for all.

What’s Going On With Union Busting and Amazon?

Union Busting:
illegal and unethical actions by employers to stop employees from organizing

Union busting refers to illegal and unethical actions by employers to stop employees from organizing, which is a right guaranteed in the U.S. by the National Labor Relations Act. Union busting is already far too common of a practice in a normal situation, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of dollars that companies are willing to spend on union busting consultants. But coronavirus presents a unique opportunity for management, as it provides the perfect excuse to crack down on existing organizing and discourage further movement towards workers’ rights and fair labor practices. Companies can claim “public health concerns” while willfully ignoring workers’ demands, retaliating against those who dare to speak out. 

That’s exactly what Amazon did last week. Amazon warehouses have many of the same concerns: unsafe working conditions without compensation to make up for it. “Several employees […] use face masks for days instead of having new ones each day,” said a union representative. Of course, Amazon denies this and claims to be taking extra steps, including improved social distancing measures, staggered shift and break times, and increased cleaning of its facilities. However, workers weren’t satisfied with these provisions and went on strike at a Staten Island warehouse on March 30. 

Amazon fired one of the strike’s organizers, Christian Smalls, the very same day. While the trillion-dollar corporation claims his firing was due to lack of following orders to self-quarantine for 14 days after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, Chris Smalls alleges that helping organize the strike, not health and safety concerns, cost him his job. His claims are backed up by leaked notes from a meeting of Amazon’s top executives, including CEO and “richest man in modern history” Jeff Bezos, in which Amazon’s general counsel said this of Smalls: “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers. […] Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Numerous public and elected figures decried Amazon’s actions, including the New York State Attorney General, who said her office was looking into “all legal options.”

(As of this morning, Amazon plans to hire an additional 75,000 workers to keep up with the demand from COVID-19.)

Why Is This A Feminist Issue?

Women are generally over-represented in the low-wage workforce, which is defined as jobs that pay less than $11/hour, like fast food workers, restaurant servers, cashiers, and maids. Plus, women are typically paid 15% less than their male counterparts in such jobs, with additional pay gaps based on race. These jobs are all-too-likely to be counted as “essential” right now, but without the provisions and pay that would demonstrate actual acknowledgment of how important these workers are. Plus, they’re likely to be subject to NLRB rule on subcontracted and franchised employees, as well as a temporary suspension on union elections (which have now resumed, but the halt may have affected organizing efforts). 

Workers coming together to collectively demand that employers recognize their rights is good for plenty of reasons. We can’t let this pandemic stop that. 

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