In Post-Pandemic Economy, Labor Unions Will Face Both Dangers and Opportunities

Interview with Alexandra Bradbury, editor and co-director of Labor Notes, conducted by Scott Harris

As the country looks toward the post-pandemic future, it’s clear that the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus will be one of the most difficult challenges to overcome, second only to the deadly public health crisis itself. Businesses large and small will struggle to survive in an uncertain future – with literally millions of unemployed workers unsure if they’ll be able to return to their former jobs.

Given that it may take months or years for the economy to rebound, workers across the U.S. will likely face massive layoffs and calls by employers for wage and salary reductions. Public employees will confront major cutbacks in state budgets, where historic losses in revenue will prompt many politicians to demand harsh austerity measures.

Frontline healthcare, food production, transit and delivery workers, who just months ago were dismissed by conservative politicians and commentators as disposable and undeserving of a living wage, are now celebrated as essential to our economy and recognized as heroes!  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Alexandra Bradbury, Editor and Co-director of Labor Notes magazine, who assesses what the future may hold for workers and labor unions in the post-coronavirus economy.

ALEXANDRA BRADBURY: Yes, there’s just a real bubbling over of protest and a frustration among workers in many sectors – both public and private — both workers who are in designated essential jobs and are continuing to work under very difficult and dangerous conditions. And workers who felt that their work was not essential and pushed it to shut it down. So for instance, in the auto plants, there were some weeks when the virus was beginning to spread and workers were saying, we should shut this plant down. There was no way to socially distance, it’s not safe and management was trying to squeeze some more profit out of them. And so there were walkouts in the auto plants that help bring those to a close. Also in Detroit, the bus drivers early in the crisis had a wildcat strike and stopped driving the buses out of concern for their safety and had a set of demands of what they felt would be needed to make the buses safe.

And they won them all. The city needed them. They soon were back to work with improved conditions for their own safety. For instance, they’re not collecting bus fares anymore, which means that the bus driver has to be in less contact with passengers. It’s safer for both parties. It’s also obviously a good idea of popular demand. Transit shouldn’t be funded by fares anyway. It ought to be funded by taxes. So, that’s the kind of improvement that I hope we can keep after the crisis is over. But certainly, we’ve seen lots of walkouts and protests by nurses and healthcare workers demanding access to masks and gowns, demanding better pay in a number of sectors. Workers are some common themes, right – are access to the protective gear people need to do the job safely. Better leave, provisions.

I know I’ve talked to a lot of postal workers and UPS delivery workers who are concerned about those things. What about people who have somebody vulnerable at home and don’t want to be exposed? So what kinds of provisions for leave are available? Here in New York, the teachers organized. They were on the verge of a sickout. They organized the sickout when they finally got the mayor to shut the schools. And the schools here in New York should have been shut weeks earlier than they were. And the mayor was dragging his heels and hemming and hawing and it was teachers who organized and planned the sickout who got those teachers organized in a number of places around the country to do that as well.

Amazon, Instacart, there are many sectors, of course where workers are seeing mass layoffs, furloughs, but delivery workers are suddenly in more demand than ever as many people are stuck at home and doing all of their shopping online, all of their wanting their groceries delivered online. And so that has created certainly additional leverage for those workers to say, well, wait a minute. We need safer conditions. We need a decent rate of pay. We need the right to leave.

SCOTT HARRIS: Alexandra, in your article, you talk about the dangers for workers in this coronavirus economic collapse, but also the opportunities. Certainly one of the big dangers that lay ahead and we’ve been told by many economists that this is the single worst economic collapse that this country has witnessed since the Great Depression in terms of the numbers of people out of work, in terms of the loss of income for millions of people across the country. And it’s obviously not isolated to the U.S. It’s across the globe. Certainly layoffs and the prospect of losing one’s job permanently because of this severe contraction of the economy is one huge fear that many people have at this moment whether or not the economy rebounds in any rapid succession.

ALEXANDRA BRADBURY: Yes, certainly that’s probably the biggest threat to the labor movement and to workers in general. But, millions of people will lose their jobs and never get them back. We’ve seen in past recessions that even for the workers who keep their jobs, there can be a very chilling effect, as employers, you know, take advantage of the moment to demand concessions to say we should make do with less: “You’re lucky to just have a job.” Workers, rank and filers, will have to fight many union leaders’ instinct to offer up those concessions in the hopes of keeping something by keeping your head down. We saw that in the last recession. We’ve been through that every time and it doesn’t work. We won’t be making sacrifices now because this is a time for labor to fight, not to roll over and play dead. And it there’s no reason why we can’t make bolder demands. There are parts of the recession that are human produced, right? Like we could counter that with a robust federal program of creating jobs, doing the work that needs doing and finding the, the money from the corporations that are getting away without taxes. Like the austerity is not inevitable, but it will feel inevitable. And we have to mount a determined resistance against that.

For more information, read “Threats and Opportunities: What’s the Post-Crisis Forecast for Workers?” by Alexandra Bradbury and visit Labor Notes at labornotes.org.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary