Graphic via Tania Lili for COURIER Coronavirus crisis inspires labor movement
Graphic via Tania Lili for COURIER

Labor experts say these strikes and the increase in organizing activities showcase the failure of American corporations to treat workers with dignity.

When the history books are written on the 2020 novel coronavirus pandemic, pop star Britney Spears’ apparent call for a general strike likely won’t make the cut. But what that call symbolizes—a surge in labor activity and an increase in support for American workers—just might. 

Spears, understandably, grabbed all the headlines with her Instagram post last week. But dig a little deeper past that viral post online and what you’ll find is a substantial and deeply consequential increase in strikes and walkouts amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Tuesday, Whole Foods employees went on strike, calling in sick en masse to protest the lack of protections offered to workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Workers’ demands, which were first reported by Vice, include paid leave for all workers who stay home or self-quarantine during the crisis, free coronavirus tests for all employees, and hazard pay of twice the current hourly wage for employees working during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is a very real threat to the safety of our workforce and customers,” Whole Worker, the group organizing the “sick out,” wrote in a statement. “We cannot wait for politicians, institutions, or our own management to step in to protect us.”

Tuesday’s strike comes after cases of COVID-19 have been reported at Whole Food stores in New York City, Chicago, and Huntington Beach, California. In every location, the stores have remained open, prompting employees to accuse Whole Foods of prioritizing profits over employee safety. Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon, has temporarily increased hourly pay for its workers by $2 an hour, offered to provide two weeks of paid sick leave to workers who test positive for COVID-19, and said it would not punish workers for calling out sick.

But workers say that’s not enough, especially when they’re risking their lives going to work. “A bunch of us have already gotten sick. It’s very plausible that some of us will die for this job,” an organizer told Motherboard.

Whole Foods workers aren’t alone in their labor action. Gig workers for the grocery delivery company Instacart went on a nationwide strike on Monday over the company’s refusal to offer its 175,000 contractors basic protections like hazard pay, safety supplies such as hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and paid sick leave for workers with pre-existing conditions.

“On Monday, March 30, Shoppers will walk off of our jobs, and will not return to work until our demands are met,” they wrote in a letter posted to Medium. It’s unclear exactly how many workers engaged in the wildcat strike on Monday, but organizers said they believed thousands of workers partook. Instacart said the company did not feel the impact from the strike, with a spokesperson telling the New York Times that the company had 40% more customers shopping Monday compared with the same day and time last week.

One of the strike’s organizers disputed the claim. “Instacart, a same-day delivery service, has zero delivery spots available in my area,” organizer Sarah Clarke wrote on Twitter. “You’re insane if you think we aren’t disrupting their operations.”

Summer Cooper
Instacart gig worker Summer Cooper in Belleair Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Curt Anderson)

Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, also walked off the job on Monday after accusing the online retail giant of botching its response to the coronavirus pandemic and keeping the warehouse open even after an employee contracted the coronavirus. 

An Amazon spokesperson told COURIER that the company has “taken extreme measures to keep people safe, tripling down on deep cleaning, procuring safety supplies that are available, changing processes to ensure those in our buildings are keeping safe distances and in Staten Island we are now temperature checking everyone entering the facility.” 

The company has also informed employees of all confirmed cases and asked workers who were in close contact with the diagnosed individual to self-quarantine at home, with pay, for 14 days. Amazon workers diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine will also receive up to two weeks of pay, according to the retail giant.

Chris Smalls, one of the workers who organized the action, said about 50 workers walked out, but Amazon disputed that number, saying only 15 employees out of 5,000 who work at the warehouse participated in the protest.

All together, these strikes build on a growing trend of labor action across the country. In the past week alone, garbage collectors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, poultry plant workers at Perdue Farms in Kathleen, Georgia, and fast food workers in Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina, have all walked off the job.

More than 20,000 workers at the Trader Joe’s grocery chain have also signed a petition asking for hazard pay. Additionally, workers are asking for paid leave for elderly and immunocompromised workers and two weeks paid leave for all workers at any store when a crew member tests positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, a group of employees have also begun publicly calling for a union drive.

Labor experts say these strikes and the increase in organizing activities showcase the failure of American corporations to treat workers with dignity.

“I think that people are desperate right now,” said Veena Dubal, an associate professor of employment law at the University of California, Hastings. “They’re really fighting for their lives and the lives of others. It’s not about better working conditions on some kind of abstract level—it’s really about life and death and survival.”

“People are desperate right now. They’re really fighting for their lives and the lives of others. It’s not about better working conditions on some kind of abstract level—it’s really about life and death and survival.”

Jane McAlevey, a union organizer and senior policy fellow at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, agreed, adding: “I’m not surprised given the scale of the crisis and given the fundamentally abusive behavior with which many corporations are treating very loyal workers in this crisis.”

But these strikes didn’t come out of nowhere, McAlevey said. “We were beginning to reach a crescendo of ordinary worker activism before the COVID crisis,” she explained, citing the wave of labor activism that began in 2018 with the West Virginia’s teachers’ strike. “We are two years into the largest strike wave in 30 years in the United States. That was a fact before we hit the pandemic.”

Now, as the coronavirus outbreak continues to unfold, she expects there to be even more activism on the part of American workers.

“I think we’re just seeing the beginning of it right now, the uptick of people saying, ‘Wait a minute, you’re asking me to do what with no mask, no gloves, no protective gear, no anything, crappy money, no benefits, no sick leave, like uh, no.’ That’s what’s literally happening right now, and I say, ‘Good for the American worker—do it,’” McAlevey said. 

While workers in European countries are guaranteed paid sick leave, free nationalized healthcare, and in some countries, are receiving 75% or 90% of their wages replaced during the coronavirus crisis, most Americans are, as of now, only receiving a one-time, $1,200 check and expanded unemployment benefits. Millions of Americans are also losing their employer-sponsored healthcare as they lose their jobs, intensifying their concerns.

RELATED: Trump Is Trying to End Health Care For Millions In the Middle of a Pandemic

“We do not have the sort of social safety net of many other countries in Europe,” McAlevey said. “Workers in the United States have none of those protections.”

Paid sick leave, low wages, and dangerous working conditions were all issues that existed prior to the coronavirus, but Dubal and McAlevey said that what the pandemic has done is highlight just how much damage America’s political and business leaders have done to working Americans.

“I think it absolutely reveals the reality that the people that keep us alive and who do the hardest labor to keep us alive, are so undervalued,” Dubal said. “Meanwhile, [it shows] that the CEOs who are at the very top, whose work arguably is less essential, are overvalued and given way too much money for what they do and that the profit-sharing in corporations that has occurred before the pandemic is really immoral and unethical and unfair.”

To even threaten unionization in this current age, however, can lead workers to be fired. Within hours of the Amazon strike on Monday, the company fired Chris Smalls, an employee who helped organize the protest. “Taking action cost me my job,” Smalls said Monday in a Bloomberg TV interview. “Because I tried to stand up for something that’s right, the company decided to retaliate against me.”

Amazon confirmed it fired Smalls, saying he violated safety regulations, including a failure to abide by “social distancing guidelines.”

“He was also found to have had close contact with a diagnosed associate with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and was asked to remain home with pay for 14-days, which is a measure we’re taking at sites around the world,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “Despite that instruction to stay home with pay, he came onsite on March 30, further putting the teams at risk. This is unacceptable and we have terminated his employment as a result of these multiple safety issues.”

Smalls blasted the company for its “ridiculous” claim and said it was a clear example of being fired for engaging in union organizing. Within hours of his firing, New York Attorney General Letitia James took the company to task and called for an investigation of Smalls’ firing, calling it “immoral and inhumane.”

Workers at other companies have also said they were punished for attempting to unionize, including several employees at the retail company Everlane who were fired last week. 

Even when workers are able to unionize, laws regulating labor unions vary from state to state and can limit unions’ powers. Twenty-eight states currently have “right to work” laws on the books, which mean that workers can work in unionized workplaces without having to join the union or pay union dues. Supporters of these laws say they’re intended to protect workers from being forced to join a union, but federal law already prohibits that. 

But according to the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions with more than 12 million members, right to work laws “make it harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.” 

The Supreme Court also dealt a huge blow to the union movement with its 2018 ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. In a 5-4 vote, the conservative court ruled that government workers, such as teachers and firefighters, who choose not to join unions cannot be required to help pay for collective bargaining. The ruling means public unions across the country are at risk of losing tens of millions of dollars, and with it, their bargaining power.

President Trump and Republicans are also directly responsible for the nation’s anti-worker sentiment, McAlevey said. “We have the most viciously anti-workers’ rights and anti-union regime in my lifetime in operation right now.” 

She specifically blasted the administration for failing to raise the national minimum wage and for Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency tasked with enforcing U.S. labor law related to collective bargaining and unfair labor practices.

“Since Trump took the presidency, [the NLRB] has been stripped of anyone who cares at all about ordinary workers and has been stacked with pro-corporate, shareholder, profit-making, union-busters in the positions that used to defend the rights of American workers,” McAlevey said.

“We have the most viciously anti-workers’ rights and anti-union regime in my lifetime in operation right now.”

She’s not the only one who feels that way. Wilma Liebman, a lawyer and former chair of the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama, told COURIER that “every one” of the NLRB’s decisions “seek to narrow the categories of people who are able to unionize as employees.” 

“In a whole wide variety of ways, everything that they have done, every single decision has been pro-employer, anti-worker, anti-union. No exception. Across the board,” Liebman said.

Most recently, in February, the NLRB introduced a rule that would make it more difficult for workers to hold corporations responsible for labor violations by individual franchises. The rule, which is set to go into effect on April 27, limits the responsibility of companies like McDonald’s for labor-law violations by their franchisees, such as firing workers for attempts to unionize. 

Under the new rule, the parent company will only share liability for violations committed by franchisees or contractors if the parent company has “substantial, direct and immediate control” over the other companies’ employees, including their pay, benefits, hours, hiring, firing or supervision. The rule, which is a reversal of an Obama-era regulation, will also make it tougher for contractors and franchisees to unionize. If workers at an individual McDonald’s want to unionize, the company could simply shut down that franchise without legal repercussions. 

“It will make it more difficult for workers to unionize and bargain collectively,” Liebman said. “In theory, they might still be able to unionize, it might not change that, but it would make it much harder for them to bargain effectively.”

RELATED: Workers in North Carolina Are Standing Up and Demanding Protections During the Crisis

Cierra Brown, a 29-year-old McDonald’s employee in Durham, North Carolina, said the rule could also impact her ability to recoup lost wages from McDonald’s. Instead, she has to take it up with the individual franchise, which makes no sense to her. 

“McDonald’s is still the employer. We still wear McDonald’s logos on the uniforms, on the hats, on the apron. Everything is McDonald’s. Even the tray liners on the tray,” Brown told COURIER. “It doesn’t say that ‘This is not a McDonald’s, this is a franchised McDonald’s on the bag.’ It doesn’t say that. It just says McDonald’s.”

Brown, who was among the fast food workers to go on strike last week in North Carolina, has made several attempts to unionize and said the rule wouldn’t stop those efforts. “My work makes the company billions of dollars. McDonald’s makes a lot of money and there’s no way they should not be able to cover [wages for] their employees,” she said. 

The nearly five decade crusade against unions has had a devastating impact. In 1965, nearly one-third of workers belonged to a union. In 1983, that number was down to 20%. By 2019, only 10.3% of wage and salary workers were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

In those same five decades, American inequality also skyrocketed, and it wasn’t a coincidence. Numerous studies have shown that the decline in union power since the 1960s has contributed to the growing gap between rich and poor. One study from the Economic Policy Institute found that de-unionization accounted for a sizable share of the growth in inequality over that period: between 13-20% for women and 33-37% for men.

But after all these years of unions being out in the woods, things might finally be changing. Both McAlevey and Dubal agree the coronavirus pandemic and the suffering it causes could lead to a sea change and accelerate unionization. 

Amazon, Bryson
Gerald Bryson, left, join workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y., protesting conditions in the company’s warehouse, Monday March 30, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

There are two main reasons that the current strikes will lead to more strikes, Dubal said. “One is that historically when people start striking, you see other people realize that’s a possibility. And the second reason is that people are really putting their lives at risk, people who are continuing to work, particularly workers in the food sector and the delivery sector,” she said. “The longer the quarantines and stay-at-home orders continue, the more people get sick, the more we’re going to see many more strikes.”

McAlevey, meanwhile, honed in on the economic carnage being wrought by the coronavirus. “People are talking about one in four or even one in three people in the United States being unemployed by this coming summer. Those are Great Depression numbers and what’s about to come is about to be explosive,” McAlevey said. “I think people are just beginning to wrap their head around how severe layoffs may be given the crush of the financial crisis.” 

RELATED: 3.3 Million People Filed for Unemployment Benefits Last Week

That crush, McAlevey believes, will expose the disregard with which workers have been cast off for decades. Her Great Depression comparison isn’t without merit, either. A report released last week from economists at the Fed’s St. Louis district project estimated that the coronavirus pandemic could cause the loss of 47 million jobs. If that estimate pans out, it would translate to a 32% national unemployment rate, well above the 24.9% peak unemployment rate during the Great Depression. 

McAlevey also hopes the coronavirus crisis and what it’s revealing about the work that is considered “essential” leads to a shift in how workers view themselves. 

“I’m hoping that one of the things that comes out of this is that workers who perform essential functions in society, from daycare workers to home care workers to the people keeping our grocery stores open to drivers and delivery workers … they get un-numbed from the devaluing of their work and come to see themselves as frankly essential to our society because every worker is,” she said.

McAlevey and Dubal also believe the pandemic is shifting how other people view these workers, who previously, may have been afterthoughts but are now “essential.”

“This is going to be a watershed moment that Americans look back to and it’s not just going to be workers at the bottom rung that are going to remember who was essential to this time period. It’s going to be everyone,” Dubal said. “I think support for workers’ rights is going to increase on a broad scale for decades to come.”