L train workers

A LIFE-AND-DEATH ISSUE: Transit-union leaders including those in New York and Philadelphia have put increasing pressure, including one strike threat, on management to address worker-safety concerns stemming from the coronavirus, which has had a startlingly high death toll in the city's subway and bus divisions. Transport Workers Union of America President John Samuelsen said the push for personal protective equipment will continue because 'we run the risk of going backward unless we can maintain a steady flow of these supplies.' 

The rising pandemic death toll for transit workers nationally has sparked a new militancy among their unions and is influencing workers in other essential sectors of the economy, according to both a top transit-union leader and Joshua Freeman, a Professor of Labor History at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

"We saw something similar to this during the two World Wars, when there were huge gains in union membership with workers looking for health and safety protections as a push-back against the stepped-up pace of wartime production," said Mr. Freeman, the author of "Behemonth: A History of the Making of the Modern World." "Just as we are seeing today, suddenly society acknowledged that workers, were the key to success and to victory. And so workers' concerns gained a new legitimacy."

A Hive of Job Actions

Mr. Freeman continued, "Right now, transit workers have a lot of bargaining power that those who work from home don't have. And because the stakes are so high for other essential workers, we are seeing job actions and strikes in places like Amazon's warehouses and Trader Joe's stores, places where before we have not seen those kinds of actions before."

Workers in "essential" sectors who can't work from home have a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. Among those who are older and have pre-existing conditions, the risks of serious illness are even more elevated.

On March 30, the New York Times reported on a strike at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island and a sickout by Whole Foods Market workers across the country over workplace issues raised by the pandemic.

The next day, the Washington Post reported walkouts at a McDonald's near San Francisco and a Perdue chicken-processing plant in Georgia.

On April 1, ABC News reported nurses in several states were protesting the lack of personal protective equipment.

MTA $500G Death Benefit

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has endured the deaths of 84 employees from COVID-19, nearly all of them from the agency's bus and subway divisions rather than its commuter railroads. On April 14, it announced that the $500,000 death benefit for workers who died in the line of duty that was agreed to last December with Transport Workers Union Local 100 would be paid to the families of those believed to have been killed by the coronavirus without certifying that their work was the cause.

In addition, workers represented by Local 100, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the Subway Surface Supervisors Association, and International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 808 were guaranteed access to virus testing and personal protective equipment like masks.

In Philadelphia, TWU Local 234 used a strike threat to prod the management of that city's mass-transit system to address its occupational-health demands.

On April 20, Transport Worker Union Local 234 President Willie Brown issued a video message ultimatum to his members on YouTube about what he called the failure of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority to address the workplace safety issues raised by COVID-19. At that point, three SEPTA workers had died and 170 workers had tested positive for coronavirus.

"This video is going to be short and right to the point," Mr. Brown stated, explaining that he told management that if within three days "they have not met some of our concerns when it comes to the safety of our members...we will choose life over death."

Message to Riders

The day before the deadline, he told reporters that riders should "find an alternative way to work."

That night, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney called Mr. Brown and pledged the transit agency would address his occupational-health concerns.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that call prompted Mr. Brown to "postpone" his call to action regarding a system that serves both the city and five surrounding suburban counties.

The two sides are making progress on the safety issues, according to John Samuelsen, president of the TWU of America, Local 234's parent.

"They are still talking," he said in a phone interview, noting that the union on April 17 had sued Miami-Dade County for failing to provide sufficient PPE or hand sanitizer and not enforcing anti-crowding regulations.

Steps to Reduce Risk

Miami-Dade officials have suspended fare collection and shifted bus access away from the driver to reduce the risk posed to their bus drivers and the public, the Miami Herald reported.

Mr. Samuelsen said the union could not let up on the COVID-19 issues after winning initial battles with management.

"We run the risk of going backward unless we can maintain a steady flow of these supplies," he said. "And once you get into this, you realize there's no logistical capability to distribute it so we can sustain it."

The TWU international president said that as concerns grow about the virus in the workplace, the union was hearing from workers employed by non-union companies in places like Ohio and Michigan.

"We are even getting calls from the Deep South, right-to-work states," he said. "This pandemic has proven the absolute necessity of a union for working people."

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