A recently-released report from the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies found that more than one in five union members were furloughed, laid off or contracted the coronavirus during the height of the COVID crisis, illustrating how the pandemic has exacerbated challenges faced by the labor movement.

The School of Labor and Urban Studies’ Ruth Milkman, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology, and Stephanie Luce, a Professor of Labor Studies, collected data from 20 public- and private-sector unions in the city to determine how many of their members lost employment or became sick during the pandemic.

'Devasting' in Some Jobs

The report, which was issued ahead of Labor Day, found that although unionized workers were less likely to die from COVID than non-unionized employees, the impact on some unionized sectors was “devastating,” both in terms of layoffs and high rates of exposure to COVID, particularly in industries that provided essential services.

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RUTH MILKMAN: A warning for the future.

Not surprisingly, the New York State Nurses Association saw the highest number of COVID cases among those highlighted in the study, with 6,808 of it’s 27,000 members testing positive for coronavirus, and 29 dying from it. Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union saw 110 of its members die from COVID, with the researchers cautioning that these numbers were likely higher due to limited testing during the beginning of the pandemic.

Among the Amalgamated Transportation Union’s 14,723 members, about 12,000 were furloughed. More than 21,000 of the Taxi Workers Alliance’s 24,000 members were unable to work, while 13,000 of UNITE HERE Local 100’s restaurant and bar staff were placed on furlough or laid off.

The labor movement has faced many challenges over the past several years, including declining membership and the 2018 Janus decision, which determined that public-employee unions could no longer collect agency-fee payments from nonmembers.

Link Unions to Safety

Although 70 percent of public-sector workers in the city belonged to a union, the rate of union membership in the private-sector—while double that of the national average—has declined significantly over the past few years. Among private-sector workers across the city between January 2019 and June 2020, 13.1 percent belonged to a union, compared to 6.3 percent nationally. That’s down from 17 percent three years ago.

The pandemic has highlighted why such a decline was harmful, the report suggested. Ms. Milkman and Ms. Luce highlighted cases where non-unionized staff had little job protection after voicing safety concerns, such as the firing of an Amazon worker on Staten Island who called for personal protective equipment back in March.

Charlene Obernauer, the executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, argued that union job sites generally provided more protections for workers during the crisis.

“Unions provide workers with a structure to file complaints and grievances. Unions also protect workers and their ability to assert their rights on the job, and provide training for workers to ensure they know what their rights are,” she told The Chief. “Non-union workplaces, for the most part, do not have these structures or protections in place.”

'Privates' Prone to Layoffs

The study also found that private-sector workers across the city were far more likely to be laid off than public-sector employees. In June, the city had 758,400 fewer private-sector jobs than it did a year earlier. Overall, the unemployment rate in the city was 20.4 percent during that same month.

“We haven’t seen this scale of unemployment…since the 1930s. And the actual rate is likely much higher,” Ms. Milkman said. “There’s still much to learn about the impact this pandemic will ultimately have on New York’s labor market; not just initially, but for years to come.”

The researchers noted that the analysis served as a “warning” for the future, as the potential of a second wave means these issues could re-emerge.

“Workers and their unions must continue to demand that employers and government officials make much more extensive efforts to ensure their health and safety,” Ms. Luce said.


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