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Tumult in America's Workforce this Workers' Memorial Day. WBGO’S Bob Hennelly speaks with Doug Doyle

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Bob Hennelly
FDNY Lt. James McCarthy, president of the UFOA and Father Brian Jordan close out the annual Worker Memorial Day gathering in lower Manhattan April 28th. The annual remembrance is held by the New York City Central Labor Council and the New York Committee on Safety and Health to honor the dozens of workers killed on the job in NYC. This year participants also honored the many thousands of essential workers who died from their occupational exposure to COVID across the nation.

DOYLE: This past Thursday April 28 was Workers’ Memorial Day, which was established to honor those  workers who over the previous year lost their lives due to injuries they suffered of diseases they contracted while they were on the job.  This year’s commemoration comes more than two years into the COVID pandemic that has claimed the lives of one million Americans, including thousands of essential workers who died as a result of an  on the job exposure to the killer virus. It also comes at a time when a record number of Americans are quitting their jobs. With us now to help make some sense out of these trends is WBGO’s Bob Hennelly.

Bob, Thanks for joining us on the WBGO Journal. It seems everywhere you look there are help wanted signs. What’s going on?

HENNELLY: Well, labor demographers are calling it the “Great Resignation” . Last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47 million Americans quit their job. And the data we have seen in this year show we are on pace to break that record with roughly  million people opting to leave their current situation a month. To give you a sense of the scale of this consider that the entire enrollment of the AFL-CIO nationally is 12.5 million workers. 

DOYLE: What’s driving this mega-trend?

HENNELLY: You can’t discount the role of the pandemic. In surveys of these workers researchers have reported that for some employees they felt their employer failed to protect them on the job. That can run the gamut from not having the proper PPE to their hours being cut  without notice because of closures that were ordered by public health officials trying to slow the spread of the virus. Let’s face it, society as we knew it was upended and this hit women workers the hardest. Millions of female employees were forced to stay home when school went remote and a generation of our kids were kept home. With the inability of government and corporations to have a quick fix for this mess, we all were forced to put our families first and that’s a big shift away from being driven ONLY by making money.  

But like every major trend in history this really is a confluence of things.  There was a really important article in the Harvard Business Review in March that observed rightly that this trend started before the pandemic. We knew that we would see Baby Boomers, like you and I, retiring pre-COVID. But COVID has accelerated the trend.

DOYLE: Is there a connection between the Great  Resignation and what appears to be a significant increase in the number of union organizing efforts we are seeing? It seems a day doesn’t go by that we don’t read about workers trying to form a union in a Starbucks or Amazon warehouse? Is there a labor union revival going on? 

HENNELLY: Yes, but we do have to also contextualize this. Consider just how much labor unions have shrunk in terms of their share of the nation’s workforce. In 1983 over 20 percent of workers were in a union. That hovers around 10 percent now, although we do see about a third of public sector government workers in a union. What we are seeing is a surge in workers asking for the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election which is the first step to forming a union. In April alone, we saw 200 such applications including 50 at different Starbucks locations around the country. For historical context in all of the last fiscal year the NRLB held 954 union elections. That would average out to a hundred a month. A few weeks back we saw the independent Amazon Labor Union win their vote to organize Amazon’s Staten Island facility, making it the first such Amazon facility to go union. The leaders of that drive were , led by Chris Smalls, contacted by workers from dozens of Amazon sites across the country.

DOYLE: I know you have been covering that story. Why do you think that effort was successful while previous such efforts fell short? I believe that union organizers lost their vote at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama location? 

HENNELLY: In the Bessemer election, it was a re-run that was ordered by the National Labor Relations Board because it agreed with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union that Amazon engaged in improper practices leading up to the vote. That means doing things like forcing workers into high pressure meetings where they are barraged with anti-union propaganda and organizers are improperly and illegally targeted by Amazon. The outcome of this latest vote is once again being protested by the union that alleges the company used coercive tactics to sway the balloting. We won’t know the outcome of that process for a few months. I think what we have to keep in mind is that in New York there is a traction of supporting the labor movement and so the Staten Island organizers had the advantage of the city and state being pro-labor. In Alabama, it’s a right to work state and it’s harder for unions to get traction. Also, in Staten Island, Chris Smalls was actually a supervisor where he felt he was being told to do the wrong thing by his co-workers that he supervised because they were trying to suppress information about who had COVID. So, it was an immediate response to COVID and it got traction because Amazon, like so many large corporations really stumbled in that process so badly and didn’t have much help from the government.

So, it is a little apples and oranges. But the broad context is that the nation is on the move and it’s been primarily driven by young people. 

DOYLE: You mentioned that workplace safety during COVID has factored in the Great Resignation and helped provide momentum for all of these union drives. What do we really know about the impact of COVID on essential workers? Just what was the impact?

HENNELLY: Well, sad to say we don’t know. Thanks to the Guardian Newspaper and Kaiser Health News did a solid investigative report in the first year of the COVID outbreak 3,600 U.S. healthcare workers died as a result of their occupational exposure to COVID.

Right now, thanks to the work of the AFL-CIO nationally, the CDC is undertaking the first of its kind review over the next six months to look at the exposures and deaths from COVID. We do not know, as we speak, how many essential workers died. There’s no registry.

We know that several hundred firefighters and EMTs across the country passed as a result of their COVID exposure. 

The GAO just put out a report that up to 23 million Americans have been effected by long haul COVID with one million have had to leave the workforce. 

So, we are just getting our arms around  that but you know, even without the pandemic, the AFL-CIO national report “Death on the Job”, 340 people die a day as a consequence of unrelated pandemic hazards in the workplace. 120,000 die a year as a consequence of work related diseases they contract. Unions have been a key part of making workplaces safer. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was put in place and that’s thanks to the AFL-CIO.

DOYLE: So, I guess we have a better understanding of why there is such a Memorial Day for Workers.

Bob Hennelly is the New York City Hall reporters for LaborPress. He can be contacted via twitter @stucknation