Labor, Environmental, and Civic Leaders Call for Actions to Protect Workers, Bolster Economy

Leaders from the United Steelworkers (USW), Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), Union of Concerned Scientists, and BlueGreen Alliance today called for immediate actions to protect workers on the job from COVID-19 and help families struggling with the economic devastation caused by the virus.

April 8, 2020

They joined the mayor of Lathrup Village, Michigan, and workers from Nevada, Michigan, and Maine, who shared how COVID-19 has impacted their communities and coworkers.

Listen to the audio of the call.

The groups called for adequate personal protection equipment (PPE) and training for all people working during the pandemic and for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to crack down on employers that are exploiting or endangering workers. They also urged the president to use the authority of the Defense Protection Act and other powers to ensure America manufactures the items we need during the crisis at the scale needed.

“For our members who are working, safety is our top priority. The conditions at our workplaces vary from location to location, but we’re working with all our local health and safety committees to make sure everyone who’s still at work has the information they need to stay safe,” said United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway. “While ensuring the safety of our workers right now must be our top priority, we must also think about what comes next. If our economy is going to recover from this crisis, the administration and Congress must make massive investments in jobs, training, infrastructure, and manufacturing.”

“UWUA workers are on the frontlines everyday making sure that American families have access to necessities like electricity, heat, and water during this time,” said Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) National President James Slevin. “Losing access to electricity or water in the middle of a crisis at a hospital or care facility can spell the difference between life and death and our workers are working diligently to ensure that this does not happen. It is absolutely critical that all frontline workers, including utility workers, have the equipment they need and are taking the proper steps to keep themselves safe.”

“For many frontline and essential workers social distancing and staying at home is not an option. To keep them safe, we must ensure that they have the protection they need,” said Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. “Across the nation, frontline workers are caring for the ill without proper protective equipment, in some cases using makeshift masks and gowns. They are working long shifts, and are they are falling ill themselves, as are others who are providing the essential goods and services our families and communities depend on. We need OSHA to use its existing authority and take immediate action to protect these brave workers.”

In addition to immediate action, the groups urged a forward-thinking effort to spur the recovery of America’s economy focused on rebuilding the middle class and creating good-paying jobs that allow workers to get ahead and never again be one virus away from losing everything. Undoing the years of neglect and underfunding that have undermined America’s social safety net and public sector is an effort that the groups said Congress should prioritize, along with putting millions of Americans back to work when it is safe rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure systems. Finally, the groups said a focus on retooling and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing sector, to ensure we are not caught again without the ability to make the items needed in a crisis, should also be front-and-center in this discussion.

“The administration has left these workers out in the cold, scrounging for PPE and holding safety equipment ransom from state and local governments. That needs to change, and it needs to change now,” said Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance. “If we’re going to invest in America’s recovery we should do it to benefit workers. When it’s safe, we must put America back to work in good-paying jobs rebuilding America’s infrastructure and our manufacturing sector and rebuilding the social safety net and public services that we know are vitally important to saving lives.”

During the event, workers represented by the USW, UWUA, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the mayor of Lathrup Village, Michigan spoke about their experiences helping their communities during this crisis.

“The last thing our community needs in this time of crisis is a gas leak or service interruption. It’s up to us to make sure that nobody has to worry about anything but keeping themselves safe,” said Tyler French, a UWUA member and natural gas service technician from Livonia, Michigan. “We know how important it is that families, communities, and critical facilities like hospitals don’t have to worry about having access to basic necessities like heat and electricity.”

“It should never be as hard as it is right now for a nurse or doctor or firefighter to get a mask,” said Ben Waxman, co-founder of American Roots, a Maine-based clothing company that makes all their clothing in the U.S. using union labor that has converted its workspace to protect employers and to manufacture masks. “We should be producing this equipment here in the United States—not just now, but always.”

In one of the counties hardest hit by COVID-19 in Michigan, Lathrup Village Mayor Kelly Garrett has seen both how the pandemic has impacted her community and shared her worries about her own family. “The local hospitals are filling up and workers there are dealing with trying to make sure they do their jobs and keeping themselves and their families safe. And, this crisis is highlighting once again the well-known disparity in public health care for minority populations—with African Americans accounting for more than half of the COVID-19 deaths nationwide. Local hospitals are having trouble keeping up with emergencies and my son has a compromised immune system, so he would likely need a ventilator if he gets this virus. So, this hits home,” said Garrett.

“As a registered nurse, I know how important a safe work environment is—not just to my health but also for my patients,” said Michael Collins from SEIU Local 1107 in Nevada. “This isn’t a game; this is about peoples’ lives. We need leadership now to protect all workers—to make sure we have adequate PPE and other protections on the job to help make sure we can stay on the job. We’re fighting for the lives of our patients and coworkers and for a better future for us all.”