In the devastation of 2020, the phrase “essential worker” went from a low-profile term for people who had to work even when the government was closed for snow, to a synonym for “hero.” Gatherings, parties and jobs went virtual for the fortunate–essential workers continued risking their safety by going into work each day. They kept the lights on, so that the rest of us could be comfortable and secure even in such a dark time. Simply put, as the rest of the labor force went into hibernation, essential workers went into overdrive.
As the luxury of dining out disappeared during lockdown, food service employees prepared and delivered takeout meals, keeping the restaurant industry afloat. When wealthy white-collar workers grew bored in quarantine, dedicated commerce staff, throughout the supply chain, ensured online shopping orders were completed. Teachers adapted to remote classrooms, making an already difficult job that much harder. Public transportation workers stayed on the front lines for those without personal vehicles. And as millions of Americans were diagnosed with Covid-19, nurses, technicians, janitors, maintenance people and countless others at the backbone of the healthcare industry worked overtime to save lives. Even with a vaccine circulating and hope on the horizon, essential employees continue exerting all their energy to preserve the mental and physical health of others–foregoing their own.
To show appreciation for these crucial laborers and their forced social contact, city dwellers clanged pots and pans together in cheering unison throughout the spring. Signs of encouragement were placed in hospital lawns with sentiments like, “heroes work here”. Politicians and celebrities praised essential employees on social media.
Yet it was hollow.
The blue-collar workers supporting the backbone of the economy continue to struggle. The year that has been unkind to America was downright cruel to those in necessary fields of work. A study from the Economic Policy Institute concluded, “In spite of their critical role in providing necessary services, these workers have been working without access to fundamental protections like personal protective equipment or paid sick leave.”
The Brookings Institution similarly found many essential workers received low wages in 2020, with limited government support. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union discovered 17,400 grocery employees were exposed to COVID 19 as of November, and 109 died after contracting the virus. Legislators from both sides of the political aisle put federal aid in a stalemate for several months, as hardworking Americans wondered how they’d feed their families.
Only one resource has unwaveringly guarded essential workers throughout the past year – unions. Research shows American union members were more prepared for the pandemic and fared better throughout it than non-members. The Economic Policy Institute reports that nine out of ten union contract workers have access to employer health benefits, compared to 68% of nonunion employees. The same study showed more than 90% of unionized workers have access to paid sick days, versus 73% of nonunion workers. In fact, data shows reinforcing unions supports public health for the entire population.
Unions kept track of data and disseminated Covid-19 resources, arming members with facts and science. According to Bloomberg, nonprofit employees organized for the first time in droves this past year, in reaction to pandemic uncertainty. Union bargaining is the reason many employees had access to quality healthcare, as coronavirus loomed. In fact, reinforcing unions supports public health for the entire population.
During a year marked by perpetual loneliness, union membership provided siblinghood for people who would otherwise face the pandemic alone. While the blue-collar worker has been deemed essential for all, unions are essential for the blue-collar worker.
Unions survive by forming a united voice that demands to be heard. However, in the increasingly virtual and busy world that we live in, uniting that voice has become more complicated and complex.
While email and social media will continue to be important for communicating with and galvanizing the support of union members, these two platforms do have limitations and challenges. For example, 98% of all emails result in no action and only 2-5% of social media post are actually seen.
App platforms, where 90% of smartphone users spend their time, overcome those limitations. Push notifications and less cluttered content feeds can deliver timely and actionable information to union members. Moreover, because we all carry our phones with us everywhere, apps can ensure that these members have access to the information on the frontlines and actually see it. (Full disclosure: Greg is the founder of Union Strong, a company that has created an app communications platform for unions.)
Spreading the word is the heart and soul of labor organizations. Establishing a mobile-first strategy is the best way to minimize disengagement and optimize union member attention.
Simple, streamlined and mobile-minded communication is crucial for helping unions carry on, to protect the essential workers who carried on for us.
About Greg McHale