New York, NY – Not long before this year’s inauguration, then-Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris sent the Jewish Labor Committee [JLC] a video message of congratulations, an act virtually inconceivable for her predecessor, the virulently anti-union Mike Pence.
Times are, indeed, changing. As the JLC held its first virtual awards ceremony Dec. 17, the question in the air was “What is to be done?” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka identified the four biggest problems facing the nation and the labor movement as the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, empowering workers, and climate change.
The pandemic “raised the curtain on injustices that have always existed,” said JLC President Stuart Appelbaum, who also heads the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. Members and others deemed “essential workers” had a constant struggle to get personal protective equipment, paid sick time, and COVID-19 testing. In poultry plants, he added, “employers were more concerned about the chickens.”
“There has never been more that needed to be done,” Appelbaum concluded.
The JLC’s human-rights awards winners went to Lonnie R. Stephenson, international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; United Food and Commercial Workers vice president David T. Young, the union’s Northeastern regional director; and National Nurses United.
Presenting the award to Stephenson, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler praised him as a bridge-builder and for having a “strong moral compass” on issues of racial and gender justice.
“The best answer to organized greed and organized hate remains organized labor,” Stephenson said. “Unions have never been about just dollars and cents.”
UFCW International President Marc Perrone lauded Young for his leadership in the Stop & Shop strike in the spring of 2019, and for the union getting two large regional employers to restore pandemic hazard pay after they cut it off last June.
Of the 35,000 Stop & Shop workers the UFCW represented, Young said, only 11 crossed the picket line, and the strike’s success spurred other organizing campaigns. The JLC, whose mission is to be a Jewish voice in the labor movement and a labor voice in the Jewish community, was a key part of the walkout’s local support, he added.
“We had rabbis coming out to say crossing picket lines is not kosher for Passover,” he said.
Introducing NNU President Jean Ross, UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor compared the nurses of this year’s pandemic to the firefighters of 9/11—with the difference that “they have a 9/11 every day.” He also praised NNU for thinking that the crisis “is time to organize.”
“As nurses, we know what we need to do,” Ross said, lambasting the Trump administration for failing to “follow the science” and basic precautionary principles. The federal government, she said, should have set and enforced occupational-safety standards, organized widespread COVID-19 testing, and invoked the Defense Production Act to mandate manufacturing personal protective equipment. Management at many hospitals has failed too, she added, as they’re still understaffed, overcrowded, and haven’t supplied nurses with adequate protective gear.
More than 2,400 U.S. health-care workers, including an estimated 276 nurses and 14 NNU members, have died from COVID-19, she said.
Ross also averred that the pandemic had illustrated why Medicare for All is essential, because people who lost their jobs lost their health insurance just when they needed it most.
“It is clear that tying health care to employment causes a double bind in a crisis like COVID-19,” she said.
In a panel discussion with Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Trumka asked how the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, empowering workers, and climate change were connected. Klobuchar said President-elect Joseph Biden has to push an “economic argument,” and view the recovery “through that lens,” such as by ending laws banning the union shop.
Klobuchar said the labor movement was in a unique position to fight structural racism and reform policing, because it both has members suffering from structural racism and represents police officers. Booker noted that black people are four times more likely to get arrested for drugs than whites, despite having similar rates of drug use, and that most terrorism in the U.S. is white-supremacist.
Both agreed that the $900 billion stimulus package under consideration in Congress fell far short of the amount needed to return to normal employment. Booker suggested aiding small businesses and funding infrastructure, broadband Internet access, cover crops for farmers, and green jobs, while Klobuchar mentioned vaccines, helping the hospitality and live-entertainment industries, and immigration reform.