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Mourning Labor Leaders Warn: ‘We Must Build a Better World’

New York, NY – Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, joined National Nurses United President Jean Ross, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum and frontline workers for the Jewish Labor Committee’s national day of mourning held July 28.

Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson.

“The coronavirus was real for the people that I represent before it was on the frontline page headline news,” Nelson said during last Tuesday’s event honoring all the essential workers that have died during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Flight attendants are on the front lines for all communicable diseases and our members that flew to China and East Asia were already on alert in early January,” Nelson said.

Just last month, a flight attendant from Hawaiian Airlines died during a training course last week. 

“It’s easy to get lost in the numbers,” Nelson said. “There are more than 4.3 million confirmed cases in the United States. There have been 150,000 deaths. There have been five straight days of 1,000 deaths. Because of the nature of this pandemic, there have been few opportunities to mourn those that we have lost.”

Last Tuesday, wasn’t only a day of Tisha B’Av, a day to reflect on the destruction of a holy temple in Jerusalem, according to Rabbi Barbara Penzer, representing the JLC. It was also a day to honor the sometimes “invisible” frontline workers who became “essential” overnight.

“Today in the spirit of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish Labor Committee mourns the losses of those on the frontlines,” Rabbi Penzer said. “To the nurses, doctors, caregivers and EMTS who did all they could to stop the pandemic, to treat the sick and to protect the vulnerable.”

National Nurses United President Jean Ross.

Factory workers, transportation workers and farm workers who may not have been deemed as valuable were equally worthy of being seen as essential to keeping this country running and worthy to be mourned too, Penzer continued.

Jean Ross, a registered nurse and president of National Nurses United [NNU], said she is tired of the for-profit healthcare industry and government’s “abysmal failure” to provide healthcare for its citizens.

“Nurses and healthcare workers have been risking their lives to care for patients every single day,” said Ross. “We face challenges, not only from the novel coronavirus itself — but also from a for-profit healthcare industry that has prioritized protecting hospitals and insurance company bottom lines over the health and safety of patients and workers. Our government has shown itself to be an abysmal failure at its number one job: protecting the health, lives and security of the American people.”

According to Ross, that failure of the government also includes the premature re-opening of states during the ongoing pandemic, employer-based insurance, lack of Personal Protection Equipment for nurses and the withholding of vital health data.

RWDSU Shop Steward Mona Darby.

Over 164 NNU members have succumbed to COVID-19. Ross maintains that the 20-percent of healthcare workers that have also contracted the virus, is an underreported figure.

“The hardest hit are the communities of color and the economically disadvantaged,” Ross said. “The pervasive disparities are observed among African-Americans, Latinx communities, as well as American-Indian, Alaska native and Pacific Islander populations.”

As the coronavirus crisis grows even more dire, members of NNU are preparing for a National Day of Action outside the White House on August 5.

“To protect patients, you need to protect nurses,” said Ross. 

Mona Darby, a shop steward at RWDSU from Alabama, shared her story about working at a meat processing plant.

“We have 600 people [at the facility], but 100 people have had COVID-19,” the 32-year industry veteran said. “This includes myself. I was one of the top 10 people that had it. It was definitely something to go through. Are we scared? Yes we are scared; we don’t know who to trust anymore.”

Gladys Betancourt, a 32BJ SEIU porter from New Jersey, also shared her experience working during the pandemic.

RWDSU and JLC President Stuart Appelbaum.

“I’m a porter in in a luxury apartment building in Jersey City,” Betancourt said through a translator. “We don’t have any benefits and we have low wages. Last year, me and my co-workers voted for 32BJ to represent us and it was twelve to nothing [in favor of unionizing].”

When COVID-19 struck, Betancourt and her co-workers immediately became “essential workers,” she said. In April, the virus claimed the life of a co-worker.

The employer-based health insurance that the company offered was too expensive for Betancourt and her colleagues to afford. When workers asked for two weeks paid time off following the death of their colleague —their employer hired a new cleaning company to replace them instead. 

“32BJ is working to help us get out jobs back and to get us pay for the days we weren’t able to work,” Betancourt said. “We risked our lives, we are essential workers, but they did not treat us as such.”

Four-dozen RWDSU members working in supermarkets, drug stores, poultry processing plants and the airline industry have died, according to Appelbaum, who also serves as Jewish Labor Committee president.

“Our society would not be able to function without them,” Appelbaum said. “At poultry plants in the Southeastern, United States, these employers were more concerned about the chickens that they were processing than the workers themselves.”

Employers further tried to incentivize workers to come to work “elbow-to-elbow” even if they were sick, Appelbaum added.

“One plant said they had enough PPE for supervisors but not for the workers on the line,” said Appelbaum. 

The JLC has been lending its support to Meals on Wheels, Make the Road and John Hopkins University to help struggling families during of the pandemic. 

“We face three crises simultaneously: the virus, economic collapse and racial injustice,” said Appelbaum. “We must do everything we can to build a better world, and not just a return to the world that existed prior to the pandemic.”

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