Harvard law experts: Coronavirus presents dangers, opportunities for new worker power
Willy Solis, who delivers groceries for the app Shipt in Denton, Texas, says the coronavirus pandemic has elevated the voices of workers like him, who are risking their lives to do essential jobs. | Courtesy of Willy Solis

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A new study by labor law experts at Harvard University says the coronavirus pandemic presents new dangers to workers, making traditional union organizing drives virtually impossible—and new opportunities to construct labor laws and structures to enhance worker power.

“Any attempt to empower workers must begin with the effort to make labor law, and the labor movement, fully inclusive of workers of colorworkers who have faced exclusion from the start,” co-authors Sharon Block and Prof. Benjamin Sachs write in Worker Voice and a Voice in the Pandemic Response. Block is a former National Labor Relations Board member. Sachs edits Harvard’s On Labor blog.

The coronavirus pandemic “poses particularand, in many cases, life-threateningchallenges to working people. As has become painfully obvious, moreover, the costs are being borne disproportionately by low-wage workers, a population made up primarily of women and workers of color.”

Black “essential” workers such as farmworkers, truckers, delivery drivers, and grocery workers, are twice as likely as white workers to worry about catching the virus, for good reason. “These workers are being asked to put their lives on the line in ways that are both unacceptable and unnecessary,” just to get the economy moving again, Sachs and Block note.

And although the report doesn’t say so, that “get moving” demand, which the authors say will put more “essential” workers in harm’s way, comes from the rich white male 1%, including the GOP occupant of the Oval Office and his Republican parrots.

“Indeed, as the economy reopens, more and more workers will be put in harm’s way. Unless, that is, something fundamental changes about the way we approach worker voice and power…to build a more equitable economy than the one the pandemic shut down,” Block and Sachs declare.

There are other hazards to workers from the pandemic, too, it says.

“For millions of Americans who have the ability to work from home, the pandemic shifted the workplace from a shared physical location to a remote environment. For millions of others who cannot work from home, and whose work has been deemed ‘essential,’ it has made the workplace a potentially deadly vector for infection.

“And with tens of millions newly out of work, most workersemployed, jobless, or somewhere in betweenare navigating this crisis at a moment of deep economic insecurity that threatens to further disempower workers.”

Traditionally, the way to worker power is organizing and mobilizing and unionizing. But face-to-face organizing is virtually impossible and federal labor law is out-of-date, loophole-ridden, and now tilted towards bosses. So Sachs and Block recommend alternatives. But even then, further and broader federal labor law reform is needed, they warn. Their reforms include:

  • Mandated safety stewards and safety structures, with the union representing workers in safety issues in unionized workplaces and worker-elected stewards at non-union sites. The stewards would implement and monitor compliance with health and safety rules established by state-chartered “sectoral commissions” whose mandates would cover all firms. States could use the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act’s provisions letting states set up their own OSHAs to establish the sectoral commissions. The stewards and structures, the report says, could be back-door ways to boost organizing.
  • An enforceable ban, with tough penalties, on company retaliation against workers who complain. Stewards would have the power to tell workers—including “independent contractors” and tempsof their rights, or lack of them, to refuse unsafe or dangerous work, and of alternative ways to enforce safety and health.

That’s important and not just in the pandemic, the report reiterates, because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is both woefully understaffed and, under GOP President Donald Trump’s orders, has completely abandoned enforcement.

  • Going beyond protections for workers who complain about hazards on the job, the report advocates a federal mandate of “just cause” for disciplining a worker for any reason at all. Unions have just cause in their contracts; Company labor law-breaking frequently involves firms’ violation of that.

The report advocates extending that protection to all workers in all cases, with discipline only after “fair and objective” investigations. Philadelphia enacted just-cause protections for parking-lot attendants, and New York is moving towards doing so for all “essential” workers. And the only just causes would be misconduct or performance problems, with bans on dismissals over health and safety issues—or labor law organizing and rights.

The report notes longtime worker advocate Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., has a national just cause bill in the hopper. A 2019 poll showed voters favored allowing only “just cause” dismissals by a 67%-30% margin.

  • Reshape organizing by giving workers “a digital meeting space” of “secure platforms” to discuss issues, outside the bosses’ surveillance, and banning boss surveillance overall. If a boss breaks the law, the notice shouldn’t just be posted in the workplace, either. It should be sent out to all workers via e-mail, a firm’s website, its internal communications systems, or all of those. And the penalties for law-breaking should be higher and stiffer.

“Whatever technology the employer uses to communicate with workers be made available to workers for their own organizing activities,” Block and Sachs advocate. “That recommendation is even more relevant now.” They also recommend allowing electronic and digital union election authorization cards and petitions. The NLRB now allows electronic certification votes, over virtually unanimous company opposition.

  • Bring consumer power to bear by forcing firms to “make available a browser extension that would allow consumers to be notified of labor disputes and safety complaints when visiting a company’s website.”
  • Support workers forced to strike through national legislation making them eligible for food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Women’s, Infants and Children’s feeding program benefits. “At a time when workers are striking because of threats to their health, their access to nutrition for themselves and their families should not be put in jeopardy,” Sachs and Block write.
  • Mandate coronavirus contract tracers hired by unionized private sector employers be automatically included in the union, and extend organizing rights and labor law protections to all the rest. The U.S. needs more than 100,000 contract tracers to do it right. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.—a former AFL-CIO Deputy Organizing Director—have legislation in to create a federal “containment corps” of tracers for state and local public health agencies.

“The demographics of a contact-tracing workforce will likely mirror that of community health workers or census workers, both of which tend to be predominantly people of color, women, and immigrant workers–in large part because they represent and have the trust of communities that are undercounted and have the greatest health care needs,” the report says.

“These are populations that often hold low-paying jobs with few workplace rights and are now experiencing unprecedented job lossesmaking it all the more urgent to ensure contact-tracing jobs are high quality” by making them union jobs. Doing so would also “incentivize” private tracing firms to match the federal standards. Minimum standards would be a $15 hourly wage, health insurance coverage, hazard pay, and paid child and family leave.

  • Make it really easy to register and vote, as the Democratic-run House voted—twice—along party lines to do. That means mail-in balloting, same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, permitting early voting, and fully funding the U.S. Postal Service so it’ll be there to deliver and collect all the ballots, on time.

“These changes are of necessity deep and broad: They would provide workers with diverse forms of voice in the workplace, new representation at the level of economic sectors, a role in how we confront unemployment and a louder and more representative voice in our democracy. By giving workers these forms of voice and power, these legal changes would go a good distance toward ensuring workplaces are safer and healthier; and thus that working peopleand their communitiesare best protected as the economy reopens. They would also empower workers to demand a more equitable labor market and a more just economy when work resumes.” The full 32-page report is at www.cleanslateworkerpower.org/covid-report.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.