L.A. approves workers’ councils to enforce coronavirus safety measures
Workers are mobilizing across the country to demand that employers institute real measures to protect them from the coronavirus. Here McDonald's workers in Detroit insist that their lives are worth protecting. AP

LOS ANGELES—By a 5-0 vote, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has approved establishing workers’ councils to monitor business efforts to protect employees against the coronavirus pandemic, and to blow the whistle to health officials when they don’t.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor called the councils “the first step in a bold new solution to stop the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate any new outbreaks.” COVID-19 is the official name for the coronavirus.

The L.A. workers’ councils would be different from those in Germany, which are required by law, and where workers have a voice in corporate decision-making.

They’d also differ from other workers’ councils in the U.S. Unions and pro-worker groups set those up to hold community-based hearings to publicize capitalist exploitation of low-wage workers, corporate criminality, and violations of workers’ rights. Those councils have no enforcement power.

The L.A. County decision is important because it is the most populous single county in the U.S., and because it is rife with several industries, such as garment sweatshops, entertainment, and fast food eateries, where working conditions contribute to community spread of the coronavirus. Those industries also employ high proportions of workers of color, who nationally are harder hit by the virus.

The county’s decision also has popular support: A recent nationwide opinion poll of 1,301 likely voters by Columbia University researcher Alexander Hertel-Fernandez found “67% of likely voters said workers needed a formal voice in setting workplace health and safety rules while only 19% disagreed.” Three-fourths of Democrats and 63% of Republicans “agreed with the idea that workers deserve a formal voice in health and safety standards.”

“There was similarly strong support for requiring businesses to let employees elect a workplace safety and health advocate (68% support-16% oppose), again with higher support among Democrats (77%) but still well over half Republican support (62%),” he reported. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

The county’s decision is also important because California’s partial reopening has produced a new spike in positive coronavirus results.

California leads the nation in positive coronavirus cases overall.

The L.A. County supervisors specifically voted to have the county Health Department “reach out to labor and business leaders and quickly agree on effective ways to monitor compliance with mandates to wear facial coverings, install protective shields and disinfect workplaces” from the coronavirus.

And the monitoring includes empowering workers to blow the whistle on firms that flunk, the supervisors and the L.A. County Federation of Labor said. “Employees must be allowed to form public health councils without retaliation by their employer,” according to the July 21 motion by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“The workplace is foundational when it comes to public health, and workers are in a unique position to be the champions when it comes to stemming the coronavirus,” Rob Nothoff, the L.A. labor federation’s policy director, explained.

“We need all violations to be reported as soon as possible, and we need a framework to expedite this process. Who better to monitor and document public health violations than the workers themselves? When workers are engaged, the public is safer.”

A parade of workers and public health specialists had testified businesses need outside monitoring—and that the Health Department needs help in that taskto ensure firms protect people against the coronavirus, said County Supervisor Hilda Solis, U.S. Labor Secretary during Democratic President Barack Obama’s term.

In that post, Solis said, “I witnessed and addressed the exploitation of workers across the country, including in Los Angeles County. We all have a responsibility to follow county health officer orders, and that includes businesses and restaurants.

“Sadly, we are seeing significant coronavirus outbreaks at businesses that have failed to comply with safety measures. The consequences of these non-compliant businesses are clear as our COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates surge.

“Los Angeles Apparel is an example of what happens when a business does not adhere to workplace safety protocols. There are now 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among workers at L.A. Apparel, and even more tragically, four deaths. It is clear the company did not follow safety protocols. Instead, workers used cardboards as rudimentary barriers between their workstations, lacked the appropriate spacing to practice physical distancing, and were not given training and information to ensure their workplace safety.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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