Negotiating the future

How unions and worker’s rights organizations are ap-proaching the post-pandemic landscape

Daniel J. Munoz//March 15, 2021

Negotiating the future

How unions and worker’s rights organizations are ap-proaching the post-pandemic landscape

Daniel J. Munoz//March 15, 2021


Many worker’s rights groups and labor organizations expect a paradigm shift during the Biden administration. Over the course of the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden repeatedly promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”

And many workers’ groups expect executive action and legislative moves that will go in that direction. For example, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is pursuing nationwide COVID-19 workplace safety standards, something labor groups contend was lacking under the Trump administration.


But many experts argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a moment of reckoning for the rights of workers that will reverberate even after President Biden leaves office. “This put a big light on the employees, how they’re treated … when they had sandwiches after work and said ‘we’re part of a family’ all of a sudden when the pandemic came you might be part of the family, but you’re the type the family we don’t want to talk to,” said Fred Potter, international vice president at-large for the Teamsters, and head of Local 469 based in Hazlet.

“We have employers” who are “totally irresponsible,” he added. “They don’t care, they’ll hire another employee,” if a worker contracts or dies from COVID-19. “It’s the same guys, when this 80 hours expired under the statute, they were the first ones to say ‘if you get sick, you’re on your own, we’re not going to provide you the 80 hours.”

The reference is to the 80 hours of paid leave that was part of the original federal COVID-19 relief package passed nearly a year ago under then-President Donald Trump. Although employers have until the end of March to offer that time off and claim tax credit, the requirement to provide the leave expired at the end of 2020.

Three significant developments suggest the extent to which the conversation is shifting. One is the push for a nationwide $15 minimum wage. Another is the attempt to unionize nearly 6,000 warehouse workers in an Alabama Amazon warehouse – an effort Biden seemed to endorse in a Feb. 28 tweet.

The third is the attempts by Congress and the White House to push through passage of the Protecting the Rights to Organize Act. Union leaders say the measure, which passed the House of Representatives in a 225-206 vote, would level the playing field in a system unfairly favoring management and big business.

Many state laws make union organizing difficult, labor leaders argue. The PRO Act would blunt the impact of some of those laws and grant sweeping rights to current and prospective unions. “The burdens of this pandemic have fallen squarely on the shoulders of America’s workers, who are toiling through unprecedented challenges just to keep food on the table,” reads a March 1 statement from Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “Now more than ever, we need our voices heard on the job.”


According to Will Brucher, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, many of the workplace problems brought to light during the pandemic are not new. The lack of safety measures, low pay and poor staffing levels, for example, have plagued workplaces for years, he suggested. And with the pandemic pushing those issues to an unsustainable level, they could very likely be priorities for labor unions and worker’s rights groups.

The public sector, nurses and hospitals and higher education, all saw steep job cuts. Their priorities might be to ensure that those people are brought back and unions would want to ensure greater job security, Brucher said.


“Inadequate staffing is an ongoing issue that was greatly exacerbated during the pandemic,” said Debbie White, president of the New Jersey’s largest nurses’ union, Health Professionals and Allied Employees. “The lives of health care workers were upended as their schedules were changed to fill staffing shortages. In addition, health care workers were forced to use paid time off when they were told to quarantine or when they were exposed and infected in the workplace.”

At Rutgers, the Coalition of Rutgers One, which represents 19 unions representing nearly 20,000 workers, is pushing for a reversal of more than 1,000 layoffs that occurred over the past year. The group had sought “work-sharing programs” under which the university would furlough workers so they could file for unemployment benefits while they were still bolstered by federal relief. And they would be able to keep their health benefits.

The Communications Workers of America New Jersey – the state’s largest public sector union – employed a similar arrangement last summer to prevent thousands of lay-offs as state tax revenue cratered.

“An opportunity is presenting itself for an innovative solution that would draw on the monies of the federal government, at a time when it’s difficult to get federal funding,” Donna Murch, an associate professor who sits on the Rutgers AAUP-AFT union’s executive council, said in a Feb. 26 statement. “This is a way for our university to draw on that support and protect its workforce at the same time.”

32BJ of the Service Employees International Union organized a rally at Newark International Airport on Jan. 22, 2020. – DANIEL J. MUNOZ

The travel and airline industries, Brucher said, will also be grappling with many issues as their unions push to get their members back to work in a rebounding industry. “For those who are working, safety protocols, having to deal with customers, around mask mandates … there could be some pretty contentious negotiations over job cuts of course, but also over the protocols of the flying public.”

32BJ SEIU, which represents 10,000 airport subcontractors in New Jersey and New York, is seeking a new contract that would take the health effects of the pandemic into account. The union’s workers fill roles ranging from service representatives to cabin and terminal cleaners, security officers and baggage handlers.

“The previous contract was the very first contract the [Newark Liberty International Airport/John F. Kennedy International Airport/LaGuardia Airport] members signed and focused primarily on setting up a strong foundation for airport workers to continue being able to advance their rights and benefits economically and non-economically,” said Nazli Tamer, a spokesperson for 32BJ. “We expect that this contract negotiation will focus particularly on some of the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She added that “demands include setting up quarterly health and safety committee meetings, protecting the seniority of workers who were impacted by the pandemic, provisions to prohibit employers from discriminating workers based on traits historically associated with race including hairstyles and hair texture, as well as specific terms to implement the Healthy Terminals Act.”

That legislation calls for wage hikes to subsidize the costs of health insurance for those subcontractors.
Workers at grocery stores and warehouses may very well demand the “heroes pay” that was typical of the early days of the pandemic, Brucher said, even though it was not part of any original contracts. And they may demand greater quantities of personal protective equipment, and quicker access to the vaccines. The workers “overall say, because they’re face to face with the public, their jobs are essential … everyone depends on groceries.”


Over the next several months employers and unions may very well resort to short-term agreements as they try to gauge the route of the state’s post-COVID economic recovery, according to Greg Lalevee, the business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, which represents construction workers.

“Those that were mid-contract, we sat down and signed a [memorandum of understanding],” that might keep in place something like staggered work-shifts or some other COVID-mitigation effort.

“For the next six months, we’re going to work on this staggered start time and we’re going to revisit in six months to see how it’s going.”

“The burdens of this pandemic have fallen squarely on the shoulders of America’s workers…” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.