This is the fourth in a series of commentaries by LNS policy and research directorJeremy Brecher on the subject of Workers vs. Coronavirus. The previous commentary “I Talk to Workers Every Day – They’re Afraid They’re Going to Die” described how workers are being affected by the pandemic and what their unions are doing about it. This commentary tells how unions asked environmental and other allies to support them in demanding personal protective equipment — and how those allies are responding.
It was hardly surprising when a group of trade unions sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to provide ventilators and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and all other workers put at risk by exposure to coronavirus.
The desperate need for PPE goes far beyond healthcare workers. Janitors are deep cleaning buildings, teachers’ aides are delivering meals to children at home, warehouse and manufacturing workers are making and distributing essential goods, home care providers are caring for the most vulnerable, public service workers are maintaining essential services, bus operators are taking essential workers to their jobs, telecom workers are entering homes to repair vital internet services, childcare workers are caring for our children and cashiers are scanning groceries—all at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus without enough PPE to lessen exposure.
But what were the names of nearly 100 environmental, environmental justice, climate, and other organizations doing on a letter about ventilators for union members? The answer may represent new page in the tortuous history of cooperation and conflict between the environmental movement and organized labor.
The immediate backstory starts with the appeal by Greta Thunberg and other youth climate activists for adults to join the millions participating in the student climate strikers. Environmental groups, climate-concerned trade unionists, and youth climate strikers all began reaching out to each other. The Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), an organization dedicated to building bridges between organized labor and the environmental movement to join together in a common struggle for environmental, economic, and social sustainability, began organizing conferences and on-line calls to bring trade unionists into the September 20, 2020 global climate strike. Union participation in the September 20 actions was in fact unprecedented.
At the start of 2020, this effort was expanding to include many more unions and more extensive action for the anticipated 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Environmentalists and trade unionists looked to the student climate strike organizers to decide what to do. In the face of lockdowns, social distancing, and the constant threat of infection they concluded that holding public actions was out of the question. They called instead for virtual, on-line actions. While unions faced multiplying needs to protect their members from the onslaught of coronavirus, some of them nonetheless made plans to participate in the days of action on-line.
But how should environmental, climate, and climate justice movements be relating to the coronavirus pandemic? LNS didn’t have an answer, but knew that workers on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic faced enormous threats, and decided that one thing it could do was use the bridges that had been built in the climate strikes to let unions tell environmentalists what their members were facing, what their unions were doing about it, and what kind of help they could use.
On March 26, the LNS convened a videoconference in which leaders of the environmental, climate, and climate justice movements heard directly from leaders of seven unions about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their members and what they are doing about it. The convening included leaders from the American Federation of Teachers, Association of Flight Attendants, 1199 Service Employees International Union, United Health Care Workers East, UNITE HERE, Amalgamated Transit Union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 21, Washington State, and National Nurses United. While the workers these unions represent are not the only ones affected by the pandemic, their concerns and demands are characteristic of many others.
“Amplify our demands for PPE!”
While the trade unionists had a variety of requests, the urgent priority was for help getting PPE and getting new PPE produced. Marti Smith, Midwest Director, National Nurses United, told the environmental leaders, what you can do is
amplify our demands for personal protective equipment specifically for respirators in traditional media, on social media, and on social media with members of Congress and the administration. We have multiple social media campaigns running, and we have useful press coverage coming out every day. If you can stand with us however you can, like Ms. Fonda did, that would be wonderful. Without these protections, we will be burying our members. I’m not kidding here. The average age of a nurse is 47 years old, and it will not be long before we are attending funerals.
Most urgently, this involves finding and making available PPE that already exists. Maria Castaneda, the Secretary-Treasurer of 1199 Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers East, said the personal protective equipment for frontline workers is still very much needed.
What I would like us to do together is for us together to collectively ask for the release of the strategic stockpile of PPEs and medical equipment. It’s all in the warehouse, but it needs to be released to the states, to the governors, to the health industry, any industry.
Protective equipment is also stored in many private locations, and unions asked for help in finding it and putting it to use. Faye Guenther, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 21 in Washington state, which was stricken early by the virus, described their “massive personal protective equipment drive.” Organizations around the country are “helping get personal protective equipment here to the State of Washington.” The union is trying to “partner with the postal service, with Stamp Out Hunger,” to get basic personal protective equipment out of peoples’ garages, out of peoples’ homes, and into the hands of healthcare workers.
While finding and using existing PPEs is urgent, existing supplies are only a fraction of current and impending need. Also essential is the production of new ventilators and other PPE on a vast scale and on an emergency basis. President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, which allows the government to take command of production facilities and use them to meet public needs. But so far he has not used the Act to order the production of the PPEs that are necessary to protect the lives of frontline workers exposed to infection every day. Maria Castaneda says, “We keep hearing about the Defense Production Act.” We need to immediately use the Act to “repurpose to production of PPEs and ventilators” so we can “mass produce this equipment” that is direly needed to respond to the “public health crisis” that is “still surging in many of our communities and states.”
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, which includes school staff, nurses, and many other workers directly exposed to the virus, emphasized the centrality of PPE.
SEIU, the nurses, the nurses union, all of us are trying to focus on this. We need to scream about this protective equipment because we are killing the people who are supposed to be helping us treat the disease. We need all of us, all of our communities to be out there with a clarion call that we need to protect the frontline providers who are protecting us. They are getting sick.
She added, “I have one member of my union who has already died today. There will be many more but we have to do everything we can and figure out ways to do things in concert.
Environmentalists: “An incredibly overriding hunger for us to work together”
The first of the environmental leaders to respond was Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace. After saying, “I hope I can do this without crying,” she continued, “I am left with just an incredibly overriding hunger for us to work together and the sense of the collective power that we can have if labor activists and climate and justice and democracy activists stand together.” She proposed specifically that
One immediate campaign that we could all throw down on is the Defense Production Act. The fact that we have the means of making more supplies and are not leveraging those fully, is so vile and unacceptable.
Ken Kimmel of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “I don’t know how to thank all these healthcare workers and transit workers and others who are putting their lives at risk for society. I am very eager to harness whatever power UCS has as the voice of the scientific community to try to help here in any way we can.” Eric Pica of Friends of the Earth said, “We will amplify asks that you have, we just need to know where to target our members and our social media. It’s something that we’re willing to throw in on and help make an impact.” Evan Weber of the Sunrise Movement said “President Trump has the power to make these masks, to make these ventilators and is just sitting on his hands while people die.” We are “feeling a lot of energy around that” and “would love to work with you” to make a lot of noise around that. “If we could use that act in 1941 or ‘42 to build 300,000 airplanes, we can sure as hell use it to make a lot of masks right now in 2020, and maybe in 2022 we can use it to stop the climate crisis.” But right now “we just really, really want to be in solidarity with you all and do whatever we can to follow your leadership.”
Keya Chatterjee of the Climate Action Network summed up: “It’s just obviously a moment for us all to come together and say, ‘Make the goddamn masks.’”
“Immediately exercise the full powers of the government”
One of the first fruits of this collaboration was the letter from unions and environmental, environmental justice, business, and scientific communities to President Trump demanding “immediately exercise the full powers of the government available to you” to
protect workers and confront the coronavirus crisis. It included the following specific demands worked out over the previous days with union leaders:
- Immediately distribute the respirators and other personal protective equipment held in the Strategic National Stockpile.
- Use all powers of the federal government to more aggressively and broadly deploy the Defense Production Act, to speed immediate production of new protective equipment and ensure it is routed to states for distribution across acute care, home care and long term care settings, as well as other industries whose workers confront the risk of exposure on a daily basis in their workplace. We ask you to do this while fully enforcing environmental protections and ensuring that communities near sterilization facilities do not face additional public health threats.
- Identify reserves of respirators, including N95s and PAPRs, and other PPE equipment in other industries, such as construction, and redistribute them to healthcare providers and other frontline workers.
- Immediately direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services to instruct the Pentagon where to send the 2,000 ventilators it says it has in its military stocks.
- Direct FEMA to work directly with manufacturers and distributors to purchase PPE and other equipment and stop forcing states to compete with the federal government and each other. FEMA should institute a transparent process to allocate PPE, ventilators and other equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile based on state population need.
- Require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to institute the emergency temporary standard for infectious disease and health protections related to COVID-19 and prevent any further erosion of health and safety guidelines throughout the federal government and across the economy.
What if President Trump refuses these demands – or if he talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk? As Senator Bernie Sanders just wrote, “We cannot rely on Trump. Congress must lead the way in this unprecedented crisis.” The AFL-CIO, SEIU, and other unions are backing Senator Chris Murphy’s Medical Supply Chain Emergency Act ordering the federal government to take over the companies that produce or could produce PPE and commanding them to start turning out ventilators and other protective equipment – just as the government forced American auto companies to turn out planes and tanks in World War II. And if Congress refuses to act? There have been at least 45 walkouts for coronavirus protection already and there is growing talk of a nationwide strike to force the government to act.
It’s time to choose life over death.
 Jeremy Brecher, “I Talk to Workers Every Day – They’re Afraid They’re Going to Die,” Labor Network for Sustainability, https://www.labor4sustainability.org/strike/i-talk-to-workers-every-day-theyre-afraid-theyre-going-to-die/  Rebecca Beitsch, “Unions push White House for more protective equipment for essential workers,” The Hill, April 9, 2020 https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/492000-unions-push-white-house-for-more-protective-equipment-for-essential-workers For full text of the letter and additional materials on COVID-19 and labor see https://www.labor4sustainability.org/covid19/  See forthcoming “Strike! Jeremy Brecher’s Corner” commentary on union participation in the September 20 climate strike.  A video of the conference, “Building Support for Workers Amid the COVID-19,” is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KD_zSC3MB70  Bernie Sanders, “We can’t rely on Trump in this unprecedented crisis. Congress must lead the way The Guardian, April 8, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/08/we-cant-rely-on-trump-in-this-unprecedented-crisis-congress-must-lead-the-way  H.R.6390 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): To require the President to use authorities under the Defense Production Act of 1950 to require emergency production of medical equipment to address the COVID-19 outbreak.  “COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map,” Payday Report https://paydayreport.com/covid-19-strike-wave-interactive-map/
Jeremy Brecher is a writer, historian, and activist who is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements. His commentaries on solidarity and survival appear regularly at https://www.labor4sustainability.org/strike/.