Pandemic’s silver lining? Labor’s renewed strength

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(The author is the financial secretary of Local 652 of the United Auto Workers. This first appeared in the Lansing Labor News.)

As I thought about the many relevant events affecting our members in labor, I kept returning to one topic. It’s been something I have been thinking about for a while but hesitated to write about because how does one share the brighter side of a pandemic which has caused so much hardship for the membership and for our country? This hesitation began to wane as it became apparent that many of our fellow Americans in the working-class were getting caught in the trap set by big business and special interests: divide and conquer.

As the pandemic took hold, everything from public health mandates to just plain self-preservation triggered a tidal wave of layoffs, resignations and quits. While businesses small and large were trying to deal with the above-mentioned obstacles, worker illness and supply chain disruptions dealt another blow. It would be several months of these challenges before public safety measures, new treatments and the plain cyclical nature of viruses teased us with relief. It was during that time of relief this glimmer of hope appeared for working class people and for the labor movement.

In that time of relief, it was apparent that a labor shortage was brewing. As is typical with most things, the cause of this labor shortage is not singular: It was and is multifaceted. People not only fell ill or passed away, they took stock of their situation and made bold moves. It’s true that many feared COVID-19 and made the decision to stay home, but many also saw how fragile life was and took buyouts or retired. Others took the opportunity to receive further training and changed careers. Yet others did the math and realized staying home was a better option than expensive and hard-to-find childcare. Did people also choose to abuse social safety nets and stay unemployed after job cuts? Yes. Was it a majority? No, it rarely is. More important, did many marginalized workers decide they were worth more? Absolutely they did.

It is this realization of worth which makes up the brighter side, the part of this pandemic the working class and labor should embrace as a tool to create power. As we work to harness this power, there are challenges to overcome. Professional provocateurs of politics, big business and social media are trying to lead us down the path of blaming poor or marginalized people for the issue. We must stare that challenge in the face and realize we’ve been given an opportunity to regain the courage to be powerful and charge toward the path of correcting income inequality. Riding this wave, we can overcome the setbacks created by policy set since the 1980s or change legislation and Supreme Court verdicts which have harmed the working class. We can make the decision to be civically engaged again, to fulfill our obligation as citizens so that lobbyists and campaign millions no longer dictate our path to success. It will take hard work, but it is possible. If only we would open our eyes, we could see there are already pockets of success.

This success is not only national: just look around the Lansing area to see what is possible. Many local worksites are offering bonuses, adjusting pay or modifying collective bargaining agreements to improve workers’ positions. Workers are finally using supply and demand to their benefit. We are realizing the power behind our own words, “But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” As employers are being pushed closer to a day of reckoning, we cannot fall into the trap of fallacies which blame and shun workers for wanting what they deserve. This is our time, and while the concept of spring-boarding from a devastating pandemic for the greater good of labor can be unsavory to some, we cannot allow this opportunity to pass us by. 

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