Honoring our Essential Workers After International Workers’ Day

By: John Marsella, Senior Staff Attorney

In another week filled with news of the global pandemic, it would have been easy to overlook May 1 as just another day in quarantine. However, stopping to recognize the significance of International Workers’ Day is as important during the COVID-19 outbreak as it has ever been.

The celebration of the working classes dates to May of 1886, when members of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions gathered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to strike and demand an eight-hour workday.

The event began as a peaceful rally, but it ended with violence. A bomb killed several police officers and civilians. Labor activists, immigrants and union sympathizers were arrested and interrogated. The ensuing trial was widely considered a sham, and seven individuals were convicted and sentenced to death.

The hysteria surrounding the event and government-backed repression invigorated people who sought to advance workplace justice. The Haymarket Riot inspired the creation of International Workers’ Day, a day for laborers to band together and seek better working conditions.

Now, the employment landscape in the United States is vastly different. Even so, the COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted many ways workers remain vulnerable.

Employees whose working conditions, pay and benefits leave them feeling overworked and undervalued have suddenly been recognized as essential. Medical professionals, transportation workers, agricultural laborers, grocery store employees and many others are risking their lives to help us survive this pandemic.

Farmworkers have stood together to ask lawmakers and farm owners to limit their COVID-19 risk. Standing with them, the Worker Justice Center of New York has called on the state government to ensure free testing, prevent predatory price-gouging, remove barriers to accessing benefits, respond to local outbreaks and develop a coordinated plan to support farmworkers.

WJCNY and other organizations like the Workers Center of Central New York, the Cornell Farmworker Program and Finger Lakes Community Health continue to support farmworkers. Despite these efforts, we have seen numerous COVID-19 cases among farm laborers across Central and Upstate New York.  

Elsewhere in the agricultural industry, in South Dakota, a meat processing facility closed after a COVID-19 outbreak infected more than 700 employees. And in Iowa, a pork processing plant was linked to more than 180 infections.

Working in close quarters puts food processing workers at a greater risk for contracting COVID-19. At the same time, President Trump signed an executive order to use the Defense Production Act to compel meat processing plants to stay open. This order is expected to shield producers from liability while unnecessarily forcing low-wage workers to carry the burden and risk of working in dangerous conditions.

On International Workers’ Day, the American Association of Meat Processors called on processors to implement these safety practices: provide workers with personal protective equipment; ensure proper spacing in work and break areas; stagger work stations and split shifts to reduce the number of workers in facilities; and increase sanitation frequency.

Perhaps no workers have been hit as hard as those in healthcare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that healthcare personnel account for as much as 19 percent of COVID-19 cases. So, for International Workers’ Day this year, workers, advocates and unions were busy pleading for safe working conditions.

On May 1, 450 registered nurses and members of the University of Chicago Labor Council protested the school’s unfair labor practices. Their demands included no reduction in pay or benefits; sick leave for workers to self-quarantine; and paid training and competencies for nurses and other workers redeployed into high need areas.

New safety issues are impacting all essential industries. On May 1, workers across the U.S. coordinated strikes, walk-outs and sick-outs at major employers such as Walmart, Target, Amazon and FedEx. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union asked for increased worker testing, priority access to personal protective equipment, halting line speed waivers, mandating social distancing and isolating workers with symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.

Despite the sacrifice and willingness of essential workers to provide critical services for our communities, their needs are being ignored. Their humble demands are a call for action. They are begging for increased access to personal protective equipment, safer working conditions and better benefits. Workers who are essential to our nation’s livelihood and wellbeing are asking to be treated with dignity and respect. It is time for us to listen.