Safety and health are at the core of a union’s role, and this pandemic is no exception. Sweatshop fires, mine explosions, limb crushing machinery and aircraft accidents have long driven union organizing. A paycheck is meaningless if you die at work.
Functionally, official union support or opposition to covid-19 vaccine mandates is academic. U.S. courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have made it clear that employers can require vaccination as a condition of employment with or without a union’s approval.
Even so, unions as different as the National Education Association, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers have publicly endorsed vaccine mandates, grounding their approval in the mission to promote a safe workplace and the solidarity required to end the pandemic.
Now that the Food and Drug Administration has announced full approval of the first coronavirus vaccine and President Biden is using Occupational Safety and Health Administration authority to enforce such mandates, the key issue is how to use the power of our contracts and bargaining rights to ensure consistent, transparent and non-discriminatory standards for implementation.
The different approaches aviation companies have taken to coronavirus vaccination are perfect illustrations of just how important implementation can be — and just how much difference unions can make. At United Airlines, the work of unions to promote information about the vaccines coupled with negotiated incentives and other supportive policies led to vaccination rates of more than 80 percent of flight attendants and 90 percent of pilots before the company-wide vaccine mandate was announced.
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines, notorious for opposing workers’ rights to join a union, unilaterally announced that unvaccinated workers would have to pay a $200 monthly surcharge for their health insurance and submit to weekly testing without exceptions. This punitive approach would never happen with a union contract. And by implementing it, Delta perpetuates the lie that public safety is a personal choice — if you can afford it, that is.
Everyone has suffered from this pandemic, but generally workers with unions were able to stay safer on the job, and get paid for the risks they were assuming. Health-care worker unions obtained PPE during shortages. Grocery worker unions secured hazard pay for their employees. And aviation unions locked in federal relief for frontline job security and continued paychecks.
Companies and whole industries with unions that fought for safety and economic protections also were better prepared to recover and to implement vaccine mandates. While United Airlines announced a company-wide vaccine mandate with the vast majority of workers in unions, corporations that have fought to keep unions out like McDonald’s, Citigroup and Walmart have only implemented partial mandates.
Rather than acting as an obstacle, unions can help implement vaccine mandates because they can identify and resolve worker concerns about these programs through the bargaining process.
Long before employers began mandating vaccination, unions from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters were working to secure vaccines for our members and engage workers in honest conversations about the realities of this pandemic. We petitioned governors for priority vaccine access, worked with airlines and airports to set up vaccine clinics at airports, and called on world leaders to remove all roadblocks to production and distribution of the vaccine around the world. Vaccination is an individual action, but unions also send the message that those individual actions are a necessary part of a global mobilization to end the pandemic.
While politics and weaponized disinformation have made this vaccine a controversy, it’s worth reiterating that vaccine mandates are nothing new. They’ve been mandated for the military since George Washington required smallpox vaccines during the Revolutionary War. Vaccines are required for health-care workers, teachers, most first responders and many others — including flight attendants who fly international routes. Nearly all schools require vaccinations for students to enroll.
The flight attendants I represent are no different from the majority of Americans. We’ve lost friends, family and coworkers. We’ve faced the destruction of our jobs. Covid-19 is the threat. There are proven strategies to mitigate that threat. As union members and union leaders, we’re ready to implement them.