We need PPE now. And unions will help deliver it | Opinion

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By Rick Bloomingdale

People across Pennsylvania are seeing their everyday lives impacted and interrupted by our nation’s public health crisis. People have lost jobs. Holidays have been spent apart from family members. Trips and events have been canceled. A global pandemic throws a wrench into even the best laid plans.

The road to our 44th Convention, held last week, was a long journey across the commonwealth and into the cloud. When we began planning, we were excited to be seeing union members from across the state come together in Philadelphia. But that was not to be. In an act of solidarity with our Unite Here Local 154 sisters and brothers, we moved, across the Commonwealth to Pittsburgh, when a boycott of the hotel became necessary. That, too, was not meant to be.

Instead of being in the City of Brotherly Love or the Steel City, we are all across the Commonwealth. Most importantly, we persevered and came together for the commonwealth’s largest union meeting. We were in Erie, in Harrisburg, in Scranton, and everywhere in between.

Physical distancing is not about severing our social ties with our friends, family members, and coworkers. Our response to this crisis is to adapt and deepen our foundation of solidarity as a united union movement.

Why? Because in times of crisis we turn to one another. We turn toward solidarity.

We see the faults and failures in our system’s treatment of working people. No other period in modern history has the need for unions been more urgent.

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The lack of protective personal equipment, the lack of emergency workplace safety standards and the lack of paid sick leave are hallmarks of society that neglected workers’ rights for decades.

We see it every day in the treatment of essential workers. Essential, how? Because these women and men form the foundation of society.

Grocery store clerks, health care workers, food service and production workers, trash collectors, home health aides and public sector workers are among some of the lowest paid and most exploited workers in our economy.

April 28, 2020 will mark the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. On that day, how many health care workers, first responders, and essential workers will have been infected or died from COVID-19 exposure in the workplace?

The definition of solidarity is unity based on common interests. The right to safety on the job is a universal interest.  The right to protection in a public health crisis is a universal interest.

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It’s in the spirit of solidarity that building construction trades unions pulling together and donating personal protective equipment. Gloves, glasses, masks; thousands of pieces meant for workers on the medical frontlines, our brothers and sisters desperately in need.

We need PPE Now.

It is unions that are coming together to work with companies to retool to begin producing masks and the personal protective equipment that workers need to keep them safe, like the members of PA Joint Board Workers United at Majestic. Instead of making Major League Baseball uniforms, they are making masks and gowns.

We need PPE now.

The unions of the AFL-CIO will fight to ensure that workers with an elevated risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19 and other infectious agents are provided the appropriate personal protective equipment. We need PPE now.

This is the time to put the values of unionism into action. And unions are coming together to protect our members and all workers in this unprecedented crisis. Unions like UFCW Local 1776 KS which bought and distributed 25,000 face shields to workers on the frontlines of this pandemic.

Workers are demanding protection and safety, like the trash collectors in Pittsburgh who walked off the job for a day, because they did not have the equipment they need to protect themselves.

It is your right to safe working conditions. Access to health care and testing is workplace safety. Paid sick leave is a matter of workplace safety and health. And, access to personal protective equipment is a workers’ rights issue.

What is our response? Everyday solidarity: Pick up the phone. Send an email. Post on social media with #PPENow. Sew masks. Tell anyone and everyone you can that frontline workers need PPE, and they need it now.

Fighting for worker safety is an act of solidarity at its heart. It is our responsibility to act. No one knows what this month and the next two years are going to bring. But we know that we must act now, we demand personal protective equipment for all frontline workers. We demand safety and health on the job come before special interests and political rhetoric.

When the working class mobilized in World War Two, they retooled manufacturing facilities and changed our industrial landscape to fight a war to preserve our ideals. They were the backbone of our national security in a time of war. The role of the working class is no different in the challenge we face today; it is always workers on the front lines. And it is always solidarity that brings us through.

Rick Bloomingdale is the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.