In July, Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 cases doubled from the previous month, bringing the state’s total number of cases to more than 100,000. While almost half a million Pennsylvanians are still unemployed due to the coronavirus crisis, thousands of people have gone back to their physical workplaces after furloughs or remote work.
One of these groups was the professionals of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, who were called back to the museums when they reopened to the public on June 29. On the same day, the museums’ more than 500 employees announced they were unionizing with the United Steelworkers to gain a greater say in their workplaces.
The employees’ effort to unionize the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh began before the COVID-19 pandemic. But their management’s response to the pandemic further emphasized the need for a union. In early March, a large number of staff were furloughed and work was redistributed without employee input, and when decisions were made around the museums’ recent reopenings, employees were again left out of the loop.
A key benefit of forming a union is the legally protected say employees have. Employers are legally required to negotiate with union employees on pay, benefits, and working conditions. During this pandemic, I’ve heard from many professionals concerned about furloughs, layoffs, and having to choose between their safety and economic livelihood. I continue to encourage these and all professionals to talk to their coworkers about forming a union to gain a voice in workplace decisions, including those around the pandemic.
Over six million professionals are already union members, including teachers, engineers, programmers, journalists, nonprofit staff, lawyers, nurses, and doctors. In these difficult times, union professionals have used their legally protected voice to push for flexible work-from-home policies free from intrusive employer surveillance, and allow for work-life balance by requiring employees to check company email or Slack only during core work hours.
Union professionals have also helped shape workplace health and safety measures and collaborated with employers to avoid layoffs when dealing with the economic consequences of the pandemic. For example, professionals have negotiated with their employers for work-share agreements and salary cuts in lieu of layoffs, maintaining employee positions and health insurance while protecting the economic viability of their workplace.
Of course, millions of people in essential jobs have been required to work during this pandemic. Professionals like doctors, nurses, and other health-care providers have struggled with a lack of medical-grade PPE and other causes of unsafe working conditions. It took corporations weeks before grocery clerks, pharmacists, and other retail workers who interact with the public on a daily basis were provided any type of face mask or shield. And even the federal government took weeks to provide airport security screeners and other workers protective equipment. Unions have used their power to advocate for stronger safety standards for essential workers, increased PPE production capacity, hazard pay, and an expanded safety net for the unemployed.
Pre-pandemic, many professionals wanted to form unions. Now even more need unions to have a say in their workplace. I know that many professionals do not know where to start when it comes to forming a union. Here are two important first steps: First, talk with some of your coworkers and start identifying your shared priorities and reasons for wanting to organize a union. Second, reach out to a union at the national or local level to connect with an organizer who can walk you through every step of the process. Professionals who don’t know which union to connect with can contact my staff at the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE) for more information.
Professionals felt squeezed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but as it rages on, dealing with the lasting effects of the virus has become a top priority. If the economy is going to recover quickly, plans for reopening businesses in Pennsylvania and across the country need to listen to the recommendations of employees to protect everyone’s health.
By organizing new unions, professionals can gain the power to sit across the table from their managers and negotiate for policies that are truly in employees’ best interests.
Jennifer Dorning is president of the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, a coalition of 24 unions representing more than four million professional and technical union members.