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Fighting for the essential worker on Labor Day | COMMENTARY

Meat and poultry workers who helped provide meat for our cookouts this Labor Day are essential workers taken for granted during the COVID-19 pandemic, union officials say.
Meat and poultry workers who helped provide meat for our cookouts this Labor Day are essential workers taken for granted during the COVID-19 pandemic, union officials say. (alle12/E+ via Getty Images)

This Labor Day family and friends will gather — hopefully while practicing social distancing and wearing masks. We hope that as they celebrate, they take a moment to reflect on the workers who helped put their barbecued meat on their tables. Because, to be brutally frank, there are workers who died to make that happen.

In the private sector we have seen poultry and seafood workers on our Eastern Shore left unprotected by their companies. Because of the failure of employers to keep their employees safe from the novel coronavirus, needless illness and loss of life has happened.

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There is a long history of private sector employers putting profits and greed ahead of their workforce. It’s why the labor movement was born, to push back on the worst elements of a profit-driven economy. But it’s not just craven corporations putting people’s health and safety at risk. Federal, state and local governments have their share of “leaders” that put personal interest ahead of the workforce they were elected to lead — which in turn puts the very people they were elected to serve at risk. Maryland unfortunately is a prime example.

At the outset of COVID-19 the AFSCME union had to fight tooth and nail for proper personal protective equipment, or PPE, for our front line personnel. To this day, in some of the state’s congregant care facilities, we still have “one-use” surgical masks having to be used over and over, even though the true health and safety standard is an N95 mask. Workers are forced to use “one-use” gowns that are ill-fitting and distributed for daily use, then put in a bag to be used the next day. We have won limited testing at some facilities, but it still falls short of our demands. Instead of mandating common-sense safety standards from the outset of the pandemic (masking, uniform PPE, screening standards, regular testing, etc.), Gov. Larry Hogan has largely left responsibility to county executives and the mayor of Baltimore City.

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At the University System of Maryland, where Governor Hogan appointed members of the governing Board of Regents, there is an ongoing struggle for health and safety. Since the pandemic began, our members have been fighting to increase telework and minimize the number of staff on campus, as well as demand mandatory COVID-19 testing. But the university system and its campuses continue to play the game of “not my job.” In the meantime, students returning to school are testing positive for COVID-19, making our campus communities hot spots.

The common denominator to this? The leadership — or lack thereof — of Governor Hogan. He bought incomplete tests from South Korea for higher than the market price, and then had to turn some in — with additional money — to “upgrade” the tests. He’s let his agency secretaries take the lead in addressing the pandemic, leading to an unemployment claims crisis, a SNAP (food assistance) crisis, and a nursing home crisis.

Maryland has had well over 100,000 identified COVID-19 cases, while whole countries of similar size: El Salvador, Denmark, Slovakia, and Ireland have significantly fewer cases and deaths. And while his administration moves to harm state workers with pay cuts, health insurance premium increases and a general “work harder with less” philosophy, he hires his former campaign manager to a salary of more than $150,000 to work at the Maryland Department of Budget and Management. His now-former chief of staff thought it perfectly reasonable to accept a “severance package” of more than $230,000 as a result of leaving a job at an independent state agency to work for the governor. (In our view, that is essentially leaving one state job for another).

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the definition of “essential front line worker” and the obvious ongoing need for a strong labor movement to protect and support those essential workers. What has also been laid bare is the failed response to this pandemic by the Hogan administration. Their actions have crystallized the importance of our union movement and should force people to ask, “which side are you on?”

Patrick Moran (pmoran@afscmemd.org) is president of the AFSCME Council 3 union.

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