How Labor Unions Are Prioritizing Member Well-Being in a Post-Pandemic World

When Ros Reggans heard her employer, a nursing home chain based in the Chicago area, had been granted more than $12 million in COVID-19 relief funds under the 2020 CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), she felt a wave of relief. Conditions for Reggans—a certified nursing assistant—and her staff had been abysmal as the coronavirus tore through the nursing home. She assumed her employer would be using the funds toward providing personal protective equipment (PPE), covering paid sick leave, and higher wages; but that was not the case.

“Our patients were dying, our co-workers were dying, and [they’re telling me] there’s no support for our work . . . That didn’t feel right to me,” Reggans said in an article published by Policy Commons. In response, she organized her co-workers to go on strike. For more than a week, a determined group of 700 individuals, including nurses, certified nursing assistants, dietary workers, and other support staff, braved inclement weather and an unyielding employer as they picketed. Reggans, a union steward for the Service Employees International Union, saw the strike as the most effective way to advocate for what the staff and patients needed.

Their efforts paid off–eventually, they were granted higher pay, better access to PPE, and bonus COVID-19 pay. The additional compensation also allowed many of the workers to stop having to pick up extra shifts at other area nursing homes to make ends meet—a financial necessity that unavoidably perpetuated the spread of the virus amongst locations.

Reggans and her union were not the only ones to demand better treatment during the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the widespread unionization of healthcare workers during the pandemic gave rise to a U.S. labor union spike that continues to make significant strides today. High-profile union victories, the “Great Resignation” giving workers a rare upper hand, and more accessible standards have contributed to one of the most significant national labor movements in the U.S. in decades.

The galvanizing power of crisis

The pandemic threw an unflinching light on the many inconsistencies in the benefits and rights of America’s workforce. Although the momentum caused by COVID-19 may wane in the coming years, the renewed sense of empowerment found in collective action will remain. “[The] daily drumbeat of seeing workers win when they’re trying to organize, that’s not going to be quickly unlearned,” says Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, in an interview with CNN.

Here are several ways labor unions commit to prioritizing member well-being in a post-pandemic world.

Safe and supportive work environments

The pandemic exposed the urgent need for safer work environments, especially for essential workers who risked their lives on the front lines. Labor unions have been instrumental in demanding and securing comprehensive safety measures for their members. In the post-pandemic world, unions continue to advocate for proper safety protocols, personal protective equipment, and efforts to reduce workplace risks. For example, many Amazon employees are fighting for better wages and safer working environments. Although victory is uncertain in these efforts, such moves against a corporate behemoth of Amazon’s size reveal a renewed sense of collective agency amongst workers.

Furthermore, labor unions play a pivotal role in addressing workplace harassment and discrimination, ensuring members can work in an environment free from hostility or prejudice. By negotiating strong anti-discrimination policies and establishing grievance procedures, unions are creating safer and more inclusive workplaces.

Fair wages and benefits

Fair wages are at the heart of labor unions’ missions. The pandemic exacerbated income inequality, and unions have been steadfast in fighting for fair compensation for members. To that end, more than 320,000 workers have taken part in at least 230 strikes this year. Some unions have obtained better wages just by the threat of strike, most notably UPS.

Additionally, unions have advocated for improved benefits, including paid sick leave, parental leave, and affordable healthcare coverage. These benefits are essential for member well-being and have gained particular significance in a post-pandemic world, where health and family have become top priorities.

Comprehensive healthcare

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of healthcare access for all. Labor unions have been at the forefront of securing healthcare benefits for their members. In the post-pandemic era, they are continuing to fight for expanded healthcare coverage, both to address immediate health concerns and to protect against future crises. Many physicians are now involved in unionizing to improve doctor well-being and patient care, having seen the deterioration in both categories due to an uptick in healthcare mergers and acquisitions due to post-pandemic economic pressures in the industry.

Moreover, unions have been instrumental in mental health advocacy, recognizing the toll the pandemic has taken on workers’ mental well-being. Access to mental health services and support is a priority for labor unions, helping members cope with the psychological impacts of the pandemic.

The passion unions have for providing workers with access to affordable comprehensive healthcare is a huge part of why MagnaCare exists today. More than 25 years ago, Dr. Anthony Bacchi, who served as the Medical Director for the New York Hotel Trades Council and the Association of New York City Health Centers, Inc., became concerned about the high costs that labor unions were incurring for laboratory and radiology services. In his determination to create a cost-effective solution to address the unmet provider network requirements of the labor community, Dr. Bacchi established MagnaCare in 1992, and we’ve been going strong ever since in our efforts to work with and for unions in the fight for the best treatment at the best price.

Job security

The economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has made job security a significant concern for workers. Labor unions have tirelessly worked to protect their members from job losses and unfair layoffs. They negotiate strong job security provisions in their contracts, ensuring that members are not left vulnerable to sudden economic shifts.

Furthermore, labor unions have been active in retraining and reskilling programs to help workers adapt to the changing job landscape in a post-pandemic world. This proactive approach to job security is crucial for members’ well-being and ability to navigate the new employment landscape.

Stronger for it: unions look to a robust future post pandemic

Without a doubt, the pandemic created a groundswell of interest and activity in labor unions among the American public and workers themselves. Now more than ever, labor unions are at the forefront of prioritizing member well-being in a post-pandemic world. From creating safer and more inclusive work environments to securing fair wages, comprehensive healthcare, and ensuring job security, unions are working tirelessly to ensure their members can thrive in an evolving employment landscape. Their commitment to worker rights and their vital role in advocating for fair labor laws make them indispensable partners in shaping a brighter future for workers across the globe, during times of crisis and otherwise — and we’re here to support their efforts in any way that we can.