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Fred Kowal: Unions Made A Difference During The Pandemic

We’re a year into the coronavirus pandemic and things are looking up at last.

People are getting their COVID-19 vaccines at record rates, and there’s plenty of vaccine to go around. Appointments are far easier to get, and vaccine eligibilities have loosened and widened. And thankfully, COVID-19-related deaths have slowed significantly in New York and nationwide.

Fans are in the stands for baseball. That just about says it all.

But think back to a year ago, to March 2020. Within a span of a few days, society shut down. Businesses and schools were closed. SUNY campuses closed. Our students were sent home as our members worked feverously to set up remote learning networks.

In New York City, an early pandemic epicenter, the coronavirus spread like wildfire. Hospitals, including our SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, were quickly overrun by COVID-19 patients. SUNY public teaching hospitals in Stony Brook and Syracuse also saw their share of COVID patients.

Suddenly, thousands of our members found themselves on the frontlines of a horrific pandemic. Our health care workers, the first line of defense, faced a killer virus without a cure and rampant shortages of surgical masks and gear to protect them from the virus.

But as UUP members, they were never on their own. We always had their backs and we fought to ensure their safety—on the job or by allowing those who could—to work from home.

That’s what unions do—and that’s why unions are more important than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has made that very clear.

With our hospitals running short on protective supplies, UUP sent thousands of N95 masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to our members. In May, we sent 100,000 surgical gowns and 5,000 pairs of surgical gloves to SUNY Downstate and Stony Brook University Hospital. In January, we sent 25,000 gowns to Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, during the height of the second COVID-19 wave, which hit hard in Upstate New York.

We rented hotel rooms for health care employees who were pulling double and extra shifts, and sleeping in their cars between shifts because they didn’t want to risk bringing the virus home to their families.

Just days into the pandemic, UUP negotiated a telecommuting agreement with SUNY that allowed non-essential SUNY employees to work from home—drastically minimizing their chances of contracting the coronavirus.

When talk turned to reopening SUNY campuses, we demanded mandatory COVID-19 testing for everyone on campus, as well as mask-wearing and social distancing mandates. Working closely with SUNY, we got many of those mandates implemented.

And when vaccines became available, UUP was relentless in its push to get priority vaccines for all on-campus employees, not just classroom instructors, which were on the state’s priority vaccination list. Now, UUP is fighting for hazard pay for our frontline health care workers.

From Day 1 of the pandemic, our prime concern was keeping our members safe. That kind of dedication, shown by unions across the country, caused a surge of support for unions during the pandemic. And it didn’t go unnoticed by non-union workers.

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan think tank, reported in January that union workers had more job security during the pandemic than non-union workers. Why? According to the EPI, it’s because unionized workers have a voice, a contract and the ability to negotiate to protect members from losing their jobs.

Unfortunately, an attempt by Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama to unionize failed, beaten back by an aggressive campaign. But unions will learn from the defeat; already, unions are changing their organizing strategies so next time, the outcome will be different.

And we’ve got a pro-union president in the White House who’s got a plan to support and sustain unions. President Joe Biden’s PRO Act, which stands for Protecting the Right to Organize, would strengthen the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Unions more than proved their worth during the pandemic, which didn’t go unnoticed by non-union workers. Those workers aren’t just eyeing those protections and benefits, they are actively pursuing them by asking questions, getting answers and working to organize their fellow workers.

Things are looking up for unions. At last.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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