As the country moves toward “reopening,” we face a critical pair of questions. The first is how businesses can begin operating again while ensuring the safety of the millions of workers who will return to their jobs. It is clear that we cannot rely on the Trump administration to accomplish this crucial task – after all, this Administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has failed even to issue a standard for dealing with infectious diseases and is quite literally abandoning workers to the ravages of the virus. The second question, related to the first, is how to ensure that the economy that we reopen is more equitable than the one we shut down.
In our view, the right answer to both questions is worker power. In the immediate term, we need to empower working people to identify the safety and health problems they confront at work, and to demand that their employers take the necessary steps to ensure safe and healthy workplaces. In the longer term, we need to empower workers to insist upon a more equitable share of income and wealth in the economy that we rebuild after the public health crisis passes. Both of these moves will require bold action from Congress or state governments.
The Essential Workers Bill of Rights proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) constitutes a step in the right direction. Indeed, at the heart of the Warren-Khanna Bill of Rights is a recognition that the reordering of our economy won’t happen without increasing worker power. And it recognizes that this kind of power building should start with the most urgent context—with front-line workers facing exposure to COVID-19. Thus, the bill not only requires employers to provide the protective gear their workers need and demands that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration do its job, it also calls on the government to “treat workers as experts,” giving them seat at the table during our response to COVID.
But more is needed. In a recent report from the Roosevelt Institute and Clean Slate for Worker Power, we chart a course that will guarantee workers a meaningful role both in the current health crisis and in the economic rebuilding that will follow. These are critical steps toward building worker power now and for the long-term reorientation of our economy
It is workers who are essential to our response and recovery, and we recommend that Congress guarantee workers a voice in three ways, each of which draws lessons from other countries’ successes. First, the United States needs to establish a means for business leaders and worker representatives from the same sector to meet, exchange information, and develop standards, rules and protocols that make sense for that sector as a whole. Such a sectoral approach responds to the fact that workplace safety and health risks and economic challenges are often similar across businesses in the same industry: for example, grocery stores across the country face many common challenges and need common solutions. The same is true of warehouse, meatpacking, hospital, and other industries. A sectoral approach also alleviates the costs that individual businesses would bear to develop rules and protocols or raise wages on their own.
Such sectoral collaboration is ubiquitous in Europe and helps explain why many European countries are so far ahead of us in addressing the pandemic’s hardships. In Spain, to take one example, the metal sector – which includes industries ranging from automobile manufacturing, to waste management, to HVAC production – has already bargained a sector-wide agreement aimed at facilitating safe operations by specifying, among other things, that employers will provide workers with personal protective equipment (PPE), disinfect surfaces and shared spaces every day, take the temperature of all employees each day before anyone enters a workplace, and stagger start times and shifts to minimize overcrowding. Similar agreements have been bargained across sectors in multiple European countries.
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