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Unions Hit Hard During COVID-19 Crisis; Are Green Jobs the Answer?

April 22, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than two-thirds of construction workers in two major New York building-trades unions are out of work because of the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic, officials said Apr. 21.

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District Council 9 painters are just one group of trade unionists struggling with high unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic.

About three-fourths of District Council 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades’ 11,000 members are unemployed, political director Davon Lomax said this week.

In International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, about 65% of the members of its construction division are out of work, business representative Chris Erikson Jr. reports.

DC 9’s bridge painters have been declared essential workers with crews split to enable people to work farther apart. Three members, however, have died from the virus, all painters for the New York City Housing Authority, according to Lomax.

Local 3 has lost seven members to the epidemic, with dozens more hospitalized, Erikson said. The union guarantees nine months of medical coverage for members who are out of work, which could cause it serious financial problems if the epidemic and shutdown of jobs continue for substantially longer. Hundreds of members have gotten work building temporary hospitals, however.

Both Lomax and Erikson were speaking on an online forum organized by the Climate Works for All coalition to promote its “Green Stimulus” plan.

“This is a moment to be taking action to build an economy that works for all,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell of ALIGN, one of the coalition’s members. The goal, she added, is to “create hundreds of good union jobs as quickly as possible” and to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The coalition says its three main principles are to “support businesses and cooperatives owned by women and people of color,” “support the right to organize among non-organized workers in the climate economy,” and “require all public infrastructure projects to be developed with project labor agreements that mandate union jobs, prevailing wage, benefits, local hire mandates, and robust health and safety protections.”

Its specific proposals include continuing work on retrofitting and installing solar power on public buildings currently unoccupied because of the crisis; a municipal green bonds program to raise capital for publicly owned, local renewable energy generation and transmission; earmarking a percentage of the city’s budget to fund energy efficiency and other improvements in affordable and NYCHA housing; and using the city’s industrial zones and waterfronts to manufacture goods and parts for renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects.

Summer Sandoval, energy democracy coordinator of UPROSE in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, which has been fighting the gentrification of the neighborhood’s industrial waterfront, suggests using those areas to manufacture ventilators and masks that have been in short supply during the epidemic.

However, there was little discussion of these and other Green New Deal-style initiatives. The forum focused mainly on immediate needs and injustices, such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration requiring the city to pay 25% of the cost of its actions here, or Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration suggesting that the city could meet a $7.5 billion financial shortfall by cutting its programs for composting and summer youth employment. City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn) said he felt like he was “fighting to keep things we’ve already won.” 

Sean Petty, a New York State Nurses Association member at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, said the city hospital system has been overwhelmed, with an insufficient supply of N95 masks, three-fourths of nurses exposed to the virus, adult patients being diverted to pediatric emergency rooms, and “an incredible amount of death.” 

Carwasheros said they’d been laid off from their jobs with no health care or pay for workers who were sick. “We need protections we don’t have now,” said Patricio Santiago.

Erikson said he hoped the labor movement and the community could use the political momentum created by the crisis to make sure “workers aren’t taken advantage of.”

April 22, 2020

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