Should essential workers strike during the coronavirus pandemic?


Fact Box

  • One definition of the word ‘strike’ (n) is “a concerted stopping of work or withdrawal of workers' services, as to compel an employer to accede to workers' demands or in protest against terms or conditions imposed by an employer” [1].
  • Employee strikes happen against employers and within the context of ‘labor unions’, which are often industry-specific organizations “that [represent] the collective interests of employees. Labor unions help workers unite to negotiate with employers over wages, hours, benefits, and other working conditions” [2].
  • The Pullman (railroad workers) strike of 1894 resulted in a military clash that left 30 people dead and cost $80 million in damages. But this led to the creation of the U.S national holiday: Labor Day [3].
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2010-2019, there were 154 work stoppages (strikes), and in 2019 alone, 25 major work stoppages occurred, which involved 1,000+ workers and lasted through one shift at least [4].
  • The U.S. unemployment level, as of March 2020, is 4.4 percent, up from the lowest unemployment rate in over 50 years - 3.5 percent as recorded in September 2019 [5,6]. 
  • The household survey finds that the unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent in September, marking the 19th consecutive month at or below 4 percent unemployment. The unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since May 1969—over 50 years ago.

Noah (Yes)

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) offers this wide definition of an essential worker: 'An employee that performs work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property' [1].

Even during major national crises, essential workers need to have the right to strike over critical issues such as employee safety, reliable protective gear, long work hours, forced overtime, and inadequate pay [2].

When working conditions are made intolerable or unsafe, strikes are an effective tool to balance out the situation so that frontline employees don't suffer. And the right to strike by essential workers, (who are not public employees), is guaranteed and protected by law [3]. Especially during the current crisis, not only are millions of people suddenly jobless with no safety net but workers deemed 'essential' are being asked to put their lives on the line by their employers for the bare minimum in return [4].

It's a new world with a new normal we are having to suddenly navigate as a society. We will have to become accustomed to strikes now, and not just from essential workers. Once the worst effects of the pandemic have worn away, we will see how financial and emotional pressure across the country will have affected ordinary Americans. From rent strikes to employee strikes, most of the picketing is yet to come [5].

Veronica (No)

Many workers are dealing with reduced hours, furloughs, or layoffs. Some have been deemed “essential” to the survival of our society, and they continue to work. Namely, these include medical professionals, law enforcement, and food and agriculture workers [1]. Assuming the call for a strike is to demand hazard pay or some other reason outside of workers’ physical safety, the answer to the question is a resounding “no.” They should not go on strike. 

There is certainly an obvious ethical obligation that should prevent these workers from striking. They would, by definition, endanger the public by going on strike. Some of these are highly skilled workers so employers would have a difficult time replacing them. This would cause much harm.

Ethics aside, a strike is not in the best interest of many essential employees. If medical professionals strike during a national medical emergency, this violates the oath they took and might lead to discipline for Gross Negligence [2]. Other essential workers are unskilled or entry-level. With unemployment at an all-time high [3], if the employer is able to replace strikers, they will not struggle to do so in this economy. Some essential workers are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act in the event of a strike, such as agricultural workers and government employees [4]. Any of these who would go on strike during this pandemic would not be protected by the NLRA and would, therefore, risk professional discipline or financial loss. Evidently, it is not in anyone’s best interest for essential workers to strike.

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