Should essential workers strike during the coronavirus pandemic?
- Employee strikes happen against employers within the context of labor unions that help workers unite to negotiate with employers over wages, hours, benefits, and other working conditions.
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2010-2019, there were 154 work stoppages, and in 2019 alone, 25 major work stoppages occurred.
- The median wage for essential workers during the beginning of the pandemic was $18 per hour, while nonessential workers received $20.
- In March 2020, the US unemployment level was 4.4 percent, up from the lowest unemployment rate in over 50 years - 3.5 percent as recorded in September 2019.
- The Pullman Strike of 1894 resulted in a military clash that left 30 people dead and cost $80 million in damages. President Grover Cleveland created the US national holiday Labor Day in a gesture of peace.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) offers this broad definition of an essential worker: 'An employee that performs work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.' Even during major national crises, essential workers must possess and be permitted to exercise the right to strike over critical issues such as employee safety, reliable protective gear, long work hours, forced overtime, and inadequate pay.
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. 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.
It's a new world with a new normal we suddenly have to 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.
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. 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 difficulty replacing them. This would cause much harm.
Ethics aside, a strike is only in the best interest of some essential employees and not all. If medical professionals strike during a national medical emergency, this violates the oath they took and might lead to discipline for gross negligence. Other essential workers are unskilled or entry-level. With unemployment at an all-time high, if an employer is able to replace strikers, they will be able to do so in this economy. The National Labor Relations Act does not protect some essential workers during a strike, such as agricultural workers and government employees. 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.