August 3, 2021
Meyerson on TAP
Unions and Vaccines, Part Two
OK, New Yorkers; let’s see if we can get this straight: Beginning in September (a deadline that enables more Gothamites to comply), people working in or patronizing restaurants, bars, gyms, and performance venues will be required to show proof of vaccination. That will not be the case in hospitals, however, either for patients (an understandable exception) or unionized workers (which is not so understandable).

The current position of various health-care worker unions is “Vaccines, Yes; Mandates, No!” If you think I’m oversimplifying, this was actually a chant at an anti-vaccination-mandate rally staged last week by Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union outside Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where a number of its members are employed.

The hospital had announced it would require workers there to be vaccinated. The union rejected the hospital’s position vociferously, although it not only acknowledged that the vaccines were life savers but had long been endeavoring to convince its members to get it. This posting on the union’s website is just one of many messages, conveyed through many social and other media channels, with which 1199 has sought to persuade its members to get the vaccine. And, for whatever it’s worth in this context, 1199 can generally claim to be the most consistently progressive of the nation’s (not just SEIU’s) largest local unions. (It was the only major union to back progressive Maya Wiley in New York’s recent Democratic mayoral primary.)

The yes-and-no stance of 1199 is by no means peculiar to the local. Here’s the statement, which I quote in its entirety, of AFSCME President Lee Saunders about how essential it is to be vaccinated, how essential it is that such workplace requirements be negotiated between management and unions, and, by tacit inference, how those negotiations may allow union members to skip vaccination:

The Delta variant has brought a new sense of urgency to crushing this pandemic, making vaccination more essential than ever. As employers establish vaccination policies, AFSCME will address the impact on workers through bargaining to ensure that the front-line heroes of this pandemic are treated fairly.

By no means are all healthcare unions opposed to vaccination mandates. The National Nurses Union has declined to condemn them. Unions with considerable numbers of non-professional medical personnel who work in hospitals, however, appear more likely to represent workers who fear the vaccines, whether because of a mistrust of their employers, a suspicion of or lack of knowledge about scientific empiricism, a fear derived from the medical profession’s long history of mistreatment of minorities, a susceptibility to social media horseshit, or some combination of the above.

That such requirements should require some negotiation between employer and union makes sense, as the conditions for employment, suspension, and termination should rightly not be a matter of management prerogative solely. That said, I know of no union that has opposed the requirement that school children and others be vaccinated against smallpox and polio, and this is a hell of a time for unions to start accommodating the anti-vaxxers. If union members have some obscure pre-existing condition that turns a COVID vaccine into a health risk, then exempting those members from a requirement is an eminently reasonable union demand in negotiations. To demand an exemption for anti-vaxxers and the merely fearful, however, is to condemn some of their own members to sickness and a heightened possibility of death—and to condemn people those members come into contact with to the same risks.

During a pandemic that spreads from human proximity, as I noted last week, an injury to one is an injury to all. That’s a labor movement credo that unions would do well to follow.

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