By TERRI GERSTEIN
A few years ago, a part-time, minimum-wage worker at an upstate New York McDonald’s suspected a gas leak. When he alerted his supervisors, they told him to ignore it or he’d be fired. Instead, he called the fire department, and two things happened. Fire fighters found the leak and shut the restaurant for the rest of the day. And the worker was fired.
I enforced workplace laws in New York State for the better part of two decades, and this case stands out to me, because it so clearly exemplifies why all of us should care about workers’ rights. When people have bad working conditions and no voice on the job, it’s obviously bad for them.
But the impact of rotten jobs — those with low pay, long hours, bad treatment, or no worker voice — radiates far beyond the workers themselves. Other people’s rotten jobs affect our collective health, safety and well-being.
This powerful connection between work life and broader public welfare has been undeniable in the pandemic, as workplace clusters of employees with the coronavirus have often led to community spread. Many meatpacking employees, for instance, were required to work close together without adequate protection. The result? They brought the highly contagious virus home to their family, neighborhood and community.
INCREASED WAGES WORK
A study published this year found, on the other hand, that increased minimum wages reduced inspection violations, adverse health conditions, and mortality among nursing home residents, by decreasing turnover and improving continuity of care.
And during the pandemic, researchers found that unionized nursing homes had lower COVID-19 mortality rates than those without unions.
Researchers have found interesting connections between poor working conditions and seemingly unrelated social problems. For example, most people don’t think of the opioids crisis as a labor-related issue, but research has shown a connection between occupations with high workplace injury rates, like construction, and opioid overdose fatalities. (People get injured on the job; lacking sick days, they take opioids so they can work through the pain.)
UNIONIZATION BENEFITS EVERYONE
At the same time, improved working conditions are correlated with a number of seemingly unrelated social benefits, from a reduction in the incidence of low-birth weight babies to a decrease in suicide rates. Unionization has been shown to increase civic participation, reduce the racial wealth gap and lessen racial resentment among white workers.
And when unionized workers fight for better conditions, the improvements often contribute to the benefit of all of us.
Decades ago, the Association of Flight Attendants fought to ban smoking on airplanes. We all breathe easier because of that battle. More recently, teacher strikes and protests in a number of states in 2018 achieved not only higher salaries, but also increased education funding. Taking an approach called bargaining for the common good, teachers sought solutions that benefited not only themselves, but also students and the entire community.
Unionized workers fared much better during the pandemic. Unions helped ensure that workers had the protective equipment they needed, paid sick days and more. And now, with vaccination as our national challenge, too many workers worry about not having paid sick days to get the vaccine or deal with side effects; those with adequate paid sick days or dedicated vaccination leave don’t face these barriers.
We should care about workers’ rights as a matter of social justice and basic humanity.
These powerful and varied ripple effects suggest that everyone — not just low-wage workers or union activists — has skin in the game when we talk about raising the minimum wage or passing paid sick leave laws or making it easier for people to join a union.
UNIONS BENEFIT ALL
When new laws are considered, Labor shouldn’t be seen as one more special interest group. It benefits all of us if the people doing essential work throughout our economy have good jobs, a collective voice and dignified treatment at work.
(Terri Gerstein is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and the Economic Policy Institute. She spent more than 17 years enforcing Labor laws in New York State, working in the state attorney general’s office and as a deputy Labor commissioner. This column is an excerpt of an opinion piece published in the New York Times. You can read the original column at nytimes.com/2021/09/06/opinion/labor-workers-rights.html.)