By DAVID A. COOK
For the past few months, a lot of people have gone out of their way to call workers like the ones in our grocery stores “heroes.”
Whether it’s CEOs or celebrities or politicians, a lot of people were positively tripping over themselves to declare essential workers heroes that deserve our undying respect. They were certainly right. The grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, nurses and other workers that remain on the front lines during this deadly pandemic absolutely do deserve our thanks.
If the world were fair — if our leaders had their priorities truly in order, and if our political systems were not bogged down by deep corruption and incompetence —those workers would have already received more than just a pat on the back.
If the richest men and women in America (who, by the way, have gotten richer during this crisis) cared about the human beings who keep their companies in the black as much as they cared about their growing stock value, then unions would probably be unnecessary and the American worker would be the most comfortable and prosperous on the planet.
Sadly, we don’t live in that world, and it seems that actions are lagging far behind the kind words our workers receive. Of course, praise and appreciation are always welcome. Words aren’t empty, but they do have a limited value.
More than grateful praise, workers need a raise. More than pizza parties or pats on the back, they need additional money to compensate them for their labor. More than pandering or posturing, they need cold hard cash to care for themselves and their families.
FRONTLINE WORKERS NEED MORE THAN HAZARD PAY
There are some that seem to understand this. Many companies even made some effort to provide workers with hazard pay. Those companies may have not gone as far as needed. They may have not paid as much as workers deserve or may not have maintained that pay as long as needed, but in my long career in Labor, I have learned that baby steps are important to making real change.
To the largest employers of Local 655 partners — Schnucks, Dierbergs and Straubs in particular — we offer our thanks that they made an effort to provide additional pay early on during this pandemic. However, we must also say to those same employers that while their efforts are appreciated, they are simply not enough.
Grocery store workers and pharmacy technicians, alongside other workers that have exposed themselves to risk during this pandemic, deserve real hazard pay for the duration of this crisis and back pay for the time they have already worked.
CONGRESS HAS FAILED US
Congress has tried to act on this front. The House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill that included significant back pay for frontline workers like the partners I represent. Sadly, the bill has since been deemed “dead on arrival” by the Republican-controlled Senate, and last week Congress adjourned for almost a month without extending unemployment benefits, new money for small businesses or any additional coronavirus relief at all.
This has become too common. Congress, like the wealthiest men and women who continue to profit during this crisis, doesn’t operate within the real world. While working families like yours have to make budgets, create schedules and struggle when thinking of how they are going to continue to survive, the men and women who should be leading us during this time get to head home for a few weeks without acting on your behalf.
Congress fails to act, our president appears to have utterly lost interest in COVID-19 altogether, and companies can’t be counted on to put people ahead of profits. It’s in this reality that we must march forward.
PUBLIC PRESSURE NEEDED
In the coming weeks, you’ll be hearing from this Local as we begin to put public pressure on our elected officials and private companies to step up and do more. You’ll likely hear from the UFCW International as they prepare to mount a nationwide campaign on behalf of retail and food processing workers and the urgent need to give workers the pay they deserve.
And over the next three months you might hear about this very topic from the two candidates running for president. Vice President Joe Biden’s pandemic plan features additional pay for workers and small businesses. President Trump’s position on additional pay for workers is unclear at best.
I wish I could tell my partners how all of this will end. I wish I could say with certainty that COVID-19 will change the way America treats essential workers, or that our election will force our leaders to see what is right. I can’t.
I can’t promise what the outcome will be. What I can promise though is this: you will never have to wonder if there is someone on your side. This union will always fight for its family. We will stand with our partners and demand fair pay for fair work, good benefits and respect and dignity on the job. We will not shrink from this challenge.
There will always be forces in your life that you can’t rely on to do the right thing. This union family will never be one of them.