William P. Jones is professor of history at the University of Minnesota, the Jerry Wurf Memorial Fund Scholar-in-Residence at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, President of the Labor and Working-Class History Association and author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.
Protests by garbage collectors, transit and health care workers, grocery clerks and delivery people have called attention to the dangers faced by workers on the front-lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Front-line workers deserve protection, and this demands listening to the specifics of their workplace grievances so they can perform their jobs and maintain their health and safety, and those of their co-workers and customers. As legislation stalls and workers face repercussions for voicing such concerns, it becomes clear what they need most: unions.
As we face the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression, it is worth recalling the roots of our contemporary labor laws in the efforts to overcome that crisis. The National Labor Relations Act, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed in 1935, encouraged industrial workers to form unions, bargain collectively and, if necessary, to go on strike for better wages and working conditions. Reversing decades of policy aimed at protecting the rights of employers, the new law was premised on the assumption that empowering workers was necessary to stop the vicious cycle of overproduction and declining wages that lawmakers believed was hindering an economic recovery.
It also introduced a concept that we need to remember today: The public has an interest in ensuring workers have a voice on the job. We have seen repeatedly during the current crisis that workers are forced to perform their jobs without protective equipment or safety procedures: In California, nurses who demanded N95 masks to wear while treating covid-19 patients were suspended. Only by protecting their rights to organize and act collectively can we ensure workers are not compelled to choose between their health and their livelihood.
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