Unions split over vaccine mandates, complicating Biden push

Andrew Harnik / AP

President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House, Thursday, September 9, 2021, in Washington. Unions are divided over vaccine mandates. The split became larger after Biden announced his intention to require federal workers to be vaccinated and private companies with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated.

The National Nurses Union applauded President Joe Biden’s proposal to require companies with more than 100 employees to vaccinate their workforce. The American Federation of Teachers once said vaccination warrants were not necessary, but is now embracing them. In Oregon, police and firefighters unions are suing to block a mask warrant for state employees.

The labor movement is torn by vaccine demands – as is the country as a whole – wanting to both support its political ally in Biden and protect its members from infection, but also unwilling to violate human rights. their workers.

“Unions are a microcosm of the society we live in,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University. “The same political divide that we have right now exists within the base of the unions. “

This division makes things difficult for Biden as he tries to master the delta variant. Unions are a key part of the Democratic Party, and Biden embraced them to boost his image as a blue collar and middle class. Dissent within Biden’s own coalition can make it particularly difficult for him to implement new immunization requirements. Some unions representing federal workers have already opposed his push for inoculation among the U.S. government workforce, saying such issues involving new demands and discipline in the workplace must be negotiated at the table. negotiation.

As a sign of the importance of the issue to the Biden administration, the White House contacted union presidents before Biden announced his new policy on Thursday and will continue to check with union leaders, an administration official said. , who insisted on anonymity to discuss upcoming projects.

Biden will require companies with more than 100 workers to inject or test their employees on a weekly basis. It will also require shots for executive employees and federal contractors without a testing option. The new requirements could cover 100 million Americans.

The dynamic seems to be on the side of mandates. The AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for most of the country’s unions, welcomed Biden’s mandates and plan in a statement on Friday. “The resurgence of COVID-19 requires swift and immediate action, and we applaud President Biden for taking additional steps to help end this crisis. Everyone should be vaccinated – as a step to stop the pandemic, ”the organization’s president, Liz Shuler, said in the statement.

AFT demanded two weeks ago that its employees in its offices be vaccinated and has become a strong advocate for workplaces requiring vaccinations. “Safety and health have been our north star since the start of the pandemic,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the union. The union’s support for the mandates, she added, “creates great joy among two-thirds of our people and will create unrest among one-third of the population.”

Yet many union leaders are reluctant to get into the question of the mandate. Many employers of Western Pennsylvania Workers’ District Council workers, such as hospitals, have started requiring vaccinations. Whenever members complain, council business manager Phillip Ameris tells them that is not the union’s call.

“What we said was ‘we encourage our members to get vaccinated,’ but what we’re saying to everyone is to go see your doctor,” Ameris said. “We try to keep this non-political … Go see your doctor and ask your doctor what is best for you.

Some of the strongest opposition came from law enforcement unions. On Thursday in Newark, police and firefighting unions across New Jersey protested the mayor’s vaccination mandate outside City Hall. The Chicago Police Unions in Richmond have pushed back warrants in their cities. In Portland, Oregon, the local police union has exempted its members from the city’s vaccination order and a group of police and firefighters unions are suing Governor Kate Brown for blocking the vaccine requirement of the state for its workers.

Simon Haeder, a political scientist who studies vaccine mandates at Penn State University, said it made sense that the strongest resistance came from police and firefighters. “The more conservative side of the labor movement, in terms of politics, will be the police and firefighters unions,” he said, noting that the response to the coronavirus has become very polarized. “Yes, you are a trade unionist and yes you want the workplace to get back to normal, but being a Republican trumps a lot of those things.”

Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said police officers react like most Americans. “You, like the rest of the country, have very strong feelings on both sides,” Johnson said.

Yet police unions can see the writing on the wall – and want all mandates to be negotiated as part of the collective bargaining process, Johnson said. “From a union point of view, we have the feeling that the vaccination policy is going to be almost compulsory,” he said. “We want a seat at the table when we discuss implementation. “

Campos-Medina has said compulsory vaccination is such an obviously important public health policy that she expects unions to eventually accept it. She compared it to the indoor smoking bans, which angered some unions years ago, but which is a topic that hardly ever returns to the bargaining table today. “We’ll get there,” she said.

Weingarten’s union had initially opposed, like Biden, the vaccination warrants and said persuading workers to get vaccinated was a better approach. But after the delta variant increased the number of cases this summer and filled hospital beds, AFT reconsidered.

She, too, believes that almost all unions will eventually come together behind a pro-mandate stance. But, she notes, it will take time.

“The union leaders I speak to know that vaccines are really important,” Weingarten said. “What they’re trying to do is balance all of these different services and responsibilities that we have to our members.”

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