COVID-19 vaccine mandates: Unions divided over 'complex problem' for organized labor
President Joe Biden on Thursday announced wide-ranging COVID-19 rules for employers that include a mandate that all businesses with 100 or more employees test unvaccinated workers at least once a week. In all, the vaccination and testing rules will affect 80 million private sector workers, the administration says.
The move comes amid a string of deals between major companies and unions over vaccine mandates that shows the labor movement is increasingly willing to support such precautions but also eager to shape their implementation.
In light of the Biden administration's new rules, the relationship between labor advocates and bosses takes on heightened significance as the Delta variant continues to drive a wave of infections and some major companies beckon employees back to in-person work.
Meanwhile, some unions, including a host of labor groups that represent first responders, remain opposed to vaccine mandates, exposing a divide in organized labor over how to balance its bedrock commitment to a safe workplace with the anti-vaccination sentiment felt among a segment of workers.
Vaccine mandates 'one of the most complex problems that unions have faced'
Tensions between workers and their employers over vaccination will likely become a fixture of the U.S. workplace in the coming months. A majority of companies plan to impose a vaccine mandate, according to a survey conducted last month by consulting and insurance firm Willis Towers Watson of 1,000 firms that employ a total of almost 10 million workers.
“This is one of the most complex problems that unions have faced possibly in my lifetime,” says Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations. “Because there is so much diversity among their members in terms of how they are thinking about this.”
Tyson Foods (TSN) offered about 120,000 employees additional paid time off if they comply with its new COVID-19 vaccine mandate. A coalition of unions representing roughly 43,000 Disney World (DIS) employees agreed to a mandate with the company, though it excludes workers with a relevant medical condition or religious beliefs. And in Washington, a union working on behalf of 47,000 state employees reached a tentative deal on a vaccine mandate that will afford workers an extra personal day.
In each case, the terms of a mandate were set after talks between a company and union representatives.
Employers retain wide latitude in the choice to put a vaccine mandate in place for employees, but unions can bargain over the terms, including potential incentives, penalties, or exemptions, Schurman said.
The labor movement's shift toward acceptance of vaccine mandates has been led by the nation's largest teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represent a combined 4.7 million members. Both organizations announced their support for vaccine mandates last month, and have boasted survey results that show up to 90% of educators are already vaccinated.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said negotiation of the terms of vaccine mandates falls to the union's 3,500 locals, which work with school districts on issues like how to assess and apply medical exemptions.
"We’re going to work with our employers who do vaccine requirements, including mandates, and make sure they’re implemented fairly," Weingarten told Yahoo Finance. "That’s what virtually everyone who’s had to deal with a vaccine mandate has done."
Similar support for vaccine mandates has come from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, a building trades union that represents 140,000 members; and Unite Here, a hospitality and service union that advocates for 300,000 workers.
“Today, as vaccine mandates by employers spread to more and more workplaces, Unite Here is supporting these measures to ensure safer workplaces and is working toward ensuring that these policies are enacted fairly," Unite Here President D. Taylor told Yahoo Finance in a statement.
'We have the right to bargain any change to our jobs'
But some unions have opted for outright opposition to vaccine mandates, as wary members face a choice between taking the vaccine or keeping their jobs.
Hospital workers with Service Employee International Union 1199 held a rally in July opposing a mandate imposed by New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. In August, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo set a vaccine mandate for all health care workers in the state.
A statement made by SEIU1199 last month acknowledged that "COVID vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to protect ourselves and our families." But, the union notes, "We have the right to bargain any change to our jobs."
Meanwhile, firefighter and police unions in a host of cities from Chicago to Newark have come out in opposition to mandates from city officials. As of May, when the most recent numbers became available, 25% of Chicago police had been vaccinated. In Newark, on Wednesday, dozens of police and firefighters rallied outside city hall to protest the city's vaccine mandate, Patch reported.
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, who leads the nation’s largest labor coalition representing 56 unions and 12.5 million workers, captured the largely amenable albeit divided approach from labor in remarks at an event held by the Christian Science Monitor in Washington D.C. late last month.
“This is a whole new frontier and we think everyone should be vaccinated,” Shuler said. But she later added: “I’ll be honest with you, our unions are in different places.”
Valerie Braman, a lecturer at the Penn State School of Labor and Employment Relations, says differences of opinion over vaccines within organized labor mirror those that have divided the American public.
"Workers are not a monolith," she says. "The labor movement is not a monolith."
Unions face additional pressure to accept vaccine mandates from President Joe Biden. Widely perceived as a labor ally, Biden emphasized the importance of unions at a meeting with labor leaders at the White House on Wednesday. A day later, he is set to announce stricter vaccine mandates in an effort to push for further action from businesses and public institutions, the New York Times reported.
Despite the divide among labor groups, many unions will be relieved if employers impose vaccine mandates, said Shurman, of Rutgers University.
"Unions will be in a position of saying, 'OK, we’re going to do what we can do,'" she says. "Which is bargain."
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