As we conducted our last interviews in May and June 2021, optimism was growing that the COVID-19 pandemic might be waning. Vaccinations were surging, with unions pressing to make their members eligible. States and municipalities began to relax or rescind masking mandates, curfews and other restrictions on social behavior.
Schools were planning to resume live instruction. Locally, in anticipation of students returning to class, the Rochester City School District rehired the BENTE members it had laid off and even had over a hundred vacancies awaiting new hires. Venues including the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman Museum reopened, permitting the Labor Council to revive its Labor Film Series program for a thirty-first season. Travel began to resume and hospitality, food service and other workers began to return to their jobs.
Then vaccination rates declined. Many parts of the country have seen increasing reluctance and even resistance to vaccination. Despite the efforts of unions to educate their members about the need for members to get vaccinated — for their own protection as well as that of fellow workers and their families and communities — many members remain unprotected.
Meanwhile the COVID virus continues to mutate and spread, with the highly transmissible Delta variant responsible for nationwide spikes in infection, hospitalization and severe illness and death.
As we conclude our COVID-19 project and prepare this Final Report, the future of the pandemic and its impact on workers and unions remains uncertain. Unless checked, new waves of the pandemic will result in renewed layoffs and furloughs and more dislocations of workers, both union and non-union. Additionally, the trend toward tele-commuting will impact many occupations with consequences for both workers and unions.
Governments and employers are seeking to require their workers — especially health care providers — to be immunized, whether or not that is consistent with contract language or the civil liberties of working people. In a time of such uncertainty, unions will be challenged to promote the health and safety of their members while defending their rights.
JG and LHD
July 25, 2021