What Immigrant Hurricane Clean-Up Workers Can Teach Labor About COVID-19 Response

Hurricane Harvey clean up workers in Houston, Texas. (The Guardian)

This article is part of an American Prospect symposium on “The Future of Labor.” 

“People have anxiety and always rush to return to normalcy as soon as possible after a crisis,” says Marianela Acuña Arreaza, who helped lead the immigrant rights movement’s response to Hurricane Harvey as the former head of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center.

In the wake of hurricanes, there is always a rush by homeowners to get back into their property. However, such storms often cause hazardous materials and chemicals like asbestos to come loose, exposing workers repairing the damage to health hazards in the process. Experts say that more workers often wind up dying from exposure to hazardous conditions in hurricane recovery work than from the storm itself.

“Workers often get pushed to go into hazardous conditions,” says Acuña Arreaza. “We were definitely pushing for people not to be back in their houses right away.”

By slowing it down, they not only saved lives but dramatically expanded the capacity of workers to organize in Houston.

Fe y Justicia Worker Center, working closely with the National Council of Occupational Safety and Heath (NCOSH), brought in 40 different trainers to educate workers on the risks they’d encounter, eventually training more than 1,700 immigrants in their rights as workers during the cleanup. They put pressure on Houston to enact laws to protect immigrant workers from fly-by-night contractors.

For the first time, a municipality in Texas prosecuted and jailed developers for putting workers in unsafe conditions and withholding their wages when they complained.

Now, Acuña Arreaza, who is helping to lead the nonprofit NCOSH’s response to COVID-19, is calling on the government to slow down the process of reopening businesses closed for the pandemic, so that organizers have time to build the power required to protect workers.

“There are a lot of parallels with how we need to respond to COVID-19,” says Acuña Arreaza. “People have a lot of anxiety and want things to return to normal, but by slowing things down, we can build real power for workers.”

Already, some unions like the UAW are putting the brakes on the auto industry’s plans to reopen quickly. Twenty-three UAW members have already died of COVID, and the union wants time to put protections in place, lest more workers’ lives be at risk.

“At this point in time, the UAW does not believe the scientific data is conclusive that it is safe to have our members back in the workplace. We have not done enough testing to really understand the threat our members face,” said UAW President Rory Gamble. “We want to make sure the scientific data is supportive, and every possible health protocol and enhanced protection are in place before UAW members walk into the workplace.”

By pausing and creating a more equitable framework for recovery, many workplace advocates believe that workers could find their voice and assert their power—a development that could build on a massive strike wave already hitting the country.

According to an analysis by Payday Report, there have been at least 150 work stoppages caused by workers concerned about safety measures.

“Workers are saying: ‘I need protection, I need a voice,’ and that’s what’s really different right now,” says American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who helped lead the teachers strikes in 2018 and 2019.

Despite the legal risk to workers from engaging in wildcat strikes, Weingarten says that, as in the teachers strikes, many frontline workers now know that they have community support on their side.

“It’s horrible that it takes a pandemic for the public to see just how vital transit workers are, just how vital grocery store workers are, and that they are also the first responders to all of what we are dealing with,” says Weingarten, who is optimistic that these frontline workers can mobilize public support to win changes.

Already, workers in many industries have won significant raises often gained through the threat of strikes.

Employers will undoubtedly fight back. Already, HCA hospitals, Trader Joe’s, and Amazon have engaged in what union organizers describe as anti-union retaliation against workers who’ve spoken up about inadequate safety precautions.

Some employers will doubtless take advantage of 20 percent unemployment rates to make it clear to workers that they can easily be replaced if they try to unionize, or even if they organize just to block a dangerously premature back-to-work order from their boss. With an inadequate social safety net, many workers may feel compelled to go back to work, even if it risks contracting COVID-19, in order to keep a roof over their heads.

So that workers don’t feel pressured to put their lives at risk, Weingarten thinks it’s vital for some workplace safety measures and social support measures to be put in place to protect workers before their workplaces reopen.

“The inequities are there and the boldness is there, but we have to actually be primal and help people feel safe—first and foremost—before people will come together and fight for the boldness,” says Weingarten. “And the boldness is crying out for restructuring and changing.”

Workplace advocates are optimistic that changes in unemployment insurance enacted as part of the response to the pandemic, including granting UI to workers who have to quit due to COVID-19, may embolden workers to feel more comfortable with making demands (though many states have been slow to implement the changes).

Extending the temporary legal protections created during the pandemic into permanent legal safeguards is hardly a given. “There is nothing to guarantee that after all this is over, we are going to have a larger safety net or that the little gains being made for insecure workers are going to be permanent,” says University of California Hastings labor law professor Veena Dubal.

“Everything that we are seeing in terms of protests, strikes, and direct actions are really going to be important not just right now, but afterward, when the pandemic is over as we start to experience what many people predict will be a recession. It’s going to be really important to permanently grow the social safety net,” says Dubal.

Congress has yet to enact any workplace safety rules for OSHA to implement on behalf of frontline COVID workers. Likewise, it has yet to pass paid sick leave or hazard pay for all frontline workers.

For now, workplace advocates say time is needed to slow down the reopening process so that necessary systems to protect workers can be put in place. That’s a tough task when many people traumatized by the experience of COVID-19 are clamoring for things to return to normal—but one that can help build workers’ sense of their own power.

“Fear is normal,” says Acuña Arreaza. “The crisis is really new for people, and yeah, it’s scary. But at the same time, the power that we have together can get us through that fear. I am excited about what we can do together.”

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About the Author

Mike Elk
A protege of the late William Greider, Mike Elk is a yinzer labor reporter, who covered the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for the Guardian. In 2016, he used his $70,000 NLRB settlement from being fired in the union drive at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report while living in Chattanooga. The son of United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he now lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Melk@PaydayReport.com

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