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Unions Split Over Vaccine Mandates as Variant Threatens Workers

July 28, 2021, 7:23 PM

After working together for more than a year to promote worker safety during the pandemic, organized labor leaders increasingly are divided over vaccine mandates aimed at stopping a new and potentially more deadly coronavirus strain from ravaging the U.S. workforce.

The rift was evident as the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, said Tuesday it fully supports mandatory vaccines to safeguard the economic recovery—openly contradicting one of its largest members, the American Federation of Teachers, which a day earlier had said it would oppose any plan that doesn’t leave the choice to workers and unions.

The emerging divide came into focus as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new mask-wearing guidelines for vaccinated people in high-risk areas, and a coalition of nearly five dozen medical groups—representing workers in unionized health-care fields—called for mandatory shots in health-care settings to slow the Delta variant’s spread.

The question of mandatory vaccines is vexing union leaders, who since the start of the pandemic have advocated for workplace safety measures but now must also be responsive to a minority of members who don’t want to get inoculated. They’re also worried about the broader implications of letting employers impose invasive medical requirements for workers without first engaging in formal bargaining.

“There’s a larger principle that many unions are reacting to,” said Paul Clark, a labor and employment professor at Pennsylvania State University who has written about nurses’ unions. “The whole purpose of unions is to give workers some control and some voice about what happens in the workplace.”

Call for Bargaining

AFT President Randi Weingarten on Monday showed the delicate position union leaders find themselves in, as she sought to convey the union’s support for vaccines while emphasizing the importance of labor negotiations.

“In order for everyone to feel safe and welcome in their workplaces, vaccinations must be negotiated between employers and workers, not coerced,” Weingarten said in a statement. “We believe strongly that everyone should get vaccinated unless they have a medical or religious exception, and that this should be a mandatory subject of negotiation for employers to keep their employees safe and build trust.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in June.
Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Asked Tuesday on C-SPAN if the AFL-CIO supports vaccine mandates, AFL-CIO Richard Trumka said, without pause, “Yes, we do.”

“What we need to do now is to get more people vaccinated, and I think the mandate is a very acceptable way to do that,” Trumka said.

The reluctance of some unions to support vaccine requirements goes against the advice of nearly 60 medical groups that Monday called for the mandatory inoculation of all U.S. health-care workers to curb a rise in hospitalizations. The new Delta variant spreads faster than earlier strains of Covid-19 and may be transmitted by fully vaccinated people who show mild symptoms, public health officials say.

“This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being,” the coalition said in a statement.

Differing Stances

Also Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced policies that require public health employees to get vaccinated or submit to a rigorous regimen of testing and mask-wearing.

And on Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) extended a similar policy to state workers but said that all front-line medical workers in state hospitals must be vaccinated—with no option of getting tested instead.

In New York City, 30% of hospital workers remain unvaccinated, and the share is much higher at some facilities, according to state health data. Statewide, more than a quarter of hospital workers haven’t received vaccines.

Health-care workers gathered outside an NYU Langone facility in Manhattan in April 2020 to take part in a nightly effort to cheer frontline caregivers.
Photographer: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The New York State Nurses Association—a usually vocal group that last year engaged in Covid-related strikes—has remained notably silent. In a statement to Bloomberg Law, the union said it supports vaccines generally as well as measures to curb the spread of airborne infectious diseases, but declined to address the issue of vaccine requirements.

Meanwhile, New York City’s largest public employee union called for bargaining over the city’s new mandate.

“New York City is a union town and that cannot be ignored,” Henry Garrido, executive director of AFSCME District Council 37, said in a statement.

Last week, members of SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East protested outside New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan over a vaccine mandate. In an earlier statement, the chapter president, George Gresham, said that requiring vaccinations “is not, nor will it ever, be the answer.”

Yet not all health-care unions are opposed. National Nurses United, a union with more than 170,000 members nationwide, has indicated support for vaccine requirements. In an email, a spokeswoman said that “all eligible people should be vaccinated, while respecting the need for medical and religious accommodations.”

Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, which represents 175,000 custodians, airport workers, and other building support staff on the East Coast, has also stressed the need for bargaining over vaccines, though it’s adopted a less aggressive tone than some unions in health care. The SEIU local is focused on preventing arbitrary deadlines and other requirements that could result in workers getting fired.

“We totally understand that employers have the right to require a vaccine, but the contours of that need to be negotiated,” 32BJ spokeswoman Carolina Gonzalez said in an interview. “You don’t want somebody to lose their job unfairly because they didn’t meet a deadline.”

New vaccine policies developing at the federal level may draw in unions as well. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said this week it will require more than 100,000 federal health-care works to get vaccinated in the next two months, and President Joe Biden is expected to announce Thursday that federal workers will be required to prove they’ve been vaccinated or undergo frequent testing.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com; Robert Iafolla in Washington at riafolla@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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