Labor holds front lines of crisis response

As the coronavirus unfolds, unions and their members find themselves in the trenches helping protect the public even as they try to juggle their personal lives and deal with constantly changing — and sometimes contradictory — information from health and political officials.
The crisis has cast a clear light on how the wide variety of work union members do upholds the systems society relies on.
Chris Rubesch is a leader in the MNA bargaining unit at Essentia and is also on the state board. He’s been in contact with nurses around the state and says nurses are doing their best to prepare and identify what’s working and what’s not working in other area.
“In the Cities, they’re dealing with a lot more than we are right now,” he said, although that is likely to change as time goes on.
He said that in the past couple of weeks, there has been low patient volume for all maladies. “That’s good because that means resources are available,” he said. “We just don’t know what the situation is going to be.”
Rubesch said that while both Essentia and, from what he has heard, St. Luke’s are working fairly well with units to address the crisis, the front-line experiences nurses have could be incorporated better into preparations. “And that’s frustrating, especially with some of the realities we saw during the snowstorm in December and how many things fell through the cracks,” he said, referencing the early-December blizzard that saw some health care workers skiing to work. “We want to be here to use our expertise and help our time.”
For example, he pointed out that nurses — as well as Steelworkers and Teamsters who work in health care settings — all have internal communication structures for members. “Stewards are expressly designed to cascade information to the staff, and we can use that in collaboration with the employer and its staff communication process, but at this point they’re not interested and it’s a loss of opportunity and time.”
CNAs, food workers, housekeepers and other health care workers don’t work at desks and don’t have opportunities to check into a central source of information provided by Essentia, and that can create information gaps. “We want to be a partner and help channel information through our channels as well — stewards, Facebook pages, daily huddles,” Rubesch said. “We’ve made it clear to Essentia management and the emergency management team that whenever they’re ready, we’re there.”
In the meantime, Rubesch said there’s a calm before the storm. “Flu patient volumes are down, and while this is ‘slip, trip and fall season,’ a lot of those are down,” he said. “The community is doing a good job with public health guidelines and Nurses thank the community for that. We see and appreciate the outpouring of support for Nurses, CNAs, first responders — that’s heartening to see that the community is behind us.”

UFCW members keep shelves stocked
The run on grocery stores for everyday supplies has highlighted the role UFCW members play in the community, which Jennifer Christensen, president of UFCW Local 1189, describes as “God’s work — feeding people.”

“In this crisis, they’re doing what they know how and are trained to do,” she said, “Generally this level is kept for snowstorms that weren’t predicted, or holidays close to a weekend or payday, when a lot is going on at one time.”

Members are getting a lot of hours, and area grocers have been paying a premium above contract since the crisis started. “Our folks are happy to be working and not laid off,” Christensen said. “But they’re also concerned about their personal safety. By and large their interactions have been wonderful, but social distancing matters in the grocery store and sometimes having customers be just a little farther away is helpful.”

Christensen added that customers have been understanding about shortages, and stressed that members are trying to meet the needs of the public as best they can. “I think all workers in the store would like to see folks take what they need, but not extra — that would help everybody.”

With restaurants closed, Christensen said that leads to greater pressure on stores as people cook more at home and experiment with new foods. “More people are learning to cook if they haven’t before,” she said.

UFCW also represents some hospital and health care workers, and Christensen said that getting masks and protective gears is a priority for those workers now. And as the crisis stretches on, she said staying calm and clear-headed at the grocery store is vital. “But in the meantime, folks are wanting the proper social distancing. Wait for the customer ahead of you to be done, give everyone a bubble of safety. Just be thoughtful.”

Governor’s Actions

Gov. Walz’s actions, including changes in rules for paid time off and unemployment compensation for all workers, have come thick and fast and require intense effort to keep up with for some unions. “The Building Trades have been in constant communication with our national and state organizations, trying to keep up with the rapidly changing legislation,” said Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council. The organization has been lobbying to ensure construction workers’ sometimes unique situations are at the forefront of legislation.

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