The nation’s top unions have reacted coolly to the Biden administration’s proposed vaccine mandate, with many rejecting the administration’s unilateral approach and saying that workers themselves need to have more control over how it will be implemented. This could become a potential problem for the administration as the mandate is rolled out.
The AFL-CIO, the nation largest labor federation, called the mandate “a step in the right direction” to bring an end to the COVID-19 outbreak, but stressed that: “Working people must have a voice in how vaccination and testing policies are implemented.” In effect, the AFL-CIO wants veto power over how the mandate is carried out.
The United Food and Commercial Workers echoed the sentiment, emphasizing “the need for workers to have a voice in how these policies are implemented to protect their rights and keep them safe on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
What they probably mean is that an employer’s vaccine requirements should be subject to collective bargaining and therefore part of the union-management contract. The White House’s action means that employers can say their hands are tied on the matter. The federal fines start at $13,000 per violation. In theory, employers could use the mandate as a pretext to fire activist workers. A person stubborn enough to resist a mask mandate might be stubborn in terms of other worker rights.
The unions basically haven’t budged from their position when the mandate was first suggested in September despite the administration having had two months to bring them on board and “Blue Collar Joe” supposedly having a special rapport with them.
It’s an awkward situation for the labor leaders. They have allied with the White House and are betting on it to pass pro-union legislation that will boost the movement’s sagging numbers by pushing workers into joining unions. At the same time, unions are—in theory, anyway—democratic organizations that represent their members’ interests and many of those members may oppose the mandate.
Unions support vaccination generally but several are sensitive to the positions of members who may object. The United Auto Workers (UAW) was typical in this regard, saying it “continues to strongly encourage all members to get vaccinated, but understands that in some cases health related and religious related issues do not make that possible.” The UAW said it was examining how the mandate would affect its contracts with management.
The Fraternal Order of Police(FOP) has been the bluntest in its concerns. “[T]he National FOP believes that whether or not to accept the vaccine is a personal decision that our members should make for themselves after consultation with their doctor or other medical professionals,” it said in a late October statement relating to a proposed congressional bill. The FOP itself is not a union but many of its member organizations are unions.
Of the few unions that do support the vaccination policy with any apparent caveat, teachers have been the most vocal. They’ve been criticized by parents for resisting reopening schools due to COVID concerns. A national policy mandating vaccinations offers the unions a way out. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten praised the mandate for creating “a pathway out of this pandemic.” The National Education Association thanked the administration for its “thorough, thoughtful standards.”
D. Taylor, president of the hospitality workers union UNITE HERE, said his organization had “lost hundreds to this deadly virus this year—some due to direct exposure on the job. He called the mandate’s requirements “commonsense measures that will save lives.”
These pro-mandate voices are a minority in the union movement. Most other unions, including major ones like the Service Employees International Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Communication Workers of America have yet to officially comment despite the vaccine mandate directly threatening the jobs of workers with objections. The fact that so many unions are silent on the subject suggests they have conflicts within the ranks.