Today’s News & Commentary — July 28, 2021

Since hitting its peak of more than 3 million shots per day in mid-April, the mass-vaccination campaign has dwindled and waned in the United States, dropping to a current rate of around half a million daily jabs, alarming government officials both in the Biden Administration and in state public health departments across the country as the highly transmissible Delta variant has rapidly become the dominant strain in the nation. In recent weeks, as new coronavirus cases have again begun to surge in parts of the country, overwhelmingly driven by unvaccinated individuals and under-vaccinated communities, demands that employers mandate inoculations for their workers against the deadly virus have grown louder, bolstered by a recent joint statement released by the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and more than 60 other medical groups, pleading for vaccine mandates for frontline healthcare workers. On Monday, the push to mandate coronavirus vaccinations received a figurative shot in the arm, as California, the country’s largest state, and New York City, the country’s largest city, ordered that government workers roll up their sleeves and receive the inoculation or face regular testing for the virus. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that the Big Apple’s more than 340,000 public employees must be vaccinated by September 13 or else undergo weekly viral testing, and California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the same fate will apply to The Golden State’s quarter of a million government workers. “We’re at a point in this pandemic where an individual’s choice not to get vaccinated is impacting the rest of us, in a profound and devastating and deadly way,” Governor Newsom explained. On the same day, the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the largest federal employers, became the first federal agency to require vaccinations, announcing that its 115,000 frontline healthcare workers would be inoculated against the stubborn pathogen.

The National Labor Relations Board has not yet expressly affirmed that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate is a compulsory subject of bargaining, but precedent suggests that it likely would be. In response to the mandate, New York City’s largest municipal workers’ union, District Council 37, representing some 150,000 city workers, asserted that the City must “meet us at the table to bargain” — “while we encourage everyone to get vaccinated and support measures to ensure our members’ health and wellbeing, weekly testing is clearly subject to mandatory bargaining.” declared Henry Garrido, the executive director of District Council 37. Mayor de Blasio responded by insisting that “when it comes to the health and safety of our workers in the middle of a global pandemic, we have the right as employer to take urgent action to protect people’s lives.” On the other hand, the United Federation of Teachers, representing 75,000 NYC public school teachers, released a statement supporting the city’s vaccine mandate.

In other vaccine news, some major American companies have begun bussing workers from their factories in Mexico across the border into San Diego to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Though Americans have been awash in unused and unwanted shots for months, less than 20 percent of the Mexican population has been fully vaccinated, and millions of workers who toil just barely on the other side of the southern border remain locked out of vaccine access. The companies have taken the step in recognition of the interdependence of the American economy and the Mexican economy — American companies manufacture billions of dollars of goods in Mexico every year, and in ordinary times thousands of Mexican shoppers flow across the southern border, which has been shuttered for months, every day to shop and dine in American towns. The program, along with the Biden Administration’s pledge to send hundreds of millions of vaccine doses abroad, represents a promising effort toward remedying the hideous vaccine disparity that exists among the wealthy and the poor nations, which medical experts warn will prevent humanity from truly eradicating the virus and returning to normalcy. In light of the enormous global need for vaccine, however, it would be improper to suggest that these steps, though positive, are anything beyond excruciatingly limited.

A new study released by the University of California, Los Angeles analyzed millions of claims in California’s workers’ compensation system and found that heat waves, which will become increasingly and disturbingly common as the globe continues to boil, significantly increase the risk of workplace accidents and injuries. According to their research, workers — both those laboring outdoors and those laboring indoors — are nearly 10 percent more likely to receive an injury on the job on days where the temperature rises above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not yet developed a set of federal guidelines to mitigate the dangers of extreme heat at work. The researchers also determined that the risk of heat-related workplace injury was highest for low-wage workers. There have already been tragic reports of workers perishing on the job during last month’s scorching heatwave, and UCLA’s study provides yet another appalling illustration that the most devastating effects of climate change and extreme weather events will be inflicted upon the poor and the marginalized, in this country and around the world. Perhaps more tangibly, the study highlights the pressing need for workplaces and government agencies to adopt heat-related safety rules and regulations

In international labor news, the South African Ministry of Public Service and Administration announced yesterday that a majority of public sector unions in the country signed a one-year interim deal on Monday to increase wages for the more than one million teachers, police officers, and nurses that they represent. Though the unions initially demanded a 4 percent salary hike, the deal secures the workers only a 1.5 percent raise, plus a cash payment. The agreement was signed by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, the health & Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa, and the Public Servants Association of South Africa.

A couple months ago, on May 10th, Doug Burgum, the billionaire former-corporate executive Republican Governor of North Dakota, announced that the Peace Garden State would refuse to continue participating in the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, which enhanced UI claimants’ weekly benefits by $300, thereby becoming one of the first of more than two dozen Republican-led states to deny federal assistance to its unemployed constituents, slashing payments for millions of unemployed workers. Internal documents newly uncovered by The Daily Poster, a grassroots-funded progressive news organization, reveal that Governor Burgum’s decision was, according to The Daily Poster, a “crass political calculus used by officials to justify terminating unemployment benefits that have kept millions of Americans afloat during a historic deadly pandemic”; a decision made by politicians who were, according to the exposed documents, well-aware that it would “punish people devastated by the pandemic and take money out of the economy.” In a slide deck prepared for the Governor mere days before his announcement, officials at Job Service North Dakota, the state’s department of unemployment assistance, explained that the enhanced unemployed aid “provides [a] safety net to almost all ND citizens” and provided millions of dollars in “continued funds into [the] ND economy.” The presentation confirmed that many UI recipients have not returned to employment because they fear of the virus, they’re caring for at-risk family members, or their employers are not providing a safe work environment, noted that if the Governor enacted the cuts, “individuals directly impacted by the pandemic, medically or otherwise, will likely not be able to receive any benefit via the [normal] UI program,” and finally, conceded that the evidence that the federal benefits impede hiring and employment was “somewhat anecdotal.”  North Dakota currently has one of the lowest levels of vaccination in the country and its unemployment rate has held steady at around four percent since the cuts were enacted in June, which aligns with other recent research finding that slashing federal UI benefits has not increased participation in the labor market, though it has enhanced the suffering and hardship endured by millions of individuals. In the words of Lindsay Own, an economic and executive director at Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive activist group, the uncovered documents show that “the cruelty is, and always has been, the point.”

Finally, in local news, Boston’s chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), SEIU Local 888, representing thousands of Boston residents, endorsed former-Councilwoman and current Acting Mayor Kim Janey in her bid to win a full-term in November of this year. Roxana Rivera, 32BJ SEIU, Vice President, explained that “like our members, [Janey] has experienced racism, sexism, and prejudice throughout her life, and she has used that lived experience to fight for justice.” Rivera also highlighted Janey’s recent executive order raising the hourly wage from $14.85 to $20 for city contracts for cleaning and security services. Though SEIU Local 888 filed an unfair labor practices claim against Janey’s administration just last month for forcing city workers back to work, President Tom McKeever explained that “our members who work for the City have seen first-hand the careful listener and compassionate leader she is as Mayor.” A non-partisan preliminary mayoral election is scheduled for September 14, to determine which two candidates will qualify for the general election on November 2.

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