Speech | Workplace Health and Safety

Trumka: Working People’s Plan for Reopening the Economy the Right Way

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks on a call with reporters: 

Good morning. Thank you for joining this call. Right now, amid this global pandemic, it is difficult to see clearly. But this country is finally starting to see workers. America sees the grocery store worker restocking the shelves so we have meals. We see the teacher who is going above and beyond so our children continue to grow. We see the nurse who is being pushed to their limit to save lives. We see the unemployed worker who is out of a job through no fault of their own. And we see the workers who have lost their lives to coronavirus.

The AFL-CIO proudly represents over 12.5 million of these workers across 55 unions. While each union represents different workers in different industries, we stand together as one. Our greatest statement of solidarity is how we move forward and begin to heal. Heal in the wake of personal loss. Heal our communities, which have been pushed to the brink. Heal our country.

Right now, the narrative has shifted to reopening the economy. And I get it. People are looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. A sense of resolution. A return to normal—whatever that may look like.

Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to speak with honesty and act with urgency. We must do what the federal government has refused to: protect America’s workers. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been infected with coronavirus. Thousands have died. Instead of following the advice of worker safety and health experts, President Trump made this crisis worse. Instead of science, he’s chosen politics. Instead of unity, he’s chosen division. And now he wants us to trust him with our lives and livelihoods? No. Too much is at stake. That is why I believe…and why workers believe…the greatest mistake we can make is reopening the economy too soon. Too many people, including President Trump, are asking: when? That is the wrong question. We need to be asking: how? A rush to open without the proper protections for workers will lead to an explosion of the disease, many more deaths and another shutdown. It is a surefire way to increase the death count and plunge our economy into a second Great Depression. There is no room for error. Not one inch. We have to get this right.

Workers have been on the frontlines of this battle. We’ve given our sweat and blood. We’ve lost our jobs. We’ve given our lives. It is time to listen to us. We must put safety first. Here are our demands.

First and foremost, workers must have a say in these decisions. A say in every workplace. A say across every industry. A say at every level of government—city, state and federal. Workers believe any decision must be based on worker safety and sound science. Any interference from politics and profits puts us in grave danger.

Workers need strong, clear and enforceable workplace health and safety standards. Later today, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott will introduce legislation requiring the Department of Labor to issue an emergency workplace infectious disease standard. The one President Trump scrapped when taking office. This standard would require employers that are currently open or plan to reopen to develop and implement an infection control plan. And let me be clear, if this standard had been in place when COVID-19 hit, far fewer people would have died.

Workers also deserve stronger protection against retaliation. We must have the right to refuse to work if we fear exposure to the virus. Just look at Amazon. Chris Smalls was fired for exposing the dangerous conditions he and his co-workers had to endure. Two more employees were fired for doing the same thing. And let’s call it like it is: Amazon is not alone. What kind of culture does this create? For workers, it sends the message that silence is more important than safety. That is morally and economically reprehensible. And we must stop it.

Next, workers on the job and those returning to the job need a massive increase in personal protective equipment—or PPE. For example, reusable respirators that provide higher levels of respiratory protection than disposable N95 respirators must be available for workers with the greatest exposures. There is no excuse for not having enough equipment. The president invoked the Defense Protection Act, but he has failed to use it in any coherent manner. Workers are ready to support each other. We are ready to build more PPE. We are ready to prioritize the places that need it most.

Next, workers require a massive increase of rapid and reliable coronavirus testing. This should go without saying. Widespread testing is indispensable in order to assess the threat to public health before lifting preventive measures. If you look at the president’s plan, it excludes benchmarks for testing. It’s unacceptable. Testing must be fast, free, accessible and everywhere. Right now, we are nowhere close to that benchmark. We are also calling for the federal government to oversee a system of recording, reporting and tracking worker infections. There must be a presumption that COVID-19 is a work-recordable illness for all workers. There must be real-time reporting of infections from the workplace to state and local health departments.

And finally, workers demand that employers must trace the contacts of infected workers and remove exposed workers from work with pay and without retaliation. If we are potentially exposed, we must be informed and appropriately removed from the workplace. We need to be protected from loss of income, benefits or employment. And employers must guarantee 14 days of paid sick leave. No questions asked. No caveats.

This may seem like a bold plan, but a historic crisis requires a historic response. If we truly believe workers are essential, then these conditions are essential, too.

Let’s back our words up with actions. Worker safety, economic recovery and public health are intertwined. Moving too fast or doing too little on one front poses an extreme danger to everyone. That can’t happen. Workers have risen to the occasion throughout this crisis. Now it is time for our government to do the same.

Thank you. God bless you. And stay safe.