Massive union coalition takes Trump to court over coronavirus PPE failure
With the Trump federal government still not providing PPE in adequate numbers, health care and other frontline workers often rely on handouts from non-profit groups or spend their own money on protective gear. Here, workers line up like trick-or-treaters for free PPE provided by the non-profit Cut Red Tape 4 Heroes at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Sept. 22, 2020, in Miami. | Wilfredo Lee / AP

WASHINGTON—The AFL-CIO, at least seven unions, the Labor Network for Sustainability, and two other environmental groups are suing two GOP Trump regime agencies in federal court in D.C., demanding they order firms to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers who suffer huge exposure to the coronavirus pandemic.

In their 77-page complaint, the unions said they had to go to court after, “in a stunning act of nonfeasance,” Trump’s Health and Human Services Department and his Homeland Security Department ignored a formal petition from the coalition to invoke the Defense Production Act and force U.S. factories to convert to making PPE against the coronavirus.

In this April 21, 2020 photo, Robin Adkins, a nurse and senior director of Clinical Engagement at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, records information on masks after they were sanitized with ultraviolet light during the COVID-19 pandemic at the medical center in Nashville, Tenn. The cleaning process, modified from a University of Nebraska Medical Center protocol, uses ultraviolet light to disinfect about 60 masks at a time and takes about an hour. Vanderbilt University Medical Center had to scramble for personal protective equipment even before the coronavirus hit because the deadly March 3 tornado that tore through Tennessee took out its distribution center. Mark Humphrey/AP

The same day as the suit, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees took their complaint about lack of PPE to the Geneva-based International Labour Organization. They want ILO, which can publicize employers’ and governments’ labor wrongs, to investigate the lack of PPE. Failing to provide it violates ILO conventions mandating health and safety coverage for workers, that case says.

The unions and their allies want the U.S. court to order “the mammoth action necessary to safeguard the millions of essential workers necessary to power this country’s survival in this emergency” and who are doing so “in spite of devastatingly disproportionate rates” of coronavirus illnesses and death.

As of noon, Oct. 20, 8.3 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the U.S. since the pandemic was officially declared on March 13. That’s equivalent to the entire population of New York City. And 222,157 have died, just short of the population of Spokane, Wash.

U.S. statistics for coronavirus deaths and illnesses by occupation are scattered. But National Nurses United knows of at least 1,718 workers the virus has killed, in its union and elsewhere. Surveys show around 13% of all coronavirus-infected workers are in health care, though one in Washington state, site of the first U.S. coronavirus outbreak, found health care employed 13% of its workforce, but accounted for 37% of workers testing positive.

Both transit unions in the case have been hit hard, as 95% of their members were declared “essential” and forced to work, regardless of whether they had PPE or not. The Amalgamated Transit Union, reports 89 dead and 1,764 have tested positive. The Transport Workers report 10% of their 151,000 members have tested positive or quarantined due to the virus, and 155 have died. It also reported transit bosses told workers without protective masks to don bandannas or scarves instead.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, another union on the lawsuit, said separately that as of Oct. 1, at least 16,000 of its grocery and retail worker members have tested positive and at least 110 have died. Some 68 Communications Workers members have died, 813 have been infected, and the union had to import ill-fitting masks with inadequate filters, it said in the suit. The death and illness toll “is likely a gross under-estimate,” CWA added.

The Fire Fighters, who are AFL-CIO members, report 5,234 members have been infected, double that number had to self-quarantine “due to inadequate PPE,” and 17 of the 122 who have been hospitalized died. Separately, New York City’s police commissioner reported Oct. 20 that 54 NYPD officers in the Bronx alone are now infected, up from 16 on Sept. 1.

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And even when workers do find masks and other protective gear on the open market, they have to shell out the dollars to buy them, the unions add. AFT President Randi Weingarten reports 90% of teachers surveyed reported using their own money for the masks. And AFT says 150 of its members have died.

“A significant portion of those who have died from and contracted the coronavirus is classified as ‘essential’ workers, a lucidly precise term for the people who have shouldered the country’s survival during this public health catastrophe. Since the pandemic’s start, the country’s essential workers have been disproportionately exposed to and impacted by COVID-19,” the suit laconically says.

And as shelter-in-place orders and other social restrictions are lifted, both the essential workers who stayed on the job and those who were laid off and now returning to work are increasingly at risk without PPE, it adds.

But Trump HHS Secretary Alex Azar—a former drug company executive—and acting Trump Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf aren’t doing anything about protecting the workers, the suit says. It wants the court to force them to act.

The two Trump Cabinet officers didn’t even reply to the formal union demand for an emergency rule invoking the Defense Production Act to force U.S. factories to make more N95 masks, ventilators, respirators, and other PPE. The resulting shortage led the union coalition to head for court.

SEIU Votes: Shelley Pagan-Jones, a member of SEIU Florida Local 1991, attends an election event on Oct. 13, 2020, in Miami. | Lynne Sladky / AP

They want the court to invoke the DPA and order the two agencies to take an immediate emergency national inventory of PPE, or lack of it, issue an emergency rule ordering PPE production, and coordinate that output and distribution of the PPE.

Besides the AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers, the Teachers, the two transit unions and UFCW, the Service Employees, the Association of Flight Attendants, and the Steelworkers are in the suit. National Nurses United, the Postal Workers, the Maine AFL-CIO, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the United Electrical Workers joined the unions now in the lawsuit on the original August petition to the two agencies, which Azar and Wolf ignored.

No date has been set yet for a hearing, presumably by Zoom, in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, on the case. The coalition filed its papers on Oct. 8. It wants a decision within 15 days of when the court hears their demand.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.