Worldwide unions unite against coronavirus

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Under the aegis of Public Services International, AFT President Randi Weingarten last week moderated a videoconference of union leaders from 10 nations who offered their experiences and lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic.

the continents of the world printed on a medical mask

Highlighting workers’ experiences in two of the hardest-hit countries—Italy and South Korea—the meeting showed a clear need for nations to strengthen their social safety nets, making sure that healthcare, child care and basic subsistence are covered, so that people don’t have to worry whether they can survive.

“This is the first time many of us have been able to share experiences with our colleagues around the world during a pandemic we’ve never seen before,” Weingarten said in greeting participants on the March 19 call. She laid out its purpose: to look for lessons on protecting members and our communities, safeguarding frontline healthcare workers, and creating a buffer against the coming recession.

“I’m an optimist, and I believe we can get through this,” she said. “Thankfully, most people who get this virus survive. If we focus on these things, with the help of our friends around the world, we’ll get through it.”

laptop with stethoscope on it

PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli, who lives in Brescia, less than an hour from the pandemic’s Italian epicenter in Bergamo, responded to Weingarten’s inquiry that she was “well but very sad.” Pavanelli said her nation is facing an unfathomable situation in hospitals and clinics without enough equipment and supplies because the size of the epidemic is overwhelming. More health professionals are getting sick and starting to die now, too.

Francesco Sinopoli and Michele Vannini of Italy said the pandemic is not evenly distributed, with some areas heavily affected and other places untouched. As of March 19, Italy had about 30,000 people sick and 3,000 dead, mainly in Bergamo, tucked up against the Italian Alps. Health workers are extending their shifts, working past exhaustion, and hospitals are calling on retired doctors and nurses to help. The daily death toll had not peaked yet in Italy, which on Sunday saw 651 dead in one day. A peak for the pandemic in the United States is not expected for about another 40 days.

A key problem the Italians cited: Healthcare workers have to go to work, leaving children at home. Unions are pursuing a 1,000-euro bonus for them. Meanwhile, Italian schools closed but educators are relatively new to remote learning and have widely differing levels of equipment. Some staff are still working at school buildings.

“We are fine, but we are surrounded by people who are not,” Vannini said. “We are sending you a virtual hug from all of us, and we hope everybody will be safe as soon as possible.”

In South Korea, according to Hyunsu Hwang, director of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, 60 percent of early COVID-19 cases there can be linked directly to a religious cult that refused to cancel large events. Because of its experience with SARS and MERS, however, the nation was prepared. Lee Jeonghyeon, who works for a university hospital in South Korea that employs 3,000, said only 10 practitioners became infected, because of aggressive testing, contact tracing, use of proper masks and rapid isolation of sick workers. And even with 8,500 cases confirmed in South Korea as of March 19, only 91 deaths had resulted so far.

Supporting support staff

Koreans have raised the equivalent of $100,000 to donate to parents and students in need, “especially the school support personnel who are most in need now,” Hwang said. Unionists from around the world agreed that school, healthcare and other public sector support staff are most vulnerable to the virus because their jobs require the most contact with people, often without the same healthcare benefits as other public employees.

Wol-san Liem, director of international affairs for the South Korean Public Service and Transport Workers Union, confirmed that the crisis is affecting everybody, but unequally. She said employers should be required to protect support staff, such as those who bathe patients, clean buildings and work in daycare centers and cafeterias. “One thing we’ve seen is you need a really strong public healthcare system,” she said. “After MERS and SARS, there was a commitment to build more hospitals. But we still don’t have enough hospitals, and you’re seeing patients die in isolation.” Wol-san believes we have to think of deeper solutions for dealing with inequality, and much deeper thinking about creating an economic structure that will let us confront such crises in the future.

Kelly Trautner, director of the AFT’s healthcare division, noted that the U.S. shortage of hospital supplies is so critical that members are researching how to make their own masks. The AFT is calling on the federal government to step up its response, she said: “Our healthcare workers are scared.

Pavanelli said PSI is conducting an array of initiatives, starting with a survey to find out what unions need. Together with the World Health Organization, she said PSI plans to organize regional webinars of unionists in the health sector, so they can share stories and solutions from the trenches. PSI also is promoting its “People Over Profit” campaign, which takes a broad approach to the pandemic and points up the failure of corporate globalization because, as she said, “We can all see the disaster it created.”

“We have to use our economic activism and voice to make sure that long-term, there’s a far better safety net,” Weingarten agreed. “Shame on us if we don’t learn what to do from this. If together we have solidarity and unity, if we keep talking with each other and learning from each other, we’ll get through this.”

The videoconference coincided with PSI’s “Safe Workers Save Lives” campaign, which amplifies our union values and calls on governments to provide:

  • Enough personal protective equipment and training so members can stay healthy while saving lives;
  • Targeted measures to support health workers who put in incredibly long hours: care must be provided for their children and other dependents;
  • Well-staffed and resourced public health systems, equipped to respond to emergencies; and
  • Paid sick leave, emergency unemployment benefits, provisions for working at home and, above everything else, free public healthcare for all.

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Useful information

Be sure to check the AFT’s page on all things coronavirus, as the news changes constantly and no one truly knows when the outbreak will peak or subside, or how widespread it will be.

If you or fellow AFT members have time to read during the pandemic, AFT staff recommends Viking Economics by George Lakey, which outlines successful ways nations have created social safety nets.

[Annette Licitra]