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The State Of The American Worker During A Pandemic

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us just how essential many workers are - meatpackers, bus drivers, grocery store employees - but lawn signs expressing that appreciation don't necessarily translate to workers feeling safe or valued. One group that reports on workers and labor issues called Payday Report has tracked more than a thousand workers' strikes since March 1 over a range of demands including hazardous duty pay and better protective equipment.

To hear more about these issues, we've called Erica Smiley. She's the executive director of Jobs With Justice, which is a group to advance workers rights.

Erica Smiley, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ERICA SMILEY: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: These last few months have seen just dramatic changes in everything, you know, in this country. I mean, the global pandemic, which has killed more than 180,000 people in the U.S., leading to the highest unemployment rate since the Depression - and then we've seen these, you know, nationwide protests over racial injustice.

We've seen, you know, worker strikes accelerating - something we really haven't seen for quite some time in this country, so - and then there are the longer-term trends, like the fact that consistent positive wage growth has occurred in only 10 of the last 40 years. Is there something that you would be willing to identify as a central issue for workers?

SMILEY: So, you know, I think when you ask the question of, what is the core issue, I think in some ways, it's actually just basic dignity and respect. And, of course, that can't just be a thank you for your service. It actually has to come with the equipment that people need to do the job, the pay that they need to sustain themselves and their family, the health care that allows them to take care of themselves, ideally before they get sick, let alone if they get sick.

That's actually what we mean when we say dignity for essential workers. We're talking about all those things. We wouldn't send soldiers into war without the equipment they need to fight. I mean, everyone would agree that that would be cruel. And yet, we want to send nurses and grocery workers and teachers into these - what are currently hazardous work sites without the equipment they need or the protections for their families to continue to be able to do the work in a sustainable way.

MARTIN: I mean, are you convinced that this is, in fact, an inflection point? I mean, it's an inflection point in part because of circumstances that we've discussed. But are you persuaded that this is an inflection point in terms of actual changes, structural changes in these areas that you are committed to?

SMILEY: Michel, honestly, like, I want to be - I want to distinguish between the fact that I am hopeful, and I feel like it is urgent that we make some of these structural shifts for the sake of our democracy. When workers have some aspect of decision-making, when there's already a role for them to have a voice and figure things out, when nurses already had a plan for a crisis, be it public health or otherwise, then our communities were safer.

So I firmly believe that this is a moment where it is critical for us to come together and navigate what systems need to be in place in the future. We may not be able to prevent another virus, but we could definitely shape our response in a way that prevents more deaths.

That said, I want to clarify - I don't think it's guaranteed. It really depends on everyday people, our political leaders and employers to come together to actually put some of these things in place. And we're lucky because cities like Los Angeles have already passed the idea of worker-driven health and safety boards in different sectors.

And, you know, I think it's going to be critical at the national level as well to think through how we create not just task forces of experts and health officials but where we have essential workers actually at the table making decisions and suggesting proposals for how to deal with the next crisis. We think this is how democracy works. I mean, in some ways, this is - this crisis has exposed that our democracy has been struggling for a minute.

This idea that democracy means that you vote just once a year has never actually (laughter) - never actually been good. Like, you know, a democracy means, you know, the majority of people having some access to decision-making in all aspects of their lives, whether it's civic or employment. In many ways, this is a chance for us to fix that, to right that wrong that's been happening long before the pandemic started, to actually increase the different channels that working people can have a direct say in our society and in our lives.

MARTIN: You know what I wanted to ask you, if you don't mind my getting into your business? What are you going to do for Labor Day?

SMILEY: What am I - oh, yeah. Well, actually two things. So we have a national tribute for essential workers tonight at 8 o'clock, and we're really excited about that. I think we're going to have some stars actually come on and just kind of give some attention and praise to essential workers who've been busting their butts for the last six months or so.

And additionally, we created a memorial wall - it's actually just www.theworkersmemorialwall.org (ph) - because we realize that in the last few months, people are - have lost co-workers and have no place to share anything about them. It's not like people could go to the memorials or anything like that. And so we created this space so that essential workers could memorialize their co-workers online.

So I'll be working on those two things. And then, quite honestly, like many of us, I will be doing those two things at home (laughter) with my family, where we've all been sheltering in place. And so we'll be trying to maximize what we can do virtually, given the year and the moment.

MARTIN: That's Erica Smiley. She's the executive director of Jobs With Justice, a national network to advance workers rights.

Erica Smiley, thanks so much for talking with us.

SMILEY: Thank you, Michel. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.