The importance of unions is more obvious than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic

Of all the injustices exposed by this public health crisis, the risks faced by non-union workers are the most apparent.

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Construction workers have been deemed “essential workers” in Illinois during the coronavirus shutdown. They are building hospitals, long-term care facilities and other vital infrastructure.

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In the space of just over a month, the coronavirus outbreak has become an all-encompassing global crisis, whose economic ramifications, though still developing, are certain to be catastrophic.

As spring turns to summer and then fall, and we’re be able to take fuller stock of the devastation, we’ll know which industries came out stronger, which need to reinvent themselves, and which unfortunately will never come back. With the benefit of hindsight, one thing that will be made abundantly clear is the need for organized labor in times of crisis.

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In late March, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued stay-at-home restrictions for Illinois residents and required most operations to close, he exempted essential businesses and encouraged them to remain open. Construction workers, many of whom were building hospitals, long-term care facilities and other vital infrastructure, were asked to stay on the job.

The hardworking men and women of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters answered the call. This was not a decision members took lightly. They knew of the health risks involved with projects such as converting McCormick Place into a 3,000-bed alternate care facility. But, as our members said, “Sometimes you have look past yourself.”

But it’s not just a sense a duty compelling the thousands of union carpenters doing their part to help contain the spread. They go to work knowing their union has their back every step of the way. Among the many lessons we will learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is its demonstration of the importance of union membership for essential workers. 

Of all the injustices exposed by the pandemic, the risks faced by non-union workers have become the most apparent. Non-union workers are being asked to risk their safety with little or no protections of their own. This is why we’re seeing a groundswell of strikes and walk-offs from delivery drivers and other workers on the front lines.

The construction industry is no different. Many non-union construction workers do not have health insurance — about 54%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Because they often are paid under the table, non-union workers also can struggle to access unemployment benefits. Their unemployment insurance, Social Security and other benefits are not withheld from their paychecks.

Compare the experience of non-union construction workers with what building trades unions across the country are providing for their members. The Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters has a dedicated safety department and staff working round the clock answering questions and visiting job sites to make sure they are compliant with CDC health and safety guidelines. We’ve also extended health insurance eligibility for members who lost coverage due to a reduction of hours worked and are providing 100% coverage for testing, office visits, ER and urgent care visits relating to COVID-19, among other benefit adjustments.

Our number one priority will always be fighting tooth and nail for our members. We’ve been doing that since 1881 and will never let up.

It’s important to remember that union efforts don’t just benefit the members we represent. Unions raise wages for everyone, especially the middle-class. A recent study done by researchers from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of California, Irvine found that labor unions boost worker incomes by lifting hourly wages by an average of 11%.

The Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters is proud of our record of service, protecting our members’ health and welfare, and raising the standard of living for the middle class. We look forward to new members joining the union movement and having a collective voice.

While we’re strong alone, we’re unstoppable together.

Gary Perinar is executive secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters.

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