Scarred by pandemic, labor and allies mourn, then mobilize

Organizations plan events for May Day as unions, business groups clash over the PRO Act proposal in Congress.

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Nurses at Community First Medical Center place roses on a temporary shrine Feb. 24 for three workers who died of COVID-19.

Nurses at Community First Medical Center place roses on a temporary shrine Feb. 24 for three workers who died of COVID-19.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

As May Day 2021 approached, registered nurse Kathy Haff thought about the trials she and co-workers have faced over the past year and was moved to speak out.

Haff, who works at Community First Medical Center in Portage Park, wrote down her thoughts about three co-workers who succumbed to COVID-19. She touched on their humor, professionalism and generosity.

In a local observation of the International Workers’ Memorial Day, Haff talked Wednesday about her late colleagues during an online prayer service memorializing those who have died. Her point wasn’t to elevate them above others being remembered but to address the grief and sense of injustice that inhabits many workplaces because of the pandemic.

Haff told the Chicago Sun-Times the deaths shook the small hospital’s staff, where workers have organized with the National Nurses United union and pressed administrators to provide more personal protective equipment. “We finally have a voice with the union and the hospital isn’t happy because we’re airing their dirty laundry. They’re oblivious,” she said.

Meanwhile, the pressure from the pandemic isn’t letting up. “It’s still busy as heck. We’re certainly in a third wave that’s just starting to let up, but we’re still seeing a lot of COVID,” she said. Haff also said the hospital is still demanding that workers reuse gowns and masks that should be sanitized or discarded after one use, putting patients at risk.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the hospital $13,494, concluding it violated respiratory protection rules. The hospital has appealed.

Gus Lopez, Community First’s vice president of human resources, said the union has used the employees’ deaths for “political gain” and hasn’t acknowledged improvements at the hospital since March 2020 “when nobody had enough PPE.”

He said OSHA investigated the workers’ deaths. “The hospital was not found to be culpable,” Lopez said, noting two of the workers were part-timers who had jobs elsewhere.

OSHA itself is linked to Workers’ Memorial Day. The occasion’s date, April 28, is when the agency came into being 50 years ago to enforce safer workplaces. The AFL-CIO popularized the observance. It falls just before May Day, which is Saturday and emphasizes activism and demands for change. It’s an interlude that blends remembrance with resolve in the labor movement.

Kathy Haff speaks at a rally outside Community First Medical Center in Portage Park Feb. 24.

Kathy Haff

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Haff has felt both sensations of late. She said she hopes the deaths of her fellow nurses — Nancy Veto, Dione Malana and Anjanette Miller — will inspire the staff to keep pressing for on-the-job protection. And she said she wants workers across all industries to demand more safety measures. Laborers at Amazon, temp agencies, grocery stores and other places have raised similar issues with managers.

The worker rights group Arise Chicago organized the prayer service Wednesday that featured Haff. The Rev. C.J. Hawking, Arise’s executive director, observed how COVID-19 has perversely traced the fault lines of American life, exposing “gross injustices and inequities placed on people of color.”

More than 50 people attended the virtual service. It included a reading of names of workers who died in the past year due to the virus or other reasons.

As attention moves to May Day, unions and worker rights advocates are turning to other events. On Saturday, there’s a rally and march starting at noon at Union Park on the West Side and ending downtown. The Chicago Federation of Labor and Jobs With Justice are promoting an online Illinois Labor History May Day Celebration at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

The CFL has organized a virtual May Day 5K run and walk that will raise money for COVID-19 relief. People can do it on their own and the federation has suggested a route that ends at the Haymarket Memorial, 175 N. Desplaines St. The CFL includes more than 300 affiliated unions and has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Much of the emphasis from organized labor will be on urging Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The measure is designed to make it easier to organize workers by, among other things, forbidding employers from forcing staff to hear anti-union arguments. It also would override state “right-to-work” laws that allow unionized employees to skip paying dues.

The PRO Act, backed by President Joe Biden, passed the House 225-206 largely on Democratic votes but faces a difficult path in the Senate.

The business lobby has rallied to beat it back. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called it “a litany of almost every failed idea from the past 30 years of labor policy.” Its executive director for labor policy, Sean Redmond, said, “The PRO Act is little more than a power grab by organized labor, which has seen its share of the workforce steadily fall over the years.”

To labor and its friends, the battle lines are familiar. Hawking, in her benediction at Arise Chicago’s prayer service, asked God to comfort those who mourn so that they can “go forward to repair the broken world.”

The AFL-CIO put it differently on its Twitter feed Wednesday: “Today we pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

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