How COVID-19 Showed America’s Dependence on Blue-Collar Workers

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

At the start of each shift, Eric Jarvis takes a handful of anti-bacterial wipes and sanitizes the equipment he uses at the Packaging Corporation of America mill in Valdosta, Georgia.

He worries about getting the coronavirus every time he leaves for work, but knows the nation depends on paper workers like him to produce the linerboard that goes into the cardboard boxes used to ship millions of items to stores and homes each day.

Jarvis, president of USW Local 646, may not be on the front lines of the pandemic in the same way as nurses and first responders. But he and other manufacturing workers also fulfill a vital role on the nation’s production lines, ensuring that Americans still have the food, medicine, toiletries and other items crucial for everyday life.

“If we don’t make boxes, then the grocery stores don’t have groceries,” Jarvis said.

“We know our job is an essential job,” he said of the local’s 235 members. “You can see the pride in the workers doing their jobs out there.”

Truck drivers, bakers, transit operators, grocery store clerks, warehouse packers and manufacturing workers form the backbone of America’s economy.

They show up every day and get the job done, performing so reliably that the nation long took their work for granted. No one questioned, for example, whether stores would have toilet paper and cleaning products.

Then the pandemic struck, and surging demand for consumer goods exposed America’s dependence on the blue-collar workers who supply almost every need.

Life would grind to a halt without them.

Right now, these workers risk COVID-19 by laboring in groups at mills, factories, warehouses and stores while many other Americans do their jobs alone at home. It angers Jarvis to think that service workers put their lives on the line for the poverty-level wages common in their industry.

“I hope people never forget that,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis and his co-workers protect themselves as best they can.

Besides wiping down equipment, they stagger their starting times to reduce contact with one another. They wait in their cars and trucks before a shift instead of congregating at the time clock. Inside the mill, they remain at their work stations unless their presence elsewhere is a necessity.

Still, workers worry about bringing the coronavirus home to their families. Some shower, change clothes and even wash their eyeglasses the minute they get home to avoid spreading any germs they picked up during their shifts.

“It gets a little rough,” explained Colt Kovatch, vice president of USW Local 14693, which represents about 80 workers at the International Paper box shop in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. “You have family at home. You want to be with them. But I understand what I’m doing, what I’m making, and how it helps. It keeps my blood pumping.”

The box shop makes packaging for food and drug companies, plastics manufacturers and online retailers.

“We might not be the frontline workers,” Kovatch said. “But we’re right there behind them.”

At Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, members of USW Local 8888 continue building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy even though 23 co-workers contracted COVID-19. Local President Charles Spivey said the workers who report each day “are making a great sacrifice.”

“We do unique work here,” Spivey observed. “We can’t just shut down. There’s pride here. We know that we’re the best shipbuilders in the world.”

Some of the workers at Morton Salt’s production facilities in Lyons and Hutchinson, Kansas, have worked together for years.

Now, that camaraderie helps the members of USW Local 12606 cope with the risks they face from the coronavirus.

“We recognize that there’s a danger, but we also recognize that there’s a job to do,” local President Jon Ahrens said. “We still have to provide not only for our families but for the whole United States.”

Table salt in blue containers may be the most recognizable product supplied by the local’s approximately 200 members. But their salt also is used as an additive in shampoos and water softeners; as a preservative in the chips, snack cakes and other comfort foods in high demand during the pandemic; and in the saline solutions that hospitals use to treat patients.

So far, at least 33,200 Americans have died from COVID-19, and more than 671,000 have been infected. An influx of patients overwhelmed some hospitals and ambulance crews.

Jay Wright, president of USW Local 188S, figures that many exhausted health care workers and first responders survive on caffeine these days. And he’s happy to do his part to keep them going.

Each day, Wright and about 140 co-workers at the Ardagh factory in Valparaiso, Indiana, make more than 40 million tops for aluminum cans.

When the pandemic began, manufacturers of sodas, energy drinks and other beverages experienced increased demand for their products—so they requested more lids.

The factory is so loud that workers often speak mouth to ear. Because social distancing is crucial to controlling the spread of COVID-19, Wright successfully pushed Ardagh to purchase radio sets so workers can communicate while standing several feet apart.

USW members say they’re proud to belong to a union that fights for fair wages and benefits and holds employers accountable for worker safety.

But they worry about the home health aides, food delivery drivers and other service workers who put their lives on the line while laboring for low pay and few, if any, benefits.

“That minimum wage is a joke,” said Jarvis, referring to the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. “People should see that after this.”

Jarvis and other workers at Packaging Corporation make more than the minimum wage largely because they have the protection of a union contract. They recognize others aren’t as lucky.

For years, labor leaders and other advocates pushed for an increase in the minimum wage. Raising it to $15 an hour would help 33 million Americans, including many who live in poverty even though they juggle multiple part-time jobs.

The House last year passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. However, Senate Republican leaders refuse even to consider it.

Working-class people make, package and ship just about everything Americans need. Although their work is essential, they believe consumers long showed little appreciation for it because much of what they do occurs behind the scenes.

COVID-19 shined a light on their role, and they hope people will remember it after life returns to normal.

These workers are the lifeblood of the nation. They step up every day and keep America running—even during a pandemic.

“I think this has really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Wright said.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

39 comments

  1. curious euro

    Yes, blue collar worker are more essential as leadership or “creative” classes since they are the ones that get actual stuff done. It still doesn’t matter. At all.

    There are way way more worker class members than actually needed and therefore the price for their work is driven down. Even in this current pandemic. Or where did the workers get an actual wage increase? At most, some, and only some, far from all, got a bonus for the current risk they face. This bonus will immediately go away after so it’s pretty much useless. And probably too low for the risk they face anyways: getting infected is almost certainly an economic death verdict with the current healthcare system available.

    No ones eyes has been opened since the working class has many surplus members since Marx 170 years ago, up to now and most certainly into the future.

    Reply
  2. jackiebass

    If we have learned anything from politics , the American people have short memories. They very soon forget and are very vulnerable to propaganda used to mold their opinions. Go to a local bar with patrons of average income from working at an ordinary non skilled job. Sit and listen to the conservations. You will quickly get an education about the thinking of these people. Most of it is driven by the propaganda the get from watching main stream media. Most of them do no critical thinking but simply repeat talking points fro a TV program. It’s pretty scary.

    Reply
    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Except for the loud mouths, I’ve always found the working classes to have far more awareness than cable new viewers or npr listeners. I find the latter group tends towards, if unspoken, in a belief in an inherent goodness of America. Like prosperity gospel types, I find it frees them to know nothing more than name checking a few people.

      Perhaps, I’m being more judgmental towards the PMC because they have more reasons to know better, but one after another is simply the dullest of the dull.

      Reply
      1. Amfortas the hippie

        your right.
        timothy
        at least according to my 30+year of Fieldwork, embedded in two…distinct…hostile tribes.
        the Lumpen-Right is nothing like what the Team Blue Bubbledwellers think they are.
        much more complex than that.
        there’s nothing in the way of a New new Deal getting major, big-time traction out here in the hustings.
        Just come talk to them.

        Reply
  3. Robert Gray (AFSCME)

    As this article was written by a senior union official, it’s not surprising that every example he cites includes ‘XXX Local yyy’ — and more power to ’em. What is shocking, however, is how few American workers nowadays either (a) have a union to which they can belong or (b) choose to join the union that is available to them.

    Reply
    1. rowlf

      The anti-union marketing has been pretty strong. Must non-union workers will bring up welfare-queen type stereotypes and mention workplace safety is now managed by OSHA, so a union cannot improve anything for them. I usually reply with why would they want to rely on government for workplace safety when government cannot even control immigration? Since the person I am talking with has experienced safety corner cutting they usually get a haunted look.

      I am former a UFWA, Teamsters, IAM and AMFA member, and have also been assigned stupidvisor and mismanager positions in the past after I moved into a merit position after 19 years on the floor. I’d much prefer being a manager in a union shop than a non-union shop.

      Knowing some events from the union member side, it was a shock to see the pattern of misreporting of union topics in the news media. I think the Detroit Free Press was the only newspaper I remember really doing a good job on getting the workers side, which of course they probably did for their subscriber base.

      Reply
    2. Jim Young

      A classmate’s father (retired USAF Lt Col) was Walter Reuther’s pilot when they died in a crash. My mother knew him and surprised me with what seemed more than expected knowledge of Reuther’s support for universal healthcare (and support for Martin Luther King, who had worked in the similar Connecticut tobacco fields I had worked in my first job at 79 cents an hour). He couldn’t sell his own UAW members on it though, as they seemed to prefer the better bargains they had gotten back in WWII when company provided healthcare was one of the ways they could get around pay regulations. I guess they thought the advantage would last forever.

      I wonder how that compares to Sweden’s experiments with higher levels of “democratic socialism” in the 70s, before they backed off to something more sustainable, as implied in the Cato Institute produced, “Sweden: Lessons for America?” I used to read a lot of the Cato Institute seemingly deeper research back in the ’80s, but I could almost never see how they came to the conclusions and solutions they suggested since the short versions most of the public paid attention to seemed so far from what the research data seemed to indicate. Cato’s story at least mentioned the far less adversarial relationships between unions and management.

      Some might think union member ship went as low as it has in the US, but they actually have 2/3rds of the workers in unions, second highest in the world, and about 6 times the percentage in the US.

      See https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/06/20/which-countries-have-the-highest-levels-of-labor-union-membership-infographic/#433dfdd733c0

      and (with a critical eye for what they aren’t telling you)

      Sweden: Lessons for America? – Full Video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq3vVbdgMuQ

      Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    I am going to risk a prediction or two here. Yes, the vital role of blue collars will be acknowledged but that will be about it. I foresee that in the US, that corporations will decide that the best thing to do then is to try to get rid of as many blue collars as possible and replace them with robotics, software and artificial intelligence to reduce their reliance on them. You will also see a movement to “bring industry back home” but it will be automated facilities being built using Federal money in programs to “bring back jobs” but there will be precious few jobs created. The net effect that supply lines will be shortened and there will be less reliance on workers through automation so that these corporations will be more shock-proof going into the future.

    Reply
    1. rob

      I think you are right.
      The forward looking people, getting paid the big bucks; surely must be figuring their next moves… and the more “shockproof”, the better.
      People are liabilities, robots are assets.

      Reply
    2. JTMcPhee

      To blue collar America, there will be the same formulaic pablum handed out to GIs:

      “Thank you for your service.”

      Next!

      Reply
    3. Amfortas the hippie

      will not an obviously viralising Robot Workforce…and the concurrent lack of need for Us….be met with an ,at the very least ,an inchoate violent reaction?
      I mean, isn’t #general strike trending?
      How far did Bernie’s influence go?
      How far that of Occupy?
      I know some Libertarian Small Bussinessfolk who are ready to “Resist” and “oraganise”….they just don’t know how.
      (“I am an Island!”, etc…..but John Galt was a Socialist!,lol)

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        I foresee a big opportunity for Neo-Luddites coming up. Learn how to code, and then hack and wreck the robot’s electronic brains.
        This dynamic is why I am amazed that the more thoughtful small ‘c’ conservative intellectuals, (yes, they must have some, just look at how successful the conservative ‘movement’ has been these last decades,) haven’t put forward the thesis that socialism with a small ‘s’ is in the interests of the ruling elites. As I put elsewhere recently; Rule #1 of Parasitism is: Don’t kill the host.
        We are probably seeing the end stage of, if not the phenomenal world, as is so beloved of Millenarianists everywhere, but, as described by Marx and Engels, Capitalism.
        That I have lived so long as to see this. Interesting times.

        Reply
        1. Sharron

          “Don’t kill the host” was the belief held by the powerful in Singapore back in 2001 when I Iived there. It was well known among the populace that if the elites let the “homelanders” have a decent life and opportunity, the rich could do what they wanted. So far it has worked well. Too bad our elites don’t feel the need provide a basic level of support for the masses.
          I tell my children that national protest may be the only way to have a responsive government, especially in light of the current election options.

          Reply
    4. eg

      That needn’t be a terrible outcome if the ownership of the automation/robots is widely distributed — one of the great political economic struggles will be, “who will own the robots?”

      Of course the oligarchs will be busy …

      Reply
  5. Robt Post

    To my mind, one of the biggest obstacles to mustering the political will for a more effective response to the pandemic is the ascension of conservative evangelical Christianity to the halls of power in Washington as well as the state and local governments. Beginning with Christ’s pronouncements that the end of the world is just around the corner (Matthew 24), and the futility of helping the poor to a better life (Matthew 26:6-11), every generation of Christians has been convinced that they are ‘lucky‘ enough to be living the end times and won’t have to wait very long to meet their maker and leave this evil, sinful world. Therefore, there is no point to trying to make this world a better place, since it (and they) won’t be around here for very long, anyway.

    Reply
  6. Louis Fyne

    medicare/Medicaid needs to have Made in USA sourcing rules for gloves,masks,etc.

    as nearly all of the world’s medical goods production capacity is outside the US. this country can’t even keep rubbing alcohol stocked on the shelves

    not holding my breath—democratic corp. health care donors would not be happy

    Reply
    1. Grayce

      You are onto a good track. Anything sourced with taxpayer dollars can have unique points in its contract. The poster child example is Affirmative Action. It was never the law of the land. It was only a clause in a contractual agreement between the federal government and the supplier. If an employer had a federal contract, then it was mandated by contract that the employer choose candidates for advancement by taking people of equal qualification, and tipping the scales toward a minority until the diversity of he work force resembled the diversity of the country.
      Now we have “economic. minorities” instead of racial minorities in the spotlight. It is reasonable to expect medicare providers, for example, to apply USA sourcing when they are spending federal tax dollars. Good call Louis.

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Alas, I must be the ‘Dog in the Manger’ here.
        From my experiences in mid sized commercial projects over the decades, I have noticed that sub-contractors will willfully contravene the extant “Made In the USA” rules for material supplies for Federal and many State projects. I have personally seen ‘Made in China” stamped on piping components used on Federal projects. (More than once.) The weak link, as always with Made in USA rules is in the enforcement.
        I once remarked to a Job Foreman about his having royally pissed off a representative of the Architect. His reply was spot on: “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to get the job done.” To that effect on supply issues and quality issues, a job needs a very self assured and fearless Quality Controller. To be that way, the QC needs to know that the ultimate contractor “has his back,” and will support the QC in disputes.
        Short form lesson is: It takes big ‘C’ Character to run any project properly. Sadly, that trait is in, has been, and will probably be in short supply. Human nature.

        Reply
  7. Susan the other

    Old story. You’d think it would be closer to being fixed by now. It’s just evidence of general American obsolescence. If we can’t change, if we cannot restructure our culture and our economy, we are going down in history as a sophomoric set of ideas that failed because it was simply impossible to maintain the contradictions.

    Reply
    1. Amfortas the hippie

      the most likely scenario, depending on how mad the People get, i guess.
      just another stupid empire that though the world* was theirs, alone.

      (* whatever “the world” means at that time…ie: the Mediterranean Region.)

      Reply
    2. Jim Young

      I do wonder what the countries with the most effective unions are doing right, is it laws or social norms that seem to make Sweden, with its 67% union membership, as effective as they seem to be?

      Reply
  8. Anarcissie

    No doubt people who do actual work with actual physical substances or objects, or provide actual services, produce almost everything people actually find valuable in their daily lives. On the other hand, I, as a well-paid member of the PMC (I programmed and managed the programming and operation of computer systems for most of 50 years) cannot think of anything I ever produced for money that had any but the most illusory, transitory and dubious social value. (Periodically I would develop a jones for Right Livelihood, but it seemed impossible without taking a 50% cut in pay at the very least; so I just had to accept the money pouring in, which my family, relatives, friends, and associates took care of getting rid of.) So, yes, blue (and pink and dirty-green) collar jobs are what produce actual value. So you would think the working class could ask for and get a better deal.

    But, as a troublemaker, I occasionally went around raising the idea of forming unions or workers’ cooperatives with my colleagues, and very few of them were interested except in the most abstract ways. To say that they were compelled by the culture, the media, or religious organizations to think badly of unions and so forth is to deny them perception, intelligence, and agency, which they certainly seemed to possess in daily life. Sometimes they would explain to me (based usually on the experiences of their kin) that having a union would just add yet another layer of bureaucracy and bullshit to their lives, without getting them anything substantial. I suppose I eventually figured that unions were not far enough from capitalism.

    Reply
    1. rowlf

      Most unions took a bite of the poisoned fruit, automatic dues check off, a long time ago. Imagine how interested you would be in how your government worked if instead of automatic tax withholding from your paycheck, you had to send in a check every month? Unions would be a lot healthier if the membership had to go to the hall every month, pay and get their membership dues book stamped. This would keep the membership from somnambulating and also require the union leaders to lead.

      I say this as someone who was involved in taking over a local of about ten thousand, having our elections overturned by the national organization as they feared we were too militant (we failed to vote yes for paycuts after an LBO) and would kick over their apple cart, and then we did the near impossible switch to another union for representation.

      Reply
      1. Billy

        And unions allowed social radicals in “leadership” to promote affirmative action which was really dumb as it went against the interest of the majority of their potential members and organizers.

        Reply
        1. Anarcissie

          That depends on what you think their interests are, or rather, on what they (the existing and potential members) think their interests are. Clearly, people who try to organize collective bargaining believe in at least some uses of collectivity. Clearly, tribalism can be used to break collective class solidarity. So it would be in the interests of the union organizers to promote a deracialized workplace.

          Reply
        2. rowlf

          What specific unions did you have in mind with your comment? All the unions I mentioned above that I had been a member of were very conservative outside of the national leadership making kissy-face with the Democratic politicians. The closest they got to affirmative action was to be very sure all union members got treated and represented equally. Both the companies and the unions were very careful about what I’s got dotted and what T’s got crossed. Any mis-step would create precedent.

          Part of the reason I mentioned earlier that I would prefer to be a manager in a union shop is the work rules are very well defined. Having to deal with the vagaries of HR departments sucks.

          Reply
    2. 3.14e-9

      “unions were not far enough from capitalism.”

      A painful truth, Anarcissie. Among the biggest problems, IMO, is that union executives began identifying more with employer management than with their own rank and file and bought into the “us versus them” mentality. The perks of union management also, predictably, have lead to corruption. I don’t know union history well enough to know when things started going downhill. No doubt there is someone in NC’s impressive knowledge base who could speak to the timing.

      All I have to go on are my own experiences, as well as ongoing updates from a friend who is an active, dyed-in-the-wool union brother. My own experiences mirror your workplace feedback. From my first job as a news reporter in a union shop in the mid-eighties to a seasonal job in retail in the mid-aughts, union membership was mandatory, with an initial membership fee plus monthly dues deducted from the paycheck. Dues were not proportional to wages, so I paid the same dues, even though I was making a beginning salary. In the case of the retail job, it wasn’t a living wage to start with. Meanwhile, per union rules, the last-hired was the first to be laid off. If a union is truly fighting for the welfare of its membership, or you intend to make a career of your trade, it might make sense to “pay your dues.” Otherwise, why would any new hire willingly agree to a hefty payroll deduction?

      My friend faces a different dilemma. Until the past 10 years or so, his union had a long history of going to bat for its membership, in a trade fraught with safety risks. The bargaining unit for his local had a good record negotiating with the State of Washington. Amid a state budget crisis in 2009, the union agreed to forego pay raises for two years to help Gov. Gregoire balance the budget. Well, then in 2011, she sang an even more sorrowful tune, and they agreed to actually take a pay cut – on the condition that when the recession was over, they’d get back what they gave up. Gregoire decided not to run for a third term in 2012. Enter Jay Inslee, a Clinton austerity DINO who talked a good game to get union support and then threw my friend’s union under the bus with the same old “state is broke” argument. The real shocker, though, was that union leaders put up only a cursory fight, and when longtime members asked for ongoing reports during collective bargaining, they essentially were told to sit down and shut up, that leadership would take care of it — behind closed doors — and present the deal to membership for their approval.

      Reply
  9. Left in Wisconsin

    Tom Conway needs to present a short list of non-negotiable demands to Joe Biden, including a ban on bankers, PE people and health care execs in his administration. Also, not only support for union organizing but support for sectoral bargaining – with a role for unions where they exist (including NRA-type support for organizing unions) and for union alternatives (like worker centers) where they don’t.

    Reply
  10. Monica

    The issue is not pay. Business will happily pay everyone more and will charge everyone more for the products they buy. Pay fast-food workers more and cost of fast food increases. The biggest issue is why companies do not share the profits with workers. It stems from entitlement beliefs of the ruling class. We can adjust this disparity through – of right – no one wanted me to write my education thesis on the importance of math in education to close income inequity gaps. The focus was on English skills for ESL students so they can follow instructions.

    Reply
      1. JBird4049

        IIRC, raising the minimum wage at McDonald’s to $15 would require the company to charge 0.10¢ for a Big Mac, which is not much. No, as Monica says, it is a sense of entitlement that makes the average CEO to worker pay ratio is 278 to 1 in 2018. I have read as high a 300-1; since much of the pay for a CEO is split between salary, stock options, and bonuses it is difficult to calculate an accurate ration.

        For a comparison, in 1965 the ration was 20-1 and I believe 30-1 in around the early 70s. There are good reasons for the economy to be sputtering for the last thirty years (I do not count the eCommerce boom as that was a sugar rush, not an actual booming economy.); if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation it would be over $11 and up to $15 depending on the source.

        For further comparison, adjusted for inflation, the high level for the minimum was $13. Had the minimum wage increased in step with both inflation and productivity, as it until the early 1970s, it would be $24 today. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 today. There is mainly food servers, which reduced to $2.13 for Southern states. The business is supposed to make up the difference if the tips do not match the higher standard minimum, but that is often not done.

        Reply
    1. Billy

      Just teaching native English speakers, or ESL students about basic math, especially compounding interest rates, would be one of the more valuable things that could be done.

      Reply
  11. John Summa

    It shows how surplus value plunges when workers stay at home, ceteris paribus. Workers make all that capitalist profit. Period. PS, Let’s acknowledge the system is built on the laboring of workers, without which we have a collapse of profits.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      That is generally true, but using the MMT and the effective ability to print money, the wealth, powerful, or just well connected can get essentially free money; the proles and the disposable get next to nothing, or worse, get robbed like in the last crisis with the robot-
      sighing of forged documents.

      Admittedly, without a working economy, it is false wealth for money without anything to buy is just colorful toilet paper or just symbols in a ledger.

      Reply
  12. Sound of the Suburbs

    With areas that have got the virus under control bring re-infected, we need to identify the transmission mechanism.

    How did the coronavirus spread around the world so quickly?
    “Don’t look at me. I’ haven’t travelled more than thirty miles from where I live in months. There is no way I couldn’t have brought the virus into the country”
    It certainly wasn’t the much maligned “somewheres”, it’s the other lot.
    The “anywheres” are the problem, travelling around the world spreading the coronavirus in their wake.

    We can’t use regional lockdowns because of these people.
    They tend to be affluent and have second homes.
    In Italy, they decided to lock down the North of the country, where the virus had spread widely.
    What did these people do?
    They headed to their second homes in the South of Italy before the lockdown came into affect, taking the coronavirus with them.

    The “anywheres” are the real problem here, and we have to find effective ways of stopping these people travelling around willy-nilly, spreading the virus in their wake.
    You’ve just been through months of lockdown to get the virus under control.
    The next thing you know one of these people has travelled into your region spreading the coronavirus in their wake and you are back to square one.
    They are a menace.

    The “somewheres” days in the sun have just begun.
    We all need to be more like them.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *