Things did not go as planned when Ford reopened its Dearborn, Michigan plant, which manufactures F-150 trucks, on Wednesday. The first shift that day, the first in two months, was cut short after a worker tested positive for coronavirus. Now the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600, which represents the workers at the plant, has filed a grievance against Ford seeking additional safety measures for its members. The UAW demanded the immediate closure of the plant and that all 4,000 workers are tested for the virus – the grievance seeks the reopening of the plant only when a majority of workers test negative. Additionally, the grievance seeks a 24 hour closure of the plant for cleaning whenever a worker tests positive and an extra 20 minutes of break time per shift because the face masks that workers must not wear make their physical labor more taxing. Gary Walkowicz, a bargain committeeman at the plant, said “there’s no way to really be six feet apart [on the assembly line], [s]o people in those positions are very concerned.”

Why are unionized workers so much more willing to speak out against unsafe working conditions during a pandemic? According to reporting from HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson, the answer is simple: unionized workers are protected from retaliation for speaking out and non-union workers are not. Because virtually all union contracts protect covered workers from discharge without just cause, an employer generally cannot punish a union worker who talks to the press about unsafe conditions at work. Non-union at-will employees, on the other hand, can be fired for virtually any reason, or no reason at all. While on paper, the Occupational Safety and Health Act protects workers’ right to refuse to do dangerous work, the legal bar is high and the agency is so currently uninterested in protecting workers that, in practice, the protection is not very meaningful. 

In an interview with Mother Jones, former labor secretary Robert Reich predicted a post-pandemic strike wave as essential workers seek to improve their working conditions after sacrificing so much for the good of society. Reich’s message to essential workers: “once this is over, threaten to go on strike. Go on wildcat strike. Do whatever you need to do to improve your wages and working conditions. You deserve it. You have the public support. The big corporations—many of them for profit and are doing very, very well; they really need to respond better to your needs and they can afford to do so.” Reich’s prediction of a post-crisis strike wave has some precedent. The largest strike wave in American history came after World War II, as workers and unions who fueled the war effort sought compensation for their sacrifice.

In an essay for The New York Times, actress Yalitza Aparicio detailed how the film Roma exposed the working conditions of indigenous domestic workers in Mexico and led to expanded legal rights for those workers. Aparicio was nominated for a Best Actress award at the 2019 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Cleo, an indigenous maid who works for a middle class family in Mexico City. The film shined a spotlight on discrimination against indigenous communities and domestic workers. That awareness led to what she calls a “momentous legal victory in Mexico”: the passage of a law that required written employment contracts for domestic workers and guaranteed them a variety of benefits like vacation time and annual bonuses. The power of art, Aparicio writes, is that it “lays bare our brutal reality — a reality that is complex, diverse and often unfair — but it also presents us with the amazing opportunity to give voice to the unheard, and visibility to the unseen.”