During this COVID-19 crisis, Americans find it reprehensible when anyone uses this situation for their own gain such as price-gouging essential needs or scamming vulnerable individuals.

Unfortunately, unions are leveraging panic about workplace conditions among retail workers to bolster their ranks and prominence by targeting major employers for strikes. 

This is the time that we need these retail operations most, not the time for labor to play politics. The people who will be hurt by their actions are the ones they claim to help along with the rest of us.

Workers protest amid the coronavirus

On Monday, April 6, over a dozen workers (out of thousands) at a New York-based Amazon warehouse walked out for the second time in two weeks. A few Whole Foods workers held a sickout last week. Instacart shoppers held strikes recently. Some workers at the Target-owned grocery delivery company Shipt planned a strike yesterday as well.  

The workers say they want paid sick leave, pay increases, personal protective gear like gloves and masks, free coronavirus testing, and other demands.

We can understand that many grocery and warehouse workers, who are lucky enough to still have jobs, feel exposed each day. 

Employers should step up measures to protect their workers and so far, they are doing their part.

Companies in the retail and hospitality industries are implementing safeguards to ensure their workforce is protected such as temperature checks, protective glass as cash registers, and providing protective personal gear. Even smaller online retailers have rolled out stringent safety measures for their workforce and for the products customers purchase.

A spat of retailers have also temporarily raised pay, provided paid time off, and boosted hiring. (Others are simply paying workers while their doors are closed.) We can expect to see more of these measures.

All of these efforts are critical to fight the spread of COVID-19 and make for good business practices now and in the future. 

The unions are using a bad situation for their gain 

Not all of this is organizing is organic. Union-backed groups have formed coalitions to push workers to take advantage of this unique situation.

Athena, for example, was formed by a coalition of over 40 labor and activist groups last fall to “to stop Amazon’s growing, powerful grip over our society and economy.”  

An Amazon warehouse worker and Athena member gained national attention after organizing last week’s protest and being fired for not respecting social distancing rules.

We should be concerned that labor groups are using this crisis to push their agenda and they are partnering with sympathetic left-leaning lawmakers who are all too willing to also pile on the criticism against the very companies employing their constituents.

Union leaders of the biggest labor groups are demanding that Amazon shut down its operations immediately.

Opinion pieces like this one call for workers to leverage the coronavirus:

… front-line workers have unprecedented leverage, and in the face of inadequate coronavirus protections, they need to use it.

We can expect more of these protests, which so far only handfuls of individuals have participated in. They get national attention, give prominence to the well-funded groups behind them, and inspire others to strike creating the appearance of a tidal wave of worker disapproval. If companies respond, unions can claim victory and demonstrate why they are still relevant, despite the fact that their membership rolls have dwindled to the lowest level in history.

These protests will not be limited to retail either. They will make their way to every essential industry still providing goods and critical services. 

Who gets hurt

If retailers, especially the few that are still operational, give in to union demands to shut down, just who will be hurt?

First, the retail, warehouse, and delivery workers who are grateful to be employed right now. Nearly 10 million American workers filed jobless claims during the preceding two weeks with the retail industry especially hard-hit. Hiring sprees at national retailers and grocers offer much-needed opportunities right now, but cannot absorb every unemployed worker.  

Second, customers such as medical workers on the frontlines and American families. A stunning 95 percent of Americans are under some sort of state or local directive to stay at home right now amid efforts to slow the spread of novel coronavirus infections.

We are dependent on a few retail stores still open for groceries and essential needs like toilet paper, milk, and bread. As a mom of a toddler with a baby on the way, I am keenly aware of how few options we have right now for diapers, wipes, and milk. 

We are grateful for the cashiers, bakers, and warehouse workers who risk their health each day to ensure that shelves are stocked and shoppers can get what we need whether in person or online. 

However, taking advantage of this crisis is not about the safety or economic security of workers. In the words of Rahm Emmanuel, it’s about not allowing “a good crisis go to waste.”