Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, unions have been among the the strongest advocates of workplace safety measures.

So it came as a surprise a lot that some unions have resisted the imposition of vaccination mandates ranging from careful To frankly hostile. Their reactions may seem confusing as we tend to associate unions with Democrats, who polls show massively support vaccination mandates. Indeed, some unions, including those representing the police, are more favorable to republicans.

As an expert in labor law, however, I was not at all surprised by these differences. Understanding a little about the purpose of unions and how they work shows why.

Unions must represent their members

The police unions have been most vocal in their opposition to the vaccination warrants.

They have sued, sworn to ignore warrant and threatened to resign, although COVID-19 was the leading cause of death for police officers in 2020 and 2021.

While it is not known exactly how many police officers and their unions oppose the warrants, their vaccination figures are well below the national rate for adults, and there have been very hostile objections to the mandates in cities across the country. For example, the president of the Chicago Police Union urged officers to defy a vaccination warrant he compared to a Nazi gas chamber.

It is important to understand that unions are representative organizations that rely on the support of their members, just like politicians. A union can only enter a workplace if a majority of employees want to; if the union loses this majority support, it can be kicked out.

In addition, union leaders obtain and retain their positions through periodic elections. As a result, unions are particularly sensitive to the positions of their members. And this is not only to maintain support, it is also the main job of the unions: to represent the employees.

So if a union represents workers who oppose vaccination mandates, it should come as no surprise that union leaders, who are usually former base employees, echo the same point of view. This is why we see so many unions representing law enforcement and firefighters, who tend to be politically conservative, oppose vaccination mandates.

Protect the right to negotiate

Yet even the unions that traditionally support the Democratic Party are not always enthusiastic about mandates, especially those that are implemented without their input.

While some large unions, like the AFL-CIO and National Association of Education, quickly supported vaccination mandates, others took a more nuanced position. As Terri Gerstein from Harvard Labor and Worklife Program pointed out, it is important to pay attention to what exactly these unions are doing and saying.

Many unions initially expressed caution or opposition to vaccination mandates, but this reluctance has often abated over time. Thus, we see certain unions which have always encouraged their members to vaccinate, such as the American Federation of Teachers, first oppose the employers’ mandates before changing course, while insisting on the need for more discussions between workers and management.

The American Federation of Government Employees encourages its members to get vaccinated but pointed out that any requirement first be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units”. The Service Employees International Union also lobbied for members to be vaccinated, while arguing that employers could be legally bound to negotiate with unions before implementing mandates.

While these positions may seem odd, they are exactly what you should expect.

When a policy that affects workers is first proposed, unions may need some time to assess the thoughts of their members. Hence the initial hesitation. After that, however, unions focus on protecting one of the vital labor rights of their members: the right to negotiate.

One of the main reasons employees want a union is to have a seat at the table with their employer to discuss working conditions. Employers generally cannot change working conditions themselves, because they have a duty try to find an agreement with the union. Therefore, when the possibility of a vaccine mandate arises, a union – even the one supporting the mandate – will be very careful to ensure that the employer negotiates before implementing it.

Even if some state courts and agencies recently determined that state and local government employers are not required to negotiate with unions on immunization mandates because it is an urgent health emergency, it is always a open question in the private sector. As a result, a union’s failure to at least lobby for the right to negotiate a mandate would be giving up one of its most powerful rights without a fight.

Ironing details

But even when its members typically support a mandate and an employer is allowed to impose one, a union can still be prompted to avoid publicly supporting the mandate. This is because he will always want to reserve the right to negotiate the implementation of the mandate.

The obligation to negotiate includes not only the adoption of a rule, but also negotiations on how the rule is implemented.

For example, Tyson Foods and its unions have agreed to a mandate that included incentives for vaccination, such as paid time off.

And the US Postal Service and its unions are negotiating how to approach the new rule which requires employers with 100 or more employees to require workers to be vaccinated or to take regular COVID-19 tests. The terms include compliance deadlines, whether the Postal Service will provide on-site testing or vaccinations, and how employees who fail to comply will be disciplined.

Questions about the possibility of challenging a disciplinary action have recently led to a Illinois court to temporarily bar Chicago to enforce its vaccination obligation for the police. The delay was needed, the court said, to allow unvaccinated agents to challenge the suspensions through the arbitration process that was part of their union’s contract with the city.

The stakes in these post-mandate negotiations are considerable, because NBA Brooklyn Nets Kyrie Irving can attest to this.

Irving’s unvaccinated status means he cannot play in his team’s arena due to New York City vaccination rules. The NBA has said players who cannot play due to a vaccination warrant will be fined. This is a position that the players’ union initially opposed, but after discussions with the league, finally agreed was eligible under the contract. The result is that Irving is on the verge of losing over US $ 15 million.

Most employees, of course, don’t have that much money on the line. However, their interest in their union being involved in decisions about how a vaccine mandate will be implemented is equally great. And that helps explain why unions will be reluctant to publicly support a mandate until they can sort out all these details.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here:


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