By Andrea Zinder | Special to CalMatters
Andrea Zinder is the president of UFCW Western States Council and UFCW Local 324, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you thought a global pandemic would be the wake-up call America needed to rectify the deep and deadly economic inequality between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – think again.
While most workers remained safely at home under shelter-in-place orders, essential workers have kept reporting to work day after day. Rather than recognizing the life-saving sacrifices frontline workers have made in this time of crisis, giant corporations have heartlessly sought opportunities to permanently eliminate middle-class jobs for the sake of profit.
The savagery of grocery and retail corporations are prime examples. Grocery and retail workers have been heroes ever since COVID-19 forced us all into a quarantined existence, but far too many grocery and pharmacy clerks and meatpackers have been exposed to the virus at work, fallen ill, brought the virus home to family members, and even lost their lives and loved ones.
A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco, shows mortality rates for jobs in the food and agriculture industries have jumped nearly 40% during the pandemic, ranking these jobs among the deadliest.
While workers are grappling with how to keep themselves and their families safe, corporate billionaires, who added more than $1 trillion to their wealth during the pandemic, have grown even more hungry for profit. Billion-dollar gig companies spent a record-shattering $200 million last year on Proposition 22 to boost their profits by exempting themselves from California laws requiring companies to pay their workers a fair wage, provide basic benefits and keep workers safe.
Corporate bosses would love to see all jobs follow this post-Proposition 22 model, where deep-pocketed executives can slash pay, exploit and fire workers without consequence as they hide behind a guise of flashy technology and user “convenience.”
We’re already seeing the true cost of that so-called convenience – gig companies are replacing quality jobs with sub-minimum wage jobs conducted by a workforce with no safety net and none of the basic protections or benefits they deserve.
After months and months of record profits, Albertsons tried to terminate its delivery drivers en masse and replace them with third-party independent contractors through the app-based company DoorDash. Recently, Instacart announced they are laying off a fifth of their frontline workers, and all of their unionized employees.
Tossing aside loyal workers who spent the last year making life-threatening sacrifices during the worst of the pandemic makes it clear that our existing labor laws and protections are insufficient to ensure workers are treated like human beings, not numbers on a spreadsheet.
UFCW grocery delivery drivers for Safeway.com in Northern California were spared because their union fought to protect their livelihoods.
Corporations won’t stop trying to kill good-paying jobs and put profits over people so long as the laws are rigged against workers. That’s why the Legislature must stand with working families to oppose efforts by other gig companies that try to hide behind flashy technology to mask their true aims: legislation enabling them to further dismantle decades of hard-won workers’ rights, benefits and protections. While the technology these app companies use might be new and convenient, unions like United Food and Commercial Workers are not newcomers to this fight to lift the standard of living for all workers.
UFCW rejects gig companies’ dystopian vision for a future where workers have no job security, benefits and wages too low to feed their families. Instead, we see a brighter future; one where every hard-working person has the same rights: a living wage, worker protections and basic benefits like health care, paid sick leave, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. Until they do, UFCW will not give up the fight.
The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.