His members are bravely holding down the front lines in the battle against COVID-19, but they are being shortchanged, says a local labor leader.
“They are heroes, they are keeping our communities going,” says David Broder, president of the Virginia branch of the Service Employees International Union.
“They are heroes, but they are scared, scared about their health, about their financial security. Some of their partners have been laid off so there is a real sense of insecurity and an awareness that they don’t have PPE [personal protective equipment] and paid leave. They are rightfully terrified.
“Health-care workers are often forced to make a terrible choice: do they go to work if they’re not feeling well and get sick and infect their clients or stay home and not be able to pay their bills.”
Broder’s members include local public employees — nurses, librarians, social workers, child educators (for before- and after-school programs).
“They perform all the services that local governments provide,” says Broder, 41. The union also represents home-care workers, those who care for older adults and those with disabilities in their homes.
There are some 4,000 members in his branch of the union.
Nationwide, while unions have been under “political and corporate attack” for decades, he says, “we are seeing a resurgence of the labor movement in the last 10 years. Young people are driving real change.”
He also sees a change for the better in Virginia, which had been ranked by Oxfam America as the worst state for workers two years in a row. This ranking reflected a total lack of worker protection, notes Broder, a Vienna resident.
In 2020, the Virginia legislature passed reforms to permit bargaining for public employees. The state also is on the path to a $15 minimum wage, and has reformed Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), which allow government to set standards for wages, benefits and safety on big infrastructure projects.
“These were huge victories for working people that were 10 or 15 years in the making,” Broder says.
Broder’s choice of profession seems to have come naturally. “I was born into movement,” he says. “My grandparents were union members and my mom, an elementary school arts teacher, was a rank-and-file member and leader.”
His Jewish identity also helped. “Union values are Jewish values,” Broder notes. Looking at the Bible or Talmud, many of the teachings are not just about social justice broadly “but are explicitly about workers’ rights.” The Talmud speaks about not taking advantage of your workers, their right to good wages, setting limits about how much they work. “Judaism is unique in that way of explicitly framing workers’ rights.”
In addition, when we think about Jews as immigrants in this country, the labor movement played a critical role in helping Jews come together, support each other and start to lift each other into middle class.
“That’s my family’s story and that of many immigrant Jewish families,” he says, hoping the labor movement will play a similar role for today’s newcomers.
Broder is optimistic about achieving change for his workers. “This coronavirus is really shining a light on the problems in our economy,” he says.
“We are trying to be very intentional about not just going back to normal. The normal before this crisis was not working for our members and for so many working families. The economy doesn’t offer paid leave to half the workforce. It is broken.”
His optimism is based in part on the elections this fall, believing that “there will be positive change this November and beyond.”
But at the same time, he is worried about layoffs by local governments if there is not another federal stimulus package to help states and localities.
And he is concerned about Virginia reopening prematurely. “The debate about opening up should be focused on the needs of workers on the front lines, who know what they need and are not getting,” Broder says. “Too often, it is driven by the needs of CEOs.
“The president [Trump] gets regularly tested, as does everyone around him. It is unconscionable that we not do the same thing for the health-care workers who are caring for our loved ones.”
Aaron Leibel is a Washington-area writer.