Steward's Corner: How to Bargain for a Healthy and Safe Return to the Workplace

Woman on right in mask administering covid vaccine to man in mask and hat on left.

Vaccine mandates cannot be the sole protection offered by employers. Photo: Phil Roeder, CC BY 2.0, cropped from original

The danger of Covid in workplaces is often compounded by unsafe policies imposed unilaterally by management. Hopefully President Biden’s federal order (see box) will start to break the surge soon. But there will still be Covid risks on the job, including for vaccinated people, who are less likely to get infected or sick but may become just as contagious.

Vaccine mandates cannot be the sole protection afforded by employers. Worker safety in any indoor space requires a layered approach, with masks, physical distancing, shift rotation, adequate ventilation, and—wherever possible—making it voluntary to spend time in the workplace.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) has called Biden’s vaccine order a “missed opportunity” that should have incorporated those elements and required employers to consult with workers on a Covid prevention plan.

Unions must use our collective strength to demand that every employer do all it can. This protects the health of everyone in the workplace—even management!—as well as our families and communities.


Union leaders must overcome their own reluctance to have difficult conversations. Some members have understandable but misguided suspicions of vaccines and masks. The only way to address these concerns and dispel fears is to talk about them. Take a nonjudgmental approach; listen first.

The goal is to unite your co-workers on a consensus vision of what a safe workplace is, then fight for it at the bargaining table—whether you’re currently in contract bargaining or not.

In the NewsGuild of New York, we’ve been holding membership meetings with occupational safety and health experts to inform everyone about the Delta variant and to answer questions about vaccines and ventilation and filtration systems. Our executive committee passed a resolution supporting vaccine mandates as part of a layered approach.

Here are some resources that other unions, especially our fellow office workers, might find helpful.


Returning to the office is a mandatory subject of bargaining. It’s also a status quo issue—in any shop that is bargaining a first contract (our union happens to have a lot of these!) or has an expired contract, the employer must maintain the existing terms of employment, including remote work, until a new agreement takes effect.

Our union is unequivocal: Management cannot force members back into the workplace without negotiating first. Also, we do not have to bargain piecemeal. A tentative agreement on a return to the office will not take effect until the entire contract is ratified.

Employers are welcome to propose that a return be implemented sooner, but there is little compelling reason for the union to agree to this. If they’re in such a hurry, they should bring that same urgency to negotiating the rest of the contract.

For unions that are mid-contract, a complicating factor is the Trump Labor Board’s 2019 MV Transportation ruling, which took the most expansive possible view of management rights and zipper clauses. Employers are seizing on these clauses to force a return. The new General Counsel at the Labor Board has signaled that the agency is interested in revisiting this flawed decision; unions should definitely challenge it.



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At the end of the day, though, our best protection is collective action.

If you and your co-workers have been working remotely and suddenly your employer announces those days are over, what do you do?


Survey your co-workers. Use the survey to kick off conversation. Ask:

  • Have you been more productive working remotely?
  • Do you have unvaccinated children or immunocompromised people in your household?
  • What fears and concerns do you have about the rush back in?

Build consensus. Unions are rooted in solidarity—workers protecting workers. Build on those shared values in one-on-one conversations. Ask your co-workers how the pandemic has impacted them.

Organize digital town halls; invite health and safety experts (check out the National COSH for affiliates in your area) to present information and answer questions.

Send an information request to the employer.We worked with experts to develop an exhaustive information request. We asked:

  • How did the company choose this date for returning to the office? What experts have advised them?
  • What ventilation and filtration systems are in place? Have they analyzed how air circulates in the building?
  • Will they track the vaccination status of everyone who enters? Will masks be required? Who will enforce mask and vaccine mandates?
  • What will happen if there is a confirmed case in the building?
  • How often are offices being cleaned, and what chemicals are being used?
  • What are the precautions for lobbies and elevators?
  • How is the employer planning to tackle the super-transmissibility of the Delta variant?

Bargain and escalate. Organizing remotely is more difficult, but it can be done! Invite all your co-workers to (virtually) attend bargaining. Have everyone sign a public petition. Start a company-wide email directed to the CEO, and have everyone reply-all with a personal story of how Covid has affected them and why they support the union’s bargaining position.

Biden’s Vaccine Mandate

President Biden has ordered mandatory vaccination or weekly testing at employers with 100 or more employees. Unions should support the mandate, but demand to bargain over its effects. You could demand, for instance:

  • Information sessions on Covid and the vaccine with health and safety experts, on company time.
  • Paid time off to get vaccinated.
  • Paid sick time if there are side effects.
  • Discussion of which tests will be used for Covid screening, how often, and when testing will occur during company time.


In consultation with health and safety experts, we developed a 10-point bargaining agenda:

  • The employer formally agrees that employee safety is its utmost priority.
    • The gold standard is for employees to have full discretion to work remotely indefinitely. For workers who cannot work remotely or who never have during the pandemic, other mitigation measures (see below) are especially critical.
    • You could bargain a trigger that would necessitate remote work, such as if community transmission in this county becomes “substantial,” which the CDC defines as 50 persons per 100,000 over seven days.
  • A union-selected health-and-safety expert will be hired by the company to analyze the workplace and make the prescriptions to ensure it meets following standards:
    • Properly functioning ventilation system with MERV-13 or superior filter.
    • Install portable air cleaners with HEPA filters as necessary.
    • Each enclosed space will have at least six air changes per hour, meaning the air is pulled out and refreshed every 10 minutes.
    • Set safe maximum limits on how many people can be in a particular space at once.
    • Proof of vaccination will be required from all employees—union or not, including managers—except in cases of sincerely held religious beliefs or health concerns.
    • Employees will receive immediate company-wide notification of suspected and confirmed cases.
    • If a return to the workplace does become mandatory, then any employee who develops Covid is automatically assumed to have been infected at work.
    • Remote work stipends to cover the added costs of working from home (electricity use, stronger Internet, home office setup).
    • Unlimited paid sick leave.
    • The employer will comply with all federal, state, and local laws and regulations.
  • Health and safety committees will be formed:
    • Composed of at least two-thirds non-supervisory employees selected by the union.
    • Mandatory monthly meetings (more often as needed). One full work day per month to prepare for meetings.
    • Committee members will receive 35 hours of training annually during company time, presented by trainers selected by the union and paid for by the company.
    • The committee will have a clear mandate to monitor conditions, identify problems, come up with solutions, and oversee their implementation.


Unions should resist “hygiene theater”—the useless or even harmful actions that employers will often institute instead of effective controls:

  • Temperature checks and symptom reporting apps—which do nothing to identify persons who are contagious but not symptomatic.
  • Plastic partitions—which do nothing to prevent an airborne virus from filling the space, and can actually impede air flow.
  • Surface cleaning—the virus has not been demonstrated to transmit over surfaces, and many industrial cleaners used can be harmful when inhaled.

Susan DeCarava is the president and Chris Brooks is the mobilizing director of the NewsGuild of New York.