Whose Safety? Our Safety!

Two taco bell workers with masks holding up a sign in front of a taco bell that says "our health is just as essential."

If union practices include regular discussion and decision-making among workers about all kinds of issues, then we will be better prepared when we get to polarizing ones like vaccines. Photo: Jim West / jimwestphoto.com, cropped from original

The safety of the community as a whole requires vaccines and vaccine mandates. But conversations about mandates have stumbled over questions about the power of employers and the rights of workers.

When unions avoid taking a stand for vaccine requirements (or even support resistance to mandates) they fall into three traps.

Trap one says our priority is to represent the rights of individual workers. Trap two says we cannot abide conflict or strong disagreement among members. Trap three says only the boss can exercise the power to require safety on the job.

In a system designed to isolate individuals as we try to meet our basic needs, unions should provide their members with another experience of the world—one where we can overcome differences through conversation, and then fight for a shared vision of workplace and community wellbeing.


The dangers of trap one—the focus on individual rights—are laid down in the everyday practices of many unions. Surveys, filled out privately, can affirm individualistic thinking.

Too often, organizers assume self-interest is the motivating factor, when actually the strongest solidarity comes when we act beyond individual needs. Veteran workers at John Deere aren’t fighting a three-tiered pension system for themselves, but for the workers down the line.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw promise for worker militancy around unifying health and safety demands. This hope proved illusive.

The bosses were successful in driving workers into individualistic decision-making. While hot spots of nurses, educators, and retail workers battled for safety and hazard pay, these fights didn’t cohere around a unifying demand.



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There are many reasons we were unprepared for the fight, but maybe one was that our union practices confirm individualism rather than a shared vision for the greater good.

Workers can only discover the values and vision they share (such as “health and safety trump keeping businesses open”) in conversation with each other. How often do we bring members together to discuss and debate issues? Are members asked to listen and learn from each other, or are they given surveys to complete on their own?

If our union practices include regular discussion and decision-making among workers about all kinds of issues, then we will be better prepared when we get to polarizing issues like vaccines. A rich, participatory democracy lays the groundwork for listening and empathy—and allows for solidarity to grow beyond self-interest.

We should not cede the fight for vaccines to the boss, based on their interest—but we can assert a vaccine requirement based on the needs of workers and their families, and then enforce that requirement ourselves.


No doubt, in our current context where bosses already have so much power over workers through surveillance and precarious work, we must beware the slippery slope of giving employers even more power.

But why do we assume that vaccine requirements should be determined and enforced by the boss? Workers enforce workplace safety and culture all the time. We fight to be the ones who determine what is safe. We educate our co-workers about what safety requires.

Vaccine requirements challenge us to do some thinking as we build a more powerful labor movement. Are we bringing workers together to talk, listen, and make decisions democratically? Are we establishing the voice of workers as the dominant one when it comes to safety and how the work gets done? Are we in this movement for the general wellbeing of all, or not?

Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.barbara@labornotes.org