7 labor leaders on how COVID-19 has given the labor movement new urgency

Here’s how leaders representing teachers, flight attendants, farm workers, and more are fighting to expand worker protections during the pandemic and beyond.

7 labor leaders on how COVID-19 has given the labor movement new urgency
[Photos: Wavebreakmedia/iStock; rightdx/iStock; ymgerman/iStock]

For Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.


Ai-jen Poo, cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates for home care workers, nannies, and house cleaners and introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act last year, the first piece of national legislation to enshrine the rights and protections of domestic workers.

We work with the workforce that provides caregiving and cleaning services in the home—so the nannies, the house cleaners, the home care workers who are caring for the aging or supporting people with disabilities, and a lot of people with chronic illnesses, too, who are staying at home. Before the COVID pandemic, this was a workforce that had very little in the way of security—low wages, unpredictable hours or long hours, no access to a safety net, no paid time off. In fact, 82% of the workforce didn’t have a single paid sick day. We were like, okay, these jobs have never been good, family-sustaining jobs. But they could be, because there’s such a clear demand for them. And these are jobs that can’t be outsourced; they’re not going to be automated. So we were like, this is our big chance to make these jobs good jobs. 

And then the COVID crisis hit. We had two dynamics happening: dramatic and rapid loss of income and jobs, and a set of people continuing to work under pretty dangerous conditions, without any protective equipment or access to testing or healthcare or paid sick days. That meant springing into action on two fronts: One to provide cash assistance to domestic workers in need through our coronavirus care fund, and then to build tools and resources for domestic workers who are still working.

What gives us hope is that workers who have been previously invisible in the popular imagination are suddenly being seen as essential. ”

Ai-jen Poo, the National Domestic Workers Alliance
We launched a COVID-ready caregiver training program to help people understand how to stay safe while they’re working and keep their clients safe too. We launched a peer-to-peer emotional support text line because we were hearing from workers—especially those that were quarantined with their clients—how having a community to reach out to was game-changing for them. 


What gives us hope is that workers who have been previously invisible in the popular imagination are suddenly being seen as essential. All these low-wage service jobs that have been done by women—and disproportionately women of color. And jobs that we just never valued and never protected, all of a sudden, we realize that these people are risking their lives to keep us safe and keep our country moving forward. I think that’s the single greatest opening for us to improve the quality of work at the bottom half of the economy—to support these workers in the way that they have always deserved. 

Also, now that we’re all at home, there’s a lot more attention to just how important good care is. It’s a part of our lives that we’ve just taken for granted. A big opportunity for Congress is to invest in making good care much more accessible and affordable for families, and making care jobs [into] good, family-sustaining jobs. This is a workforce that makes it possible for everybody else to go out and find work or get back to work. To me, it’s an easy first step that helps to secure long-term recovery.

We’ve been working on a bunch of initiatives, one being the Essential Workers Bill of Rights that Senator [Elizabeth] Warren and Representative [Ro] Khanna introduced to ensure hazard pay and childcare and dependent care support for essential workers. I can’t tell you the number of stories of home care workers who are bringing their children to work with them because they don’t have [any other] option. Low-wage workers have a set of impossible choices right now. We’re also working with Representative [Joaquin] Castro and Representative [Deb] Haaland on framework to support caregivers. Basically they’re saying that the front lines really start at home for all of us.


Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 workers at 20 airlines. When Nelson called for a general strike last year, she helped put an end to the longest U.S. government shutdown in history.

We have been dealing with coronavirus since the end of December. We were focusing on things such as flight attendants getting notified when they had contact with coronavirus and having the means to self-quarantine—in other words, being pay-protected. [We also focused on] making sure that there are very generous sick leave policies—not just in terms of getting paid if you’re calling in sick. Because of terrible labor laws, companies have been able to punish people for being sick. So we pushed back on any sort of disciplinary action and [were] very clear that people needed to have a real wide berth to be able to call in sick and not be worried about discipline or an economic harm. 

We put together a legislative policy proposal on March 13 and submitted that to the chairman of the [House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure], Peter DeFazio, and pushed it through within two weeks. We had something that had never been done before in any kind of corporate bailout, and that was telling corporations exactly how to spend the money. It was directed right at the front lines. All of the money had to be spent on workers’ wages, salaries, and benefits. They couldn’t involuntarily furlough or lay off anyone, and [they had to keep] them connected to their healthcare. We used the infrastructure of these airlines to keep pushing the normal paychecks out; there wasn’t a disruption, and they didn’t have to go file paperwork for unemployment or other kinds of safety net benefits. And it also kept the airlines intact, so the airlines didn’t have to file for bankruptcy, and we could focus then on continuing to provide an essential service to all the communities.

This is not the time to just have a temporary increase in pay. This is the time to fix the damn pay structure.”

Sara Nelson, the Association of Flight Attendants


All of a sudden, all these jobs that were virtually invisible to most people are extremely visible and recognized as essential. And in many cases, those jobs are filled by women and people of color. We should recognize the fact that, yes, these are essential jobs during coronavirus—but hello, these are essential jobs all the time. This is not the time to just have a temporary increase in pay. This is the time to fix the damn pay structure that wasn’t working and was creating a system of massive inequality.

Corporate America is pushing back and saying, ‘Make the hazard paid voluntary. Or even if the federal government is going to pay for it, don’t make us do it because that is going to raise the expectations of the workers. And what are we going to do on the other side of this?’ Let me just flip that around and say: ‘Time to raise the expectations of the American worker.’

We think of organizing and unity as a labor issue. I will tell you, from being in boardrooms, they use the same language. There is class solidarity. And the interesting thing is that the wealthy have fewer to organize. Labor is incredibly diverse and everywhere, and the wealthy class has been working on dividing us forever—by race, by gender, by political identity. 


Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has nearly 2 million members across the public sector, healthcare, and property services. The organization has been a key force behind Fight for 15 movement to boost the federal minimum wage to $15, which has catalyzed local wage increases across states such as California, Massachusetts, and New York.

The last 12 weeks have been a shock to our system. We represent environmental services workers who are responsible for infection control when COVID-19 patients enter and exit rooms up through doctors serving on the front lines of public hospitals in the Bronx and Brooklyn. We also represent certified nursing assistants, who are dying at an outrageous rate in nursing homes.

I continue to ride a roller coaster of heartbreak, as we hear about more death and the undue hardship that Black and brown communities are experiencing in this moment—and certainly every essential worker on the front line. I just heard a story yesterday where McDonald’s workers in Oakland are striking because four of their coworkers tested positive and weren’t going home because they [don’t get] paid sick leave. In addition to that [they] have been told to wear coffee filters or dog diapers for their masks because the company doesn’t have the personal protective equipment they need. 


The Fight for 15 movement that has been growing over the past seven years was ready-made for this moment, because we had so many very well-developed leaders in stores all across the country. It’s those leaders who are leading strikes and inspiring other workers to also walk off the job. We saw McDonald’s workers, I think in week two of the pandemic in California walk off the job in L.A.; they were followed by workers in San Jose; and they inspired workers from other owners, like Popeye’s and Domino’s and Carl’s Jr. 

The pernicious, structural, racial, and economic inequality that our union has been trying to define for the past 10 years—there’s 64 million people who can’t feed themselves, even though they’re working more hours than most people in the country—that is now in everybody’s face. 

I think people are shocked that a fast-food worker doesn’t have two weeks of paid sick [leave]. The [inequality] that the pandemic has laid bare creates an amazing opportunity for change because we have more public support and understanding that this poverty-wage work is unacceptable and puts everybody else at risk. It’s not just a moral issue anymore. It’s an economic issue and a public health concern.


Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and founding member of Athena, a coalition of nearly 50 local and national groups agitating against Amazon that has helped warehouse workers organize and speak out against unsafe working conditions amid the coronavirus. 

I spend a lot of time focused on Amazon, as the biggest, most ferocious threat to independent businesses—any business that makes or sells any consumer product is increasingly in a subservient relationship to Amazon. My organization, ILSR, is a founding member of Athena, which is a coalition of about 50 small business, labor, and community organizations. It’s the view of the coalition that we need to change Amazon fundamentally—that no company should have this much power. When you have a company that has this much power, you inevitably end up with a company that’s undermining small businesses, community well-being, and workers. 

People who work in Amazon warehouses have been on the front lines of being exposed to this virus, and there have been wildcat strikes across the country. Athena has been in high gear the last few weeks helping to make sure that the voice of those workers is heard, and also making sure that the voice of small businesses and communities are heard, too. For example, Athena wrote a joint letter from a bunch of organizations, including a number of business groups, saying that the Judiciary Committee should call Jeff Bezos to testify.

For decades we’ve entertained this mythical idea that we could shrink and ignore government, and it’s become very clear what the consequences of that are.”

Stacy Mitchell, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance


People are much more cognizant of essential workers, of the fragility of local businesses, of how vulnerable we are when we concentrate our food supply in a handful of big companies. There are a lot of things—the power that Amazon has—that are much more visible to people now than they were before the pandemic. The deeper thing that gives me some optimism is there’s a strong realization that government matters. And that everything we’re seeing—whether it’s problems in the healthcare system, the mergers among hospitals that have left them with not enough [intensive care] units, the stuff in the slaughterhouses, or oh, wow, Amazon owns the whole retail distribution channel—all these things are the product of government policy. For decades we’ve entertained this mythical idea that we could shrink and ignore government, and it’s become very clear what the consequences of that are. 

When I talk about Amazon, it’s common for people to go, ‘Oh, well, maybe I shouldn’t shop there.’ And it’s like, well that’s fine, but really the problem is that we need antitrust laws. We’re in this 30- or 40-year phase [during which] government has been captured by corporations. Ordinary people have sort of lost their citizenship muscle, if you will, and have tended to approach problems from the standpoint of what can I as an individual consumer do, which is a really powerless place to be. We’ve sort of had this idea that the economy happens on its own and doesn’t have anything to do with government. That whole framework has been completely debunked by what we’re experiencing right now, and that’s a good thing. 

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the country with 1.7 million members. The organization has thrown its support behind the HEROES Act and called for $116 billion in aid to help reopen schools safely. 


[There are] four things that we’ve been working on: the health, safety, and well-being of our members and communities; health and safety of the front-line providers, of which we have 200,000 members; the short- and long-term impact of the economic catastrophe that was caused by the virus; and how to safeguard our elections. I felt it was really important to try to make sure our work was viewed through those values. So for example, we spent six weeks trying to purchase PPE, and we finally did: a million surgical masks, 50 face shields, and almost 500,000 N95 masks. And unlike Donald Trump or Jared Kushner, we didn’t have any of the opportunities the federal government had. We had to buy some of the stuff from China; we learned how to source it and do it because the members and their communities and their families really needed it. We had to pay duty and customs tax even though we are a charitable organization. Should we be spending $3 million that way? No, of course not. 

I have pushed so hard over all these years to give teachers freedom to teach. Look what they do in the middle of a pandemic. They’re ingenious and creative; they turn on a dime, and they try to figure it out. And you got a very grateful nation, parents and kids alike, because of all the care and ingenuity and moxie they have brought, with very little help from anybody because nobody has a playbook. Look at the need for a union. Look at the need for voice. Look at what we have done as a union to try to organize the things that are needed in terms of mutual aid, in terms of helping people help kids [and] helping the protectors. [That’s] why we’re fighting so hard for the money that’s needed. It’s actually the states and localities and schools that have really stood everybody up in this crisis, not the federal government. And they can’t do it any longer without the revenues that they need. 

Rafael Espinal, president of the Freelancers Union, which has 500,000 members across the country and helped secure unemployment benefits for freelancers under the CARES Act, for the first time in history. 


After the 2008 recession, a lot of people turned to freelancing because they felt there was more stability than working for a company and not knowing when you will be laid off. Of course, there’s a lot of anxieties that come with working for yourself, not knowing where your next job is going to come from. I think we will see more freelancing happening [now], given past trends. We are focused on how we create a stronger social safety net for the independent workforce, so those anxieties that come with freelancing aren’t as pronounced as they are now. 

One of the major challenges freelance workers have is they’ve never been able to qualify for traditional benefits that traditional workers get—for example, unemployment insurance. But we as a union advocated for Washington to pass a relief package, which is the CARES Act, that included unemployment insurance for freelancers for the first time in history. Now freelancers can apply and, hopefully, qualify to receive at least $600 a week while their ability to do work is suspended. [Freelancers] have been able to qualify for unemployment for the first time in history. But the reality is that over 90% of freelancers who reported being out of work predict to continue to be out of work until the pandemic is over. 

We also created a freelancers relief fund, which is a national fund. We’ve been able to raise money from the public and turn those dollars back into the hands of freelance workers. We’ve been heavily focused on digesting all the information that’s out there to be able to offer it in very simple terms. It was important to have states reopen enrollment, which means that freelancers can apply for health insurance at a time where typically health insurance companies aren’t providing insurance. Because of that open enrollment, we’ve been able to offer insurance to freelance workers. We’ve seen workers make use of that insurance and people buying more life insurance as they think about what sort of protection they need.


We offer a lot of free programming, like legal and tax prep. Freelancers who are looking to build a community are able to host internal meetings, have dialogues, create connections, and potentially build a team that can work together once this pandemic is over. Most of the programming that we offer has an educational component focused towards different industries, whether it be writing, design, film. But what we’re thinking about now is how we can build a community [so] that workers [can] potentially build teams that maybe create a cooperative in which they are able to offer different types of services. We think that cooperatives are going to play an important role in providing security for the independent workers, but also by allowing them to hold on to their individuality, freelancers would be able to lean on each other in times that people need support.

Greg Asbed, founder of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, which has significantly improved working conditions for farmworkers in Florida since 1993, in part through the Fair Food Program, a partnership that mandates fair wages and humane working conditions for farmworkers. 

We’ve never [addressed] health as an issue before, but that became the one and only issue a couple of months ago, when it became clear that this virus had everyone in its crosshairs. In particular, [it affects] people, like farmworkers, who live and work in cramped, crowded conditions. 


Farmworker communities [are] traditionally very poor. The workforce lives cheek to jowl with other workers and is transported back and forth to work in the same kind of conditions—40 to 50 people in a bus. If the virus were to take root in Immokalee, it would spread like wildfire. 

We just sharpened our pencils and [posted] drawings about the pandemic—messages that needed to be heard. We put them up all over town and started a community conversation. Usually we’d have a meeting and invite people to talk about it. We couldn’t do that. But we have a radio station, so we can open [it] to listeners. It’s not the same, but it still works.

Farmworkers are workers whose labor is deemed essential, but whose lives have been treated as expendable for generations.”

Greg Asbed, the Coalition for Immokalee Worker

We started a petition to the governor. We’ve now had some testing done, which is extremely important to get a sense of the scope of the problem. Even more importantly, we’ve been able to bring some allies we never would have thought we could have had come to Immokalee: Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health. 

We are working on building a state-of-the-art contact tracing program, which is very difficult in this context because, again, you have people going to work every day on buses. And then [we’re] also working on [getting] support for people who test positive, to be able to provide housing and food and, if possible, some form of income support. Farmworkers do not have paid vacation or sick leave. Even in this context, even under the threat of death from the virus, people still are afraid to be tested because they [could be] sidelined for at least two weeks—and that is not something you can take in farm work because you don’t have enough money in the bank. 

The pandemic has exposed any number of already long-existing inequities in American society. Farmworkers are workers whose labor is deemed essential, but whose lives have been treated as expendable for generations. We can’t function without food. We owe them, when we get out of this. We need some kind of GI bill for low-wage workers so that we can thank the people we asked to make the greatest sacrifice.

More from Fast Company’Shape of Tomorrow series:

  • What restaurants will actually be like in a post-COVID-19 world, according to Chipotle, Panera, street-food vendors, and others.
  • The leaders of the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Doctors Without Borders, and more tell us how healthcare is being transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Is advertising really dead? Here’s how the leaders of Droga5, TBWA, Wieden+Kennedy, and more are inching forward.
  • The retail Armageddon may have finally arrived. Here’s what top executives at Nike, Athleta, and more think it will take for stores and brands to make it through.
  • Insiders at LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and Jobcase tell us which companies will be hiring, what skills will be important, and how the workplace of the future will change.
  • How COVID-19 has changed investing, according to VCs at Sequoia, Insight, Forerunner, 500 Startups, and more
  • Architects and urban planners from Gensler, Harvard, and Bloomberg Associates explain the changes coming to our shared spaces.