Since President Biden announced last month that tougher, farther-reaching vaccine mandates were coming to the United States, thousands of workers in dozens of industries have said they’ll get fired before they get vaccinated. This has put America’s unions in a precarious spot, having to balance the obvious needs to beat the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the country safe with efforts to represent their members’ inconsistent wishes. The result is basically a policy split unlike anything the labor movement has seen in years.
America’s largest umbrella union, the AFL-CIO, immediately backed Biden’s mandate. “The resurgence of COVID-19 requires swift and immediate action,” it said in a statement, “and we commend President Biden for taking additional steps to help put an end to this crisis.” But that same day, a big AFL-CIO federation member—the American Federation of Government Employees—blasted the mandate as being beyond the pale. “We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation,” the group’s president said.
Dissent has only grown in the weeks since, and it could potentially even complicate Biden’s attempts to implement new vaccination requirements. Here’s where things stand in some of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic.
Every major airline but Delta now mandates a COVID vaccine for employees, and their pilots unions are largely coming to accept the new reality, if begrudgingly. American Airlines’s union argues that it’s “neither anti-vaccine nor anti-mandate,” as long as the path forward “takes into consideration our pilots’ needs and concerns, while promoting a safe and healthy workforce.” United Airlines’s union has worked with the airline carrier to set up vaccination clinics in hub cities like Chicago, Houston, and Newark, after the union argued the biggest hurdle to a companywide mandate was access.
The union for Southwest’s pilots, meanwhile, is going in the other direction. On Friday, it asked a federal court to block Southwest’s requirement that all employees get vaccinated. “We are not anti-vaccination at all,” union president Casey Murray explained—rather, they simply want Southwest to renegotiate sick leave and disability in the event pilots have a bad reaction to the shot. Southwest has had to cancel more than a thousand flights over the past three days—a rumor was swirling this was a planned “sickout” by pilots angry about vaccines, but their union has denied that they walked out in protest of the mandate.
The most heated opposition has come from police unions. The incident that grabbed the most headlines was the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police’s president, back in August, comparing Chicago’s vaccine mandate to living in Nazi Germany. Police unions nationwide, from Newark, New Jersey, to Portland, Oregon, have pushed back hard against local mandates, sometimes with success: Portland’s union managed to get its officers exempted. After San Jose’s police union warned that officers would quit rather than get vaccinated, the city also relented.
Last week, the New York Police Department and Fire Department of New York both said they welcomed a city mandate. This triggered an immediate statement from the Police Benevolent Association stating that vaccines are “a medical decision that members must make in consultation with their own healthcare providers,” not via a mandate, and that the union “will continue to protect the rights of members who are not vaccinated.” (None of the police unions responded to requests for comment.)
Firefighters are equally torn over mandates—but their divide seems to fall between fire chiefs and the rank and file. Back in August, the International Association of Fire Chiefs called upon all chiefs to “advocate for the mandatory vaccination of all of their fire and EMS department personnel against the COVID-19 virus.” However, the International Association of Fire Fighters tells Fast Company that while they “strongly encourage” firefighters and EMS personnel to get vaccinated, they “do not support vaccine mandates,” and are urging government officials to sit down with local fire departments and “negotiate to the fullest extent allowed by law to ensure the health and safety of our members.”
Firefighters have been on the pandemic’s front lines, as first responders who also provide emergency medical care. This was unions’ key argument to getting them early access to vaccines. Since the Biden mandate, though, unions representing firefighters have often actively fought to prevent mandates, joining their law enforcement counterparts at many of the local protests in cities like Portland and Newark.
Given their front-row seat to the pandemic, unions for healthcare workers have been among the most vocal supporters of Biden’s mandate. One of them is National Nurses United, the largest registered nurses union, which tells Fast Company that it believes “all eligible people should be vaccinated, while respecting the need for medical and religious accommodations.” Other unions object that forcing workers to get vaccinated could have unintentional side effects for some, but National Nurses United takes this approach: “We know employers can encourage vaccination by offering easily accessible, on-site shots, and paid time off to get vaccinated and to help employees deal with potential side effects.” Other unions, like the one for New York nurses, didn’t initially embrace the mandate but moved quickly to make the best of it, fighting to secure additional workplace safety measures, like proper protective gear, in exchange for cooperating.
But even in healthcare, there’s a split. One example is at Michigan Medicine, one of Michigan’s largest hospitals. Its vaccine mandate goes into effect on November 1, but the union contract for the hospital’s 6,150 nurses exempts them from a vaccination requirement, unless it’s negotiated for them separately.
Janitors and other workers at hotels, restaurants, and office buildings have also spent months among the country’s most at-risk. “That’s why we fought to get our members prioritized for vaccination, and why we have invested in a robust program to educate members about vaccines,” says Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ, which represents 175,000 property service workers in 12 states.
It’s one of many Service Employees International Union member organizations that, as employers have put vaccine mandates into place, have bargained with those employers to lessen the negative impacts the mandates can have on workers, including getting members access and paid time off for vaccination. As a national organization, SEIU has warned that some employers could violate labor laws if they fail to sit down with their union before implementing a mandatory vaccination program. But it concludes: “Mass vaccination is the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19, save lives, and begin to resume normalcy once again.”
After spending most of the summer hedging, the two largest teachers unions have sort of spoken out in favor of vaccine mandates. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have shifted toward encouraging all teachers to get vaccinated, going as far as to launch major initiatives. However, to avoid stepping on local chapters’ toes, they’ve also stopped short of embracing a national mandate, arguing this should be left up to individual school districts.
Locally, unions have had varying amounts of success carving out exceptions for teachers. For example, the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing teachers in New York City, sued the city to establish a process for religious exemptions—which New York doesn’t recognize—and to negotiate severance packages for teachers who leave their jobs over the mandate. The union lost, but appealed up to the Supreme Court, which refused to take the case before the mandate went into effect on October 4. That morning, UFT president Michael Mulgrew announced more than 97% of New York City teachers were now vaccinated, with 1,000 having received their first shot over the weekend.