This commentary was written with the support of three anonymous co-workers.

On May 6th I tested positive for COVID-19. All the weeks of fear, anger and grief that I had suppressed–in order to keep working, keep my loved ones calm, keep helping neighbors who had it even worse–it all came crashing in. And with it, an odd sense of relief.

When I told my supervisor I had symptoms and was awaiting test results, I feared I would be accused of lying. Now equipped with medical evidence, this was the first time since the pandemic hit that I felt my health would truly be considered a priority. 

Myself and my coworkers are so-called “essential workers”, and I am the person who tested positive at Linden Hills Co-op, days after we received notice that a coworker at another location had tested positive.

We do not believe these cases are linked by infection, but are connected due to the insufficient, disorganized safety policies that management has not corrected, despite sustained pressure from employees.

In the past two months we have written and co-signed multiple letters to the leadership of Twin Cities Co-op Partners, sought the support of our local unions, and made every attempt to utilize the appropriate internal channels.

Linden.Hills_.Letter

We have been begging for preventative safety policies. Instead we got symbolic gestures, band-aids and too-late concessions. We have been dismissed, insulted, and our motives have been harshly interrogated.

Two months into Minnesota stay-at-home, we give up. We no longer expect that management, of their own volition, will create a plan prioritizing our safety. They are unwilling or unable to fully consider the hazardous conditions under which we work.

This is a message for all wage workers. Do not wait for your union, your bosses, or public outcry to protect you.

We watched as our fellow union members at the JBS Pork plant in Worthington, MN suffered a severe outbreak due to lack of planning, swift action, or value for black and brown lives, specifically immigrant lives.

We rolled our eyes as management called us heroes for our “community”. (How can any retail or food worker be in community with consumers who hold economic power over our lives?) We were told “hydrate, eat healthy, and get plenty of rest” while our workplaces were overrun with panic buying and food distribution collapsed all over the country.

Management sent literal cookies as a thank you.

We watched unions across the country (including ours) back payroll tax cuts– to benefit the corporate interests like the National Grocers Association– instead of supporting work stoppages. We sweated through verbal abuse, sleepless nights, exhaustion, and panic attacks while everyone who said they had our backs fought for our right to work instead of our right to live. 

We believe that our bosses did not plan for anyone to get sick. They had two months to strategize, and failed to prepare. We have been informed that there was a protocol in place as of March 30th, but that is not what we saw when I got sick. We saw management scramble to find professional cleaning services.

Coworkers received conflicting messages about what they should do–often confusingly angled as “you can keep working if you want to”, despite the fact that we were covered by Minnesota’s expanded sick leave. We believe this means that there is no financial plan for the scenario in which many of us take sick leave.

The business’s sustainability is predicated on employees taking major, unnecessary health risks.

As I write this, some of my coworkers are fighting to get paid time off approved while they await test results to see if I infected them in the workplace. As I write this, meat processing plants across the country are re-opening without adequate testing or safety measures. As I write this, no working class person–unionized or not–in america retains the explicit right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, nor do most of us retain contracts that give us that right.

If we are fired for refusing to work or if we quit in fear for our safety, we will not qualify for unemployment. Simultaneously, we are chastised to think of the economy, of small businesses, and threatened with national food scarcity. We are “essentially” trapped in our jobs, and are expected to bear the responsibility of the entire economy.

This affects our black and immigrant coworkers to an even greater degree, who are more likely to be intimidated, harassed or fired for speaking out. As co-op grocery workers, we are often unionized, get decent benefits, a small profit-share and are paid more than minimum wage. Nevertheless, we must see even our relatively privileged situation as inherently linked to the situation of all workers in the food distribution chain. We must understand our privilege as pacifying, and something that can be snatched away at any time. 

Collectively and individually, have no rights except those won with organizing. Since March, every safety measure and extra dollar we have won, we won it the hard way: by refusing to work as normal, by building power and consensus among coworkers, by complaining and criticizing to the point of insubordination, and finally by getting sick.

We were shamed for asking for more pay, but we got it. We were guilted when pushing for limits on the number of customers in the store, but we got those, too. We have been called fear-mongers for wearing masks, and now they are a requirement. We have been called privileged and ungrateful. We have been accused of venting when we fought for transparency. And we have learned not to trust anything our bosses tell us. We understand we will only get safety policy insofar as we are willing to fight for it.  

If you perceive unsafe working conditions, you are probably right. If your supervisor dismisses your questions, he is probably hiding something. Our bosses have begun to implement new safety policies, and will attempt to paint the situation as if they were always working to be better. We can’t let them get away with it.

Write these things down. Record the dates, the details and your feelings about the situation. Talk to your coworkers. Whatever you do, do not wait for permission from your union or your supervisor. Exchange notes, encouragement and tips with your coworkers. Protect one another, because no one else will have your back.

To make a donation to benefit workers and families affected by the outbreak at the JBS Pork plant in Worthington, MN please use this form, and write a note “for JBS Plant workers.”

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