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Biden’s talk about vaccine mandates sends workers into chaos

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As the Biden White House weighs vaccine mandates for companies and the federal workforce, some of his strongest outside allies are criticizing the idea.

Richard Tromka, Frederica Wilson pose for the camera: Richard Tromka, president of the AFL-CIO, said he would support a vaccine mandate for the federal workforce.  But Tromka's position has been at odds with some of the largest members of the AFL-CIO, and other unions have also expressed opposition.

© Photo by Samuel Corum / Getty Images
Richard Tromka, president of the AFL-CIO, said he would support a vaccine mandate for the federal workforce. But Tromka’s position has been at odds with some of the largest members of the AFL-CIO, and other unions have also expressed opposition.

A sharp split emerged among the trade unions – as well as between members and leaders – over whether workers should be vaccinated.


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On Tuesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Tromka said he would support the mandate, giving a boost to White House efforts to increase vaccination rates following stagnating in recent weeks. But Tromka’s position has been at odds with some of the biggest members of the AFL-CIO, including the American Federation of Teachers, whose president has said vaccine protocols should be defined in individual workplaces. Other unions also expressed their opposition.

Behind the scenes, labor leaders and White House officials clashed following Biden publicly stated on Tuesday that the White House was considering vaccine mandates for federal employees. According to two people briefed on the discussions, White House officials reached out to union leaders to alert them that federal agencies are expected to order vaccinations on a larger scale. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs did just that, announcing that it is requiring a part of its staff to get vaccinated or get tested regularly.

“The White House reached out and made clear that the Department of Veterans Affairs was the first to go and other agencies plan to succeed suit,” said a person familiar with the discussions. Serious discussions about vaccination requirements for federal employees have continued since the weekend, when White House and agency officials talked about an agency-by-agency approach to completing vaccination.

Labour’s leaders called the move early, complaining that it would lead to a series of requests for exceptions and fear it would alienate a percentage of their members who were already unlikely to be vaccinated, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

A source familiar with the White House’s strategy said Tuesday that no final decision has been made on implementing the vaccination mandate across the federal workforce. But the source said the department was considering “vaccination certification” for workers – meaning either confirming their vaccination status or adhering to stringent Covid-19 protocols such as required mask wearing and routine testing.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents unionized federal workers, declined to be interviewed for this article.

The decline by parts of the work community – and the divisions within it – has mirrored the rampant divisions between employers and companies across the country as they grapple with health protocols amid a surge in hospitalizations among the unvaccinated population due to the highly contagious delta variant. It also reflects the hurdles the White House still has to contend with in vaccinating the entire country. Even their so-called allies cannot sell the vaccine to all their members

Interviews with more than half a dozen labor leaders, local union members and labor advisers revealed a labor movement still grappling with the public health crisis and the fact that a significant proportion of its diverse members oppose being forced to get the shot. While the AFT, for example, has dismissed the idea of ​​compulsory member vaccination, it praised the update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday that recommended that both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans who live in areas with Covid-19 transmission wear masks. “lofty” or “big” indoors.

Few presidents have promoted their relationship with the union community as aggressively as Biden has. He has repeatedly praised organized work as a close ally and pledged policies that would aid them reverse decades of membership decline. Among those unions close to the president, the International Firefighters Association stands at the top. The group claims a “exceptional relationship” with Biden on its website and is heavily orchestrated behind his primary campaign. But she also said she would not order her members to be vaccinated, even if the White House pushed her.

We do not do any authorizations. “We are not advocating any mandates for vaccination,” said Tim Burns, IAFF press secretary. “At this point, we want to make sure our members have what they need to stay safe at work. We urge them to get vaccinated and join with our local affiliates.”

In interviews, local workers and national leaders — who were elected by their members — hoped the White House or the CDC would donate a clear signal about mandates to protect them from having to do so and facing a backlash. .

Some unions say that because the vaccine has become highly politicized, mandates from the leadership will be less effective and will only lead to the isolation of positive members. Instead, they pushed the leadership to focus on incentive and awareness programs that were effective in vaccinating rank-and-file members. Several unions have negotiated with companies throughout the pandemic to offer concessions to workers. The Flight Attendants Association, which has so far refused to explicitly agree to the vaccine mandate, has negotiated an elective program that provides three additional days off for United Airlines flight attendants who have received the vaccine.

One labor adviser noted that Tromka’s public comments were likely a signal to other unions that this is the direction in which federal policy is headed, and an urging for them to join as well. In his role as president of the AFL-CIO, Trumka represents a group of labor groups that act as the leading voice for a wide range of organized action.

The chancellor, who asked not to be named because the person is not authorized to speak on behalf of the union, said his removal from rank and file membership means he may be less at risk of facing a direct backlash from affiliated union members.

“If you’re back in the workplace, you need to know what’s going on around you,” Tromka said in an interview with C-SPAN on Tuesday. “First of all, if you come back and you haven’t been vaccinated, everyone in that workplace is at risk. Second, if we don’t know whether you’ve been vaccinated or not, we can’t provide proper accommodations to make sure you are protected and that everyone is protected” .

So far, the country’s two largest education unions, the National Association of Education and the AFT, have declined to call for vaccine mandates. Instead, the NEA says teachers should be given the option of weekly testing, while AFT says this should be sure in contract negotiations between workers and the company.

Some local union branches, which are more directly related to union members than to leadership in national offices, have issued statements opposing vaccine mandates, with governments in California and New York announcing that they require public officials to receive vaccinations or be tested regularly.

AFSCME 37 District Council, New York City’s largest public federation of employees, told POLITICO that it opposes vaccine mandates, even though locals “strongly urge” its members to get the shot, and even book appointments on behalf of its members.

The president of the 1199 Service Employees International Federation, which represents workers in the capital, Maryland and Virginia, also issued a statement condemning the University of Maryland Medical System’s decision in June to mandate the vaccine for its employees.

“As our union president George Grisham said, “A firm-line approach will not work and will only lead to greater frustration for the healthcare heroes who have fought this pandemic every day for the former 15 months,” Chapter 1199 SEIU representing Maryland, DC, said in a statement. We agree that vaccines combined with free, routine and available testing are significant tools to aid us get through this pandemic.”

Federal civil rights agencies in the workplace have largely given employers the go-ahead to require their employees to be vaccinated, with some caveats. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with monitoring federal anti-discrimination laws, has warned that companies should be prepared to provide accommodations to workers who refuse to get the shot because of their religious beliefs or disability.

But in the end, if the company is unable to accommodate the worker who refuses vaccination because it would pose too much hardship, the company can eventually terminate the worker.

Juan Perez contributed to this report.

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