Many view disability as a rarity or exception in the workplace. In reality, 8.6 million adult workers are disabled—that’s 6 percent of the adult employed workforce, or about 1 in 16 workers. Workforce participation could be even higher if workplaces were accessible to disabled workers. We saw disabled workforce participation balloon thanks to remote work in certain industries; but when we try to expand those accessible conditions, all too often, our would-be comrades ignore or even repress our efforts, despite a rise in diversity, equity, and inclusion campaigns.
Despite an ongoing pandemic and the deeply intertwined nature of labor and disability, recent labor movements have failed to incorporate disability justice principles, leaving disabled workers without a voice in contract negotiations.
The United States is still the only country in the world without guaranteed sick leave for short-term illness, and it is also the only wealthy country without guaranteed paid sick leave. Despite an ongoing pandemic and the deeply intertwined nature of labor and disability, recent labor movements have failed to incorporate disability justice principles, leaving disabled workers without a voice in contract negotiations. Everyone wins, including those without disabilities, if this trend gets reversed.
A historic set of strikes from University of California (SRU/UAW), U.S. Starbucks workers (SBWU), rail workers (multiple unions), and more have made waves, but the strikes have fallen short of their own ideological goals, leaving the ill and the disabled behind in particular. While SBWU included pandemic protections in its demands and rail unions demanded sick leave, none enforced a minimum safety standard for their strikes. All three labor movements are represented by photos with crowds of unmasked strikers; if it weren’t for the occasional masked person, you would never know these strikes took place post-2020.
Frustrated and excluded by the academic labor movement, a coalition of disabled University of California graduate student workers and UAW members wrote in Peste Magazine to demand the inclusion of COVID-19 safety precautions in their contracts. Thus far, UAW/SRU leadership has failed to include disability-related demands, and has not acknowledged this letter and petition. Some rank-and-file members have tweeted in frustration about union leadership promoting a contract that leaves behind marginalized graduate student workers.
Meanwhile, rail workers of various unions had considered a national strike for pay and sick leave, the latter being a sticking point for the hundreds of thousands of striking rail workers. Earlier on, union leadership acknowledged that they had failed to deliver sick days to their members following negotiations with the government and corporate executives. The rail worker issue is more complicated thanks to laws that allow the government to break rail strikes. Still, with some unions ratifying deals excluding sick leave, union leadership compromised the movement and abandoned disabled workers.
What’s the pandemic got to do with it?
Pandemic-related labor policies are an illustrative case when considering the failure of recent labor rights movements to include everyone in their struggle. Basic pandemic protections would create a safer workplace, thus allowing millions of high-risk and disabled people to work. In addition, these protections would create safer workplaces for everyone, regardless of disability status. The lack of explicit support from workers’ unions for broader pandemic safety measures like mask mandates, testing requirements, and improved ventilation standards harm workers and society at large. Such a lack of support also reifies ableism in the labor movement. A truly effective labor movement defined by solidarity would visibly incorporate safety measures without hesitation. Instead, we see nonspecific statements about the need for “COVID-19 policies” (what does that mean?) from unions who proudly show up to the bargaining table unmasked after a flight. Even the Amazon Labor Union, which formed in direct response to a dangerously inadequate COVID-19 policy at Amazon, makes no mention of disease mitigation or COVID-19 being a workplace injury on its official website.
There is also the overlooked intersection of disability and race. Disability impacts communities of color at much higher rates than white communities. Making disability issues an afterthought in labor necessarily excludes millions of disabled people of color. If a workplace is unsafe in the context of COVID-19, a disabled person of color risks serious health implications and possibly death, including at the hands of medical professionals themselves, as can often happen under the crisis standards of care which were implemented during the pandemic.
Making disability issues an afterthought in labor necessarily excludes millions of disabled people of color.
As we have seen in the health care and education systems, nonexistent or inadequate protections beget higher infection rates, leading to an overload of hospitals; health care workers are overburdened and understaffed. Overworking in turn leads to burnout, resulting in a wave of resignations. Too many people quitting worsens understaffing, worsening burnout in remaining workers, and the cycle continues. Burnout and understaffing are significant workplace issues that can be substantially mitigated through non-pharmacological interventions such as mask mandates, testing requirements, and robust options to work and learn remotely. That is, if workers demand them—or take the initiative to implement them themselves.
Union leadership requiring masks would be a powerful visual symbol of solidarity with each other, including the unions’ disabled members, as well as with the disabled community at large. More importantly, taking adequate precautions would repudiate rather than endorse the status quo, which sacrifices our health and lives for profit. Put simply, the labor movement has a duty to improve conditions for workers; leaving disability and sickness out of the conversation means the labor movement fails to improve conditions for everyone. The labor movement must prioritize disability justice—including pandemic precautions—in order to fulfill its cause.
Ghosts of Labor Past and Present
Disability and labor didn’t always have such a tense relationship. In Raia Small’s piece for Midnight Sun, disabled scholar and podcaster Beatrice Adler-Bolton details an “early trade-union movement” in the United States that “prioritized disability as a condition of work.” Adler-Bolton specifically references the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, which “formed not just to protect [workers from suffering] further injuries, but more to protect their brothers who were being kicked out of their jobs, and were destitute and had no recourse” after a disabling injury. By contrast, recent union movements have internalized rhetoric and practice that effectively excludes workers who are currently disabled and their future, potentially disabled selves. Failing to prioritize disability in labor movements has three major consequences:
- reification of ableism in labor and exclusion of disabled workers;
- perpetuation of the conditions that injure, disable, and kill workers by ignoring or not challenging burdensome working conditions, thereby endangering all workers; and
- dooming presently and futurely disabled people to unemployment or underemployment even when they’re ready and willing to work.
Furthermore, these consequences perpetuate underrepresentation issues, leaving disabled people unable to advocate for change in workplaces where they don’t have a presence.
Legal scholar Samuel Bagenstos asserts that despite a “complicated” history and often oppositional relationship between the labor and disability fronts, it doesn’t have to be like this. I have to agree with that point. Historic workers’ rights wins and non-workplace safety measures have come out of disability-centric labor justice movements, including the protections offered by OSHA and the FDA. The case of the Radium Girls is a perfect example of this: Young women who worked painting clocks for the United States Radium Corporation (USRC) began to suffer from severe, disfiguring health issues like sarcomas and jaw necrosis. Five Radium Girls filed a class action lawsuit against USRC; while they died within a few years of receiving a settlement, their legacy left a lasting impact on labor law. Their efforts eventually led to the establishment of OSHA several decades later. Clearly, fights led by disabled workers get the goods for everyone.
A Disabled Future
We have seen a few moments of hope shine through during the pandemic. In January, the Chicago Teachers Union independently returned to remote instruction in response to unsafe classrooms plagued by cycles of COVID-19 outbreaks. After Rutgers University dropped its mask mandate earlier this fall, three instructor unions filed legal action and successfully won a reinstatement of the mask mandate. At the start of the pandemic, transit unions and other essential workers held a general strike to protest unsafe working conditions. Unfortunately, most unions have not continued this kind of action; few recognize that the pandemic has no end in sight.
The whole of disability justice cannot and should not be predicated on workplace equity, as this reinforces that our worth comes from economic productivity. Still, disability must be at the forefront of labor justice, during and after the pandemic (whenever that is, because it’s not any time soon). Prioritizing disability issues in the labor movement improves the lives of all workers, creates more inclusive workplaces, and fulfills calls for equity.
Still, disability must be at the forefront of labor justice, during and after the pandemic.
I believe we can imagine and create a better future. With union membership rising for the first time in decades, we have a precious chance to transform our workplace conditions and our lives. To start, wearing and requiring masks is a relatively easy act of solidarity with oneself and others. Beyond that, the labor movement would be immensely strengthened by standing in solidarity with its disabled workers. In the case of the UC academic workers, incorporating the Access Needs articles created by disabled workers into contract negotiations could have set radical precedents for worker safety standards and workplace inclusivity. For rail workers, union leadership should stand firm in demanding robust sick leave for all members.
In general, contracts could require paid sick leave, supply personal protective equipment to all workers, mandate masks, protect workers from hostile customers, set minimum air quality/ventilation standards, and explicitly allow anyone to choose remote work where possible. We could demand universal design so that workers are not subject to the whims of a racist, sexist, and ableist medical system designed for profit rather than for health care.
When you center disability justice, everyone wins.
We invite the broader labor movement to join hands with us to pursue justice together, workers and non-workers, disabled and non-disabled. When you center disability justice, everyone wins.