The advantages of unionization have long been tied to better wages, dignity on the job, and expanded benefits. In Chicago, union members added one more advantage to the growing list: the COVID-19 vaccine.
In late March, the city announced vaccine eligibility would enter Phase 1C, expanding eligibility to Chicagoans aged 16-64 with underlying medical conditions, as well as all other essential workers who had not qualified during Phase 1B. With a large portion of union members falling into this category, the Chicago Federation of Labor jumped into action to get essential workers vaccinated.
“Many of our affiliates were frustrated with the fact that most union members were put into the 1C category, even though these women and men remained on the job throughout the pandemic,” said CFL Assistant to the President/Chief of Staff Nora Cay Ryan. “We knew that when the 1C category became eligible, it would be critical to have a union-run program to ensure we were vaccinating as many members as quickly as possible.”
Top leadership at the city and state level acknowledged the value of partnering with Labor, and with their cooperation, the CFL opened its very own union-led COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Monday, March 29 at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399.
“Unions are trusted messengers and dedicated advocates for thousands of Chicago’s essential workers, and this collaboration will ensure that workers with the highest need will have access to the vaccine as we enter Phase 1C,” said city of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “I want to thank the Chicago Federation of Labor for their partnership, which will help to reduce vaccine hesitancy, support our equity goals and put our city on a path to true recovery from this terrible pandemic.”
The CFL’s vaccine program had the capacity to handle approximately 1,200 vaccinations a week—with 1,185 shots administered to union members at the first clinic. The system was unlike any other. Its layout allowed for 100 chairs to be spaced out throughout the large union hall where 50 people could get vaccinated every 15 minutes.
“This vaccination site is one of a kind,” said CFL President Bob Reiter. “It is the first in the country that is run by the labor movement specifically for union members. Two thirds of our members are Black and Brown workers, and we must do everything we can to get this vaccine into arms as quickly as possible… Today is a new beginning, a huge step forward out of the darkness of the past year toward a brighter future.”
And these union-led efforts did not go unnoticed. The following week, the CFL welcomed Vice President Kamala Harris, alongside Mayor Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis at IUOE Local 399. During her special visit, Vice President Harris toured the vaccination site and praised the effort.
“I came to say thank you,” said Vice President Harris. “Because this site is a model for the rest of the country, a safe place to come where the dignity of work is recognized… We see light at the end of the tunnel because we’ve gone through so much as a nation.”
“You know the power of the collective. You know the importance and the strength of people standing together,” she said. “We’re all here to make a statement that we understand the significance of getting vaccinated, that it’s bigger than us” adding that now more than ever it is critical that union members reach out to their friends and family to encourage them to get vaccinated.
“Please help us. Tell your friends and your family members and your co-workers when it’s their time to get vaccinated, remind people of their power to do something that will save their lives,” Harris said. “The people who carry the most weight are our peers, the people we respect. So I’m here to ask you to do a little bit more and help us, so we can truly get back up on our feet.”
And workers who have stood on the frontlines since the pandemic began understand not only the importance of getting vaccinated, but also the importance of banding together to protect one another.
“I am out there every day with the members,” said John Rule, a Teamsters Local 710 member. “I caught COVID back in early November. Thank God I didn’t have any real problems, but the wife was in the hospital… Just get it done.”
“It’s important to get the vaccine, not just for you, but for other people,” said Slick Jorgensen, member of IATSE Local 2, who has been out of work since the pandemic began 15 months ago. “The more vaccinations we get, the more potential we have to open our venues—to at least some capacity—if not full capacity. That’ll mean our work comes back, and people can get back to concert season, ballets, shows, all of that. The more people get the vaccine, the closer we are to getting back on the job.”
Over the course of six clinics, the CFL vaccinated nearly 5,000 members.
“What made our program so successful is it was for union members by union members,” said Ryan. “We teamed up with the pharmacists at Jewel-Osco, all of whom are represented by either Teamsters Local 727 or UFCW Local 881, to distribute to vaccine. We also teamed up with IUOE Local 399 and Plumbers Local 130, both in Chicago, and Cement Masons Local 502 in Bellwood, Ill. to use their union halls to run these clinics. It really took the combined efforts of so many people and organizations to bring this program to life.”
“Chicago’s union workers have sacrificed their lives and livelihoods to keep this city moving during this unimaginable crisis,” said Reiter.
“Unions work every day to help ensure the health and safety of their members, and we are proud to have vaccinated thousands of workers in the city of Chicago across dozens of industries, especially Black and Latinx workers who have been hit especially hard by the virus,” said Reiter. “Yet again, Chicago is leading the way for the rest of the nation in standing up for working people. If there is one thing this city can count on—it’s that Chicago’s union women and men will rise to any challenge to keep this city running.”
Visit the CFL’s website at chicagolabor.org or the CFL’s social media channels
@ChicagoLabor on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for photos and videos of the CFL’s vaccination clinics as well as more from Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Chicago.