‘This Is Not OK’

service workers

'This Is Not OK'

As Tennessee reopens, many frontline workers fear for their safety. In a state long hostile to organized labor, what are their options?

by jesse fox mayshark • May 6, 2020

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From a statement issued last week by two groups representing local employees.

Jade Cunningham was not impressed when she heard Gov. Bill Lee’s plans for reopening businesses that had been closed by his orders aimed at containing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Campus workers at UT question the wisdom of a phased return plan.

The governor talked a lot about the damage to the state’s economy from the closures, something Cunningham was well acquainted with as a longtime restaurant employee. What she didn’t hear was much concern for the people who would actually be doing the work.

“He basically just blatantly said, ‘We need your money, and let’s kick the door open,’” said Cunningham, who at 30 has been working in restaurants for nearly half her life.

So she and her mother, Sandi Johnson, also a restaurant veteran, did the only thing they could think of while sheltering at home — they set up a private Facebook group called Knoxville Service Industry United, to advocate for worker safety. By the next day, they had 250 members; as of yesterday, that had climbed to 838.

“It has really become very apparent to me in the last week as we work with all these people that they feel vastly underheard and not represented,” Cunningham said in a joint Zoom interview with Johnson this week. (Both preferred not to name their current employers, who they said are being supportive of their workers. They said their concerns are for the industry as a whole.)

The impacts of the outbreak are not evenly distributed. As many professional employees have been able to work from home and continue to draw paychecks, frontline workers in restaurants, retail outlets and other service sectors have been laid off and forced to jostle with digital throngs seeking unemployment benefits from overburdened state offices.

Now, as the state and Knox County are allowing phased reopenings, those same workers — whose jobs often entail interacting with hundreds of people a day — are being pushed back into the midst of a still active pandemic.

Although both the state and county have issued safety guidelines for businesses, officials have made clear that there will be little active enforcement, leaving compliance largely up to employers and customers. 

“They’re saying, ‘We believe everybody’s going to do the right thing,’” Cunningham said. “Which is a lovely idea, and when they discover utopia, I would love to be invited. But there’s a reason that we have health codes every single day set in place for restaurants. There's a reason we have OSHA and health and safety violation acts and rules. It is haphazard and insane to not further that in a time like this.”

At the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, which has released its own phased guidelines for bringing employees back to campus, staff members also have concerns.

“I’ve talked to everybody I could, and the universal response is it’s too soon,” said Tom Anderson, a buyer in UT’s Facilities Services department and the legislative committee chair for the local chapter of United Campus Workers. “Cases are on the rise, deaths are on the rise, opening things up and bringing people back is just a bad idea.” 

A Lack of Organization

Like most workers in Tennessee, service sector employees are unlikely to be represented by a union. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee ranks 46th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in organized labor participation, with just 4.6 percent of the workforce belonging to a union.

As a “right to work” state, Tennessee places legal obstacles in the way of organizing efforts. Even if employees in a given workplace vote to unionize, they cannot require all workers to join, undermining their bargaining power.

A recent tweet from U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn concisely expressed the prevailing political view of organized labor in Tennessee: “Labor unions are corrupt, shady organizations that pretend to care about workers. They (sic) only thing they care about is staying in power.”


"This is an opportunity for people to say, ‘You know, maybe we ought to really stand together and make sure we’re safe.'" – Sam Alexander, president, Knoxville-Oak Ridge AFL-CIO

Bob Hutton, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Tennessee who specializes in Appalachian and labor studies, said the state’s workers have tended to internalize a sense of powerlessness.

“Working-class Tennesseans have become inured to low expectations for so long that it’s very difficult to persuade people to stand up and say, ‘Damn it, I deserve more,’” Hutton said.

Sam Alexander, president of the AFL-CIO for the Knoxville-Oak Ridge area, said many of his members work in industries that are somewhat protected from the coronavirus pandemic. He is a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, who maintain railroad tracks and work in small crews outdoors.

But he said the current situation exposes service sector employees to the kinds of concerns about personal health and safety that have often triggered organizing movements.

“This is an opportunity for people to say, ‘You know, maybe we ought to really stand together and make sure we’re safe,’” Alexander said.

Hutton sounded a historical cautionary note. Many industries in Tennessee face daily hazards, he said, noting that two workers died during the renovation of the Henley Bridge last decade.

“It’s really one of the side effects of the wage system, especially in a state where workers aren’t able to organize, that they find themselves in unsafe conditions,” he said.

‘They Have to Listen’

There were no labor or employee representatives on either the state or local task forces convened to establish the reopening guidelines.

Cunningham and Johnson say they know real organized action would be difficult for local restaurant workers. But through conversations with their group, they have established a set of principles — posted on their public Facebook page — that they think governments and employers should heed.

Among them: coronavirus testing for all workers before they return to work; mandated safety plans and training for all businesses; the option for workers with health concerns for themselves and their families to delay returning to work without endangering their unemployment eligibility; temperature checks and contact tracing forms for guests; and a “livable, guaranteed hazard wage for all workers willing to return to restaurant work under unclear pandemic conditions.”

“It’s ridiculous we’re so underpaid,” Johnson said. “Especially servers. The wage for servers is $2.13 an hour, and it’s been like that since the ’70s.”

She noted that the tips that are supposed to push their pay to the minimum wage or above will be harder to come by in restaurants operating at reduced capacity, as they are supposed to in Knox County for at least the next two months. 

“So they may have some of these servers going back to work, making less than minimum wage, and on top of that they don’t have healthcare,” Johnson said.

Cunningham noted that similar online affiliations of service workers have sprung up in Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis, and they are communicating with each other.

“Even as a right to work state, we're at that point where we've got enough people in Knoxville and the surrounding area that are talking to us that we're like, ‘OK, maybe we can really make something happen here,’” Cunningham said. “If enough of us stand together and say, ‘This is not OK,’ they have to listen.”

Another local group also sprang up in recent weeks to advocate for service workers under the name Service Industry Coalition Knoxville (SICK). Cunningham’s group issued a joint statement with SICK last week asking state and local officials for clear and enforceable guidelines for worker protection. It concluded, “We are not disposable. We will not be treated as such.”

In a group statement in response to questions from Compass, members of SICK said the local plan for reopening businesses provides little protection for workers.

It does not address the concerns in any actionable way,” the email said. “We feel that this plan was more of a PR display than an actual plan to support worker concerns, and we find it quite negligent that the county mayor delivered a message of trusting each other to take on safety precautions — such as wearing masks — while not bothering to wear a mask himself. We see 29 pages of repetitive baseline safety guidelines in this plan, which mainly asks service industry workers to take on the greatest burden.” 

Campus Concerns

One of the few local labor success stories in recent decades was the establishment of United Campus Workers at UT in 2000. Representing campus employees ranging from janitors to tenured faculty, the organization officially affiliated in 2003 with Communications Workers of America.

But in a video interview Tuesday, Anderson and chapter vice president Sarah Eldridge — an associate professor of German — said campus employees had been mostly kept in the dark about the reasoning and timing of UT Knoxville’s phased reopening plan.

Anderson said that since students departed campus in mid-March, followed by most faculty and staff, facilities workers and others have continued to perform essential duties.

“The steam plant, for example, is 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “It doesn’t get shut down, somebody always has to be there.” 

But with classes continuing online at least through the summer, Anderson said, it is unclear to him why other staff need to be brought back over the coming weeks, as the plan presented by Chancellor Donde Plowman envisions.

“The critical functions have gone on for six weeks, with folks being safer at home and isolating and doing what they can in a very limited on-campus capacity,” he said. “And if it's been effective for six weeks, why is it important for those people to come back to work now?”

Eldridge said she suspects the urge to bring workers back is guided more by ideology than public health. Unlike faculty and administrators, many of UT’s lowest-paid workers don’t have the option of working from home.

“The basic answer to ‘Why?’ is the university feels weird about paying people to sit at home and not work,” she said. “I think that's actually the fundamental elephant in the room here.”

Anderson said he knows employees raising safety concerns may be painted as simply not wanting to come to work. But he said that’s unfair to people who take pride in their jobs and in the institution.

“I certainly applaud the need to be proactive in planning and figuring out what things are going to look like, and how we can continue the vital function of educating people,” he said. “We’re certainly not here for the money. We’re all fully invested in coming up with how do we do this in a safe and effective way.”