United States: Vaccines, public safety and workers' rights

October 13, 2021
Face mask
In the United States, few employers will hire workers unless they are vaccinated. Photo: Pixabay

COVID-19 is causing death and human destruction in the United States and around the world. As of October, more than 700,000 men, women and children have died in the US, and more than 5 million across the world.

Although several vaccines have been in circulation since the end of last year, most have been bought and hoarded by wealthy countries.

President Joe Biden claims the US has pledged more vaccines to the world than all other countries combined. But actual distribution has been small, while unused doses have expired. Millions of adults refuse to take the shots because of false information and objectively anti-science propaganda.

Corporate greed over life

The Biden administration also refuses to force pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna to transfer their knowledge and medical technology to other countries that could manufacture vaccines at low cost.

Only 4.4% of people in Africa are vaccinated, according to the World Health Organization. It is not much better in other parts of the less developed world.

Corporate greed and profits always win out over saving lives and public safety.

While poorer nations simply want access to vaccines, in the US, Europe and many other industrialised countries there is a debate about vaccine mandates. Should vaccines be mandated by governments and employers? Should workers who refuse the shot be terminated?

Biden and most Democratic Party officials support employer and government vaccine mandates. Biden issued an order for all federal employees and private contractors to be vaccinated. The Pentagon has ordered all military units and contractors to apply the same mandates.

Many workers, including medical and school employees, are facing termination if they remain unvaccinated. Some unions oppose the mandates, while urging members to get the vaccination.

New York and California have taken the lead in mandating vaccines and masks. Big employers, such as United Airlines, have used mandates to get 90% of employees vaccinated.

New York’s mandates

New York’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers went into effect on September 27. It puts unvaccinated healthcare workers throughout the state at risk of either losing their jobs or being forced to take unpaid leave.

The state’s mandate is not just limited to doctors and nurses, but extends to all workers in the healthcare system, including food service workers, administrators and janitorial workers. Hospitals throughout New York have already started sacking workers.

The state has also determined that workers who are sacked on the grounds of vaccine refusal will not qualify for unemployment benefits, unless they can provide a medical exemption.

These sackings are seen by many on the left as an opening salvo from the state and the bosses for further attacks on all workers, union and non-union. However, it is more about how the working class should respond to a pandemic and protect workers’ interests at the same time.

Front-line health workers must be vaccinated to protect co-workers and members of the public seeking help. However, it is wrong to sack workers who have put their lives on the line throughout the pandemic. Accommodations must be negotiated.

Attempts to incentivise health workers to vaccinate helped at first. A more positive approach would be to give those refusing vaccination unpaid suspension for a period of time, or furlough them until they comply. It includes providing unemployment benefits and a right of recall when, and if, the pandemic is under control.


California became the first state to announce a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for all public and private school children, on October 1. This affects millions of students and places the state at the forefront of strict pandemic safety measures.

California's governor, Gavin Newsom, announced the mandate will take effect for grades 7–11 at the start of the school term, following the US Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the vaccine for children aged 12 and older. Mandated vaccinations for students in kindergarten through to sixth grade will be phased in after the vaccine has been approved for their age group.

Newsom said students could be affected as early as next January, if a COVID-19 vaccine for 12-year-olds and over is federally approved before the end of this year.

Private employers

United Airlines and other carriers have announced that all employees, unionised or non-unionised, must be vaccinated or face termination; or suspension in the case of medical and religious exemptions. This comes after months of urging workers to get vaccinated, which included financial incentives.

Pilots, flight attendants and other front-line employees have been under growing pressure as COVID-19 has spread. Unruly passengers have refused to wear masks, putting other passengers' and flight attendants’ lives at risk.

Some disrupters are arrested, fined and banned from flying. More must be done to prevent a more serious situation.

The CEO and management of United Airlines declared that all employees had to be vaccinated by the end of September. Now, around 600 employees face termination. United Airlines, working with unions, first offered financial incentives for employees to get vaccinated. Although more than 70% did so, it took the threat of termination to raise vaccination levels to 99%.

The Association of Flight Attendants and the Air Line Pilots Association have raised a dispute under their workplace agreement to allow pilots who refuse to vaccinate to take leave without pay.

Technicians' and storekeepers/customer service workers' unions also support vaccinations and are seeking similar protections for those not vaccinated for health reasons.

It is now the case that few employers will hire workers unless they are vaccinated, which most workers will have to consider before quitting a job due to vaccine requirements.

The larger issue is the need to defeat those politically opposed to vaccinations in a global pandemic.

Anti-vax misinformation

Anti-vax activists are a minority that must be confronted directly and isolated. They have been the loudest and most agitated in voicing violent threats against mandatory vaccinations and the wearing of masks.

The mainstream Republican Party gives them support, as an opportunistic strategy to gain votes to win back control of Congress and the presidency.

Anti-vax activists promote misinformation on social media and through right-wing operatives in the Republican Party. Ironically, many of these so-called anti-vax figures in the media are themselves vaccinated; Fox News, for example, requires employees to be vaccinated or undergo daily COVID-19 testing.

Eric Lutz wrote in Vanity Fair about the long-term threat anti-vax activists pose to society, on September 14, and the way that prominent Republicans have opposed measures to combat the pandemic. Health experts are concerned anti-vax rhetoric may fuel broader rejection of vaccine requirements.

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told the Washington Post on September 13: “The 20th century was a century of incredible progress against leading killers, and much of that progress was because of vaccinations. If we turn our back on vaccines at this moment where vaccines are really having a scientific heyday ... I think that would be tragic and it would cause a lot of unnecessary suffering and death, particularly among children.”

In Republican-controlled states and most of the southern states, including Florida and Texas, governors have issued statewide executive orders penalising school boards and hospital administrations for mandating masks and vaccines. Many of these orders have been stopped by federal courts.

Anti-vax activists have also threatened officials for supporting vaccine and mask mandates.

Many nurses, paramedics and other front-line healthcare workers are leaving their jobs as threats of violence escalate, resulting in a labour shortage.

Religious exemptions ruse

Another card played by opponents of mandates is that of “religious exemption”. The federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled that religious activity within a worksite is protected under the constitution’s “Free Exercise” clause.

The Supreme Court ruled in April that California could not apply COVID-19 restrictions to an at-home Bible study group — which had more than three households meeting in the same room — in violation of state health regulations.

Almost all major religions support vaccines and the use of medicine to save people’s lives. All 50 states have a list of vaccines that are mandatory before children can attend school. Mississippi and Alabama, for example, deny religious exemptions, but now oppose mandates for COVID-19 vaccinations and masks.

The so-called religious exemption is a political ruse.

A minority — some 20% of the population (65–70 million people) — cannot be allowed to prevent mass vaccinations. The central issue is protecting society as a whole. The rights and “freedoms” of the individual must be subordinate to the majority.

The public good must be the priority.

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