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“Every ventilator we get off the end of our line and out of our building is saving a life,” says Trevar Smedal. He works at a GE Datex-Ohmeda manufacturing plant where production has ramped up and shifts have been added so that assembly of the life-saving equipment can continue around the clock.
As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increases, nurses, doctors, and governors across the country are echoing the passionate language of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo when he speaks of the “critical and desperate need for ventilators.”
Studies from China determined that when the outbreak was at its peak there, roughly 5 percent of patients went into intensive care and 2.3 percent required the ventilator devices that pump oxygen into the lungs until people have recovered sufficiently to breathe on their own. “Now imagine 2.3 percent of the perhaps millions of Americans who are expected to become infected with Covid-19 over the next three months,” explains Daniel M. Horn, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “There simply will not be enough of these machines, especially in major cities.”
That terrifying prospect has given Smedal and his fellow members of International Association of Machinists (IAM) union Local 1406 in Madison, Wisconsin, a sense of mission. “The term ‘this is a wartime situation’ has definitely flown around our plant quite a bit,” explains the 30-year-old, who has been pulling 12-hour shifts since February, without a day off. “We are not going to shut our doors. When everybody else is out there really stressing out about what’s going to happen in the future, we can’t really dwell on that—because we got to get this stuff done. We’ve got to show up every day, and get as many of these machines out to the people all over the world.”
The machinists union and the AFL-CIO have circulated a brief video of Smedal as part of an effort to highlight the role union workers have played in addressing the coronavirus outbreak. Looking into the camera, he tells an anxious America, “Just keep up the faith. I know that my coworkers, we’re going to show up every day and we’re going to get out as many as we can.”
“They are literally saving lives,” says IAM International President Robert Martinez Jr., who refers to the workers at the GE Datex-Ohmeda plant in Madison as an “inspiration to all of us in a time when the whole world needs to be joining together in solidarity to tackle this pandemic.”
Solidarity is vital. With it goes an understanding of the sacrifices workers are making when they leave the safety of their homes to provide essential services.
The battle to get ahead of the coronavirus curve is so serious, and so demanding, that the list of working-class heroes grows with each passing day. Nurses and doctors are on the front lines. With them stand respiratory therapists, technicians, assistants, janitors, cooks, and all the other workers who are keeping hospitals going amid the overwhelming challenge that we are asking them to take on. The Senate’s “phase three” response to the pandemic includes $100 billion in funding for hospitals. That aid is critical. But there’s more, much more, to be done.
“We hear from scores of nurses every day, across the U.S., and many of them in California,” says Bonnie Castillo, RN, the executive director of the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses United union. “They still do not have access to proper protective masks, such as N95 respirators, and full head-to-toe protective clothing. They fear for their safety, for their patients’ safety, for their family’s safety, and for their co-workers’ safety. If they are not protected and safe, more people will die, and the virus will continue to spread in greater numbers.”
The nurses union has launched a national “Protect Nurses—All Our Lives Depend On It” campaign, which asks Congress to “mandate an emergency temporary OSHA standard so that frontline health care workers treating COVID-19 patients have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to prevent them from contracting the virus themselves.”
As lockdowns are initiated and “stay-at-home” orders are issued across the country, millions of workers are still being asked to leave their homes and their families to provide essential services in their communities. On Wednesday, in Pittsburgh, sanitation workers refused to pick up trash until their demands for safety gear—masks, an extra set of boots, more gloves—were addressed.
“We’re kind of taken for granted because they don’t have to call for us like they have to call for the fire and police,” explained sanitation worker Tom Foley. “We just show up and do our job.” There were reports from around the country of delivery drivers for Dominoes and Amazon workers demanding safer working conditions and paid time off.
The Amalgamated Transit Union has set up a national command center, with hotlines for workers and union representatives, to ensure that union members get the protection they need to keep drivers and other workers safe and healthy. This is vital not just for keeping enough buses and trains rolling through cities that are locked down but also in places where health care workers and others need transportation.
“We’re essential to [the] battle against COVID-19, trying to get other first responders to the front line, to keep the economy going,” says John Costa, the international president of ATU. “Yet our members—bus drivers, rail operators and the mechanics and other transit workers maintaining and disinfecting vehicles—are being unnecessarily exposed to coronavirus due to negligence and disregard by many contractors and transit agencies across North America.”
That’s a reasonable demand in an unreasonable moment. The latest congressional response to the coronavirus threat includes $25 billion in emergency transit funding. That’s important, but now federal, state, and local officials need to make sure not just that the money allocated for this fight is spent well and wisely, but also that the resources are coupled with a commitment to protect and support the people who are on the job even as communities shut down.
Workers will do the rest. They are stepping up to save lives, working in demanding circumstances for long hours—often with little notice. But we must notice their show of solidarity.
“People will start to burn out and it will be hard to continue it, continue the upswing of production,” says Smedal, as he describes his work on the ventilator line. “That’s kind of where being in a union, being brothers and sisters, comes into play. We kind of keep each other motivated—make sure people are staying healthy, getting enough to eat, getting enough sleep.”
Recalling the reference to “a wartime situation,” Smedal explains, “My sister, for example, she’s a doctor in Cincinnati—so you can say she’s definitely on the frontlines right now. I guess I’m kind of in the background putting the machines together.” On the day we spoke, Trevar told me his sister had called to tell him about hooking a young patient up to a ventilator.
Trevar Smedal’s sister is a hero. So is he.