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LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Unions Use Their Advocacy Skills To Get COVID-19 Vaccines In Members’ Arms

A UFCW Local 135 member shows off her sticker after getting a COVID-19 vaccin...

Credit: UFCW Local 135

Above: A UFCW Local 135 member shows off her sticker after getting a COVID-19 vaccine in this undated photo.

Lili Novarino had been looking for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment everywhere with no luck. Then, she turned to an organization she often turns to for help: her union.

“The union organized clinics for different employees,” said Novarino, a Vons worker for 30 years and member of the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). “I signed up on my phone, done.”

Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

Now, she feels a security she couldn’t have imagined a year ago.

“Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, when I was coming home from work, leaving my shoes outside, taking off my clothes, going straight to the shower, it’s a huge relief,” she said.

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Unions across the San Diego region are working hard to get their members vaccinated, employing many of the same tactics they use to get laws passed and favored political candidates elected.

They’re lobbying lawmakers to grant eligibility to their members and securing separate supplies of vaccines from state and county officials. They’ve also launched vaccine awareness campaigns among their members that stress the importance of getting the shots.

All of this will have a big impact on herd immunity at local unionized workplaces and help encourage people of color and lower-income people to get the vaccine, said UC San Diego epidemiology professor Rebecca Fielding-Miller.

“Unions are a trusted information source for their members,” she said. “There’s a fire hose of information all the time, but if your union reaches out and says do this and this on this day, that’s really helpful.”

Access for grocery workers

UFCW workers have been able to get vaccines through union stores and pharmacies like Albertsons and CVS; and, so far, a third of their workers have taken the vaccine, said Todd Walters, the president of UFCW Local 135.

Reported by Claire Trageser

But Walters said the actual number is likely higher, as members also could get shots at county vaccine sites or through their doctor. He plans in the coming weeks to survey all members to see if they’ve had a shot and encourage those who haven’t to do so.

“I was on worksites a lot talking to members, and I was finding a lot of different variables between the ones who are vaccinated versus not,” Walters said. “Some are anti-vaxxers, just say they don’t want to be vaccinated, but that number is not as high as people think. A bigger group is people who don’t have access to information because of a language barrier, and also in terms of technology.”

RELATED: Kroger Offers $100 Bonus To Employees Who Get Vaccinated

To address that gap, the UFCW has sent out text messages to every member with a link to sign up for a vaccine. That effort led to more than 3,500 members getting vaccinated, Walters said.

He said the union could ramp up the vaccine campaign quickly because it fits well within its already established outreach efforts.

“It’s what we do every day,” he said. “We visit members on the job site; that’s so important because when you see people on the job site, you have a captive audience, build relationships with them, they trust you and share information with you.”

The UFCW is just one of several unions doing this work. Recently, the local United Domestic Workers (UDW) had three sites give out 3,000 vaccinations in recent weekends, which is important for members who work in child care and as home care providers and otherwise would struggle to make appointments, said Doug Moore, the local UDW executive director.

Moore said he and other union leaders were also on-site, answering questions and concerns.

“The more education our members have around vaccines, the better,” he said. “On a recent Sunday, a member came in and said she wasn’t sure about getting vaccinated. After speaking to her for five minutes, she got the vaccine.”

Photo credit: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 465

An International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 465 member shows off his vaccine card after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in this undated photo.

Nate Fairman, the business manager for the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 465 said his union successfully lobbied Gov. Gavin Newsom to add utility workers to Tier 1B, so they could begin receiving vaccines in mid-March. Now, more than 50% of his members are vaccinated.

“Your union is your most trusted source of information,” Fairman said. “People get inundated with information, but when someone is a member of a union and they get communication about candidates and issues, they trust that information.”

Close to home

Brigette Browning, president of Unite Here! Local 30, a hotel workers union, said she’s seen more than 30 of her members die of COVID-19, so the fight to get them vaccines is dire.

“When I was having members that were saying, well, I'm scared, I'm not sure, and I started talking about their coworkers that had died, that really got them to the point that they were ready to take the shot,” said Browning, who is also the new head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

She has also reminded members that if they are working in food service for conferences or other events, the client may request only vaccinated servers.

“I think we're going to have to tell our members, if you don't get vaccinated and this customer says you can't be in their banquet room, you can't be in their banquet room,” Browning said.

Even for non-union workers, pressure from coworkers and friends can often make a difference in whether they take the shot.

Paolo Morales is the sushi manager at Sushi Deli in Mission Hills and said at first, many of his coworkers didn’t want the vaccine, but now they’re coming around. He had no doubts about getting vaccinated after losing his father to COVID-19 last June, and he said coworkers who’d lost loved ones felt the same way.

“There is a saying that says, ‘as long as the dead are not your dead, you will not understand the seriousness of what we are living,’” Morales said. "We were the first in line to get it because it’s more personal and it’s really, really dangerous. We're never going to win. We're never going to get over this situation if a lot of you just wait to see what's going to happen.”

His coworker, Daniel Flores, said he was unsure at first, but now after seeing Morales and others get their shots, he is planning to take it.

“It's a new vaccine and we don't know much about it because it's barely coming out, but it's all about each other's health, so we should all get it,” Flores said. “Be protected.”


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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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