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McLean County Labor Leader Calls For Collective Action Against Coronavirus

Carleigh Gray
Ahead of the Labor Day holiday, McLean County and national labor leader John Penn, left, with then-candidate JB Pritzker, called for national solidarity against the pandemic.

A national union leader from McLean County is calling for collective action, but not just from union members.

John Penn is the Midwest Region Manager and Laborers International Union of North America vice president. Penn said as Labor Day approaches there is one particular labor everyone in the nation can perform: get vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Probably the majority of us are going to catch the virus, but if we have the shot it's not going to be as bad. And we're just going to have to live with that. But for people to just ignore it totally, they're just putting themselves and their family in such danger. And it's just a shame we could be looking at loss of lives and loved ones over getting a simple shot," said Penn.

Penn said laborers union vaccination rates are high.

"Through our collective bargaining process we're talking about making it mandatory. That has to be negotiated. Where we don't have people in the bargaining unit, and for our apprentices, we are making it mandatory. One person can shut down a training site," said Penn.

He said when that happens it's a loss of income for all involved.

Penn asked viewers and participants in Monday's Labor Day Parade in Bloomington to wear masks. The parade kicks off at 10 a.m. at Front and Center streets in Bloomington and goes to Miller Park. The posthumous parade marshal is Ronn Morehead. Morehead was the Trades & Labor president for over 40 years, annually helped organize the parade, the Children’s Christmas Party for Unemployed Families, and served on multiple community and statewide boards.

Union Strength

Though union membership has fallen in most years for the last several decades, Penn said he is optimistic about the prospects for his movement. Penn noted some unions are doing very well indeed. Penn said the Laborers International is at a historic high membership of over 500,000 on the strength of strong construction industry activity.

Penn, of Bloomington, says his own union is doing very well on the eve of this Labor Day holiday. He said the largest capital bill passed by the state of Illinois and now the nation's proposed largest infrastructure bill are helping.

"2020 was a good year for the construction trades and it looks like through 2022 they will be even better years," said Penn.

Changing demographic patterns may also help unions, said Penn. The baby boomers are retiring. Penn said it used to be the Laborers apprentice programs would attract people in their 30s, relatively old for the construction industry. He said they came out of a desire to get benefits for their families. Penn said now the apprentice programs are beginning to draw people in their 20s for the first time in years.

After a difficult four years under the Rauner administration in the state, and nationally under President Trump, who were largely hostile to union concerns, Penn said it is a relief to have the Pritzker administration in the state and the Biden administration on the national level be more hospitable to worker protections in forcing compliance with existing safety rules and pay provisions so American workers are not cheated of their due.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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