This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, with new confirmed cases in West Virginia completing the virus’ spread to all 50 states and three U.S. territories. As the crisis seems to plateau in China, the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. surged to more than 112,000 and counting. The national death toll climbed past 1,800. The corporate media reports that the U.S. could become the next epicenter for the coronavirus. Coronavirus cases and deaths are still spiking in New York.Louisiana is experiencing the fastest growth rate of cases in the world, according to its Governor, and residents have been ordered to stay home until 12 April.
Although state governments and private hospitals and labs have increased their capacity to test individuals, actual test kits remain scarce and hospitals do not have enough safety equipment to protect both staff and patients. Wait times in hospitals remain high, and even entering these facilities puts those without the virus at high risk of exposure. While new drive-up testing clinics will alleviate some of this risk, they require patients to show symptoms and receive doctor approval before making an appointment.
City hospitals also face overcrowding, as community health clinics and rural hospitals, which have never been profitable, were systematically closed over the past several decades. In rural parts of the country, many are forced to seek healthcare in the nearest city (which can be hundreds of miles away in the Western and Southern U.S.) or go without treatment.
This criminal lack of early and accessible testing puts us at risk as people may be carrying the virus but mistake mild symptoms for allergies or the common cold and either avoid or be denied testing. Although Congress passed measures to make testing for the virus-free, if we test positive and need treatment, we have to worry about exorbitant hospital charges and the threat of bankruptcy. The crash in the stock market, cuts to pensions, and shortcomings of Medicare place the oldest among us, already at the highest risk of death from the virus, in an especially financially precarious position.
An even greater recession?
The economic impacts of social distancing hit working people the hardest. As the Trump administration advises us not to patronize pubs and restaurants, some local governments have placed entire cities on lockdown. This is a huge blow to those of us who work in the service industry, often for below minimum wage plus tips. “Non-essential” workplaces are shutting down and forcing their employees to use already scarce paid sick and vacation leave or laying them off entirely. While the public is being reassured about “food supply”, the reality on the ground is a lot of panic buying, empty shelves and shortages, and reports of some supermarkets closing where workers tested positive for the virus.
More than 3.3 million workers are now applying for unemployment benefits and food security programs, shattering the past record of 695,000 applications in 1982. For decades, federal and state governments severely underfunded these programs which are now unable to cope under the pressures of the pandemic. The Secretary of Treasury warns that the unemployment rate may even exceed 20% during the COVID-19 crisis, double the total unemployment rate following the Great Recession and approaching the peak unemployment rates experienced in 1933 during the Great Depression.
In the wake of this economic devastation, the status quo of deregulation and austerity is breaking down in the U.S. Both parties of big business, the Democrats and Republicans, are suddenly backing what the New York Times hails as the “biggest economic stimulus package in modern American history.”
Senators finally settled on the $2 trillion USD stimulus package after a week of cutthroat negotiation. It includes $250 billion in cash payments for individuals and families, along with $350 billion in aid for small businesses, funding for unemployment benefits and food security programs, and provisions for paid sick leave during the crisis. This aid will certainly be a welcome relief, but it is far from enough and many of the provisions, like paid sick leave, are severely limited. Furthermore, the bill also includes a huge $500 billion bailout for big business, including major airlines, twice the amount to be given to individuals and families.
While many of us will welcome this relief, cash payments from the federal government will take weeks or months to reach the hands of workers as checks will need to be processed and mailed. Furthermore, the bill’s expansion of unemployment benefits may allow companies to justify further layoffs. After the layoffs of the last recession, many full-time jobs were permanently cut. With no guarantee the jobs lost now will come back after the recession is through, many of those laid off may find themselves forced to work at exploitative and low paid part-time jobs and various “gigs.”
In addition, anyone claimed as a dependent in their taxes will not receive stimulus checks. This will be a problem for many working-class families who rely on incomes from their children over 18 years of age to make ends meet at home, as the bill only compensates families at a rate of $500 per dependent under the age of 16. This means that families with dependents over the age of seventeen living at home will receive no compensation for them while still needing to provide for them in a difficult economic situation with rapid mounting unemployment. Furthermore, many university students in the U.S. are claimed as dependents by their parents, even if they work to support themselves, pay rent, and cover tuition. This stimulus package fails to address the diverse needs of working-class families and youth, those of us who will be hit particularly hard by the recession.
Negotiations allegedly finished early in the morning on Wednesday, March 25th, but the Senate stalled in passing the legislation until late in the day due to right-wing senators wanting to cut unemployment benefits from the proposal. It will take additional time for the bill to pass the house and be signed into law. After that, much of the money will have to filter through state and local governments, adding to the time before we actually see relief. This is valuable time many of us do not have, as our hours are cut, workplaces close, and bills need to be paid.
The U.S. government dragging its feet in bailing out workers stands in stark contrast to how the Federal Reserve rapidly injected $1.5 trillion into the debt markets in hopes of saving the tanking economy. Whereas this measure only stalled the market crash for 20 minutes, the upcoming stimulus package, the first to invest anything in the working class, has restored some confidence in the economy, along with the president’s calls to have everyone back to work “by Easter.” This goes to show the centrality of workers in generating value and keeping the economy afloat.
Perceptions about the positions of the two main U.S. political parties are being turned on their heads. Progressive Democrats, such as House Representative, Ocasio-Cortez, make strange bedfellows with the religious right-wing Republican Mitt Romney in supporting a universal basic income. Meanwhile, many political commentators observed that reactionary white-supremacist president Donald Trump initially outflanked Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer from the “left” in proposing giving all adult U.S. citizens 1,000 dollars for free. This comes after months of Trump calling presidential candidate Bernie Sanders a “communist” for proposing the creation of a basic welfare state as seen in most European countries.
Is Trump a socialist now?
While many in the U.S. believe socialism simply means a strong social safety net, roads, and a national postal service, it’s actually much more complex.
Capitalist countries might occasionally nationalize an industry or implement expanded welfare programs in order to stave off an economic or health crisis, but they do so with the goal of saving capitalism, not creating a new system of production or challenging society’s ruling class. In this case, expansion of the welfare state comes with bailouts for U.S. businesses, such as the failing airline industry and tax cuts for capitalists, at all levels.
Furthermore, while COVID-19 testing may now be free in the U.S., the government openly opposes nationalizing hospitals (as has happened in Spain) and supports the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies as they bid to monopolize and sell treatments for COVID-19. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas even suggested that older people should “sacrifice” themselves during the pandemic to ensure the economy keeps moving.
As socialists, the Independent Socialist Group and our co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International consistently advocate for an end to austerity and expansions of social programs to benefit workers. However, we recognize that these victories will always be hampered and threatened by capitalism unless we continue the fight towards a democratically planned and worker-owned economy.
While the Democratic and Republican parties run in circles over the details of the economic stimulus package, they remain united in support for capitalism and imperialism. This includes further detentions of undocumented workers by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in cities facing lockdown and additional sanctions on countries like Cuba and Iran. We can also expect that any welfare expansions passed over the next few months to combat the crisis will disappear shortly after its end.
We need a viable alternative to the two corporate parties in the U.S. The Independent Socialist Group advocates for the creation of a new mass party of workers and youth. This party must be accountable to workers through democratic structures, refusing corporate money, electing representatives on a worker’s wage, and ensuring they can be recalled if the need arises. Only such a party would be capable of consistently fighting for working people, whether or not the world faced a mass economic, environmental, or health crisis.
COVID-19 and the class struggle
Unions, socialist groups, and working people across the U.S. all have a role to play in building such a party. It may not be safe at this moment to hold mass meetings and travel to national conferences to organize such a party, but we can start now by fighting to defend our jobs and right to sick leave. This crisis makes it clear that us workers, especially in essential industries like sanitation, healthcare, logistics, and grocery stores, are the real heroes who make society run, ensuring that others have access to essential supplies during the pandemic.
Some workplaces are already moving into struggle. Following a number of wildcat strikes across the country, the United Auto Workers are negotiating temporary factory shutdowns with full pay for workers, an important step in protecting workers’ health and financial stability. Meanwhile, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (a group within the Teamsters Union) are leading the fight for paid sick leave in workplaces such as the United Parcel Service (UPS). The rapid closure of schools and universities is pushing students and staff into active struggle as they are stripped of housing and work. While each of these struggles has made concessions to the bosses (such as the Teamsters agreeing to layoffs of workers with less seniority), they are important steps in fighting for working people’s rights and wellbeing during the pandemic.
In Detroit, Michigan, bus drivers knew their jobs would be essential to keeping the economy moving during this crisis and put forward a comprehensive list of demands to ensure their economic and medical well-being as they work through the pandemic. With their union’s support, the bus drivers engaged in a work stoppage and won all of their demands within 24 hours. This included an end to fare collection during the crisis, effectively making public transit fare-free in the city.
Examples like the Detroit bus drivers show how workers in essential industries have immense power to win gains for everyone during this crisis. Wildcat strikes of workers in the logistics and sanitation industries could paralyze what remains of the U.S. economy and win universal paid sick leave, better wages and hours, and universal free healthcare.
We should also look to past examples of organizing during economic depressions in the U.S. to ensure victories for workers during this pandemic and afterwards. For example, we know that if and when workers in essential industries go on strike, the bosses will use economic desperation to their advantage to attract the unemployed to scab for them. Organizing the unemployed in solidarity with unions, fighting for unemployment benefits, and implementing rent and mortgage freezes and strikes will be essential to preventing scabbing and maintaining the power of workers during this crisis.
As the pandemic proceeds, we must be ready to fight for our rights now and keep fighting after it ends. The Independent Socialist Group and Committee for a Workers’ International will continue our political activity through this crisis. We encourage workers living in the U.S. to contact us and get involved in the fight for independent working-class power. A socialist world is possible!
The Independent Socialist Group calls for:
- All tests, treatments, and vaccinations for COVID-19 must be free and widely accessible to the public!
- Mobilize unions to defend workers’ jobs, pay, sick leave, and to fight for universal free healthcare! If the union bureaucrats won’t do it, we need to strike anyway!
- Place the hospitals and pharmaceutical companies under democratic public ownership! Reopen community health clinics and hospitals and implement free and universal healthcare for all!
- No evictions or layoffs during the health and economic crises! We need a federal guarantee to paid sick leave and rent control! Use eminent domain to place empty houses, apartments, and hotels under public control and ensure everyone has safe and sanitary living conditions including the already homeless.
- Keep living costs down during the crisis! Freeze rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis and forgive all student loan debt.
- For a universal basic income of at least $750/week for laid off, retired, and disabled workers and a $20/hour federal minimum wage!
- Create millions of new jobs through reopening and retooling factories to produce masks, test kits, and other necessary supplies during the crisis. These factories should be democratically controlled by the workers and not run for profit or by hyper-exploited prison labor.
- Implement rationing and price controls to ensure equitable access to food, paper goods, utilities, and other essentials during the crisis.
- Emergency pay for “Emergency” Workers! Reward the heroic efforts of logistics, healthcare, and sanitation workers with immediate and permanent pay hikes.
- Release all prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses and all detained undocumented immigrants to prevent rapid spread of the virus in these tightly packed facilities. Ensure they have access to medical care, housing, food, and water! Convert private prisons to hospitals and ensure all remaining prisons are publicly owned and have safe and sanitary living conditions.
- Oppose the implementation of martial law and all restrictions on workers’ rights to organize during the crisis.
- Internationalist cooperation, not capitalist competition! End all U.S. economic sanctions on other nations and prevent private multinational corporations from patenting and monopolizing treatments.
- For a mass workers’ party to defend and extend all gains made during the current crisis!
For more information, visit the Independent Socialist Group Facebook page: