This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Even during a global pandemic, profit is the top priority for capitalists. On the one hand, our freedom of movement is restricted, and, on the other hand, we are supposed to continue working with numerous colleagues in offices and production facilities. But resistance to this is blossoming – and it is increasingly doing so on a global scale!
The German government wants to make 500 billion euros available to companies to get through the corona crisis, and similar enormous rescue packages are being put together all over Europe. And what exactly, do the rest of us, who are not corporations, get? The facts are clear: our place is to bear the costs of the crisis: work reductions, redundancies, increased pressure and workloads. And not only that. While the money continues to flow into the pockets of a rich minority, we do not even have enough protection at work to make sure we do not get sick.
There is a reason for this: it is not the workers in a company who decide on the necessary safety measures and it is not the majority of society who decides which companies will continue to operate and which will be temporarily closed. The power of decision lies with the management and the political establishment. No wonder there are protests worldwide that are starting to challenge this.
In the Spanish state, 5,000 workers at the Mercedes factory in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the largest factory in the Basque Country, went on strike and demanded the immediate closure of the factory for health reasons. Although management initially refused to do so in negotiations with the works council, in the face of the work stoppage they had no choice but to relent.
In the Amazon warehouse in Madrid, a region considered a high-risk area, the situation is increasingly coming to a head. Here, too, the workers are threatening to strike because the management wants to continue as before – even planning to hire additional temporary workers – in spite of the fact that there have already been three Corona cases in that very warehouse!
At Amazon, in France, the workers have now gone on strike at four sites – Montélimar, Chalon sur Saône, Douai and Saran – to protest against the non-compliance with minimum-distance rules, failure to clean the work areas and a lack of disinfectants. In New York, one shift did not go on duty because Amazon had not cleaned the work area sufficiently. There is also great anger over the issue of sick pay. At the same time, Amazon has increased the workload in the USA from forty to fifty hours per week!
In the United Kingdom, where the healthcare system has been cut to the bone in recent years, the government had initially decided to take little action and rely on a so-called “developing herd immunity”, a policy that accepted hundreds of thousands could die in Britain. Tory prime minister Boris Johnson had to make a complete U-turn on the issue, but valuable time was lost in the meantime. Public anger at the government’s inaction grew and fueled opposition, particularly as Johnson’s party had carried out a 10 year programme of cuts to the health service. Cleaning staff at UK hospitals have repeatedly gone on warning strikes while there is open anger amongst medical staff at the shortage of protective clothing. In Northern Ireland, thousands of workers of Northern Ireland’s largest private employer, Seagoe Moy, spontaneously left their workplace on 25 March because they refused to go to a job that is not safe.
In Italy, which has so far been most heavily affected by the Corona pandemic in Europe, class struggle has also developed the furthest. Solidarity and protest are expressed not only in music played together from the balconies or in the applause for the care workers that resounds throughout the country from 9 pm onwards, but also in an increasing number of strikes. After several work stoppages in the north, which demanded the closure of factories, several trade unions threatened a general strike.
In response, the Italian government initially announced that it will close all companies, factories and offices that are not necessary for basic services. This turned out to be a misleading promise, however, when the list of exceptions was published on Sunday 21 March: the production of tires, plastics and fabrics, car repair shops and the entire chemical industry is to stay open. Hundreds of thousands are supposed to continue working in the country with the highest number of corona deaths, in spite of the danger of infection. Public anger is understandably great, and a general strike is exactly the right answer! If it succeeds, Italy would become a beacon for all of Europe and the world, and demonstrate how both the capitalist logic of profit and the corona crisis can only be tackled with action from below.
The number of protests and strikes will only continue to mount, despite the lockdowns, if attempts continue to make working people pay the price for this crisis. It is not possible to list them all, here. They make it clear that the contradiction between capital and labour – between those who go to work every day and keep society going and those who pocket the profits – is the same, everywhere. If the bosses of the banks and corporations value their profits more than our lives, we must attack them where it hurts them – their pocketbook! If we stop working, the wheels stop turning and profits cease!
What are the perspectives?
Workers are currently on strike mainly because the bosses of the companies are not implementing stricter hygiene and safety measures. These protests are, however, connected with general anger against a political establishment which is exclusively on the side of the banks and corporations and is therefore completely unable to take measures in the interests of the majority of the people. In many countries, it is casual workers, those on zero-hour contracts, the self-employed who have been the first to be hit hardest. This opens up the potential for the protests to become generalised, to increase in intensity and scope and be directed not only against the bosses in the respective companies but against the whole system that is responsible for the current misery. This is one reason why governments in some countries are making concessions to buy time and encourage “national unity”. But many of these concessions are limited and are often dwarfed by those given to big business.
Once the coronavirus crisis is over, we must continue to fight: The world economic crisis that is just unfolding will further exacerbate the contradictions. A deep recession may limit trade union action for a time, but there will be a questioning of the capitalist economic system and openness to a socialist alternative. We must build a movement to ensure that the losses of the corona crisis and the coming economic recession are not once again dumped on the shoulders of the working population!