This article has been updated since it was originally published on socialistworld.net. That earlier version is also being featured in an upcoming book on socialist perspectives of the coronavirus crisis published by Manifest Verlag in Germany.
By Claire Bayler & Jacob Bilsky (seasonal member of Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1326)
The United States has become the global epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic as government response efforts continue to flounder. The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has surged to more than 850,00. The national death toll nears 50,000. Kentucky is experiencing a surge in cases after recent anti-shutdown protests. One in three among the homeless in Boston have tested positive and data reports that black Chicagoans are dying at nearly six times the rate of white residents. The Trump administration has announced “re-opening of American” for May 1st, conincidently also International Workers Day. State governors have not made it clear whether they will continue local shutdowns under their own authority after May 1st.
Although state governments and private hospitals and labs have increased their capacity to test individuals, test kits remain scarce. Hospitals do not have enough safety equipment to protect staff and patients. The federal government is quietly seizing orders of medical supplies with no clear plan for their centralized distribution. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to produce ventilators and masks, but this only guarantees government purchasing from suppliers and does not fix prices, which are skyrocketing as shortages worsen. States report bidding wars with each other for essential equipment.
Though COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. over three months ago, little has been accomplished to increase the capacity of our healthcare system. Wait times in hospitals remain high, and even entering these facilities puts people at high risk of exposure. While drive-up testing clinics alleviate some of this risk, they require patients to show symptoms and receive doctor approval before making an appointment. Even scheduled appointments are being canceled for lack of tests. City hospitals face overcrowding because community health clinics and rural hospitals – which have never been profitable – were systematically closed over the past several decades. Following the insane logic of a for-profit healthcare system, hospital workers – in the middle of a global pandemic! – are being laid off from their jobs as hospitals claim they’re losing money from delaying lucrative non-COVID-19 procedures. Hospital corporations are refusing union calls to safely re-train and redeploy nurses to hard-hit departments.
The Trump administration has consistently downplayed the coronavirus infection rate, with criminally negligent delays in mass testing. Lack of early and accessible testing puts us at risk as people may be carrying the virus without showing symptoms or mistake mild symptoms for allergies or the common cold. We may 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, loss of employer-based insurance, and the threat of bankruptcy. The crash in the stock market, cuts to pensions, and shortcomings of Medicare place the elderly—already at the highest risk of death from the virus—in an especially precarious position.
The private for-profit healthcare system in the U.S. is completely broken. This system is incapable of keeping us safe and healthy even in “normal” times, and especially during a pandemic. While pandemics are unpredictable in timing, we can expect them to occur periodically; a responsible healthcare system would plan for them. Instead, the rich gamble with our healthcare for profit.
Millionaire Joel Freedman bought Philadelphia’s Hahnemann University Hospital—which served primarily low-income city residents—in 2018 and promptly closed it in 2019, over protests from the nurses’ union and the public. Freedman’s plan? To sell the building for conversion to luxury condos. At the outset of the current crisis, he demanded $1 million per month from the city to rent the—still empty—building in order to address the severe shortage of hospital beds. With the city balking at the high price tag, and Freedman unwilling to accept less than “market rate,” the hospital remains closed.
An even greater recession?
The economic impacts of social distancing hit working people the hardest. Some local governments have placed entire cities on lockdown. This is a huge blow to those 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.
Since March 14th, more than 26 million workers have applied for unemployment benefits and food security programs, shattering the past record of 695,000 applications in 1982. One in three young people have lost their jobs so far. Seven million people nationwide are expected to lose their employer-based healthcare. For decades, federal and state governments severely underfunded aid programs which are now unable to cope under the pressures of the pandemic.
Federal Reserve economists warn that the unemployment rate may exceed 32% during the COVID-19 crisis, surpassing the unemployment rate of the Great Recession and even peak unemployment rates during the Great Depression! As happened in 2008, hugely profitable corporations, like airline companies, are threatening mass layoffs if they don’t receive taxpayer bailouts. Other companies are moving forward with cuts to vacation, retirement, and other benefits for workers, including front-line workers like emergency room doctors.
In the wake of this economic devastation, the status quo of deregulation and austerity is breaking down in the U.S. After months of calling presidential candidate Bernie Sanders a “communist” for proposing the creation of a basic welfare state, President Trump outflanked Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer from the “left” by proposing emergency cash payments to all adult U.S. citizens. Both parties of big business – the Democrats and Republicans – have since pivoted to support the “biggest economic stimulus package in modern American history.”
The $2 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed on March 27 included $250 billion in cash payments for individuals and families, along with $350 billion in aid for small businesses, and funding for unemployment benefits and food security programs during the crisis. This aid is certainly a welcome relief, but it is far from enough. Outrageously, the bill also includes a $500 billion bailout for big business, twice the amount given to workers.
The money is very slowly filtering through layers of government bureaucracy on its way to our bank accounts. For many of us these stimulus checks came too late, or have yet to come at all. One-third of American renters didn’t pay rent in April. Evictions have started. This check isn’t enough! Unlike other countries that are providing weekly or monthly support, the U.S. is only providing a one-time payment of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child under age 17.
A loophole in the rules for cash payments means that most 17- to 23-year-olds will see no relief at all, because they are too old to count as “children” but are often still claimed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns. This will be a problem for many families who rely on incomes from their young adult children.
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 stimulus package – the first to invest anything in the working class – restored temporary confidence in the economy. This goes to show the centrality of workers in generating value and keeping the economy afloat.
Is Trump a socialist now?
Many Americans believe socialism means a strong social safety net, roads, and a national postal service. But socialism actually changes society more deeply.
Capitalist countries might occasionally nationalize an industry or implement expanded welfare programs in order to prevent 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 and tax cuts for capitalists at all levels. 43,000 millionaires are getting a “stimulus” averaging $1.6 million each! The U.S. 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. We can also expect that any welfare expansions passed to combat the crisis will disappear shortly after its end if we do not organize to defend and extend them.
Socialists should consistently advocate for an end to austerity and for expansion of social programs to benefit workers. However, we must recognize that these victories will always be threatened by capitalism unless we continue the fight towards a democratically planned and worker-owned economy.
In recent weeks, multiple states have seen protests demanding the reversal of stay-at-home orders and the re-opening of businesses. These protests reference Trump’s plan to “re-open America” on May 1st, and there is evidence linking many of the actions to conservative forces, including some of the same millionaires and billionaires behind the Tea Party. While these protests are undoubtedly made up of layers of business owners and the middle class who face economic ruin, these protests may attract genuine workers who are suffering without pay, and are demanding the right to work and earn a wage. Workers’ fears around losing income and health insurance are entirely understandable, but these reactionary protests and their goals will not help workers stay healthy or improve their living standards. It is crucial to present a socialist plan to these workers, arguing that they should be guaranteed income without having to risk their health, in order to cut across right-wing support.
We need a party to represent us!
The Democratic and Republican parties remain united in support for capitalism and imperialism. This includes additional economic sanctions on countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran. It includes further detentions of undocumented workers in cities facing lockdown, and deportations of asylum seekers on the pretext of avoiding spreading the virus. Over 200,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized for COVID-19 response efforts, though no martial law has been declared yet.
Politicians of both parties and government agencies are using the pandemic as an excuse to push through a host of anti-worker measures. The Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back key climate policies. The Department of Justice is quietly seeking the right to indefinitely detain people without trial during emergencies. The decision to ban abortions in Texas during the pandemic as a “non-essential medical procedure” was upheld in appeals court. New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo continues the push to implement cuts to Medicaid—even if it means risking billions in relief funds. Thousands of essential city workers in Philadelphia are having their time-and-a-half coronavirus pay revoked.
We need a viable alternative to the two corporate parties in the U.S.; a new mass party of workers and youth. This party must be accountable to workers through democratic structures, refuse all corporate money, elect representatives on a worker’s wage, and ensure 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 worker resistance
Unions, socialist groups, and working people across the U.S. all have a role to play in building a party of our own. It may not be safe currently to hold mass organizing meetings, but we can start by fighting to collectively defend our jobs and right to sick leave. This crisis makes it clear that it is not the bosses, but us workers—especially in essential industries like sanitation, healthcare, logistics, and grocery—who make society run and ensure that others have access to essential supplies during the pandemic.
Many workplaces are already moving into struggle. Some are fighting for job security, pay, and sick leave. For example, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (a group within the Teamsters Union) are leading the fight for paid sick leave in workplaces including the United Parcel Service (UPS). Others, including nurses and other healthcare workers, are fighting for proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and against furloughs. Non-unionized workers at Amazon have walked out of several warehouses or held wildcat strikes to protest the utter lack of workplace protection. Workers for other door-to-door delivery services like Instacart grocery deliveries have also gone on strike for PPE. Finally, union and non-union workers in “non-essential” manufacturing industries are demanding that they be put to work producing ventilators and other needed supplies.
In Detroit, Michigan, bus drivers knew their jobs would be essential to keeping the economy moving during the pandemic and put forward a comprehensive list of demands to ensure their economic and medical well-being as they continue working. With their union’s support, they engaged in a work stoppage and won all of their demands within 24 hours, including an end to fare collection during the crisis. Unionized transit workers in Worcester, Massachusetts similarly pressured the city to implement rear-door only boarding and a 30-day fare-free system to protect drivers and keep transit functional for low-paid essential workers. Worker action during the crisis won (temporary) fare-free transit where lobbying the Democrat-controlled Worcester City Council had failed for years.
Unionized “essential workers” in the railroad industry, including a member of the Independent Socialist Group (ISG), are agitating for time-and-a-half hazard pay and workplace safety measures. The online petition circulated by these union workers has gained 10,000 signatures in support.
Examples like the Detroit and Worcester 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, a rent and mortgage freeze, and universal free healthcare.
Organizing the unemployed in solidarity with unions, fighting for unemployment benefits, and organizing rent and mortgage strikes will be essential to preventing scabbing and maintaining the power of workers during this crisis. Some are already organizing piecemeal rent strikes and reclaiming vacant homes for safe housing for vulnerable people.
An international movement!
The pandemic will further weaken the U.S.’s global military status. Troops are facing an explosion of the virus due to close quarters and contradictory policies, which undermine both combat-readiness and morale. Officers who have attempted to protect the health of their units and raise awareness about the situation in the military have been fired and otherwise penalized, such as aircraft carrier captain Brett Crozier. Working class troops join the military overwhelmingly for secure employment, education, housing, and healthcare benefits, and can radicalize when they see their lives being wasted for the benefit of the rich. The U.S. capitalists may face workers organizing globally against the pandemic without the full force of the military to repress resistance.
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 our co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International will continue organizing 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. Eliminate monopolies on research and production of the vaccine.
- Implement free and universal healthcare for all. Place the hospitals and pharmaceutical companies under democratic public ownership. Reopen shuttered community health clinics and hospitals.
- Mobilize unions to defend workers’ jobs, pay, and benefits, and to fight for universal free healthcare and a federal guarantee of paid sick leave. If the union bureaucrats won’t do it, we need to strike anyway!
- Keep living costs down during the crisis. Freeze rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis and stop all evictions. Forgive all student loan debt.
- Use eminent domain to place empty houses, apartments, and hotels under public control and ensure everyone has safe and sanitary living conditions, especially the homeless.
- For a guaranteed 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 safely produce masks, test kits, and other necessary supplies. 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. Prevent food from being destroyed instead of sold for “too little profit”.
- Emergency pay for “Emergency” Workers! Reward the heroic efforts of logistics, healthcare, grocery, 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!
Image credit: Peyman Hamidipoor / Student News Agency