By Nicholas Wurst (TCU/IAM Local 1089, personal capacity)
International Workers’ Memorial Day (April 28th) falling just before International Workers’ Day (May 1st) is especially fitting this year. Over 200,000 workers have died worldwide so far as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council of Global Unions has called on governments around the world to recognize COVID-19 as an occupational disease, which workers in certain sectors are at heightened risk of contracting and dying from.
International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, was born from the titanic struggle of the working class for the eight-hour workday, and throughout the years it has served as a flash point for workers’ struggles. Many past May Day struggles have been about workplace safety, and have meant life or death for the workers involved.
On May 4th, 1886 in Chicago, police killed and injured dozens of workers who were on strike to demand an eight-hour workday. The next day in Milwaukee, the state militia killed seven more strikers. In the face of this horrific violence, the international socialist movement adopted May 1st as an annual day of protest and action for the demands of the working class.
The working class faces violence in many forms. When workers stand up for our rights in the workplace, we face the threat of unemployment and often physical violence—just last year a GM worker was killed on the picket line. In wars fought for profit, the soldiers are drawn from the working class, either forced by the draft or economically conscripted into risking life and limb for stable housing and healthcare. As members of oppressed communities, we face violence from police, right-wing forces, and the lasting effects of slavery, colonization, and imperialism. But we also face the everyday violence of capitalism.
In a system where we spend, at best, half of our waking day at work, workplace conditions can damage our health and expose us to danger and death. In a system where we work for the profit of others, the value of our wages and compensation determines our access to healthcare, healthy food, safe housing, and reliable transportation.
Now, in the midst of the most severe pandemic since the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, Trump wants to order us back to work on International Workers’ Day! Capitalist forces are pressuring for a return to work as soon as possible, regardless of who will die as a result—Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick even stated that elderly people should sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy. The bosses have demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice working class lives to protect their profits throughout the pandemic. With the economy entering a death spiral, the capitalist class wants our labor power back in the equation to try to avoid the worst of the coming crash.
In 1845, Friedrich Engels, a young German socialist investigating the conditions of workers in England, described it this way:
When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians [workers] in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live—forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence—knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.– Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England
In 2020, thousands of workers around the world face this same murder every day, and the COVID-19 outbreak multiplies the scale of these murders. While the first wave has been deadly enough, a premature return to work could trigger a second wave that would be magnitudes more serious, just like the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
The fight for an eight-hour workday, and every other demand of the working class, has been in self-defense against this violence and can be connected in one way or another to our health and well-being. In the face of this current crisis, the Independent Socialist Group demands:
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing for all essential workers! For immediate mass testing. Retool unnecessary production facilities in order to solve the shortages of test kits, PPE, ventilators, food, and all other needed supplies.
- Hazard pay for frontline workers! No furloughs or layoffs during the pandemic. Guarantee full pay, benefits, and job retraining for those already forced out or unable to work until they are able to find equivalent new jobs.
- No forced return to non-essential work until the crisis is clearly over. For guaranteed full pay and benefits for workers who cannot work remotely due to health, family, or type of work.
- Free healthcare for all, regardless of ability to pay, funded by taxing the rich and big business, not working people. For universal healthcare beyond the pandemic.
- No evictions! Implement an immediate rent and mortgage freeze during the crisis, with rent and mortgage payments forgiven, not delayed. Immediately house vulnerable and homeless populations in empty houses, apartments, and hotel rooms.
- Build a workers’ party that draws together the strength of the working class, youth, and oppressed communities to fight for universal healthcare, publicly funded medical research, and a democratically planned economy that can provide for the needs of all!
We call on all unions, socialist organizations, and all other organizations of the working class around the world to adopt these demands, and unite to fight for this program! The current economic crisis shows clearly that the economy only runs because of the working class. Let us use the power that our position gives us by organizing and striking, not only against the attempt to sacrifice workers’ lives for the sake of profit, but also against the normal daily violence of capitalism! We deserve more than a return to business as usual. The Independent Socialist Group joins our brothers and sisters in the Committee for a Workers’ International in saying: “As we remember the past brave fighters and martyrs of the workers’ movement and mourn for today’s victims of the virus of capitalism, we appeal to readers to join us in the struggle for socialism!”
Article image credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr