By Sam Skinner, Independent Socialist Group
Since COVID-19 first erupted in the United States in mid-March, we have seen a spike in protests, job actions, and strikes. As of May Day, over 150 strikes of union and non-union workers have occurred in response to the conditions imposed on workers in the midst of this deadly pandemic. Despite record levels of unemployment, workers from diverse sectors of the economy have turned to collective action, fighting not only for better pay and safe working conditions, but for their right to live! Amazon warehouse workers, Whole Foods workers, nurses, meat packers, bus drivers, nurses, and more are all sending a message to the capitalists – we won’t die for your profits! Predictably, the bosses’ response has been meaningless “appreciation” gestures, and to harass and fire workers who demand proper workplace safety, hazard pay, and other real improvements. This crisis represents an opportunity for labor to strike back hard and regain ground lost in the last thirty years, including organizing the unorganized into unions. Unfortunately, the crisis also represents a chance for the capitalist class to further erode the rights of workers. The working class must organize an emergency defense of our lives and living standards, including fighting to win long-standing issues like universal healthcare, mandatory paid family and sick leave, and a livable wage!
Amazon & Whole Foods
Amazon and Whole Foods – both owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos – employ hundreds of thousands of employees between them. Since being founded in 1994, Amazon has vigorously resisted attempts for its workers to unionize. Whole Foods under Bezos has pursued the same anti-union action, including deploying tracking technology on employees to gauge “unionization risk” at all Whole Foods locations. The pandemic has revealed how essential these workers are and, coupled with the company’s simultaneous total disregard for their well-being and record profits, has pushed workers who have been trying to organize for years into action.
At Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, workers walked off the job on March 30th, after being told to continue working despite a coworker having tested positive for COVID-19. Around 200 workers walked out, demanding that their workplace be thoroughly cleaned, in addition to demands for hazard pay and retroactive hazard pay. One of the organizers of the walkout, Chris Smalls, reported that workers were made responsible for cleaning their workspaces themselves, and in the event of displaying symptoms of CODID-19 have been forced to self-quarantine without pay. Amazon responded by firing Smalls and attacking the whistleblowers and strikers, rather than resolving the dangerous conditions and policies of their warehouses. Amazon has since been forced to rehire Smalls, proving that we can organize to defend our jobs.
The day after the Staten Island Amazon strike, workers at Whole Foods across the country took similar action. Organized by the group, Whole Worker, the “sick out” demanded increased hazard pay, and guaranteed paid sick leave for all employees. Whole Foods’ then sick leave policy only granted leave to the fortunate few employees who could procure a positive COVID-19 test, something which is still not widely available in the United States. Policies like this, and loopholes in the federal Family and Medical Leave policy, force workers to risk staying at home and missing out on essential income, or coming into work and putting their fellow employees and customers at risk.
Both infection rates and workplace action have exploded in the meatpacking industry in the last weeks. Meatpacking workers are predominantly immigrant workers, already hyper-exploited under capitalism. The unsafe and tightly-packed conditions of factories made them inevitable hotspots, such as in South Dakota where 800 workers at one factory tested positive for COVID-19. This factory – owned by Smithfield – was allowed to operate for weeks after officials at the factory and within local government learned that continued production would cost workers and customers their health.
Smithfield announced, then reversed just hours later, its decision to close plants. The meatpacking industry mobilized the White House to implement the Defence Production Act (DPA) in their industry so they could continue operations. The rapid reversal caused 50 Smithfield employees to stage a wildcat strike on April 28th. Though the workers eventually returned, union leaders cited the unsanctioned strike as an indication that workers are scared for their lives. And correctly so – new cases of COVID-19 in surrounding communities are being linked to continued operations at meatpacking plants. But while these workers may be scared, their action shows they are more willing to fight for better conditions than the union leadership, who have thus far ruled out strikes as a means to secure the demands of workers. As they engage in more strike actions, as well as see other workers across the country striking and winning, the workers of the meatpacking industry will begin to understand that they have the collective power to win better pay and safer working conditions, if they are willing to fight!
Perhaps no class of worker is put at more risk by capitalism during this pandemic than healthcare workers. On April 1st, workers organized under National Nurses United called for a strike to protest the lack of emergency preparedness. Protests took place in seven states where nurses described dangerous situations in which they were exposed to COVID-19 without being given proper protective gear. The United States already suffered from understaffing and overwork in the healthcare industry thanks to cost-cutting practices in a for-profit system. Losing healthcare workers to COVID-19 infections further undermines an already-weak system. A striking nurse from Florida articulated this point perfectly, saying “protecting our patients is our highest priority, but it becomes much harder when we don’t have the safe protections which puts us in danger of becoming infected. If we are no longer able to be at the bedside, who will be there to care for our patients?”
In response to these nurse’s heroic actions demanding proper protection for workers and patients, many hospitals accused the striking nurses of sowing discord and being selfish. Of course, these hospital administrators would know all about being selfish, as many of them are still taking home seven figure salaries while they cut the wages and benefits of frontline healthcare workers. 43,000 healthcare workers were laid off in March 2020. The for-profit healthcare system incentivizes cutting healthcare capacity during a global pandemic in order to protect profits, despite billions in state and federal support. Action by nurses and other healthcare workers is essential, not only for fighting for their rights as workers, but for fighting to make healthcare for all a reality!
Similar accusations of selfishness were made towards nursing home workers in Illinois who planned to walk out over deadly conditions. A day before the walkout, the union secured a tentative contract with “significant contract gains including higher baseline wages-bringing all workers above $15/hour, hazard pay for all workers for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, and fully paid sick days for COVID-19 related testing, illness or quarantine for the duration of the crisis”. This is a huge victory that should be celebrated and replicated across the country! These gains didn’t come from the millionaire CEO of the Alden network, who accused workers of “…using this once-in-a-lifetime crisis to incite a walk-out and put our seniors at even greater risk”, but from workers organizing and acting to protect their and their patients’ well-being.
Healthcare CEOs are not the only capitalists attempting to use COVID-19 to attack workers. Across the country, politicians from both capitalist parties are using COVID-19 to suspend union contracts and weaken labor unions. In Las Vegas, Louisville, and York county the collective bargaining rights of various public sector unions have been suspended. Unless workers take immediate action to prevent this attack on their fundamental rights, the fifty year trend of unions losing ground will continue.
In the private sector, companies are using COVID-19 to justify strategic mass layoffs that punish workers for organizing. Four days after union organizers made demands of the clothing retailer Everlane, the company announced mass layoffs across its stores. Though Everlane claims that these layoffs were not related to unionization efforts at their stores, union organizers cite the coincidental timing of these layoffs after months of Everlane promising that no employees would face unemployment. At the Fyre Art Museum in Seattle in mid-March, a third of the workforce of the museum was fired in what employees are calling an act of union-busting. Protesting outside of the museum, fired employees claimed that two union organizers were specifically targeted in the layoffs. Protesters demanded that Fyre reinstate the fired workers and provide employees hazard pay and paid sick leave.
Capitalism is nothing if not resourceful; it will always find a way to make the working class pay for crises of its own making. Unless the working class organizes to defend itself, COVID-19 will be used to rob workers of everything but the bare essentials of survival. It is already clear that the shock of COVID-19 and the economic crash has allowed the ruling class to push through anti-worker policies they have desired for decades. While workers face illness, bankruptcy, and death, the ruling class is overseeing cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other severely-weakened remnants of the welfare state. If we are going to survive COVID-19, we need a party of the working class that can organize the fightback and win further victories!
International Workers Day
The escalation of labor unrest in the United States has led to the first joint strike of workers across industries and companies on May 1st, 2020. At the Staten Island Amazon location, warehouse workers protested yet again, but this time they were joined by transit workers, doctors, and nurses who came to show solidarity with their fellow essential workers. In addition, simultaneous protests took place outside of the office of the Governor of New York, demanding he take action to protect workers. These actions were part of those planned by a broad coalition of workers from Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmark, FedEx, Target, and Shipt. Together these workers are demanding adequate hazard pay, access to paid sick leave, and proper protective gear to ensure they do not die on the job. This unprecedented coalition of workers represents essential employees who are fed up with being paid near-starvation wages to work in the middle of a pandemic, while bosses like Jeff Bezos make record profits. Bezos has made $24 billion since the pandemic started!
This May Day action represents a critical stage in the struggle we have been seeing play out since early March. Essential workers from different sectors have realized that their fights are one in the same. These workers are not only putting pressure on their respective companies, but on our political institutions as well. Workers are quickly becoming aware that their battles for better pay and protections are not single-company issues, but are part of a broader political struggle to win state and federal policies that benefit the working class, not big business. ISG argues that this political struggle must be realized through a mass movement of workers, and the establishment of a party of the working class! As conditions continue to worsen in the United States, society will polarize further between the working class and big business. Workers’ consciousness will continue to be pushed left by the crisis until the government is forced to either placate workers or repress them. The time to support these workers’ demands and make our own are now! Coronavirus strikes; so do we!
- For unions to lead the struggle to protect jobs, wages, benefits, and workplace safety. No concessions to job, pay, and benefit cuts! Organize for full and immediate implementation of proper workplace safety! To fight for the creation of millions of new jobs through reopening and retooling workplaces to safely produce masks, test kits, and other necessary supplies. For cooperation, not competition.
- Full pay, benefits, and free retraining of employees furloughed or laid off until comparable or better work is found.
- Unions should launch mass organizing drives! Solidarity and material support for the workers organizing at Amazon, Target, Walmart, Shipt, Instacart, and other workplaces.
- No use of the pandemic as an excuse to attack workers’ rights to protest and organize.
- For strong union action, including solidarity from other unions, and with community support in order to protect workers’ well-being. Resist all attempts to make the working class pay for the bosses’ greed with pay cuts and layoffs. Organize job actions including walkouts, sickouts, and strikes. Government bailouts to be used for workers wages and for supplies, not corporate stockholders!
- Rank and file membership should replace union leadership that fails to fight for them during this crisis! Democratically elect leadership willing to fight. Union representatives should receive only the average wages of the workers that they represent.
- Political issues are union issues! For unions to fight for healthcare for all, a living minimum wage, and workplace safety, funded by taxing the rich and big corporations, not working people.
- The Democrats and Republicans represent big business, not workers. Unions, social movements, and progressive organizations must break with the two corporate parties and begin building a workers party, free of corporate control and money.
- For unions and social movements to organize for the nationalization of essential industries where capitalism has failed, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, protective equipment manufacturing, and logistics. Democratic control of nationalized industries through elected committees of workers, unions, and communities.