According to the World Health Organization a pandemic ends when disease transmission is reduced to the level of occasional new cases and small clusters of new cases. This is achieved through testing, contact tracing, and isolation of the infected. As I explained in an earlier post, this is not possible in a penny-pinching capitalist framework.
This pandemic could have been prevented or contained. Failure to do so has allowed COVID-19 to become embedded in the human population, with devastating effects for the most vulnerable. It could take years to develop a safe vaccine. And vaccines are effective only when they are freely available to everyone. This is unlikely, given the billions of dollars being invested.
Half a dozen pandemics have emerged over the past few decades, and more are expected. Over a million unidentified viruses could make the leap from wild animals to human beings, as COVID-19 did. As long as the capitalist class remain in power, these new diseases will also escape containment to ravage humanity.
We are riding a pandemic roller-coaster. Lifting social restrictions will lead to a spike in infections, provoking new restrictions. When restrictions are loosened, another spike may develop, and so on.
Capitalists are desperate to resume production, regardless of the risk. They put out contradictory or falsely reassuring information. They cry crocodile tears about how workers must return to their jobs so they can pay their bills and how poor children need school meals. They could afford to provide these things, yet they refuse to do so. Capitalists profit from workers’ labor; there is no profit in paying them to stay home.
Workers rightly distrust that they would be safe on the job or that employers care if they are safe. They have three good reasons:
‘Essential’ workers are not being protected, so why would it be different for other workers? Instead of redesigning work for maximum safety, businesses are demanding legal protection from pandemic-related lawsuits if they reopen and workers die. And instead of defending workers’ right to be safe, governments threaten them with loss of unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to unsafe jobs.
Workers are in an impossible position: return to work under conditions that could kill them, or avoid work and starve. This dilemma is as old as capitalism itself.
Workplace safety lies at the heart of the class war between capitalists and workers. Capitalists risk workers’ lives to extract maximum profit, and workers demand the right to preserve life, limb, and sanity.
At any particular time, the balance of power between the two classes determines the level of workplace safety. As bosses gain power, they sacrifice safety in order to raise productivity. As workers gain power, they force improvements in safety.
Decades of capitalist assault have made work more dangerous and life more precarious.
Prior to COVID-19, American workers were suffering an epidemic of deaths of despair. ‘Normal’ had become intolerable. The risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job is a final straw that is breaking the willingness of workers to accept the unacceptable.
The global economy serves as a transmission belt for disease. Currently, half the world’s workers face the immediate risk of losing their livelihood, if not their lives, to this pandemic. At the same time, international production and supply chains connect workers in all nations, making it possible to coordinate international struggles.
Before COVID-19, mass political protests had reached an historic high. Social restrictions interrupted this surge, but only temporarily. This pandemic has given the world’s workers a common cause – survival.
Across the globe, people are refusing to work without personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay, paid sick leave, and cleaning supplies on the job. The US has seen more than 150 pandemic-related wildcat strikes, some spanning multiple cities. And this is just the beginning.
Lifting pandemic-related restrictions will release a tsunami of pent-up demand that could challenge capitalist control.
Who will pay for trillion-dollar government bailouts and lost corporate profits? If capitalists have their way, it will be the working class, just as they forced workers to take the fall for the 2008 recession. The current crisis is much deeper, pushing the stakes much higher.
To protect their profits, bosses counter workers’ demands with force.
They use the force of starvation – work under our rules or starve. They use the force of unemployment to drive down wages. They use the force of the media to blame people for getting sick. They use the force of racism to divide workers. And they use the force of the State to target troublemakers, attack protestors, break strikes, and bust unions.
Some call for shutting down the economy for as long as it takes to end the pandemic. This is not doable under capitalism because workers need a wage to survive, and the system refuses to support them to stay home.
Some call for mass strikes. However, class rage is not enough to reverse decades of setbacks and defeats. We need to rebuild the labor movement from the ground up, using effective workplace strategies.
Capitalists treat mass strikes as a declaration of war, which they are, and workers have not yet built the political clarity and organizational base necessary to win such a war. History is littered with the murdered corpses of failed worker uprisings. If we aim to win, we must lay the groundwork.
One anti-union consultant warned that “current employee insecurities” are increasing workplace disruptions and raising interest in joining unions. He reassuringly concluded that most unions are not equipped to take advantage of this opportunity. He has a point.
While organized workers have power to force improvements in job safety, union bureaucrats often sacrifice worker safety in contract bargaining.
Union executives manage the labor force for capitalism, and they cannot see beyond the existing system of worker exploitation. In a recent public statement, four top union executives wrote,
We look forward to sitting down with the nation’s business leaders, as well as the leaders of governments, universities, hospitals and school systems, to hammer out agreements that will restore profits and economic growth as we emerge from this crisis, and protect as many jobs as possible as we battle it.
To escape the suffocating weight of union bureaucracy, workers need to build democratic, member-controlled unions that will not compromise their rights.
If we must work, WE must set the terms
Capitalists need workers to produce profits, so they deprive them of any way to survive other than to work for a wage. At the same time, the economic role of workers gives them power to negotiate the conditions under which they will work.
After repeatedly being denied access to N-95 masks, nurses at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital had had enough. They began organizing small collective actions to press their demands. One group informed management, “Once there is PPE available for us, come find us in the break room.” The masks were quickly produced.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has drawn up a worker Bill of Rights that includes: personal protective equipment, testing for COVID-19, safe staffing, proper training, input into decisions that impact their work, and protection for whistleblowers. The challenge will be enforcing these demands.
The Culinary Union, part of UNITE HERE, is demanding that all 60,000 workers in Nevada’s resorts and casinos be tested for coronavirus before they return to work. They also demand ongoing monitoring of guests and workers, personal protective equipment made available to all workers and guests, more frequent and intensive cleaning of all surfaces, and strictly enforced social distancing among guests and workers.
Don’t let them divide us
Employers cannot make work safe without sacrificing profits or productivity. They prefer to blame human error and ‘careless’ workers for job-related injuries, illnesses, and deaths.
To reduce their liability for workplace casualties, many companies reward workers for not reporting injuries and illnesses and penalize those who do. They avoid hiring ‘vulnerable’ workers and find ways to remove those already on the job.
Preparations for return to work include employee surveys to identify ‘vulnerable’ workers. These surveys are falsely presented as a means to protect workers from COVID-19. In practice, they do the opposite.
Dividing workers into two groups – vulnerable and (presumably) not vulnerable – enables the employer to avoid implementing measures to make the job safe for ALL workers.
‘Vulnerable’ workers do get special treatment. They are first to be demoted, laid off, denied insurance or forced to pay more for it. They are stigmatized and harassed to ‘recover’ or leave.
Workers should boycott divisive employer surveys and insist on safe work for everyone.
We need worker-initiated surveys to identify what must change on the job to make it safe.
An injury to one is an injury to all
Workers can not only set the terms of exploitation; they can change the direction of the economy and society.
In response to COVID-19, workers are stepping up to the plate with demands that reach beyond the walls of their workplace.
After General Electric announced mass layoffs, workers in Massachusetts demanded that the company’s jet engine factories be reopened or converted to produce badly needed ventilators. Within a week, their protest spread to factories in New York, Texas, and Virginia.
Chicago teachers’ strikes not only demanded more pay and smaller classes, but also more school nurses and librarians, anti-racist hiring, and improved learning and living conditions, including access to affordable housing. These class demands won broad community support.
The concerns of healthcare workers also align with those of the people they serve. A coalition of health and social service workers’ unions launched a petition calling on the governor of California to secure their safety at work and also suspend rent payments, ban evictions, guarantee paid leave during the crisis, and establish universal access to free medical care.
All over the world, legions of ordinary people are producing, at their own expense and for no compensation, thousands of masks and gowns that the ruling class failed to provide.
Knitting ourselves together
Forcing workers to return to unsafe jobs will release an explosion of class rage. The challenge is how to connect rising struggles without reproducing the top-down elitism of the managerial class.
A successful workers’ revolt cannot be ‘managed from above.’ Workers must liberate themselves. Anything else would simply trade one master for another.
Workers cannot rely on bosses, bureaucrats, or experts to fight for them; they must fight for themselves and each other. And they are perfectly capable of doing this.
While capitalists accumulate capital, workers accumulate something far more valuable: skills, experience, problem-solving abilities, common interest, and the ability to cooperate. This is the workers’ wealth and, unlike money or capital, it grows the more it is shared.
Power for the working class means more than having a seat at the capitalist table. It means owning the table. It means workers deciding together what needs to be done and who will do it. No one is more qualified to make such decisions than those who actually do the work. As one Chicago teacher put it,
The strike has changed the conversation about education in Chicago. It made clear that we are the experts on education, not these consulting firms, not these millionaire dilettantes. They have a lot of money to throw around, but they’re not educators.
A central database
Workers are an international class, yet they are divided by workplace, industry, nation, and a host of other divisions based on skin color, gender, religion, status, etc. These divisions enable capitalists to defeat workers by pitting them against each other.
We can build working-class power by knitting struggles together, stitch by stitch, to build inter-union and inter-national networks of activists.
No worker should have to reinvent the wheel of effective struggle.
We need to construct an international database that gathers information about workers’ struggles from all over the world, a database that enables any worker to submit information and encourages all workers to discover who is fighting where, what was achieved, what worked and what didn’t, and what was learned.
Armed with such information, workers can build on each other’s successes, learn from each other’s setbacks, and forge international solidarity over common class concerns.
Many organizations, such as PayDay Report and Labour Start, collect strike information. Others draw lessons from major strikes. These are some of the building blocks on which a more extensive and international database could be constructed.
The capitalist class and their State cannot end this pandemic; they can only manage the damage, just as they ‘manage’ all the maladies that plague humanity because there is no profit in ending them.
The political downturn of the past 50 years is over. A new era of class struggle has begun.
The only way out of this deadly crisis is through revolutionary social transformation – from capitalist rule to workers’ rule. This path runs directly through the workplaces of the world.