By ERWIN FREED
The U.S. government has been slow to take emergency measures that would protect working people from the most devastating effects of the coronavirus. Instead of centralizing a coordinated national response to the pandemic that puts people’s lives before corporate profits, all levels of the capitalist state have been hard at work stepping on the rights of workers, Indigenous people, immigrants, prisoners, and the reproductive rights of women and queer people.
“Why bargain?” asks the boss
On March 18, the same day that the first coronavirus relief package was signed, the Federal Labor Relations Agency passed a decision that extends the ability of federal workers to stop paying union dues from 15 days to year-round. The next day, the National Labor Review Board suspended all union elections. The former policy is meant to be permanent, while there is no set end-point for the latter.
Even though the Democrats claim to have pushed through guarantees for labor in the stimulus plan, in reality their measures do nothing to protect the rights of working people. The package contains hundreds of billions of dollars to be given to corporations large and small as “grants.” That is, the government will be paying all or almost all of companies’ costs and letting the corporations pocket whatever revenue as profit.
The “concession” for labor is that these companies are barred from breaking their collective bargaining contracts for two years and will be “neutral” if their employees want to unionize, if the process is legalized again. Of course, the whole point of a contract is that the terms are supposed to be guaranteed by law. And employers are legally compelled to be “neutral” in the face of union elections. However, neither legal fact has ever stopped employers from violating their own agreements or spreading lies and intimidation to workers who want to unionize.
The general movement towards a maximum attack on labor rights is clearly shown in the places where precedents are being set to use the coronavirus to outright suspend collective bargaining agreements. Minnesota and California, in the name of emergency responses, either have or are considering unilaterally suspending state workers’ collective bargaining contracts, without negotiation. On March 25, the U.S. Citizenship and Immgration Services refused to engage in post-implementation bargaining, a basic right won by American Federation of Government Employees Council 119, which represents about 13,000 USCIS employees. Two days later, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority sent out a memo to all Bargaining Unit employees suspending their union contract and cancelling end-of-year PTO payments.
These are the first rumblings of what will become a large-scale frontal attack on labor. Socialist Resurgence has already begun to receive reports of companies threatening to unilaterally decertify their workers’ unions after the coronavirus crisis passes and business returns.
BIA says no to tribal sovereignty
In a major blow to Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed the Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell that it intends to disestablish the tribe’s reservation, located within the boundaries of Massachusetts. The move is unprecedented for recent times, as there was no court order for the decision. Using disease and pandemonium to seize Indigenous peoples’ land is a common tactic for the U.S. government, which is fundamentally based on such acts of dispossession and genocide.
By using the crisis to flaunt even the inadequate checks that Native Americans forced the government to implement, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is positioning itself to potentially decertify more reservations. In a time in which Indigenous people are leading the fight against capitalism’s ecological destruction, and land speculation grows without bounds, the federal government is continuing the almost 530-year-long process of colonial dispossession on this continent.
Plenty of masks for ICE, no soap for immigrants
The Democrats and Republicans are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to permanently tighten border security and strengthen formal divisions between citizens and non-citizens. The ACLU was advocating as early as March 16 for the immediate release of all at-risk detainees, a demand that somewhat lagged behind that of the prison rights movement, but it was not until the 27th that a federal judge in New York ruled to release 10 detainees considered vulnerable from facilities with known COVID cases.
This decision follows hunger strikes and protests by detained immigrants around the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 29, for instance, that at least 180 detainees at the York County [Pa.] Prison have started a hunger strike to demand their release because of the coronavirus epidemic. “We are chickens in a chicken coop here—we are like sitting ducks,” one striker told the newspaper.
The small amount of immigrant releases so far constitute the other side of detention centers’ ramping up violence against detainees. Buzzfeed reports that there have been four instances of use-of-force at ICE facilities, including pepper spraying over 70 immigrants.
ICE recently released a guidance letter, claiming that sanitation measures are being taken, yet there is unanimous agreement by the people actually being held that they have neither soap nor water. The lack of sanitation in the concentration camps organized on behalf of the United States capitalist class is not a new development. Last year, multiple children and adolescents died of preventable infectious diseases during or immediately after being held by ICE.
There has been no slow-down in the Gestapo-like enforcement of immigration law since the crisis has come into full swing. Even after California was locked-down, the Los Angeles Times detailed reports of ICE agents carrying out arrests with “masks at the ready.” While nurses and doctors are forced to protest for masks and other safety equipment, ICE agents are slated to receive as many as they need.
On top of using the repressive apparatus of state violence, the government is also withholding benefits from immigrants. The stimulus package as written, which is itself a massive handout to capital, gives no payouts to non-citizens. That means that workers at all points of the citizenship process, documented or not, who have been laid off due to the recent situation will receive no support at all from the federal government.
Since the seriousness of the coronavirus threat has become well understood, movement organizations have been calling for the immediate evacuation of prisons and full release of non-violent, older, and immunocompromised incarcerated people. By the time Iran had only 2300 confirmed cases, the Iranian government released over 54,000 inmates. Meanwhile, with tens of thousands of cases in the United States, various states have only released handfuls of people. Instead, visitation rights are being curtailed. Due to the draconian policies of the U.S. carceral system, inmates now must go for an indefinite amount of time without speaking to loved ones or spend highly inflated amounts of money to use prison phones.
The situation is becoming increasingly drastic as corrections officers, medical staff, and detainees are testing positive in accelerating numbers. Rikers Island, N.Y., is quickly becoming a hotspot and crisis center; there were over 50 cases reported on March 25. One inmate reports that the sinks are totally inadequate for basic hand washing and that the island’s medical facilities were already overwhelmed. Some states, including Connecticut, Kentucky, and Kansas, are actively refusing to release any incarcerated people.
Bill Barr released a memo to the Bureau of Prisons detailing procedures to begin to release some federal prisoners. According to the Marshall Project, the reality of this memo is that it has an extreme level of racial bias. The memo “instructs the prison system to prioritize for release only those prisoners who receive the minimum possible score on a ‘risk assessment’ algorithm called PATTERN. This computerized rating system, which has never been used before, deems white-collar offenders, who are disproportionately white, generally safe to be let out of prison. But it does not deem safe to release drug addicts with a history of prior arrests, who are disproportionately black due in part to the biased policing practices of the War on Drugs. Only 7 percent of black men in federal prisons would be considered low-risk enough to get out using PATTERN—compared with 30 percent of white men.”
According to CNN, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas have all designated abortion as “non-essential” elective surgery. These states are acting as the front-runners in a despicable race to smash women and queer people’s right to choose to have an abortion. Other states are following in their footsteps. The Kentucky attorney general, Daniel Cameron, on March 27, directly called for the Cabinet of Health and Family Services to declare abortions as “non-essential.”
Author Jenny Brown, in her recent book “Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now,” points out that first-trimester and even most second-trimester abortions are very simple procedures. Many can be done at home in a safe process using mifepristone and misoprostol. However, due to anti-women policy in the U.S., taking those pills is considered a surgical procedure, with the same bureaucratic and financial consequences as other, also safe, methods.
These anti-abortion measures hypocritically threaten the health of people seeking abortion. Texas has made an exception if to allow abortions in the cases that they are “medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” but the earlier an abortion takes place, the safer it is, and they are certainly much safer than taking a pregnancy to term, especially in a global health pandemic in which all hospitals are expected to be at capacity.
In the aftermath of the arrival of the pandemic, Planned Parenthood has been specifically singled out with difficulties in accessing recovery funds. According to the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Group, “The bill gives the Small Business Administration broad discretion to exclude Planned Parenthood affiliates and other non-profits serving people with low incomes and deny them benefits under the new small business loan program.” The bill also specifically includes abortion service providers from counting as health-care facilities, despite being mandated to keep hospital standards and, of course, being necessary health-care facilities. Speaking to Vice News, Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, said, “Probably every independent clinic in the country is at risk.”