By JAMES FARRELL
During the COVID-19 crisis, many workers are deemed essential. Supply chains are stressed and there are runs on everyday items like toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning items causing shortages. Sales of some items are at “Black Friday” levels. Retail, health-care, and delivery workers face health hazards on the job with protective equipment like gloves and masks in short supply. In some retail settings, workers have been told not to wear gloves or masks in order to not frighten customers.
While the economy falters, companies cut corners on safety to reap profits while they offer little more than temporary raises or bonuses. Walmart gave full-time associates about $300 and part timers $150. Companies like Target offer small “hazard” raises. It’s ironic that people who were considered unworthy of a $15 hourly minimum wage are now lauded as frontline heroes.
Unlike health-care professionals or cops, retail and supply chain workers are less likely to receive a living wage or benefits. Without health insurance or paid sick leave, these workers are forced to choose between work and the danger of financial ruin. None of these low-wage workers have the resources to merely sit home and wait the pandemic out. Because of increased demands, Amazon and its subsidiary, Whole Foods, plan to hire an additional 100,000 workers to help meet demand.
A group of about 100 Amazon workers, out of a workforce of 2500, walked out at a Staten Island warehouse on March 30. The walkout occurred after a worker had tested positive for COVID-19 and strikers demanded that the company clean the facility and test the employees. Amazon worker Chris Smalls was fired by the company after the walkout for supposedly not adhering to “social distancing” protocols and not self-isolating after contact with a coworker who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Appearing on MSNBC, Smalls said, “This pandemic shocked the world, shocked America. The conditions in the warehouse have been hugely different, it’s been scary. It’s like a ghost town in there. Associates are scared to come to work. Ever since the pandemic hit us … I’ve seen associates get sick weekly.” Smalls continued, “Our PPE is very limited … we don’t have masks and the gloves that we have are not latex. They are used for lifting up boxes.” Smalls also pointed to the fact that the hiring process for the 100,000 new workers does not include screening for COVID-19.
The New York State attorney general and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have expressed their intention to investigate the firing of Smalls.
A “sick-out” by Whole Foods workers on March 31 raised demands for increased pay, paid sick leave, testing, and better safety measures. A petition posted by the Whole Foods Workers National Organizing Committee demanded:
- Guaranteed paid leave for all workers who isolate or self-quarantine instead of coming to work.
- Reinstatement of health-care coverage for part-time and seasonal workers.
- Increased FSA funds to cover coronavirus testing and treatment for all team members, including part-time and seasonal.
- Guaranteed hazard pay in the form of double pay during our scheduled hours.
- Implementation of new policies that can facilitate social distancing between workers and customers.
- Commitment to ensuring that all locations have adequate sanitation equipment and procedures in place.
- Immediate shutdown of any location where a worker tests positive for COVID-19. In such an event, all workers should continue to receive full pay until the store can safely reopen.
In early March, Amazon launched an Amazon Relief Fund to extend grants to contract and seasonal workers. They caused a backlash by soliciting public donations to the fund. Last year, it was estimated that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos rakes in $8,961,187 per hour, which is 315 times the annual income of the average full time Amazon employee. In 2017 and 2018, Amazon, which employees 500,000 people, paid zero taxes on $11.2 billion and $5.6 billion respectively.
For months, Amazon workers have been fighting for paid time off through Amazonians United. Workers discovered that although the employee manual allowed for paid vacation days and paid personal days, not all workers were aware of the availability of these days. Amazon workers in various sites have been fighting for water, air conditioning, and breaks for more than a year. Through collective action, workers can win gains on the job.
Instacart shoppers struck on March 30, demanding hand sanitizer and hazard pay. Instacart shoppers are app-based gig workers who have few, if any, protections. They shop for customers and depend in part on tips. The average pay per order is about $10. The company responded to the workers’ demands by promising hand sanitizer in a week and guaranteeing “the default in-app tip amount to whatever a customer had previously tipped.” The company didn’t address hazard pay or paid sick leave.
Wildcat strikes and work stoppages have taken place at Fiat-Chrysler’s Sterling Heights (Mich.) and Windsor (Ont.) assembly plants to demand the plant be shut down. Sanitation workers in Pittsburgh struck for a day to demand safety equipment and measures, Purdue workers at a chicken processing plant similarly walked out to demand safer working conditions. Kroger warehouse workers in Memphis pulled a wildcat action to demand that the facility be cleaned after a worker tested positive, and half of the 6800-person workforce at Bath Iron Works shipyard called in sick for a day to protest working conditions.
Build a fightback
Workers learn their potential power through action. We can’t depend on the politicians of either party or the courts to protect us. If the bosses fire an organizer like Chris Smalls, shut production down until they are rehired! The NLRB and labor law supposedly protect “concerted action” by workers, but laws are words on paper without action to enforce it.
Building a class-struggle movement inside and outside of the unions is an urgent task in this period of crisis. This includes organizing the unemployed to demand relief and emergency measures for unemployment compensation, health care, and a complete moratorium on rents and mortgages and evictions. The unions must act as the defenders of all workers, not just their current members.
Workplace struggles alone are not enough. Workers need their own political instrument. We need a fighting labor party based in the unions and the mass organizations of the oppressed. Working-class political independence is an essential step to advance the interests of the working class and oppressed in the U.S. Both ruling class parties serve the interests of the ruling class.
• Reinstate Chris Smalls now! No retaliation against strikers!
• An immediate raise in the minimum wage to $25/hr! Paid sick leave for all! Safety measures in every workplace!
• Nationalize the health-care system under democratic workers’ control! Health care is a human right, not a privilege!
Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images