Frontline workersBy ERNIE GOTTA and VINNIE ROTHSMAN

Millions in the U.S. lost their healthcare on April 1st. Millions more are food insecure and unsure of how they will pay their rent in the coming months. Unemployment numbers have smashed all previous records, with 10 million workers filing for unemployment insurance. The $2.2 trillion stimulus package that promises to send $1200 to most U.S. adult citizens, $500 for every child under 16, and increases in unemployment benefits not only falls short of providing the long-term relief that workers need, it disproportionately gives billions more to big business.

For all intents and purposes, the U.S. is still in the beginning phase of this devastating cycle in the life of this virus. Despite the courage and bravery of frontline workers, the working class as a whole is extremely vulnerable and woefully underprepared for the weeks and months ahead.

The image of hospital workers wearing trash bags and reusing personal protective equipment (PPE), and the videos of an overwhelmed Elmhurst hospital are just the opening scenes of this crisis. The U.S. is going to be hit harder than Italy, and the outcome has the potential to be far worse. On March 28, Italy surpassed 10,000 deaths.

April 2020 Amaz worker (AFP:Getty)
An Amazon worker in New York. (AFP)

We know that at best companies have been indifferent to the dangers, or at worst they actively put workers in harm’s way. On March 10, as profits started falling, when decisive measures for personal distancing should have been taken, a coalition of 150 hospitality and travel organizations urged Americans to “keep traveling”.  In many places, hotels are still open, considered “essential” industry by the state, and languishing with low occupancies instead of opening their doors to those experiencing housing insecurities.

Frontline workers in the hospitals and grocery stores, and those cleaning buildings are putting in a heroic effort to keep working people healthy through this crisis. For years these workers have had to justify their existence and beg for a living wage. Businesses have considered many of these workers low skilled and undeserving. Today, we all have a deeper understanding of how essential these workers are to our lives.

What if Stop and Shop workers, United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) members, had not gone out on strike in 2019 to defend their health care and wages? The strength of the strike, after costing Stop and Shop over $300 million in profit, has now put the workers in a better position to demand health and safety precautions as well as hazard pay. Today, safety glass has been installed at all registers, and the workers are getting a 10% increase in wages through the crisis.

In a desperate attempt to find PPE, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) found 39 million N95 masks. Yet this is not enough to fill the overwhelming need for protective equipment. The federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies includes 12 million medical-grade N95 masks and 30 million surgical masks—only about one percent of the 3.5 billion that the Department of Health and Human Services estimates would be needed over the course of a year if the outbreak reaches pandemic levels. COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the WHO on March 11.

Doctors and nurses are often forced to reuse masks. Unions that organize essential workers are fighting to get the basic protections they need. The shortage of masks in the U.S. is incredible. Neighbors are busy sewing, trying to produce homemade masks for their health-care worker friends and family. The heroic efforts of the working class to protect their loved ones is inspiring but also heartbreaking. Workers know that the productive capacity exists in the U.S. to produce the masks we need overnight.

GE workers in Massachusetts organized in the IUE-CWA understand the important role they could play in saving lives. On April 1, the workers and union leadership began talking about striking to fight against layoffs and for immediate conversion of their shop to be used for the production of ventilators.

Union nurses at Jacobi hospital in the Bronx protested on March 28 due to a shortage of masks, gloves, and ventilators. Already for years, nurses have been fighting for safe staffing levels, and the situation is exasperated by the current circumstances. Paramedics in New York City are stretched to the breaking point, 20% have contracted COVID-19, and it is getting more difficult to answer emergency calls.

In Pittsburgh, a group of mostly African-American sanitation workers, members of Teamster Local 249, went out on an “illegal” wildcat strike, demanding greater protection on the job. In unsafe conditions with no masks or hazard pay, the workers felt they had no choice but to stop collecting the garbage to have their voice heard.

Still, millions of workers in non-union jobs, Amazon, Fast Food, store clerks, machine shops, agriculture, and so on are working daily, keeping the slowing wheels of the U.S. economy turning. Recent strikes at Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Foods highlighted the dangerously unsafe working conditions. Meanwhile, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos cut healthcare for 2000 part-time workers. Amazon also fired Christian Smalls the organizer of a Staten Island Amazon safety and health walkout.

The capitalists are basing their definition of “essential” labor on what is essential for their profits, not human needs. Retail and other services that are being shut down are closed not because they are unnecessary in this crisis, but because they do not have business. Marx pointed out that in his time, “according to capitalistic anthropology, the age of childhood ended at 10, or at the outside, at 11.” In our time, capitalistic anthropology decides that weapons manufacturing and condominium construction are necessary production.

Against capitalist irrationality, workers are leading the fight for a real solution to the coronavirus crisis. In Massachusetts, the Building Trades Council not only voted unanimously for an immediate halt in non-essential construction work but also defined what that actually means. Against the construction of investment properties, they put forward keeping workers home except for the following projects:

  • Emergency utility, road or building work, such as gas leaks, water leaks and sinkholes
  • New utility connections to occupied buildings
  • Mandated building or utility work (for example on necessary public infrastructure)
  • Work at public health facilities, health-care facilities, shelters, including temporary shelters and other facilities that support vulnerable populations
  • Work which ensures the reliability of the transportation network, and
  • Other work necessary to render occupied residential buildings fully habitable

In Connecticut, a broad layer of rank-and-file workers and union leadership have come together to form a group, Connecticut Workers Crisis Response, which puts forward a full set of demands to take on the crisis. These include triple pay for public facing essential workers, reopening closed hospitals, training and recruiting health-care workers from related sectors on an emergency basis, evacuating prisons and jails, expanding free home delivery of essential goods, and protecting workers’ right to strike. We encourage all Socialist Resurgence readers to read the full program, which is available here. At the time of writing, over 150 workers, including union leadership, from 11 different unions have endorsed the demands. You can register for their webinar here.

While workers are heroically fighting the bosses in increasingly greater numbers, we still remain isolated on a shop, regional, and state basis. To realize its full power as a social force, organized labor must come together for open and democratic discussion that includes frontline workers, unemployed, and the union rank and file to strategize and plan an emergency relief program to fight against the inaction of the bosses and the misleadership of the politicians.

The working class has been sent into a fight without any help at all. Workers are not passive participants waiting for a lifeline; they are demonstrating bravery in the face of illness, death, and economic devastation every day. By convening big, open, and democratic meetings, organized labor will draw on the creativity and energy of the current struggles, strikes, and declarations that are pointing the way forward.