Thomas Hummel takes a look at the deepening economic toll of COVID-19, the disastrous response of the ruling class, and the inspiring working class resistance spreading around the world.
Over the past few days the president has reached new lows, claiming that in our response to the COVID-19 crisis “the cure cannot be worse than the disease.” Trump would like to re-open the country for business-as-usual by what he says is “a very special day for me” — Easter Sunday, April 12, just a few short weeks away and at almost exactly the moment when experts expect coronavirus deaths to peak.
Trump believes that maintaining the health of the capitalist economy is more important than saving the lives of millions. Worst case scenarios now project as many as 2.2 million deaths nationally. Trump is ready to sacrifice these lives in order to maintain the orgy of record profits for his Wall Street friends — a house of cards which was bound to come crashing down pretty soon anyway.
Trump is not alone in this. Allowing the elderly, immunocompromised, and other high-risk people to be sacrificed to rescue capitalism is a position that is gaining steam among the American ruling class. It was expressed most monstrously by Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who claimed that grandparents are willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren. An anonymous opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Rethinking the Coronavirus Shutdown” also took up this call, claiming that we have to re-evaluate the economic vs. health costs of continuing a nationwide shutdown. As global capitalism grows more volatile and with right wing populism on the rise, the US ruling class is increasingly willing to explicitly endorse policies with frightening similarities to social Darwinism — sacrificing the most vulnerable people in society for their profits.
Economic recession on the horizon
But make no mistake, the economic risk is very real — the International Institute of Finance estimates that by the end of June the US economy could shrink by as much as 10% and Europe by as much as 18%. Goldman Sachs says the economic contraction in the US could be as high as 24%. Deutsche Bank estimates that the first six months of 2020 will see the worst economic slump since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Already in the US unemployment claims jumped 33% in the first week of the crisis to 281,000, overloading unemployment websites to the point of crashing. The latest figures are estimated to be as high as 3 million — and this is just the beginning. Some estimates have placed the final unemployment rate as high as 30%. Millions of precarious workers, already forced to live paycheck to paycheck, will be put under enormous strain. And this is to say nothing of the millions of immigrants who cannot receive government support. The loss of labor incomes globally could be as high as $3.4 trillion. The crisis in developing countries is likely to be much worse, where the profitability of capital has been low for some time, and few welfare protections for unemployed workers exist.
Workers show the way forward
The coronavirus crisis represents a turning point in history. The economic impacts are likely to define the politics of the next decade, extending much longer than the direct impacts of the disease itself. Where can we look to for inspiration to fight back against the ruling class’ willingness to sacrifice us for their profits? Where can we find examples of how to protect each other, of how to change our society into one built around the needs of the majority? Workers across the world have already begun to show us the way.
In Italy, when the government closed all non-essential businesses but did not close the factories, workers at Fiat auto plants across the country refused to put their lives at risk for the health of capitalism, going on strike and forcing the bosses to close the factories. There were walkouts in steelworks in Tenri, shipyards in Venice, and docks in Genoa. There was a wildcat strike at the Corneliani clothing company, where 450 workers refused to continue coming in. Metalworkers in northern Italy walked out as workers in the provinces of Asti, Vercelli and Cuneo refused to continue to work at companies such as Mtm, Ikk, Dierre, and Trivium. This strike activity from the bottom pushed the mainstream unions covering metalworkers like FIM, FIOM, and the UILM, to demand that the nation’s factories shut their doors.
In North America, there have been inspiring wildcat strikes in the auto industry. When two workers at the Fiat-Chrysler Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Michigan tested positive for coronavirus, workers refused to continue working. Workers at Fiat-Chrysler’s Windsor Assembly Plant in Ontario, and Warren Truck Assembly Plant near Detroit have followed suit, despite not having the support of the UAW. The UAW’s contract with the “Big Three” auto manufacturers allows for the union to strike over health and safety issues, but the union did not call for one, even giving up their demand for a two-week shutdown in negotiations with the Big Three. The Big Three are large enough to withstand a few months of shutdown, but despite this, it was only on March 18 that they officially closed their doors.
Workers at Amazon have also illustrated how we should fight back. Workers in Queens, New York refused their company’s demand that they return to work after an employee tested positive for coronavirus. Workers were informed of this case not from the company, but from a text message sent out by Amazonians United NYC, which has been organizing nationally for paid-time off and sick leave.
The only concession that the most profitable company on earth offered its workers was an extra $2 per hour as hazard pay. The company has been illegally refusing paid time off and sick leave to their employees in violation of their contract. In response, Amazon workers, organized in Amazonians United, started a petition and through collective pressure won paid time off.
On Wednesday, March 25, trash collectors in Pittsburgh refused to continue trash pickup, citing a lack of adequate protections against infection. The workers have refused to go back to work unless they receive proper protective equipment and hazard pay.
These are the kinds of actions it will take to keep one another safe. The ruling class will not do it for us.
Working class solidarity — to keep us safe and to build a new world
This crisis has starkly illustrated the absurdity of a society organized by capitalism. It shows definitively how the needs of regular people are constrained by the limits of capitalism. In a reasonable society where ordinary people democratically managed the overflowing material abundance of this civilization, taking the necessary steps to constrain this crisis would not mean that millions of people are pushed to the edge of survival as they are now. This crisis has laid plain the class antagonism at the heart of our society, where the ruling class is comfortable with the premature death of millions in order to keep their profits rolling.
The fallout from coronavirus and the accompanying economic crisis is raising all kinds of questions for working people. Workers are learning through practice that solidarity with one another is the only way to protect ourselves. This solidarity is the soil from which a new society can be born.