Covid-19, Editorial, Labor, US Politics

COVID Class Struggle: One Month of US Workplace Actions

They say the working class can’t run society. But look at the mess governments around the world have made of the coronavirus pandemic. Even in traditionally unorganized industries like food service and grocery delivery, workers on the ground are using their power to get things done. We saw that early on in the pandemic with the Louvre workers in Paris stopping an obvious disaster in the works. Only later did the government catch up, first limiting visitors and finally closing the museum. Those actions spread to the impressive industrial strike wave in Italy

Now in the US, workplace actions are happening every day. They started with a rank-and-file walkout in auto plants. The tentative beginnings of US workplace action against coronavirus were outlined in a Labor Notes article of March 16. Since then, actions have spread to healthcare workers (which activist and writer Mike Davis has labeled both “the conscience” of the US and “the vanguard of the proletariat” during the pandemic), and other front-line workers in food production and retail. 

To help generalize and publicize the class struggle against the ruling class’s terrible and deadly response to the virus, Marx21 has created an ongoing timeline of coronavirus-related walkouts, sick-outs, strikes, and worker demonstrations across the US starting on March 16. 

These workers knew the importance of face masks before the CDC admitted it. They fought for what should be essential personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as sanitation and safety guidelines for essential workers. And they knew what was essential and non-essential: not just rank-and-file United Auto Workers members forcing unsafe auto plants to be shut down with continued pay, but the illegal “sickout” by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Locals S6, protesting their shipbuilding being called “essential” just because it was a military contract, and an Industrial Division of Communication Workers of America (IUE-CWA) demonstrating for General Electric to stop the layoffs at jet engine factories and convert them to ventilator production. 

Socialists have been involved in the fight against coronavirus on many levels, including organizing in our workplaces, participating in mutual aid groups, calling car protests to release detainees from unsafe immigrant detention, and making necessary demands on the state to redirect resources to fight the virus and extend financial relief . A key way socialists can play a role in the virus resistance is to support and generalize working class activity from the bottom up, in ways that build our own power. 

As the pandemic continues,  we will be writing and linking to more in-depth analysis of some of these struggles. While some of these actions have been small or isolated, they are showing the way forward for all working people. The way we win sick pay, PPE, and proper sanitation in workplaces is through struggle. These actions  are saving lives right now, they are the beginnings of a labor movement that could make our side more powerful when the pandemic and social distancing are over. For this pandemic has highlighted not just local instances of callous disregard for employees’ health, but the essential nature of much low-paid work, and the inability of capitalism to provide for human needs. With the economy in freefall, we need the strongest possible labor movement to fight against the long-term economic impacts of the virus and the ruling class’s response to it.

One Month of Covid-19 Related Job Actions since March 16th:

March 17th, Successful solid one day strike by bus drivers in Detroit, with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, wins safety measures, breaks, and free transport. The example was heard by bus drivers across the country. 

In “Mid March,” rank and file leaders in National Nurses United at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital only got access to N-95 masks that doctors already had by saying “once there is PPE available for us, come find us in the break room.” 

March 18th, An Amazon sortation center in Queens, New York, was temporarily closed for cleaning after walkout by non-union workers, organized by Amazonians United, over Covid-19 case revealed.

March 19th, Over 30 employees of the small factory store Art To Frames, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, protested outside for more protections and against reprisals (join the digital protest). They are now being organized by NYC District Council of Carpenters.

March 19th-20th. Workers at American Axle auto parts plant in Fraser, Michigan, members of UAW Local 155, refused to work after learning of coronavirus in the plant, after spreading to other shifts the next day, they forced the company to shut production, before they were legally required to. 

March 20th Bus Drivers in Birmingham struck, winning social distancing standards and free transport.  

March 20th twenty letter carriers refused to enter their Metropolitan Station post office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after the supervisor of operations there tested positive for coronavirus. In the weeks after this, increasing number of NYC letter carriers were calling out sick, saying that management seems indifferent to their concerns over coronavirus transmission, and noticeably affecting mail delivery.

March 21st In Maine, naval shipyard workers at the Bath Iron Works, members of International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Locals S6, went on an illegal “sickout” strike to protest being labeled essential workers as defense contractors. Only 41% of the workforce clocked in for the morning shift, and were called on the clean rather than do their regular jobs.

March 22nd, ILWU Locals 10, 34, 75 and 91 are asking SSA Marine to sanitizing facilities and  thoroughly clean equipment at its Oakland terminal between shifts, and are threatening to refuse work if they don’t. The port accounts for 99% of all containerized goods moving through Northern California.

March 23rd fifty non-union African-American poultry workers at Perdue Farms in Georgia went out on a wildcat strike over unsafe conditions and pay during the pandemic.”

March 25th several hundred, mostly African-American sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, members of Teamsters Local 249, went out on an illegal, wildcat strike to protest unsafe working conditions.

March 27th. a group of mostly African-American workers, members of Teamsters Local 667, went on a wildcat strike at a key Krogers warehouse in Memphis, after a co-worker tested positive for COVID-19, demanding safety measures and hazard pay.   

[ After the Kroger’s strikes and negotiation with UFCW, on April 1st the firm announced it was finally giving all hourly frontline employees (including retail stores, manufacturing plants, & distribution centers) a $2 per hour “hero bonus”  on their pay. It will also be installing plexiglass partitions at checkout lanes, pharmacies, and Starbucks registers, start additional cleaning protocols, including hand washing breaks, and provide emergency paid leave. ]

March 27, almost 100 North Carolina fast food workers (McDonald’s, Family Dollar, Food Lion, and Walmart organized by NC Raise Up) went on a “ digital strike” after the state issued its stay-at-home order for workers at non-essential businesses. They protested remaining “on the front lines of a spreading public health crisis,” without proper protective equipment, paid sick leave or health insurance.

March 27th a contingent of non-union workers (with help from the Gig Workers Collective) who fulfill orders for the grocery delivery service Instacart stayed off the job, after weeks of demanding greater pay and better access to paid leave and disinfectant. “Thousands” of the company’s 200,000 workers refused work, perhaps adding to the order backlog, but Instacart service continues while the stay away officially continues.

March 28th. 30 furious nurses from Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, and relatives, held a socially distanced demonstration outside the hospital to protest the lack of personal protective equipment as they face a spike in coronavirus cases. (Nurses across the country, including in Georgia, Illinois and California, have staged similar protests)

March 30th Dozens of workers at Amazon Chicago delivery station, with DCH1 Amazonians United, walked out of their overnight shift in protest of Amazon’s refusal to shut down their building for disinfection after a worker there tested positive for COVID-19. Among the demands of those leafleting outside was “stop processing all non-essential items through DCH1.”

March 30th. Somewhere under 100 workers at Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, fulfillment center walked out to protest the company’s response to COVID-19 infections among its warehouse employees. (Christian Smalls, who helped lead the Staten Island walkout, was fired the next day, after returning to the work site while under quarantine.)

March 30th. McDonald’s workers in Tampa walked out after being told not to wear masks and gloves in their store because it made customers uncomfortable. They were not unionized, but part of the “Fight for $15 and a Union” campaign. (Soon after, McDonalds workers in St. Louis and Memphis walked out over cut hours. Cooks and cashiers walked out at a McDonald’s in San Jose, CA, after employers failed to provide enough soap. Earlier, 20 workers walked out at a McDonald’s in Cicero, Ill., out of frustration that their restaurant’s management was balking at giving them the paid sick days due to them under Illinois law.)

March 30th. General Electric factory workers, led by the Industrial Division of Communication Workers of America (IUE-CWA), demanded that the company convert its jet engine factories to make ventilators. This was not a walkout, but safe union-sponsored demonstrations at GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts aviation facility, and at the Boston headquarters, against layoffs, which the Union explained would undermine future efforts to increase ventilator production. 

March 31st. Whole Foods workers went on a  previously planned company-wide “sickout” with a range of further demands. Numbers were small, compared to the company’s 95,000 employees.  

April 1, around 40 people protested outside a Detroit Amazon fulfillment center after a planned walkout.

April 1st. Nearly 1,000 mostly immigrant meatpacking workers, with UFCW Local 7, walked off the job at JBS’s meat processing plant in Greely, Colorado.  After working elbow to elbow on the line, ten workers tested positive for COVID-19, and some were not given promised sick pay during quarantine.

April 2nd, dozens of nurses, members of SEIU Healthcare PA, walked off at the Brighton Rehab and Wellness Center in Western Pennsylvania, after days of management refusing to negotiate with the union over safety and hazard pay. 36 elderly residents and six healthcare workers at the nursing home had tested positive for COVID-19, and nurses had not been issued N-95 masks.

April 3rd, workers walked off the processing line at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in  Timberville, Virginia after one co-worker tested positive for COVID-19. More than two dozen workers protested outside

April 3rd, a group of mostly Latina workers, members of UFCW Local 881, went on strike at Raymundo Food in Bedford Park near Chicago.

April 4th. At “DCH1,” Amazon’s Southwest Side Chicago warehouse, about 20 workers and supporters walked a socially distanced picket line, the fourth in six days. They were supported by a honking caravan of cars and trucks, and joined by some “independent contractor” delivery vans drivers.      

April 5th, a group of nurses at Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai-Grace Hospital held a sit-in protest in their break room over staffing and safety issues and said they were sent home by the hospital. (Bloomberg)

April 6th,  Almost all of the 10,000 Massachusetts members of the Regional Council of Carpenters are refusing to work on construction sites, “Despite everyone’s best effort, no one has been able to satisfy everyone’s requirement that the jobs are safe,” A letter from this and other construction unions was sent to the Mayor asking for more guarantees of safety procedures and equipment at sites.

April 6th A week’s worth of fast food labor actions started at 7:00 am when a small number of workers, organized by the Fight for $15 group, picketed over coronavirus concerns at McDonald’s in Los Angeles and San Jose. McDonald’s responded late Monday promising “important changes” in how its restaurants address health and safety during the coronavirus crisis.

April 6th workers were striking over coronavirus concerns at two manufacturing companies in Illinois, (Bloomberg)

April 6th, About 50 workers at the JFK8 Staten Island Amazon warehouse protested outside at noon for about an hour. Worker’s advocacy organizations Athena and Amazonians United are supporting the workers. (NY Post)

April 7th On Tuesday, workers plan to protest at a Barnes & Noble warehouse in New Jersey and to begin a strike at Target’s delivery company Shipt. (Bloomberg)

April 9th. Workers at 30 fast food restaurants across California (including outposts of McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway, Popeye’s, El Pollo Loco, WaBa Grill, and Domino’s) walked out, coordinated by “Fight for $15.” They created a picket line of cars covered with signs, circling through the drive-through to disrupt orders, while small numbers held signs in the parking lots. They were asking for all workers to get masks, gloves, soap, and $3 an hour hazard pay, and two weeks of paid sick leave for those exposed to the virus.

April 15th. Chicago fast food workers from over 50 Chicago restaurants walked out to protest unsafe working conditions, after a McDonalds employee tested positive.  In what is becoming recognized Fight for $15/SEIU practice, most, if not all, of the restaurants remained open, as workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, and other chains joined in a “Zoom picket line” on-line. 

April 15th, a National Day of Action planned by rank and file members of several nurses’ unions. Hundreds took part in actions scheduled at hospitals in New York, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois, which were posted on social media using hashtag #PPEoverProfit.

April 16th. all of the working doormen, porters and handymen at two large residential buildings in Manhattan, all represented by SEIU’s 32BJ local, walked out for 24 hours. They protested worker mistreatment, and demanded proper personal protective equipment and safe working conditions from their employer, Panned Companies.

April 17th Nurses at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, held a rally Friday to protest management putting 10 of their colleagues on paid leave for refusing to treat coronavirus patients without N95 masks.

See the updated Covid-19 Class Struggle Timeline here, and send us any reports from your workplace.

Share image by Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images, via AdWeek.