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.