Marie Edwards unpacks the U.S. government’s economic policy response to the coronavirus crisis, explaining how each stimulus package has benefited the wealthiest few in society while the rest of us brace for a new Great Depression.
The Impending Disaster of a Pandemic
The newest virus in the coronavirus family was unleashed on the world in late December, making its way slowly but surely around the planet. This was a disaster that many virus researchers had been anticipating and fearing. Cases worldwide have as of the time of writing topped 5 million. In spite of the numerous warnings about the seriousness and severity of this pandemic, the U.S. was caught woefully unprepared. It now has a full third of global cases, and growing rapidly. The death count approaches 100,000 and is expected to slow but continue to grow substantially until at least mid-June, even if they don’t rebound next fall, as many fear.
It goes without saying that the deaths seen in this country do not affect everyone equally, so no, we’re not “all in this together.” New York City alone has over 197,000 cases and over 16,000 deaths. Examining a map of the city broken down by zip code tells a fuller story: Black and Latino neighborhoods have been hit the hardest, with the Bronx at the top of the list. This should come as no surprise as the majority live in overcrowded apartments and neighborhoods in which it is very difficult to follow social distancing rules. They also do not have the option to telecommute since their jobs as “essential workers” require their presence. They are health workers and transit workers, they are clerks in our supermarkets, they process and deliver food and basic necessities without which the rest of the country would not be able to survive.
They are low-paid workers, some of them not even getting hazard pay, even as they risk their lives daily. They have had to fight to get the minimum protection to keep their workplaces safe, many of them still lacking basic protections. The shortage of PPE for healthcare workers is an obscenity, in this, the richest country in the world, and so is the lack of available tests and other measures that could help contain the spread of the virus. Instead, the far right, funded by billionaire conservatives and egged on by the President, are holding rallies across the nation demanding that the states reopen for business as usual, against the warnings from health experts. “They are giving you death and calling it liberty” summarizes exactly the false pretences of this movement.
In following the advice of epidemiologists to flatten the curve, the country went into a stay-at-home order, save for basic services. Economists were already predicting an economic slump sometime later this year. However, what was thought to be a falling curve instead became a jump off a precipice. The eye-popping statistics are numbers not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. GDP is in free fall, with first quarterly returns at 4.8%, though some economists predict it to fall by 30% by the end of the year. The total number of unemployment claims for the past 8 weeks is at 36.5 million people. The impact has been felt most severely among low income workers, though the latest wave of layoffs is now affecting workers in the gig work and tech sector, such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb.
And yet, there is no doubt that these figures, huge as they are, are massively undercounting the unemployed. First, only those who have applied for unemployment are counted, so whole segments of the workforce, such as gig workers, day laborers and undocumented workers, none of whom would qualify for unemployment insurance, are excluded. To make matters worse, workers are facing an unnecessarily cumbersome process when applying for unemployment and end up giving up, and therefore do not get counted. This surely is an intentional strategy, a kind of “austerity by paperwork,” as a way to deny people’s basic benefits.
All of the figures quoted above spell out years of unprecedented immiseration for millions of people in this country and around the world. This coming on top of a long, slow, and barely-felt recovery after the 2008 Great Recession, which saw an unprecedented rise in the number of millionaires and billionaires but which did very little for the majority of people. More jobs have now been lost under the pandemic than all those gained in the decade of “recovery” after the last recession.
The CARES Packages (or, is the Government Really Helping?)
The first two “stimulus” bills
In response to this unparalleled crisis, the government decided that their priorities were to save Wall Street, the corporations and the banks, and let whatever anemic trickle reach the masses. In fact, the transfer of wealth to the already filthy rich is jaw-dropping in its scope and brazenness. They came up with various inventive methods to deliver astronomical sums in the trillions of dollars to the corporate and financial sectors. There are direct stimulus packages, and hidden within them, even more tax breaks for the rich; there is the Treasury Department lobbing $3 trillion in their direction and the Federal Reserve using every tool at its disposal to save Wall Street.
Two bills quickly passed Congress and were signed by the President. The first one was signed on March 6, for $8.3 billion, with the aim of fighting the spread of the virus and providing extra funds to agencies such as the CDC and the NIH. It was the equivalent of applying a band-aid to a gaping wound. A second bill was passed soon afterwards on March 18, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Again, this was rushed through, but proved to be no more than a stop gap measure. It provided unemployment benefits, and 14-day paid leave for employees in companies smaller than 500 workers (but a company could count all of its workers at different sites, and so would be exempt from this provision.) Companies with over 500 workers were excluded on the dubious claim that they already provided ample paid sick leave and health coverage. This was the “Giant Hole” in the legislation since it did not actually guarantee sick leave to most Americans, no matter what VicePresident Pence intoned “If you are sick, stay home and you will not miss a paycheck.” This was a patent lie as 54% of the workforce works for companies with over 500 workers. And because companies with under 50 workers were also exempted, this left a grand total of 20% of the workforce covered by the much touted “Families First Cares Act”!
The third “stimulus”
However, it was the third bill that garnered the most attention, primarily because of the huge sums involved. Signed by the president on March 27, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was given the gentle sounding acronym of CARES.
Disguised as a rescue package for the American people suffering from an unprecedented economic meltdown, the barely sufficient, means-tested one-time $1,200 stimulus check was simply a sop to get through the real meat of the bill. And in keeping with this xenophobic administration, the direct payment to individuals and families earning respectively under $75,000 and $150,000 excluded anyone without a social security number, thereby ensuring that no money would go to those who are undocumented. An extension of unemployment insurance and an added pittance to some programs already in place were also included. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit, which provides an extra $600 a week for any worker who is eligible for state or federal unemployment compensation (UC) benefits is now taxable income. That not only reduces the benefit, but could mean some working families no longer qualify for other vital help like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).
What was glaringly absent in this CARES package was any provision for treatment of uninsured or underinsured patients sickened by the virus and other ailments. Nor was there money set aside for testing, one of the most effective ways to stop the spread.
All in all, big corporations and small businesses were given more than a third of the $2.2 trillion package, with Trump bragging that he had never before signed a check with a number starting with a “T”. In fact, corporations received much more than a third of 2.2. Trillion, through the Fed, as we will see below. Indeed, the whole affair was a rushed job, with less than a week debate on an 800-page bill.
There was an immediate outcry over the huge sums given to corporations. The airline industry was in for lots of attacks, as it surely must be one of the most hated in the U.S., giving lousy service and slapping fees on everything, notwithstanding its layoffs of hundreds of contract employees without pay. One such company Clay Lacy Aviation, a private jet charter whose owner is donor to President Donald Trump, received nearly $27 million under this program.
As soon as it became public that the airlines were going to receive the staggering amount of $75 billion the Flight Attendants Association moved into action. Sara Nelson, the union leader, mobilized the membership and they came out swinging. Already known for their combative spirit and support for Bernie Sanders, the union was able to force the airlines to set aside $29 billion exclusively for workers. This money was to be used to guarantee workers’ salaries until the end of September, and, in a show of solidarity, they made sure to include airport workers in that settlement. Because, as she explained in an interview, “when you send the money to the companies and the banks, the money doesn’t come down to the workers.” This is what every union in the country should have been doing, mobilizing workers everywhere to fight back against this wholesale thievery. As we well know: if no stronger action is taken, the bankers, financiers, and private equity vultures will survive and thrive — and workers will get screwed.
However, a little noticed provision of the CARES Act, snuck in by Republican senators, was even more egregious. As if the tax cuts of 2018 were not enough, tax breaks were included in the COVID relief packaged, costing an estimated $86 billion in 2020 alone and $195 billion over ten years – or more than what state and local authorities were to get. This special “benefit” would go to a total of 43,000 tax payers, giving them an average tax break of $1.6 million. Those likely to benefit in a big way include the real estate industry (estimated tax benefits worth up to $170 billion,) hedge funds, private equity firms and law firms.
Lobbyists were busy pressuring Congress in private while staying safely under the radar. Defense contractor General Dynamics Corp., casino operators Caesars Entertainment Corp. and MGM Resorts International, and consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble Co. all lobbied Congress on the CARES Act tax changes, according to congressional disclosure records. This was money well spent, as these companies will get to keep the cash in tax breaks with no strings attached. Stock buybacks and dividend payments to their shareholders will go on as usual, while no provision is made to keep workers on their payrolls. To give just one such example, Sanderson Farms, one of the largest chicken producers in the country, with profits of more than $50 million last year, was able to report a loss for tax purposes. And now, using the provisions in the CARES Act, Sanderson says in regulatory filings that it will be able to turn those paper losses into a cash refund of $78 million.
Sanderson Farms deserves a special shaming because of its treatment of workers and blatant disregard of human life. The company saw the first publicly confirmed positive test of a worker in a U.S. meat plant, at its slaughterhouse in McComb, Mississippi, yet the plant was not shut down. They now have hundreds of workers quarantined with coronavirus symptoms across their 22 plants, while those still risking their lives at work are getting exactly one extra dollar an hour bonus pay. This is the measly concession that will actually net the company $78 million from Congress.
Small Business Loans
Another shameful part of this CARES package is the $377 billion “Paycheck Protection Program” (PPP), administered by the hapless and understaffed Small Business Administration. Although the money does not go directly to paychecks, it was supposed to aid struggling workers and small businesses. However, lobbyists had already been working on behalf of some of the biggest companies (such as oil refining, construction, fast food and chemical manufacturing) trying to get a piece of this federal pie, positioning themselves to reap maximum gains from the government’s largesse. The National Restaurant Association, for example, spent over a million dollars in lobbying, and tens of thousands in political contributions to waive the rules that would block large hotels and restaurant chains from being considered “small businesses.” Wealthy special interests saw it instead as an opportunity to rob the Small Business Relief Loans, even though most of them had ready access to other forms of capital.
It came as no surprise then that small businesses, the corner delis, the hairdressers, restaurants and bars and such like, got there too late as the money ran out in two weeks. It is estimated that 90% of minority-owned businesses were completely shut out of the PPP. Meanwhile, at least 220 public companies applied for loans from the PPP, and, with the help of the banks administering the loans, received around $1.32 billion. Although the public outcry forced some public facing businesses like Shake Shack, Ruth Christie’s Steakhouse and the Lakers basketball team to return the money, only 61 of the 407 loans to public corporations did so. Most—like the three companies affiliated with Dallas-based hotel group Monty Bennett who applied for $126.4 million and received $68 million—refused to return their loans.
As expected, the big banks also helped themselves to this big pot of gold to the tune of $10 billion in fees levied on administering these loans.
Few small businesses were able to access that money which came to them with many strings attached. Congress was forced to pass another stimulus package for small businesses on April 24, with money sent to community banks as well to make sure some of those funds would find their way to the mom-and-pop type of establishments. Whether this will help to mitigate some of the worst damages on Main Street remains to be seen. With thousands of unfilled applications already on file with the banks, this refill is also slated to be exhausted before it reaches your corner bodega or bookstore. The Small Business Administration has refused to divulge a list of the public and private firms who have applied for, or received, loans. Unfortunately, the future of America seems to be the death of more family-owned shops, and a growing monoculture of bland chains and outlets in every town.
And lest anyone believes that the Democrats might be on the side of regular folks, Nancy Pelosi was pushing for a variety of reforms to include trade groups in the PPP in the next phase of a CARES package. This was all done in a “spirit of bipartisanship,” though she refused to include organizations representing labor unions. Basically, the push is to waive the rules that disqualifies equity-backed companies, such as those receiving private equity or venture capital funding so they could help themselves to the small businesses’ pot of gold.
Perhaps the most egregious of this private lobbying is Gilead Sciences, the drug maker behind remdesivir, which is apparently showing some benefit in treating seriously ill patients with COVID-19. It prepared the ground by spending a staggering sum of $2.45 million in the first 3 months of this year on lobbying. And though the draft for the CARES bill included a stipulation that drugs be affordable if they were funded with public money, the final bill made sure to undercut this requirement. Gilead’s pricing of past drugs is a preview of what to expect if their drug actually works on this new virus. The cost per pill for their hepatitis C treatment is $1,000, and Truvada, a frequently used HIV drug, is $22,000 a year. Oh, but they offered to provide the first 1.5 million doses free — as if that would go any way to cover the needs for treatment on a global scale!
Similarly, the fight over vaccines is ramping up. A billion dollars was set aside for the development of a vaccine. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar—who as head of Eli Lilly’s pharmaceutical company had doubled the price of insulin—repeatedly refused to pledge that the vaccine would be available to all Americans. In essence, he was telling Americans that they might not be able to afford a vaccine they themselves had paid for. To make matters much worse, Trump’s nasty nationalist rhetoric of “America First” is hindering the global search for a vaccine, with no plans to participate in summits working towards one. Instead, he has tapped his son-in-law, the ubiquitous Jared Kushner, to lead a unilateral push for a vaccine that the administration has dubbed “Operation Warp Speed”.
In effect, this is really no longer a question of reining in these blood-sucking pharmaceutical companies. A crisis of this nature is making the extremely obvious argument that pharmaceuticals (and healthcare too, that goes without saying!) should be held in the public sphere, and that only human need should be their driving force. No company should be allowed to profit from essential medical care.
The Big Business of Oil
The Fed quietly changed its rules for business loans to help funnel more money to oil and gas firms. After meeting with oil company bosses, Trump’s energy secretary Dan Brouilette asked for the loan maximum to be raised from $150 million to $200 million to help oil companies. An oil and gas lobbying group asked to get rid of the rule that keeps the loans from being applied to refinance existing debt. Both changes were made. The Fed also weakened the limit on how indebted a company could be and still receive these taxpayer-backed loans. It was agreed to on the grounds that these mid-tier U.S. energy companies had been badly hit by the fall in prices. Seemingly, all they had to do was ask, and the rules for corporate giveaways were changed to suit them. The sole person overseeing the Congressional Oversight Commission, Bharat Ramamurti, who has a desk and a Twitter account at his disposal, tweeted that the changes mirror the top requests of the oil and gas industry, still with no obligation to retain or rehire their workers.
Of course, one would think that given the other global threat facing our world, that of a warming planet, policy-makers would seize the moment to finally shut down oil companies and convert to renewables. As the environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org notes, “at current prices, you could snap up the top four oil producers in the United States for a mere three hundred billion dollars.” Needless to say, such a policy would not be in the interests of capitalism.
A Soaring Stock Market for Some, the Real Economy for Others
At the end of April unemployment figures showed an unexpected 20.5 million people lost their jobs that month, wiping out a decade of slow employment gains and bringing the unemployment rate to the highest since the Great Depression. One million Americans had been infected with coronavirus. At the same time, stocks rose between 10 and 15% for the month, with both the Dow Jones and S&P 500 indices marking the best monthly rally since 1987.
While all eyes were on the third CARES package in the Senate, this miracle was engineered quietly by the Federal Reserve Bank Chairman who pledged to use its full range of tools to mitigate the effects of the downturn and restore the economy to health, to the tune of a third of annual GDP (so far.)
Out of the $500 billion reserved for big business, and after the $75 billion taken out for the airline industry, the balance of $425 billion is to be handled by the Federal Reserve Bank. In effect, the Fed is turning itself into a huge lending facility, leveraging those $425 billion to be handed out as it sees fit. In other words, it will be acting as guarantor for loans to businesses and corporations backed by money from the Treasury. It is betting that most borrowers will pay it back, and so does not need one-for-one support. Therefore a mere $10 billion from Treasury can prop up $100 billion in federal lending. As if by magic, the $425 billion dollars will help capitalize $4.25 trillion, and with this, the entire $2.2 trillion package has now ballooned to over $6 trillion. All this newly minted money is guaranteed with taxpayer money, which will have to soak up any losses incurred. In effect, it will be a massive slush fund for corporations. The plan is to buy not only investment grade (low-risk) bonds but, in an unprecedented move, the high-yield high-risk “junk bonds” that pay high interest because of their risk of default.
In a devious move, having the money go through the Federal Reserve instead of the Treasury enables the Fed to hide the credit sheet off its balance sheet while being shielded from Freedom of Information Request. As if the deal wasn’t sweet enough, there are almost no conditions attached to these loans. First, there is no requirement to keep workers in employment. The money can go to executive compensation, or for purchases of distressed businesses, or for mergers and acquisitions and whatever else financial engineering they can muster. The only short-term restraint is on buybacks which will only last the term of the loan.
In what looks like a super-charged version of the worst excesses of the 2008 bailout, Fed Chairman Powell promised that the central bank “would not run out of ammunition.” It seems that everything is game in this financial bonanza, including buying up junk bonds and bailing out Zombie firms. The money spent on declining “fallen angel” companies means, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the Fed will in effect buy the worst shopping malls in the country and some of the most indebted companies.” The Fed has already begun its work of propping up banks, corporations and even failed companies. Even the pro-business commentators at Bloomberg News have to ask incredulously what this has to do with saving jobs.
The Underlying Capitalist Economy
Although Donald Trump was trumpeting the miraculous economic recovery under his watch, the real situation was quite different for millions of working Americans. Certainly many jobs were created but, as quipped a young woman working at a Target store: “I hold 3 of them myself!” In fact, the cheap credit enjoyed for more than a decade that was supposed to encourage investment in production, did nothing of the sort. Because of the built-in contradictions of capitalism, the rate of profit had been falling steadily for more than four decades, and investors looked for much higher returns on their capital, even if it proved to be riskier. The world of hedge funds and investment portfolios offered their services in the form of financial instruments of all kinds and turned investors into billionaires. What Marx had dubbed “fictitious capital” over 150 years ago, is once again playing itself out on an unprecedented scale. A sustained stock and bond market boomed while the real economy below was sputtering. Levels of debt grew exponentially since this was the era of free money (with the Fed’s generous help), giving rise to the ghoulishly named Zombie firms, unable to pay back even the interest on their debt. Under the normal workings of capitalism, these firms comprising some 16% of all companies, would have gone under. But now they were kept alive with injections of new blood, impeding the occasional clean-up capitalism is forced to do to see its levels of profitability rise again. As a hedge fund manager irreverently explained: “Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Catholicism without hell.”
And now, twelve years after the global financial crisis, the Fed is using the exact same playbook to deal with this much deeper crisis. It has already begun its work of propping up banks, corporations and even failed companies. Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone predicts that we are now setting the stage for permanent state sponsorship of America’s overheated financial markets. Propping up the markets in this way has had the effect of “decoupling the stock market’s fortune from that of the economy.” In the real economy of human life people lost their jobs, their homes, their savings, all because of wild speculative financial instruments enriching the very rich. What the people’s economy has been in the past few decades was graphically detailed in a series of charts recently published by the New York Times. Whereas GDP had grown by 79% since 1980, the income of the bottom 50% had grown by only 20%, while the very wealthy’s pre-tax incomes had risen by 420%. In effect, according to the authors’ calculations, every American household in the bottom 90%of income should have been earning about $12,000 more — not just this year, but permanently.
Therefore, to those paying attention to the underlying health of the economy, it was becoming clear that we were already heading for one of capitalism’s ten-yearly crisis cycles. The Marxist economist Michael Roberts details the trajectory of the upcoming crisis before the pandemic began its devastating work. He sees the pandemic as being a trigger rather than the cause of the upcoming slump and argues that the booming stock market that boomed year after year did not lead to investment in production. Annual growth was an anemic 1.6% and GDP per capita was 13% below 2008, while workers’ incomes stagnated. And now, with a crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression, the so-called stimulus packages will do nothing to avoid a slump. Except that this time, the slump will be much deeper and more prolonged, inflicting untold misery on the world, on top of the ravages done by the coronavirus itself.
And so, when Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and nebulous figure in the White House, appeared on Fox and Friends on April 29, the very day the number of dead due to COVID-19 equaled the total number of American dead in the Vietnam war, he had this to say:
“I think that we’ve achieved all the different milestones that are needed,” Kushner said during an interview on “Fox and Friends.” “So, the government — federal government — rose to the challenge and this is a great success story and I think that that’s really what needs to be told.”
Surely, he was not referring to the death toll the virus exacted on the nation. Nor was he speaking of the latest unemployment figures of 20.5 million jobs lost in April alone. The real success story for Kushner and his ilk was the spectacular rebound on Wall Street — “a joyful thing to see” was how the Wall Street Journal described it. A New York Times article on the same day, explains how “amid an economic catastrophe, a few billionaires are still winning.”
Could This Crisis Have Been Averted?
It is clear by now that inaction (and worse) by this government made the crisis infinitely worse than it should have been, and that much of the human devastation we see was avoidable. Had the U.S. moved to shut down the economy in early March, up to 90% of COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided. The delay was not just due to Trump’s horrendous handling of the crisis, but also the cowardice of CDC bosses, and delays by Republican and Democratic governors, including the inexplicably praised Cuomo of New York. If the suffering and the deaths were not enough, the negligence of these politicians forced the country into lockdown, causing misery for millions of people who lost all sources of income overnight. The Federal government’s response has been to throw trillions (literally!) at the financial sector, and a pittance to individuals and families trying to survive. A different approach to relieve suffering could have easily been followed.
Paul Krugman, liberal Keynesian-inclined economist and opinion columnist at the New York Times, argued that this crisis does not have to lead to such hardship for the American people. The U.S. has ample resources to ensure that no one goes hungry or loses their homes or health insurance, especially at a time when interest rates are so low or even veering into the negative. Preserving jobs on the contrary would be a boon to the economy helping to keep the wheels of commerce turning.
Some European countries have followed this schema to varying degrees, not from any altruistic sense but with the understanding that they need to bring their population through this pandemic if they are to resume business as normal. They have set up programs providing money to maintain payroll while workers are furloughed. It is a much more direct method of avoiding poverty and stimulating the economy without adding to the distorting levels of corporate debt.
The American Model
Needless to say, this is definitely not the path American lawmakers have chosen to follow! Not only are they rushing through another enormous transfer of wealth to the rich, but they seem to be using the same old playbook of emptying out our coffers to then demand brutal cuts in order to “balance the budget.”
In what is nothing more than a big posturing show, the Democrats in the House voted for a new stimulus of $3 trillion. They of course dropped some of the more radical provisions such as the $2,000 a month check for the next 12 months, replacing it instead with another $1,200 one-time check that went nowhere the first time! Naming the bill the HEROES Act (or Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act — another of those misnomer acronyms) the bill contains many life-saving measures that could provide real relief to the millions of people who at the moment are not sure how to put food on the table. They are asking for $900 billion for state and local governments and tribal relief, $75 billion for housing assistance for property owners (though no mention of renters), $25 billion for the Post Office, $175 billion for coverage of COVID-19 health-related expenses, and the list goes on. What is remarkably clear is how this is “a messaging bill for House Democrats” to be set against the Republicans’ mean-spirited actions, with zero chance of passing!
Mitch McConnell, probably one of the most despised politicians ever, stated categorically that there would be no extra money for the states in spite of these extraordinarily dire times. McConnell made it clear, specifically referring to blue states that they should go bankrupt, instead of demanding more money from the federal government. It certainly was not out of concern for how much it would cost to send aid to the states. After all, Wall Street was just handed a multi-trillion dollar bailout. Simply put, allowing the states to go bankrupt would give a way to renegotiate union contracts and pension funds, to slash aid for education, healthcare and food stamps, and all the multiple programs run by the state. This would open the way to even more privatization of services that ordinary citizens rely on.
A case in point is the ongoing fight over the United States Postal Service (USPS). Trump himself has personally attacked this most venerable of institutions, calling it “a joke”, which is a great affront to the men and women working there and risking their lives every day to provide essential delivery services. Perhaps it is not well-known that USPS is completely self-funded and does not receive any taxpayer money. At the moment, like so many other sectors of the economy, it is suffering from a drop in demand and could use a loan to see it through. It had already been weakened by a most egregious law passed in 2006, forcing it to put up $72 billion fund to pre-pay for its retirement costs – a previously unheard of policy!
It is clear that the administration is gunning up this fight with the goal of privatizing the Post Office. This is an institution run to serve the people of the country, the postal service is not set up as a business. It’s not set up to pack billions of dollars in the bank and enrich shareholders or CEOs. In an interview for Democracy Now, the Postal Workers Union President, Mark Dimondstein, proudly describes the Post Office as a diverse unionized workforce with fair hiring practices, with workers getting equal pay for equal work. This is of course what sticks in the craw of the profiteers of Wall Street who are salivating at the prospect of getting their hands USPS and the big money to be made. To this effect, they have appointed a new Postmaster, Louis DeJoy, another top GOP donor.
Readying to Defend Ourselves
The Republicans have sharpened their swords and are ready for battle. There are worries about the coming elections, whether people will be able to go out to vote, whether voting by mail will become widely available (the fight over USPS is especially worrisome in this regard) or whether voting would even take place at all. The Wisconsin election debacle in April is a taste of things to come. The long lines to the voting booths were discouraging for voters and at least 7 people were infected with COVID after election day.
The pandemic is providing a cover for the administration to pursue their all-out assaults on the country, be it in revoking all regulations that interfere with their profits, or in blocking all asylum claims at the southern border, or in appointing federal judges, thereby setting up a judicial body that will rule in their favor. The almost total abortion ban in Texas is a case in point. Under the guise of dealing with the dearth of PPE in Texas, state officials have banned all abortions exploiting “a public heath crisis to advance an extreme, anti-abortion agenda.” The gutting of environmental protections is proceeding apace and it will probably take decades to undo the damage being done.
The most dangerous of these attacks are concentrated on the “open the states” movements. Backed by big business, politicians and the right wing, and encouraged by this deranged President who calls them ‘fine people’, these armed thugs are pretending to be a grassroots movement fighting for liberty and their constitutional rights. Never mind that doctors, scientists and epidemiologists warn of the grave danger of multiple outbreaks if normal life resumes too soon. Or perhaps they do not care much: most people sickened and dying from this virus are people of color, forced to work under unsafe conditions.This is nothing more than an attack on workers’ safety to boost profits.
Surely, one does not have to choose between making a living or getting sick and dying. But this is exactly what workers in “essential” industries and in states that have reopened are asking workers to do. The governor of Iowa threatened workers who refused to go back to work with losing their unemployment benefits, and even of being disqualified into the future. Dozens of meatpacking plants across the nation have had outbreaks of COVID-19 and are now the nation’s disaster zones, with at least 2,200 reported cases. But Trump invoked the Defence Production Act to ensure meat production continues, in spite of the extremely unsafe conditions reported there (which is true at the best of times.)
There have been many small-scale actions of workers, unionized and non-unionized, resisting these murderous conditions. Rank-and-file led walkouts, strikes and workplace protests have erupted in southern poultry processing, mid-west meat packing, and fruit packing in the north west; in fast-food restaurants throughout the country; as well as among bus drivers, sanitation workers, auto workers, food retail, nursing homes, and more–even among garment workers in crowded sweatshops converted to producing facemasks for PPE.
We have also seen the beginnings of organizing in the vast archipelago of Amazon warehouses, sites of overwork, underpay and spreading infection. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, already had a fortune of $115 billion before he brought in another $24 billion during this crisis, but none-the-less is already trying to take away the $2.00 Covid bonus he relented to earlier in the epidemic.
While not generalized, local workers’ actions have won closure of non-essential and dangerous workplaces for some, and safer shops and hazard pay for others (many inspiring examples are detailed in the Marx21 timeline of Covid class struggle). Nurses and other healthcare workers have been some of the most visible, pointing out the contradictions of a shortage of testing and of 75-cent face masks in the world’s richest nation.
And this is really how we should be getting ready to fight back against all the disasters capitalism is ready to inflict on us. These actions need to be built on, and every victory must be celebrated and amplified as a way to move forward. We might emerge from this momentous crisis totally shell-shocked, but we should be resolved that the only way to rid ourselves of this barbaric system – which will lead to the destruction of life on this planet if left unchecked — is to organize a fight back with a working class flexing its muscle. After all, we are seeing (and being told repeatedly) right now how it is the workers who are “essential” to running this system. The bosses are mere parasites, gorging on the profits we generate. Perhaps this crisis will end up giving the confidence to the working class that indeed, we can run this world. And we can run it for the benefit of all, not for the profits of the few.
Marie Edwards (I would also like to thank Eric Fretz for the help in researching and writing this article and the Marx 21 editorial team)