Solidarity Is Our Only Chance

A worker cleaning a yellow pole with disinfectant on a NYC bus with another worker looking on. the workers are wearing orange safety vests, helmets, and transparent visors.

This crisis demonstrates the need for a fast, coordinated, well-funded response from a government that puts human lives above profit. Photo: Andrew Cashin / MTA New York City Transit, CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.

If there were ever a time to say, “I'll fight for someone I don't know,” this is it. If we ever meant it when we said “an injury to one is an injury to all,” now we're seeing why that's so.

The labor movement's cherished values of solidarity and siblinghood are our only chance if we don't want to see our elders die before their time.

Projecting from Italy, if half the U.S. population catches the coronavirus, and our unpreparedness is not addressed, we could see 1.6 million deaths.

The thing is, our natural human impulse to reach out to our neighbors is counterproductive because the virus is so contagious. Any piecemeal, private, personal efforts will be washed aside like the levees were by Hurricane Katrina. We need solidarity as a whole society.

This crisis demonstrates the need for a fast, coordinated, well-funded response from a government that puts human lives above profit. Everybody in, nobody out. We need leaders who see this situation as a public health emergency, not a public relations crisis.

We don't have that government. So it's up to us to demand what we know is feasible: government intervention to make it possible for everyone—not just the rich—to do the right thing:

  • We need universal paid sick days so that workers can stay home, and cancellation of employer policies that penalize workers for even using their sick days. The bill passed by the House of Representatives last week, and reluctantly agreed to by President Trump, excludes employers of more than 500 (which is 54 percent of the workforce), and it allows small employers to opt out of family and medical leave.
  • We need universal free access to health care for the length of this crisis—and as soon as possible, Medicare for All. Without this, health care is triaged for those who can afford it. (If Congress had passed the Medicare for All bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Senator Bernie Sanders, and people weren't unable to go to the doctor because of cost, we would be in far better shape right now.)
  • We need expanded, federally paid unemployment benefits for those laid off and for those who live from tips and gigs.
  • We need a freeze on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs. Keep people in their homes, not crowding into shelters. For the suddenly un- or underemployed, we need rent relief.
  • We need to protect health care workers with the equipment that will enable them to keep working for all of us—and to survive this disaster. We need to nationalize factories that can produce masks, gowns, and ventilators—not to mention test kits and eventually vaccines—and produce for human need rather than for profit.
  • We need protections for and solidarity with Asian Americans, who some numbskulls have targeted as if they were responsible for the virus.
  • We need international cooperation to learn from countries that are doing a better job than the U.S. is.

‘SELF-STRIKE’

Millions of workers have taken it upon themselves to “self-isolate.” Staying home from work is often called...a strike.

Safety in numbers: if your employer won’t shut down your workplace, organize to do it yourselves.

HOW WOULD YOU PAY FOR IT?

When union members make demands at contract time, and when political candidates make bold proposals, there's always a chorus of “But how would you pay for it?”

But we know the money is there—it's just in the wrong pockets. The Federal Reserve's $1.5 trillion infusion of cash to buck up Wall Street shows it's actually not a problem to come up with money quickly for a crisis. Congress and the administration are even more flexible in what they could do, if they chose.

Think of World War II. The population was mobilized, factories were requisitioned, volunteers stepped up to the plate, women took jobs in new fields, new production records were set. And that was before we had the technology we have today.

If our government had the will, instead of hiding its collective head in the sand, we could show what solidarity could accomplish.

WHO WILL LEARN FROM THIS CRISIS?

Chicago’s Mayor 1% Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.... It's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Corporate interests used the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to shut down every public school in New Orleans, for example, and replace them all with charters.

It's called the “shock doctrine,” or “disaster capitalism.” The powers-that-be use extraordinary circumstances to impose new measures of control or to get rid of institutions that are in their way, like the New Orleans teachers union.

Professor Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon wrote that universities are likely to use this dry run to help them “convert more and more classes online, phasing out faculty, face-to-face learning, and campus life. It makes business sense for them.”

We can be sure that Donald Trump's corporate supporters and advisers are thinking about how to turn this moment to their advantage. What can they learn about restricting people's movements, or about getting them used to doing without, to impose greater surveillance and control and to make us tighten our belts? And to normalize that for the future?

But this is also the labor movement's chance to argue for more solidarity, on a grand scale and permanently.

  • Paid sick time should become the law, as it is in most other countries.
  • Every resident should be guaranteed free health care, which will help to keep us all safer and take health care off the bargaining table. Now that would be a game-changer—a shock doctrine for our side.
  • Companies should be prohibited from price-gouging on coronavirus tests, vaccines, or treatment. And while we're at it, why not on any tests or treatment? Pharmaceutical corporations are already angling to profit from potential vaccines and treatments even when the underlying research is publicly funded.
  • End the misclassification of millions of workers as independent contractors, which means they don't qualify for unemployment benefits.
  • We need jobs that pay a living wage. This crisis is laying bare the poverty that exists in our supposedly rich country, when teachers point out that their students depend on the meals they get at school. In New York City, a tenth of students are homeless.
  • We need safe housing for all. A highly contagious virus shows how profoundly each person’s health relies on the health of their whole community. How do you wash your hands if you’re sleeping on the street, or do “social distancing” in a prison or an ICE detention center?
  • If companies balk at protective measures, or if they whine about lost profits, take them over and run them in the public interest. No bailouts for the CEOs of banks, airlines, oil companies, or cruise ships—only for those companies' workers.

BEING HEARD

How can we mobilize in a time when we're told to stay at home? We can't strategize at a real-life Labor Notes Conference (but stay tuned for online activities soon) or call a March on Washington. But unions and other organizations that care about workers can be using all the virtual means at our disposal to tell our employers and lawmakers what we want.

Anything we win during this crisis, we need to organize to make it last. School officials in Texas and Washington state dropped standardized tests for this school year, for example. We've seen an opening on paid sick leave; Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin admitted the cost was “significant, but not huge.”

It's the same with the other human rights the labor movement has demanded for decades: they exist in other countries, we deserve them, we can win them too.

The 2008 financial crisis damaged unions and working people badly. We had little ability to resist the restructuring that corporations did to their own advantage.

But it's different today—we are starting from a place of greater fightback experience. In the last two years more unions and even non-union workers (say at Amazon) have been making far-reaching demands.

A De Facto General Strike?

What if every union member in the United States who is not providing an essential service stayed home from work on the same day to demand paid sick days, universal health care with no co-pays, and the rest? And defied their employers: “Fire us all!”

It's clear that, despite the national emergency, companies still fear lost production and lost profits more than anything, more than harm to their employees or their customers or the population in general.

If millions of workers didn't come to work, could that show of outrage scare the corporations into pushing the government to act to protect us all?

They've been fighting for them with strikes, including unsanctioned strikes from below when necessary. More people are used to the idea that it's a whole system of injustice that we're fighting, not just our own employers.

Employers and government will do their best to confuse us, to make us feel guilty, to tell us we have no power. But we have more union fighters now who are used to standing up to power.

Some will argue that it's time to put our heads down and look for stability. But that strategy is part of what's gotten us into this mess. Instead, we should see this crisis as a call for bolder measures. We should be uniting behind the only candidate who supports Medicare for All with no co-pays, premiums, or deductibles.

We should be stretching our ambitions beyond the narrow limits of our own contracts and playing the role that unions have played historically—as defenders of the whole working class, members or no. We should drop the “I've got mine, Jack” mentality forever—because if we don't protect everyone, we can't protect ourselves.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 493. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

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Solidarity Is Our Only Chance If there were ever a time to say, “I'll fight for someone I don't know,” this is it. If we ever meant it when we said “an injury to one is an injury to all,” now we're seeing why that's so. The labor movement's cherished values of solidarity and siblinghood are our only chance if we don't want to see our elders die before their time. Projecting from Italy, if half the U.S. population catches...