What Workers Have Already Won in the Face of Coronavirus

Mindy Isser March 18, 2020

Workers clean a subway station in Brooklyn as New York City confronts the coronavirus outbreak on March 11, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has laid bare the stark real­i­ty of the Unit­ed States: our inad­e­quate, for-prof­it health care sys­tem, our pre­car­i­ous employ­ment con­di­tions, and the deep inequal­i­ty that is foun­da­tion­al to our soci­ety. But it’s also shown us that when things get dire enough, the work­ing class fights back. Over the last few weeks, in deal­ing with the out­break of the coro­n­avirus, peo­ple across the Unit­ed States have orga­nized at their work­places, and also won major reforms in the hous­ing sec­tor. Work­ers’ con­scious­ness about the cru­el­ty of our prof­it-dri­ven soci­ety — and about their own pow­er — is being raised by the day, thanks to the fail­ure of gov­ern­ment lead­er­ship. While it’s like­ly that we will enter a reces­sion or even depres­sion soon, work­ers are still fight­ing for what they deserve — and that strug­gle must con­tin­ue after the pan­dem­ic passes.

While many work­ers have lost hours or even been laid off in the last few weeks, oth­ers have made advances in var­i­ous indus­tries amid the cri­sis, includ­ing secur­ing paid time off and health and safe­ty guar­an­tees. Teach­ers in New York City forced May­or Bill De Bla­sio to close city schools under threat of a mass sick-out, work­ers shut down a Chrysler plant near Detroit over con­cerns about how the com­pa­ny was deal­ing with the virus, and work­ers at McDonald’s won 14 days of paid sick leave, albeit only at cor­po­rate stores which account for about 5% of the fast food giants’ restaurants.

In Philadel­phia, city library work­ers moved a peti­tion among them­selves, patrons and the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty to demand both the clo­sure of pub­lic libraries and paid time off for all work­ers, even those who are not mem­bers of the union. The peti­tion dropped in the morn­ing on Mon­day, March 16, and by Tues­day evening, it had over 4,000 sig­na­tures, and the work­ers won their demands. Ter­ra Oliveira, an after-school leader at the Philadel­phia Free Library, told In These Times, Our access to paid leave and our basic rights shouldn’t be some­thing that we have to fight for every sin­gle time there’s a cri­sis.” Non-union library work­ers have been orga­niz­ing with their union col­leagues for about a year, build­ing the infra­struc­ture nec­es­sary to deal with our cur­rent crisis.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the hous­ing move­ment has long fought for mora­to­ri­ums on evic­tions and util­i­ty shut-offs. Both have felt like far-off pos­si­bil­i­ties, the absolute peak of what we could win in a per­fect storm of polit­i­cal will and pow­er. But Tara Raghu­veer, cam­paign direc­tor of the Homes Guar­an­tee Plan at People’s Action, told In These Times that the pan­dem­ic is show­ing us what has always been pos­si­ble, and what that means is that it’s always been pos­si­ble to end the prac­tice of evic­tion.” Because of the seri­ous­ness of coro­n­avirus, orga­niz­ers and activists have won either mora­to­ri­ums on evic­tions or util­i­ty shut-offs in cities and states across the coun­try, includ­ing Philadel­phia, San Jose, San Fran­cis­co, Los Ange­les, and New York, Mass­a­chu­setts, and Ken­tucky. The coro­n­avirus cri­sis is reveal­ing what was true before: It is uncon­scionable to aban­don peo­ple who are house­less or with­out work. This has opened up tremen­dous space to ask for more and win more,” Raghuvver said.

The appar­ent ease with which these long fought for reforms were grant­ed demon­strates that it is — and has always been — well with­in the pow­er of the state and cor­po­ra­tions to acqui­esce to our demands. It also shows that it isn’t the benev­o­lence of politi­cians and CEOs that has secured these vic­to­ries, but work­er orga­niz­ing. If work­ers hadn’t been demand­ing paid sick time and evic­tion mora­to­ri­ums for years, we nev­er would have won them now. Now that these demands have been won dur­ing this emer­gency cri­sis, there is so much more sol­i­dar­i­ty and com­mu­ni­ca­tion among library work­ers that wasn’t there before. We will con­tin­ue to fight,” said library work­er Oliveira.

The state spends exor­bi­tant amounts of mon­ey when it’s cap­i­tal that’s feel­ing the pain, a fact illus­trat­ed by the dra­mat­ic finan­cial actions being tak­en or con­sid­ered to keep the econ­o­my afloat dur­ing the pan­dem­ic: a $1.5 tril­lion loan by the Fed­er­al Reserve to inject into cap­i­tal mar­kets; an $8 bil­lion spend­ing pack­age to fight the coro­n­avirus; and a near­ly $1 tril­lion stim­u­lus bill being con­sid­ered at the time of this writ­ing. These options oblit­er­ate the notion that mon­ey doesn’t exist to pay for pro­grams like a Green New Deal, free col­lege, free child­care, hous­ing for all and var­i­ous oth­er social programs.

When it comes to spend­ing to meet the needs of the mil­lions of ordi­nary peo­ple who are hurt­ing right now, politi­cians can’t muster the will. While the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pos­tures as rec­og­niz­ing and respond­ing to this need in con­trast to Trump, the pro­pos­als they’ve so far offered have been offen­sive­ly mediocre and inad­e­quate. H.R. 6201, trum­pet­ed by Nan­cy Pelosi and House Democ­rats, offers paid sick leave ben­e­fits to only 20% of U.S. pri­vate sec­tor work­ers—a fig­ure that does not include infor­mal econ­o­my work­ers. For­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Kamala Har­ris also pro­mot­ed a bill she had intro­duced that would give work­ers $500 each month — a pit­tance com­pared to the $2,000 per month cash pay­ments to U.S. house­holds float­ed by sen. Bernie Sanders.

We are head­ing into almost unprece­dent­ed eco­nom­ic ter­ri­to­ry—a poten­tial 20% unem­ploy­ment rate if our lead­ers don’t act now. More and more work­ers are fac­ing the prospect of los­ing hours and even being laid off, as many major cities, munic­i­pal­i­ties and states impose shut downs for busi­ness­es except those clas­si­fied as essen­tial indus­tries. Already, near­ly one in five U.S. work­ers reports los­ing hours or work alto­geth­er since the onset of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis ear­li­er this month. We can expect that num­ber to bal­loon in com­ing weeks and months as the pub­lic health cri­sis — and the ensu­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis — con­tin­ues to deepen. 

Some are try­ing using this cri­sis to for­ti­fy the tyran­ni­cal pow­er employ­ers have over work­ers’ lives. In Min­neso­ta, Gov­er­nor Tim Walz just sus­pend­ed some col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for state employ­ees, cit­ing the need for flex­i­bil­i­ty… dur­ing this peace­time emer­gency.” As work­ers unite to demand what we’ve always deserved, and the cri­sis deep­ens, some politi­cians and boss­es will undoubt­ed­ly use this as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to ram through more neolib­er­al reforms that dis­man­tle our rights and pub­lic institutions.

Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom might sug­gest that in times of eco­nom­ic hard­ship, work­ers have the least pow­er and lever­age based on the scarci­ty of jobs and des­per­a­tion for what­ev­er we can get to pro­vide for our­selves and our fam­i­lies. But strike activ­i­ty and work­er orga­niz­ing is on the rise, the Bernie Sanders cam­paign pro­gram is rais­ing polit­i­cal expec­ta­tions, and work­ers are win­ning in the face of this pan­dem­ic. It’s rea­son­able to believe that when things return to nor­mal” — if that ever hap­pens — politi­cians and boss­es will attempt to take back all that we’ve won. They’ll try to strip paid sick leave from work­ers, and to rein­state evic­tions. But we must­n’t let them. Like Oliveira said, It feels like only the beginning.” 

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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