We Need the Labor Movement To Organize Worker Fightback in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis

Carl Rosen, Andrew Dinkelaker and Gene Elk April 10, 2020

These times call for dramatic worker action. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Life-and-death cir­cum­stances are being imposed on U.S. work­places and work­ers are increas­ing­ly respond­ing by stand­ing up, fight­ing back and walk­ing out, but fre­quent­ly with­out the sup­port of orga­nized labor. Unions have a choice right now: Hun­ker down and try to ride out the COVID-19 storm or put our shoul­ders to the task of assist­ing work­ers in their fight to either improve con­di­tions on the job or shut their work­places down. If unions seize the moment, we can not only improve the imme­di­ate sit­u­a­tion for mil­lions of work­ers but also cre­ate a wave that changes our soci­ety great­ly for the bet­ter, orga­nizes many new work­ers into unions and forges a gen­er­a­tion of work­place lead­ers who will be able to build fight­ing orga­ni­za­tions for years to come.

With the enhanced unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits cur­rent­ly in place and with real fears sur­round­ing just show­ing up for work every day, work­ers have the upper hand. Employ­ers need them much more than the oth­er way around. Work­ers who learn how to use col­lec­tive action to shut a work­place down or to force man­age­ment to yield to their safe­ty and com­pen­sa­tion demands will not soon for­get those lessons.

The imme­di­ate need of work­ers at this moment is not a com­pre­hen­sive list of demands but rather three basic prin­ci­ples that speak to their sur­vival needs.

  • Fight to make employ­ers shut down all work­places except those tru­ly crit­i­cal to sus­tain­ing life until the pub­lic health cri­sis has been controlled.
  • Give work­ers in those crit­i­cal jobs every­thing they need to do their work safe­ly and com­pen­sate them for the immense risk they are taking.
  • Pro­vide robust eco­nom­ic sup­port for every­one else to allow and incen­tivize them to stay home.

Like­wise, rather than an attempt to plan a nation­al coor­di­nat­ed set of actions that would like­ly be joined by only a smat­ter­ing of already-com­mit­ted activists, what is need­ed instead is to help large num­bers of work­ers gain the tools they need to lead fights at their workplaces.

Out of these fights the work­ers will devel­op the demands they need to pro­tect them­selves. And each of these fights, if giv­en the prop­er direc­tion and sup­port, can inspire sol­i­dar­i­ty through­out the coun­try and move many oth­er work­ers into action, cre­at­ing the con­di­tions not only for more work­place vic­to­ries but also to pro­duce polit­i­cal pres­sures that force the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to address the needs of work­ing people.

While the relief pack­ages passed by Con­gress so far pro­vide some eco­nom­ic sup­port to laid-off work­ers, much more is need­ed, includ­ing to address all those left out, not least the undoc­u­ment­ed. Con­gress must also act to pro­vide health care to all giv­en that mil­lions more will now be with­out insur­ance due to the loss of their jobs. Already, a num­ber of excel­lent pro­pos­als address these issues. Get­ting work­ers into motion is going to be the way to win them, just as wide­spread work­er unrest in the 1930s won the relief pro­grams and labor rights that work­ers need­ed then.

To orga­nize the work­er fight­back need­ed right now, unions should:

• Aggres­sive­ly pro­mote these prin­ci­ples, both to their own mem­bers and to the unor­ga­nized, and then pro­vide work­ers the help they need to take on their employers.

• Pro­vide basic toolk­its on their web­sites to edu­cate work­ers on their rights and to out­line for them the ini­tial steps in self-orga­ni­za­tion and tak­ing their demands to the boss.

• Make union staff avail­able to pro­vide guid­ance and facil­i­tate need­ed support.

• Recruit labor lead­ers and mem­ber activists com­mit­ted to sol­i­dar­i­ty actions that pro­duce imme­di­ate pres­sure on the rel­e­vant cor­po­rate or polit­i­cal targets.

• Cre­ate new and robust struc­tures for coor­di­nat­ing effec­tive solidarity.

Our union, the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE), has called on all work­ers, both our mem­bers and nonunion work­ers, to stand up and fight. We have cre­at­ed online resources to help nonunion work­ers take action to win safe work­places. We have pub­lished a spe­cial issue of UE Stew­ard on how to orga­nize mem­bers around COVID-19 issues in the work­place. Along­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca we are launch­ing a joint effort called the Emer­gency Work­place Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee, which will pro­vide orga­niz­ing and logis­ti­cal sup­port to work­ers who are ready to take on their boss. Our mem­bers, both in orga­nized shops and in work­places where we have orga­niz­ing cam­paigns, are win­ning con­ces­sions from their employ­ers through mil­i­tant and cre­ative tactics.

Now is the time for all labor orga­ni­za­tions com­mit­ted to forg­ing a bet­ter soci­ety for work­ing peo­ple to step up and help launch work­ers into the kinds of fights need­ed to win that future. UE is com­mit­ted to doing just that, and to work with and sup­port all oth­ers who do so. We see some oth­ers in the labor move­ment doing like­wise, but not near­ly enough. We call on all labor unions to join us in this fight.

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