The Coronavirus crisis has laid bare the lengths capitalism will go to in order to preserve its profits, putting workers, families, and wider society at serious risk. Eddie Conlon reports on workers leading the fightback the world over.
“They don’t care about our health!” So says a Pittsburgh sanitation worker after management refused to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. The response of the sanitation workers was to stop collecting ‘trash’ by blocking entrances to the Bureau of Environmental Services. The workers are members of Teamsters Local 249. It’s reported that they chased off a Teamsters union bureaucrat who tried to force them back to work. The union official said, “Keep your social distance and do your six-foot thing”.
This example reflects a pattern in many countries: employers showing complete disregard for workers’ health and workers deciding to fight back, often in the face of a failure of union leaders. A key issue has been the failure to move quickly to demand the closure of all non-essential work and provide PPE for essential workers.
Employers Don’t Care
Workers, and members of their families, are dying from the virus. In Ireland a quarter of cases are health care workers. 50% of cases result from community transmission: people going in and out to work and interacting with people at work. The only effective tool to stop the spread is to limit social contact. All non-essential work must stop, with workers’ incomes protected, and those who continue to work must be provided with the PPE. But this approach has been resisted.
Employers have contested what should be regarded as “essential”. For the last two weeks the leaders of the construction industry, the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), have insisted that work should continue on building sites in the south – despite considerable evidence that social distancting was not being practiced. On March 29th, the day following the publication of the list of services deemed essential by the Irish Government, reports from a worker at Bosch and Lomb in Waterford claimed that it was still open. The company has 900 workers and makes contact lenses, and is “offering overtime… allowing people to cross over shifts increasing the risk of transmission”.
In perhaps the worst example of employer recklessness, the Italian Employers Federation (Confindustria) produced a video, #Bergamoisrunning, aimed at assuring commercial partners of Bergamo’s companies. This is part of Confindustria’s campaign to maintain production at all costs.
Some companies, like Amazon, want to cash in on the crises refusing to close warehouses despite reported cases in the US, Italy, Spain and France. Amazon is planning to expand operations due to a spike in demand as people stay in their homes. Britain’s GMB Union said UK Amazon wanted extended periods of overtime, putting “profit before safety”.
But workers have not taken this lying down. Considerable resistance has come from Amazon workers including a strike at its New York warehouse on March 30th. Amazon retaliated by sacking one of the organisers. Earlier strikes took place at warehouses in Italy and France.
These workers have not been alone. On March 25th, the Union Sindicale di Base in Italy called a general strike following the failure of the government to shut down the country and of the main union federations to force it to do so.
Pressure from earlier strikes involving car, steel, warehouse and shipyard workers forced the government into negotiations. The main union federations signed a rather tame protocol with the government which allowed much non-essential work to continue. The number of cases and strikes continued to rise. On March 21st, almost two months after the first Italian case, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was forced to sign a decree ordering all non-essential businesses to close. But some 12 million workers were designated essential. This led to an explosion of anger.
Reports suggest the March 25th strike was widely supported with workers in essential services joining for a one minute symbolic solidarity stoppage. Entire fire brigade squads joined in, as did nurses, doctors and health workers demanding: “Health First! Shut Everything!”
Often spontaneous and organised from below, one article could never capture the full extent of recent worker resistance to the wanton disregard of their health and lives by employers. As well as the actions in Italy and at Amazon, shipbuilders in Maine (USA), bus drivers in Birmingham, Alabama, Brooklyn postal workers, workers at Fiat Chrysler plants in Michigan and Ohio and the company’s minivan plant in Windsor, Canada, have all taken action. Workers at General Electric have walked out in protest at layoffs, demanding that the company produce ventilators rather than jet engines.
In Zimbabwe, nurses and doctors have gone on strike due to a failure of the government to respond to their demands for PPE. There have been walkouts at call centres in Brazil. In France, workers walked off the job at PSA, Renault and Toyota car plants last week and strikes are continuing.
Workers at the Royal Mail in Alloa (Scotland) went on unofficial strike on March 31st due to amount of junk mail they have been asked to deliver – with the high potential of spreading the virus and often for companies no longer operating. There are also unsafe conditions in the sorting room. On top of this, there have been actions at depots in Lochgelly in Fife, Southwark in London and Bridgewater in Somerset. Last Saturday, 500 warehouse workers at fashion retailer ASOS walked out in Barnsley in protest against unsafe conditions.
In Ireland, up to one thousand workers walked out of the Seagoe Moy Park site in Portadown. This followed the failure of the biggest employer in Northern Ireland to provide basic health and safety protections to its workforce. Around 80 workers walked off site at the ABP factory in Lurgan over fears for their safety. And in Dungannon, workers in Linden Foods walked out over a “total absence of social distancing measures”, refusing to start shifts and demanding talks with management. A number of postal workers in Dublin 15 refused to deliver mail after An Post failed to provide hand sanitiser.
The list could go on and on.
Social Partnership Fails Again
An issue central to all of this has been the failure of the union bureaucracy to move quickly enough to demand that workplaces be closed. This is true in Italy but also elsewhere. There is a striking similarity between the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ (ICTU) approach to the construction industry and that of the union leaders in the car industry in the US. In mid-March, after cases had been confirmed, the United Auto Workers top leaders “announced they had instead [of closure] negotiated with Big Three management to create a joint committee to ‘implement enhanced protections’ for the plants while production continues”.
On March the 24th, ICTU issued a joint letter to construction workers with CIF, advising them to practice social distancing and “carry out regular hand washing and use gloves and masks if possible”. This was on the same day that the UNITE construction branch was calling for sites to be closed, saying that the feedback fom workers on sites was: “adequate social distancing cannot be maintained”. Rather than back this call, ICTU wrote to the CIF asking them to agree that “Workers should be made aware that… they are entitled to remove themselves from any premises that represents a hazard or danger to their health and welfare and they cannot suffer any detriment as a result.”
This was all fodder to the CIF’s campaign to keep the sites open. ICTU has shown no willingness to call for any action or support for workers who might take action. It issued advice to members on March 11th (12 days after the first case of Coronavirus) which in big bold letters said, “We are urging workers to wash their hands frequently.”
No to Social Partnership
This crisis has continuously exposed more and more workers to risk as well as showing the callousness of employers with their desire to put profit before people. This is particularly the case with online distribution companies who seek to make a fortune out of the crisis. Many workers’ expectations that they could go to work and feel safe have been shattered. They don’t accept that we are all in this together and have taken action to demand that workers lives take primacy over profits.
This combativity is in stark contrast to the weakness of trade union leaders who cling to illusions that you can do business with the same employers who show such scant regard for workers lives. The issue of workers’ rights and union membership is now to the fore. Rather than social partnership, which will be used yet again to place the cost of the crises on the backs of workers, we need to take inspiration from the examples above and begin to build a movement that seriously recruits workers, defends any concessions that have been gained in the current crisis and fights to deliver real improvements in workers’ lives. Given that attacks on wages and holidays have already started, we must prepare now to resist further employer offensives which will undoubtedly come following this pandemic. Workers didn’t create this crisis, and they shouldn’t be made to pay for it.