Collective coronavirus action will save lives
Updated: May 16
Workers can take collective action in response to the coronavirus outbreak - and save lives.
The world is changing very fast. We can act together in the workplace in response to the novel coronavirus crisis in more daring ways than we have yet imagined. The reason is that the elites and the politicians are afraid.
Two examples are telling. First, the UK. A few minutes ago Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has announced a total shutdown in the UK. He has already promised to pay 80 percent of the wages of any workers laid off, up to a cap of £2,500 a month.
These measures are essential to slow the virus. Even if they go nowhere near far enough, they went well beyond what any Labour or trade union leader had called for.
Johnson, the Tory prime minster, last week was well to the left of where Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour opposition, was the week before.
Second, India. At the weekend 415 people in India, out of a population of 1.3 billion, had tested positive for novel coronavirus. Seven people had died. Of course, the real figures may be 100 times those numbers because so little testing has been done. But that would still be a very low rate of infection per person.
Narendra Modi runs a right-wing government in India. At the weekend that government ordered a one day curfew of the whole country. Everyone was to stay indoors all day. The next day 75 cities and their surrounding districts, including all the largest cities, were ordered into an open-ended lockdown. The state governments of Punjab, Rajahstan, Telengana, Uttatkhand and Bihar have extended the lockdown to the whole state.
As the lockdowns were announced, many migrant workers from other parts of the country tried to flee home from Mumbai. The government closed the railways to all passengers, and all inter-city buses stopped. In Delhi, the capital, the lockdown means that all public transport was stopped, and all rickshaws have been shut down.
Modi is a hard core racist and Muslim hater, like Trump and Putin. As in Britain, no-one on the left in India expected him to do this, and no one had been seriously demanding it. But Modi had seen what happened in Italy, Spain and Iran.
Moreover, everyone knew an epidemic in India could be a cataclysm. There are so many poor, malnourished, sick people living in such density, who must leave home to get money to eat and to get water from communal standpipes. So many people whom the hospital system cannot possibly accommodate.
That was the horror Modi faced.
And Modi, Johnson, Trump and all the rest are facing global financial disaster as well. When I wrote about the economics of the virus ten days ago, I said that global recession and a stock market crash were already baked in. That has proven true.
I also said that economists, bankers and politicians were then beginning to worry about the possibility of a global financial crash like 2008. Now they are weighing up the chances of a far worse crash.
The central banks and the governments of the rich countries have so far done all the things they did in 2008, and then much more, and none of it has worked. The bankers and politicians are looking into the abyss.
The elites, and the politicians, are afraid of the consequences of a crash for their wealth. But they are also worried about the crash in legitimacy of the system. And many at the top have cause to be worried about their personal careers and safety.
Take Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, for instance. After the pandemic, they could well find themselves personally blamed by almost everyone for the unnecessary deaths: this could be hundreds of thousands in Johnson’s case; perhaps millions in Trump’s.
They can be blamed because they will have failed to slow the virus and ruined the economy. What will make it worse for them, people will see that other governments have done differently.
The obvious example is China. Some people say that is because China has a communist dictatorship. Actually, I think it’s a capitalist dictatorship. We need to be cautious about the statistics being published. Moreover, the virus is not entirely contained there, and Wuhan is still under lockdown.
But Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have also slowed the virus. They are definitely non-communist countries, and have elections like the US and UK.
However, even as governments try to act, we can see the measures they take are full of holes and delays. The whole neoliberal capitalist system is constructed to push back, to save government money and to make corporate profits.
Even as the industrial center of Italy, Lombardy, went into total lockdown, the Italian confederation of industry persuaded the government to keep the factories open. The population will pay a terrible price.
In the UK many of the schools remained open until tonight for the children of ‘essential workers’, and the word 'essential' includes all manner of boondoggles.
Johnson says he has been trying for ten days to persuade other industries to make ventilators, yet as I write there are no examples of those ventilators being made. These are three reasons why people's anger will be directed at the leaders of the nations impacted, but there are thousands.
This is where grassroots collective action becomes key.
In the UK and the USA, for example, there are still very large numbers of key workers still working. Those people can take collective action. That action can protect them at work. Action can allow many of them to stay home with proper incomes and prevent contagion.
And action can increase the ventilators and beds available to hospitals.
We have been badly bullied by management for many years. But taking action at work is not a matter of everyone becoming a hero immediately. It’s a process.
Start by talking about this article. There are people all over the country raising the same concerns. Have conversations at work, sort of wish-conversations.
Win small concessions. Get desks spaced more widely. Get permission to wear masks. Get permission for someone living with elderly relatives to go home n full pay. And every time you win something, share the news, wherever you can. If you win a victory after reading this article, email The Ecologist at firstname.lastname@example.org and let them know.
The key breakthrough will come after grassroots workers win three or four widely shared victories that save lives. Then there will be a flood of other people turning their wish list into reality.
We cannot know what groups of workers will act first. One problem in the UK is that our union leaders have been timid and useless in the last two weeks. So the first actions may be in solid union workplaces, or in places with no unions.
We certainly cannot wait for unions to approve action. Old labels of right and left may not always be helpful, because as we go forward the crucible of the pandemic is going to create a new generation of activists and trade unionists.
Remember, the people at the top of the government and society are nervous, frightened and unsure. And we live in a very top-down society. That means the middle managers are also unsure what to do. They don’t want to do anything, and they don’t want to be blamed for any trouble, and they want to save lives if they can.
Forty years of cuts and neoliberalism mean that managers in the public sector in Britain have it in their bones that they do not listen to complaints about cuts from the front-line workers in hospitals, council, fire and police services. But you can make them listen. Literally.
Talk to them. Call a meeting and walk into their offices together. That’s not a walkout or a picket line. It’s ten or forty or a hundred employees insisting on an all-hands meeting with the manager to talk together about what you are going to do.
Not a meeting chaired by the manager where that manager stonewalls, ands makes the final decision, but an all-hands meeting, chaired by one of the workers, after you walk into the manager’s space.
Talk about what you must have? How do you get it? And, quietly make it clear that you will keep talking about this until you find a solution. Talk like you are all human beings. Be reasonable, be respectful, but be firm.
Here’s an example from the US. There, people will still come to work if they are sick but have no sick pay.
Yet Amazon workers in New York, Sacramento and Chicago have forced the company to provide paid time off to all workers in the company across the country who have to go home because they are ill. Those workers had one picket line, in one city, a national petition, and argued loudly in ‘all-hands’ meetings at work.
Or imagine, for instance, that you are working in one of the British hospitals where nurses and cleaners have to wear bin bags for lack of proper protective clothing.
Have an all hands meeting, and make the management find a solution. Suggest sending three nurses, a cleaner and a manager in one car together to the nearest army barracks to ask for kit and help.
If you do that, the soldiers on the gate will want to help. Just keep talking to them. Soon enough the army will be finding your solution. But maybe that’s not how you do it. Maybe it’s something simpler and less flashy.
Maybe management is refusing to pay the wages of someone who have to stay home because they share space with an elderly mother, or a husband with a chronic condition. Go in together and talk to the manager on behalf of that colleague.
Maybe everyone in your office could work from home, but management is waiting for word from the top to let you do it. Talk with them. Help them organise it today.
Maybe you deliver the post. Posties all over the country are delivering all kinds of unnecessary mail, without gloves, without hand sanitizer. They have been told that they will be front line workers, delivering what the housebound sick and elderly need. This is good, but it is not what is happening.
You could go into the management space at the start of shift for an all-hands meeting. Maybe you decide the management will buy soap, or gloves.
Maybe you start to sort the mail, so the stuff that can be delayed is delayed, and meanwhile you send four posties in two vans to the supermarket to ask if you can help deliver food to the housebound or to the food banks.
Maybe you will have to have a picket line for a day.
Or - car plants, and other factories, have been closing all over Britain. The government says they have been begging those corporations to start making ventilators in their factories. The companies say they want to. But those ventilators are not being built.
Twelve auto workers could occupy the factory and demand work making the ventilators now.
But some people will still say don’t congregate. So twenty pensioners could stand outside, with signs, spaced two meters apart. Or twenty students, or the local trades council delegates. You could easily become national news.
Some people will say don’t congregate. But if people do any of those things, the factory management will move. And other factories will move. And tens of thousands of lives will be saved.
This may sound wildly unrealistic. But the impossible is happening all around us. Remember, the people at the top are in a panic. They are afraid of us. There will be a reckoning after the pandemic is done.
But we too are afraid. And we need to protect ourselves against the virus and the greed and incompetence at the top. So keep talking. Motivate each other. And then when some group of workers act, go ye and do likewise.
Jonathan Neale is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and a founder member of Protect the People, a grassroots campaign responding to the coronavirus outbreak. This article first appeared on The Ecologist website. Reproduced with permission.