As a recent article in the Washington Post argued, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations could prove to be utterly ineffective because they do not take into account the dire social reality of US workers: “parents who don’t have paid sick leave from work (only 10 states and the District of Columbia mandate it); a lack of affordable childcare or sick child care; at least 28 million Americans living without insurance and nearly one-third of the population still underinsured; health protections that are not distributed evenly from region to region; and fear among undocumented immigrants regarding access to care.” This economic reality has developed a culture of non-reliance on medical services and healthcare institutions because they are seen as a financial hazard for most workers: “More Americans were afraid of paying for healthcare if they became seriously ill (40%) than were afraid of getting seriously ill (33%), according to a 2018 poll by the University of Chicago and the West Health Institute. The study also found that in one year, more than once, about 40% of Americans skipped a medical test or treatment and 44% didn’t go to the doctor when they were sick or injured.” While the pandemic is slowing down the global economic system, the response to this crisis from many capitalist governments has revealed the system’s inadequacies, unpreparedness, and fundamental disregard for working and poor people. A socialist program is needed to requisition the production of vital pharmaceutical and drug companies and nationalize that industry so medical supplies are not an object of profit making and speculation.
Labor precarity and under-employment are also major obstacles to enact emergency measures that would protect the population from pandemics. This is because people cannot afford to miss work. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), workers are guaranteed only unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks. Most families cannot lose 2 weeks of wages and are one paycheck away from financial disaster. According to the Labor Project for Working Families, “for people in public-facing low-wage jobs, staying home from work is rarely an option.” A report by the Center for American Progress said that 38% of private-sector workers and 78% of part-time workers have no paid sick days. As it is, these workers can barely afford to live off their wages, averaging $10 per hour. We urgently need the imposition of medical and maternity/paternity leave for all workers on a federal level, regardless of the size of their workplace or their union status (of course union workers that already have rights above and beyond the minimum should keep them).
Trump’s Mismanagement of the Health Crisis is Criminal
Trump’s initial public reaction to the emergence of COVID-19 was to deny it outright, saying it was the Democrats’ “new hoax”, then that it was “hysteria” spread by “fake news media”. He later jingoistically suggested that the virus comes from abroad, and thus his response has largely been limited to imposing bans on travel from China and Europe instead of focusing on the reality that the virus is already spreading domestically. No response has been given to the growing problems of testing capacities. The fact is that there are far from enough hospital beds, and more generally, that the healthcare system is a complicated, decentralized patchwork of private insurers and provider networks, which still leaves 30 million without medical coverage.
Trump’s public address on March 12th was not only insufficient, it was riddled with lies and half-truths that sewed confusion about travel restrictions, trade and cargo, health insurance coverage, and the availability of antiviral therapies. In actuality, the travel restrictions only apply to 26 “Schengen Area” countries in Europe. As to trade policy, the transport of goods is not affected. Rather than his claim that all copayments for coronavirus treatments would be waived, insurance industry leaders only agreed to no copayments for coronavirus testing. Despite Trump’s promise “to make antiviral therapies available in record time,” an antiviral drug could be ready for production at earliest in June.
The greatest atrocity by far, is Trump’s squandering of the ample time afforded by the knowledge of this pandemic since December. Not only was his administration not proactive, they weren’t even reactive until far too late. They abdicated their responsibility by waiting until there were 2174 confirmed cases and 53 deaths in the U.S, and on March 13th he declared a national emergency under the Stafford Act. This measure allows for $50 billion that states could use to establish emergency medical centers and support hospitals, but it has failed to provide access to testing as of the time of writing. In a press conference the same day, he double downed with a brazen declaration, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” While this measure opens up funding, it also opens the door to attacks on democratic rights and cancelling or bypassing union contracts during this state of emergency. We need to fight for the resources to deal with the crisis, while defending against attacks on workers’ rights.
After much delay and pressure from below, which is described in the following section, on March 14th, the US House of Representatives passed the bipartisan “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which has support from Trump and Republicans and is, therefore, likely to pass in the Senate. This legislation would “expand access to free testing, provide $1 billion in food aid…[and would] include 14 paid sick days for employees, as well as three months of paid emergency leave throughout the coronavirus crisis.” While these testing and food aid measures are drastically needed to deal with the current crisis, they only apply to this specific pandemic, and not future ones which we will certainly face. Additionally, under closer inspection, proposed paid sick-leave measures leave out around 80% of workers, thanks to exemptions given to megacorporations like Amazon and McDonalds as well as small businesses. Instead of pushing forward universal paid leave for all workers, both Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated their commitment to preserving corporate profits over public health. We need more than a bandaid to deal with this crisis; we need a complete transformation of the US medical system and the economic system that prioritizes profit over people.
The Labor Movement’s Response to the Crisis
Workers are reporting that the bosses are doing nothing to make working conditions safe during this pandemic, while many others are getting laid off or have had their hours drastically cut. Many employers are simply telling workers to wash their hands and follow the recommendations of the government. As the US government has been particularly slow to respond to the pandemic, sectors of the labor movement and other working class organizations have been discussing the challenges of this crisis, highlighting the concerns and inadequacies of the government’s response, and formulating demands and solutions. Frontline rank and file workers like nurses, educators, transport workers, and service workers have been working around the clock to keep people safe, fed, sheltered and healthy. They are keeping the economy running with the limited resources available, putting them at great risk of contracting the virus. The crisis is both revealing the mismanagement by the capitalist class, and the ability of working people to address the crisis with real solutions.
On March 6th, the California Nurses Association, along with the American Federation of Teachers, the United Auto Workers, and 10 other unions, issued a resolution calling out how the CDC’s proposed changes at the time would be inefficient and result in harmful effects on healthcare workers. They argued that these changes would “decrease the level of protection for healthcare workers…[and] would also contribute to the spread of this virus.” The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) demanded that the city close schools and provide food for students. Rank and file workers throughout Connecticut from a variety of sectors of the labor movement including hotel workers from Unite Here local 217, produce clerks from UFCW local 919, and educators from local AFT and NEA chapters, are organizing an online meeting to discuss a plan of action for a workers relief program from the Coronavirus. In California, Community College faculty unions are demanding to bargain with their districts over the effects of unilateral changes being made due to the pandemic, and are demanding that faculty be paid throughout the crisis. And in the midst of active struggle, graduate student workers across the UC system are dealing with the challenges of the pandemic as they formulate plans to move the COLA strike online.
Other educator unions and rank and file educator groups, like MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators) in New York City, successfully called for a mass sickout against their district’s failure to close schools. Additionally, organized educators developed common-good, community demands in coalition with unions and community organizations, including: the Seattle Equity Educators, UTLA, Oakland students, and Philadelphia educators. These coalitions formed independently of each other and developed similar demands mirroring the fragmentation of the Red for Ed movement – which is understandable given its newness. If workers can channel these separate efforts into a coordinated national movement, they will be most able to protect themselves, their families, and the communities they serve in the face of irresponsible governance at all levels.
In Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) told the public and workers that their sanitation protocols were sufficient, even when the CDC was warning of an imminent outbreak. Workers tried approaching their union leaderships to begin mobilizing union power, but were bureaucratically blocked by union officials uncomfortable with making demands against the bosses. Workers conducted discussions at their workplaces and online and created lists of demands which they brought to managers and to mass membership meetings of their unions. Demands included distribution of hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes, more frequent cleaning with proper safety equipment and training, and paid work hours. Workers also demanded a moratorium on marks against a worker’s record for being sick. Again, workers were told that they could not discuss this because “the union may get sued” or that “we don’t want to create a panic.” Teachers in Chicago were at the same time demanding the schools be closed and food be distributed to families who relied on school food programs. The city government refused but were embarrassingly overruled the same day by the Governor who closed down not only Chicago schools, but also all of Illinois public schools (with pay for all staff). The Chicago Teachers Union, which had led two strikes since 2012, joined with other unions and community groups to call for immediate social measures, such as:
- A moratorium on evictions and mortgage payments for families in need.
- Testing protocols that place no economic burden on individuals and families in need.
- The provision to all Illinois workers—in Chicago schools, public agencies and private businesses—of 15 additional days of paid time off, to align with the quarantine period for COVID-19
Transit workers are following the lead of the teachers in demanding free, voluntary testing for all transit workers and 15 days paid leave for those testing positive. Since workers took these initiatives, both union officials and CTA management have taken some steps to follow workers’ and passengers’ demands. However, tests are still not available and as of the writing of this article, workers (including bus and train operators and customer assistants) are officially still unable to be absent without discipline that can lead to being fired, even if they have COVID-19(!). Part-time workers still get no paid leave. Some workers are demanding paid leave be made a central demand during the current contract fight (their contract expired in December, 2019).
An Emergency Plan to Face the Coronavirus Pandemic
We are in the richest country in the world, and in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, pharmaceutical and healthcare companies are making record profits at the expense of our healthcare. Other companies are sending workers home with no pay. While some workers can work from home, many others cannot, especially those in low paid service jobs, or in manufacturing or transportation. If sent home, they will lose their wages. Forced to choose between respecting the quarantine and ensuring their own economic survival, many will likely continue showing up to work, putting themselves and the community’s health at risk. We must pressure local, state, and federal leaders to prepare for worst case scenarios.
We need to expand organizing through our unions and community groups to demand concrete emergency measures and deep reforms to ensure the health and safety of workers as well as unemployed workers. The 2018 and 2019 strikes have shown that collective action and strikes get the goods. With the growing healthcare crisis revealed by the Covid-19 epidemic, we must ramp up our mobilizing. We are challenged by having to limit our tactical options given social distancing and containment measures. However, the production slowdown and school closures we are experiencing is akin to a national strike wave and reveals the vulnerabilities of the neoliberal capitalist economic system.
This is the time for socialists to build together a united front with all unions and community organizations to demand and organize for an emergency plan that will satisfy the basic needs of working people:
- Free distribution of face masks, hand sanitizing, soap and isopropyl alcohol,
- Free local, accessible screening and treatment for everyone who is symptomatic, basic emergency healthcare access to everyone and a plan for universal, comprehensive healthcare for all
- Nationalization of the drug and pharmaceutical industry
- Emergency public housing plan and shelters for all unhoused people with outreach workers and protocols around screening and response to illness
- Childcare for healthcare and other essential workers
- Full compensation for all workers and families who cannot work until the end of the pandemic
- Moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, utility shut offs
- Organization of house calls by unions and workers organizations – assisting incarcerated and elderly people with distribution of food, access to medical attention, etc.
- Moratorium on immigration status checks and deportations
- Local hotline numbers available 24/7 that are anonymous and not tied to law enforcement or ICE