Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the world seems to be living an almost apocalyptic situation: the economy is collapsing, governments and people are panicking, and cities, countries, and houses are being isolated or blocked. Sporting, cultural and religious activities have been suspended; public transportation had reduced its frequency, and part of health care has been suspended in other areas. Nobody knows life will get back to “normal,” neither at what cost.
By Alejandro Iturbe
The life of the workers, already very hard, is increasingly hellish: many of them, risking contagion, must continue to go to work in factories and companies on overcrowded public transportation, and pay for the familiar preventative items, such as chinstraps and alcohol gels, whose prices heavily increased. Moreover, in many cases, companies do not even provide them with such care items in their workplaces.
Amid the catastrophe, the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois governments seek to continue exploiting the workers at all costs, even maintaining the manufacturing of expendable products such as the luxury cars of the FCA plant, in Pomigliano, Italy. Others, like Swiss Medical in Argentina, refuse to pay the compulsory leave the government had determined for those employees who had to care for their children because of school closures.1
But the attacks do not end there. In Brazil, the Bolsonaro government is back with an old business aspiration and threatens to cut wages by half to “avoid layoffs”2, while others have already begun to lay off, such as the Chinese-owned Caoa Chery, automotive in São José dos Campos.3
While they attack the workers, the bourgeois governments, as always, help the companies: the government of Donald Trump has just announced a package of 800 billion dollars in this direction.4
The bourgeoisie and the governments are trying to charge the cost of the economic crisis that already existed, and which is now exacerbated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, on the workers’ backs.
That is why workers have to face two wars. The first, along with the rest of the population, for the preservation of their lives and that of their families, against the coronavirus. The second, against the bourgeoisie, the governments, and their attacks. A war that, far from being mitigated by the first, is exacerbated by the catastrophe.
The Class Struggle Continues
That is why, a little hidden by this catastrophe, the class struggle continues its course, driven by already existing claims, and incorporating a new field of demands to fight for. Revolutionary processes like the Chilean one keep their flame, and other struggles in the world are added, showing, in an incipient way, a situation that can be explosive.
It is logical that the epicenter of the struggles concerning the fight against the coronavirus is in Italy (the country with the most acute situation in the world), and the industrial workers of this country, as shown by the recent wave of ” savage strikes ” (without the support of the “official unions”).
The wave of strikes reportedly began at Fiat-Chrysler’s Pomigliano plant (FCA) in Naples, which employs 6,000 workers. Workers on the Alfa-Romeo luxury car production line added spontaneously at the start of the afternoon shift last Tuesday, protesting against unsafe conditions.
The next day, the company announced the closure of that plant, along with the Melfi, Atessa, and Cassino facilities, until Saturday. But it did not say it was because of the strike but because the plants would be “disinfected”.5 With that, they Were not only trying to hide the strike but also leaving the possibility open for workers to get back to production as quickly as possible.
From Wednesday to Friday, the wave of strikes spread throughout Italy and affected all major industries. “The workers are on strike against the coronavirus, or rather against the government that keeps the factories open despite the coronavirus,” wrote the Corriere della Sera. In Brescia, in the Lombardy region, which is among the most affected by the disease, the Secolo d’Italia wrote on Thursday that “workers in some factories have started another “strong strike”.
Shipbuilding workers in Fincantieri, Liguria, left their job positions after a worker tested positive for coronavirus. The strike quickly spread to the company’s other shipyards on the Ligurian peninsula. The work stoppages are affecting the entire steel industry in Italy. Most of the metallurgical factories have closed their operations until March 22.
Amid the growing rebellion among the rank and file workers, the main national metalworkers’ unions (whose union bureaucracy, until now, “looked the other way” and collaborated with the companies) were forced to issue a statement on Friday warning that if the companies did not shut down operations, by March 22 the strikes would hit the whole industry.
In Uruguay, construction workers held a strike and a mobilization, called by the sector’s union, to demand the validation of an agreement for a special license, signed with the companies but rejected by the government. In Argentina, the metallurgical workers of Rio Grande, in the distant Tierra del Fuego, decided in assemblies to abandon the factories in the face of the bosses’ delay to take a stand.
Conditions for working safely
In other cases, the workers’ claims are not for the suspension of the work activity but for the companies to provide the elements and sanitary security to carry out the work.
This is the case of the Uruguayan meatpacking plant Dayman, whose workers were suspended for this reason, as well as the miners of the Astaldi company in Chuquicamata (Chile).6 In Brazil, the San Pablo workers of the call center conglomerate Almaviva (with 37,000 workers throughout the country) held a strike and a demonstration at the door of the company to the cry of “El, el, el, queremos alcohol en gel“.7
In Spain, there are reports of conflicts at the Mercedes Benz factory in Madrid and the Balay company’s plant in Zaragoza (household appliances). Also, in Madrid, workers at the NH Barajas Hotel have denounced the danger of contagion and spread for workers and guests. In Argentina, call center workers have denounced that they are forced to work in crowded conditions and that there are already two confirmed cases of infected workers.
Also in Argentina, workers at the Rio Santiago Shipyard (La Plata) presented a petition demanding improvements in working conditions and the application of quarantine, while the Internal Commission of FelFort (chocolate factory in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires) managed to enforce the licenses issued by the national government under the threat of immediate force measures. In Brazil, a strike by the workers of Caoa Chery, supported by the union, forced the company to backtrack on layoffs.
Some of these companies manufacture essential products (food, medical and protective products) and must continue the production either way. In others, which are not essential, companies continue to exploit them by putting their workers at high risk. Fearing dismissal and suspensions, in many cases workers are forced to continue working, but they demand safe and healthy conditions.
As we have said, reality poses not only the combination of demands but the combination of traditional and new forms of struggle, as well as the challenge of [discovering/proposing] new organizational forms for the conditions in which it is not the factory or company that centralizes the class and in which the coronavirus pandemic imposes restrictions on the holding of meetings or assemblies. Also in the form that protests take: in Brazil, there were massive “cacerolazos” and “noises” from the windows of houses and apartments against the policy of the Bolsonaro government.
It is also necessary that the working class starts the debate on which should be the basic objectives, the program and the strategy of the war against bourgeoisie and governments (in this regard, see the IWL-FI statement).8
We would like to finish with one last point about our class: the need for a special policy for the situation of that sector that is on the front line of the war against the coronavirus (the nursing and medical workers), who are not only living long hours in conditions of very high stress but are also beginning to become victims of the pandemic themselves. This is shown by information on the situation in Italian hospitals, which indicates that 2,629 of them have already been infected with the disease.9