Right from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the main concern of the capitalist class was to keep their money machine going. Capitalists accumulate their riches—rent, interest and profit—from the exploitation of the working class. Real wealth is created by human labor turning the natural resources of the world into goods and services, which are sold as commodities on the market. Employees create more value than they are paid in total compensation, and this surplus value goes to the class of employers. If employees do not show up for work, there is no profit to be made from them.
The pandemic has led to a dilemma for the capitalist class. They are frozen in place and unable to make decisions. The best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 was to keep people home—but this would have meant a massive reduction in commodity exchange on the market. But what is capitalism without a market? On the other hand, the continuing spread of the virus has led to a massive health crisis. This has not only caused economic problems, but can create major social and political upheaval that could threaten the very existence of their system.
Workers respond with wildcat strikes
While the rich and powerful rush to protect their families and friends, they want to continue production to keep the stream of profits flowing. Many workers resent this situation and have other ideas. Wildcat strikes erupted in Italy, Spain, Austria, Portugal, and even the United States. A wildcat strike is one not led by the official union leadership. It is when a new layer, chosen by the workers themselves, puts itself forward and suggests immediate strike action to stop production—a call that is widely supported.
In Italy, the capitalist class wanted people to stay home for personal matters and yet go to work and keep the factories, call centers, and offices humming. There was no real concern for the workers’ health and safety.
Wildcat strikes started in northern Italy around March 11. Even though the trade union leaders were making deals with the bosses to keep workplaces open the workers did not agree. In this context, Italian Marxists started a campaign: “The workers are not expendable!” This gathered much support from shop stewards and trade union activists. A whole series of strikes rolled out—when the followers lead, the leaders will follow! The more left-wing union leaders are now trying to catch up with the workers and a general strike was set for the Lombardy region.
Spain also saw a series of strikes. Workers for Mercedes automobiles, tire companies, construction workers, and Amazon employees have taken action. Call center workers went on strike in Portugal as of March 24. In Austria, metal workers went on a strike in Linz, even as the right-wing government tries to ban large gatherings of people. Predictability, they will not ban gatherings of workers to produce profits—but if the workers go on strike, this is considered illegal!
In another example that disproves the false idea of “American Exceptionalism”—so beloved by demoralized reformists—the United States has not been exempt from wildcats. There are two related trends among American workers. Where unions exist, workers are threatening and in some cases conducting wildcat strikes. They are taking the lead while the traditional union leaders work hand-in-hand with the bosses.
And in non-union workplaces, which account for 94% of the private sector workforce, there is a growing mood to organize the workers together, and these newly formed committees are showing some influence. An example of this is that the CWA’s effort to organize Delta Flight Attendants is reportedly picking up steam. There are also other efforts to organize nonunion groceries like Trader Joe’s, which is owned by a multinational corporation based in Germany.
Although the bosses tried to keep the assembly lines functioning with the help of the union leadership, rank-and-file UAW members forced GM, Ford, and Fiat-Chrysler to stop production. Nonunion Honda was also forced to stop production and pay workers their full pay. In Detroit, city bus drivers forced management to make changes regarding their safety by threatening to strike. They refused to work until their safety demands were met and they have also ended passenger fare collection during the crisis. The passengers now enter and exit by the buses’ rear door to minimize interaction with the drivers.
In NYC, the public schools were scheduled to close from the week of March 15 until at least April 20, after Mayor de Blasio was forced to take action—but only after the threat of a massive “sick out” by the teachers. This was initiated by the opposition group in the teachers’ union, known as MORE.
In one of the Queens, NY, Amazon warehouses, management tired to get employees to come to work at 10:15 AM on March 19, after there was a confirmed case of COVID-19. The union organizing committee, Amazonians United NYC, shut down the warehouse on that day. In Pittsburgh, sanitation workers have refused to work without proper safety equipment—this after an employee and his wife tested positive for the virus.
And on Staten Island, in New York City, Amazon warehouse workers walked out after several of their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19. A similar action took place in Greeley, Colorado, where 1,000 mostly immigrant meatpacking workers walked out of the plant to protest unsafe conditions as several workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Dominoes and other pizza shops have likewise been shut down by workers fighting for safety measures.
The crisis of union leadership
“If Monday morning [i.e., March 9, 2020, when the stock market fell 7%] tells us anything, it’s that we need that leadership now, because once fear becomes contagious, it may be the hardest thing to stop.”
The above statement was posted on the AFL-CIO website on March 10, 2020. We agree 100% with their call for leadership. The AFL-CIO is the leadership of the organized working class in the US. But we must ask the following question: are the leaders of the AFL-CIO measuring up to their own call? What has been their role? Trotsky once said that a broken umbrella is particularly useless when you need it in a rain storm. In this respect, the leaders of the AFL-CIO are very similar to a broken umbrella.
President of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, and the other union leaders believe that workers will do better when the bosses do well. They like to collaborate with the politicians in Washington and elsewhere and claim that this will lead to positive reforms for the workers. This is the idea of class collaboration, that workers and owners work together for win-win situation. However, this does not work as capitalism is system based on class antagonism and struggle. The class interests are irreconcilable. The bosses make more profits the more they exploit the workforce—and too much is never enough.
Some might object and say Marxist theory is a dogma. For those who object, let’s look at the facts. In the period prior to this present crisis, the entire labor leadership has been dominated by the Trumka policy, not by the Marxist idea of class independence and struggle. What have Trumka and the labor leaders achieved? Are things getting better for the working class?
Labor’s share of national income is down 6.7% since the mid-1980s. Over the last three decades, the top 1% grew their net worth by $21 trillion while the bottom 50% saw their net worth decrease by $900 billion. On top of this, the percentage of the labor force in unions has fallen from 20.1% in 1983 to 10.3% in 2019–cut in half! So we can see from the big picture, the failure of class collaboration.
In this crisis of COVID-19, it is an immediate life-and-death situation. What did Trumka advocate at the beginning of the crisis? Did he mobilize the workforce to strike, when health and safety was put at risk? No, Trumka urged members to call their congressperson to support a bill to strengthen OSHA! Apparently, whereas most Americans disapprove of Congress, the leaders of the AFL-CIO trust Congress to do something to help working people!
This is way too little and it will be way too late for workers to wait until OSHA arranges an inspection of the workplace. How long will Congress and the federal bureaucracy take to protect workers’ safety? How many will get sick and die while we wait? Workers need action now and the wildcat actions show the way forward!
Labor needs a class-struggle policy
Marxists start from the following premise: the working class must trust only itself, its own forces, and organizations. We place no trust in the bosses, their politicians, and parties. There is a class war going on and the workers need to fight back—they need generals who do not surrender before the battle even begins.
We know that the working class makes everything run in society, and that this power, along with the fact that workers and their families are the vast majority of the population, can bring about victory. However, we also know that workers need to build a leadership that has confidence in its ability to take charge of the present situation and ultimately of society in order to win the war against the bosses.
These wildcat strikes are a step in the right direction. The workers are uniting and using the power that they have—the power to withhold their labor. In order to be effective, action needs to be expanded and coordinated. In our program to fight the COVID-19 and economic crisis, we call for the formation of “workers’ health and safety committees in every factory and workplace to oversee conditions and implement all necessary provisions.”
At every workplace, workers must elect these committees and they should represent all departments, job titles, and shifts. These committees should try to connect with one another, not just within a company, but linking up with workers in the same or similar industries. We define health and safety in the broadest way—it includes health and safety in the workplace, at home, and in between. And we include questions such as wages and benefits.
Committees of US Postal Service workers, UPS, and FedEX workers should reach out to Amazon delivery drivers. This unity of unionized workers—across companies and unions—with the unorganized could be the beginning of a real campaign to strengthen the labor movement. The more unity that is brought about, the more unorganized workers, including those in the so-called gig economy—who are just the more poorly compensated workers of capitalism—the more the working class can impose its collective will.
There are campaigns to organize flight attendants at Delta and workers in grocery stores such as Whole Foods/Amazon and Trader Joe’s. Workplace committees can be the start of a real campaign to achieve this. Wherever these committees are set up, if they have the support of the decisive majority of workers, then they have the potential to win.
What really gets the bosses’ attention is not NLRB elections but the power to stop the workplace until our demands are met, including to be recognized as a union. In these situations, it must be clear that at least a substantial part of the workforce supports the demands and is willing to sacrifice with real action to get these demands. In this atmosphere, with many people staying at home, the workers who do report to work have potentially more leverage, especially if they reach out for support from other workers. As an example, Trader Joe’s workers could reach out to employees at union supermarkets. Workers at Von’s and other major chains will be in a better position if Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Amazon are organized.
Whenever these committees arise, they should seek to coordinate on a local and regional basis and eventually, on a national basis. However, we must be clear. The American capitalist class is a determined enemy. It will not be easily beaten. It will take a determined and far-sighted leadership and this has yet to be built. This leads us to the main task in front of us—build a revolutionary leadership!
Organizing a mass fightback of the working class that can win is a complicated task. This is why it is crucial to build a leadership team ahead of time, in the form of an organization of committed revolutionary workers. Times like this can hasten the building of such a team. This can ultimately allow workers to build up a force which can both organize the unorganized and fightback to take their unions away from failed leaders and replace them with class fighters.
Trotsky explained that in this epoch of imperialist decay: “The trade unions of our time can either serve, as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.” We need the latter and there is no time to lose.
Bail out big business?
Congress just passed a so-called emergency rescue bill and this included giving money to big corporations that are hurt by the crisis, including the airlines. It is understandable that workers in industries like the airlines are worried about their jobs, healthcare benefits, and pensions.
Given that scenario, many would rather see the business propped up by the government. This is why union leaders like Sara Nelson of CWA-Flight Attendants union went to lobby the Democrats for this. However, we think that sister Nelson is making a false choice and a big mistake.
We 100% agree that all jobs, wages, pensions, and benefits must be protected—but there are more effective and lasting ways to do it. Why should the airline owners, CEOs and top managers, who benefit from the unpaid labor of the employees during the good times, now get bailed out from the taxes on the workers during the bad times?
Nelson and the rest of the union leadership should demand immediate nationalization of all the airlines under democratic workers’ control, protecting jobs, wages, healthcare, and pensions. Nelson should oppose bailing out the rich owners. Instead of negotiating with Senator Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi, she should explain to her members and the broader labor movement that these schemes are in the interest of the bosses—another way to transfer money to the rich.
If she did this, not only would it have the potential to expose Congress and both political parties, it could build a real movement for change. As a byproduct, when light is shined on these Congressional dirty deals, this sometimes creates pressure where immediate reforms are won. Pressured by the labor movement, Trump and Congress would have less room to maneuver, not more. Instead, the labor leaders are not clarifying the situation, but fomenting illusions, particularly in the Democrats.
The labor leadership must break with the idea of “national unity.” There are American workers and American capitalists. Their interests are diametrically opposed. “National unity” always means the interests of the rich are served at the expense of the majority.
The working class needs real political action
Reports show that 30% of NYC residents have already lost their jobs. More than 40,000 Hotel and Restaurant workers organized in UNITE HERE have become unemployed in Manhattan. Nationwide, unemployment claims jumped by nearly 10 million in just two weeks! And this figure doesn’t include hundreds of thousands of self-employed, gig, or undocumented immigrant workers.
Millions of workers understand the need for class unity against the bosses at the workplace. So why do we go to the polls and vote for the bosses at election time? Neither Trump nor Biden, Republican or Democrat, can represent the interests of working people. If ever there was a time for the labor movement to tap into the hatred of these two parties and run labor candidates in the elections, this would be the time to do so.
The labor movement should be setting up an effort to run independent labor candidates—real workers’ pledged to accept only a workers’ wage if elected. They should campaign on a program such as the one we advocate to combat the COVID-19 and economic crisis.
We know that the labor leadership is not prepared to do this at this time. They are not moving in this direction even in a small way. However, the wildcat strikes show that the workers are not going to just wait around. They are looking for a way forward and taking action. We must not waste this opportunity!
There are no shortcuts. We support all the struggles of the workers. We fight alongside them in all these battles, but we must put forward our proposals and program. We must explain that we need more people to join us in building a new leadership of the working class. This effort is speeding up and we can make a dramatic steps forward in the present situation.
We reject the false antics of the tiny groups that pretend to be bigger than they are. They take initiatives that they can not really support and this leads nowhere except demoralization for those involved. On the other hand, as the IMT continues to grow and sink roots in workplaces and unions around the country, we will be able to take many more initiatives in the not-too-distant future. There is no better time to help us build than now!