The COVID-19 pandemic has turned all the old societal and economic expectations on their head. The bosses are wracking their brains trying to find ways to maintain profits during lockdown. Health and safety is a secondary consideration for them. This poses challenges to the working class. How do we fight back against lethal profiteering when traditional forms of struggle cannot occur? Mass demonstrations and mass meetings currently pose a health risk to attendees. What is to be done to defend the working class against the reckless endangerment of the capitalists?
While the emergence of the coronavirus is entirely accidental, its spread and lethality is an entirely social phenomenon. A rationally organized society with properly funded healthcare and public health could contain the spread and limit the impact of the infection. A society on the verge of crisis will be pushed over the edge by an accident like this as all of the underlying weaknesses and contradictions are exposed.
Reports are coming out that governments were warned all the way back in January about the potential impact of the virus, but they did nothing to prepare the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) or health measures during this time. Two months were wasted that would have made a world of difference in amassing enough masks, ventilators, drugs and reagents. Mass testing could have been prepared. Emergency retraining and hiring of healthcare workers could have begun. Instead, many healthcare and essential workers have died and will die due to understaffing and the negligent lack of PPE. Similarly, plans to lock down the economy could have been developed far in advance, instead of the confused, delayed, and contradictory rollout that has led to thousands of more infections.
The reason for this lack of planning and prevention is the general austerity regime of capitalist governments, unwilling to spend a penny on the needs of the working class, plus the pressure of corporations to “keep the economy running” no matter what the human cost. Non-essential work was continued, and in some cases still continues, despite the pandemic.
Now there is a call from some on the right wing, including Quebec Premiere François Legault, to begin reopening the economy. They callously suggest that because the majority of deaths have been amongst older people that it is an “acceptable risk” to allow young people back to work. This is reminiscent of the biblical plagues of Egypt when the first-born children were sacrificed–but this time it is the youth who are to be martyred at the altar of the profit motive. It is instructive that those calling to send the younger generation into harm’s way are not volunteering themselves or their own children for such work.
All in this together?
A common mantra being repeated by corporate media and politicians is that “we are all in this together”. But “we” clearly are not. There is one pandemic for the rich, and another pandemic for the rest of us. News of infected celebrities with mild symptoms have raised the question of how on earth they got tested when working class people are being denied.
Initial figures have shown that poor and oppressed people are massively over-represented in the COVID death statistics. This makes perfect sense when one thinks about it. The rich are comfortably collecting their dividends in their spacious homes without putting themselves at undue risk. Working class people are more likely to be forced to go to work outside their homes and use mass public transit in order to survive. Essential workers are the same people that right-wing politicians have vilified up until the very moment of the outbreak, while resisting increases in the minimum wage. Members of oppressed communities are also far more likely to be forced into cramped and substandard housing than the wealthy. Therefore the possibility of infection significantly increases with increased marginalization.
But in addition to suffering increased rates of infection, poor and oppressed people face the compound effects of worse-than-average health outcomes. Poor nutrition, increased stress due to poverty and unemployment, cold and cramped housing, poor sleep due to shift work, etc., all combine to weaken a person’s immune system. An infected wealthy person is therefore far less likely to enter into complications than a working class person; not to mention their ability to pay for preferential treatment. The working class are more likely to be infected and more likely to die once infected. We are clearly not “all in this together”.
The effects of austerity have been particularly lethal for the elderly. Approximately half of all COVID deaths in Canada have been in long-term care homes. These deaths are purely due to government cuts. For years, personal support workers have complained of understaffing and terrible work conditions. Even before the pandemic, staff would not be given enough time to feed and dress residents. Old folks with incontinence would be left in soiled clothing for extended periods. These conditions led to many premature deaths before this crisis, but now the situation has gone totally out of control.
Care home management has consistently refused to provide full-time jobs in order to avoid the obligation of giving their staff benefits. This forces their employees to work at multiple care facilities and spread the virus amongst the vulnerable. Combine this with a lack of PPE and these “homes” become death traps. Only recently has management been directed to give full-time hours to staff and ban work at multiple institutions. This rule should have been enacted months ago, and even now loopholes and delays remain. Those politicians who failed to release funding for these measures have blood on their hands.
The media and politicians attempt to vilify the misguided individuals who do not socially isolate, while saying nothing about bosses who exploit loopholes to keep non-essential business open. The media condemnation is now being used to hypocritically justify a state crackdown on civil liberties. It is foolish to invite your friends over for a BBQ. Somehow, that justifies thousands of dollars of fines while other more lethal actions are condoned. Those forcing construction workers to violate self-isolation to build another condo tower, while not providing easy access to handwashing facilities, get away scot-free. Homeless people and other marginalized communities are also being disproportionately targeted by the police.
Emergency regulations are now being passed to effectively conscript labour and violate collective agreements. Ontario recently enacted the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. This is not justified on the basis of health, only on the basis of minimizing costs. Society clearly needs to stop irresponsible activities, but this control needs to be exercised by working class people in the interests of working class people, not by the capitalist state in the interests of profits. The only people who can be trusted to determine what is and is not essential are the workers themselves, not the bosses who face zero risk. The police cannot be trusted not to victimize the poor. Genuinely essential workers must get double hazard pay and all necessary PPE. We need enforcement by workers’ control to ensure that these conditions are met and “essential” determinations are not abused.
Rent payment is another important point of conflict in society. The Communist Manifesto had some choice words on this point:
No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.
But now faced with mass unemployment, millions are finding they do not have the cash wages to pay rent to the parasitic landlords. The federal Liberals have scrambled to provide emergency support, but at $2,000 per month this is less than the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto, while many people are excluded from the benefit and fall through the cracks.
A fantastic rent strike movement has sprung up with thousands attempting to get organized. The media have tried to present this movement as a failure after 85 per cent of tenants paid their April rent, but this still means that there were 15 per cent who did not pay. For most people the crunch time will come on May 1, which auspiciously coincides with the international day of the worker.
Faced with the callous indifference of the bosses, what has been the response of unions and social democrats? The organizations created by the working class have largely liquidated themselves during the lockdown and are playing no significant role. The comfortable bureaucrats at the tops of these organizations are safely collecting their pay at home, while the workers who pay dues still have to go out and risk infection.
In the first days of the crisis the reformists echoed the “national unity” mantra that “we are all in this together”. Subsequently, faced with the anger of workers in unsafe conditions, they were forced to put forward some critical stances. Yet despite this they still vote with the Conservatives and Liberals and do not demand the implementation of necessary action with all means at their disposal. There have been very few instances of elected leaders actually leading–instead they only follow the established opinions and actions of the workers from below.
The working class cannot wait for these “leaders” to lead. It is not as if there are union meetings where the bureaucracy can be held accountable. Accountability for the bureaucracy will have to wait until after the lockdown is over. If a single prominent union or political leader got up and called for stay-home strikes and rent strikes it would have an explosive effect. But, in the here-and-now, events are occurring on a weekly or daily basis and we cannot wait for the slow wheels of labour officialdom to grind. It is literally a life-or-death situation for workers on the front lines in healthcare, food distribution, long-term care, and public transit.
What is to be done?
The working class cannot allow itself to be used as cannon fodder for the maintenance of corporate profits. We also cannot wait for comfortable bureaucrats to overcome their isolation and act. More and more workers are realizing this and there has been a wave of spontaneous actions.
Service Canada employees who process unemployment services and benefits recently organized a “sick-in” protest strike. Faced with thousands of unemployed people lining up at service centres, the workers understood there was no safe way to continue work. This action was totally independent of official union structures. The walkout was victorious, forcing management to move service to online and over the phone.
Health care workers in Bradford, Ontario also walked out on April 9 demanding N95 masks and other protective equipment after 16 residents and four staff tested positive for COVID-19. Transit workers have organized walkouts to enact safety measures while auto workers have demanded that their plants be retooled to produce ventilators and other essential equipment.
We cannot organize a mass demonstration or a mass meeting, but workers can achieve more by sticking their hands in their pockets than any boss or bureaucrat can in social isolation.
In addition to stay-home strikes, walkouts, and sick-ins, working class renters have an important method of mass leverage against the ruling class. A mass rent strike is an excellent tool for workers and unemployed people to exert pressure as a group. However, it is important that a rent strike movement has the proper organization in order to succeed.
A rent strike is a means to an end, not an end in itself. One weakness of the existing rent strike groups is that they are often organized as individual actions rather than a collective mass. In these groups some would ask, “What will happen after COVID? Will we have to pay back rent? Will we be evicted?” Sometimes those saying such things were right-wing trolls, but sometimes they were working class people with genuine worries. The lack of a good answer to this question explains why so many ended up paying rent on April 1 despite the mass interest in the movement.
Rent strikes, just like walkouts and sick-ins, are mass actions to achieve a mass aim. That aim can be immediately connected to the form of the action–suspension of rent and utility bills during the lockdown, or the provision of safety equipment, for example. Alternatively it can be a more generalized aim hitting at the capitalist class as a whole, as represented via their state. Mass rent strikes and mass walkouts could exert the leverage to demand double danger pay for essential workers, full pay for those at home, the shutdown of all non-essential production, and workers’ control to determine what is and is not essential.
Working class renters and essential workers need to develop a list of demands to present to landlords, bosses, and the state. Some of the most important demands are mentioned above, but there are many more that address the needs of many sectors of workers–these should be determined collectively and democratically. If the ruling class does not accept the just demands of working people, then that is when walkouts and rent strikes begin. In answer to the question, “What happens afterwards?” we say: “We all go out together, we all go back together–but not until we have negotiated no retribution against any striker.” Mass democratic action is the way we will be able to continue the class struggle during the pandemic.
COVID-19 has shown that the real wealth creators are working class people, and the real creative class is the working class. Those at or near minimum wage are a thousand times more essential than any boss or banker. Therefore we cannot rely on the bosses and the bankers to set policy and put people ahead of profits. We need to protect the working class in the here-and-now, in order to prepare for the inevitable struggles against capitalist austerity tomorrow. We end with the words of Trotsky in 1938, which are incredibly apt for today:
Property owners and their lawyers will prove the ‘unrealizability’ of these demands. Smaller, especially ruined capitalists, in addition will refer to their account ledgers. The workers categorically denounce such conclusions and references. The question is not one of a ‘normal’ collision between opposing material interests. The question is one of guarding the proletariat from decay, demoralization and ruin. The question is one of life or death of the only creative and progressive class, and by that token of the future of mankind. If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.