Strike actions on the front line of the fight against COVID19~ 7 min

By Duarte Guerreiro and Simone Vieira

One of the arguments which has been used in Portugal to justify the transparently abusive and pro-capital decision to forbid strikes (and now even the legislative consultation of labor organizations) as part of the state of emergency, is that it protects society from the opportunism of organized workers.

These geniuses of political analysis are saying that doctors, nurses, distribution and other essential sector workers will rub their hands with glee and start announcing strikes left and right in order to fatten their salaries at the expense of the common good. All these people who dedicate their lives to serve and save others, whose kin are also at risk, would seize this moment of crisis to point the virus at the collective head of all Portuguese grandmothers.

It’s not untrue that strikes have exploded all over the world due to COVID19, but that isn’t due to the greed of workers. The true hostage taker in this scenario are all the bosses, landlords and owners of capital that threaten workers with loss of income and eviction in order to force them to march right back to non-essential production or to work in essential sectors without adequate protection measures — masks, gloves, disinfectant, distancing — exposing them to the virus and, by extension, their loved ones, as well as clients and vulnerable people under their care.

Far from being a wave of social terrorism, these strikes are saving many lives.

Italy: from wildstrikes to a general strike

In Italy, the resistance began in the more industrialized regions in the north, where work conditions are more crowded, as the political power and employers remained idle. Reluctantly, faced with a wildstrike wave and pressure from workers, the main trade unions had to position themselves and the government ended up implementing a non-essential activity stoppage.

However, due to pressure from the bosses’ confederations, the decree had so many holes and exceptions that it amounted to almost nothing. The specter of a general strike rose, and this motivated more serious measures.

It needs to be remembered that one of the reasons why the pandemic is particularly affecting Italy is due to the lack of measures, even when the Chinese example had already been seen by all. Instead, both the bosses and the political power irresponsibly promoted the “Italy won’t stop” slogan. What they meant was your deaths are a high price, but one we are willing to pay to save the “economy”.

United States of America: wildstrikes in the land of precarious labor

Under quarantine, online shopping has increased. The production, supply and distribution sectors are overloaded. To face the increase in consumption, Amazon decided to hire another 100 thousand precarious workers. Meanwhile, it fires and slanders workers who organize protests in warehouses with confirmed cases but no adequate safety measures to deal with the situation. The virus has now spread to over 50 warehouses.

A declaration from Amazon Workers International demanded the following measures:

1. The immediate closure of Amazon warehouses until this coronavirus pandemic is declared over by the World Health Organization. During this shutdown, Amazon must pay all workers their full salary.

2. That Amazon give $20 Billion to the public health systems of countries where Amazon has operations.

3. Until Amazon closes down its warehouses, the company must provide paid sick leave for all workers who are sick, in quarantine, need to care for loved ones, or who need to care of children due to school closures.

4. Until Amazon closes its warehouses, Amazon workers must receive hazard pay.

5. Until Amazon closes its warehouses, there must be no write-ups or 6. firings related to Rates or Time Off Task so that workers may prioritize safety over productivity in these hazardous workplace conditions.

6. Until Amazon closes its warehouses, the company must reduce working time at its warehouses, without reducing wages. Workers need more paid time off to allow us to fulfill our basic needs and to deal with the impact of Corona on our lives.

It needs to be remembered that Amazon is valued at a trillion dollars in the stock market, and its owner, Jeff Bezos, has a personal fortune of a billion dollars.

Labor action is affecting other delivery services, such as Instacart, where workers have abandoned their posts due to a lack of long demanded safety measure. Only three days later, the company started warning its clients that they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. Instacart is valued at 8 billion dollars in the stock market. The same tale repeats itself in other food distribution businesses like Whole Foods and even giants like McDonalds: the workers complain about the lack of safety measures, management turns a blind eye, COVID19 cases appear among employees and clients, and strikes or walkouts break out, with similar demands to those of Amazon workers.

Processed meat and agribusiness giants like Perdue Farm, Pilgrim’s Pride and JBS are making their workers continue to work in the already packed and unhygienic conditions of their animal processing factories. In some occasions, with COVID19 cases already confirmed, workers remained at their posts and complained about the lack of extra safety measures. Many then went on strike. Companies are refusing to assume financial responsibility for the necessary 15 day quarantine period for the workers in the affected factories, or for providing hazard pay. All of these companies rake in thousands of millions of dollars annually, with hundreds of millions in profit.

In Massachusetts, 13 000 carpenters went on strike to force the state to close down building sites, pointing to the great danger they are exposed to. Just a few days later, the painters union and its 4000 members followed suit. In Pittsburgh, the garbage disposal workers went on wildstrike, demanding better protections, such as masks and hazard pay. The fact that the demand for hazard pay repeats itself is a consequence of the private healthcare in the US. As one of the garbage disposal workers said “Why? Because we have high co-payments on insurance on any type of bill. We risk our lives every time we grab a garbage bag”. Meaning, any worker that falls ill with coronavirus in the US fears not only for his life, but personal bankruptcy as well — if they survive.

Death is also being treated lightly in heavy industry. Half of the workers at the Bath naval yard, property of General Dynamics (of weapons manufacturing fame), missed work after a confirmed COVID19 case. In the automobile industry, a Michigan Chrysler factory won itself a wildstrike after a confirmed positive test. One of its workers ended up dying of coronavirus. At one of General Electric’s factories, workers walked out to demand that they produce ventilators instead of jet engines.

At Pittsburgh retirement homes, nurses walked out of their work posts in protest against the absence of protective material after 36 residents and 6 care workers tested positive for coronavirus. By request of the health industry lobby, the Trump administration is removing requirements that force employers to provide healthcare professionals with protective material. Hospitals are witnessing protests by nurses handling a complete lack of material and human resources necessary to face COVID19. Meanwhile, private hospital administrations fired nurses that crowdfund to be able to acquire missing protective material and try to implement salary cuts on doctors and nurses.

Around the world

In France, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela there are reports of similar actions due to lack of concern for the well being of workers. Even in places that the world often turns a blind eye, like Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe, there are protests and medical personnel strikes due to the lack of protective equipment.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, we are deprived of the right to strike, disarmed (officially) of one of the most important weapons in the fight against COVID19. The only one capable of making the masters of capital pay attention to the deaths of the “essentials”. After all, an “essential” worker can always be replaced by another one to keep generating profits, but when all stop working, that’s a different story.

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