By JAMES FORTIN
At a news conference on April 9, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the economy was deteriorating “with alarming speed” – not particularly newsworthy to the already-informed ranks of the recently unemployed, now numbering over 17 million. The same words also tragically apply to the ongoing spread of COVID-19 through the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The U.S. economy is in shambles not experienced by working people since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Millions of workers, thrown into an economic morass not of their making, are beginning to witness – with many participating in – actions, picket lines, and strikes most everywhere for health protections, wage increases, insurance coverage and for control literally over their own lives. They are publicly questioning why they are bearing the brunt of the economic collapse and why more is not being done – and not being done quickly enough – to help them.
At the same time, we are exposed to the daily scenes of exhausted nurses and other medical personnel, many holding back tears, everywhere pleading for the ventilators and personal protective gear they lack to save patients and themselves from COVID-19. As of April 11, the U.S. has topped a half million infected by the virus, with more than 20,000 dead. The contagion is rapidly spreading to new hot-spot death zones in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and to countless additional places in between. Health care workers, too, are taking their demands public in labor actions coast to coast.
These protests by segments of the working class have a context. Working people have been the target of austerity measures taken by Democratic and Republican administrations alike over the past 40 years. These twin parties of U.S. capitalism have been ardent enablers of the ruling class globalizing its economic system in the name of profit, thereby exporting work to lower-paying overseas markets, while eliminating jobs, cutting wages and decimating all manner of retirement and health care benefits domestically. Simultaneously, the social safety net in the U.S. has been shrunken with food programs slashed, public housing privatized, and hospitals closed. The greatest migration of wealth in history from workers to the ruling rich has transpired, making the working class today less secure, more impoverished, and sicker than it was when Jimmy Carter was president, more than 40 years ago. The current financial “stimulus” package passed by Congress is accelerating this process, with massive sums of swaddling made available to the companies and banks of the ruling rich, while pacifiers are given to everyone else.
In the package passed unanimously by Democrats and Republicans, individuals are scheduled to get a one-time payment of $1200. On the other hand, aircraft manufacturer Boeing, the creator of the faulty 737 MAX 8 jet that has taken hundreds of lives in crashes, will get $17 billion. Airlines will get $58 billion, even though they are flush with cash from 10 years of record profits.
Ultimately, to the detriment of all workers, large corporations will get $500 billion in cash plus massive tax cuts. Banks, now salivating over their stimulus drinking trough, will get trillions of dollars’ worth of credit and loan performance guarantees from the Federal Reserve Bank – all of this while workers’ payments are delayed, food banks that they have been forced to rely on go empty, and Trump threatens of send workers back to work before COVID-19 has been tamed.
No, your nose works ok – this entire ruling class bailout smells foul.
“People are undertaking these sacrifices [their layoffs] for the common good,” states Fed Chairman Powell. “We need to make them whole. We should be doing that, as a society. They didn’t cause this. Their [small] business isn’t closed because of anything they did wrong. They [workers] didn’t lose their job because of anything they did wrong.” The politicians in Washington are too busy helping the ruling rich to care.
Safety issues have been the spark. Fearing for their safety, about a hundred Amazon workers at its Staten Island, New York warehousing operation walked off their jobs on March 30, demanding that the company clean and sanitize the warehouse after workers there tested positive for COVID-19. At another Amazon facility in Chicago, workers picketed on April 4 demanding the same while a long line of protestors in cars, blaring their horns and featuring homemade demand signs, drove by the main gates of the distribution warehouse. Similarly, in Memphis, Tennessee, at about the same time, half the workers at a Kroger warehouse walked out from work demanding company action to prevent the virus’s spread when a co-worker was found to have the coronavirus.
Although involving fairly small numbers in each action, coronavirus safety concerns prompted union sanitation workers in Pittsburgh to follow suit, as well as non-union poultry workers in Georgia, bus drivers in Detroit and Birmingham, Chrysler auto workers in Michigan, and shipyard workers in Maine. But the largest job action to date involved 17,000 carpenters and painters in the Boston area who were told on April 6 not to come into work by their unions, to protest lack of protection gear and the inability of workers to engage in social distancing on the job.
The lack of workplace safety measures to fend off the coronavirus has accelerated union organizing campaigns in a number of companies, including Trader Joe’s. In other cases, such as at the GE aviation division, workers have demanded that GE bring back laid off workers to make ventilators to fight the pandemic. Clearly, not only is there growing awareness of the threat that COVID-19 presents to many workers on the job, but also a new militancy is developing to protest and to demand action to stop bosses who insist that they work through the pandemic.
An April 8 CNN poll indicates that 55% of the American people now believe the government has not done a good job at fighting the COVID-19 contagion, with 52% disapproving specifically of Trump’s pandemic performance. This stems in large measure from the highly publicized plight of health care professionals on the front lines of the pandemic, decrying the lack of necessary test kits, masks, gowns, hospital beds, ventilators and adequately trained personnel.
As working people throughout the economy are beginning to realize that the system is stacked against them, health care employees are learning a deadly lesson as well – that the personal protective equipment (PPE) and respirators needed to save lives are just commodities to the capitalist class, produced by private enterprise whose goal is profit, not saving lives. Living by the economic mantra of “just in time” manufacturing developed in in the 1980s, it was not profitable for these companies to make and stockpile such commodities in volume, so it simply was not done. And the public health and safety of its citizens was nowhere near a priority for the capitalist government protecting these enterprises, so it did not order or stockpile adequate medical equipment or supplies either.
In the health industry, workers are insisting that PPE be provided to keep them safe while working with COVID-19 patients and demanding that hospital management and the government step up to provide these items. National Nurses United, which has 150,000 members and represents the 10,000 nurses at HCA Healthcare, the country’s largest and wealthiest for-profit hospital conglomerate, held picket lines and speak-outs in front of 15 HCA hospitals across seven states earlier this month.
Over the past decade HCA made a profit of $23 billion. Yet, in a recent survey only 7% of nurses at the health care chain say they have enough PPE to protect staff and patients during these times. Sixty-five percent of those polled said they did not have access to N95 respirator masks, perhaps the most significant items needed when treating COVID-19 patients. “For the wealthiest hospital corporation in the United States to show such disregard for the health and safety of its caregivers, is disgraceful and unconscionable,” said Jean Ross, President of National Nurses United and a registered nurse.
While engaging in safe ways to prevent negative impacts to their patients, health care workers around the country are speaking out. Nurses at Harlem Hospital in New York demonstrated in front of the hospital after their management limited their access to personal protective equipment, including N95 masks. “This is a story about the fight for our lives,” said one nurse needing the mask. And at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, health care workers are staging mini-sit downs, telling management to “come find me in the break room when you have PPE,” according to a report from Labor Notes.
At Detroit Medical Center, Sinai-Grace Hospital emergency room nurses were told by management to leave the hospital after the group protested working conditions that jeopardized their health as well as their patients. Jamie Brown, President of the Michigan Nurses Association, responded in support of the workers, saying they have “a tipping point … The best thing any RN can do for their patients, their families, and their coworkers is to speak out rather than remain silent.”
Edward Smith, Executive Director of the District of Columbia Nurses Association, slammed hospitals there. “It is hard to fathom that nurses who have been exposed to patients with the virus are not tested for the virus, are being told to re-use protective gear, and are assigned care to COVID-19 patients without proper protections … I find it blatantly irresponsible and a dangerous practice. We see what is happening in other areas of the nation when doctors and nurses contract the disease and are unable to care for patients.” Similar comments were echoed by Stacy Chamberlain, International Vice President of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers in Portland, Oregon.
Objections to working under dangerous COVID-19 conditions are now evident from health and pharmacy workers, grocery workers, postal workers, transit workers, home aides, truck drivers, sanitation workers, and farm workers – all while offering absolutely essential services to the economy. Increasingly the nation is becoming a virtual war zone. It’s nurses and doctors and EMTs skirmishing with the established health response system, particularly the Trump failures to stockpile PPE and virus test kits. It’s Amazon workers, and retail employees, and the unemployed and oppressed minorities against their employers and the system, demanding change and testing the resolve of their opposing class. Pick an occupation and there is concern for safety. But there is more than just a whiff of change in the air.
As a society we are on new turf, but on a comparable trajectory evidenced during an important time in our recent past when meaningful victories were won. An ever-expanding number of Americans now know someone or a family who has been infected, who has died, or who is struggling to survive financially. The American people surely and increasingly are being impacted by events not seen on such a scale since the late 1960s and early 1970s period of the Vietnam War, when the impact of 50,000 U.S troops dying overseas personally affected millions at home. Tens of millions were moved into action. The deaths from coronavirus and the economic incapacitation of millions today are not dissimilar in scale. New movements and struggles for economic and social justice will come from this, the character of which is yet to be seen. Our involvement as socialists in these new struggles, however, will help to shape the victories yet to come.
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