The coronavirus pandemic is a conundrum for the left. It has ignited a widespread need and willingness to help and fight for each other — while foreclosing many of the ways we typically imagine left movements taking shape.
With unemployment ballooning and maps of virus transmission and fatalities revealing the cruel geography of class and race in America, the pandemic has vindicated left critiques, revealing an American economy organized to enable the comfort and safety of the few at the expense of the suffering and sacrifice of the many.
“It’s a trigger event, the largest one of my lifetime,” said Paul Engler, organizer and co-author of “This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century.” Yet as major corporations work their will on Capitol Hill, extracting bailouts and reshaping the structure of the economy, no countervailing social movement has found footing to pushback or even articulate clear demands from Congress. That’s despite extraordinary leverage held by Democrats, who control the House of Representatives and, from a political perspective, have far less of a political need than President Donald Trump for economic relief packages.
Trigger events, Engler said, create tremendous opportunities for mass movements to form, coalesce existing social forces and organizations, and change the architecture of society. But the bailouts are happening now, before any of that has formed. Even if it had coalesced, most of the traditional tactics of left organizing — marches, rallies, occupations, picket lines — could endanger public health, and the risks of engaging in civil disobedience have risen, as jails have become petri dishes for the virus. That leaves corporate power effectively unopposed in Congress amid the most aggressive rewriting of the social contract in a generation, while workers spend their energy instead helping each other stay alive.
As one union organizer told me, “It’s a bloodbath.” Ninety-eight percent of the 307,000 hotel, casino, and food service workers in Unite Here have been laid off.
As employers shed jobs, traditional unions are scrambling to protect contracts, connect their members with benefits, and pressure Congress to provide relief for their industries. As one union organizer told me, “It’s a bloodbath.” Ninety-eight percent of the 307,000 hotel, casino, and food service workers who comprise Unite Here, one of the more militant service sector unions, have been laid off. As the union’s president June D. Taylor told ProPublica, “Right now, we’re fighting for our survival.”
The vast majority of those laid off in the past few weeks, however, don’t have a union fighting for them. Activists are scrambling to respond to a flood of emergency needs — unsafe “essential” workplaces, joblessness, homelessness, loan defaults, unpaid rent, eviction — while simultaneously organizing workers and tenants to extract relief from their employers, landlords, and the state.
To provide for their needs and attempt to organize their grievances into a political force, organizers in Philadelphia have created an Unemployed Council. “The closest historical model we have [to the present crisis] is the Great Depression,” said David Thompson of Philly Socialists. “Back then, unemployed councils were able to get serious reforms and lay the groundwork for future organizing when workers were rehired.”
Multiple organizers I spoke to expressed hope that labor struggles undertaken during the crisis can give workers a taste of collective action — and prepare for an organizing blitz when the economy reopens. As Thompson noted, Depression-era Unemployed Councils “seeded” the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, the militant labor faction that emerged from the strike waves of the 1930s. Organizers in Portland, Oregon, are also building an Unemployed Council.
Organizers hope that labor struggles undertaken during the crisis can give workers a taste of collective action — and prepare for an organizing blitz when the economy reopens.
Like many of the projects springing up amid the crisis, Philly Socialists hope to inspire collective organizing while providing unconditional care for those in need through “mutual aid” projects.
In the early days of the crisis, Google forms proliferated, collecting money and volunteers to deliver groceries, medication, and other necessities to homebound seniors, the disabled, and immunocompromised. Others are raising funds to bail people out of jail. Though some of this work has been carried out by apolitical groups (churches and neighborhood associations), “mutual aid” finds its roots on the anarchist left, where organizers distinguish “charity” (one-way munificence born of economic and social hierarchies) from “solidarity,” the sense of mutual obligation and empathy generated by living in community. While charity greases the wheels of an economic system hostile to collective needs, mutual aid reveals its inhumanity.
“We like to say the two divisions of our work are ‘serve the people’ and ‘fight the power,’” said Thompson. One of the effects of the coronavirus, however, has been to blur the division between these two buckets of work. The pandemic has manifested as a crisis of care, demonstrating the intolerable cost of capitalist social relations; the inability of employers and the state to guarantee health, safety, and security is endemic to a society that favors corporate profits over communal well-being. As Thompson explained, participating in mutual aid provides for those in need while dramatizing the absence of a comparable response from bosses, landlords, and the agents of government. In a system hostile to it, caring for each other can be a radical act.
Nowhere have the twin issues of serving others and fighting the power been so crystallized as among “essential workers.” For those it designates, the term is a double edged sword, simultaneously affording care and service workers the respect (and with it, the power and leverage) they deserve, while providing a cudgel wielded by employers and the government to force low-income people to work in unsafe conditions. In hospitals, grocery stores, public transit, and logistics, workers are fighting for the right to care for their coworkers as much as they care for the customer. Their newly elevated status as “essential” is both the means and the principle impediment to achieving a safe and equitable work environment.
While charity greases the wheels of an economic system hostile to collective needs, mutual aid reveals its inhumanity.
Leaders inside “essential” workplaces see a turbulent mixture of fear and anger among their co-workers, inciting some to collective action and others to paralyzing panic and despair. “You shouldn’t have to feel scared to go to work or to go home to your family after,” said Jordan Flowers, whose Amazon warehouse on Staten Island has seen at least 14 confirmed Covid-19 cases.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between your health and your paycheck.” Flowers and his co-workers organized a 50-person walkout on March 30 to demand the warehouse be closed and cleaned.
Despite promises to improve safety, Amazon workers continue to report uneven implementation of health measures and evasiveness from management about the number of Covid-19 cases in their facilities. Until these needs are met, worker organizers are promising more disruptions.
There have also been strikes, walkouts, and sickouts at Instacart and Whole Foods (both Amazon properties), Target, Perdue Farms, and a host of fast food chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. And though it’s illegal in many jurisdictions for transit workers to strike, the bus drivers, and train conductors of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which has reported hundreds of cases and 19 deaths from coronavirus, have staged wildcat walk-offs in Birmingham, Alabama, and Detroit, Michigan.
“More than 300 of the transit agencies where our members work have failed to implement critical changes needed to keep their workers and riders safe,” said ATU International President John Costa. “We are proud to carry emergency service, healthcare, grocery, and retail workers, and those who need care. But, as ATU International President, I cannot in good conscience encourage my members to go into the line of fire without the armor and provisions they need.”
Michelle Miller, who runs coworker.org, an online platform for worker-led organizing, told The Intercept they have seen 50 times the volume of campaigns on their site since early March — their demands evolving as the shape and depth of the crisis emerged. Workers first petitioned employers to provide personal protective equipment, soap, and hand sanitizer. (Several retail giants initially prohibited the use of masks or gloves on the job.) Now, many “essential workers” are calling for sick leave and hazard pay. Some, including workers at Staples, are calling for their businesses to shut down. “Employees are basically saying, ‘This business is not essential. It should not be running. And you should pay us to stay at home,” said Miller.
And yet, another effect of this “front line” mentality, said Miller, is that workers are being treated — by the media, if not their employers — as authorities on the conditions inside their workplaces. Jana Jumpp, an Amazon worker in Indiana, has compiled a database of confirmed Covid-19 cases at warehouses that is more complete than any numbers being released publicly by the company. Where mainstream media might previously have mistrusted the claims of protesting workers, that skepticism has been directed instead at employers.
“The bosses say one thing and do another,” said Mario Crippen, an Amazon worker who helped organize a walkout at his warehouse in Romulus, Michigan. “They tell the news something and do the opposite. We just don’t believe them anymore.” In response to protests, Amazon has implemented rules to require more sanitary practices and social distancing, but workers continue to be punished for taking “time off task” to wash their hands. For workers, Miller says, “it becomes more clear every week that we are merely grist for their mill.”
Employers, landlords, and government officials have exhibited a range of responses to the crisis, from appeasement or indifference to incompetence and harsh crackdowns. After he helped organize the walkout at JFK-8, Amazon fired Christian Smalls, claiming he had violated a company-imposed quarantine by returning to the warehouse for the protest. Days later, notes from a meeting of Amazon’s senior leadership team were leaked to VICE News, indicating that top executives, including Jeff Bezos, had deliberately sought to smear Smalls to stigmatize the protest.
Doctors and nurses have been threatened with termination, and even fired, for speaking out about insufficient PPE in Washington state, New York, and Illinois. While workers on the front lines of the pandemic are celebrated for their bravery and sacrifice, their employers continue to cut corners and ignore their complaints. As Jordan Flowers put it, “How can we be ‘essential’ and ‘disposable’ at the same time?”
“Some of the most powerful actions we are seeing right now are ‘care actions,’” said Miller, of coworker.org. The first collective action taken by many retail workers was simply to wear masks in defiance of their bosses’ prohibition. “It was visual and defiant — and defiant in a way that’s an act of care,” said Miller. The politics of the moment, Miller believes, demand an embrace of care, mutual obligation, and an appreciation for human frailty. “The narrow, hyper-masculine idea of textbook labor militancy [i.e. mass walkouts] may not be possible nor effective in this moment,” she said.
Protests are taking new and inventive forms: livestreamed rallies, car processions, and cacerolazo (the banging of pots and pans popular among social movements in Latin America). New York City artist, writer, and organizer Molly Crabapple has been producing posters and banners for people to hang outside their windows. “My nightmare is that after this over, thousands of us will have died, all the small businesses will be bankrupt, tenants will be $8,000 in debt, and the city will be a shell,” Crabapple said. “And then all these Jared Kushner-type development bastards will come in, kick us out, and make this city into Dubai. I can’t bear that. So part of what I’m trying to do visually is show that the city still belongs to us.”
The first collective action taken by many retail workers was simply to wear masks in defiance of their bosses’ prohibition. “It was visual and defiant,” said Miller.
Activists with Never Again Action, a Jewish-led immigrants rights group, have held “car rallies” and “honk-a-thons” outside immigration detention facilities in Philadelphia; Hartford, Connecticut; Hackensack, New Jersey; and Central Falls, Rhode Island; demanding the release of those locked inside.
Still, it’s unclear whether these efforts — effective as they may be — will translate into long-term organizing. It’s unlikely, Engler told me, that the uprising around Covid-19 will be catalyzed within an existing, formal political structure. “Traditional organizations aren’t designed to absorb people in this new moment,” says Engler. Unions have to focus on caring for their members. Existing grassroots organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America will adjust their mission and structure to accommodate new needs and members, but not quickly enough. And more radical groups, like Philly Socialists and their counterparts in autonomous tenant unions and solidarity networks across the country, will struggle to scale up their all-volunteer operations to be a vehicle for mass upheaval.
In such an environment, says Engler, a vacuum is created — between the tremendous needs and anger of an agitated public and the capacities of existing movement organizations. An idea, symbol, demand, or action scenario must emerge that can capture and rapidly absorb the inchoate energy of the moment. Platforms like the People’s Bailout, a list of policy demands with support from dozens of left movement organizations is fine, but it puts the cart before the horse. As Engler tells the organizers he trains, “Momentum can create alignment; but alignment does not create momentum.”
Nonetheless, the seeds of an uprising have been planted in the actions we’re already taking. Engler points to the Gandhian concept of “primary sacrifice,” simple but meaningful acts of mutual service that can be performed by everyone. During the Indian Independence Movement, spinning cotton into cloth was the “primary sacrifice” — a symbolic gesture that united the people in common activity while generating material benefits for the community.
What remains is for something else to emerge, some articulation that captures the moment, like “We Are the 99 Percent or “Black Lives Matter” — a vehicle for mass participation. When it does, greater risks will be required. Through small acts of solidarity, we’re showing each other that we’ll be willing to take them.