To many it may feel like class struggle in the United States is nothing but a distant memory, if they have any knowledge of strikes and confrontations with the boss and the state at all. And it is true that for decades the American working class has played a defensive position, retreating to higher ground and only striking in instances where they must fight to protect some concession won in a labor battle in a past generation. In the early days of worker struggle, hostility toward labor organizing took the form of unconcealed threats and violence—not limited to private security—which slowed but did not prevent efforts by workers to win concessions such as the 8-hour work day and sick leave in a period that was known for its offensive strategy. By the 1930s, labor struggle became organized to such a degree that the size and scope of strikes threatened the balance of power between workers and capital. The state was forced to intervene, and in the process defanged industrial unionism through a series of legislative actions that culminated in the National Labor Relations Board. This shifted the narrative away from class struggle and toward class peace as the labor unions gained state recognition as mediators between labor and capital. Between the 1940s and the 1970s, this class peace was maintained through a new development in the betrayal of workers by union leaders. Starting in World War II, the labor unions acted quite nakedly as an agent for the state to suppress labor action, for example signing no-strike pledges and disciplining workers who agitated, in order to keep assembly lines moving on the Homefront. As the war concluded, labor struggle exploded, and the state acted swiftly. The Taft-Hartley Act was made law with bipartisan support—enough support, in fact, to override President Truman’s veto. In spite of the Act, labor struggle reached a crescendo in the United States that was followed by a period of retreat now in its 7th decade.
Taft-Hartley brought the period of “red unionism” seen in the 1930s to a permanent close, as over the next two decades it simply became illegal to be a communist in a union. Wildcat strikes were banned, and unions were now required by law to notify the state of any plan to strike with 80 days’ notice. Labor unions in this time period fulfilled their role in capitalism, rarely overstepping the rules, purging communists, and neglecting external organizing in favor of maintaining already-won concessions for a dwindling membership. By the mid-1950s, unions replaced leaders with suspected communist ties with more conservative actors, who saw unions as a way to push for political reforms to benefit workers while keeping the rank-and-file just satisfied enough with their contract to continue showing up to work. The case of union ingratiation with the state is not unique to the United States and is in fact part and parcel of unions as they have developed alongside capitalism. What has been unique to the United States is how steep the decline in union membership has become, and how low the incidence of strikes has been, particularly since the 1980s. The working class has witnessed a rapid decline in bargaining power, often seen as starting with the PATCO strike in 1981, but as noted we can see that the seeds of the decline were planted much earlier.
Workers have come to associate labor action with the idea of the ailing unions, and have naturally come to associate the union with the decline and retreat of working class power for more than a half century. Without a unified, proletarian-led communist movement to fight for an alternative to capitalism, for many workers learned helplessness has set in as the blows from capital have only struck harder. The crisis in 2008 pushed labor strikes to such an historic low that the next few years could have been argued to be a regression to the mean, with only two dozen or so major actions annually, and often like the previous decades these strikes have been defensive in nature. Even in a period of massive expansion of the wealth of the capitalist class, while the working class has only seen stagnation of wages and intensification of labor, their struggle was no match for the coordinated attacks. And until very recently, the economy had been growing, productivity increasing, and unemployment at record lows. The ruling class cautiously began to pat itself on the back for its success in raising wages, never mind that corporate profits have raced upward at a much faster clip than wages for years, if not decades. But now, obvious to anyone in any part of the world, a crisis has beset the capitalist system, one that makes the 2008 crisis look like a trial run.
What, then, must the working class set out to do? In many cases, any attempt at improving working conditions has been sidelined for the workers that have already been laid off en masse. In just two months’ time, the world has been upended, and production and services deemed inessential has been paused. Many workers sit in lockdown, despairing over the rent coming due at the first of each month, while they attempt to navigate baroque unemployment systems. Some jurisdictions have graciously enforced rent deferment—of course, not rent forgiveness—to ensure that mass evictions will come later. For those still employed, the story may be different. Instead of fearing eviction, the fear is infection. For some, the infection has already spread to their workplace, all the while they are still being asked to enter facilities in close quarters with others, and with minimal or no Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Here we will investigate recent struggles, and the struggles to come as the crisis continues to loom.
It is no surprise that the firms that have since profited most from the pandemic, such as Amazon, have flexed their muscle and refused to comply with the modest demands of the workers. In Staten Island, workers first walked off the job in late March after a string of infections hit their facility. The response from the company has been to fire the organizer of the walk-out, and to casually discuss racist tactics to undermine the movement to demand safer working conditions, and enough sick leave to prevent a full-on outbreak among the workers at the warehouse. Amazon lawyer David Zapolsky has since tried to backpedal on his “not smart, not articulate” comment regarding Chris Smalls, the man who was fired after organizing the walk-out, but while Zapolsky can claim that this was some emotional outburst, it gets at something deeper. Management will typically react to a bold action like a walk-out with an immediate meeting of the minds to figure out how to crush the rebellion. As executive management sat comfortably at home during their video conferencing meeting, safe from the possibility of contracting COVID-19, they likely brainstormed every angle with which they could slander and demean the workers that afford them such luxury. A tactic as old as capitalism is to use any identity they can to divide the workers. When it suits them, management will pit men against women, whites against people of color, or the young workers against the older and better compensated workers in a two-tier system. And, in instances where unity is beneficial to capital, they will use a message of patriotism to canonize essential workers as our heroes in our time of great need who must make this sacrifice and ask for nothing in return.
Smalls may have been terminated in Staten Island, but the movement has spread to Amazon facilities in other parts of the United States. Workers have taken to strikes and other actions in Detroit and Chicago Amazon warehouses. A Shakopee, Minnesota Amazon facility, one that staged a Prime Day strike in July of 2019, witnessed the firing of employee Bashir Mohamed and another worker after they began organizing against the unsafe working conditions at the warehouse. Amazon issued a statement claiming Mohamed engaged in “inappropriate language and behavior.” Again, we see an attack that is tailored, although shoddily, to place the blame on the worker. This time the workers surprised Amazon with a strike on April 26th, and within a few days one of the fired workers was reinstated. The immediate lesson of this new surge in struggle in the face of grave danger for workers, even as COVID-19 finds its way into their warehouses, is that workers must fight for protective equipment, paid sick leave, and hazard pay, and they must do this as a unified effort against forces seeking to divide them. In the case of the Minnesota Amazon facility, the reinstatement of one worker provides a glimmer of hope that Amazon has finally met its match. Under increasing pressure, as workers in facilities across the country, and throughout the world give Amazon an ultimatum, the company will be forced to make further concessions. In the past, under the luxury of a large reserve army of labor, strike breaking took the form of mass layoffs and complete replacements of staff, full-fledged off-shoring of jobs, or simply waiting as long as they could until the workers could no longer afford to fight. Right now, the conditions favor the essential working class. Particularly in sectors like Amazon, where workers are needed locally as part of a network of distribution centers, there is no alternative for the corporation to replace or flee. Supplies are needed now and often in greater numbers than the company can supply. Even in the course of the next few months, if businesses begin to reopen, demand for delivered items will stay high as many people will fear flooding local brick and mortar stores. The certainty of the success of this business model will become especially apparent if premature re-openings cause massive spikes in infections that once again push office workers and other “inessential” workers back into lockdown. As capitalism adapts to the no-contact commodity exchange, it must ready itself for a surge in proletarian activity. But as we have seen with Amazon, company complacency and their faith in the working class remaining divided and weak has caught them off guard, and it has played into negative PR and a growing movement of proletarian resistance.
A corporation that was one considered a niche idea out of Big Tech just a few months ago, now has stood out as a new means to get supplies to locked down consumers. Instacart workers fulfill orders using an app, similar to the way Uber and Lyft operate for rideshare, providing a grocery delivery service. Instacart has an estimated 200,000 “personal shoppers” that cover the United States and Canada, and has followed a similar trajectory to rideshare companies, in that the increase in overall workers entering the gig economy has led to suppressed wages overall. Right now, however, rideshare apps are experiencing a collapse similar to other in-person services, while Instacart is taking off as shoppers provide no-contact delivery of groceries. For these workers, at least half of their income comes in the form of tips. With some people stiffing workers on tips, this means for some Instacart workers, the job can cost them more than they bring in. Working as an Instacart shopper comes with many of the benefits of gig economy work, including maintaining your own vehicle, swinging between too little and too much work, and having the legal status of a contracted worker that is not protected under many employment statutes rather than a standard employee.
Workers at Instacart are making similar demands to those at Amazon, hoping that the company will provide better hazard pay and safety equipment. In March, the workers of Instacart made their first gesture towards a strike set for the end of the month, calling for immediate protective equipment, sick pay, and hazard pay. They provided Instacart with an ultimatum and threatened to stop work if all of their demands were not met. The company immediately conceded sick pay and a “health and safety kit”, regarded by organizers of the Instacart strike as a “sick joke”. Clearly this response didn’t meet the needs of the workers. It instead set the stage for confrontations to come, by pointing out to workers that even a threat of a strike will push concessions out of the boss, and an even stronger and more unified strike action will produce even better results.
Workers at Whole Foods, Target, and Walmart have begun organizing as the push for safe working conditions has spread throughout all sectors of the essential workforce. Workers have common grounds for their demands across all of these major corporations. PPE is limited or unavailable, hazard pay is off the table, sick pay is limited to what was available prior to lockdown or has been augmented in ways that will not keep workers from infecting one another. Sending out mass COVID-19 emails with comforting words about “staying strong in these troubling times” brings no solace to the worker that risks bringing a deadly virus home to their family. Whole Foods has for years been part of a larger effort by the capitalist class to suppress labor actions through surveillance and on-boarding propaganda. For liberals, Target has existed as the Anti-Wal-Mart based purely on “blue state” aesthetics. Certainly, they have overlooked the company’s stance toward its workers, which is just as hostile as its red state cousin Wal-Mart. But now, the divide between rural and urban workers is being mended as a strike is being planned for May 1st, one that includes essential service workers, gig economy workers, and warehouse and delivery workers.
International Workers’ Day
As this April has rolled on, infections have continued throughout the United States, and the country has become the epicenter of COVID-19 infection. The president and a number of foolish governors have made conflicting calls for reopening as quickly as possible, but even bourgeois economists agree that reopening too soon can actually backfire, leading to a massive spike in infections and a retreat back into lockdown, this time for even longer. Now, with deaths being reported in troubling numbers in just about every state, International Workers’ Day carries with it a special connotation for 2020. Workers on the frontlines have seen their living standards erode for years or even decades, while their previous somewhat more secure jobs have been replaced with gig economy precariousness leaving a huge number of proletarians with nothing but a few hundred dollars in savings sitting between them and the streets. Now, with the prospect of getting potentially fatally ill with a highly contagious disease, workers are being told unequivocally their lives are less valuable than corporate profit. It should be made clear that in capitalism, at no point will the life of workers come before profit, but that this situation has only made it too obvious to ignore. Even the attempt by states to flatten the curve is a cost-benefit analysis, intended to promote the most political stability possible in the short and medium term. When the realities of this crisis shatter the illusions of a return to normal, it must be on workers to fight for their own interests, against all classes which will push for them to risk everything for a wage.
The crisis has punctured the veil of good feelings and consistency that was always fragile but until now has maintained a sense of stability. For too long, workers have looked with apathy at a system that functions purely on their labor power without an organized route to escape the suffering. Looking back to past struggles for strategy and guidance will prove effective in building an organized workers’ movement that is capable of asserting itself in ways that the capitalist class can neither crush nor appease. And already we have seen a swift reversal in the strike trend, with over 150 strikes in two months, a number not seen in the United States since Reagan took office. The strikes planned for May 1st indicate that the surge in strike activity has only just begun.
Capitalism is undeniably broken and incapable of reconciling profit with life, and will continue to reveal itself as a nightmare. Workers will find themselves pitted against capital, and will need to lock arms in solidarity to move the tide. However, the fight must not stop on May 1st, and the fight must not be limited to workers on the frontlines. For essential workers, the next move must be to organize, talk to co-workers to gather names and contact information, and plan for an action as quickly as possible. Communists sidelined by layoffs or who are in lockdown must agitate in support of their class, calling for solidarity in any way possible given the limitations of contact and crowd-gathering. If this means joining workers on the picket line at a safe distance and with proper masks and gloves, then this is a recommended course of action. Health and safety must come first, and the importance of this is both ethical and practical, since employers will cite workers breaking social distancing guidelines as justifications for retaliation. There must be boycotts on Friday May 1st of Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart, Instacart, Whole Foods, and any other corporation where workers have called for a strike. If the strike continues, boycotts must continue, and efforts must be taken to spread this message to anyone who wishes to stand in solidarity with the workers. While boycotts as an individualist “consumer choice” are misguided and useless, a flash drop in sales associated with the strike will send a signal to the company that there are other workers who support the fight. Agitation should not be limited to the United States, as many of these corporations are global. Solidarity strikes that take on a worldwide scope are not only possible, but are facilitated by the international spread of capitalism. These features of the system can and must be used to render it inoperable.
This is a moment in history where we must pay our undivided attention to the struggle of essential workers. Distinctions of race, gender, town or country, have to fall away for the working class to unite and reach its maximum force. At this time, sectarian divisions and petty disputes over historical figures continue to blight the left as it makes no case for a unified working class movement. Put these squabbles aside, as you would find yourself arms locked with a co-worker with any range of beliefs if you understood that you were stronger as a collective force against your employer than as individuals. Life is not easier for the proletariat under such “ripe” conditions for struggle, and in fact as history has proven, it is under the circumstances of great instability and physical danger that workers are compelled to reach new conclusions about the system in which they live. Lessons will be drawn from the strikes, and not every action will be successful. However, what is certain is that the working class learns quickly when it learns first-hand through confrontation with its ruling class. For class struggle, there is no substitute. The time has come to demand that the suffering end. The call should be to no longer suffer, but to strike!