This article was written by a close sympathiser in the US. We welcome this initiative and encourage others to follow the example. And of course we also welcome the fact that workers in the US have been reacting against the severe dangers they are facing. As we have argued in our article on the class struggle internationally (https://en.internationalism.org/content/16855/covid-19-despite-all-obstacles-class-struggle-forges-its-future), it is important to recognise that the working class is not willing to submit to everything that capitalism is trying to impose on it at the moment, even though the objective conditions of the pandemic and the lock-down are a real obstacle to the development of the open, mass struggle. The effects of the economic crisis engulfing the entire planet will hit the working class much harder than before - but we cannot at the moment predict exactly how and when the working class will respond. It may well be that the sheer brutality of the attacks – especially the development of mass unemployment – will create a certain paralysis for an initial period, but sooner or later the proletariat will be forced to respond. Therefore we should not be discouraged if this response is not immediate, but as the article says at the end, we must build on the long-term potential of the class struggle. ICC
The working class is facing, and responding to, an unprecedented situation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. All over the world, workers are facing great dangers at both the hands of the virus and the hands of the bourgeoisie; not only that, but it can clearly be observed that the standard operating procedures of the bourgeoisie and its political apparatus are intensifying the danger of, and the harm done by, the virus. However, with these dangers at the forefront of their minds, the working class has begun to struggle against the bourgeois intensification of natural disaster; an intensification which itself is a clear indication and result of the period of capitalist decomposition. The working class response to this intensification of disaster and misery is the further development of an increasingly common mood of discontent which started in France before spreading to Finland and some cities in the US. Nowhere is this spread of class struggle and discontent more obvious than in the increase in class action against the worsening of working conditions in the United States of America, a country in which actions of class struggle has been historically more sparse compared to others. That the struggle has spread to, and within, a country which is typically weighed down and confused by popular, inter-classist, democratic mystifications is evidence that this movement very well may continue to grow throughout the pandemic and beyond. This struggle has the potential to intensify once the pandemic has “run its course”, so to speak. When the need for such intense isolation and distance begins to dissipate, the struggles which are playing out now, just as they had begun before the pandemic, could very well build a base for the next steps to be taken. That said, the struggle in the US also clearly shows the challenges which the working class faces internationally in these strange, uncertain times; and coming to important conclusions about the lessons which are to be discerned from the class struggle under the conditions of the pandemic could very well be more challenging than usual. Both these positive developments and the drawbacks which come with the conditions in which these developments have arisen show that there is great potential for the further development and intensification of class struggle; but just like many other aspects of life in these times, this is not entirely certain. In spite of this uncertainty about where the situation will lead, there is no doubt that recent struggles show that the future has much potential.
The United States has quickly become the epicenter of the pandemic, something which any casual observer could have predicted; America boasts the robust economy of its European counterparts, but has a healthcare system which is constantly the subject of ridicule. Even with this economy, however, the working class is facing dire circumstances. This is no surprise, as the rewards of capitalist production will always be reaped by the bourgeoisie while the working class are laid out as a cushion to catch them as they fall. The working class will always be put at the front line when capitalism’s contradictions become violent and destructive. With the American economy taking a massive blow due to the pandemic’s grip on the US, we clearly see the circumstances of the workers become far more dire. Not only is the healthcare system inadequate in so many ways, but the lives of the workers are being put on the line by all the differing responses to the pandemic by the bourgeoisie as well. There is no doubt that workers are living under increasingly worsening conditions as a result of this pandemic and the response to it by the bourgeoisie.
There are two predominant responses to the severity of the pandemic by the bourgeoisie; workers are either forced to remain at their workplaces where, across the country, proper protective measures and materials are not being implemented, or to stay home and subject themselves to the ill-equipped unemployment systems of state governments. For those who remain at work, the needs which must be met to protect workers are not being provided. From factories to warehouses, grocery stores to “essential” retailers, the proper equipment and distancing measures are not being provided or followed to a degree which prevents the spread of the virus. For example, Amazon warehouses are finding more and more reports of infections, and are in some cases preventing this news from reaching workers in order to keep productivity from falling. The essential workers which the media and government praise as heroes are still forced to place their life on the line and are treated as replaceable machines. On top of this, in many workplaces there are schedule changes which can spell disaster for workers: after all, just three years ago it was found that 78% of American workers were living paycheck to paycheck, an increase from the figure of 75% the year before. A reduction in working hours, typical of a business which is attempting to distance employees from each other, will stretch paychecks to their breaking points and plunge workers into further debt and despair. This stretch is also true of those who have been laid off, the number which is staggering. In April, 20.5 million layoffs occurred and the unemployment rate rose to 14.7%. These numbers are the highest ever recorded since the government started tracking these numbers in 1939 and 1948 respectively, even higher than the Great Recession of just a decade before. We can clearly see that, with or without foresight, the response of the bourgeoisie is directly taking a toll on the working class.
Indirect results of these responses are also exacerbating the misery of the workers as well, intensifying systemic issues of capitalism to a point where they cannot be glossed over. Hunger in America, an issue swept under the rug in order to preserve the image of a country of prosperity, has been revealed and aggravated by broken supply chains and hoarding. Food banks are struggling to keep up with the influx of those going hungry. In the wake of this situation, organizations like Food Not Bombs have modified and increased their activity, making deliveries and providing service more consistently, in order to make sure those in need still have food to put on their tables without breaking the bank or risking infection. However, not every city or town is so lucky to have these collective efforts. American “food deserts”, towns in which the grocery stores are already poorly stocked or are located in towns many miles away, are still suffering from shortages and workers are going hungry. Racial disparities are also being exacerbated by the virus and the response to it, as racial and ethnic minorities comprise a disproportionate amount of cases of the coronavirus. This is due to the fact that racial and ethnic minorities are predominantly workers themselves, comprising a smaller amount of the population as well as being subjected to racial preference of whites in America. Racial relations which were developed to divide the working class are still working centuries after their violent establishment. The Seattle Indian Health Board, a health center serving the indigenous community in Washington State, asked the government for supplies to help with the inevitable influx of coronavirus patients: in return, they received body bags. Communities comprised of minorities are being targeted by police enforcement of social distancing measures far more than those with a white majority. It is clear that the thinly veiled white supremacy which operates through state channels in America and general racial injustice still remains a prevalent force and terrible tragedy during these times. All around, the working class is finding itself in desperate conditions at work and at home.
The desperate conditions of the working class, however, is not being accepted at face value as the hardships of the collective sacrifice of the American people. The national unity which the government desires in proclaiming that “we are all in this together” is nowhere in sight. Since March, the working class has been resisting attacks on them by the bourgeoisie and have insisted that human lives are more valuable than profit. To borrow a slogan raised by Italian factory workers, workers in America have insisted that they are not “lambs to the slaughter”. Autoworkers in the vehicle factories in Michigan, who just last year had been on a strike led by the United Auto Workers union, began the struggle for their safety by resisting a stay at work order which was issued by both the bosses and the UAW. Many of these workers won the right to stay at home without being fired, but production resumed on May 11th after collusion with the Democratic governor, the UAW, and the bosses. Healthcare workers have been using the little off time they have to demonstrate against the little equipment they receive, though the nature of their jobs makes striking properly for their demands next to impossible. President Trump has ordered meatpacking workers back to work in spite of the rapid spread of the coronavirus in these plants, an unpopular decision which will surely meet even more resistance, as in the past several weeks workers have walked off the job in multiple states. Amazon delivery workers have been some of the most active and vocal workers during this pandemic, with action taking off more as the weeks have gone by. Both Amazon and Whole Foods have been subjected to retaliation by their workers, whose jobs had already earned a reputation amongst the working class as having some of the worst possible conditions. Strikes against worsening conditions have gone on at various warehouse locations across the company, and workers have attempted to meet in ways which would enable discussion without putting their safety at stake, through online meetings. Walkouts have been organized both in person during work hours, and over channels of internet communication. The chatroom, the video meeting, these are becoming the means by which planning class action in a time of social distancing is carried out. Amazon has done its best to stamp out the flames of discontent within its ranks, deleting an email inviting workers to this online meeting from all of its servers and firing many of the most outspoken warehouse workers. However, this could not stop the workers from self-organizing, and a meeting which was put together by both corporate tech workers and warehouse workers proceeded with nearly 400 participants. This online format of meeting is something which will be very likely to play a larger role in the current struggles, as a physical meeting of 400 workers now would be an act of self-sabotage by all parties involved. On top of these actions, there have been calls for rent strikes across the country. With many people losing their sole and/or primary income, rather than sit by and be evicted with little resistance, tenants have organized deliberate non-payment of rent in solidarity with those who cannot afford theirs. While this is not necessarily an immediate self-organized action of workers, rent strikes have historically accompanied previous waves of class struggle. On top of that, it goes without saying that one is far more likely to be a proletarian if they are renting their living space as opposed to owning it. All of this clearly indicates that the working class is increasingly refusing to be divided by supporting this or that faction of the bourgeoisie, to be united without any class character in the “national struggle against the coronavirus”, and to lie down and allow itself to be attacked by the bourgeoisie.
Drawing conclusions from these past few months of increasing class struggle is one of the most important things which can be done in order to ensure that this mood does not sour, that the increasingly combative nature of the working class does not lose its footing and take a blow from which it cannot quickly recover. The first lesson which must be understood is that many workers may not win the demands for which they struggle. They may not be victorious in their struggle, but this is no reason to give up. When a struggle does not win any of its demands, the struggle in itself is its own victory. The fact that the workers could see that there is power in numbers, that there is a way to organize beyond the unions (the largest of which have been notably all but absent in the struggles of American workers lately) is a victory. With that being said, there should be no illusions that unions are completely out of the picture; some workers who have banded together are demanding the creation and recognition of unions for themselves, believing a semi-syndicalist type of “radical” rank-and-file union to be the organ of the current, and future, struggles. This should not be taken as a prevailing mood amongst the whole of the struggling working class in America. Those workers who are struggling against their own unions surely have no illusions about who is on whose side. However, there is a need for these semi-syndicalist notions to be dispelled; workers must recognize that there is a need to organize with a class autonomy, not to ask for a seat at the table. On top of this, there is a need for that minority of workers who have become the most radicalized, the most class conscious, to meet and prepare for future struggles by discussing their experiences and learning valuable lessons from them, as well as holding political debates which lead them to communist positions. In this respect, the online format of meeting which the Amazon workers have been demonstrating presents little to no disadvantage; workers can meet and discuss without being threatened by the danger of the ongoing pandemic as well as working around inflexible schedules to promote attendance from those who may have problems or obligations which would prevent them from being able to leave their homes. However, for larger assemblies of workers, the online format presents more problems. Its use for such large groups of participants is new, and the usage of a technology in its infancy only means there are more and more kinks to be worked out. Debate can be hard to organize on such a large scale, and many services have limits on how many users can be hosted at a time. In spite of all this, the working class is clearly still self-organizing, in an embryonic stage of class struggle which seems to have the potential to develop even further as conditions shift and change. The absence of unions and their subsequent inability to direct this struggle shows that the class struggle has the potential to break from the shackles which bind it to bourgeois subservience and that the working class has recognized that it can only organize on the basis of class and fight as a class. There is hope for the future of class struggle in the United States, and around the world. Though this struggle may develop slowly, hindered by the need to keep others at a distance, it will develop. Though the working class may face many obstacles, there are no signs of resignation in the class. Though there is no way of knowing for sure where it will lead, there is no doubt about it: “the future belongs to the class struggle”!
One can find an expression of this white supremacist ideology in the recent case of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in Georgia who was hunted down and killed by three white men in trucks while jogging through a neighborhood.