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Jacobin - April 9, 2020

The scale of the global social calamity wrought by coronavirus is becoming increasingly clear. As demand for many goods and services plummets, the number of people applying for unemployment benefits has soared into the millions. Even where governments have promised to prop up wages, as in Britain, not all workers will be covered — and even many who do will face considerable delays in receiving the money. Whole industries, such as tourism, hospitality, and entertainment, face outright collapse.

This is no normal environment for workers to bargain over their terms and conditions of employment. For trade unions, at least, successful collective bargaining typically relies upon buoyant labor markets as well as employers’ financial ability to engage in compromises. But unions’ position also depends on their ability to threaten — or actually take — effective industrial action to back up their demands. This means workers disrupting their employers’ operations, whether that involves largely economic disruption, as in the case of private capital, or political disruption, when their employer is the state.

During this crisis, there are two main forms of pressure on workers not to strike. The first is economic. Not only is unemployment soaring, but the promised wage bailouts do not extend to all, and many commercial organizations’ very existence is being put into doubt. Many workers will thus be unwilling to take actions which might be seen to risk their employment. “Better to be employed, no matter what, than be put out of work” will be their motto.

The second combines social, moral, and political considerations. Mainstream politicians and other commentators are clamoring for social peace, the “national unity” that will supposedly allow an effective response to the pandemic. This means that protecting any sectional interests is frowned upon, at best, and condemned outright, at worst. This applies to workers in general, but especially to those jobs which are today deemed “essential”— from health workers to supermarket staff.

But scratch a bit beneath the surface, and all is not quite as might be assumed. For the impact of the coronavirus crisis has not been even across all society — or even among all workers.

Strikes

This is first evident in the strikes that have taken place. In recent weeks, large numbers of manufacturing workers in Italy have gone on strike to stop production, insisting that it was endangering their health. In Windsor, Canada, Chrysler workers did the same; meanwhile in the United States, Detroit bus and car workers, some shop workers in Portland and more widely as well as Memphis warehouse employees took similar action. Like their counterparts in Chicago and New York, Amazon staff at four French sites struck to protest unsafe working conditions, as did those at the country’s main aircraft manufacturer.

Call center workers in Brazil and Portugal answered their own call to do the same — as did those involved in a clutch of strikes in Spain. The stoppages have even spread to health care workers, from hospital staff in Hong Kong to doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe. In Britain, there have been some parallel actions. Starting with some postal and refuse collection workers, council and library workers walked out to ensure their safety; meat-processing workers in Northern Ireland did the same.

We could cite many more instances of combative collective resistance, in these and other countries. No doubt many more will emerge as the coronavirus crisis continues. But important though these actions are, in terms of challenging how employers handle the pandemic, these are nonetheless defensive measures, through which workers are trying to protect themselves and others from the virus. They’re not offensive strikes seeking to raise terms and conditions — rather, they’re actions to stop them from getting worse.

In fact, many strikes that had been planned before the outbreak have had to be cancelled or stood down because of the crisis conditions and the call for social peace. In Britain, the CWU postal workers’ union delayed taking action after winning a third strike ballot; the University and College Union (UCU) moreover paused its pay and conditions campaign by delaying the necessary re-balloting. Other examples include council service workers in London, Liverpool and the Scottish Borders; there were similar moves among unions in South Africa, dockers in Brazil, bank workers in India, doctors in Kenya, health workers in Germany, and bus drivers and teachers in Canada and the United States.

Added to these are cases where the collapse in demand for certain goods and services has meant that workers’ normal bargaining strength has dissipated — meaning that striking would be foolhardy at present.

Indeed, only a few groups of workers have rejected pleas for social peace and continued disputes they had been fighting already — notably hospital cleaners in Britain. There have been merely isolated instances of small groups of workers necessary for public health and hygiene seeking to take advantage of the crisis to sort out their existing poor wages and conditions. Such strikes occurred in Bulgaria, Lebanon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Palestine as well as in two cases of refuse workers in Bexley and Sandwell in Britain. ...
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