The spectacular dithering and delay of Boris Johnson’s Tory government in the face of the unfolding Coronavirus pandemic becomes starker by the day. Ten years of Tory cuts to the NHS have resulted in a chronic lack of hospital beds, a severe shortage of testing and protective kits and insufficient respirators. Next came the stunningly stupid decision not to test health workers that self-isolate with the symptoms. Now we are faced with an equally damaging act of allowing non-essential work to continue. This is a recipe for the virus to spread uncontrollably throughout the population.
Every step the government has taken has been dogged by delay and justified by the pathetic and habitual repetition of the mantra: “Taking the right decision at the right time”. Johnson will blame those who fail to socially distance but his complacency is the big problem. A complacency that can only be understood by his priority to minimise the interruption to production and profit making, that is, protecting the wealth of capitalists at the expense of working class people.
This crisis is also demonstrating the essential basis upon which our society exists: the working class and the necessity of labour. Workers and their unions must take the lead and control this lockdown. They have the power to stop non-essential work and insist on adequate protection for those workplaces required to remain open. Working class action and organisation is clearly needed right now.
Indeed it is happening now, as we can see with the walkouts of food production workers at Moy Park site in Portadown and ABP site in Lurgan on Wednesday 25 March. Two days later 60 workers from Linden Foods in Dungannon walked out. These workers have demanded commitments from the companies over social distancing and infection control measures but their proposals were dismissed. Unite regional officer Sean McKeever is right to say, “This is an entirely foreseeable outcome of both management greed and total inaction from Stormont.”
The fight against the uncontrolled transmission of the disease also means that other working sites not essential to that fight need to shut down. Many construction sites fall into this category. Unite Ireland have called on Stormont to extend protections to workers in the construction sector and for the construction employers to shut down all non-essential sites. Unite’s Michael Keenan says, “It is simply not possible to guarantee social distancing of workers on a construction site. Equipment is shared between workers meaning the risk of transmission is high.”
These walkouts need to spread and be coordinated. They should not wait until union leaders fall into line. Strike committees under the democratic control of the rank and file should be organised and should coordinate their response demanding their unions support them. Links should be made with similar workplaces throughout Ireland and in Britain, with the perspective of spreading the movement against unnecessary work and unsafe conditions.
Tempting as it might be to focus exclusively on Johnson’s failings, this is a global crisis and governments around the world are guided by the same pursuit of private profit over human need. This pandemic will ruthlessly expose the inability of capitalism to solve the crisis that it has spawned. The ensuing economic ruination will happen at a time when a world recession was imminent, as global debt continues to rise and the effects of climate change dangerously accelerate.
So it is no surprise that this global crisis is also evoking a response from the international working class. In the USA, a wave of unofficial (wildcat) strikes, sit-ins and protests are occurring throughout the country. These actions have mobilised thousands of auto (car) workers in Michigan in the Mid-West, down to agricultural labourers in Georgia, across to call centre staff in Portland and electricians in Sacramento. McDonald’s workers in both San Jose and Los Angeles walked off the job, protesting at reduced hours and the lack of gloves and soap.
Bus drivers in Detroit brought the public transport system to a halt, in protest at dirty buses and no access to sanitary equipment. So too did bus drivers in Birmingham, Alabama. Pittsburgh’s municipal workers have unofficially walked out, demanding better protective equipment and hazard pay. Here the mainly Afro American sanitation workers from Teamsters Local 249 raised the cry, “We have no masks!”
Several auto plants have been gripped by workers’ action. Workers at Fiat Chrysler’s Sterling Heights (SHAP) and Jefferson North assembly plants in the Metro District have forced a shutdown; the SHAP workers organised an occupation over concerns on the spread of coronavirus. This was followed by workers’ actions at the Dundee Engine plant in Ann Arbour and Toledo North Assembly.
Union bosses have been under huge pressure to do deals with management as these actions spiral out of their control. One auto worker put the case of the rank and file well in an interview with Labor Notes, “The UAW should be actually fighting for us to get off of work. The union and company care more about making trucks than everybody’s health. I feel like they aren’t going to do anything unless we take action. We have got to band together. They can’t fire us all.”
In the USA, France, Italy, Poland and Spain there have been protests including strikes at Amazon sites against their appalling record on gruelling labour conditions, minimal protection and risk of infection.
In Italy, where the virus has taken a terrible toll, there has been widespread strike action. Here too the demands have been to stop all non-essential production and to ensure safety and sanitation of workplaces. To list but a few: workers at the shipbuilders Fincantieri have been on strike; workers at Ilva steelworks in Puglia have declared a 10 day strike due to lack of protective equipment; workers have closed Ferrari’s site in Modena too; numerous strikes have hit metalworking companies in the province of Padua.
Confindustria, the bosses’ organisation, has exerted tremendous pressure to limit the lockdown, despite the union mobilisations. Unsurprisingly the government has complied with the bosses and a decree was passed on Sunday keeping not only essential but other “strategic” industries open: as if aerospace and defence, two of the sectors cited, were indispensable. In response a general strike was organised on 25 March with metal workers in the forefront of the action, alongside paper, textile and chemical workers.
Union leaders have negotiated a deal on the back of these strikes which involves some concessions. This may well not satisfy the anger of the rank and file. It should be up to organised rank and file workers to decide, their veto must prevail over the nature of the lockdown and over their leaders’ agreements with the government. In Italy no less than in the USA, rank and file activists need to democratically control the movement from below so it is not derailed by rotten deals between union bosses and management.
Workers around the world are beginning to fight back but the aim must be to use the struggles erupting now on non-essential work and over safety and protection to wrestle control from the government and the bosses. Elected representatives of the workforce should ensure that a workers’ veto over all elements of production, working practices and sackings be implemented.
Capitalist governments cannot be relied on to protect the working class from this pandemic. They have already failed to adequately test and enforce social distancing. They have already damaged health services through austerity and privatisation. In response we need global working class action to control the lockdown and this means democratically controlling the banks, industry, transport and public services. Alongside this is the struggle for collective ownership of industry; we should call for every company sacking or attacking workers to be nationalised under the democratic control of the workforce.
The fightback has to start now, so it can be stepped up in earnest after the lockdown, when the bosses will try to make us pay for the crisis, just as they did in the 2009 recession. Labour movement organisations should take the lead in setting up “councils of action”, composed of elected delegates from workplaces and local communities.
These committees should coordinate with local authorities and public services in drawing up Emergency People’s Budgets to reverse the effects of austerity, defend against the consequences of the recession, and establish a regional and national coordination to fight for a workers’ government that defends the interests of the working class.