We’re witnessing a completely unjust and inadequate response from corporate and government power to one of the most dangerous pandemics in a century. Given the undemocratic nature of political and economic systems in the United States, it can seem daunting or impossible to even protest these leadership decisions. Thankfully, we can look to a rich history of labor organization and see that, united as workers, we are immensely powerful and able to demand our own rights.
What exactly is the problem, though? We’ve known about the possibility of a virus as or more dangerous than COVID-19 for nearly a century since the Spanish Influenza, and in spite of this the wealthiest nation in human history remains woefully unprepared to experience a pandemic.
In the United States, most working people live paycheck to paycheck and may not be able to afford to take the necessary steps recommended by the CDC and World Health Organization to stop the spread of the virus, such as self-quarantining and social distancing. Particularly within service and retail industries, many workers in the U.S. don’t have jobs that can be remotely performed, and as a result, quarantine and social distancing mean missing paychecks essential for survival.
The U.S. also lacks a system of universal paid leave, leaving millions of workers with no sick leave at all. In addition to being unable to miss work to socially distance, most workers cannot miss shifts if they themselves become symptomatic or even infected, greatly increasing transmission rates.
On top of sick leave, millions of workers lack health insurance of any kind. Twenty-seven million non-elderly Americans lack health insurance, and the remainder of Americans have some health insurance which is contingent on their employment, which means showing up to work instead of social distancing and self-quarantine. Millions will forego testing and treatment of the virus because they lack stable insurance or because even with health insurance, treatment can be so expensive as to lead to bankruptcy.
Despite minor precautionary measures, most of these systemic ills remain unchanged during the response to COVID-19. These flaws are part of a larger story in this country where our lives are a secondary consideration to profits. The status quo is currently considering how long to even continue the inadequate efforts to slow the spread of the virus, weighing the priorities of saving lives and saving the economy. In this situation, the word “economy” conveniently only includes the performance of stocks and assets overwhelmingly owned by the wealthy, while excluding the health and wellbeing of all American workers.
In spite of these dangers, we shouldn’t panic. Corporations, state governments and federal governments have the power and capability to implement sweeping changes. Trillions of dollars have been allocated in recent weeks by the Federal Reserve in order to slow the historic stock crash. The Senate just passed a four-and-a-half-trillion-dollar bailout for large corporations without restriction with little previsions to help struggling workers in this time. With appropriate political will, these funds could instead be put toward keeping workers home and safe, investing in testing equipment and distributing medical supplies, massively slowing the spread of the virus.
Most importantly, we should not fear because we are beginning to witness working people’s response to this virus and the inhumanity of the status quo. Many are organizing rent strikes over social media, refusing to pay predatory dues during this crisis. While politicians and bosses alike argue for a return to work to stabilize profits, workers globally through social media are calling for a general strike until a humane response to the virus is fielded.
Specifically, American workers are beginning to act. Fifty workers walked off of a Perdue Chicken plant monday over protests about insufficient health safety equipment, shutting down operations. In Queens, workers shut down an Amazon fulfillment center after someone there tested positive. Bus drivers in Birmingham, Alabama struck over concerns of transmission and social distancing. Workers at a Fiat-Chrysler plant in Sterling Falls, Michigan walked off the job site after a positive test, forcing leadership into negotiations. A viral tweet even claims that a California Domino’s was entirely shut down by workers concerned about the virus, although the chain has yet to comment.
— King Mob (@MajesticKingMob) March 25, 2020
These may seem like isolated incidents, but the reality is clear: workers nationally are realizing their capability to act to secure safe working conditions and prevent the spread of this deadly virus. If even a small fraction of American workers participate, express solidarity and organize mutual aid for those displaced as a result of these strikes, they could grow into a strong general strike which could bring the economy to its knees until a humane response is put forward.
We must remember during these uncertain, scary times that we as workers have the power to organize and change our material conditions in ways we cannot rely upon our bosses and politicians to do. We are responsible for the creation of everything valuable in society. Collectively, we can go head-to-head with the powerful in this country suggesting that millions be killed for profits. Through a general strike with broad support, American workers have the power to demand a response to COVID-19 which will not only save our lives but could actually engender positive social change.
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Harrison Raskin is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.