For decades the billionaire class has relentlessly sought to drive down the wages of workers, destroy their health benefits and rip up job protections including basic safety. Now that we are neck deep in a global crisis and the bosses have been forced to admit that not only nurses and EMT personnel but grocery workers, truckers, poultry plant workers, warehouse workers and even agricultural workers are in fact “essential.”

However, despite this promotion-in-name-only, most essential workers are being asked to put their lives on the line with close to zero safety equipment, meager – if any – increases in pay, and still completely inadequate health care and sick days.

In reaction, frontline workers are beginning to fight back in force. From Instacart shoppers to Pittsburgh sanitation workers and Amazon warehouse workers to nurses, ordinary people are taking action to demand safety on the job.

Explaining her decision to organize her coworkers, Vanessa Bain – a lead organizer of the rebellion at Instacart – said to us: “We felt there was no other choice left before we have to start crowdfunding funerals of our coworkers but to walk off.”

Essential workers across industries are making a similar set of demands: adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), enforced safety measures, paid sick leave, and hazard pay. They are asking that their infected coworkers are not forced to come into work out of fear of a missed paycheck. That they are not forced to work without masks, gloves, or basic sanitizers and risk infecting their loved ones when they go home at night.

It is not enough to be thanked and applauded, frontline workers are demanding their bosses take concrete steps to address this crisis.

A Kroger employee in Ohio and member of Socialist Alternative wrote: “Today, my store manager made an announcement over the PA system asking customers to thank us workers, and asking me and my coworkers to thank each other. Meanwhile, cashiers do not have sneeze guards, or any sort of protection aside from gloves. We need more PPE supplies, we need mandatory enforced distancing, stricter cleaning protocols, and a limit to the number of customers in the store!”

Where We’ve Won

Workers have organized a number of walkouts, protests, and strikes over the past month to win the demands outlined above. In some important cases, they’ve been able to win!

In Detroit, bus drivers organized a wildcat strike and within 24 hours were able to win all of their demands! Bus drivers often rely on nearby restaurants to go to the bathroom and wash up during breaks. With all restaurants and bars closed in Detroit, one of their demands was for portable restrooms with hand sanitizer to be set up around the city. They were able to win both the hiring of more cleaning staff and a very thorough cleaning protocol which includes the use of a new rag for each bus, gloves, disinfectant wipes, and masks (“upon request”) for every driver. They also won a fare cancellation for the duration of this pandemic!

In Colorado Springs, workers at a local Joann Fabric organized a one day protest in order to demand the closure of their store to customers. Rather than a slowdown in traffic at the store, Jessica DeFronzo – a lead organizer of the protest – reported “back to back Black Friday levels of customers.” The workers picketed outside their store, urging customers to call corporate in support of their demands, and within a day they got word that the store would close to customers and remain open only for curbside pickup.

Health Care Workers Fight Back

Nurses and other health care workers are being asked to carry out superhuman tasks to slow the spread of this virus. They are working in overcrowded, under-resourced hospitals with a deadly shortage of PPE. To bring attention to this horrifying fact, nurses in a number of hospitals across the country, such as Kaiser in San Francisco and Jacobi Medical Center in New York, have gathered outside the hospitals and staged “social-distance-protests.”

While there’s a lack of data, it is undeniable that there is a high rate of infection to COVID-19 among health care workers. This is by no means a surprise as they are working in extremely close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients and are – in some cases – wearing only garbage bags and constantly reused masks to protect themselves. This crisis is only going to intensify as more and more states near their peak and hospitals across the country reach capacity and beyond. Nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers will be put under more and more pressure and will be forced to resist.

Challenges We Face

While the mounting fightback of frontline workers is nothing short of heroic, it is not without its challenges.

Many of the workplaces that have been first to take action have been non-union. This has meant that lead organizers are starting from near-scratch in building up an organized base to take action. For example at Instacart, the core organizing for their strike was done through a Facebook group of 15,000 workers. While it is incredible that they were able to build that network from nothing over the course of years – it remains a workforce of 175,000 workers at the company. Carrying out a strike of already atomized workers in the gig economy without a union is a behemoth task. Without real, on-the-job organization that can build toward united action of the workforce, it is very difficult to force the hand of the bosses. But as with the teachers revolt such online efforts can be the first stage for building a powerful union.

Another challenge facing workers is that in the era of social-distancing, traditional shop-floor organizing has been made more difficult. There is increased isolation on the job and many workplaces are being run with a reduced workforce. This is by no means insurmountable. In forthcoming material we will detail organizing strategies for workers in this particularly unique situation.

Who Is Really Essential?

This crisis has made it abundantly clear who is truly “essential” in our society. It is not the billionaire bosses who are hiding out in their mansions. It is the millions of workers on the front lines who are keeping the gears of society turning. 

As Derrick Palmer, an associate at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse said to us, “Jeff Bezos is sitting in his billion dollar mansion or whatever, and he’s looking at us like we’re nothing, but at the end of the day he wouldn’t be in that mansion if it wasn’t for us. He’s piggybacking off of us.”

Essential workers have kept the grocery stores stocked, have kept the hospitals running, have delivered needed supplies. We are the force that keeps society running. We need to do away with the deadly system of capitalism and fight for a society where the priorities are set democratically by working-class people ourselves.

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