Food bank lines over a mile long. Forty-one percent of families with children under the age of 12 struggling to buy enough food. Over 20 million jobs lost in April alone. Total unemployment is now approaching 40 million or 25% of the workforce, the same level reached in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. 30% of apartment dwellers are unable to pay their rent fully. At this rate is estimated that up to 35 million people will lose their employer-based health insurance plans. Up to 40% of small businesses closing their doors permanently. These are not the figures of a developing economy; this is the most powerful capitalist country in the world. And if the billionaire class and the politicians that serve them remain in the driver’s seat, this situation could get worse.
While we face uncertainty, social isolation, and decreased living standards, many of the billionaires are capitalizing off of this crisis. According to Business Insider, America’s billionaires increased their wealth by over $282 billion in just 23 days during the height of the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, the tax-dodging richest man in the world, will likely become the world’s first trillionaire this year. They’ve profited from our misery, and the billionaire class are the ultimate hoarders, not your neighbors with lots of toilet paper. These heartless profiteers have stolen our wealth, and we need to get organized to take it back.
The economy will be reopening in phases throughout most of the country in the coming weeks, but we’ll be returning to a much different situation than the one we left behind roughly two months ago. If Trump, the billionaires, and many Democratic state governors get their way, then we will be returning to work without the proper protections in place, setting the stage for a new wave of infections, overwhelmed hospitals, and death. Instead, we need workers’ control over reopening the economy with workplace safety committees meeting at lunch and during breaks (without management present) to formulate demands. In addition, we need wide-scale testing and tracking to prevent further spread of the virus and an extension of unemployment benefits (including the extra $600 a week) for as long as the crisis continues.
Already within the conditions of “shelter in place,” there was an increase in courageous struggle by “essential” workers. Health care, grocery, and retail workers carried out social distancing protests demanding safety for themselves, their patients, and their customers. Amazon warehouse, Instacart, and meat factory workers walked off the job to prevent the spread of infection, often without union protection. Many of these heroic workers were victimized by their bosses with firings and other retaliation, leading to even more dangerous working conditions. Renters are getting organized across the country to cancel rent while landlords threaten record numbers of evictions, often illegally.
While supporting the spread of these heroic struggles, we also need a sense of proportion about what they represent. The vast majority of people not paying rent are doing so because they can’t afford to, not because they’re organized into a cohesive movement or organization. To effectively resist evictions, we’ll need to change that. Also, many of the strikes in non-union workplaces were carried out by small groups of workers, not the majority of wage-earners. Some of the strikes relied too heavily on an orientation toward the mass media rather than organizing on the shop floor. There were exceptions to this at some Amazon warehouses, but we will need to be better organized to effectively resist the bosses’ safety violations and exploitation.
The existing unions should be using this opportunity to launch massive organizing drives at workplaces across the country. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, this has not been happening. We should face up squarely to the reality that given the scale of the economic crisis, a large part of the jobs being lost are not coming back once the economy reopens, including in aviation, steel, and small businesses. Some of these jobs may never come back. In fact, the billionaire class wants to leave more of us without jobs if they get their way.
Budget Cuts and Privatization
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” -Rahm Emmanuel, former Democratic Mayor of Chicago and Chief of Staff in the Obama administration.
As Naomi Klein correctly argued in her book Disaster Capitalism the ruling class and their political servants use tragedy as an opening to cut budgets, privatize services, and generally increase exploitation and profits. This happened following the hurricanes in New Orleans and Puerto Rico, and the economic crisis of 2008 led to worsening levels of inequality. In the current pandemic and economic collapse, the ruling class will aim to bust unions, destroy small businesses, privatize education, and cut vital services that are needed now more than ever.
Millions of working people don’t want a return to a “normal;” support for Medicare for All legislation has gone up dramatically in recent months. Grocery workers, often paid less than a living wage, are seen as heroes by millions. Health care workers, often organized into fighting unions like National Nurses United (NNU), are revered almost universally. Anger at the super-wealthy has increased, and more people are joining socialist organizations, particularly the Democratic Socialists of America and also Socialist Alternative. More people see themselves as dependent on a wider community of working-class people and realize that the billionaire class is not “essential.” When the ruling class tries to make working people pay for this crisis, they could be met with sharp and determined resistance.
Teachers unions have been at the forefront of a new wave of strikes and labor organizing in recent years, particularly but not exclusively in Republican-dominated states. Now, New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo aims to restructure education, working hand-in-hand with the union-busting billionaire Bill Gates. Cuomo will not be alone. State and federal debt will be used to justify huge cuts to not only education but also our vital public hospitals and other necessary services. In this situation, our best defense is a good offense. We should demand, as Socialist Alternative is doing in Seattle, that the big corporations like Amazon be taxed to pay for education, housing, and a jobs program. Teachers’ unions should demand no cuts to education as well as smaller class sizes and more support staff in order to carry out social distancing when a return to schools is safe and necessary.
At the federal level, attacks on the U.S. postal service are ramping up. While billionaires and corporations are being bailed out, the Trump administration said it will not be increasing funding to a postal service in danger of running out of money this fall. This could lead to union-busting, cuts, and privatization which would pave the way for non-union behemoths like Amazon and FedEx to increase their share of control over logistics. So far, these threats have not been met with enough fight back with many unions begging politicians to step in and act rather than organizing resistance. However, there are the rumblings of resistance with the American Postal Workers Union organizing some social distance protests in various cities. This should be seen as an organizing step toward a threat of determined strike action to beat back attacks on our postal service.
Trump’s newest proposed budget includes drastic attacks on Medicaid and food stamps, which would not only cut economic lifelines for working families but also likely lead to increased spread of virus infections and death. Health care workers are on the frontline of both this crisis and can be at the forefront of a determined fightback. Their biggest union, National Nurses United, has a fighting approach that puts forward demands that would benefit all working people. With increased support for Medicare for All, a mass campaign for guaranteed free health coverage could beat back Trump’s agenda.
Biden has said he would veto Medicare for All legislation! This shows that we can’t depend on corporate-controlled Democrats to fight for us, and that unions are strongest when they fight in the interests of all working people and the poor rather than having a narrow focus on snuggling up to the bosses. RoseAnn DeMoro, former executive director of the NNU, has herself drawn this conclusion about the Democratic Party with a recent tweet saying “Fundamentally, we need a progressive third party. I am willing to spend the rest of my life working for that.”
Unemployment and Lessons from History
Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, pointed out that the capitalists try to use unemployment to drive down wages. The ruling class doesn’t like full employment because then workers are in a stronger position to demand higher wages, better benefits, and increased safety. The threat of losing our jobs is used against us to try to get us to accept less. Mass unemployment, on a scale even higher than 2008-9, is likely to be the reality for years to come.
Socialists and union activists have confronted this situation before. In the Great Depression, “Unemployed Leagues” were set up throughout the country by socialists and communists. They successfully organized against evictions, for rent control and for direct payments (“relief”) to the unemployed with direct actions and mass protests. Then, when strikes broke out in the mid-1930s, the capitalists wanted to use the unemployed as strikebreakers to weaken the strikes, but the Unemployed Leagues were linked up with the workers movement and supported unions.
The left and unions should actively organize around demands that address the needs of the poor and unemployed. For instance, organizing renters to collectively take action and make demands on their landlords and the state is important ongoing work that can bring people together. Unions should support the call to cancel rent that was popularized by the “Rent Strike 2020” petition with millions of signatures. Unions should also demand taxes on big business to fund necessary services and extend unemployment benefits, building new organizations of the unemployed in the process.
The bosses will not only seek to cynically use the destitution of the unemployed to undermine workers’ struggles, they also try to make us think that our problems can be solved by “individual” solutions. They want us to think that losing our safety, health care, housing, or jobs is a “personal” or “family” problem that we can solve on our own through individual initiative or appeals to the good will of the billionaires. Due to decades of propaganda against collective action and getting organized, this can have some impact as millions are stunned by the drastic effects of the economic crisis. In the Great Depression, strike figures were at all-time lows before the mass struggles of the mid-1930s. After the last economic crisis in 2008, there were no mass organized left demonstrations against the bank bailouts, and the right-wing Tea Party seized the initiative, blaming public sector workers for the crisis before the Occupy movement developed in 2011.
Stunning Effect of the Downturn
While it could take time for people to face up to the need for collective action, these lessons from history do not mean that a “stunning effect” will last indefinitely or that things will play out in the same way as in the past. This crisis has been triggered by a pandemic, and heavily unionized health care workers have tremendous authority in society; they could provide important leadership in the fight against coming austerity.
Also, in this crisis the young generation has already experienced deep inequality and economic devastation, rather than the illusions in capitalism that came with the “roaring ‘20s” or the “dot com boom” of the 1990s. Last year, 2019, was also a historic marker of a worldwide revolt against the injustices of capitalism and oppression with tens of millions taking decisive, bold action across the world. In the U.S., there was a small but important strike wave in 2017-2018, and millions of people radicalized through the Bernie Sanders campaigns. Black Lives Matter burst onto the scene in 2014 and has continued, though more in the form of one-off demonstrations in reaction to police killings of black people. The struggle against racism and the anti-immigrant far right will undoubtedly continue in the next period and should be championed by socialists and the workers movement. The socialist left has grown in recent years, and exemplary victorious struggles led by a conscious left often give people confidence and pave the way for millions to get organized and fight back.
Role of the Left
Even with small forces, the organized left can play an important role in struggles, and clear leadership is needed now more than ever in looming battles against the billionaires. In this context, it is completely wrong for Bernie and AOC to lead up “unity task forces” with Biden and his billionaire backers. We shouldn’t be giving the Democratic Party leadership left cover, but instead preparing for battles against them over education privatization, hospital closures, and other issues. The left should put forward a clear program to benefit working people and map out the struggles necessary to win our demands.
DSA is correctly not endorsing Biden, which should be welcomed. They could build upon this by popularizing the need to organize the unemployed, resist the coming wave of evictions, and calling on union leaders to prepare for the looming battles against austerity we’ll face. For example, in New York brazen attempts are being made to cut spending on hospitals. Two of the hospitals facing cuts are in one of areas hardest hit by the coronavirus in the country, a district in Brooklyn represented in the State Senate by DSA member Julia Salazar. She could give an important lead by linking up with the New York State Nurses Association and launching a no-cuts campaign. These struggles could pave the way for what’s desperately needed: a mass working-class party in this country that stops at nothing to break the power of the billionaires once and for all. DSA could play a part in this process by running viable socialist candidates independent of the Democratic Party, basing themselves on a class struggle approach like Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant in Seattle.
In the labor upsurge of the mid-1930s, three bold strikes in 1934 paved the way for the mass unionization that followed. They were led by the left, armed with an analysis of capitalism and a class struggle approach. The Minneapolis Teamsters strikes that year, chronicled in the book Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs, were an absolute model for all union struggles and the role that socialists can play within them.
With our small forces, Socailist Alternative is continuing in this tradition with our efforts in Seattle to Tax Amazon (page 10), Rent Strike 2020, and our Workers Speak Out initiative which brings together frontline workers across industries to share experiences, discuss strategy, and plan actions. In these efforts, we work alongside many activists outside Socialist Alternative, often people moving into action for the first time. It will take a united working-class movement to address the dual horrors of this pandemic and economic crisis.
Society needs to be re-organized to meet our needs. We need mass testing and production of personal protective equipment. This task can’t be left to the billionaire hoarders who want us to die for their profits. Instead, we need a democratically planned economy with the top 500 corporations taken under workers control to ensure the safety and livelihoods of all. Only this, a socialist society, can lay the basis for a sustainable economy that provides green jobs, guarantees health care, builds quality social housing, and puts the majority of the world’s people – the billions of people, not billionaire hoarders – in control of our own destiny.