The pandemic caused by COVID-19 has accelerated the profound and layered social crises of America’s working class. The sweep of death and financial destruction reveals a map of deep inequality that is concentrated amongst workers and the poor, disproportionately affecting people of color. While the ruling class cries over lost profits, it is the working class who will pay for this crisis multiple times over: first, in hospital bills and the loss of loved ones; again, in tax-payer bailouts for Wall Street, and then, as capital attempts to restore profit at our expense over the coming months and years. As the tenuous structures that sustain life come crashing down around us, working people face existential questions: how will we survive this month, next month, next year?
Fighting for survival as a class, workers must move from adapting to crisis through the quiet reshuffling of individual lives, to a collective fight for working class power. Socialists must respond to the health emergency and ongoing economic fallout through immediate organizing that meets our community’s needs, while simultaneously putting forth transformative social demands and vision. We must demand that everything that sustains life—housing, food, clean water, and healthcare for all—be protected and decommodified. Industries should be put under democratic worker control, and particular care must be taken to meet the needs of the undocumented, the imprisoned, the elderly, and the houseless. By organizing a collective, solidaristic response to the crisis, we can rebuild our frayed social contract with one another, create new forms of working class organization, and reshape the terrain of future class struggle.
From Mutual Aid to Class Struggle
This process has already begun. Despite social distancing, working people have used online tools to develop mutual aid networks throughout their neighborhoods and cities. In the Huron Valley in Southeast Michigan, activists developed a robust mutual aid network that has distributed $8000 to those in need, growing it out of a simple Google spreadsheet. Smaller examples abound: from neighborhood email lists to take care of elderly neighbors, to self-organized Facebook groups for laid off restaurant workers as they navigate unemployment benefits (or lack thereof for undocumented workers), to group chats among tenants to organize a rent strike. One local initiative by Huron Valley DSA, called the Workers’ Circle, is a weekly Zoom call that creates space for workers to talk about problems at work and discuss ways to organize for hazard pay and protective gear. These instinctual forms of working class organization for immediate survival—proto-neighborhood and workers’ councils—can lay the basis for coordinated political action in the future.
Within the workplace, we have already seen how workers continue to fight for their lives and the lives of others. Detroit bus drivers refused to drive dirty buses and won free fare for all riders. UAW workers walked off the line to protect themselves from COVID-19, while GE workers demanded to make ventilators. Amazon workers stopped the line to win paid time off. NYC teachers threatened a sickout to force Mayor Bill DeBlasio to close the schools. Nurses continue to fight for PPE, safe staffing levels, and Medicare For All. At Sinai-Grace hospital in Detroit, nurses led a four-hour-long sit-in to demand higher staffing levels. The list could go on.
Organized labor has a key role to play in organizing for transformational change. We are inspired by the Chicago Teachers’ Union coalitional response to COVID-19, which calls on Chicago to protect the working class through a host of social programs that include debt forgiveness, expanded sick pay, meal delivery, and more. As Clio Chang writes, “Right now, unions are showing themselves to be useful beyond the members who they directly represent, whether it comes to informing the public, pushing for safety protocols that would slow the spread of the disease, or advocating for worker-centered relief packages.” Developing cross-labor coalitions can help coordinate our fight and lay the basis for resisting future sacrifice as the recession deepens.
As socialists working within several organizations based in Southeast Michigan, in mid-March, we helped launch the Huron Valley Labor & Community COVID-19 Coalition: an umbrella coalition of over twenty labor and community organizations bringing together those involved in tenants’ organizing, mutual aid efforts, prison abolition, labor unions, and immigrant workers’ associations. We see our task as amplifying the voices and experiences of workers fighting back, coordinating between different groups, and building a united front for community survival.
Our labor and community coalition operates on two fronts, beginning with a targeted campaign at the University of Michigan. Despite being the largest employer and landowner in the region, the University pays no property tax on its land and facilities, and outsources student housing to the private market, leading to under-funded municipalities marked by unaffordability and racial segregation. The University has plenty of resources, stemming from its $12.4 billion endowment, to contain the spread of the virus and protect the community. Yet, it continues to prioritize profits over safety, refusing to guarantee N95 masks to nurses or to preemptively test workers for the virus. In a recent shift, President Mark Schlissel announced a host of austerity measures, including a hiring and salary freeze and ‘voluntary’ furloughs for non-union staff. Predictably, Schissel spoke of “shared sacrifice” and offered to take a 10% pay cut out of his $900,000 base salary.
Labor must resist both the University’s failure to protect frontline workers and the implementation of austerity measures that increase precarity exactly when workers need greater financial relief. We submitted a resolution through the All-Campus Labor Council, which represents the unions on campus (including nurses, hospital workers, graduate student workers, non-tenured instructors, and building trades’ unions). In our resolution, we call for free testing and COVID-19-related healthcare for all who need it, unlimited sick days for those who test positive or to care for someone who tests positive, adequate PPE for frontline workers, handwashing stations for building trade workers, expanded food pantry operations, and refunds for students.
We also included larger community demands, such as prohibiting ICE and the police from hospital grounds, and enacting a moratorium on medical debt. While not all unions have signed on yet, the initiative demonstrates how labor could exert pressure toward transformative change. On a practical level, these demands have lent themselves to better coordination among University of Michigan workers, from graduate student workers fighting for a living wage in recent contract negotiations, to Michigan Medicine nurses demanding PPE. Given that the University of Michigan’s austerity measures specifically target non-union labor on campus, it is more important than ever that labor align itself with demands that extend past its membership.
On a broader level, members of these unions worked with members of community organizations to develop a “longlist” of demands that pair with the All-Campus Labor Council demands, to address the needs of the entire community, including vulnerable populations such as undocumented immigrants, the houseless, and the incarcerated. We call these “survival demands”: healthcare for all, including free testing and treatment for all COVID-19 patients; housing for all, including rent and mortgage forgiveness, free utilities, and housing for unhoused folks; as well as financial and material security in the form of income for all, mental health support, childcare, and delivered meals. Finally, we demand a robust public education campaign to counter racist myths about COVID-19 and inform the community of available resources. To fund these programs, we call for a tax on the top 1% of Michiganders and for the University of Michigan to direct all resources to alleviate the crisis.
Since the endorsement process is significantly more lengthy and involved for labor unions, this dual-faceted approach allowed us to devote the interim time period towards growing and structuring the community side. We did not go into the coalition with preconceived ideas of how it would function or how we could use it to achieve our demands. But at our first meeting, the free-flowing conversation between union members and community organizers quickly generated a three-pronged strategy for focusing on areas where the coalition could make a genuine contribution.
First, we have developed methods of strategy coordination to facilitate regular communication across the coalition in order to map out overlapping priorities, common targets, and areas of shared strength and momentum. We initiated a directory of contact information, a spreadsheet for quickly identifying other groups working on the same demands, and weekly meetings to report updates and make concrete asks of each other.
Second, we are using our labor organizing experience to support base-building and relational work across the entire coalition. We are creating resources and trainings on one-on-one conversations. These conversations combine the task of checking in around immediate needs to be addressed through mutual aid, with the task of organizing new people into the collective work of making political demands that address the systemic causes behind unmet needs. Given the scale of the crisis, we need to rapidly ramp up capacity by identifying organic leaders and training the next layer of people around them. Housing is an example where the need for organization far outstrips capacity. Given that 31% of renters in the United States could not pay rent on April 1, we anticipate an even greater need for tenants’ organizing in preparation for a rent strike or occupation on May 1, with the long-term aim of building tenants’ unions (and decommodifying housing!).
Finally, we are engaged in immediate mobilization through sharing information and publicizing the work of our respective organizations on our website and email lists. We are also producing a series of virtual Town Hall events, in which we will feature panels of local speakers sharing their distinctive experiences of survival and struggle against COVID-19, such as the voices of imprisoned people, nurses, teachers, supermarket employees, and mutual aid activists. Our aim is to connect the dots between individual experience and systemic cause, reaching a broad population of people being newly radicalized in this moment. We want these online events to break down feelings of isolation and helplessness, and encourage the unorganized to join us in taking action.
Throughout all this work, the porous relationship between labor and community has enabled two-way cross-fertilization on both fronts of the work. Many of our members belong simultaneously to labor unions and community organizations. And while union members have offered to train members of community and tenants’ organizations in traditional labor techniques, community organizers have provided arguments and resources to inform the “bargaining for the common good” demands being advanced by the unions. While much of this work is still nascent and evolving, we hope to emerge from the pandemic having forged the foundations of long-term collaborative relationships.
The networks and organizations we build today will help us resist the ruling class’s attempts to restart the economy and sacrifice hundreds of thousands of working people for their profit, as well as defend ourselves against austerity-imposed social spending cuts and workplace concessions that will mark the coming years. Our networks and organizations will also be necessary to defend ourselves against fascist “accelerationists” and biological racists who will seize on the crisis to grow their ranks, recruiting disaffected and unemployed workers, landlords, small business owners, and the self-employed.
At the federal level, the government continues its war on those in and from the Global South by nurturing national chauvinism and anti-Asian racism, sentencing detained immigrants to death in filthy camps, and seizing medical supplies bound for other countries. Therefore, working class solidarity, internationalism, and anti-racism must be at the center of our work, extending solidarity across borders.