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COVID-19, Economic Depression, and the Black Lives Matter Protests

Will the Triple Crisis Bring a Working-Class Revolt in the United States?

Demonstrators gesture as they attend a protest against police brutality and the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Frankfurt, Germany, June 6, 2020

Demonstrators gesture as they attend a protest against police brutality and the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Frankfurt, Germany, June 6, 2020. Photo credit: "Protests spread across Germany over George Floyd killing in U.S.," Xinhua, June 7, 2020.

Michael D. Yates is Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. He is the author of Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press, 2018).

He wishes to thank John Bellamy Foster, John Mage, Rick Sklader, and Camila Valle for helpful comments and editing.

Upsurge?

In 2018 and 2019, leftist writers, organizers, and pundits were exclaiming that U.S. workers were on the move, striking even in the “red” states that had voted for Donald Trump. Claims were made that the presidential campaigns for Bernie Sanders and the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) were largely responsible for this rise in militancy by long-suffering laborers, who had seen their economic circumstances deteriorate for decades. Left-wing journalists interviewed striking teachers and automobile workers, reporting on a new mood of combativeness. After years of slumber, perhaps the working class was awakening.1

Besides the anecdotal evidence, the optimists pointed to an increase in major strikes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines a major strike as one involving at least one thousand workers. In 2017, there were only seven of these, the second-lowest number since records were first kept in 1947.2 However, in 2018, there were twenty, with a hefty 2,815,400 lost person-days of labor resulting. There were major strikes by public school teachers, health care providers, and social assistance workers, such as those providing child care and home health aid. Teachers struck in states where there was no enabling collective bargaining legislation, such that employers are legally compelled to bargain in good faith over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. In addition, many of the strikers were not union members. More remarkable was that these were statewide strikes in unexpected places: Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. State-mandated improvements in wages and conditions were won by these walkouts.

The trend in labor strife continued in 2019, with twenty-five major stoppages and 3,224,300 lost person-days of work. Two strikes stood out: one by Chicago public school teachers and support staff, and another by auto workers at General Motors. In the first, 25,000 teachers and 7,500 support staff, represented by the Chicago Teachers Union and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), respectively, walked off the job on October 17 and stayed out for fourteen days. They won better wages, benefits, and conditions, and the Chicago Teachers Union laid groundwork for future community outreach programs such as living quarters for homeless students. The second strike involved 49,000 General Motors employees and lasted nearly six weeks. The resulting contract provided wage increases, promises by the company to invest more capital in the United States, and a partial abatement of the many-tiered wage structure in which workers with similar experience earn vastly different wages and benefits.

What about 2020? We do not know if this trend would have continued to pick up steam had the nation not been struck by a global pandemic. To date (late July 2020), about 150,000 people have died in the United States and the economy has experienced a never-before seen collapse of employment and production. Some fifty million previously employed persons filed for unemployment compensation over a three-month period.3 Given how restrictive the compensation system has become, with smaller and smaller fractions of the unemployed able to qualify for the benefits, the true amount of labor market insecurity is greater than even these incredible numbers suggest. In April, the official BLS unemployment rate was 14.7 percent, but due to an error in classification, 7.5 million were not counted as unemployed.4 Had they been counted, the rate would have been 19.3 percent. And if we include those involuntarily working part time and those who have simply stopped looking for work, the extent of labor market insecurity is more than 25 percent. The rate fell slightly in May and June 2020, but the real amount of labor market insecurity was still over 20 percent.

Yet, even if tens of millions are unemployed, the U.S. labor force contains nearly 160 million people. Over the three months of April, May, and June 2020, more than 130 million were working each month. It is not easy for the unemployed to organize, although they have participated in rent strikes, fought to secure public funds, and taken to the streets against police violence. But what about the still laboring? Those working have been facing not only long hours and, for the most part, inadequate pay, but also dire health risks. Whether in health care, farm fields and labor camps, food delivery, grocery stores, food banks, Fed Ex and UPS trucks, post offices and postal delivery vehicles, buses, subways, trains, airplanes, boats, warehouses, or construction sites, those who labor risk their lives to work, with many becoming sick and dying.5

It should be stressed that with respect to unemployment, employment, and the pandemic proper, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and women have suffered disproportionately. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have died from COVID-19 at much higher rates than whites. More than 40 percent of frontline workers are BIPOC. As in every month, the unemployment rates for Black and Latinx workers have been higher than for whites during the months of the pandemic. Some have called the economic depression a “shecession” because women have been its main victims.6

Despite, or maybe because of, what they are facing, workers have protested and struck. There have been strikes and threatened strikes at Amazon warehouses, a Barnes and Noble warehouse, Whole Foods, automobile plants, food delivery services like Instacart, transit companies, restaurants, sanitation companies, farms, and food processing plants. The website Payday Report tracked more than eight hundred wildcat strikes between March and early July. The strikes have varied in size, demands, and duration—though most have been short. Apple shed laborers, who sort and pack fruit in Washington’s Yakima Valley, struck in early and mid–May to compel their employer to provide them with safe working conditions and $2 an hour extra in hazard pay.7 Strikes have also taken place at meatpacking plants across the country. Sanitation workers in southern Louisiana, who pick up trash in New Orleans, walked out in early May, demanding a living wage of $25 an hour, hazard pay, and protective equipment.8 Similarly courageous demands were made by striking workers in Pittsburgh in mid–March. The Guardian reports that “fast-food workers with the Fight for $15 and a union campaign have organized one-day strikes and protests in California, Illinois, Florida, Missouri and Tennessee through the pandemic.” Clothing plant workers making protective face masks in Selma, Alabama, struck on April 23 after two coworkers tested positive for COVID-19.9

Besides strikes, there have also been pressure campaigns, ongoing public efforts, and pickets mounted by diverse groups of workers. The Chicago Teachers Union and a teachers’ union caucus in New York City—the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators—pressured mayors to close schools, ultimately helping force public officials to act after delays that ultimately led to sickness and death. Pickets have been held by nurses and their unions, as well as sanitation and transportation employees, to demand social distancing measures and provision of personal protective equipment; medical workers have gone public, risking employer censure, noting the many health hazards they face that management has not adequately addressed. On May Day 2020, graduate student workers across the country launched a campaign to pressure universities to protect them during the pandemic by providing them with better pay, rent subsidies, a free year of tuition, and some guarantee of future employment.10 Truck drivers in several states have organized convoys protesting sharp drops in mileage rates.11

Where a good local union exists, employers can be forced to protect workers, as has sometimes happened during the COVID-19 crisis. Two food processing plants located close to one another illustrate this in the state of Washington. One, a French fry potato processor in Wasco, Washington, is a Teamsters plant.

Even before any workers at the union-represented Lamb Weston french fry plant in Pasco, Wash., were diagnosed with COVID-19, the Teamsters union representing more than 550 workers at the plant insisted that management take steps to protect workers from the deadly virus. When a worker at the plant was eventually diagnosed with COVID-19 in late March, the plant was immediately closed and the workers were sent home—with pay—for two weeks as the plant was disinfected. After that, additional measures were taken by management and the union to protect workers.

The nonunion plant fifteen miles away, a Tyson beef-processing facility, could not have been more different.

The Tyson plant has become Washington state’s biggest hotspot for the COVID-19 outbreak. The Tri-City Herald reported Wednesday that there are 101 confirmed cases linked to the plant. Tragically, one of the infected employees, 60-year-old J. Guadalupe Olivera Mendoza, has died. But as of this writing, unlike other meat processing plants that have been shut down across the country, the Tyson plant in Wallula remains open for business and reportedly continues to operate near full capacity.12

Three members of the Electrical Workers union, one of the few radical labor organizations in the United States, speak to the need to educate and help workers during this unprecedented crisis:

Our union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), has called on all workers, both our members and nonunion workers, to stand up and fight. We have created online resources to help nonunion workers take action to win safe workplaces. We have published a special issue of UE Steward on how to organize members around COVID-19 issues in the workplace. Alongside the Democratic Socialists of America we are launching a joint effort called the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which will provide organizing and logistical support to workers who are ready to take on their boss. Our members, both in organized shops and in workplaces where we have organizing campaigns, are winning concessions from their employers through militant and creative tactics.13

There Is a Long Way to Go

While the above offers us considerable hope about the U.S. labor movement, it must be understood that the wave of strikes and other labor actions represent progress only because they arose from a very low base. According to the BLS, union density (the percentage of wage and salary workers in labor unions) in the United States in 2019 was 10.3 percent, or about 14.6 million workers. In 2018, the BLS estimated that union density was 10.5 percent, with about the same number of workers. Note that in 2017, the year before the much-vaunted rise in labor militancy, it was slightly higher than in either succeeding year.

The methodology now used by the BLS allows comparisons back to 1983. In that year, union density was 20.1 percent, with three million more members than today. Though density estimates before this are not directly comparable, the consensus estimate for 1955, the year the AFL and CIO merged, was over 30 percent.

If we look at the breakdown in densities by private versus public sector workers, we see that density in the private sector in 2019 was 6.2 percent, lower than the 6.4 percent for 2018. Both numbers are almost certainly less than a comparable number one hundred years ago. Given that, in 1955, almost all union members were in the private sector, these numbers represent a decline in density of about 36 percentage points, which translates into a decline of 79 percent! What has prevented union density from falling still more steeply has been the relatively high fraction of union members in city, state, and federal government employment, which was 33 percent in 2019, a bit lower than it was in 2018, when it was 33.9 percent.

The union density figures would seem to indicate a weak labor movement, especially in private employment. However, this is not necessarily the case. In France, a small percentage of the workforce is unionized, and yet French workers historically have been militant, willing to engage in mass strikes and protests whenever their interests have been threatened by employers and/or government. The Yellow Vests movement in France, which has been ongoing now for over a year, gives another example, one not even directly connected to the labor movement. However, nothing like this can be said of the United States, at least not yet.

We have already looked at major strikes for 2017, 2018, and 2019. If we take a long-term view, what happened in 2018 and 2019, while heartening, pales in comparison to what has taken place in the past. For example, between 1990 and 2001, the average number of major strikes was thirty-five, with a high of forty-five in 1994 and a low of seventeen in 1999. In terms of workdays lost to major strikes, in only one of these twelve years was the number lower than in either 2018 or 2019. If we go further back in time, we see just how small the current numbers are. Between 1947 and 1982, the number of major strikes was never lower than 145, with a high of 470 in 1952. For days lost, the number was never lower than 16,908,400, with a high of 60,850,000 in 1959. The percentage that these numbers represent of all workdays hit a high of 43 percent in 1950. And at no time was this percent less than seven times what it was in 2018 and 2019. Even considering the many wildcat strikes since the pandemic began, these pale in comparison to the similar strikes that took place in the 1970s when rank-and-file workers revolted against their employers and sometimes against their own unions. In just two years, 1974 and 1975, there were nine thousand strikes, almost all wildcats, in the nation’s coal fields.14

Despite this, there are several factors that provide context for the recent uptick in labor struggles. First, many U.S. unions never abandoned their disastrous embrace of labor-management cooperation, throwing solidarity and, for some, their own histories out the window. Instead, they partnered with management to raise productivity in a race to help companies, even individual plants, make more money. Second, corruption is rife in the labor movement. There is the soft corruption of obscenely high salaries and perks for top officers. There is the harder corruption of disdain for the rank and file and the efforts, some violent, to suppress the rise of new leaders and rank-and-file movements aimed at making their unions democratic. And there is the blatant corruption of theft and extortion. I had a student once, in a class that was part of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Union Leadership Academy, who worked for the SEIU. He was found guilty of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from a local union of poorly paid workers and sent to prison. When he was released, an SEIU local hired him to be their lead organizer! Right now, the once iconic United Auto Workers union (UAW) is awash in corruption at the highest level, with former national presidents either indicted or facing indictment. Several officials have already been sentenced to prison.15 Third, the labor movement has never fully addressed the systemic racism and patriarchy of its own organizations. Given the changing demography of the country and the BIPOC and women-led rebellions, this is something that does not offer much hope for the future of the labor movement as it is presently constituted.16

Finally, there is a more subtle matter, but of utmost importance. Today’s big unions, some of which waged heroic struggles in the past to the benefit of millions of workers and their families (mine among them), have no interest in workers’ control of production, aimed at producing use values. They have a great deal of money and property, and this could be put to good use along these lines. Unions in the past have built working-class housing developments, hospitals (the famous miners’ hospitals, for example), vacation resorts for members, even schools for workers. Why not do this now with farms, processing plants, grocery stores, clean vehicles for public transit, high-quality and inexpensive housing, and much more? It seems that unions (the UAW, for example), other than being regularly mired in corruption, are as dedicated to the reproduction of wage labor as are the unions of cops and prison guards to the reproduction of a criminal class. How can those who direct labor organizations just stand by while a Trump appointee dismisses workers as “human capital” and claims that they are dying to get back to work? Well, what kind of work? Work that is mostly unfit for human beings? Or work that we direct ourselves, producing for society and not for the wealthy?

The actions of teachers and others who struck in 2018 and 2019 are surely commendable. But a close look at the UAW contract agreement that ended the General Motors strike shows that it still left much to be desired.17 Organized teachers who struck made important gains, but the unorganized teachers who struck and did achieve some victories really have no way to bind state governments without unionization and collective bargaining agreements. And now with the pandemic, states have closed schools and their budgets have been stretched. How likely is it that these teachers will be able to consolidate what they have won?

Unions, Trump, and COVID-19

A union means greater safety for workers with respect to the virus. And, as we have noted, the UE has been providing their members with both useful information and active support for locals facing recalcitrant employers. They have also offered such aid to all workers through their website. In contrast, the carpenters’ union, whose members are still working on construction sites, has done little to protect them. In fact, its West Coast magazine, sent to all member carpenters in this region, did not have a single article on COVID-19 in its most recent issue.18 This is a union, along with others in construction, that has cozied up to Trump, whose administration could hardly be more antilabor, with those extraordinarily hostile to the working class holding cabinet and top administration agency posts. As an essay by the Center for American Progress explained, Trump and company have denied overtime pay to more than eight million employees, undermined wage theft enforcement, given billions in federal contracts to corporations that violate wage laws, undermined and understaffed the Department of Labor, denied workers access to the courts, made it more difficult for workers to unionize and easier for employers to get rid of them, imposed trade agreements that hurt workers, threatened worker retirement savings, revoked employee civil rights protections, sought to allow employers to discriminate against LGBTQ+ workers, helped block persons with disabilities from working, sanctioned worker exposure to dangerous chemicals and hazardous conditions, and weakened Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement.19 Before becoming president, Trump worked closely with mobbed-up unions, a major segment of the New York City area’s construction unions.

Yet, despite Trumps’ past, a significant number of union members voted for Trump. As I put it not long after Trump was elected:

According to the local union president, 30 to 40 percent of the 600 workers at the Momentive chemical plant in Waterford, NY, recently engaged in a bitter strike and represented by the progressive and fiercely anti-Trump Communication Workers of America, chose Trump. Nationwide, according to an AFL-CIO [The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations] exit poll, 37 percent of union members voted for Trump.…

One would think that with such an anti-worker president, the U.S. labor movement would be primed to do all in its power to mobilize union members to resist, much as millions of people have protested Trump since the day he took office. But such has not been the case. The leaders of the country’s building trades unions met with Trump in the White House. These worthies were lavish in their praise for him, presumably keen on the possibility of new construction employment rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the wall along the border with Mexico. Perhaps they saw Trump as a kindred spirit, given that like them, he has had no qualms about being in bed with mobsters nor with organizations with long histories of racism and sexism. They practice a “me first, last, and always” business unionism just as Trump practices a similar kind of business. Solidarity is not in their vocabularies.

More troubling still was the meeting AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had with Trump in New York City a week before his inauguration. Afterward, Trumka said that he and Trump had “a very honest and productive conversation.” This after the union chief had sharply and vigorously condemned Trump for his anti-unionism and much else. How is it that as millions were protesting a man very likely to be the worst president since James Buchanan, the country’s top union official was meeting with him? Shouldn’t he have been leading the protests? Trumka stooped even lower when more recently he lavished praise on Trump for the president’s first address before Congress.20

Now, as the federal government has failed beyond measure to confront a deadly pandemic, as Trump commits acts of omission that are killing people every day, as he forces meatpacking workers back to the killing floor (literally), as he has sown blatant contempt for the working class, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has become a member of “the White House’s Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups, which were announced Tuesday as part of the president’s efforts to ‘open’ back up parts of the U.S. economy.” But not to worry, he voiced various concerns about the needs of workers, as Trump supposedly listened intently, with industry leaders and Trumka all on the same page. This is the supposed leader of organized labor.21

The Black Lives Matter Uprisings and Organized Labor

Coming on top of the pandemic and economic breakdown was the brutal racist murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. Massive protests erupted throughout the United States. The AFL-CIO and many national unions issued statements in support of the rebellions and in opposition to systemic racism. No doubt, plenty of union members participated in the uprising. Union transit workers in Minneapolis and New York City, in a show of direct solidarity, refused to transport those arrested to police stations in their buses. The Minnesota AFL-CIO called for the resignation of Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, a notorious white supremacist. Several local unions actively took part in protests; the teachers’ union successfully urged that the school district end its contract with the city police; and another local urged its Black members to take bereavement leave, leading the employer to allow all members to take sixteen hours of such leave.22 Over the course of the first months of this uprising, numerous quick strikes have taken place. On Juneteenth, Payday Report noted that

longshoremen are going on strike at 29 ports across the West Coast. The UAW is planning to stop production on all assembly lines for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd.

The strikes come as workers have walked off the job at over 500 employers in the last 3 weeks alone.

The Washington State General Strike saw workers go on wildcat strikes at over 250 locations across the state according to our Strike Tracking Map, The #ShutDownStem strikes last week also saw scientists go on strike at 109 locations across the U.S.

If the size of these strikes last week is any indication, Juneteenth will likely be the largest day of strikes in more than a generation.23

Before this stoppage, Gulf and East Coast dockworkers closed ports in honor of George Floyd’s funeral. “‘All operations stopped, the terminals were shut down, no machines were working, trucks were backed up for miles along the interstate because we weren’t moving anything on the terminal,’ said Ken Riley, a Black dockworker and President of ILA Local 1422.”24

But how deep is labor’s embrace of the protests against systemic racism and police violence? Despite the support for the uprisings from unions and their members, the AFL-CIO and national union leaders have been hesitant to condemn police unions. A good argument can be made that police should not be permitted membership in labor unions. Their role historically has always been to support business owners and private property in general. They have been repeatedly employed to break strikes, jail picketers and strikers, and they have used violence as a regular technique of suppression. Examples abound: the Great Upheaval of 1877, the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, the Homestead strike of 1892, the Pullman strike in 1894, the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, and thousands of other labor disputes, large and small.25

Yet, both the AFL-CIO itself and national unions have chartered police union locals. What is more, police unions routinely negotiate collective bargaining agreements that make it nearly impossible to severely discipline cops who maim or kill working people, especially Black people and people of color. Town and city government officials are typically in league with the police unions, receiving large donations from them and usually serving the same rich constituents. Recently, the Center for Public Integrity sought comments from top union leaders concerning police violence and police unions. Its reporter wrote:

None were willing to talk about police unions. Trumka, of the AFL-CIO, was too busy to chat. The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union couldn’t fit a call into his schedule. Teamsters President James Hoffa declined to comment.

Silence from the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, United Auto Workers, Communication Workers of America, Unite Here and the American Federation of Teachers.

Labor leaders briefly talked about police unions in response to a reporter’s question Wednesday. They seemed uncomfortable.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said no union contracts should shield employee misconduct, but that focusing on collective bargaining is a “false choice.”

In the wake of the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Trumka made this remarkable statement: “Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother.”26

The AFL-CIO has done little to embrace, much less lead, the numerous wildcat walkouts spurred by the death of George Floyd and rampant police violence against people of color. It should be noted that during the protests in Washington DC, AFL-CIO headquarters were torched and vandalized by Black Lives Matter protesters, perhaps because of the labor federation’s refusal to distance itself from police unions.27

The Triple Crisis Has Made Society’s Fault Lines Transparent

I am not the first person to say that a crisis reveals the fault lines in a society. This triple crisis is unprecedented. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our health and killing us in large numbers, bringing with it the most massive and steep economic collapse in U.S. history. Then, there was the murder of George Floyd and the resulting astonishing global protests. Anyone can see that capitalism, facing no real opposition in decades, has reverted to its default position: only profit rules us and those with money will beat down those with none, without mercy or remorse.

The results have been predictable:

  1. Steadily and now very sharply rising inequality in every facet of life: income; wealth; health care; education; moderately comfortable retirement; working conditions; education; housing; access to public amenities like parks, playgrounds, culture; police and fire protection; legal assistance; clean water and air; hope itself—all are obscenely maldistributed. Those at the top have all, those at the bottom nothing, and those in the middle are sinking.
  2. The privatization of everything, with every good- or service-providing entity run on a strict profit-making basis. We need but do not get good health care, good education, and most other necessities unless we can pay. The vaunted capitalist economy cannot feed its people, but it can feed the stock market.
  3. Most jobs are not worth doing. And those that are necessary are all too often poorly paid and fraught with danger. Both kinds of work take place in ultra-hierarchical settings in which employers deploy constant speedup and the most sophisticated surveillance techniques, not just at work but with big data collection that predicts employee behavior.
  4. Racism and patriarchy are inherent to capitalism. Untrammeled violence against Black people, people of color, and women continue unabated, and the current neofascist regime has normalized this to an extent not seen in a long time.28

Now, the three crises have made these outcomes clearer than ever before. It is difficult to imagine that, with COVID-19, mass unemployment, and a widespread social uprising that engulfed the country, millions of people are not witnessing the disintegration of the “normal.” Every day, we have watched hospitals fill up while doctors, nurses, and other health workers lacked the most basic equipment. Emergency room waiting lines have spilled out onto the streets. Beds have been in short supply. And we have learned that hospitals operate on the same just-in-time inventory practice as automobile companies, except that now this practice means death. The horror of life in nursing homes could not be clearer, as the virus has ripped through them, killing residents by the thousands, deaths that were in no way inevitable. If it is not now as evident as it could possibly be that the U.S. health care system is completely broken and in need of a radical overhaul, it never will be. And if COVID-19 testing has been made free of charge, why should treatment itself not be free? In fact, why should we pay for any medical, dental, and eye care? Shouldn’t these be paid for through general and progressive taxation? Wasn’t health care meant to be an inalienable human right? Shouldn’t it be able to meet our basic human needs?

With respect to the economic debacle and the government’s response, is it not apparent that nearly all workers are subject to immediate discharge, that everyone is precarious, that dangerous insecurity can raise its ugly head in a heartbeat? Can’t we see now that without workers, no production takes place and no profits can be made? Doesn’t Trump’s order that meatpacking plants be reopened, knowing full well that workers would get sick and some would die, as they already had, tell us just what is important? Who cannot now know that those who care for us and make life possible, mainly women and people of color, are the poorest paid—or not paid at all in the case of household labor—and least appreciated? While those whose positions are best remunerated and most secure, and who have typically been able to work from home during the pandemic, are always given special considerations and heaped with praise? What does it mean that the Trump administration, as well as top corporate and even university officials want kids back in school so that money can be made, illness and death be damned? Why should we sacrifice our health and lives to keep the economy going?

The revolt against police violence and systemic racism has finally opened white eyes to what Black people in particular and BIPOC in general have always known. Poverty, disease, and death stalk their communities, and this has nothing to do with their “lifestyles” but with a sordid history of exclusion. What is more, the rebellion is intimately tied to the pandemic and the economic breakdown—the kind of connection that would usually be hidden but is now out in the open, the subject of mainstream newscasts and media reports. Inequality is connected to the economic downturn and the pandemic itself: women have been hit harder than men; whites have suffered less than people of color; the poorer the workers, the less likely they can work from home; the least healthy jobs are done by Black and Latinx workers; many employees are collecting more money through unemployment compensation and the temporary $600 per week federal supplement than they were paid for working; the pandemic has had grossly uneven impacts, varying directly according to income and wealth, type of employment, skin color, housing quality, with each of these further correlated with the likelihood of underlying conditions. The protests are direct outcomes of systemic racism, which is itself a product of the economic and political history of the United States. No doubt, too, that the duration and breadth of the rebellion has been heightened by the pandemic and the dire state of the economy.

Will the U.S. Labor Movement Respond?

Will the U.S. labor movement transform itself and confront these fault lines and help build a new society? Those now laboring might continue to confront their bosses. They may find creative ways to communicate with one another, sharing information and tactics. When the pandemic weakens sufficiently or when a vaccine is developed, workers may see their employers in a new light. Those not now working might make demands on employers as a condition of returning to work, especially those whose wages have been kept intact by employers bailed out by the government. Those whose unemployment compensation and supplemental federally funded income has kept them afloat might be resistant to returning to the same old work routine for a pay cut. Some workers may even see that their bosses are not really needed at all, that their workplaces could be organized in entirely different ways.

Workers may now realize that landlords, banks, and bill collectors do nothing deserving of repayment. Those at the bottom may say to those at the top, “I want a good life too, and I will take what you have to get one.” Those who have been most severely exploited and considered least human might say, “no more, ever.” They and their allies might conclude that the police as we know them, along with the prison system, must be abolished, and that racism and patriarchy must be attacked directly, forcefully, and constantly.

The abject failure of the health care system, the political economy, really every major institution once taken for granted as one that could help us through hard times, may force people to conclude that just about everything must be reorganized, made to serve the social interest. Access to doctors, dentists, optometrists, hospitals, and medications should all be matters of basic need, available without charge and paid for out of the public treasury, itself financed by sharply progressive taxes on income and wealth. The same may go for housing and schooling at all levels. Employment might come to be seen as a vital human interest as well, with public works projects the rule and not the exception, with no more privatization of essential public services. Where possible, socially necessary production, from trash collection to schooling may come to be seen as necessitating, like public safety, control by communities or by a combination of worker and community governance.

As it becomes a matter of common knowledge that coronaviruses are a consequence of rapid environmental collapse, itself caused directly by the lust for profits endemic to the capitalist mode of production, perhaps more will see the need for decent employment as an imperative to reduce unnecessary production, consumption, and to radically redistribute what is necessary. And to realize that, with respect to necessary goods and services, food is most critical. We cannot continue to employ industrial agriculture to feed us. Instead, as has already begun in earnest, local, organic growing of food, controlled democratically, must replace the current food regime. Surely, the pandemic has shown that there will be future disruptions and shortages in what is most needed: food, water, clean air, healthy soil.

Should all these maybes become realities, will the U.S. labor movement, as it currently exists, do the right thing, both championing and leading the various movements now building on the ground? The answer is surely no. What we need is radical change, and the AFL-CIO and all but a few unions are the enemies of such change. Capitalism is a hegemonic system and it brings forth the people and institutions it needs. Unions are no exception. Wide-ranging writer, scholar, and political activist Mike Davis signals that a sense of rage is boiling over. For this rage to take a left and profoundly radical direction, masses of people must force the issue. New organizations must be built. Old ones can become part of them, but their structures must be fundamentally altered, and they must be subordinate to that which is new.

What does this mean concretely? Historically, workers have engaged in direct mass actions, formed labor unions, and built working-class political parties. These will remain the necessary forms of struggle. Let us look at each in turn.

The earliest labor rebellions were direct actions. After unsuccessfully petitioning Parliament, the Luddites formed an underground army and began to destroy workshops and machinery. In urban areas where capitalism had gained a foothold, workers rioted against employers and the wealthy, again to force a redress of their grievances. When traditional prices of bread were no longer honored, bakeries were ransacked and bread was simply taken. Many direct actions have been taken by workers and peasants, from blockading highways to land confiscations. The global uprising after the police murder of Floyd has likewise been immediate and confrontational, with some destruction of business property, stopping interstate highway traffic, burning police precincts, and the like.

Direct action is often characterized, even on the left, as wanton rioting, without rhyme or reason. This is never the case; there are always leaders and at least some planning, especially once the fuse of rebellion has been lit. In Brazil, the Landless Workers’ Movement has as its motto, “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” Occupy unutilized land, typically stolen from peasants and the poor in the first place. Then resist with force, if necessary, attempts by the powerful to take the land back. Then, begin to produce on the land, distributing the product among the direct laborers and the community in an egalitarian manner. A similar strategy has been implemented by Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi. The Black Panther Party provides a comparable model. In the late 1960s and during the ’70s, they initiated a remarkable number of community-based programs, providing services that poor people could not get in the marketplace, including “the Free Breakfast for Children Program, liberation schools, free health clinics, the Free Food Distribution Program, the Free Clothing Program, child development centers, the Free Shoe Program, the Free Busing to Prison Program, the Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation, free housing cooperatives, the Free Pest Control Program, the Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program, renter’s assistance, legal aid, the Seniors Escorts Program, and the Free Ambulance Program.”29 Out of such efforts, people learn to care for themselves and one another, gaining a confidence that the system does its best to undermine. In an era of the dismantling of public services critical to life and the growing privatization of what had been either common or peasant land, nothing could be more important.

A labor movement must embrace such direct confrontations with capital and be an integral part of them. However, additional structures are necessary. Labor unions must be constructed anew, with forms that fit the modern world. Organizations that are radically democratic, created from the ground up, will be essential. For traditional unions, those that represent a particular category of workers, an excellent model is the Building Laborers Federation in Australia. Led by Jack Mundey and a group of radicals, a union of poor largely immigrant workers, dominated by gangsters and corrupt officials, was transformed from the bottom up into a militant, class-conscious union concerned with more than workplace issues. During the 1970s, the union employed mass flying pickets to shut down building sites, thwarting the boom in urban high-rise construction. These strikes allowed the workers to make enormous gains in pay, benefits, training, and dignity. At the same time, the Building Laborers Federation “experimented with the ideas of workers’ control, occupying construction sites, electing their own foremen, staging sit-ins and ‘working in’ in response to lockouts, poor safety conditions and sackings.” These tactics were used to bring women and Aboriginal people into the union and onto the jobs. The union used bilingual organizers and had its literature and meeting proceedings translated into the languages of its European immigrant members. It brought to the membership the idea of “green bans” on ugly and environmentally destructive building projects, winning approval for refusal to work on such sites. Mass meetings and democratic assent were required for all union actions. Remarkably, given the time (1973), the union also implemented the “pink ban,” where it refused to do construction work at a university that had expelled a gay student.30

There are a few U.S. unions worth emulating, such as the Chicago Teachers Union, the United Electrical Workers, and the National Union of Healthcare Workers. These are unions that have strong principles, are embedded in communities, have larger than workplace concerns, and are willing to use direct means to challenge employer power. The old United Packinghouse Workers, led by radicals, not only forced employers to equalize Black and white wages and conditions, but its members also compelled local businesses and landlords to integrate their premises. A network of shop stewards across all the plants and firms the union had organized coordinated wildcat strikes and direct confrontations with the bosses whenever serious grievances arose, even where there were contractual limitations on strikes.31

Traditional unions may not be ideal for many workers. For them, geographically centered unions might be better suited to their needs. For example, there are worker centers located throughout the United States. The Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York City deals mainly with restaurant and garment shop laborers in the city. It takes up their wage and shift grievances, for example, filing lawsuits and labor law violation suits against employers. It demands that workers actively participate in their disputes and that they, in turn, come to the aid of others who are similarly aggrieved. In this way, the organization builds a sense of solidarity and community among its members.32 The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida is another worker center, struggling, often successfully, to improve the working and living conditions of its largely immigrant farm laborers. It has engineered national boycotts against major fast food chains, with the goal of forcing them to sign an agreement through which they pay growers more for tomatoes and guarantee that the workers will get some of the extra farm revenue. It has also fought against human trafficking and assaults against women workers. Again, as with the unions discussed above, these centers are deeply embedded in communities, whose concerns they share and address.33 Another possibility is the workers assembly, which has multiple working-class organizations, including labor unions, and in which regular mass meetings are called so that issues pertinent to the class struggle can be dealt with in a democratic manner, and strategies and tactics can be developed and implemented.34

The third type of working-class entity is the political party. Through these, the working class tries to exert power at the level of the nation-state and, in some cases, across national borders. Most such parties today are social democratic in nature, and they attempt to win some control over the state and what it does through elections. They originally aimed at control of the state as part of a transition from capitalism to socialism, and in some cases, revolutionary struggle brought forth a seizure of state power, as in Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. Now, however, most labor parties are reformist, aimed at bettering the conditions of workers through universal programs such as government-sponsored or controlled health care.

Unfortunately, the gains made by these parties have been steadily eroded as capital went on the offensive with the advent of neoliberalism:

Social democracy in Western Europe took shape under special historical circumstances: the strong communist movements, allied with the Soviet Union, existing in most European nations after World War II; the rapid economic growth that followed the massive rebuilding that took place after the war, aided by US aid and US exports; the need of European capital to cooperate with and make concessions to non-communist labor unions, if only to co-opt any future radicalization; and the strict capital controls and fixed currency exchange rates that facilitated national development. We live in an altogether different world today, one in which capital and the state are in a symbiotic relationship to dismantle social democracy, privatize social services, destroy labor unions and ensure capital’s ability to do what it desires in every corner of the earth and every part of our lives.35

What is more, for all the good social democratic parties have done, they never challenged the lopsided distribution of wealth, which meant that no matter how many social welfare programs were implemented, power remained firmly in the hands of capital. As economist Michael Roberts points out, wealth is nearly as unequally distributed in each of the Scandinavian countries, the quintessential social democratic states, as it is in the United States.36

This means that labor parties will have to be reconstructed, just as labor unions must be. New parties must be built, democratic, with clear radical principles, leading the working class (and a worker-peasant alliance in much of the Global South) as a whole. Such parties must not only pressure existing states to satisfy the needs of the class, but also build the capacities of workers and peasants to gain control of their lives and start to build alternative structures of production and distribution. There are many possible models, from the local assembly-commune-national party schema in Venezuela, to the scaling outward and upward of the Richmond Progressive Alliance in Richmond, California, or Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi, to the Maoist parties in Nepal and rural India.37

Whether it is direct action, labor organization, or political efforts, it is critical to have an educational component. We all need to learn in cooperative settings without hierarchies. As historian Peter Linebaugh writes, “communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously.”38 Every member of every direct action group, labor organization, or political entity must agree as a condition of membership to take part in regular, structured education. One-day classes, short courses, summer schools, semesters—all are possible and necessary. History, political economy, cultural studies, law, agriculture, ecology, and many other subjects can prepare people to think critically and act decisively, either in pursuit of a tactical goal or a long-term structural change.39

In the United States, every educational enterprise should make special efforts to address racism, patriarchy, and imperialism. These have been part and parcel of capitalism from its inception. They are also sources of conflict and contention in every working-class organization. Unless they are confronted in open discussion, a unified working class will remain a pipe dream. The uprising over police violence and systemic racism has convinced, for the first time ever, a majority of white people in the United States of a reality many have long denied. Once one form of oppression is admitted, others can be more effectively challenged.

The pathetic response of the U.S. government to the pandemic calls for comparisons with many other countries. Education could challenge popular support for the mindless nationalism and disdain for the rest of the world that has been one of the most important blinders of the U.S. population, making us oblivious and uncaring about the havoc our country has wreaked upon the rest of the world. Given that the economic fallout from the pandemic has landed more heavily on women and that lockdowns and widespread unemployment have brought home the crucial role women play in reproducing the social system, this is surely an opportunity to challenge patriarchy in the same way that it has been an opportunity to challenge racism.

Personal Responsibility

It is fitting to end this essay with the question of personal responsibility. What can each of us do to build a radical labor movement? What we can do will depend in large part on our circumstances and skills. Some of us can educate, explaining the world in which we live clearly and in language that does not look at the working class from the outside, examining and analyzing it, but as part of it, teaching while we learn in dialogue with others. The left and the unions have done a miserable job of this. Worker education is a dead letter in almost all labor unions. There are a few decent programs housed in colleges and universities. And recently, an independent program has begun in Minneapolis-St. Paul, modeled after the old Brookwood Labor College.40 However, much of the U.S. working class is sorely lacking in accessible educational resources on the nature of capitalist society. There is no reason why we cannot help to make such resources available.

In our own places of employment, we can organize, not just those like us but all of the workers in our workplaces. We can learn how our employers function, how the goods or services we make are in fact produced and sold, from beginning to end. We can look for vulnerable points and strategize how to take advantage of these. We can try to form unions, especially independent organizations, unless there is a good already-existing union. We can educate ourselves about labor and safety and health laws, civil rights laws, unemployment compensation rules, and anything else that might be of value to the workers, including ourselves. We can, even in small groups, legally make demands of our bosses, and we can even engage in collective acts of solidarity to protect aggrieved individuals and groups.

We can, wherever possible, begin to think about and then build our own networks of production and distribution as is being done now in Jackson, Mississippi.

We can be politically active. The triple crisis has opened new possibilities for fundamental change. We better take advantage of them. We may not have much of a future if we do not.

Notes

  1. A representative work is Eric Blanc, Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (New York: Verso, 2019). For the argument that the Bernie Sanders campaign and the DSA were important factors in the wave of teachers’ strikes in red states, see Eric Blanc, “”How Bernie Helped Spark the Teachers’ Revolt,” Jacobin, October 30, 2019. For a rejoinder, see Erin Dyke and Brendan Muckian-Bates, “Social Movements Gave Rise to the ‘Teachers’ Revolt,’ Not Bernie,” New Politics, November 6, 2019.
  2. The data in the next few paragraphs and in the second section of this paper on major strikes and union density are taken from the following BLS sources: “Annual Work Stoppages Involving 1,000 or More Workers, 1947–2019,” March 11, 2020; “Union Membership (Annual) News Release,” January 22, 2020; “Union Membership Rate 10.5 Percent in 2018, Down from 20.1 Percent in 1983,” January 25, 2019; Megan Dunn and James Walker, “Union Membership in the United States,” September 2016.
  3. Tony Room, “Americans Have Filed More than 40 Million Jobless Claims in Past 10 Weeks, as Another 2.1 Million Filed for Benefits Last Week,” Washington Post, May 28, 2020.
  4. BLS unemployment data are from “Employment Situation Summary,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2, 2020. For the U6 unemployment rate, which includes involuntary part-time workers and those who have become too discouraged to recently look for work, see “Alternative Measures of Labor Underutilization,” July 2, 2020.
  5. Meat-processing workers are a case in point. The union that represents employees in some plants estimates that more than forty have died as of the end of May 2020. See “Meatpacking Union: 44 COVID-19 Deaths Among Workers,” AP News, May 28, 2020. However, the companies have been doing their best to cover up the extent of infection and death. See Michael Grabell, Claire Perlman, and Bernice Yeung, “Emails Reveal Chaos as Meatpacking Companies Fought Health Agencies Over COVID-19 Outbreaks in Their Plants,” ProPublica, June 12, 2020.
  6. For details on the racial, ethnic, and gender disparities described in this paragraph, see Max Ufberg, “The Navajo Nation Is Being Decimated by This Virus,” MR Online, May 12, 2020; Hye Jin Rho, Hayley Brown, and Shawn Fremstad, A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries (Washington DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2020); “Employment Situation Summary”; and Alisha Haridasani Gupta, “Why Some Women Call This Recession a ‘Shecession,’” New York Times, May 13, 2020.
  7. David Bacon, “COVID-Related Strikes Hit Washington’s Apple Sheds,” Capital & Main, May 14, 2020.
  8. Mike Ludwig, “Essential Sanitary Workers Strike for Hazard Pay and PPE in New Orleans,” Truthout, May 15, 2020.
  9. Michael Sainato, “Strikes Erupt as U.S. Essential Workers Demand Protection Amid Pandemic,” Guardian, May 19, 2020.
  10. May Retta, “Universities to Grad Students: Drop Dead,” Democratic Underground, May 27, 2020.
  11. Sainato, “Strikes Erupt as U.S. Essential Workers Demand Protection Amid Pandemic.”
  12. Jamie Fleming, “The Union Difference: A Tale of Two Plants,” Stand, April 23, 2020.
  13. Carl Rosen, Andrew Dinkelaker, and Gene Elk, “We Need the Labor Movement to Organize Worker Fightback in the Face of the COVID-19 Crisis,” In These Times, April 10, 2020.
  14. Cal Winslow, unpublished manuscript, 2020; Adam Turl, “The Miners’ Strike of 1977–78,” International Socialist Review 74 (2010).
  15. These accomplishments and the failings of labor movements in the United States and worldwide are discussed in Michael D. Yates, Can the Working Class Change the World? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018). On corruption in the UAW, see Thomas Adams, “A Tale of Corruption by the United Auto Workers and the Big Three American Automakers,” MR Essays, August 19, 2019. For the soft and hard corruption of the UAW, see Gregg Shotwell, Autoworkers Under the Gun (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011). The case of my former student is reported in “SEIU Sends ‘Exiled’ Union Boss Back to SoCal as Organizing Director,” Labor Union Report, April 2, 2019.
  16. See Michael D. Yates, Why Unions Matter, 2nd ed. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).
  17. Chris Brooks and Jane Slaughter, “GM Workers Ratify Contract Though ‘Mixed at Best,’” Labor Notes, October 29, 2019.
  18. See “Coronavirus and Social Distancing in the Construction Industry,” Oakland Socialist blog, March 22, 2020.
  19. Saharra Griffin and Malkie Wall, “President Trump’s Anti-Worker Agenda,” Center for American Progress, August 28, 2019.
  20. The editors, “Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review 68, no. 11 (April 2017).
  21. Kevin Stankiewicz, “AFL-CIO President Says He Told Trump ‘Workers Have to Have a Say’ in How Economy Is Restarted,” CNBC, April 17, 2020.
  22. Cherrene Horazuk, “Labor Fights for George Floyd in Twin Cities,” Labor Notes, June 3, 2020.
  23. See Mike Elk, “Over 500 Strikes in Last 3 Weeks as BLM Strikes Surge on Juneteenth,” Payday Report, June 19, 2020.
  24. Mike Elk, “How Black and Brown Workers Are Redefining Strikes in the Digital COVID Age,” Payday Report, July 8, 2020.
  25. Michael D. Yates, “Police Are the Enemy Within,” Counterpunch, June 12, 2020.
  26. Alexia Fernández Campbell, “As Protests Grow, Big Labor Sides with Police Unions,” Center for Public Integrity, June 5, 2020.
  27. Elk, “How Black and Brown Workers Are Redefining Strikes in the Digital COVID Age.”
  28. Data and analysis supporting these four points can be found in Michael D. Yates, The Great Inequality (London: Routledge, 2016).
  29. For details on the direct actions described in this paragraph, see Michael D. Yates, “Can the Working Class Radically Change the World?,“ chap. 6 in Can the Working Class Change the World?; Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, “Toward a New Freedom Budget,” chap. 9 in A Freedom Budget for All Americans (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).
  30. John Tully, “Vale Jack Mundey: Inspirational Australian Union Leader,” MR Online, June 2, 2020.
  31. See Roger Horowitz, ‘’Negro and White, Unite and Fight”: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–1990 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
  32. For information on the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, see their website: org. For a book-length account of worker centers, see Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
  33. Elly Leary, “Immokalee Workers Take Down Taco Bell,” Monthly Review 57, no. 5 (October 2005): 21–22.
  34. For an example of a workers assembly, see the Southern Workers Assembly: southernworker.org.
  35. Michael D. Yates, “Let’s Get Serious about Inequality and Socialism,” Truthout, April 30, 2016.
  36. See Michael Roberts, “Wealth or Income?,” Michael Roberts blog, July 15, 2020.
  37. For more detail about political organizations, see Michael D. Yates, “Can the Working Class Radically Change the World?“
  38. Peter Linebaugh, Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance (Oakland: PM, 2013).
  39. On education, see Michael D. Yates, “Can the Working Class Radically Change the World?“
  40. For information on the New Brookwood Labor College, see its website newbrookwood.org.
2020, Volume 72, Issue 04 (September 2020)
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