Organizing During Crisis: Building Working Class Power Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by JP Pereira
The Coronavirus pandemic, which emerged on the global stage at the end of 2019, has pushed the economy to the verge of total collapse, spread worldwide panic and confusion, and exacerbated the precarious and nightmarish situation facing working people.  At the time of writing, The total number of confirmed cases around the world surpassed 450,000 with over 20,000 deaths.[1]  While there is an apparent decline in rates of new infections in Italy, Spain’s death toll has overpassed that of China rising to 3,434 dead.[2]  In the US, there are a total of 132,485 cases confirmed, with 2,348 deaths.  New York has become the main hotspot in the country with 5% of global cases and 965 recorded deaths.  The US is now reporting the most number of confirmed cases in the world.  The working class is facing the brunt of this disaster as workers are getting fired, having their wages and hours cut, losing health insurance, and are at risk  of being displaced from their homes.  Those most impacted are immigrants and low-wage workers of color.[3]
During this public health crisis, corporations are continuing to exploit and endanger the lives of working people, and capitalist governments’ measures have been slow and largely insufficient to deal with this catastrophe.  The US ruling class wants to send workers to risk their lives to save their profits.  Trump has said we need to bring businesses back up and running by April 30th, and the Lt. Governor of Texas stated that grandparents should step up and risk death to save this economic system.[4]  The crisis is also revealing ruptures within the ruling class as NY Governor Cuomo is calling to nationalize production of masks and ventilators, and California Governor Newsom has purchased hotel leases to provide housing for homeless people.  There is apparent cooperation between the state and federal governments with the deployment of Navy Hospital Ships in NYC and LA and the construction of temporary field hospitals in the Javits Center in Manhattan, NY and in Riverside and Santa Clara County in California.  However, even with these measures, reports are indicating that there will still be a shortage of hospital beds as COVID-19 continues to spread as the US has only 2.8 hospital beds for every 1,000 people, compared to 12.3 beds in South Korea.[5]  While there have been small measures to alleviate the pain that workers face and control this catastrophe, including municipal orders to halt evictions in Oakland and Philadelphia, increased COVID-19 testing, increased funding for unemployment, and the $1,200 US per month over two months (maximum) stimulus package for most people across the country, these responses allow for bailouts of megacorporations, and are largely insufficient to meet the needs and challenges of the majority of the population.

Mutual Aid and Beyond

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, governments have enacted lockdown measures, like in Spain and Italy, and others in the US have encouraged non-essential workers to stay home and for people to practice social distancing.  These efforts have led to the rapid development of solidarity and mutual aid networks across the globe.  To keep spirits up during lockdowns, we have seen solidarity balcony singing across Italy, and balcony applause for healthcare workers in Barcelona.  Mutual aid networks have quickly developed across major cities to share online information and resources, as well as to deliver food and supplies to people in need.  Unions and labor councils have developed hardship funds for workers left unemployed during the crisis.  And, we have seen an increase in online and digital organizing through a flurry of online video meetings, online petitions, political discussion and organizing webinars, and mass union conference calls.  These expressions demonstrate that working people are ready to support and express solidarity with one another.  However, we must go beyond mutual care and aid to highlight the failures of this system, and outline a long-term vision and socialist program. To bring this about we need a  plan for mass collective action, in a safe and responsible way to avoid the spread of panic and COVID-19.

Class Struggle Amidst the Pandemic:

While capitalist governments around the world are forcing workers to rise their lives during this crisis, their insufficient measures that prioritize corporations over people, delayed responses, and disorganized production and manufacturing based on consumerism, and the patchwork of private healthcare services, ensuring the profits of pharmaceutical companies and private hospitals, reveal a deep crisis in the capitalist mode of organizing society.  In addition,  these responses demonstrate the governments’ commitment to profit at all costs, revealing the ruling class’s craven disregard towards working people.
In the US, while ‘non-essential’ workers are being told to stay at home, frontline workers in the healthcare, service, transportation, and manufacturing sectors continue to go to work and are, therefore, at higher risk of becoming infected.  This is especially the case for healthcare workers who are treating COVID-19 patients and are not receiving enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like N95 masks and gloves.  University of California Graduate Student Workers, who had been engaged in a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) wildcat strike prior to the COVID-19 pandemic reaching the US, adapted their tactics at UC Berkeley moving to a digital strike online, organizing for a Social Welfare strike (not teaching, but supporting students in need, and having online general assemblies).  They were successful in reinstating health benefits for the 82 fired UC Santa Cruz workers.  Kaiser healthcare workers in the Bay Area protested outside of Kaiser in Santa Clara demanding PPE. In Los Angeles, ‘Reclaimer’ tenants have taken over a dozen vacant homes on land owned by the California Department of Transportation, to provide housing for homeless residents.[6]  In Detroit, bus operators struck for a day and forced the city to increase cleaning and sanitation measures.[7]  NYC teachers staged a ‘sick-out’ after Mayor DeBlasio had refused to close public schools. Dockworkers in Oakland have threatened to walk off the job if the Port of Oakland isn’t properly sanitized.[8]  Immigrants have declared a hunger strike across 3 ICE detention centers demanding to be released, citing horrendous sanitation conditions.[9]  Immigrant advocates in New Jersey demanded that Governor Murphy act immediately to free ICE detainees & reduce jail populations.[10] They staged a solidarity demonstration, honking their car horns in a jail parking lot in visibility of detainees holding signs through windows.[11] Finally, in Georgia, 50 Perdue plant workers walked off the job citing coronavirus concerns.[12]
Internationally, many sectors of the working class are taking industrial action over the crisis. In Italy, which has been the epicenter of the crisis in Europe, auto workers have waged unsanctioned strikes across the country, which was sparked at the Fiat-Chrysler Pomigliano plant in Naples, and quickly spread to other industries across the country.  In Uruguay, construction workers struck and mobilized workers to join the strike across this sector.  In Argentina, Metalworkers in Tierra del Fuego organized an assembly and decided to walk off their jobs after bosses failed to respond to the crisis.  And in Brazil, Almaviva call center workers struck and demonstrated in front of the company’s doors demanding hand sanitizers.[13]
While workers are facing many challenges during this crisis, we have seen that they are taking action and we can all continue to organize.  It is important to develop plans to continue organizing online as ‘social distancing’ is increasingly becoming the norm during this crisis.  Here are some helpful reminders and suggestions whether you are organizing within a union, caucus, or regional, statewide or national coalitions.

  • If your existing organizing body has not gone online yet, you should propose doing so and collectively develop the material infrastructure and support to continue organizing.
  • Don’t know how to facilitate a conference call or Zoom webinar? These are now  happening all the time from unions, community organizations, and beyond.  Find a call that interests you, hop on, take notes, see what works and what doesn’t.  Then try it out (maybe start with a couple comrades first!).  Don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t go well the first time – you’ll improve by reflecting and making improvements as you go.
  • If you feel isolated in your workplace or community organizing, and have no union, caucus, or committee to work through, the first step is to make a list of who will be the potential core organizers to discuss what to do next, and then schedule a Zoom meeting or conference call with them.
  • Organizing online is not fundamentally different than in person, we follow the same patient method of base-building: we map out the workplace/community space, and do one on one outreach for people to come to a joint meeting, and with the core of organizers we prepare together the agenda and goals of those meetings. Once we have an organizing space going, everything is a bit easier.


Socialist Emergency Program:

Our strategic goal is to develop a workersunited front, composed of broad sectors of working class organizations for a plan of action to demand and win emergency measures that meet the needs of the working class.  For more information, check out our Socialist Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic in the US.


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