By ERNIE GOTTA and VINNIE ROTHSMAN
Working people everywhere are organizing to defend their lives on the job. The largest sectors without unions are instinctually walking off the job to fight for their health and safety at supply-chain giants like Amazon and retail outlets like Target. The Nation’s recent headline declares the “Coronavirus class war” has begun. A rebellion of low-wage workers on this scale and militancy has not been seen since the 1930s. Risking their jobs, working class heroes like Amazon warehouse worker Christian Smalls are emerging to take a stand for safety and health conditions that billionaires like Jeff Bezos simply don’t care about. How do you turn a rebellion into victory that advances the class struggle in favor of the working class? What comes next?
Striking workers at Amazon have won temperature checks and facemasks nationwide, Target workers have won face masks and gloves, and gig workers at Instacart have won safety kits. These important victories are still just a small portion of what workers in these industries need and deserve. The likelihood of holding onto and expanding on these victories grows slim in the absence of workers forming a union.
Without a union, the company will undoubtedly attempt to scrub away any gains. They will fire leaders, restructure the workplace, or even close down whole facilities and fire the entire workforce. The bosses have time and money, and even with a union they make the managers constantly apply pressure to break the workers’ resolve.
A union contract is only as good as union members are willing to fight to defend the contract or even extend it through shop floor militancy. Sometimes, bosses try tricks to break workers down by creating a “family”-type atmosphere with incentives, but more often they try to drive a hostile wedge between workers in a shop. Managers are trained to spread rumors or poke at workers’ skill level, racial, religious, sexual preferences, and gender differences to create open wounds that are difficult to heal.
At UPS, for example, managers will tell the low-wage part-time truck loaders that the drivers make double their wages. A manager will then ask, “You bust your back everyday for very little pay, why should you care how well the truck is loaded for a driver making three times what you make?” Then out of the other side of their mouth, managers tell the drivers that the underpaid truck loaders are lazy and stupid and have no respect for the drivers’ long delivery day.
A class-conscious union member can cut through these types of deceptions and explain how the company uses these divisions to take money from the worker and put it in the investors’ pocket. On the shop floor a militant can explain that worker anger should be directed to stop the boss’s speedups, unjust discipline, and cutting corners when it comes to safety.
The battleground in the class war is never fair or stable for workers. But without an organization the fight is hopeless. The very basic elementary weapon for class struggle is the union. These first victories by workers today will only be consolidated by the continued militancy and self-organization of the workers into a union. Nearly 800,000 Amazonians from California to Chicago to New York City need to unite their struggles in a sustained effort to force the bosses to recognize them as a union.
The class struggle today, as always, will be renewed with the militancy of the low-wage, underemployed, immigrant, and oppressed workers. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated widespread sympathies for frontline workers in the U.S. and across the globe. The groundwork already exists for a deep and far-reaching solidarity movement, which could raise millions of dollars to sustain a serious organizing drive that will likely need a massive strike to win.
Why will it take a massive strike for Amazon workers to win union recognition? Because the game is always rigged in favor of the bosses. The COVID-19 crisis is ushering in an era of anti-union government regulations with a high level of pro-employer bravado. Companies are planning to leverage “economic woes” to break collective bargaining agreements, and promote anti-union and decertification sentiments in the workplace.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is making union elections more difficult for workers. Previous gains won by labor for quicker elections have been rolled back in 2020. On May 31 the amount of time workers have between the day they file for the union election and the day they vote will double. The bosses use this time to hammer away at union support by hiring anti-union consultants who hold workers hostage through captive audience meetings that are meant to psychologically wear workers down and plant seeds of distrust.
In a similar move the NLRB has put forward new rules that will make it easier for employers to manipulate elections and promote the idea of decertification among anti-union workers. In the past, workers would have one year after an election to decertify a union, but the new rule would allow a decertification process to begin just 45 days after a union election.
The NLRB has never been a friend of the worker. Regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican is president, the laws of the U.S. are made to protect the employers’ rights. Laws are up for interpretation, and it’s rare that workers get a fair hearing in capitalist courts that are meant to uphold the property and privilege of the bosses. Workers who forego organized action and instead rely on the law to protect their rights face a lifetime of disappointment.
The bosses and the politicians continually demonstrate their inability to quickly and adequately provide health, safety, and funding for workers to survive COVID-19 related financial and medical burdens. The bosses are sacrificing frontline essential workers every day to save a few dollars. Instead of using the incredible productive capacity of the U.S. war industry to have workers to produce PPE and ventilators, they are still producing fighter jets, submarines, and bombs.
After years of being put on the defensive, labor in the United States is beginning to awaken. Inspired by the political example of mass movements like the Standing Rock No DAPL protests and the massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations, workers have begun building their own movements, using their most powerful weapon—the strike.
Like the UCSC grad worker strikes today, the 2018 teachers’ strikes started out as rank-and-file-led wildcat strikes but were transformed into a mobilization of hundreds of thousands of workers in over half a dozen states. That strike wave was the largest in over 30 years and in many places illegal. It showed concretely that strikes are viable, powerful, and can receive community support. The teachers’ strikes, especially in West Virginia and Oklahoma, were especially significant because they took up political demands, including fair wages for all workers, health-care reform, and heavy taxation on polluting industries. They also showed the necessity of striking to win. The whole country was given a stark lesson in workers’ power when West Virginia teachers rejected the government’s and union leadership’s insufficient agreement and stayed out on the picket line.
The teachers’ strike paved the way to an increase in national and company-wide strikes in recent years. These include the 2018 Marriott strike, which included almost 8000 workers for three months; the 2019 Stop and Shop strike, over 31,000 workers for 10 days; and the 2019 General Motors strike, 40,000 workers for six weeks. These strikes cost capitalists billions of dollars and took up demands that organized labor has been silent on in recent years. GM and Stop ’n Shop workers, for example, took up the cause of fighting against two-tier wages and for the rights of part-time co-workers.
Two trends in the labor fightback are becoming crystallized through the COVID-19 crisis. On the one hand, is the use of the strike, and on the other, raising political demands that move past basic “bread and butter” issues. The pandemic has starkly raised the question of whether the most class-conscious workers will push to build the labor movement by organizing millions of workers into unions, and in doing so, turn those unions—with a reinvigorated rank and file, fresh with the lessons of surviving the pandemic—into dynamic organs of class struggle.