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Organizing in the Age of COVID-19


This is a tremendously complicated time and I don’t have a lot of takes. I vastly prefer being able to understand an issue before talking about it and on my subject of expertise–labor–other than saying that everything is horrible, I don’t have a lot of particular insight. That’s especially true because I’m always skeptical of how every pundit fits every event into their already preconceived notion about the world (see how every time Democrats lose, it’s always because of the writer’s already existing ideas about the Democratic Party). Plus the world sucks and I don’t feel like writing right now.

But other people are writing, thinking, inspiring. And it’s worth thinking about all of this. That’s especially true because we are two weeks from a serious crisis point–May 1, when millions of people aren’t going to have the money to pay the rent or their mortgage. With Congress doing exactly nothing, it’s hard to see any major changes by then. If there’s one thing I will say, it’s that it could be the beginning of an organizing moment. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor thinks so:

These cases show that even amid an unprecedented lockdown, ordinary workers still have extraordinary leverage when their labor is so crucial to maintaining basic functions in our society. This is always true, but it is more apparent today. And this leverage is even more significant when workers use it for the greater social good.

That happened when unionized workers at General Electric organized a protest last month to demand that instead of laying them off, the company repurpose their workplace to produce the ventilators desperately needed around the country. The protest was at G.E. headquarters, where the workers stood and then marched in silence, six feet apart.

Even for workers protesting their own workplace conditions, there’s a greater social purpose. This is particularly true of nurses and doctors who, at their own professional risk, have used social media and other means to show the appalling lack of ventilators and personal protective equipment. Dr. Ming Lin, an emergency room physician working in a hospital near Seattle, was fired after he spoke out about the lack of protective equipment there. In the context of the highly contagious coronavirus, it is a public service when workers publicize the questionable hygienic practices at their workplaces.

Embedded in these kinds of actions is the spirit of solidarity that is needed for any meaningful social movement to emerge. When solidarity involves making sacrifices to improve the situation of others or taking up another person’s struggle even when it does not directly or immediately affect you, that contributes to the potential for social transformation.

We can find another example of this kind of organizing in the proliferation of mutual aid efforts across the country, where people mobilize the resources needed for one another’s survival, like grocery deliveries, meal preparation and mask-making. (This is unlike charities where money and goods are donated on behalf of other people.) In New Hampshire, one initiative even provides Narcan to those struggling with heroin addiction. In New York, mutual aid organizers have been raising money to send soap to incarcerated people, who are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because of cramped conditions.

Perhaps the most famous example of mutual aid comes from the Black Panther Party, which provided free breakfast and free health care clinics in the late 1960s and ’70s for black working-class communities. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many dispersed organizers from Occupy Wall Street coordinated hundreds of volunteers and created “distribution centers” to deliver all manner of supplies to those trapped. This also happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Given that the chances that growing Republican calls to reopen the economy are coinciding with the realization that this is killing black people at much higher rates than white people are pretty much 100%, we could use some Panthers like black mobilization right now.

Sarah Jaffe has a good piece about this too, even though she interviewed me for it.

Treat workers as experts,” reads one of the bullet points in a new Essential Workers Bill of Rights from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna. The bill, proposed to protect workers during the coronavirus—and, presumably, future crises—includes basic demands such as paid sick leave, collective bargaining rights, whistleblower protections, health care coverage, and child care, as well as increased health and safety precautions, hazard pay, and “holding corporations accountable.” 

Warren and Khanna propose that “essential workers” and their unions and organizations be part of any effort to coordinate a response to the pandemic. The idea is that workers are the experts on their own working conditions and what they need to do their jobs effectively. 

Some of us, of course, have always known this. 

Working people have a long history of challenging management over more than just wages and benefits; they have also often demanded a say in what they do and how it gets done. During the Great Depression, the explosion of organizing that created the Congress of Industrial Organizations went beyond just calling for better pay and weekends.

At one point, historian Erik Loomis told me recently, the goal of United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther was “to have the UAW or the CIO be at the table on every major policy decision in the United States, whether it has to do with unions or not.” 

Reuther eventually conceded defeat on that point, but it surfaced again in the 1970s just before deindustrialization really kicked in. Now, the demand for worker control is raising its head yet again. Workers at General Electric (GE), members of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers – Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) have held several actions at GE facilities and headquarters, demanding that the company’s currently idle factories be used to produce ventilators.

Adam Kaszynski, a machinist at GE in Massachusetts, told me that union workers “have a different vision of how the world should work. When there is something you can do that is productive for society, that is needed, and you have the skills to do it, profit should not be the overwhelming motive for what we produce.”

Saving lives by producing ventilators is a higher good, he says, than GE maintaining its bottom line. 

One thing I do want to say here is that we tend to telescope the past, erasing the long amount of time this organizing takes. I made this point to Jaffe as well, noting that while the Depression may have happened in 1929, the big strikes of 1934 were 5 very long and brutal years away and the Fair Labor Standards Act 9 years off. What did happen in those 5 years though was the growth of unemployment organizing, often led by communists who paved the path toward working class mobilization that created the CIO and the labor law reforms of the second half of the 30s. Is this organizing possible today? Yes, it is, but it isn’t going to happen overnight and there’s a real error made by labor writers and activists–including historians–of claiming that X event is going to lead to the Y outcome that you want. It almost never happens that way. But said actions can create opportunity for new actions that lead to a lot. They are good in themselves, even if they are fleeting and fail at the time.

Oh, also, in this Noam Chomsky interview about what we can do to fight the coronavirus, he mentioned your least favorite LGM writer.

I lived through the Depression. That’s why I have this long white beard. But in the 1920s the labor movement was totally crushed. Take a look at David Montgomery, a labor historian, one of his great books is The Fall of the House of Labor. He’s talking about the 1920s. It was crushed by the liberal Wilson administration, the Red Scare and all the rest. In the 1930s it began to revive. The CIO organizing sit-down strikes, a great threat to management: next thing that’s going to come to their heads is, “We don’t need the bosses. We can run this place ourselves.” And then you’re done. It’s a very fragile system.

Well, that led to reactions. There happened to be a sympathetic administration, which is critical. A very good labor historian, Erik Loomis, has studied case after case of this and he points out that moments of positive change have almost always been led by an active labor movement and the only times they succeeded were when there was a relatively sympathetic administration, or at least a tolerant one.

Well, you don’t happen to have that now, but actually if Biden came in, it’s not great, but he could be pushed. If the labor movement revives, the Sanders movement — which is very significant, he’s achieved great successes — if that can take off, we once again could get out of the capitalist crises as was done in the 1930s.

The New Deal didn’t end the Depression, the war did with massive state-directed production, but nevertheless it was much better than today. I’m old enough to remember it and my extended family were mostly first-generation working people, mostly unemployed, living under poverty that is much worse than the working class today. But it was hopeful. There weren’t depths of despair. There wasn’t a feeling that the world’s coming to an end. The mood was, “Somehow we’ll get out of this together, working together.” Some of them were in the Communist Party, some were in the labor unions. I had a couple of aunts who were unemployed seamstresses, but they were in ILGWU [International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union], which gave them a cultural life, meetings, a week in the country, theater activities that were being carried out.

You can do something. We’re together. We’ll get out of it. That could be revived.

The fact that Noam Chomsky knows who I am and keeps dropping my name in his interviews is probably the most mind-blowing thing of my career. But what do I know about labor issues compared to some of our more obstreperous LGM commenters? They surely are a better set of evaluators about my work and positions than the most important American leftist intellectual in the last half-century!

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