The coronavirus has upended the U.S. economy. But one thing it doesn't appear to have changed is employers' drive to squeeze every ounce of effort out of their workers that they can for minimal cost — even when the costs include the things we need to do to keep everyone safe and whole during a global pandemic.
While shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders have closed down huge swaths of American economic activity, crucial jobs and businesses — the ones that deliver groceries and supplies, that handle garbage and public transit — remain open, and in many cases are as busy as ever. And in the last week or so, the workers in these jobs have gotten increasingly loud about insufficient safety standards and insufficient compensation. Everyone from Instacart and Amazon to General Electric and the City of Detroit has faced protests, strikes, and work stoppages.
Instacart — the platform app that delivers groceries right to your door — is a good example of what makes this particular moment unusual. The company is on track to hire as many as 300,000 more shoppers and delivery people to help deal with the increased demand from the coronavirus shutdown. But a lot of the people Instacart already employs feel it isn't doing enough to keep them or their customers safe, nor is it paying them enough for the extra burden of putting themselves at risk to get others the food they need.
On Friday, the grassroots outfit Gig Workers Collective, announced a series of demands — hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, an extra $5 per order and default tip increases as hazard pay, and paid leave for workers with a pre-existing condition or other risk factor — and said Instacart workers would go on strike Monday to make those demands heard. "Instacart's corporate employees are provided with health insurance, life insurance, and paid time off and [are] also eligible for sick pay and paid family leave," Vanessa Bain, an Instacart gig worker in Menlo Park, California, and a lead organizer of the strike, told Vice. "By contrast its [gig workers], who are putting their lives on the line to maintain daily operations are afforded none of these protections."
Over the weekend, Instacart came back with an offer: A few modest safety measures to cut down on physical contact, more limited bonuses, and two weeks paid leave for anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 available through May 8. The workers felt this wasn't enough — particularly the limited time frame for paid leave, and the necessity of getting a test (which are still hard to come by) to qualify — so the strike was on.
What's notable here is that Instacart's shoppers and delivery people are independent contractors, and thus not usually afforded traditional employment benefits like paid leave or union organizing rights. This was a "wildcat" strike — not organized by a union, or done outside the bounds of labor law — which has become an increasingly common phenomenon across the economy. Unfortunately, this also means it's impossible to tell how many of Instacart's 150,000 nationwide workers participated. Organizers claimed it was in the thousands (15,000 workers signed up online with the organizers) but Instacart itself said business-as-usual continued on Monday.
Another wildcat strike also happened Monday, at a Staten Island, New York warehouse run by Amazon — a company famous for union busting. The company claimed 15 of the warehouse's 5,000 workers walked off the job, though the organizers claim it was several dozen. The protestors chanted that as many as 10 coronavirus cases had been confirmed at the warehouse, which they demanded be closed. "We are working long, crowded shifts in the epicenter of a global pandemic, and Amazon has failed to provide us with the most basic safeguards to protect us, our families, and the public's health," Rina Cummings, a worker at the center, said in a statement released by the organizers.
In fact, workers in at least 11 of Amazon's warehouses have tested positive for COVID-19. There are complaints from across the country that the company is not providing enough disinfectant and hand sanitizer for the people who touch thousands of packages a day, and that safety precautions are haphazard. Amazon itself says it's raised pay by $2 an hour through April, has offered paid sick leave to any worker who doesn't feel comfortable coming in, and is doing deep cleaning of warehouses when needed.
Amazon has also apparently fired Christian Smalls, the worker who initiated the Staten Island protest, saying he violated orders to stay home for two weeks and came back to the warehouse after being in contact with an infected employee — the incident that alarmed Smalls to begin with and inspired him to tell management to close the warehouse for two weeks.
Meanwhile, workers at Whole Foods — the grocery chain that Amazon also owns now — planned a walkout for Tuesday, to demand paid sick leave, hazard pay, reinstated health coverage for part-time and seasonal workers, and better sanitation procedures. Workers at another chain, Trader Joe's, are trying to form a union to demand hazard pay. Nurses in the Bronx are protesting over a lack of necessary safety equipment at their hospital, even as hospitals across the country tell doctors and staff they could be fired for complaining to the press. Earlier this month, several hundred Pittsburgh sanitation workers staged a wildcat strike to protest unsafe work conditions, Detroit bus drivers staged a walkout and won all their demands for better safety precautions, while several employees of Perdue Farms in Georgia left the job after they said they were asked to work extra hours without a pay boost.
Even the already-unionized workers at General Electric are protesting: both to demand better precautions at the company's factories, and to insist GE step up efforts to start producing the ventilators and other key medical supplies the country is now in dire need of rather than lay people off.
That last detail is kind of key. Precisely because these workers are the ones delivering the goods and supplies the rest of us need to get through this pandemic, their safety is also our safety. Nor is this merely a happy convergence of self-interest: as the GE workers' protest shows, this sort of collective self-awareness and organizing for labor rights can also extend to and encompass a broader political defense of the public's needs as a whole.
The brutal irony is, precisely because these workers are so essential, their employers also have added leverage to get the most out of them, while sacrificing as little as possible for safety or better pay. The key tools those workers have to defend their own rights and interests — and, by extension, the interests of all Americans' — is their numbers, their solidarity, and their willingness to bring those crucial services to a halt until justice is done.
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