Coronavirus is a danger for essential workers — but also an opportunity
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare a lot of perversities in American society. But one of the most glaring is this: Many of the workers deemed "essential" in this crisis are also among the most poorly paid and poorly treated in our economy. Food workers typically bring home no more than $12 an hour; nursing home staff often make even less. Grocery store clerks, child care and eldercare providers, trash collectors, shipping, delivery and warehouse workers — they're all out there right now, risking their safety to keep the basic organs of the U.S. social body functioning, despite compensation in normal times that treats them as implicitly valueless and disposable.
But if the coronavirus is a moment of danger and exploitation for essential workers, it is also one of great opportunity. It's a harsh thing to state bluntly, but one great piece of bargaining power everyday employees have is their ability to simply stop working when their employers — when society — need them to keep doing their jobs.
Throughout the history of the labor movement, railway workers, postal workers, steel workers, police officers and others have demonstrated that by simply walking off the job en masse, they can bring daily commerce and social life to a screeching halt. In a for-profit capitalist economy such as ours, there is overwhelming inertia against workers' demands to be paid better, to get job benefits, or even to just work in dignified and safe conditions. All these things cost their employers' money to provide, after all. And that eats into profits. Simply shutting down the economy's ability to produce food, ship goods, or build structures has been one of the few tools workers have to overcome that inertia, break through the cacophony of everyday capitalist life, and make themselves heard. Which is precisely why, before the creation of modern labor law tried to bring some rules to the labor vs capital conflict, employers and businesspeople often reacted to strikes with such violence and brutality.
Crisis, in other words, provides the opening to push for a more decent and more just society. And a crisis is certainly what we're in now. While the mass joblessness created by the coronavirus recession has undone the bargaining power of many workers (the higher unemployment is, the more labor is a "buyers' market," favoring owners and employers), companies that employ essential workers have gone on a hiring binge as demand for their services rockets upwards. Firms such as Amazon and Walmart are looking to employ over one hundred thousand new workers a piece. This burst of demand relative to supply shifts the dynamic, creating a sellers' market for labor, and giving essential workers even more leverage to press their cause.
America hasn't experienced a society-wide work stoppage in any major sector during the coronavirus pandemic. But you can see the inklings of one emerging: Employers like Amazon, Target, Instacart, McDonalds, General Electric, and even the City of Detroit have faced walk outs (or "sick outs"), protests, and strikes, first in a wave a few weeks ago, and now again this past week. Workers are demanding better pay, yes, but also better treatment and safety procedures: meaningful sick leave, protective supplies like masks and hand sanitizer, better procedures for safety while interacting with customers, closures and cleanings of warehouses and stores where there's been a COVID-19 case. Some companies have responded with modest increases in hazard and bonus pay, safety procedures, paid sick leave, and other changes. But others, such as Amazon, have also responded with firings of protesters and crackdowns on organizers. At the very least, it seems obvious the response thus far has not been nearly enough to assuage workers concerns. Earlier this month, Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of California Santa Barbara, told The Nation that a general strike across whole economic sectors — or even across the entire country — "is not inconceivable."
Will whatever gains essential workers make during the coronavirus pandemic hold after the crisis has passed? The central tension here is between America's need for — and valorization of — essential workers in the here and now, and the measly pay and conditions they enjoy under normal times, even though their work is no less critical to society's ability to keep running.
Ask economists and experts why it is that way in normal times, and they'll point to matters like skills and standard market forces: It does not take much education to haul trash or stock shelves or deliver packages, the supply of people who can do this work is abundant relative to the demand for them, thus their price — i.e. their pay and treatment and compensation — remains low. But this is entirely too pat: Who gets an education and who does not is a matter of luck and fortunate birth to the right family, not of inherent ability or merit. Nor is demand for workers some natural force that we are powerless before, but a choice our policymakers have made: Our government focuses on "fiscal discipline" and "tight money" precisely because doing these things keeps demand for labor in check, workers' pay low, and profits for owners high.
Beyond that, the market itself is not some necessary thing ordained by God. If we decide that the way the market treats essential workers in normal times is a moral travesty — and if the coronavirus has taught us anything, it should've taught us that — then we can simply stop relying on market forces to set workers' pay. We can hike the minimum wage, re-empower unions, hand corporate boards over to worker-elected representatives, institute sectoral bargaining, and more. Beyond making demands of employers, a series of big coronavirus strikes across the country would also be a way for working people to make demands of our elected policymakers.
Strikes, of course, are brutally hard on the workers who carry them out. They must figure out ways to survive without pay for the duration, and outlast employers and owners who are far wealthier and more resourced than they. Workers' one advantage here is their numbers, and their ability to collectively organize and cooperate to support one another through such a trial. But more than that, these strikes are hard because essential workers know that they are essential — they care about the people and customers who depend on them to keep the food and deliveries coming, to keep looking after their children and elders.
In a recent interview with Ezra Klein, the long-experienced labor organizer Jane McAlevey recalled how one of the biggest hurdles to putting together the Los Angeles teachers' strike in 2019 was the teachers' worry for the well-being of their students and the students' families. They overcame that obstacle through the hard and constant work of both organizing teachers and communicating with neighborhoods and families, so that everyone understood each others' reasons. The teachers also incorporated students' needs into their strike demands: they struck for better student-to-teacher ratios, and for protections for immigrant families against arrest and deportation. This point applies to the coronavirus strikes as well: The safety of grocery clerks and package handlers and caretakers and food workers is also our safety. Part of their jobs to keep our lives going is to be in contact with the rest of us. If they get sick, we get sick.
Furthermore, many of the larger demands essential workers can force with a general strike would spill over to benefit the rest of us. Better wage contracts won for essential sectors will benefit other low-paid workers as well. Millions of Americans staying home or telecommuting right now would also benefit from a minimum wage increase, from a national paid sick leave system, from sectoral bargaining. This does not even end with strictly economic considerations: With the Democrats in Congress apparently cowed by the Republicans, and unwilling to leverage this crisis themselves, what else could force a national vote-by-mail system by November — and thus preserve the health of U.S. democracy — other than a general strike across the nation demanding such a policy?
The basic point the coronavirus has made is that our essential workers deserve better from us. They have always deserved better from us. Indeed, the very fact that they are now called "essential," and hailed throughout our culture as heroes, makes this even plainer. "There demands [have been] legitimized by other people in authority and power and prestige," Lichtenstein continued. "Workers feel a sense of empowerment in their new, essential roles — which makes them even more outraged when their employers don't live up to the moment and take steps to protect and compensate them adequately."