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Workers can lead against Covid-19

In defense of life, health, and sanity

A year into the Biden Administration, and at the start of year three of the Covid-19 pandemic, a bi-partisan consensus is now apparent: reopening at all costs.  This is how we can identify the two capitalist parties, when push comes to shove they share a prime directive.  Centers of profits must produce, unimpeded. With the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)  leading the way, rank and file teachers in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere this week have shown the possibility of something different from death cult politics. Collective action in defense of our health, our lives, and our well-being over business as usual. 

We are still in the early stages of the Covid-19’s impact on humanity. So far, there have been over two hundred and ninety million infections worldwide with nearly five and a half million deaths. The U.S. passed 800,000 deaths just a short time ago with a projected 970,243 deaths to come by April 1, 2022. Covid-19 is not only the greatest public health hazard of our time, it is overwhelmingly a crisis for the international working class, their communities, and their workplaces. Not surprisingly, in the United States, it is working-class communities of color that have been hardest hit.

Diagram showing the number of COVID-19 (“Corona”) cases and deaths in the world. Graph by Hbf878.

Health care systems worldwide, not least in the United States, are on the verge of collapse due to the new Omicron surge. Nurses are leaving the system in droves, while profit-hungry medical industry capitalists have turned the previous system of traveling nurses into a mega business, further straining the system. A recent In These Times article summed it up pretty well:

Healthcare staffing, a $24 billion industry that also includes temporary medical doctors, dentists, and other specialists, has expanded during the past three decades in tandem with the overall growth of the temp industry. During the pandemic, the travel nurse sector expanded by 40 percent, according to the trade group Staffing Industry Analysts.

One estimate, from healthcare staffing firm SimpliFi, suggests travel nurses now account for 8 – 10 percent of the overall U.S. nursing workforce, up from 3 – 4 percent before the pandemic. Travel nurses may often make twice as much as those on staff in hospitals, even when they perform the same work.

In many cases, what this means in practice is that union jobs are being subcontracted out to non-union employers. Since many of these staffing companies are being paid out of emergency funds from FEMA, the federal government is weakening already beleaguered medical worker unions. If Trump was doing this, there would be an outcry, but since it is being done by the “pro-union” Joe Biden, there is silence.

What’s going on in the U.S. health care systems is doubly true for the education system. The end of the school year in higher education saw big outbreaks at campuses across the country. The  new push to fully open K through 12 at the beginning of 2022 is going to be a disaster of the first order. While the FDA has authorized vaccines for most teenagers—and will likely authorize one for pre-teens—the rates of infections throughout the fall rose sharply. The Guardian reported in October:

There have been more than 200,000 reported weekly cases among children in the past five consecutive weeks, with most cases spreading in areas with no school mask mandates in place and low vaccination rates, as vaccines for children under age 12 are still pending federal approval.

Several schools and school districts have periodically been forced to close in-person learning because of Covid exposure or high infection rates, leaving teachers struggling to continue their lessons through the disruptions.

Teachers and staff are exhausted and are expected to retire in historic numbers in the near future. Once again, the Guardian reports:

Nearly 10 percent of teachers in Providence, Rhode Island, either quit or retired early from the city’s school district before the school year began. Public schools in Michigan saw a 44 percent increase in midyear teacher retirements this past school year over the 2019-2020 school year. In Fort Worth, Texas, the school district had 314 vacant teacher jobs at the beginning of this school year, compared with 71 at the 2019-2020 school year, before the pandemic.

The CTU is in a continual battle with the Lightfoot administration in Chicago and represents the best example of an organized fight back to the Covid-19 death march. Unfortunately, most of the education unions in the big Democratic cities have accommodated themselves, however unwillingly, to the local school boards or mayors with a big push from behind the scenes from Biden’s Education Department to fully open the schools. This is not to argue there are no differences between Trump and Biden, but their top priority is the same: keeping businesses and the schools open.

The recent CDC guidelines, reducing the isolation period for Covid infected workers from ten days to five, are mind-boggling given the surge we are in. While Biden nationally, and de Blasio in New York City, have mandated vaccinations for private employers—something few if any Republicans would support—how this is to be enforced is unknown. Violence against flight attendants and retail workers is evidence of the problem. They have struggled to enforce mandates in their workplaces even though some states, including Illinois, made it a felony to assault a retail worker as far back as the summer of 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic remains, into the immediate future, the greatest occupational health crisis of our time, but OSHA is largely missing in action, whose penalties on employers are pathetic. The New York Times recent profile of JBS’s meatpacking plant in Greeley is revealing. The Times reported:

In crucial ways, much has changed for workers inside the long, low-slung slaughterhouse in Greeley, a city of roughly 100,000 people on the high plains of northern Colorado. In a new contract secured last summer, the union gained substantial raises from JBS, the Brazilian conglomerate that owns the plant. Colorado passed legislation mandating paid sick leave, after the state shut the plant for more than a week last year. Inside the slaughterhouse, dividers and partitions have been installed to help maintain social distancing.

Yet, it further reported:

Workers complain that many of the changes have been aimed at managing perceptions, while stubborn problems remain: not enough distance between people stationed at some parts of the assembly line, inadequate stocks of hand sanitizer, and subtle pressure to come to work even when they are ill.

JBS gave one worker’s family, who died from Covid last year, $6,000 towards funeral costs. According to the NYT, “For negligence leading to the deaths at the Greeley plant, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration later fined JBS $15,615.” This is worse than criminal.

Meanwhile, some of the big unions have not given full-throttle support for vaccine mandates that are necessary to protect workers. Some unions have won wage gains and sick leave from employers, but they have been also unwilling to take on the backward, sometimes straight up conspiracy theories riddled with anti-Chinese xenophobia or anti-Semitism that drives anti-Vaxx sentiment in their membership.

Where does this leave us as the third year of the pandemic begins? As socialists and internationalists, we should be calling for the end to the system of private patents and give our support to any effort to distribute vaccines internationally, as cheaply as possible. This may save us all from having to learn the entire Greek alphabet. We also need to push our unions, where they haven’t already done so, to stand clearly for 100 percent vaccinations of our workplaces with the fewest number of credible, science-based exceptions possible. To achieve this, we need to take on the backward ideas among our coworkers that help fuel anti-Vax sentiment. We need to support teachers and nurses and staff in possible job actions that force the public and private sector employers to create the safe working conditions that are deteriorating before our very eyes. And whether workers belong to unions or not, we need to support their efforts to keep their workplaces from being incubators of outbreaks.

While the past year has seen an important and welcome uptick in strikes, most of the struggles are about workers taking action out of desperation, not strength, while many of the settlements don’t solve the problems, such as exhausting work schedules, that drove people to the picket lines. This can create further cynicism about unions and collective action.

NYC educators and members of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) demonstrated on Janaury 5 for a one-week shift to remote learning, more testing for kids and teachers, and additional high-quality masks, among other measures. Photo by  District 15 teacher.

We are entering a dangerous phase of the pandemic. Our unions and workplaces are also in a dangerous moment. To bring an end to the cycle of Covid-19 spikes, to avoid the decline, if not an outright and systematic collapse of medical and educational institutions—to avoid a pandemic in perpetuity—we must build on the momentum of the educators in Chicago and elsewhere, and move into greater collective action.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Governor Tom Wolf Image modified by Tempest.

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