From the sectoral to the local: Re-imagining labor and the left in a time of crisis

While the unintended economic disaster now unfolding throughout the world is unprecedented, the progressive left must heed the lessons of disasters like Katrina, Maria and wars of aggression in places like Iraq to be ready to confront the potentially life and death struggles ahead.


“The essential point here is that all people with small, insecure incomes are in the same boat and ought to fighting on the same side.”

-George Orwell

Although it’s probably already grown beyond this number, at least 40 million Americans are out of work due to the ongoing health crisis, with many facing desperate choices in terms of making ends meet. Alongside this, as reported by The Hill, some 27 million have lost their access to healthcare, a direct consequence of the country’s mostly employer based system.

Despite this, the country’s federal government, including the Democratic-controlled lower house, have, in the main, responded to the emergency by handing out money to the very largest business interests, quite a few of the donors to both of the country’s main political parties and some of whom may be registered off shore to avoid paying taxes.

Despite the generosity shown to these politically connected interests on the part of the country’s taxpayers, there is already a cult-like push, mainly on the right, to herd workers back to their places of employment to save ‘the economy’ while the pandemic still rages in many parts of the United States.

Rather than ensuring that these workers are truly ready to resume their labors and that their places of employment are safe, Republicans especially seem more interested in ensuring companies are protected from liability if their employees become sick in the rush to return to some kind of pre-crisis normal.

As Mitch McConnell, whose turtle like demeanor often obscures his immense influence over both the Senate and the current presidential administration recently explained, “If there’s any red line, it’s on litigation. The litigation epidemic has already begun. As of the end of last week, one report had it that 771 lawsuits had already been filed. This is going to impact our ability to begin to get back to work.”

In many U.S. states, workers, regardless of their individual circumstances, are being given no choice but to return to their jobs.

As explained by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “As states begin to authorize businesses to reopen, and as some businesses take it upon themselves to reopen, governors have been threatening workers who refuse to return to work that they will lose their unemployment insurance. Indeed, just this week, DOL issued misleading guidance calling on employers to report to state UI agencies any workers who refuse to return to work.”

Although the efforts of political leaders like Bernie Sanders, their voices lifted by committed organizers and activists, really helped the Fight for $15 movement gain traction in recent years, mainly in support of workers who suddenly found themselves deemed ‘essential’ in the crisis, there is a very good chance that a potentially huge labor surplus caused by it will reverse this positive trend.

As originally reported by Bloomberg, there is a real danger that salaries will go down in the months and possibly years ahead, accelerating a worrying, decades long trend and damaging the real economy in the process, “…the share of national income that goes to U.S. workers in the form of compensation already is near the lowest level in more than half a century. And there’s no guarantee salaries will return quickly to pre-crisis levels. The pace may depend on government support for the economy, to ensure people have money to spend on goods and services once the pandemic is over.”

Although on the left we generally like to concentrate on grassroots efforts that give individual workers agency, politicians like Sanders and other, more establishment oriented ones like Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau here in Canada should be encouraged to advocate for large scale sectoral bargaining that would cover whole industries during this emergency and beyond.

Although an argument can be made that unions big enough to include all workers in a particular industry would be so large as to make effective individual participation more difficult, this moment of economic crisis demands organizations of scale that can win fights for their members against big business interests, including multi-nationals that have both the political connections and financial means to escape regulation.

Encapsulating this pragmatic approach, as reporter Hamilton Nolan wrote for In These Times, “I would much rather hand millions of new workers over to labor organizers and say, “They’ve been unionized by legal fiat—now go in and organize them into real union members” than to say, “Here are 50 million tenuously employed workers at cutthroat mega-corporations with no safety net and also all of labor law is arrayed against you being able to get a certified union. Good luck.”

On a smaller scale, we are already beginning to see some positive developments as unions like the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) join with sympathetic groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to advocate for and offer resources to all workers regardless of union membership in the hope of involving more people in a variety of struggles to create a more just world and creating the kinds of interpersonal connections that can outlast the current crisis.

As Mark Meinster, an International Representative for the UE, explained in an interview on the web-site for Jacobin Magazine about the strategies being developed, “In recent years there’s been an organizing concept developed called distributed organizing. You see it increasingly in the political space, and the Sanders campaign has taken it to a whole new level. Essentially what it amounts to is engaging large groups of committed volunteers to take on tasks that ordinarily staff people would take on, which allows you to scale work up to a much higher level. And if there’s one movement that needs to figure out how to do that, it’s the labor movement. There’s no way you can rebuild the labor movement in this country solely on the basis of paid staff doing the organizing.”

Alongside community efforts at mutual aid to offer immediate help to those most impacted by the economic consequences of lockdowns, workers and their advocates at all levels need to understand that the current economic model has come to view calamity as opportunity.

As Naomi Klein wrote about earlier tragedies in her important 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, “in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure—whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or, as the Bush administration would later show, a terrorist attack.”

While the unintended economic disaster now unfolding throughout the world is unprecedented, the progressive left must heed the lessons of disasters like Katrina, Maria and wars of aggression in places like Iraq to be ready to confront the potential life and death struggles ahead.


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