Galley Slaves Oar-dered Back to Work

by Susan Rosenthal (5-4-20).
Under pressure from employers and right-wing organizations, governments are forcing people back to work, despite no evidence that this is safe.
According to the World Health Organization a pandemic ends when disease transmission is reduced to the level of occasional new cases and small clusters of new cases. This is achieved through testing, contact tracing, and isolation of the infected. As I explained in an earlier post, this is not possible in a penny-pinching capitalist framework.
We still have no reliable test for the virus, so we cannot know how many people are infected, how many are dying from COVID-19 (and not from other causes) and how quickly the disease is spreading.
This pandemic could have been prevented or contained. Failure to do so has allowed COVID-19 to become embedded in the human population, with devastating effects for the most vulnerable. It could take years to develop a safe vaccine. And vaccines are effective only when they are freely available to everyone. This is unlikely, given the billions of dollars being invested.
Half a dozen pandemics have emerged over the past few decades, and more are expected. Over a million unidentified viruses could make the leap from wild animals to human beings, as COVID-19 did. As long as the capitalist class remain in power, these new diseases will also escape containment to ravage humanity.
We are riding a pandemic roller-coaster. Lifting social restrictions will lead to a spike in infections, provoking new restrictions. When restrictions are loosened, another spike may develop, and so on.
Capitalists are desperate to resume production, regardless of the risk. They put out contradictory or falsely reassuring information. They cry crocodile tears about how workers must return to their jobs so they can pay their bills and how poor children need school meals. They could afford to provide these things, yet they refuse to do so. Capitalists profit from workers’ labor; there is no profit in paying them to stay home.
Workers rightly distrust that they would be safe on the job or that employers care that they are safe. They have three good reasons:
‘Essential’ workers are not being protected, so why would it be different for other workers? Instead of redesigning work for maximum safety, businesses are demanding legal protection from pandemic-related lawsuits if they reopen and workers die. And instead of defending workers’ right to be safe, governments threaten them with loss of unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to their jobs.
Workers are in an impossible position: return to work under conditions that could kill them, or avoid work and starve. This dilemma is as old as capitalism itself.
Class war
Workplace safety lies at the heart of the class war between capitalists and workers. Capitalists risk workers’ lives to extract maximum profit, and workers demand the right to preserve life, limb, and sanity.
At any particular time, the balance of power between the two classes determines the level of workplace safety. As bosses gain power, they sacrifice safety in order to raise productivity. As workers gain power, they force improvements in safety.
Decades of capitalist assault have made work more dangerous and life more precarious.
Prior to COVID-19, American workers were suffering an epidemic of deaths of despair. ‘Normal’ had become intolerable. The risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job is a final straw that is breaking the willingness of workers to accept the unacceptable.
Fight back
The global economy serves as a transmission belt for disease. Currently, half the world’s workers face the immediate risk of losing their livelihood, if not their lives, to this pandemic. At the same time, international production and supply chains connect workers in all nations, making it possible to coordinate international struggles.
Before COVID-19, mass political protests had reached an historic high. Social restrictions interrupted this surge, but only temporarily. This pandemic has given the world’s workers a common cause – survival.
Across the globe, people are refusing to work without personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay, paid sick leave, and cleaning supplies on the job. The US has seen more than 150 pandemic-related wildcat strikes, some spanning multiple cities. And this is just the beginning.
Lifting pandemic-related restrictions will release a tsunami of pent-up demand that could challenge capitalist control.
Bosses retaliate
Who will pay for trillion-dollar government bailouts and lost corporate profits? If capitalists have their way, it will be the working class, just as they forced workers to take the fall for the 2008 recession. The current crisis is much deeper, pushing the stakes much higher.
To protect their profits, bosses counter workers’ demands with force.
They use the force of starvation – work under our rules or starve. They use the force of unemployment to drive down wages. They use the force of the media to blame people for getting sick. They use the force of racism to divide workers. And they use the force of the State to target troublemakers, attack protestors, break strikes, and bust unions.
Some call for shutting down the economy for as long as it takes to end the pandemic. This is not doable under capitalism because workers need a wage to survive, and the system refuses to support them to stay home.
Some argue that the working class can “use the power of the government” to make needed change. This crisis has starkly revealed that government serves as the glove for the capitalist fist.
Some call for mass strikes. This is premature. Capitalists treat mass strikes as a declaration of war, which they are, and workers have not yet built the political clarity and organizational base necessary to win such a war. The capitalists have littered history with the murdered corpses of failed worker uprisings. If we aim to win, we must lay the groundwork.
One anti-union consultant warned that “current employee insecurities” are increasing workplace disruptions and raising interest in joining unions. He reassuringly concluded that most unions are not equipped to take advantage of this opportunity. He has a point.
While organized workers have power to force improvements in job safety, union bureaucrats often sacrifice worker safety in contract bargaining.
Union executives manage the labor force for capitalism, and they cannot see beyond the existing system of worker exploitation. In a recent public statement, four top union executives wrote,
We look forward to sitting down with the nation’s business leaders, as well as the leaders of governments, universities, hospitals and school systems, to hammer out agreements that will restore profits and economic growth as we emerge from this crisis, and protect as many jobs as possible as we battle it.

Labor activists rightly condemn this as class collaboration. As they put it, “The only way to protect the lives and livelihoods of working people is through class struggle, not class snuggle.”
To escape the suffocating weight of union bureaucracy, workers need to build democratic, member-controlled unions that will not compromise their rights. [If only this was so easy. –former founding member & delegate for local 360, residential carpenters union, Olympia–]
If we must work, WE must set the terms
Capitalists need workers to produce profits, so they deprive them of any way to survive other than to work for a wage. At the same time, the economic role of workers gives them power to negotiate the conditions under which they will work.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) has drawn up a workers’ Bill of Rights that includes: personal protective equipment, testing for COVID-19, safe staffing, proper training, input into decisions that impact their work, and protection for whistleblowers. Such declarations can be used to build workplace and community campaigns.
Workers can do more than set the terms of exploitation; they can redirect production and society.
An injury to one is an injury to all
Social crises demand social solutions, and workers are stepping up to the plate with demands that reach beyond the walls of their workplace.
After General Electric announced mass layoffs, workers in Massachusetts demanded that the company’s jet engine factories be reopened or converted to produce badly needed ventilators. Within a week, their protest spread to factories in New York, Texas, and Virginia.
Chicago teachers’ strikes not only demanded more pay and smaller classes, but also more school nurses and librarians, anti-racist hiring, and improved learning and living conditions, including access to affordable housing. These class demands won broad community support.
The concerns of healthcare workers also align with those of the people they serve. A coalition of health and social service workers’ unions launched a petition calling on the governor of California to secure their safety at work and also suspend rent payments, ban evictions, guarantee paid leave during the crisis, and establish universal access to free medical care.
All over the world, legions of ordinary people are producing, at their own expense and for no compensation, thousands of masks and gowns that the ruling class failed to provide.
Knitting ourselves together
Forcing workers to return to unsafe jobs will release an explosion of class rage. The challenge is how to connect rising struggles without reproducing the top-down elitism of the managerial class.
A successful workers’ revolt cannot be ‘managed from above.’ Workers must liberate themselves. Anything else would simply trade one master for another.
Workers cannot rely on bosses, bureaucrats, or experts to fight for them; they must fight for themselves and each other. And they are perfectly capable of doing this.
While capitalists accumulate capital, workers accumulate something far more valuable: skills, experience, problem-solving abilities, common interest, and the ability to cooperate. This is the workers’ wealth and, unlike money or capital, it grows the more it is shared.
Power for the working class means more than having a seat at the capitalist table. It means owning the table. It means workers deciding together what needs to be done and who will do it. No one is more qualified to make such decisions than those who actually do the work. As one Chicago teacher put it,
The strike has changed the conversation about education in Chicago. It made clear that we are the experts on education, not these consulting firms, not these millionaire dilettantes. They have a lot of money to throw around, but they’re not educators.

A central database
Workers are an international class, yet they are divided by workplace, industry, nation, and a host of other divisions based on skin color, gender, religion, status, etc. These divisions enable capitalists to defeat workers by pitting them against each other.
We can build working-class power by knitting struggles together, stitch by stitch, to build inter-union and inter-national networks of activists.
No worker should have to reinvent the wheel of effective struggle.
We need to construct an international database that gathers information about workers’ struggles from all over the world, a database that enables any worker to submit information and encourages all workers to discover who is fighting where, what was achieved, what worked and what didn’t, and what was learned.
Armed with such information, workers can build on each other’s successes, learn from each other’s setbacks, and forge international solidarity over common class concerns.
Many organizations, such as PayDay Report and Labour Start, collect strike information. Others draw lessons from major strikes. These are some of the building blocks on which a more extensive and international database could be constructed.
The capitalist class and their State cannot end this pandemic; they can only manage the damage, just as they ‘manage’ all the maladies that plague humanity because there is no profit in ending them.
The political downturn of the past 50 years is over. A new era of class struggle has begun.
The only way out of this deadly crisis is through revolutionary social transformation – from capitalist rule to workers’ rule. This path runs directly through the workplaces of the world.

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One Response to Galley Slaves Oar-dered Back to Work

  1. admin says:

    The virus has confirmed everything, every single one of us is connected. We cannot say the virus is over there and not over here. The virus (and its heirs) respect no political. racial, class, gender, or ethnic boundary. We truly are our brother’s keeper inasmuch as the chain of humanity is only as strong as the weakest link.

    American capitalism as we know it is gone forever. It has demonstrated it is far too fragile in a crisis with its extended supply chains, its just in time inventory control, its race to the bottom wages and environmental degradation, its unending genocidal wars, and its presumption all the pearls in the world oyster belong to it.

    Finally, the monopoly game Karl Marx predicted has reached its conclusion. The game stops when one party has it all, the cash, Boardwalk, Park Place, the utility companies (now even the for profit jails), the banks, the hotels, the theme parks, the theaters, the factories, the schools, hospitals, forests…you name it. But the kid sitting at the table alone with all the pieces and fiat currency isn’t having a lot of fun. Now what? Nobody wants to play HIS game now, and all that Monopoly script won’t get him a cup of coffee. THE GAME IS OVER!

    Well, that is what is going on right now as we witness the greatest opening shots of hyperinflation and transfer of wealth in history. It’s not even unique to America as central banks around the world are following suit. Even the petite bourgeoisie are now angry as the elite oligarchs cannibalize their own children (landlords) as the government simply takes what it wants from who it wants without even a semblance of Due Process or just compensation. The name of the game is Devil take the hindmost in spades without a fig leaf of law behind it. How/why is this happening?

    Trump has said he will raise tariffs to punish China, remove supply chains from their grasp, seize China’s U.S. assets, and refuse to pay China our lawful debts owed–an economic war footing in all but name only. U.S. workers can expect the same treatment and have.

    It’s NOT true that the average American consumer files bankruptcy due to credit card debt, despite the predatory lending involved. That’s a myth. I’ve been a professional bankruptcy preparer since before 1990–have done thousands. I live in a very rural county where the average income is below the national poverty level. Most of my clients are NOT crippled by CC debt, but by medical bills they cannot possibly afford. The average American bears a CC debt slightly north of $6,000. When my clients reach me, their medical bills are too often orders of magnitude greater than that.

    Who would have thought a couple of years ago if you’d hoarded 1,000 barrels of crude, it would be treated like used tires and you’d have to PAY someone $37.50/barrel to take it off your hands? Disney as an asset? Not when the theme parks, theaters, cruise ships, and hotels are all empty! Gold? Well, OK, it’s never going to ZERO but it’s not very liquid when would-be buyers are dead and the currency is as well. Common caliber bullets? Now that could prove to be a real Depression proof asset. DIY bullet molds and presses?–even better. A little food and dry goods wouldn’t hurt either, along with a dependable source of safe clean drinking water. The most dangerous place to be for now is in a metropolitan area. Search for a remote rural location with water. In fact, the race is already on. You may have waited too long already.

    Why does the DOW, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 (in turmoil) keep going up despite unending bad news day after day after week after month with NO fundamentals supporting it on our road to the most severe Depression in American history?

    Simply hyperinflation at work. Can the market exist indefinitely outside the reality of the economy? Is Wall Street on another planet from Main Street? Do all bubbles eventually burst? Do they burst with a louder pop the bigger the bubble? Almost all serious observers acknowledge there are no fundamentals supporting this bubble–only Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury fiat $’s. What we’re actually seeing (think hard about this) is the devaluing of the $ through hyperinflation. It takes ever more $ to buy market assets. And THOSE assets (most) are racing headlong toward bankruptcy. As they do, they will set off a domino effect chain reaction. Death comes not like a thief in the night so much as in violent fits and starts ever more chaotic and volatile until all systems collapse. Meat & toilet paper aren’t hard to come by in a healthy economy. And the virus hasn’t even caught its 2nd wind yet. This is a thirsty man’s dessert oasis mirage.

    NEW YORK (Reuters) – A newly revised coronavirus mortality model predicts nearly 135,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 by early August, almost double previous projections, as social-distancing measures for quelling the pandemic are increasingly relaxed, researchers said on Monday.

    So what happens when those companies can’t pay back the money they owe to the FED? The answer is the Fed will buy even more of their corporate (junk) bonds through not just Quantitative Easing of its balance sheet, but now, Qualitative Easing–the death knell of all confidence in the $. If they default, who cares, the average American will eat that loss. We have to protect the elite and their golden parachutes. The American chapter of the Arab Spring is at hand.

    Corporations, even/especially the biggest, will default on the bonds, declare bankruptcy, their creditors (the Fed) will assume ownership of their remaining assets, and the market will either crash or the Fed will continue its course of hyperinflation, stealing value from cash savings, and allowing the government to pay its debts with 0 value fiat $’s, if it pays them at all. The government will accelerate its seizure of private property without compensation already underway (no evictions & no collections of rental $ owed through lawsuit, garnishment, or even the hint of the same). Ultimately, the public will lose any confidence in the $ which will be worthless. The race to the bottom between asset values and the $ will be unprecedented in U.S. history. The U.S. government will collapse, and a Totalitarian state will replace it. Private property will officially become a fiction and the U.S. a 3rd rate world power.

    The effects of Hyperinflation (already underway), then a prolonged severe Depression are predictable on Wall Street and Main Street. Plan/invest accordingly.

    Office/commercial real estate will take a hit as virtual offices become the norm, Hotels/motels will sell for cheap. Homes will drop in price despite low % rates as banks won’t issue mortgage loans to families on the dole. You’ll be able to pickup stocks/assets on the cheap after the election if you have the dough re mi. Miles long lines at food banks across the nation will turn into food riots. Metropolitan centers will be torched in protest, and as was the case in Watts, Detroit, and Newark, national guardsmen will be given orders to shoot their countrymen on sight.

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