In late March, 31-year-old father of three and Amazon worker Christian Smalls was on his lunch break when he decided to organize a strike with 50 of his colleagues.
He was working the floor of a Staten Island Amazon fulfillment center, alongside 5,000 others, and he felt that all of their lives were in danger. He noticed that his coworkers were becoming sick and that the company was not effectively sanitizing their equipment. When Barbara Chandler, his colleague at the site, was confirmed positive for COVID-19, she was told by Human Resources to keep it on the “down low.” Yet ignoring health issues has never been exceptional for Amazon management. In the 855,000 sq. ft facility, workers work ten hours a day at a constant, fast pace to fulfill their daily quotas, lest their performance evaluations sink, which they readily do. Time spent using restrooms is considered “time off task.” At Mr. Smalls’ Staten Island facility, 66% of 145 surveyed employees reported experiencing physical pain while performing their job duties. Frustrated by management’s apathy amidst a global pandemic, he took his anger to task.
With 50 of his colleagues, Mr. Smalls called on Amazon management to close its facility for thorough cleaning and demanded hazard pay, more rigorous safety protocols, and greater transparency. Two hours later, he received a phone call from upper management. He was fired.
The grounds of his termination were made clear when Vice News leaked internal notes from an Amazon executive meeting, at which CEO Jeff Bezos was present. It is illegal to fire an employee in New York for striking. Their solution? Indict him for endangering other workers by not following a paid quarantine order that only he received. Deflect an oncoming wave of bad press; smear him as “not smart, or articulate.” Finally, “[lay] out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail — if possible make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” During this meeting, General Counsel David Zapolsky made the case for a total character assassination of Mr. Smalls to a room of executives.
Megacorporations like Amazon have a market incentive to convince us that the pandemic is affecting everyone equally. By branding work as a kind of selfless grind, public intervention is avoided, and profits continue their undisrupted flow from the bottom-up. Behind an Amazon executive honoring their “retail heroes” on Twitter, there is a workforce of millions held hostage by their company under the threat of unemployment, homelessness, and death. Billionaires and CEOs like Elon Musk offer concessionary PR gifts to the commons, like bunk ventilators, and are lauded for their charity. In exchange for the bare minimum, they are given free press and relative immunity from scrutiny in the mainstream media. Companies are indulging in profitable PR campaigns honoring their employees for their selfless work while providing little to no advances in hazard pay, personal protective equipment, or sick leave. The glass spheres towering over Amazon’s Seattle campus recently glowed a sterile blue to honor frontline workers. Meanwhile, for people who are immunocompromised or live in food deserts, online ordering becomes a necessary measure to avoid risking a trip to the supermarket — they likely rely on delivery services like Amazon or Instacart for food. For those who are homeless, or for those who are currently incarcerated, the chances of catching coronavirus are extraordinarily high, and the quality of healthcare if infected remains abysmally low. Our low-wage workers have spontaneously been promoted to “essential workers,” but are dispensable once they ask to be compensated fairly. Despite the veil of charity and service that corporations continue to advertise, workers bear the brunt of relentless exploitation even if they are most susceptible to illness or death. The stakes of extreme class inequality have never been greater than within a global pandemic. While there is a momentous public health case for sweeping labor reform and social safety nets, our advanced capitalist democracy’s response could only ever have been incremental change or none at all.
But with so many reasons to fall into despair, workers are now striking in droves. On March 31, Whole Foods employees organized a nationwide “sick-out” to demand doubled hazard pay from Amazon. Gig workers who work for companies like Uber and Instacart, many of whom are independently contracted, are refusing to work in response to inadequate hazard pay and support for at-risk individuals. They are organized by a non-union nonprofit entity known as the Gig Workers Collective, a newly formed group of self-described “first responders.” Fast food workers across 50 restaurants in California organized a walk-off strike on April 9 to demand more personal protective equipment (PPE), increased hazard pay, and paid sick leave. Amid mass layoffs, many General Electric factory workers are demanding their sites be transformed into ventilator manufacturing plants — to huge success. Even nurses, frustrated with constant shortages of ventilators, N95 masks, and other PPE, have organized a nationwide strike on April 15th. Across the country, unions are fighting to their last breath to protect our workers.
The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the US’ largest federation of unions, recently published a list of priorities addressed to the federal government regarding the novel labor issues caused by coronavirus. The list includes many rapid-response measures to directly protect workers during the pandemic. These include subsidizing payrolls for struggling sectors such as the airline industry, instituting new worker safety standards, and guaranteeing 14 days of paid sick leave to all workers.
Facing mass layoffs, many of our nation’s 40 million renters find themselves unable to pay rent. Amidst a lack of state protections, they, too, are organizing. In the period from April 1st through April 5th, the National Multifamily Housing Council reported about a third of 13.4 million surveyed renters did not pay rent. Many tenants across the country are advocating for city and statewide rent freezes. The Philadelphia Tenant Union recently moved to advocate for a city-wide rent strike for the duration of the crisis. New York tenant coalition Housing For All is also advocating for city-wide rent and mortgage payment freezes. Many individual tenants are even making use of their time spent quarantined to organize with their neighbors to pressure their landlords to freeze rent payments. The National Consumer Law Center has since reported that more than a dozen states have moved to temporarily halt evictions.
While these workers and tenants are organizing and striking, companies are now becoming less and less willing to risk the bad optics of terminating protesters. The pandemic has revived in many organizers a sense of urgency to demand better rights for workers.
What we are seeing is the extent to which the material inequalities produced by capitalism can exacerbate the deadly repercussions of natural crises like pandemics. When a worker is exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace yet is forced to continue working, it travels to their family, their community, and beyond. Suddenly, a sick worker is no longer just a financial liability — he is a public health risk. When the safety of a worker becomes the concern of the public, a strong case is made for more safe working environments, better wages, and a national healthcare system that doesn’t rely on employers. Not only this, but the extent to which corporations are not doing enough is making workers like Christian Smalls realize just how little their livelihoods matter to these companies.
As the repercussions of COVID-19 ravaged nearly every sector of the market, our world’s richest struck really, really lucky. When jobless claims soared to 6.6 million in the week ending March 28, Bezos reaped the profits of the best 3-day stock market period since 1933. He sold $3.4 billion in shares in the first week of February, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit the US in full swing. On March 26 alone, he saw his fortunes rise by $3.9 billion. The average annual salary for an Amazon warehouse employee is about $31,000.
There is simply no modern precedent to the situation our world is currently facing. A whopping 22 million figure for jobless claims in the week ending April 11th is only comparable to rates seen during the Great Depression. Even during the 2008 financial recession, jobless claims had only peaked on March 28, 2009, at 655,000: only 3% of our current figure. Our country is currently permeated with unemployment, and it’s leaving people disillusioned, alienated, and in shock. One effect of the massive rise in unemployment is the recent movement of people protesting against stay-at-home orders, dubbed “Operation Gridlock.” Across the country, conservative demonstrators have gathered to demand from their politicians the right to return to work. Gridlock’s constituents, too, are grappling with the shock to a system that we have all, to some extent, gotten used to. For our workers who cannot quarantine at home, or for our people without homes, or for our sick without the ability to go to the hospital, the actions that our Left must take now will help shape how our most vulnerable will make it out of this pandemic.
Significantly, many of these workers who are now striking are non-union. Over the years it has become increasingly hard for workers to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration recently rolled back many hard-fought advances for unions. Union membership has fallen from 23.6% in 1980 to just 10.7% in 2017 and continues to diminish by each passing year. The scope of American union bargaining power is dwindling. We must be prepared to reconcile with a reality where wildcat strikes and non-union structures become new primary actors in affecting labor reform.
This may all seem like ample reason for despair, but our country has a hidden history of homegrown wildcat strikes. Recall that the main catalyst that unionized the U.S. postal service was a massive wildcat strike organized by rank and file workers in 1970, under the Nixon administration. Before the strike, postal union lobbying had yielded no gains, and collective bargaining was not lawfully permitted to US postal workers. Workers reported poor, unsafe working conditions, and low wages. When workers across the country organized an eight-day strike in March of 1970, Nixon declared a national emergency and called upon US armed forces and the National Guard to break the strike and distribute mail. It was the largest wildcat strike in US history. It crippled the national mail system, depreciated the stock market, and brought the Nixon administration to its knees. Soon after, Nixon dissolved the U.S. Post Office Department and created the new U.S. Postal Service, which included for all workers the right to negotiate on wages, benefits, and working conditions.
Now, at a time when the imposition of extreme austerity measures remains a significant possibility, we should not rely on only our victimhood to propel us into action. We should challenge ourselves to create, if not build upon, lasting collective bargaining structures that will withstand until after the end of this crisis. Our current dire circumstances are enabling workers to demand changes that reflect the seriousness of the pandemic, like masks for workers, rent freezes, and paid sick leave. However, it remains to be seen whether or not this moment of collective bargaining will be able to sustain after the virus is contained.
The coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that the system we currently live in is under no obligation to make any sense to you. It will also be demonstrated that the state will readily spend as much as it needs to keep our most wealthy afloat. Many are speculating that the conditions of this pandemic will spur a new labor movement on an unprecedented scale. In the deeply uncertain world that exists after the pandemic, a re-energized labor movement in America must keep fighting and toughen up for what’s to come.