Filed under: Capitalism, Editorials, Labor, US
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Argues that the contradictions made bare by the coronavirus pandemic requires a broad response from the working-class.
By Anthony Pahnke
If there’s ever been a time to demand change, then that time is now.
From the undocumented workers in the fields picking our fruits and vegetables, to the truckers who are making shipments, it’s the folks who have been deemed the “essential workers” around the country who are quite literally keeping Americans alive during the coronavirus outbreak.
Some have had enough – the workers in Amazon’s warehouses, at Whole Foods, and Instacart are either engaging in work stoppages, or thinking about doing so. Perhaps later this week, or in the upcoming months as the crisis deepens, they may be joined by farmworkers, employees at grocery stores, and nurses.
And you know what? These people deserve more than a pleasant Facebook post or applause when they enter their place of employment – they should receive paid sick leave, a living wage, and affordable healthcare.
Raising such demands, now, is not only about what is right, or about justice – it’s also about leverage.
And perhaps the best way to really get these changes will involve the workers who are on the front lines of this pandemic, right now, to strike.
Is this risky? Yes. But then again, millions of workers struggling now were fairing quite poorly – close to 80% of people already report living paycheck to paycheck – before the coronavirus pandemic shocked the country into realizing that working people exist.
For the millions who are undocumented, they should have at the least full citizenship – not permanent residency, not a work permit – as they cook the food in restaurant kitchens for takeout and pick the strawberries, lettuce, and tomatoes that find their way into people’s homes.
Some may ask, what does the coronavirus have to do with immigration?
Well, it has everything to do with it!
Farmworkers, with the exception of the state of California, do not have the right to strike. These workers are also among the poorest in the country, with incomes ranging from $15,000 to $18,000. And something like seventy-five percent of them do not have legal status.
Here’s an idea – how about making it possible so that the folks who are picking much of the nation’s produce, have the right to raise grievances? If they have a problem with their work conditions, or with their employers, how about providing citizenship to undocumented folks so that they can organize without fear of being deported?
This is also about the people who frantically pack and ship orders of books, or consumer electronics, at Amazon warehouses. It’s also about the thousands of others who work for Lyft and Uber, in department stores such as Target, or at the places where people currently stand in lines to buy their food, say, at Costco, Trader Joe’s, or Kroger.
The workers at these places often have not one, but two, perhaps three jobs. Some are students, struggling to pay for college. Meanwhile, cities have become increasingly difficult to live within as rents increase, and health care costs leave many to neglect going to the doctor for fear of the bills.
And now, the virus has become the best ally for working people in the United States.
At a time when levels of unionization have fallen precipitously, this pandemic has made our survival dependent on many working people in very direct ways – picking and growing our food, delivering us basic necessities, and caring for us.
This dependence is the heart of working people’s strength – right now, if they stop working, then they have a decent change of forcing elites to answer their demands like no other time before.
Times have been good for the rich – for Bezos, Gates, and for the many other millionaires who have been generously rewarded for their investment decisions.
But tables have turned – stock dividends are not putting food on our plates as the coronavirus has shuttered restaurants. No, grocery workers are the people who are stocking the shelves so that everyone has something to eat.
So, if folks strike in the food, service, transport, and perhaps even in the healthcare industries, then we need to support them. We can work together to make a more just economy that ensures farmworkers the right to raise concerns and that provides warehouse workers the chance to earn a dignified wage.
There will be those who denounce such actions, saying that workers are trying to take advantage of the crisis. But, really, haven’t the owners taken their fair share already?
Now is the moment, perhaps the only one for the foreseeable future, when working people have the power to bend the arch of history in their favor. Their tactics may cause alarm, especially if they strike. But times such as the one we are living in are like pressure cookers – they are explosive.
We have described the problems in our economy for far too long. How many more stories and reports will we have to read documenting inequality? Now, if workers strike, they will be taking the chance to not write about poverty, but to do something about it. The question for everyone else is – what will you do?
Anthony Pahnke is the Vice President of the Family Farm Defenders and Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. He can be reached at [email protected]