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In William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, later made into a film that won Meryl Streep an Academy Award, a young Polish woman named Sophie Zawistowska arrives at Auschwitz with her two children. She begs a Nazi camp doctor not to send her kids to the gas chambers. He offers her a sadistic choice: He’ll allow one to live, but she must choose which one. Otherwise he’ll gas both.
Imagine another Sophie: a 34-year-old single mom from Rock Springs, Wyo., who waits tables at a huge crowded truck stop on Interstate 80. There’s a high incidence of the coronavirus in environments like this, but her boss forbids her to wear a face mask, saying, “The drivers want to see your smile.” Her ex has been laid off from his job as a roustabout in a nearby oil field and can’t pay alimony. She’s a month overdue on her mortgage and desperately needs income. But her mother, who lives with her and takes care of Sophie’s toddler while she works the night shift, has severe emphysema and relies on an oxygen tank. How does she choose between her job and the risk of transmitting the infection to her mom?
Tens of millions of American workers have had to make or will have to make their own equivalent of Sophie’s choice. A Washington Post/Ipsos poll at the beginning of May found that more than a third of people who work outside their homes had a serious preexisting health condition or someone in their home who did. “Roughly 7 in 10 black and Hispanic workers said they were worried about getting a household member sick if they are exposed at work,” the Post noted.
In some states and industries, people are being forced back to work in hazardous conditions, still without adequate protection. Thousands have died because of Donald Trump’s heartless refusal to use the full extent of his powers under the Defense Production Act to ramp up the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE), but he has forcefully invoked the act to compel meat industry employees to return to processing lines, where they stand shoulder to shoulder for long hours in the cold—an environment almost as unsafe as being in a prison or a nursing home. The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents employees in meatpacking as well as others in food distribution and grocery chains, reported in late April that at least 74 members had died as a result of workplace-contracted coronavirus infections.
The Department of Labor, meanwhile, has ruled that workers who refuse to return to the job because of fear of infection are ineligible for expanded unemployment benefits; it has threatened that some could be considered as potential felons engaged in “unemployment fraud.” At the department’s urging, Ohio and Iowa have set up Internet hotlines to allow employers to anonymously report such individuals. Recalcitrant slaves must be whipped back to work.
Unless they fight back. Refusing to die for profits or endanger family members, rank-and-file workers have rebelled on a scale not seen since the early 1970s. Since mid-March, the useful Covid-19 Class Struggle timeline maintained by Marx21 has recorded at least 350 job actions. The real number could be as high as 500, and it’s growing every day.
While National Nurses United, the Service Employees International Union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, and a few other unions have sponsored walkouts, most have been informal protests or wildcat strikes, often coordinated by militant organizing campaigns such as Amazonians United, Whole Worker, Fight for $15, Target Workers Unite, and the Gig Workers Collective. Though some may receive support and financing from the SEIU and others, these are autonomous groups committed to inside organizing in the mode of the early Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). They banded together to organize the nationwide Essential Workers General Strike on May Day, when employees stayed home or demonstrated during lunchtime.
The rebellion naturally flies a rainbow flag. From the very beginning, African American workers—including bus drivers in Detroit and Birmingham, poultry workers in Georgia, Kroger warehouse workers in Memphis, sanitation workers in Pittsburgh and New Orleans, and fast food workers in Chicago and North Carolina—have been out front leading wildcat strikes against unsafe working conditions.
Asian American nurses, likewise, have stood outside hospitals in several dozen protests demanding PPE. Mexican immigrants are a backbone of resistance in Midwestern meat processing plants and in Washington’s Yakima Valley, which has the most per capita infections on the West Coast. Eight fruit-packing plants have gone on strike in an area notorious for the brutal suppression of farmworkers’ organizing campaigns.
The new movement has shown tactical genius in making protests safe by reviving the CIO’s old secret weapons: auto picket lines and solidarity convoys. Fight for $15 in Los Angeles and Chicago, where the demands include hazard pay, sick leave, and PPE, has repeatedly mobilized members to slowly circle in drive-through lines to disrupt unsafe business as usual at McDonald’s, El Pollo Loco, and other major franchises. In Chicago the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter has supported the campaign with placard-carrying caravans.
These are not just the stirrings of revolt but an ever-broadening insurgency led from the grass roots. But don’t expect to hear much about it on CNN or from The Washington Post. Most newsrooms are mesmerized instead by the gun-toting mobs on the steps of state capitols screaming for an end to the quarantine. (Neo-Nazis with assault rifles always guarantee prime-time coverage; that’s why the shrewd media tacticians in Trump world promote their participation.)
This reopen movement, of course, is completely orchestrated from the top down by the same right-wing operatives and billionaire sponsors who concocted the Tea Party. There are two networks involved. One, Save Our Country, rewarms the alliance between FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, with lavish funding from oilmen, defense contractors, and interests linked to the DeVos family. The other, Open the States, which operates the principal digital platform for the protests, grows out of a project originally financed by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, Trump’s most important backer in 2016.
As they have proved on innumerable occasions since the days of Ronald Reagan and the tax revolt, conservatives have a sophisticated understanding of the role of angry crowds and rude protests in winning elections and wielding power. Meanwhile, no centrist Democrat would think of issuing pitchforks to the base; their role, rather, is to disarm the movements that put them in office.
This certainly seems to be the mindset in the Joe Biden bunker; otherwise his camp would have realized in early March what an exceptional opportunity existed to build a national protest movement around worker safety and Trump’s refusal to nationalize and speed the production of test kits and PPE. What if—safely attired in PPE—“good ole Joe” had walked a picket line with striking nurses or dipped into his campaign treasury to fund ads built around the stories of people like Sophie the waitress?
Likewise, the Democrats could have raced to the rescue of the multitudes dying in nursing homes because the owners—reactionary private equity firms and piratical partnerships—were basically in the business of bilking Medicare instead of creating safe, infection-free environments for their residents. Nancy Pelosi could have scheduled emergency House hearings in April to expose the slaughter and demand immediate federal intervention.
Instead she has ruled the House with an iron hand, forcing her troops to vote for bipartisan relief bills that have awarded hundreds of billions of dollars of aid to big corporations and wealthy owners of nonunion companies. Only a handful of progressives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal, have resisted the pressure to accept such compromises without protest.
Those of us who love Bernie Sanders must recognize that he has not been an adequate counterforce against the inaction and parliamentary cretinism of the Democratic Party’s leadership under Pelosi and Biden. As always, Sanders applauds the strikers and pushes pro-worker solutions, but his energy seems mainly focused on negotiating with Biden over the role of progressive policies and people in a new administration.
As a result, tens of thousands of dispirited and disoriented activists—young people who otherwise might be roaring like lions in the streets—wait at home for instructions that never come. The vaunted dialectic of campaign as movement and vice versa increasingly looks like a one-way route to a very traditional destination.
But neither working families nor unemployed young adults can wait for a Biden inauguration, a second New Deal, or the Resurrection. The crisis, the impossible choices, are here and now. Body counts are again rising in some of the red states that reopened early—and no vaccine will arrive for at least half a year to make workplaces safe.
Also living precariously in the present are local and state governments, public colleges, and the US Postal Service, and without the nearly $1 trillion in aid promised in the Democrats’ Heroes Bill, they’ll soon be unable to meet the cost of expanded Medicaid and unemployment coverage, keep open public hospitals, operate public schools at 2019 levels, or prevent further, massive job losses in the public sector.
In the Senate, Mitch McConnell’s relief bills typically contain no rescue package for the public sector while demanding massive aid for the airlines and other major private-sector employers. By confronting the Democrats with a blue-government apocalypse, Republicans once again expect that Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will make devastating compromises.
Progressive Democrats in Congress, state legislatures, and city governments should refuse to pay a price in lives for the sake of party unity and a trickle down of relief. It’s time to end the phony war and take back the streets.
The first step is to support and publicize every example of workplace resistance, as well as the growing wave of rent strikes and fights to save the Postal Service and public education. The second should be a call for a National Day of Resistance in August, if not sooner.
Perhaps the most important duty of socialists, however, is to ensure that Sanders’s base is not further demobilized. We need to show them that there is a campaign—apart from the November elections—that calls for thousands of dedicated organizers and volunteers. Following the example of insurgent essential workers, we need to put real fire back into the hearth of solidarity.