The collective power of the pandemic's essential workers

As COVID-19 continues claiming lives, many workers remain vulnerable to exposure. Will they fight back by withholding their labor?

empty grocery store illustration

(Valerie Niemeyer/Crosscut)

Lately, I have been thinking about the poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” from Ilya Kaminsky’s recent book Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019). His poem begins, “And when they bombed other people’s houses we/protested/but not enough, we opposed them but not/enough,” and ends, “[in] our great country of money, we (forgive us)/lived happily during the war.” This seems to me a poignant description of what it feels like to live, for some of us, in the United States of America now. Perhaps not much more needs to be said.

But a lot more needs to be said. Many people are not living happily, are not living safely (which is part of Kaminsky's point). As the novel coronavirus continues to claim lives across the globe, many of us are affected only in spirit — our psyches worn down by the news, the isolation, while our physical health remains mostly protected. I am talking, of course, about people who can work from home or who are well off enough to survive for months on end without work. People who can have food delivered to their houses, talk to their medical professionals on Zoom, use this time to improve their cooking, learn another language or build sheds in their backyards. People whose future is more or less assured (as much as any future can be­).

Frankly, I am talking about me. Only a few years ago, I would have been on the other side of the ledger, either out of work during my restaurant worker days (though presumably protected from the depredations of poverty by my middle-class family) or compelled to employment back when I used to work in a grocery store. Now I work for a labor union that represents workers in many essential industries — grocery, health care, retail pharmacy — and I can do my work from home using a smartphone or laptop. Meanwhile, our union’s members, my former co-workers and friends, a neighbor with whom my wife and I have recently become close, trek into work each day with the word “essential” slapped onto their backs while only token improvements have been made to their compensation and working conditions. Hospital workers laboring without the proper protective equipment. Grocery workers given a $2-an-hour raise that may soon be withdrawn. Retail workers whose hours have been reduced to the point that they may lose their health insurance. It’s enough to make you scream.

This is an outrage. It is also nothing new. These workers have always been essential, have always deserved a living wage, paid sick leave, vacation, good health care, a decent retirement and a voice in their workplace and democracy. They have always deserved our collective appreciation and respect, and they have always been undervalued culturally, politically and economically. They have always been at risk. Here in Seattle, where the labor movement remains strong, workers have made strides over the past decade by winning guaranteed paid sick leave, a minimum wage more than double the national standard and a city enforcement agency dedicated to protecting their labor rights. But it is not enough. Capital remains king in this “great country of money.” Workers never stood a chance.

Or so the powers that be would have you believe. One of the greatest tricks our society's ownership class ever played on the rest of us was to persuade workers of their own essential powerlessness. They said business owners mattered most, philanthropists deserved the most fulsome praise, and the propertied deserved to hold the seats of power. They said unions were inefficient, direct action was uncivil, populist political candidates were unrealistic, and collective action didn't work. And we, by and large, believed them. For decades now, capitalists have been almost unilaterally in charge.

I don’t know how the pandemic will ultimately impact workers, other than cause them additional pain. But I hold out some hope that it will radicalize them for the better. I’ve seen evidence of that in the dozens of “wildcat” strikes that have occurred over the past handful of weeks throughout the country, in the major walkouts on this most recent May Day, at anti-union companies like Amazon, Whole Foods and Target, in recent conversations with friends and family, and from the nonunion workers whom I speak to nearly every day.

“The current direction is unsustainable,” one of them wrote me a few days ago. “My people need help. They need to be heard.”

He’s right, of course. Even more than an audience of the powerful, however, workers need to recognize the power they already have — a power that comes primarily from their ability to collectively withhold their labor.

Will the pandemic teach them to wield it?

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