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The working class shows the way

Carolyn Egan

April 16, 2020

There has been widespread working class response to the pandemic that we are facing. It varies from country to country, but ordinary people around the world have taken things into their own hands. Many walking out of work places in protest, others demanding personal protection equipment from their bosses, or organizing for government aid for those laid off, or unable to work because of their precarious employment.

“We won’t die for Dow” posters have gone up in New York City, while nurses and health care workers hold up placards pleading for necessary equipment in front of their hospitals. Front line workers are showing tremendous courage, and are more than willing to do their jobs (three thousand retired nurses responded to a request to return to work in one day). They are demanding the protective equipment that is so necessary to maintain their health. Building trade workers are speaking out about the conditions on the job sites: no hand sanitizer, no washing facilities and often close quarters. A widely viewed video showed an impromptu meeting at a work site with a worker berating the manager because they were forced to work in an unsafe environment and potentially bring the virus home.

I’m a health care worker who goes to work every day and was on a conference call with other trade unionists recently. It included transit workers, retail and call centre employees, some from the building trades, teachers, library workers, hotel workers and more. Some workplaces have closed down entirely, such as schools, other members are working from home, some sectors are totally devastated such as retail, restaurant and hotels. It is very clear that low paid and precarious workers are the most affected, the majority of whom are women and people of colour.  We are seeing the rise of racism, divide and rule, and the closing of borders. Workers were speaking about the actions that have been taking place in their workplaces as they build solidarity and fight back.

Wild cat strikes caused the shut down of the auto industry across North America and Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers walked out of Service Canada Centres because of unsafe conditions forcing closures across the country. Sanitation workers have staged work place actions and transit drivers in many cities are demanding safer conditions. In Windsor the transit system has been shut down because of workers demands and this is spreading to other cities like Toronto where bus drivers walked out because of a lack of PPE. Grocery workers have forced a $2 an hour wage increase, and protective barriers have been put up at check out counters. Health care workers have been speaking out about the bleeding dry of hospitals and long term care facilities for years, which has exacerbated the crisis. Rent strikes are being called and mutual aid groups are being set up in neighbourhoods.

Suddenly there is a keen awareness that it is the working class that actually makes the economy run and creates the wealth that the 1%, the ruling class, uses for its own benefit. Suddenly there are billions if not trillions of dollars to be spent when we have been told for years that there is not enough money to fund our hospitals, schools or social services. The money has always been there, but it has been going to the very top while the gap between rich and poor has been growing.

The class divisions in society have intensified and all the contradictions of capitalism have been laid bare. It is a sudden escalation of the crisis in the system. The coronavirus was a precipitating factor but it cannot be separated from capitalism itself, the spread of factory farms and the incursion of the market into more remote areas where new viruses develop and spread to humans through other species.  Read Joseph Choonara’s “Socialism in a Time of Pandemics”.

We are not all in this together, as the prime minister keeps telling us. There are the robbers and the robbed. As we fight our way through this crisis we must build a strong movement that learns from our working class history that has been forged in struggle by the exploited and the oppressed of every race, gender, sexuality and ability. We have to harness the working class anger that is erupting into an organized resistance which goes beyond reforms, and puts forward a real alternative of a transformed society where working people have control of our workplaces and our communities.


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