Healthcare Workers: Back-To-Work Strikes Can Put Health Before Profit

Following the release of a recent video statement, healthcare workers members and allies of Black Rose / Rosa Negra produced a follow up statement calling for organizing around back-to-work strikes to oppose the drive to put profits ahead of collective health by exposing millions of workers to untold risks. Catch their list of tips for starting the conversation at the end.

By Black Rose/Rosa Negra Healthcare Workers

As healthcare workers, we are intensely fearful of the calls for a quick “back to normal” that are growing in volume and being echoed across the media and Trump administration. We want to help give other workers the tools they need to keep us all safe by refusing to return to work if they are called back before it is safe.

Starting with a protest in Michigan last week, right-wing rallies calling for the immediate reopening of the economy have been held in dozens of cities now. What has really been behind the quick spread of these nearly identical rallies has been the money and organization of right-wing foundations that want to sacrifice life to appease the stock market and get Trump re-elected. These pro-pandemic rallies are one more example that these right-wing capitalists don’t care about our lives, and that the worship of the market is nothing more than a death cult.

Healthcare Workers on the Front Lines

The role of healthcare workers is to dedicate ourselves to caring about other peoples’ lives and there’s no better symbol of this than the images of nurses in Denver, Colorado standing proudly, arms crossed, blocking right-wing protesters. This is one of the most direct examples of how healthcare workers have found themselves thrust into confrontation with the forces that put profit first – but behind this image is a wave of direct action taken by frontline health care workers over the last two months. 

Healthcare workers nation-wide are not only raising their voices to support social distancing, but also to say that much of our failure to prepare for the pandemic is rooted in a broken healthcare system that is built for failure. A healthcare system that prioritizes profit over people has led us to where we are now and will continue to create unnecessary crises that cost human lives. 

With these billionaire-backed protests getting massive media attention and with Trump pushing hard for a quick reopening of the economy, it is currently looking likely that many governors will attempt to get people at “non-essential” businesses back to work within the coming weeks. This will vary greatly state by state, with states like Texas and Florida preparing to take some of the most disastrous action, while states like California and Washington will likely follow a safer path.

When Is It Safe to Risk Our Lives?

The question on everyone’s mind is how do we know when it is actually safe to return to work? Right now, no one knows exactly. The science on the spread of the coronavirus is still evolving. You will probably hear different things from different sources, as scientists struggle to work out a consensus. Because the risk of returning to work too early is so great – it could unleash a much greater second wave of infection, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths – it is best to err on the side of the most cautious voices. 

The CDC and government agencies have shown themselves to be easily pressured by the Trump administration. They have abandoned scientific principles in favor of market forces and made extremely dangerous recommendations that we as healthcare workers have had to fight back against – promoting bandanas or scarves for protection being one example. For this reason, we must pay attention to independent scientific recommendations on the return to work process instead of relying on politicized agencies.

One thing we do know is that a return to work is only possible if we have a robust testing system in place, which we are currently far from having. Public health experts and the COVID-19 response in countries such as South Korea, teach us that the virus can be effectively contained with strict contact tracing, after the number of cases has been reduced to a low number. Contact tracing means that the population is broadly tested and all those who are positive, or who have had contact with other positive individuals, are strictly quarantined. The shortage of testing kits and the piecemeal public health response in the U.S. means that we are not prepared for this strategy. One new report from Harvard University estimates that the US will need 5 to 20 million daily tests in order to safely re-open the economy – yet we are currently only at around 170,000 daily tests. We will need the infrastructure and capacity to safely care for and quarantine infected people outside their homes as well. This leaves us with the next best option to protect ourselves, which is broad social distancing.

Solidarity is Our Weapon and Our Defense

If bosses and governments order you back to work before it is safe, you have the responsibility to protect your own health and the health of our communities by refusing to work.

There have been waves of strikes and workplace actions since the crisis began. They have been effective in getting workplaces shut down and safety practices improved. While transit workers across the country have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, bus drivers in cities like Detroit, MI, and Birmingham, AL, have organized strikes and work stoppages for protective equipment and social distancing controls, winning important concessions. “Essential workers” have organized sickouts, walkouts and work stoppages at workplaces ranging from McDonalds franchises to Amazon and Kroger warehouses, to shipyards. While many of these conflicts are ongoing, many workers have successfully forced management to comply with demands around health and safety concerns. Most of these workplace actions are not being driven by union leadership, but rather by rank-and-file workers who are simply refusing to work in unsafe conditions.

No matter what we do, there will be a mass refusal of work when the economy is officially reopened. Just like millions of tenants acted out of necessity by not paying rent in April, capitalists will try to prematurely restart businesses and many workers will inevitably stay home or call in sick. But spontaneous and individual actions are easily defeated by the powerful and organized capitalist class. When we unite our voices and our actions we can shift the balance of power to be in our favor. A widespread strike against back-to-work orders will be the fastest way to bring the capitalists’ death march to a halt.

Starting the Conversation on Back-To-Work Strikes

As healthcare workers who are putting people before profits, we want to ask you to start talking to your co-workers and preparing for an organized refusal to return to work. By organizing now, workers can have a much more effective impact and can build the foundation for future workplace organizing to improve health and safety.

Here are some ideas for what we think furloughed or temporarily laid off workers can do to protect our health through building workers’ power:

  1. Get contact info for as many of your co-workers as possible.
  2. Check-in with them individually. See how they’re doing, what their struggles have been going through the quarantine, and what you and your co-workers can do to support them.
  3. Talk to your coworkers one-on-one about their concerns about returning to work before the virus is contained and risking exposure. Are they worried about infecting at-risk relatives? Do they think it’s safer to stay home with unemployment or family leave pay?
  4. Ask for a commitment to not go in to work if called back, and ask them to talk to at least one other corker about striking (and follow up!).
  5. Create a committee of your coworkers who show the most commitment to organizing and are the most effective at getting other coworkers on board. Start a group chat together, and have a virtual meeting together.
  6. Think about how your boss will react. Prepare your coworkers for that. Create a plan for how to talk with your boss (for example, agree to only talk with your boss collectively on a conference call, and not one by one). Think about what is going to happen after the first day. Agree on a plan for what minimum demands need to be met before you go to work, and how long you can stay out on strike together.
  7. Link up with other workers in your area or industry! Unite to bring up demands that go beyond your workplace, like extending unemployment to cover workers who refuse unsafe working conditions.

If you are starting to talk with your coworkers about resisting the return to work orders, we encourage you to think of this as just the beginning. The basis of all workplace organizing is the committee. So if you can create that in this moment, then you have a foundation for your next steps forward to continue transforming your workplace to be healthier and safer. Many of the health crises that plague our country are rooted in the exploitation, alienation and inequality of the capitalist economy. If, workplace by workplace, we can grow a new workers movement to overthrow this system, and radically restructure our labor without bosses, hierarchies or profit, then we can all live much healthier and happier lives.

As healthcare workers during this pandemic, we have been working hard to care for our community’s well-being. Now we are asking our fellow workers across other industries to use their power as workers to keep us all safe by organizing to refuse a return to work. Our bosses and politicians won’t put people before profit, so we have to rely on each other.

Additional Notes

If you are in a union: You can reach out to your union rep if you think that they would be supportive, but remember that this has to be your action. No one else can make it happen for you. Some unions like UNITE-HERE have laid off much of their staff and others are more interested in working with employers to get their members back to work. The same basic steps for organizing apply whether you are in a union or not, because power lies in your organization and relationships with your co-workers, not with the paperwork and officialdom of the union.

If you are an office worker: If you are currently working from home but you’re worried about being called back to the office where the coronavirus could be easily spread, you can also organize with your coworkers to refuse to come back to the office, and demand more time working from home or additional safety practices.

If you’re a parent: Talk to your child about staying home if the schools try to reopen for the spring semester. Make a resistance plan together with the teachers and other parents.

Read the statement by Black Rose/Rosa Negra Healthcare workers on the current crisis “In the Fight of Our Lives: Healthcare Workers Speak Out” or read more on worker struggles during the Covid pandemic “Coronavirus Sparks Wave of Walkouts and Wildcats.”