Coronavirus is sparking more than fear and rent strikes but also unleashing a wave of walkouts and shutdowns by workers – all around the country workers are confronting their bosses or walking off the job demanding protective equipment, to stop non-essential production, or demand wage increases where they are demeaned essential. Likely we will continue to see these trend in the coming months – the new “normal” will not be so normal.
By It’s Going Down
In only a matter of days, the economic collapse brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has completely changed everything about our lives. In many ways, the growing crisis has laid bare the already existing contradictions which threatened to pull this society into open class conflict; from low paying jobs, increasing austerity, brutal police, the quickening of ecological collapse, an out of control housing crisis, and a growing carceral State.
But with millions of people now wondering how they are going to make ends meet and pay rent, let alone survive the current epidemic, a new wave of struggles is breaking out across the social terrain. Prisoners and detention center detainees are launching hunger strikes as those on the outside demand that they be released, tenants are currently pushing for a rent strike starting on April 1st, the houseless are taking over vacant homes in Los Angeles, and workers have launched a series of wildcat strikers, sick-outs, and job actions in response to being forced onto the front lines of the pandemic like lambs to the slaughter.
But as tensions flare and economists predict upwards of 30% unemployment in the coming months, there is also a growing push from within the elites to herd us all “back to work.” Trump has stated that he wants things back to ‘normal’ by Easter, a move which threatens to undo anything that has been achieved by social distancing and attempts at quarantine. More and more, the refrain from within the Trump camp, Fox News, and sections of the MAGA aligned Right as Republicans and Democrats near a deal for a corporate bailout, is that mass death is acceptable as long as the economy, (read, Trump’s bid at re-election), is salvaged.
Meanwhile, as one report wrote:
The World Health Organization has warned that within the next several weeks—around the time of the Easter holiday—the US will have become the global epicenter of the pandemic.
Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warned that curbing social distancing could cost millions of lives. “Anyone advising the end of social distancing now needs to fully understand what the country will look like if we do that,” he tweeted. “COVID would spread widely, rapidly, terribly, could kill potentially millions in the yr ahead with huge social and economic impact across the country.”
In cult like fashion, Trump is building support among his base for the mass die-off of a large segment of the population by proclaiming that the “cure” cannot be “worse than the problem,” while leading the charge to end social distancing by Easter. Such a move would lead to the deaths of potentially millions of people, many of them ironically Trump supporters. At the same time, both corporate parties are pushing for a bailout package (that Trump himself may benefit from) which will only further continue to transfer massive amounts of wealth into the hands of the uber-rich.
But in the face of this, anger is mounting. On social media over the past few days, calls for both a rent strike and a general strike have gone viral as have hashtags such as #NotDying4WallStreet. But much more important than Twitter being awash in class rage has been the spike in wildcat strikes and militant rank-n-file actions throughout March.
As the economy crashes and US society depends more and more on the continued operation of dwindling supply chains, workers in service sector jobs that remain open, such as at grocery stores, not only find themselves working at a crucial node in the economy – but with a new sense of potential power. This means simply that workers at different points in supply chains can have a huge impact on the economy and thus gain leverage, simply by engaging in direct action or refusing to work.
As Bloomberg wrote:
These pockets of resistance along the supply chain underscore the balancing act needed to contain the coronavirus and protect workers deemed essential while delivering goods and services. It’s an especially acute issue given that transportation, labor and other logistical woes have already made it hard to get food where it needs to be in the pandemic era.
While none of the meat plant incidents have so far caused operational disruptions, there are concerns that more may be coming, causing supply chain hiccups right as consumers are binge-buying groceries to fuel shelter-in-place lockdowns.
The U.S. pork industry has requested more guest worker visas, and there’s speculation that plants have been running full-tilt not only to supply unprecedented retail food demand, but also to get as much production in as possible before virus-related disruptions slow the pace.
While barely mentioned in the mainstream press or on cable-news, already there is a growing wave of wildcat strikes, self-organized labor actions, sick-outs, and work stoppages – much of it centered around the refusal to work in environments where workers may be exposed to the coronavirus.
If Trump is serious about forcing millions of other people back to work by Easter in mid-April, ensuring the death of potentially millions at the hands of the coronavirus, then calls for a general strike and potentially even broader revolutionary action will only continue to gain steam and popularity.
Here’s a roundup of what’s already gone down.
Work stoppages and wildcat strikes have broken out in several auto industry factories, as workers demand an end to the spread of coronavirus in their workplaces. The revolt began on March 12th, when:
Workers at the Fiat Chrysler Windsor Assembly Plant downed tools [on March 12th] over concerns about the spread of coronavirus at their plant and after learning that a worker at the FCA Kokomo Transmission Plant in the United States was diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease.
This was followed by:
Workers at Fiat Chrysler’s Sterling Heights (SHAP) and Jefferson North (JNAP) assembly plants in Metro Detroit took matters into their own hands last night and this morning and forced a shutdown of production to halt the spread of coronavirus.
The work stoppages began at Sterling Heights last night, only hours after the United Auto Workers and the Detroit automakers reached a rotten deal to keep plants open and operating during the global pandemic…The same day, scores of workers at the Lear Seating plant in Hammond, Indiana refused to work, forcing the shutdown of the parts factory and the nearby Chicago Assembly Plant.[On March 18th], workers on SHAP’s first shift followed suit, staged a sit-in and refused to touch vehicles rolling down the line once their shift began. Because hundreds of people handle the vehicles in rapid succession on the assembly line, they are a major potential source of transmission for the virus. Management again sent workers home and canceled the second shift today. “This is awe-inspiring,” one young SHAP worker [stated], referring to the workers’ action to force the closure of the plant.
Workers at Dundee Engine Plant in Ann Arbor and Toledo North Assembly followed suit with their own job actions shortly afterward. Shifts at Warren Truck Assembly and Ford’s Michigan Assembly have also been sent home.
A Facebook Live video from Toledo showed dozens of furious workers crowded around Local 12 Vice President Brian Sims, demanding that the plant be shut down, who then retreats through the back door yelling at workers to “calm down.”
In an interview with Labor Notes, one auto worker stated:
The UAW should be actually fighting for us to get off of work. The union and the company care more about making trucks than about everybody’s health. I feel like they aren’t going to do anything unless we take action. We have got to band together. They can’t fire us all.
In Georgia, several dozen Perdue workers at a poultry plant of about 600, walked off the job on March 23rd over growing anger at low pay and concerns surrounding the spread of the coronavirus at a time of increased production and workload. In media interviews, those involved in the wildcat strike explained how the company sees them as expendable. According to one report:
Approximately 50 employees at the Perdue Farm plant near Perry, Georgia, walked out March 23 saying they didn’t feel safe in the plant because of the coronavirus, according to WMAZ in Georgia.
Workers say they don’t feel safe working around others who could have potentially been exposed to COVID-19, according to WMAZ. They add that they feel Perdue isn’t doing enough to keep employees safe and isn’t sanitizing their workspaces.
Amazon Warehouse Workers
On March 18th, Amazon warehouse workers in Queens staged a wildcat strike after management attempted to push them back to work following a one day shutdown of a facility after someone at the plant tested positive for coronavirus. According to one report:
Amazon warehouse workers at a processing facility in Queens, New York City, received a text from management: “We’re writing to let you know that a positive case of the coronavirus (COVID-19) was found at our facility today.” Amazon temporarily closed the facility the same day but quickly reopened on Thursday.
This news, and the decision by Amazon to reopen the facility, sparked outrage among the warehouse workers, who refused to work and ultimately caused the facility to shut down on Thursday night. In a video posted on social media by “Amazonians United NYC,” a worker voiced his anger.
“We know what you’re doing. We can see that there’s an absolute disregard for our lives. We don’t buy it anymore.” Another worker joined, saying: “It’s not possible that in four hours you’ve disinfected every package after you got a positive diagnosis.”
Workers at Crush Bar in Portland took action, launching a sit-in after being laid off in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the group’s report:
We did it! 48hrs after staging our sit-in, management provided us with our accrued sick time checks. Thank you for the community support that helped us draw attention to this injustice. We couldn’t have done it without you.
With that said, we the workers are still waiting to hear back on our second and third demands: half pay for cancelled sick hours and the guarantee that every laid off employee be rehired upon the bars reopen.
PDX Eater wrote of the action:
Last night, all 27 of Crush’s employees were laid off, in preparation for today’s forced closure of all dine-in food and drink businesses. At around 3:30 p.m. today, 12 employees arrived at the bar and then refused to leave, protesting owner John Clarke’s decision to lay off all employees without any financial aid, with the claim that he broke the law by denying their use of accrued sick hours to cover lost wages. The protest, which was set to last for up to 24 hours, was dispersed by Portland police after an hour.
On March 17th, bus drivers in Detroit launched a wildcat strike, in response to dirty buses and lack of access to areas where drivers can wash their hands. As one report wrote:
Detroit has shut down the city’s public bus system because a vast majority of the drivers refused to work over concerns about the coronavirus.
The city is negotiating with Detroit Department of Transportation drivers to alleviate their concerns in hopes of restoring bus service Wednesday.
“Due to the driver shortage, there will be no DDoT bus service today,” the city said in a statement. “We are asking passengers to seek other forms of transportation while we work to address our drivers concerns. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Drivers have been expressing concerns that they aren’t adequately protected from the coronavirus. Among the concerns: The buses aren’t cleaned frequently enough, and drivers have been unable to wash their hands because of the statewide shutdown on many businesses.
The wildcat strike also resulted in free fares for riders:
The drivers’ union backed them up and their brief work stoppage, less than 24 hours, won all their demands. Fares will not be collected for the duration of the coronavirus crisis.
In Birmingham, Alabama, bus drivers on March 23rd also protested and went on wildcat strike, refusing “to work scheduled routes due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns.”
Call Center Workers
Call-center workers and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), in Portland, Oregon, launched a one day strike on March 4th, leading to workers receiving paid leave in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 18th, other members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as Wobblies, engaged in a sick-out strike to demand better pay and working conditions, especially in the face of COVID-19, which has brought with it an increased work-load.
Days after our sickout, an expression of collective discontent and a protest of our working conditions, CapTel admin have announced that we will be given 15 extra minutes of aux time per shift. For an 8-hour shift this means that ~91% adherence is needed to avoid discipline. CapTel Workers Union has had a stated demand for a 90%-adherence requirement in our five-point platform from day one.
Let’s keep pushing forward for $15/hour, our other demands, and workplace democracy. Let’s remember that this break from the normal austerity that governs our workdays can be ended by the whim of admin at any time. The boss’s promises are just words; a union contract is set in stone.
City Maintenance Workers
On March 20th, several dozen city workers walked off the job in Cleveland, Oho. According to one report:
Up to 35 Cuyahoga County sewer maintenance employees walked off the job or called in sick Friday morning, citing coronavirus safety concerns, according to Public Works Director Michael Dever.
The sanitary engineers, who maintain regional sewer systems for 39 Cuyahoga County communities, did not want to continue working because they were concerned about going into people’s homes and being in close proximity to one another, among other possible reasons, Dever said.
In Las Vegas, construction workers are pushing for a wildcat strike. According to one report:
Constructions workers at the Las Vegas Convention Center site said they are considering walking off the job this week because they said they don’t feel their health is being taken seriously.
“Things are getting scary at work,” one worker said. “A large group of us are ready to walk off the job.”
Construction workers on site of the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion say conditions were unsanitary before coronavirus was an issue. They say they haven’t gotten any better.
“As far as trying to prevent the spread, they’re telling us to wash our hands, enact social distancing but as far as actually protecting us, they haven’t done much,” said one worker.
According to Organizing Work:
Electricians working on a long-term renovation project at Kaiser Hospital in Sacramento decided to walk off the job due to unsafe working conditions, related to potential exposure to COVID-19.
In an interview with one of the workers, they stated:
What happened yesterday was the result of a lot of talking amongst the rank-and-file over the preceding couple of days – everyone is aware of the severity of the outbreak and the risk it poses to our health and to the health of our loved ones. We saw a lot of abrupt changes around the hospital, for example bringing in large tents to set up testing sites for COVID-19, and we would be walking down a corridor to get materials for our job site a few feet from where these were being set up, and at least a couple of our guys were going through a different part of the hospital, and saw a patient being escorted by hospital staff wearing gowns and masks, and they would yell at our guy to get out of the hallway.
So I showed up in the parking lot in the morning, and there was already a large meeting of union electricians, kind of a spontaneous thing, and at least one of the other crews was going to do the same thing that day…We all agreed to get our shit and go.
Fast Food Workers
Fast food workers at McDonald’s in San Jose and Los Angeles, California walked off the job on March 20th. According to one report:
The workers said they were angry over their hours being cut, and the restaurant chain allegedly failing to provide soap, gloves and any training on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Not to be outdone, Wobblies in Portland, part of the Burgerville Workers Union, walked out of one store over coronavirus related working conditions:
Yesterday, every employee at the SE 92nd Avenue Burgerville location went on a one-day strike to protest what they claim are unsafe working conditions related to the coronavirus outbreak. The shop re-opened today, and almost 40 of Burgerville’s other locations remain open, but the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) has issued a list of requirements during this pandemic.
The strike was largely in protest of a reduced staff making it difficult to maintain sanitation standards and protect workers. While Burgerville locations are open for drive-through customers, all of its dining rooms have been closed, and a press release from the company states that nearly 70-percent of workers have been furloughed or partially furloughed. “How can we keep people safe with a skeleton crew?” Mark Medina, an employee at the 92nd Avenue location, says. “Maintaining sanitation standards takes a lot of work. Burgerville corporate claims to care about the community, but, by cutting costs like this, they’re putting us all at risk. People could die.”
Garbage collectors in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania launched a wildcat strike to demand hazard pay and access to protective gear. As one article wrote:
Today, a group of several hundred, mostly African-American sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, members of Teamsters Local 249, went out on an illegal, wildcat strikes to protest unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The strike comes as momentum for strikes goes with #GeneralStrike becoming the top trending topic on twitter in the United States with even popstar Britney Spears calling for a General Strike. Many are wondering if strikes like Pittsburgh’s sanitation workers strike could be the beginning of a growing strike wave as Trump demands that workers risk their lives to return to work quickly.
Workers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere are resisting calls to work in unsafe conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We want better equipment, protective gear. We have no masks, “one African-American sanitation worker told WPXI. “We want hazard pay. Hazard pay is very important,” the worker told WPXI. “Why? Because we have high co-payments on insurance on any type of bill. We risk our lives every time we grab a garbage bag”.
“Here we are at my job. Ain’t picking up no rub,” African-American sanitation worker Fitzroy Moss said in a Facebook live video. “The rubbish is sitting there. That’s all they care about is picking up the garbage. They don’t even care about our health.”
In Oakland, California in the bay area, port workers are threatening to walk off the job in response to unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. According to one report:
Some dockworkers at the Port of Oakland are threatening to refuse work at a terminal that they say isn’t properly sanitizing equipment and facilities for employees. The move could halt logistics operations and further strain the global supply chain amid the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s Going Down is a digital community center from anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements.
If you enjoyed this piece we recommend our analysis and strategy piece on the labor movement, “The State of Labor: Beyond Unions, But Not Without Them.”
This article was originally published as “Workers Launch Wave Of Wildcat Strikes As Trump Pushes For ‘Return To Work’ Amidst Exploding Coronavirus.”