As college students soon to enter today’s workforce, we are in the midst of the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression.
Wealth inequality is at an all-time high and the minimum federal wage of $7.25 is 28.6% less valuable than the minimum wage in 1968, when accounting for inflation. Outlooks for the futures of young workers are bleak and only look to get worse in the current COVID-19 pandemic. The economic downturn continues to leave millions unemployed and large multinational corporations run by the richest people in the world, like Jeff Bezos and Amazon (which has seen his personal wealth increase by $24 billion since the beginning of April), further consolidate their power and control over our economy.
What power do we as workers have to stop these trends and the ruling class from further exploiting our generation to their benefit? On our own it seems like not much. However, by looking to our country’s past and its history of working class political movements we see that much of it has been led by the organization of workers in their workplaces to create unions.
Unions are able to collectively negotiate on behalf of the workers in that workplace with their employer as well as better organize voting blocks for politicians they feel align with their goals. While at the same time, helping the workers in these unions understand that the personal and financial struggles they face themselves are almost universally felt among their fellow workers. It is found that working together helps employees push for the material change in their workplace and lives they deserve.
Worker’s rights and power are even more important in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already, we’ve seen multiple employers force their largely low-income service industry workers that are unable to work from home back into unsafe conditions. In one of the first states to end its stay-at-home orders for most residents, Georgia, there were a reported 1,000 new cases just in the first day restrictions were lifted.
These decisions will disproportionately affect low and middle-income workers and their families as without the financial support of the federal government or their employer, those that live paycheck to paycheck. Seventy-eight percent of workers live paycheck to check as of 2017, according to a report from the employment website, CareerBuilder. These workers are essentially forced to return to their jobs and the conditions that put their health and safety on the line, or else they’ll face financial repercussions.
Regardless if this group includes yourself or not, this system not only puts workers at risk, but the customers of these businesses are also being exposed to the virus from these unsafe work conditions. This can be due to the federal and state-level government’s refusal to enforce strict shelter-in-place orders.
The vast increase in the number of cases in Georgia only highlights the fact that worker demands for safer and cleaner working conditions benefit not just themselves, but the communities they serve. With a country lead by the Trump administration it seems like there will be little to no federal guidelines that restrict businesses from reopening too soon. If we have any chance of changing that, it will require massive organization of front-line workers that refuse to put themselves and others in harm’s way so business owners can profit. Hopefully, it will establish a more organized working class going forward that is more capable of forcing political change.
To the credit of many workers that have had to continue working through the outbreak there has been a dramatic increase in labor strikes across “essential industries.” Some of the first workers to organize were that of the online-based grocery delivery service, Instacart. The company saw thousands of their workers nation-wide stop responding to orders beginning March 30 until their demands for personal protective equipment, increased hazard pay and better paid sick leave were met by Instacart.
“They send their CEO in San Francisco home, but they’re doing nothing for the backbone of their company,” said Sarah Polito, a part-time Instacart shopper and strike organizer, when asked for comment by the Huffington Post. “Without shoppers, they’re nothing.”
Instacart strikers were soon joined by workers at a Amazon warehouse in Staten Island who staged a walk-out a few days later to demand safer and cleaner working conditions. Their demands came after COVID-19 cases were officially diagnosed within their workplace after the failure of Amazon to implement preventative measures.
One of the lead organizers of the Staten Island warehouse strike, Christian Smalls, was fired hours after leading his fellow workers on the walk-out. However, Amazon insists that Smalls was fired for violating a company enforced quarantine.
News of the Staten Island warehouse strike and Smalls’ subsequent firing galvanized fellow workers deemed essential during the pandemic after waves of support poured in asking how they could help and even organize within their own workplace. With the help of other workers’ rights organizations like Amazonians United, Target Workers Unite, Whole Worker and the Gig Workers Collective, Smalls planned a work stoppage for May 1. The same day as International Workers Day, in hopes to inspire continued labor activism among workers deemed essential during this pandemic. Along with the goal to gain safer working conditions, better pay and benefits.
The organizing of workplaces during today’s pandemic only highlights how much power we’ve conceded to our employers and the businesses that require putting low-wage service workers at the frontlines. Workers who receive poverty wages and pointless insurance plans, while the business owners continue to reap massive profits.
If only one person were to strike or protest working conditions it’s too easy for a business to quickly fire and replace them. Only when we come to realize our interests are more aligned with our fellow workers across all industries than the class of people that employ them, working class Americans will be able to better fight and get the demands of the many over that of the few.