The COVID-19 Pandemic Shows That Capitalism Fails Workers

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Above photo: from Acre Campaigns.

On Monday, four of the most powerful union leaders in the country revealed their analysis of the pandemic and what it means for organized labor. “Coronavirus is a stress test for capitalism,” the headline read. “We see encouraging signs.”

In the piece, Chris Shelton of CWA, Randi Weingarten of AFT, Mary Kay Henry of SEIU, and James R. Hoffa Jr. of the Teamsters argue for “ethical” capitalism: in favor of companies with close, positive relationships with their workers, versus those that shirk their social responsibilities. They suggest that the public should positively recognize that employers like AT&T, Kroger, Verizon, General Motors, and Major League Baseball have made moves to protect workers and remember those that have not. The choice, according to them, is clear: between “vulture” capitalism and “ethical” capitalism.

We see little virtue among employers—and a sky dark with vultures.

The examples of “responsible” corporate actors rely on selective amnesia and cherry-picked facts. The piece praises General Motors—the same company that cut off health insurance for over 50,000 workers and their families during a strike seven months ago before public outcry forced a change. The piece also praises Major League Baseball while many professional sports teams cast low-wage union concessions workers represented by UNITE HERE to the wolves. Food processing facilities, including those represented by UFCW, have created pandemic hotspots leading to worker deaths because of management’s refusal to implement basic CDC-recommended safety guidelines. For every cooperative employer there are two-stepping on workers’ necks.

In imagining a post-pandemic future, these labor leaders—far removed from the reality of today’s workplace—turn to a nostalgic vision of the past, in which labor and management were viewed as amicable partners. Their gesture toward an era of labor-management cooperation ignores that whatever “harmony” existed was bought at someone’s expense. Women and people of color were excluded from the “golden” era of labor-management cooperation in the 1950s and 1960s. With workers demobilized and unions often prioritizing relationships with management over bottom-up power, organized labor was caught flat-footed by the Vietnam War and the economic crises of the 1970s, leading to organized labor’s current decline.

Shelton, Weingarten, Henry, and Hoffa want to return to an approach that has already failed. They hope that the same approach tried again, will produce different results. There is no reason to believe that it will.

In reality, employers are not benevolent out of a high-minded sense of ethical or social responsibility, nor do they give us what we want because unions cater to them. The same corporations praised as model employers today, like Ford, once hired private security forces to beat union organizers bloody for stepping foot on company property. Any scrap that they have given to working people is because they were forced to do so. Unions exist for this very reason: because the power of the boss to control the fate of their workers demands an organized response. Organized capital must be met with organized labor and the understanding that bosses are rarely, if ever, our friends.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the brutality of American capitalism and our frayed social safety net. In recent weeks, at least 16.8 million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance, forced into a system that has been systematically dismantled by years of austerity. Working families are faced with losing employer-provided healthcare at the time that they need it most; millions of Americans have been forced to skip rent payments for the month of April with a total lack of certainty as to the long-term ramifications.

Amid a pandemic that is already reshaping society, there is no option but to fight for the common good over corporate profits—not pen opinion pieces praising “responsible” corporate actors. Unions must fight for their entire sector, not just their membership; they must fight for all workers, not just the lucky few that belong to a union. There is no other organized voice for the working class. If Democrats ever advocate for workers, it is because unions have forced them to do so. We cannot neglect that responsibility.

The past month has seen unimaginable suffering among American workers—suffering caused by the enormous callousness of bosses, a tyrannical White House, and a society designed to fail those who need it the most. At the same time, we have seen the scope of the politically possible dramatically change, securing the potential—slim though it may be—that crisis can, like the Great Depression, lead to a fundamental realignment of American society away from robber barons like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and toward American workers.

It is up to labor to fight for that future, and it will not be won by begging for scraps from the boss’s table.

This editorial represents the viewpoint of the majority of Strikewave’s editors