America is in turmoil. Though the massive street movement relates to issues of racism and police brutality, there are also wider shifts in public feeling due to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, driving deeper class and racial inequalities. As part of a new series on workers’ responses to that crisis, Paul Inglis spoke to Connecticut Workers’ Crisis Response.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has, like every disaster, natural or man-made, fallen with the hardest impact upon the working class. From mass layoffs and chronic shortages of personal protective equipment to the inevitable assault on our standard of living that will come with the new economic crisis, the capitalists expect the working class to gladly risk their lives for the profit margins and then foot the bill for the cleanup, all without complaint.
This, however, is not the whole story. If the opportunistic response of the rich to this crisis has been disgustingly predictable, then the working class response has been characterised by familiar principles of courage and creativity. In the last few months the world has bristled with struggles to keep the vulnerable safe, freeze rents and ensure sick pay, struggles marked by mutual aid, rent strikes and wildcat industrial action. Each day provides wonderful new examples of class war in the time of Covid-19, and it’s in the spirit of these experiments in theory and practice that I’ve been getting in touch with comrades from other countries – from union branches, mutual aid groups, political organisations, all sorts of projects – To find out what their work and ideas can teach us.
The United States is gripped by a huge protest movement right now; arising from the police killing of yet another black man. The movement has its own distinctive demands and origins – relating closely to racism and police brutality. But it would be wrong to dissociate it entirely from a wider culture of working class organising in many US communities, and the impacts, which have compounded class and racial inequalities.
My first discussion has been with the Connecticut Workers’ Crisis Response, a group from the United States that was set up by a coalition of workers from across Connecticut in early March specifically to respond to the threats brought by the pandemic: Layoffs, shortages of personal protective equipment, and a lack of paid leave for workers. I spoke to Mary, a member of the group, about their activity.
I started by asking about the aims of the CWCR.
“I would say our ‘unofficial’ aims are to educate, agitate, and organize during the Covid-19 Crisis,” Mary began, pointing me towards the CWCR’s Plan of Action, effectively the founding document for the group. This plan serves not only as a means for spreading the word about the CWCR, but also as a set of concrete demands revolving around the health and safety of workers that can be directed against employers as well as municipal, state and federal legislators. Its central demand is the following: “As social distancing is an essential measure in slowing the spread of COVID-19, only those workers who absolutely need to be on the job away from home during this crisis in order to fulfill immediate and basic human needs should do so at this time. All others must either work from home or go on an indefinite leave with full pay and benefits for the entire duration of the crisis.” In addition to this, the plan voices broader demands relating to the protection of undocumented migrants, incarcerated individuals, and the homeless.
Next I asked about the work of the CWCR, and what projects it would like the world to know about. In working “to disseminate information about the conditions and realities that workers are facing during COVID-19 and to link up activist groups and individuals, as well as union members, from around the state,” Mary defined the main areas of the group’s work as organising protests and rallies, putting together a newsletter, and putting on webinars for workers to collectively discuss their workplace issues. The first webinar offered Spanish to English and English to Spanish translation too, which demonstrates a conscious dedication to the concerns of Spanish-speaking workers. Organising protests has of course been difficult given the need to social distance, but one tactic the CWCR has been making use of is the car rally, which allows protesters to occupy space without coming into contact. In this form, the CWCR has helped organize a rally for workers’ rights on May Day, and more recently protested at the State Capitol for rent cancellation.
The use of car rallies speaks to the great difficulties facing the left during the lockdown. For Mary the main challenge of the moment is exactly the same one we are struggling with in Scotland: the need to rely on virtual organising. But she was not discouraged: “As everyone else during these times, we’re adapting and making the most of it, and because these are the conditions in which we formed, we are more than up for the challenge.”
The pandemic has thrown up further challenges for the group around the division of tasks and responsibilities between members, with some members being laid off or furloughed, and others being essential workers who need to stay at their posts. As such, Mary notes, “some members have far more availability than others to contribute to organizing and participate in virtual meetings. This has created a lopsided group of active members who don’t reflect the make-up of the entire group, nor the make-up of the working class in Connecticut.” Compounding this, “schools are closed and parents have to homeschool their children. Much of the burden of schooling and childcare falls on women and single parents, leaving them little time for participation in our group or other forms of activism.” These fraught issues of group composition and gendered division of labour are unfortunately very familiar on the left, and the exceptional conditions of the quarantine have only heightened their significance. They are not easily solvable, and Mary is aware of that. “We need to make concerted and continued efforts to ensure we are creating an activist space that is inclusive and accessible for any worker in Connecticut who wants to join in. We are trying, already, but this is something that a group can always improve.”
I ended by asking how movements here in Scotland can show support to the CWCR. Mary replied: “You can share the link to our Plan of Action so people can sign-on to our demands. Even though a letter with a bunch of signatures on its own cannot do much, it helps as part of our strategic organizing efforts.” She additionally recommended that readers follow the social media accounts of the group to take part in virtual rallies over Zoom, stay informed and stay in touch as they “organize at the local level but in service to larger, and ultimately, global goals: that all workers are afforded the rights and protections they deserve, and that profit will no longer be placed above humanity and all life on this planet.” In those goals they have the sympathy and support of Scottish workers.
Readers can keep up to date with the CWCR at:
CWCR Plan of Action: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1azmpMpcXD5E2qllvq0GLFIiTk9jAvXtW/edit