Tensions start to boil over as essential workers get fed up with 'the insane system that got us in this mess'

Friday’s impressive May Day walkouts and demonstrations involving workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target and others did not amount to a general strike in the classic sense.

But they should be seen as part of a wave of smaller strikes that worker advocates believe necessary before the big showdown.

"Workers are starting to challenge the insane system that got us in this mess,” said Bill Ragen. He is an SEIU [Service Employees International Union] member and organizer with ShutDownDC. “There's not enough to go back to the status quo, which wasn't working for us anyhow. There is a movement being started.”

Bruce Hamilton, international VP with the Amalgamated Transit Union [ATU], has been thinking about a general strike for a long time.

The ruling class was really well-prepared for the pandemic and is now taking full advantage of it to advance its own interests.

“It seems like a pie-in-the-sky sort of thing — but it's a battle that’s gotta be fought,” he said recently. “There’s no way out of it. The only other way is just to submit to totalitarianism and watch the world burn up around us.”

Workers are being forced to sacrifice everything from their jobs to their lives during COVID-19 crisis. The ruling class, according to Hamilton, was really well-prepared for the pandemic and is now taking full advantage of it to advance its own interests.

“They’re really coming down hard on working people, changing the rules and making sure we emerge from this [pandemic] with more power in the hands of Big Capital than ever before,” Hamilton says.

Organizing Transit Workers

Fourteen-year New York City Transit veteran Seth Rosenberg is part of a New York City worker coalition that helped plan a May Day car caravan around New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan offices. The protest was against Cuomo's cuts to Medicaid and his history of hospital closures and consolidations. Another demonstration outside Amazon’s fulfillment center on Staten Island joined fired warehouse worker Chris Smalls in solidarity with New York City nurses and other Transit workers.

“Right now, we’re trying to mobilize as many transit workers as we can,” Rosenberg said ahead of the May Day actions. “We’re seeing a pattern where workers who are called ‘essential’ across the country are being lavished [with empty praise]. Governor Cuomo is calling us heroes and all this stuff. But when it comes down to it, we don’t have the safety stuff we need.”

Rosenberg, 50, drives the G train back and forth between Brooklyn and Queens five days a week and recently returned from two weeks of COVID-19 quarantine. He still doesn’t know if he actually had the coronavirus, but he does know that nearly 100 of his Transit co-workers have died of the disease since the outbreak began in January.

'Terrifying and Stressful'

“I have a five-year-old daughter — I’d like to see grow up,” Rosenberg said. “I’m anxious. I’m not sleeping well. It’s terrifying and extremely stressful operating a big train. You’re trying to stay focused and you’re wearing a mask and you’re worried about people in your train car who might or might not have the coronavirus.”

As a shop steward, Rosenberg has advocated for closing the train operator’s car to passengers during the pandemic, but he says his MTA bosses have refused. The single-use mask Rosenberg wears behind the controls has to last him the entire work week.

“The MTA did not protect us,” the Brooklyn dad says. “They wanted to run their trains; they wanted people there. But they didn’t have the ability — or didn’t care about providing the basic things needed like sanitizing where we work, social distancing, masks for people on the platform — and people go sick because of it.”

Sepia Coleman, a 48-year-old home care worker and certified nursing assistant in Memphis, Tenn., hasn’t gotten the paid sick time or the PPE she needs to keep herself or her clients safe during the pandemic. As an essential worker she feels like she’s “working on the front lines of a firing squad.”

Nursing Home Workers

“Until we decide enough is enough, nothing changes,” Coleman told me last month. “The healthcare system was broken before this pandemic — and now it’s shattered.”

Fed up nursing home workers in Chicago have set May 8 as their deadline to strike. They want a new contract that, among other things, provides them with proper PPE, safety training and paid sick leave. On May Day, workers with SEIU Healthcare Illinois served strike notices to 20 nursing homes around the city — bringing the total number of facilities facing a possible work stoppage this month to 64.

In March, ATU Local 26 bus drivers in Detroit briefly shut the entire system after they refused to drive their routes due to the very real fear of contracting the COVID-19. The Detroit Department of Transportation responded to the sudden strike by suspending fare collections, implementing new worker safeguards and expanding the cleaning staff.

General Strike: ‘A Fun and Romantic Idea’

Despite the unrest clearly bubbling up, labor leaders by and large are still not hot on the idea of answering the assault on workers with a general strike.

United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway is part of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups advocating for both good middle-class jobs and a reduction in carbon emissions.

The organization is pushing the Trump administration to enforce OSHA [Occupational Safety & Health Administration] regulations safeguarding frontline workers, as well as using the Defense Production Act to begin stockpiling vital equipment necessary to confront the ongoing pandemic and to start putting Americans back to work reconstituting the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure.

But it’s unclear exactly what kind of leverage they have.

When asked about calling a general strike to achieve worker goals, Conway called the idea “fun and romantic.”

“We’re hardly at the point where we’re ready to call for a general strike,” Conway said.

That reluctance to think about a general strike has trickled down to workers, too.

Last month, when I asked a group of workers with the Paid Leave for All Campaign if they were becoming disheartened with a political process that continues to fail workers during the pandemic, there was stunned silence.

Chris Garcia, an airport baggage handler and package delivery worker from Colorado eventually said, “I  think that it would take a lot of people…but there is that interest there.”

Garcia also expressed his wish for a “way for us to make it so Congress didn’t receive $7 billion in lobbying money to put a stop to paid family leave.”

From the Ground Up, Indeed

But Rosenberg and other worker advocates, don’t necessarily think a general strike can happen now either — they just know as corporate bailouts continue and austerity looms — it’s coming.

“We are trying to unite different sectors of workers — both for this defensive struggle to protect ourselves [during the pandemic] — and to try and lead up to the fights that we know are to come,” Rosenberg says. “Some people are using the term ‘general strike.’ But a real general strike is a major undertaking; there needs to be massive strike waves before that. Workers are just getting conscious right now.”

Carl Kennebrew, head of the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers of America [IUE-CWA], says, “The leverage that anyone is going to have is going to come from the people.”

Kennebrew and his union have been waging a battle against the Trump administration to start leaning on GE [General Electric] to reopen shuttered plants and get laid-off workers back to work making ventilators.

“I have seen workers across the country that are already standing up — both union and nonunion — I think that the solidarity is already there,” Kennebrew said.

Steve Lawton, head of Communications Workers of America [CWA] Local 1102, represents Conduent call center workers on Staten Island who have been forced to work in dangerously close confines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a recent “Frontline Friday” live stream event with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, the Local 1102 president said, “We’re going to have to learn to withhold our labor together.”

'People vs. Profit'

“This is our moment of power,” Lawton said. “This is people vs. profit. [Workers] have the power and they have to come together and use it.”

Hamilton knows that, at this moment, other American labor leaders aren’t thinking about anything that looks like a general strike at this moment. In fact, he’s says he is sure they’re totally against it. That’s why he thinks it’s going to happen from the ground up.

“It’s going to have to be working people doing the kinds of ad hoc actions that we’ve seen all over the place with even unorganized workers getting organized on the spot to demand protection,” Hamilton says. “If that becomes widespread it could turn into a general strike and then leaders would emerge from that battle.”

Rosenberg figures two years down the line — when massive unemployment and austerity have set in — “At that point, I would like to see a general strike.”

Any general strike, of course, would have to allow for some essential work to continue, something Hamilton has thought about, too.

“We don’t want to harm other workers while on strike — but if we’re all together and directing the essential work while denying big business profits and trillion-dollar-payouts — then it could gain steam very quickly,” he says.

While the entire world awaits a vaccine or some effective form of treatment against COVID-19, Rosenberg and his coalition say simply getting back to work will not lift workers out of the current crisis.

“I think as things start to come back online in the next six months to a year — what we’re going to see is that the battle is not going to be over,” he says. “We’re only at the beginning now. This is going to be an unprecedented crisis and we’re going to see unemployment at Great Depression levels. We’re already seeing the stirrings of austerity.”

With no guarantee a general strike would be successful, Hamilton says working men and women still must make the attempt.

“We damn sure are not going to win anything if we don’t try,” he says. “Yeah, there’s gonna be repression by the forces of the state. And big business is not going to take lightly the challenge to their power and their authority and their money. Once again, we just have to rely on the independent power of the working class. If we can remain united we can overcome all the forces that capital can deploy against us.”