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Building Picket Lines When We Can’t Stand Together

The wave of strikes demanding better workplace protections shows labor’s impressive resilience faced with the COVID-19 crisis. Social distancing and the rise of homeworking are blocking off many traditional forms of collective action — but also bringing about new ways of pressuring employers.

A commuter wears a face-mask as she prepares to travel on an underground train on March 18, 2020 in London, England. Leon Neal / Getty

The scale of the global social calamity wrought by coronavirus is becoming increasingly clear. As demand for many goods and services plummets, the number of people applying for unemployment benefits has soared into the millions. Even where governments have promised to prop up wages, as in Britain, not all workers will be covered — and even many who do will face considerable delays in receiving the money. Whole industries, such as tourism, hospitality, and entertainment, face outright collapse.

This is no normal environment for workers to bargain over their terms and conditions of employment. For trade unions, at least, successful collective bargaining typically relies upon buoyant labor markets as well as employers’ financial ability to engage in compromises. But unions’ position also depends on their ability to threaten — or actually take — effective industrial action to back up their demands. This means workers disrupting their employers’ operations, whether that involves largely economic disruption, as in the case of private capital, or political disruption, when their employer is the state.

During this crisis, there are two main forms of pressure on workers not to strike. The first is economic. Not only is unemployment soaring, but the promised wage bailouts do not extend to all, and many commercial organizations’ very existence is being put into doubt. Many workers will thus be unwilling to take actions which might be seen to risk their employment. “Better to be employed, no matter what, than be put out of work” will be their motto.

The second combines social, moral, and political considerations. Mainstream politicians and other commentators are clamoring for social peace, the “national unity” that will supposedly allow an effective response to the pandemic. This means that protecting any sectional interests is frowned upon, at best, and condemned outright, at worst. This applies to workers in general, but especially to those jobs which are today deemed “essential”— from health workers to supermarket staff.

But scratch a bit beneath the surface, and all is not quite as might be assumed. For the impact of the coronavirus crisis has not been even across all society — or even among all workers.

Strikes

This is first evident in the strikes that have taken place. In recent weeks, large numbers of manufacturing workers in Italy have gone on strike to stop production, insisting that it was endangering their health. In Windsor, Canada, Chrysler workers did the same; meanwhile in the United States, Detroit bus and car workers, some shop workers in Portland and more widely as well as Memphis warehouse employees took similar action. Like their counterparts in Chicago and New York, Amazon staff at four French sites struck to protest unsafe working conditions, as did those at the country’s main aircraft manufacturer.

Call center workers in Brazil and Portugal answered their own call to do the same — as did those involved in a clutch of strikes in Spain. The stoppages have even spread to health care workers, from hospital staff in Hong Kong to doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe. In Britain, there have been some parallel actions. Starting with some postal and refuse collection workers, council and library workers walked out to ensure their safety; meat-processing workers in Northern Ireland did the same.

We could cite many more instances of combative collective resistance, in these and other countries. No doubt many more will emerge as the coronavirus crisis continues. But important though these actions are, in terms of challenging how employers handle the pandemic, these are nonetheless defensive measures, through which workers are trying to protect themselves and others from the virus. They’re not offensive strikes seeking to raise terms and conditions — rather, they’re actions to stop them from getting worse.

In fact, many strikes that had been planned before the outbreak have had to be cancelled or stood down because of the crisis conditions and the call for social peace. In Britain, the CWU postal workers’ union delayed taking action after winning a third strike ballot; the University and College Union (UCU) moreover paused its pay and conditions campaign by delaying the necessary re-balloting. Other examples include council service workers in London, Liverpool and the Scottish Borders; there were similar moves among unions in South Africa, dockers in Brazil, bank workers in India, doctors in Kenya, health workers in Germany, and bus drivers and teachers in Canada and the United States.

Added to these are cases where the collapse in demand for certain goods and services has meant that workers’ normal bargaining strength has dissipated — meaning that striking would be foolhardy at present.

Indeed, only a few groups of workers have rejected pleas for social peace and continued disputes they had been fighting already — notably hospital cleaners in Britain. There have been merely isolated instances of small groups of workers necessary for public health and hygiene seeking to take advantage of the crisis to sort out their existing poor wages and conditions. Such strikes occurred in Bulgaria, Lebanon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Palestine as well as in two cases of refuse workers in Bexley and Sandwell in Britain.

Newly Mobilized?

Yet there are also groups of workers who provide goods and services now in greater demand than ever before. The most obvious cases are the warehousing and delivery of products bought online, food retailers, welfare benefits, internet services, laboratory testing, and respirator and hygiene-product manufacturing. Their rising production levels also raise health problems of their own — for instance, enforcing physical distancing in warehouses.

So, are such workers willing and able to take advantage of this new opportunity — and do more than just seek adequate social distancing or washing facilities? Union organizing is a necessary, but insufficient step in this direction. For these workers will still have to face a backlash of criticism and abuse if they are accused of trying to exploit the situation by advancing their own vested interests — or even hampering the effectiveness of the response to the virus. It would take brave, self-confident workers to withstand this barrage.

Other complications also need factoring in. For instance, supermarkets in Britain are hiring some 30,000 temporary workers — somewhat weakening the existing workers’ leverage, especially if, as expected, most of these temporary workers do not join a union. Private care providers are also engaging in recruitment drives. In some instances, employers have sought to head off any pressure for action by raising wages and conditions. In Britain, Canada, Ireland, and the United States, a number of major supermarkets have paid such “danger” money. In Britain, Aldi, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s/Argos are paying permanent hourly paid staff a 10 percent bonus while Asda is giving staff an extra week’s holiday. Amazon in the United States has increased its hourly wage by $2.

The possibility of strikes is also undermined by workers’ reduced ability to physically associate on picket lines and on demonstrations — whether by law, public policy, or common sense. This is not, however, necessarily an insuperable problem. A group of food production workers in Northern Ireland who walked out over health and safety concerns did mount a dispersed picket line where workers stood at a distance from each other — showing that physical picket lines are not impossible.

In Britain, some unions have won victories even without the threat or reality of strike action, for instance, securing full pay during furloughs (like JCB), full pay for sickness absence (Amey, Medirest, and ISS contractors) and the return of full sick pay (Wilko retailers). Yet there are also cases of employers using the crisis to worsen conditions. Some have refused to access the UK government’s wage bailout fund (Stobart Air, Wren Kitchens) — preferring to follow through on redundancies rather than keep on all workers — or enforced 20 percent pay cuts, to match exactly the level of the government wage bailout (Ford).

After the Storm

But this is all about the present. What lasting effects will there be when the virus has begun to recede and some kind of normality returns? There is some evidence of workers building their organizing strength through the actions carried out, for example among Amazon workers in France, Italy, Spain, and the United States. In such cases, organizing by different groups of workers — some in unions and some in unofficial proto-unions — has escalated as workers seek to shut down unsafe operations, enforce health and safety measures, and secure higher pay and better sick pay arrangements.

In this case, Amazon’s response to the crisis has further removed the scales from their workers’ eyes, to the extent that the company’s reaction has become a tipping point. “Enough” is really “enough,” as workers increasingly realize they are being treated as mere “factors of production.” Although this advance has not happened in Amazon in Britain — where the GMB union is seeking to organize workers over work rate and fatigue issues — more positive signs come from other distribution hub workplaces like ASOS (clothing) and DHL (Marks & Spencer). Hundreds of workers walked out of these huge facilities in South Yorkshire and Swindon to protest the lack of physical distancing — giving grounds for hope that Amazon workers might be encouraged to do the same.

The crisis may also shift assumptions about what is possible. An interesting case arose in Glasgow, Scotland where beauty treatment workers were threatened with zero-hour contracts because of the downturn in demand. Unlike their fellow workers in the company’s other outlets, they refused to accept these contracts, held out, and unionized — forcing the company to pay them fully until the government wage bailout kicked in.

These are the little chinks of light where there may be something of a “silver lining” to the “black cloud” of the coronavirus. Yet such instances are as yet few and far between at the moment. So far, it is hard to find evidence that gig-economy delivery riders at companies like Deliveroo and Yodel are doing anything similar.

Unrewarded

There’s been lots of plaudits for health and care workers — not least the weekly #clapforcarers, where Britons were encouraged to stand in the street and applaud National Health Service staff. But will these workers be able to cash in on their new political capital?

The treatment of firefighters would tend to provide a negative lesson, in this regard. These workers are praised to the skies at the time and in the immediate aftermath of big incidents they attend — but this is all forgotten when it comes to their pay and pension negotiations. In recent decades, firefighters have seen their pensions entitlements reduced in value their pay has fallen in real terms. Amidst the wider austerity offensive, these lifesavers were no “special case.”

Indeed, if the global financial crash of 2008–9 offers any guidance, then it will take a long time for some groups of workers to regain what bargaining strength they might once have had. With economic growth slumping, many will be focused on defensive battles to try to claw back what was lost. Indeed, if the state is paying out 80 percent of workers’ wages while they are on furlough, this situation may remain unchanged for some time to come — until, that is, bosses decide otherwise.

But the global financial crash could look like mere child’s play compared to the coming depression (not just recession) brought by the coronavirus crisis. While capital may not be exactly strengthened by it, labor could be an awful lot weaker still.

Some employers may find the experience of homeworking brings benefits — and that cost savings outweigh the challenges of coordinating their workers. Notwithstanding the use of social media, any protracted period of homeworking could further disrupt the unions’ ability to organize.

In the end, groups of workers whose bargaining power has temporarily been enhanced by this crisis may find these gains evaporating all too soon. They’ll need to work out how to take robust measures to ensure it doesn’t.