Updated: Mar 26
By James Kerr, Socialist Alternative National Committee
The Coronavirus crisis has laid bare the brutal nature of capitalism, intensified after over a decade of cuts, deregulation and a general race to bottom in pay, conditions and workers’ rights. The Tories have recently announced stringent new measures including the closure of schools, pubs, restaurants and other leisure facilities. The Conservative Party press office might declare “our biggest priority remains to keep the public safe” but working-class people, not least those who have suffered as a result of Universal Credit and other destructive policies, will have little faith in Johnson and his cabal to safeguard them.
Schools were kept open for several days until Gavin Williamson announced their closure to all but the most vulnerable students and children of key workers. This was in contrast to the approach of governments across Europe and was supposedly based on the modelling of the virus’ spread and the so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy. It has since been revealed that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s top adviser had allegedly said of this approach that the top priority was to “protect the economy, if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. Such a sentiment fits in with his previous writings in support of Eugenics.
The teachers’ union NEU’s leadership initially focused on questioning the modelling the government used to make this decision and demanding more detailed justifications for the plan. Those of us on the ground could see issues of health and safety were becoming as much about safe staffing levels as about containment of the virus. NEU reps across the country began to organise, some using the Employment Rights Act to push for partial or phased closure to maintain safe student to staff ratios.
Unofficial action began to be posed and it became increasingly clear the government was losing control. The NEU leadership caught up and began to develop a much clearer strategy with a demand for school closures coupled with a constructive approach to education workers being redeployed to ensure the safety of those students most in need. Now with schools opening only to the children of key workers and some students with Special Educational Needs, trade unions must stamp their authority on the situation.
Johnson’s government has already proven itself incapable of adequately responding to this crisis. Their own inaction, especially the failure to test widely for the virus early on, coupled with the legacy of a ten-year-long Tory-sponsored starvation diet for the NHS have left us poised for this disaster. We can’t trust the people who caused this crisis to get us out of it.
That’s why workers’ control in responding to this public health emergency is an essential demand to be taken up throughout the trade union movement. It should be elected committees and union reps overseeing plans and proposals in workplaces - not diktat from government or managers. Bin workers in Bexley were recently forced to take strike action to demand adequate sick pay and access to hand sanitiser in order to prevent their work becoming increasingly unsafe for themselves and others. Such examples show it’s working people, not the bosses who really understand the need to take this seriously. Democratic control by working-class people should not be limited to the workplace. It needs to be generalised in local areas, and to society as a whole.
Socialist Alternative, after Johnson’s election victory, called for local Conferences of Resistance to bring together trade unionists, community campaigns and young people to organise to defend public services. This approach is needed more than ever now. We have seen the mushrooming of Mutual Aid groups in areas across the country, an inspiring sign that the majority of working- and middle-class people have met this crisis with solidarity rather than a narrow individualism. But the trade unions have a vital role to play in democratically organising the response in the workplaces and community and using the enormous latent industrial power of the organised working class to affect the situation. Workers in Britain should remember that Trump’s federal shutdown last year was ended by the action of air traffic controllers and cabin crew, a small number of workers were able to lever their industrial weight to shift the situation.
This lesson needs to be learned in relation to workers in the gig economy. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost 975,000 workers are on zero hours contracts, although the figure may be higher. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was deliberately evasive in his press conference on 20 March when asked if the government would step in to safeguard their wages. No worker should pay for this crisis and the union movement, preferably coordinated by the TUC, should use its weight to fight to ensure those workers are moved onto permanent contracts with a guaranteed living wage, access to sick pay and protection against lay-offs. Demands should be made on councils to bring back in-house outsourced workers to protect their conditions – likewise in the NHS and other public services.
Many of the countries that have been better able to manage the spread of the virus, like South Korea, have cited routine testing as a central plank in their strategy. Various figures have been thrown around by Johnson in his press conferences but it is clear that systematic and targeted testing, even of frontline key workers, is not being rolled out.
What’s necessary is a massive expansion of testing, starting with frontline key workers in the health service, as well as in supermarkets and other jobs that put workers at high risk – but expanding to the general public as rapidly as possible. The results should be scrutinised by trade unions – including health and safety rep – in order to direct resources and plan decisions in the interests of people’s safety.
Mass testing and the development of a vaccine ultimately requires international coordination. But the reality is, capitalist governments are not capable of providing this. Just look at their abysmal failure to take any action on climate change!
The Guardian estimated that there are over 300 trials taking place internationally in search of a vaccine or cure. Many of these trials are by private pharmaceutical companies and states in competition with each other. Socialist planning would ensure this expertise and findings would be pooled in a cooperative effort to find a vaccine for all. Trade unions should be linking up with others globally to fight for this as part of a unified programme that puts the interests of working-class people before the profits of a few.
Lenin, a leader of the Russian Revolution, once remarked that ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’ to explain how people’s consciousness can be shaped quickly by dramatic events.
Working people have power
We are only three months into a majority Tory government, a period Johnson would like to view as his honeymoon, and yet he is being challenged in every community, workplace and even among small business owners who see destitution as the result of his dithering. As this crisis develops, the potential power of workers is more and more revealed. Even this government is forced to concede that many of those they labelled ‘low-skilled’ just week’s ago, are in fact central pillars of our society – essential key workers, without whom utter disaster looms.
Dual power is a term used by Marxists to describe the situation when the ruling class no longer have complete control over the running of society as workers organise and take control of the running of key industries. We are nowhere near that situation yet, but workers, especially those on the frontline, will increasingly view the situation with new eyes. When we see so-called ‘wealth creators’ and ‘Captains of Industry’ like Richard Branson begging for bailouts while the delivery drivers, nurses, education workers, doctors, refuse workers, supermarket staff, carers and many more keeping the country running; we see where the potential power in society exists.
There can be no ‘going back to normal’ after this. We must fight for a different kind of society based on democratic socialist planning that gives us all a decent standard of living and security for us and our families.