Workers Should Shape the COVID-19 Recovery

“Treat workers as experts,” reads one of the bullet points in a new Essential Workers Bill of Rights from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ro Khanna. The bill, proposed to protect workers during the coronavirus—and, presumably, future crises—includes basic demands such as paid sick leave, collective bargaining rights, whistleblower protections, health care coverage, and child care, as well as increased health and safety precautions, hazard pay, and “holding corporations accountable.” 

Saving lives by producing ventilators is a higher good, Kaszynski says, than GE maintaining its bottom line. 

Warren and Khanna propose that “essential workers” and their unions and organizations be part of any effort to coordinate a response to the pandemic. The idea is that workers are the experts on their own working conditions and what they need to do their jobs effectively. 

Some of us, of course, have always known this. 

Working people have a long history of challenging management over more than just wages and benefits; they have also often demanded a say in what they do and how it gets done. During the Great Depression, the explosion of organizing that created the Congress of Industrial Organizations went beyond just calling for better pay and weekends.

At one point, historian Erik Loomis told me recently, the goal of United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther was “to have the UAW or the CIO be at the table on every major policy decision in the United States, whether it has to do with unions or not.” 

Reuther eventually conceded defeat on that point, but it surfaced again in the 1970s just before deindustrialization really kicked in. Now, the demand for worker control is raising its head yet again. Workers at General Electric (GE), members of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers – Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) have held several actions at GE facilities and headquarters, demanding that the company’s currently idle factories be used to produce ventilators.

Adam Kaszynski, a machinist at GE in Massachusetts, told me that union workers “have a different vision of how the world should work. When there is something you can do that is productive for society, that is needed, and you have the skills to do it, profit should not be the overwhelming motive for what we produce.”

Saving lives by producing ventilators is a higher good, he says, than GE maintaining its bottom line. 

In many ways, as I wrote earlier, the coronavirus has sped up a conversation that was already happening around the slower but no less deadly process of climate change. 

For instance, would it be possible to turn an economy from the production of consumer goods and gas-guzzling vehicles, to one geared toward green energy production, sustainable agriculture, and reusable and reparable electronics? 

Before the pandemic, the answer that came over and over again from world leaders was that the scale of change needed would be too dangerous for “the economy.” Well, we now have a downward-spiraling economy, production has stilled, and nearly seventeen million laid-off workers applied for unemployment in the last three weeks—and those are just the ones who were able to apply.   

It is noteworthy that even in such a crisis, for GE and apparently for the government, military production takes precedence over the production of ventilators.

And yet, with all that production that was going on before the crisis, we still don’t have what we need. Nurses are demanding better protective equipment—they’ve declared April 15 a day of action calling for necessary masks, shields, and more. Listening to the nurses and health care workers would have left us better prepared for this current crisis; they have long advocated for better staffing ratios, keeping hospitals open, and a universal health care system. Some of them even now are advocating nationalization of production of protective equipment.

But supply chain issues—which The New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo called “a very American set of capitalist pathologies”—have meant a lack of basic equipment like N95 masks. 

Kaszynski, the GE machinist, told me that it would be easy to begin refitting the plants to make ventilators. “Where there is idle capacity on machines right now, you could start making metal parts for ventilators within twenty-four hours,” he says. Other parts might take a little longer, but the possibility, if GE listened to its workers, was real. Judging by the number of fashion brands sending emails or advertising masks on social platforms, it is in fact easier than we have been told to turn production around and make necessary goods on a rapid turnover. 

If just-in-time production is good for anything, it should be its ability to quickly adapt to what is necessary. Yet just-in-time logistics, as labor scholar Kim Moody noted, helped spread the coronavirus; it traveled “through the circuits of capital,” and it has wreaked havoc on them. 

Kaszynski stressed that the virus showed the folly of centralizing production in certain regions  where wages and worker protections are low. It’s not that, as Donald Trump would have it, there’s something wrong with China; the problem stems from the fact that the system we have now was set up to produce profits, not save lives. Its shape was determined not by the needs and ideas of working people, but by the bosses skimming every last cent from the process.

One of the challenges for the GE workers and the rest of us, though, is that it is easier to shut down production than to force it open. Strikes can halt production or distribution, as Amazon workers have shown us recently, causing more distribution to an already vulnerable supply chain.  But it’s much harder for workers to push their managers to do something positive. 

On April 14, a GE spokesperson shared a letter to its facility in Lynn, Massachusetts—where Kaszynski works—that detailed safety protocols in place. It did not provide a specific response to the workers’ call to produce ventilators at that plant, but it did say, “Some have said we should close Lynn for a period in the face of this crisis. But our military customers are counting on us to continue to operate in order to supply the products they need to protect our country.” 

Many have compared the fight against coronavirus to a war and called for the use of the Defense Production Act to force production of necessary medical equipment, yet it is noteworthy that even in such a crisis, for GE and apparently for the government, military production takes precedence over the production of ventilators. The workers’ priorities are different. 

At this moment, when the same corporations that decided to put profits over human needs are pleading for more bailout money, we have a unique point of leverage not just to “treat workers as experts”—the bare minimum—but to demand serious changes to how those companies operate. 

“While factories lie empty and states compete ruthlessly against each other over a dwindling supply of ventilators and PPE, it is workers who are demanding the right to be useful, the right to determine production based on social needs rather than private profits,” says Peter Gowan, policy associate at the Democracy Collaborative and author of a proposal to give workers the “Right to Own” shuttered factories. 

“Introducing a Right to Own would move our society in the direction of workers’ control as we exit the quarantine,” Gowan says. “We cannot go back to normal after such a demonstration of the inadequacy and inhumanity of capitalism.” 

A right to own, or at least a seat at the table, would mean that workers like Kaszynski and his colleagues could make necessary goods in safe conditions now and could help shape a recovery that would also put human life, not the accumulation of wealth, at the center of the economy.

As Gowan noted, “Workers are showing that, if they had power, we would be living in an unimaginably better world.”

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