HOW COVID-19 UNMASKS THE CLASS DIVIDE by Jason Sibert

The Covid-19 crisis reveals the class divide in the United States of America.

The divide in our county calls for a redistribution of power, as working people need more power and corporate America and the military-industrial complex need less.

Today, on International Workers Day (May 1), workers in essential industries – restaurant, retail, and healthcare – are scheduled to march in downtown Los Angeles, Calf. to demand better health and safety conditions and hazard pay. Essential industry workers complained of not being provided masks, gloves, and sanitizer. Organizers said employees who work for companies such as Amazon.com, Instacart, and McDonalds will demonstrate. Nurses are scheduled to join in the protests, reports said.

Even before the pandemic, some have been organizing working people in new ways. The Mobile Workers Alliance (MWA) is working with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to mobilize Lyft and Uber drivers in Los Angeles. SEIU, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCWU) and the retail-oriented United for Respect (UfR) have mobilized grocery store and fast-food workers. A coalition called Athena targeted Amazon.com with strikes and press conferences highlighting the company’s safety practices. Some call such efforts the alt-labor movement because some of the organizations involved – the MWA and UfR – are not traditional unions.

President Donald Trump recently ordered meat packing companies to stay open during the COVID-19 crises via executive order because some are worried about the supply of meat in retail outlets. The UFCWU stated the Trump Administration should issue firm orders on social distancing, protective equipment, daily testing, and sick leave in a display of opposition to the President’s order, reports said.

Essential workers are on the front lines in the pandemic, as they prepare food for grab-and-go and drive-up services, stock shelves in grocery stores, run cash registers, haul goods to grocery stores and provide healthcare at hospitals and nursing homes.

The above scenarios would be less severe, or would not exist, if working people wielded more power. Our country needs to use its democratic traditions to increase their power. We must look back to the early New Deal when President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the National Recovery Administration, an experiment in business, labor, and government cooperation that the Supreme Court unfortunately declared unconstitutional. Each industry formed boards and the government facilitated these boards. Employers and employees negotiated production codes on items such as wages and working conditions. All companies that joined the NRA placed the Blue Eagle on their company logo to signal participation. In order to be a part of the NRA, a company had to allow employees to join a union.

Writer Michael Lind suggested a return to an NRA-type arrangement in his new book “Saving Democracy from the Managerial Class.” A new version of worker-business cooperation would allow workers in the service sector, and other sectors, to elect a leader to a board that sets industry codes. The baristas, healthcare workers, restaurant workers, and others would have a say in their pay and conditions. Companies and consumers would also have a representative or representatives on these boards.

Military budgets are under strain in economies around the world due to the spending allocated to fight COVID-19. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute stated that global defense spending reached $1.9 trillion, as China and the U.S. represent 52 percent of global military spending. Nan Tian of the Stimson Center said that there is a downward pressure on defense budgets around the world largely due to the fight against the pandemic, according to reports.

Large defense budgets do no good in a fight where service and healthcare workers are on the front line. Scientific workers will be important in the battle for a vaccine. The large budgets also represent a power-balancing act between geopolitical competitors like China and the U.S. However, COVID-19 knows no boundaries and requires that the world work together for a victory. This makes Trump’s right-wing populism a wrong fit for our times.

A downsizing of the military-industrial complex and a redirection of funds toward research and development (a vaccine) and an increase in the power, health, and safety of America’s working people are the key to a new, more social democratic America!

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.

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