While the number of trade union strikes this year are lower than previous years, there have so far been hundreds of wildcat strikes without union authorization, primarily in the fight for worker safety amid COVID and racial justice. The Strike for Black Lives, which took place on July 20, 2020 is one such example.
In response to COVID-19 and the COVID-19 Depression, workers have developed unique strategies and forms of organization to protect their lives and livelihoods. We saw in “Fighting the Great Depression — from Below” how in the early years of the Great Depression conventional trade union strikes became a rarity, but workers organized themselves in community-based, “horizontal” ways to fight for their survival. This commentary and the next describe the emergence of strikes for protection against COVID-19. This series will conclude with an evaluation of the prospects of “people power” in the Coronavirus Depression.
In the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployed and impoverished workers turned to dramatic forms of self-help to survive. Anti-eviction “riots” led by organizations of the unemployed made it possible to protect hundreds of thousands of families from being evicted from their homes and ultimately forced government in many cities to halt evictions.
Forty million people or more have lost their jobs since the beginning of March. Including those not actively looking for work, nearly half of adults are jobless. While some of those initially laid off have returned to work, others who thought their layoffs were temporary have been reclassified as fired permanently.
The United States has entered the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This commentary describes the grassroots movements of the early years of the Great Depression in order to learn something about the dynamics of popular response to depression conditions. These early unemployed, self-help, labor, and other movements helped lay the groundwork for the New Deal and the massive labor struggles of the later 1930s.
Black people are two-and-a-half times as likely as White people to catch COVID-19 and substantially more likely to be unemployed as a result of the pandemic. George Floyd, in addition to being murdered by racist police, was infected by COVID-19 and lost his job when the restaurant he worked for closed because of the pandemic.
We are in the midst of the largest mass uprising in half a century. It is a response to the killing of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. But it challenges a pattern of Black oppression that goes far beyond one cop killing one Black person, indeed, far beyond the issues of police abuse of the Black community.
On February 26, 2012, a neighborhood watch coordinator in Sanford, Florida, named George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed African American seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. Two weeks later Zimmerman was charged with murder. Zimmerman claimed self-defense. A year and a half later he was acquitted.
Since the beginning of coronavirus lockdowns, the words “essential workers” are suddenly on everyone’s lips. Hospital orderlies, bathroom cleaners, bus drivers – until recently ignored, denigrated, and underpaid – are suddenly treated as heroes. Locked-down Americans stand in front of their houses at 7:00 pm to applaud them. Politicians give speeches celebrating them. These workers were always essential to the running of our society, but now they are being recognized as such. Recognized — but abused more than ever.