Workers’ Power Under Coronavirus

Capital has already exploited the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse for layoffs and wage cuts. If workers are to survive, they'll need to be organised – and ready to brush off criticism to take strike action.

The swiftness and scale of the impact of and response to the spread of the coronavirus has huge ramifications for economic activity in the global capitalist system. In turn, just as night follows day, this also has huge ramifications for the workplace bargaining power of workers in the defence and advancement of their terms and conditions of employment.   

With the first mass layoffs, redundancies and pay cuts now taking place, it would be easy to think that the depression of economic activity would necessarily weaken workers’ already fragile bargaining power at work. Even where workers remain in employment but are experiencing enforced stayaways, that is, working from home, or have had to take unpaid leave to look after their children who are no longer in school, the ability to organise is hampered as collectivities of workers become fragmented and atomised – no matter the existence of social media platforms like WhatsApp. And while there is much evidence of this, things are not always quite as simple and straightforward as they might at first seem.

It’s easy to see that in the airline industry, and tourism, entertainment and hospitality, for example, that workers there are very much on the backfoot because demand has collapsed so they are less able to resist employers’ terms for dealing with the impact of the crisis upon company profitability, much less advance their normal bargaining demands. Some of them are now no longer in employment any more. Of course, very low rates of unionisation in some of these sectors undermines any ability to resist. 

In Britain, on March 20, the government announced the state would pay grants covering up to 80% of the salary of workers kept on by private companies, not-for profit organisations and charities up to a total of £2,500 per month. The grant will be backdated to March 1 and available from with the next few weeks. It will be open initially for three months. While this degree and kind of is unprecedented, it is not clear the extent of the impact it will have for a number of reasons.

First, many redundancies have already taken place (albeit a few have been rescinded since the government announcement). Second, it will take employers a number of weeks to access the funding. Third, it can be anticipated that that further delays will occur if the system for making payment becomes over-loaded. These two factors may mean that some employers feel compelled to make redundancies. Fourth, it is not yet clear what financial support there is for the 5m million self-employed workers and of who many work for employers but without employed status (like the bogus self-employed).

In a number of public services that have been closed – such as schools, colleges and universities, a similar sense of disorganisation and dislocation are present even if no redundancies have yet taken place. Outside of these sectors, car manufacturers, for example, are now shutting down production due to reduced demand and problems with the supply of component parts while non-food retail outlets and much privately or publicly-owned public transport are experiencing vastly reduced demand. Those on zero-hour contracts in these sectors are now, literally, on zero-hours. Demand for energy usage is now falling too. Strikes in a number of these sectors have been stood down, paused or not even started. There are cases in point in education and public transport in America, Britain, Canada and Italy. The bargaining clout that such strikes could normally exercise is just not present right now.

But, of course, the wheels of capitalism continue to turn. Most governments are still allowing workers to go to work where physical attendance is required. Not everybody can work from home. Workers in Italy, especially, have taken a series of defensive strikes to try to protect themselves from the effects of the virus by demanding proper protection in terms of public health. These are not offensive strikes seeking to raise terms and conditions but stop them from getting worse.

Yet, there are groups of workers for which the goods and services they provide are now in greater demand than ever before. The most obvious ones are cleaning, childcare and guarding, warehousing and delivery of products bought on-line, food retailers, internet and broadband services for residential properties, laboratory testing, and respirator and hygiene product manufacturers. In some cases, employers in these sectors are already hiring more workers. And, although the chances of infection are heightened with the heightened demand for their services, for example, deliverers of cooked meals are now in a stronger bargaining position than ever before.

The question then is: are these types of workers in a position to take advantage of this new opportunity? It would seem something of a ‘perfect storm’ for Amazon warehouse workers to try to push forward their collective organisation – as they seem to be doing in France and Italy but not so much in Britain. And, couriers and deliverers in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are, for example, just getting themselves unionised and organised to be able to take collective action. Their ability to do so will not be helped, in Britain at least, by being left out of the state aid to employees because they are legally self-employed.

This organisation is necessary but not sufficient because the challenges these workers face is: are they willing and able to withstand 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 a response to the virus? Employers – for their own cynical reasons – will be the first to accuse them of doing this, and run to the media to make sure as many know about their accusation as possible. 

This was the case with laboratory test workers in New Zealand (where there is yet to be a major outbreak). It will take brave and self-confident workers to withstand this barrage. Moreover, the reduced inability to physically associate on picket lines and on demonstrations – whether by law, public policy or common sense – also needs to be factored in. Cyber-picketing, where workers can disrupt a business by placing pre-orders for goods and services and then withdrawing from paying for them or just crowding out or overwhelming its website for online sales, would be one way around this for some but not all workers.   

Though unions’ primary role is bargaining in the industrial arena, they can augment their political voice by showing that they can act as guardians of the health and safety of their members and for public health in general by demanding employers properly fund counter-measures and fully and sensitively apply these. This is because their members know better than anyone else how to do their jobs safely and effectively. 

For unions, it would be to show that they can exercise the ‘sword of justice’ for wider numbers of citizens than just their own members’ sectional interests. Postal workers in Britain offering to become an emergency service for deliveries, rather than going on strike after their successful ballot, is a case in point. In doing so, this would help boost the case for workers to be more fairly remunerated because they had shown their worth in times of crisis. And, in Britain, union pressure on the government to match what other many European governments have done providing state aid for wage protection will have boosted unions’ ‘sword of justice’ role given union density is only 23% amongst the entire workforce. 

This is all about the present and for the foreseeable future? So, what happens when the virus has peaked, begins to recede and some kind of normality returns? In other words, will there be any lasting effects? 

If the global financial crash of 2008-2009 is any guide, then it will take a long time for some groups of workers to regain any bargaining strength they did have because economic growth could be weak and fitful. Defensive battles to claw back what was lost will still be the order of the day for a long time to come. But the global financial crash may be child’s play compared to the depression wrecked by the coronavirus crisis. This means while capital may not be exactly strengthened by it either, labour could be an awful lot weaker still. Groups of workers with temporarily enhanced bargaining power may find this evaporates all too soon. They’ll need to take robust steps to try to ensure it does not.