In this epidemic, Workers’ Liberty fights for the labour movement to make itself an essential service.
The labour movement, as yet, lacks the capacity to take over society and reshape it so as better to minimise and control epidemics. Neither we as Workers’ Liberty, nor the labour movement generally, has the depth of expertise to qualify us to second-guess the established bourgeois public health experts.
But the labour movement does have, and must develop more, expertise in pushing back and overriding the barriers to social well-being raised by the interests of private profit.
On 17 March the Tory government announced £330 billion in aid to business, to keep profits flowing. It’s the job of the labour movement to keep wages and working-class incomes flowing.
The labour movement does have, and must develop more, expertise in speaking up for the most exploited, the most oppressed, and the least generally-listened-to.
It does have, and must develop more, expertise in working for the general change in society which will make human welfare and a sustainable balance with nature the guiding principles of development, rather than private profit.
The labour movement has essential jobs to do on all three fronts.
The British government is appealing to industries to convert to producing medical supplies like ventilators, and to hotels and similar to convert to housing extra NHS premises, offering them good money.
The labour movement must press for all those facilities, and the whole pharmaceutical and medical-supplies industry, to be requisitioned, as even bourgeois governments requisition facilities in time of war, overriding individual profit calculations.
To stop the economic blow from the epidemic (inevitable under any social system) snowballing into a typically capitalist economic crisis, we demand the requisitioning of high finance, under democratic control.
Bourgeois governments in war do their requisitioning bureaucratically, with tender care for profits and without democratic monitoring. The result, in Britain after World War One for example, was what even a Tory politician, Stanley Baldwin, called “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war”.
And the British government in 1918 (like other warring governments) suppressed information about the so-called “Spanish Flu” epidemic then (which killed more people than World War 1 itself) for fear of dampening war morale.
The labour movement needs to demand the setting up of emergency commissions, on which unions are represented and through which they are informed, with the right to speak out independently when they need to, at every level: globally, nationally, in every local authority, in every company and workplace. Fight for workers’ control!
Several local Labour Parties have been active in setting up “mutual aid” groups to offer help to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the housebound in their areas. The Labour Party nationally should promote those groups, but also demand a huge allocation of funds from central government to local authorities so that they can provide for the homeless, those at threat from domestic violence, and others, plus representation of the mutual-aid groups in the working-out of local emergency plans.
The labour movement should demand the cancellation of rent bills and evictions during the epidemic.
In a number of workplaces, alert trade-union activity has won agreement that zero-hours and agency workers, as well as core employees, will get full sick pay and not have Covid-19 time off work counted against sickness absence entitlements. It has won better conditions, sick pay, and proper protective kit, for cleaners, whose work is now shown to be pivotal, and yet are often contracted-out and underpaid.
In many workplaces those things have not been won yet. Health and safety legislation which entitles workers to withdraw to a “place of safety” when they see “serious and imminent danger” — for example, from co-workers being forced to come to work even when infected, because of lack of sick pay - can be a lever here. Our centre pages this week explain how.
In every workplace, even if no union is organised or recognised there, workers have the right to elect a health and safety rep and have management listen to that rep. Unions should support and provide training and information for the epidemic to new health and safety reps.
We do not consider ourselves qualified to second-guess the public health authorities on when to close schools. There are arguments even after a general closure for keeping schools partially open -— at least for students dependent on free school meals, or from homeless households, or whose parents are essential-service workers.
We are qualified to say that this year’s A-levels and GCSEs, and primary-school high-stakes tests, and Ofsted inspections, and school league tables, should all be cancelled. And now. Don’t leave it later and encourage schools which partially close down to send home younger students rather than older exam-class students better able to cope.
Even the bosses’ federation, the CBI, has long argued that GCSEs do more harm than good, and should be abolished. There are plenty of workarounds to give students “CV” options for universities or jobs.
We are qualified, too, to argue that the “each country for itself” trend of policy in the epidemic is inhuman and short-sighted. Britain has problems with the NHS being unprepared. Imagine how much greater the problems are with the refugees in Syria, Turkey, and Greece, and the populations of many poorer countries, and how difficult it will be to delay and mitigate Covid-19 when it starts to sweep through those populations.
The labour movement must demand huge and rapid international aid, not the foot-dragging seen for so long with the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
We are critical of unions which have partially shut themselves down for the duration, suspending all meetings and pickets and even educational courses.
What can be done online, should be done online. Some workers have improved their positions enough to have the option of working from home, and to have good and hygienic homes to retreat to: good for them!
But large core sections of the working class will have to be at work throughout this epidemic, with only temporary and individual absences. The labour movement should be at their side, and not identify only with better-off workers who can retreat to safe homes and rely on other workers (water, electricity, food-supply, repairs, healthcare) to continue working to supply them.
There are reasonable arguments for saying that big, tight-packed gatherings are to be avoided in the epidemic. Smaller meetings, protests, and picket lines can however be organised with adequate precautions within them of social distancing and hygiene. The labour movement should remain “on duty”, as an essential service.
Behind this epidemic stand two great factors, determined by the warping of society through private profit.
Ecological disruption from climate change has increased the risk of new viruses crossing species barriers (which often means viruses which have minor or no effects in one species become killers when they cross to another).
Development of vaccines and treatments from viruses, promoted in spurts at the height of previous crises (AIDS, SARS, and so on), has been allowed to languish for lack of funds when the crisis passes and research no longer promises short-term profits.
The NHS and other health services have been cut back to minimise the tax burden on the well-off, so that they normally and usually, outside of crises, run at nearly full stretch. They haven’t been planned to run with ample spare capacity and reserves in normal times, so that they can adapt quickly in crises. For years it’s been known that even an unusually severe normal seasonal flu bout would overstretch the NHS, and yet governments have continued to starve it of funds.
Now Covid-19 tests and protective equipment are in short supply, and the NHS is short of facilities to remedy the shortage quickly enough.
At the time of the 1891-92 famine and cholera epidemic in Russia (the cholera killed nearly 270,000 in the Tsarist Empire), the Russian socialist movement was still an affair of small groups.
Many socialists simply threw themselves into what the relief efforts there were, mainly organised by local authorities led by the liberal elements of the nobility. Others argued socialists must also make the arguments to prepare the people after the epidemic to win a democratic society.
And in fact it was in the years immediately after the famine that the Russian Marxist movement first became a mass force.
It was after another great pandemic, the so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918, that the world’s first-ever NHS was developed - by our comrades, the Bolsheviks, in Russia, as they began to win the civil war there against counter-revolutionary armies backed by Britain and other powers.
The socialists could do and say little about the “Spanish flu” at the time. Even the best-qualified medical experts knew little, and the facts of the flu were blurred by a welter of other epidemics (cholera, typhus).
The “November revolution” of 1918 in Germany happened at the height of the death toll from the “Spanish flu” there, yet the political histories of the time say little about it.
But in India, it seems fairly sure, mass anger against the British colonial administration’s inhuman indifference to the “Spanish flu — which killed 18 million there, more than anywhere else — triggered the mass eruption of the movement which would eventually win Indian independence in 1947.
Indian independence was won under bourgeois nationalist leadership, and left the mass of the people still exploited. The Bolsheviks were eventually defeated by the internal counter-revolution led by Stalin.
This time we must win for good. The political battle starts now, in the midst of the pandemic.