May 4, 2020
This is the editorial that appeared in SPARK workplace newsletters, for the week of April 27.
As the politicians debate how to “restart” the economy, this is the choice we are being given: risk our lives by going back into work or risk our lives by sitting imprisoned at home knowing our jobs can disappear—if we even had a job.
This is the only kind of choice capitalism has ever given us: a choice between two clear evils. It’s no choice at all.
People are right to be worried about what will happen when we go back to work—we can see what has happened to workers in the so-called “essential” industries. At one point almost half the cops in the city of Detroit were quarantined because the virus had spread so widely through the force. And not just the cops themselves, but their families, too. A five-year old girl—whose father is a Detroit firefighter and whose mother is a Detroit cop—contracted the virus and died. Five years old.
Those “essential workers” were put to work with little thought for their lives. Not just firefighters and cops, but nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, warehouse workers, truckers, factory workers producing parts for transportation, transit workers. The number of “essential workers” who died—and of their family members who died—shows us what can happen when more of us return.
Now, one by one, as different workplaces start up, more of us will be guinea pigs. Human guinea pigs, letting those who run the society test to discover how many more will die.
But people are also right to be worried about what will happen if the shutdown continues. Already 22.6 million people have put in an unemployment claim, coming on top of the 7.1 million who were already unemployed. Even using those figures, which ignore many without a job, we face a rate of unemployment as high as it was in the worst point of the Great Depression.
Yes, stimulus bills supposedly promised benefits to “tide us over.” But up until now only about half those eligible for the $1200 payment have received it. Hardly anyone has received the full unemployment benefit. And hundreds of thousands of people, haven’t yet been able to file.
But even if all of us had got all that money, it’s only temporary. In the best of circumstances, it provides barely enough to pay for housing and groceries and immediate needs. What’s most important, it doesn’t deal with the essential problem: that is, a society that does not produce the goods and services needed by the population—a society without jobs—cannot long survive.
So we have no good choice: take the risk with our lives, or take the risk with our livelihood.
In fact, there can be another choice, but capitalism doesn’t give it. The capitalist drive for profit is what made society totally unprepared for the emergence of a newly discovered virus. Medical science knows how to confront newly emergent viruses. But money is needed for research, just like money is required to prepare equipment which could prevent disease from becoming epidemic. But money is exactly what was not given to meet these human needs. It went, instead, to more profit.
When we go back to work, it will be to jobs where our safety has never been a concern. How many people die from industrial “accidents” caused by the rush to wring more profit out of production? How many people die young from heart attacks as the intensity of work is increased? This happens every day, with or without a virus. Under capitalism, there is death.
Life, of course, means there will be death. But, under capitalism, unnecessary death is the necessary companion of the drive for profit.
The capitalist control of the economy is what needs to be shut down. This choice, a humane one, lies within the grasp of working people to make. Because of our position in production, working people have power. We could get rid of the capitalist control over the economy and begin to organize a society putting the needs of people first, including the need to be safe at work and secure in our livelihood.