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Striking in Striking Times: Capitalism’s Coronavirus Crisis

by | June 15, 2020

The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness, our latest issue. Issue 8 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue (issue 9). 



The coronavirus crisis is visiting a global, economic and social calamity upon humanity. State restrictions on physical movements have accelerated collapsing demand for goods and services, and produced a concomitant slump in economic activity. Not only does this reveal the underlying fragility of capitalism, but exposes the extent to which economic growth – generally, a cypher for profitability – is capitalism’s drug of choice.

Recently released figures for unemployment benefits claimants in, for example, Britain, Spain and the United States show huge hikes in spite of state wage subsidy packages. In the United States, over one fortnight alone, a record 10 million people registered as unemployed. In Britain, in one week almost a million people successfully applied for Universal Credit while in Spain within two weeks over 300,000 have become unemployed since its government instituted a ‘state of alarm’ on 14 March. Labour markets are in freefall and turmoil, some are effectively frozen and some, like airlines, tourism, hospitality and entertainment, are on the brink of collapse. This is no ordinary environment for workers, and their unions (where they have them), to organise in.

Workers’ ability to strike, or threaten to strike, remains the crux of their power. While tight labour markets will sometimes lead employers to improve terms and conditions as they seek to recruit and retain staff, this usually requires sustained economic growth and a strong demand for labour. We do not live in such times. As the sociologist, Beverley Silver argued in her 2003 book, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870, workers’ bargaining power derives either from their strategic structural positioning in the economy, or their associational power (in unions, for example). However, there is more to it than this. In 1988, Eric Batstone suggested, in a book chapter called ‘The frontier of control’, that bargaining power includes not only the ability to disrupt production, distribution and exchange, and scarcity of labour, but also political influence. Bargaining power can be shaped by movements within labour markets, such as supply and demand, while the disruptive effects of workers’ action takes place on a wider terrain encompassing both capital and the state (whose boundaries with each other have become increasingly blurred in the neoliberal era).  

At the moment, there are two pressures on workers not to strike. The first is economic. Unemployment is soaring and set to continue to soar. Not all will be getting wage bailouts and many commercial organisations will cease to exist. In such precarious conditions, many workers will be against taking any action which might be seen to risk their employment even more. ‘Better to be in work, no matter what, than out of work’ will be the consequent motto. The second is social, moral and political. The unspoken clamour for social peace from mainstream politicians and other opinion formers to facilitate so-called ‘national unity’ to in order to deal with the pandemic means that protecting any sectional interests is frowned upon, at best, and condemned outright, at worst. For the time being, this may become a new common sense. The challenge to workers now could scarcely be greater after three decades of neoliberalism bearing down on them in the form of (in)human resource management and anti-union governments. Even the global financial crisis of 2008–9 gave workers little respite – indeed, neoliberalism was, paradoxically, strengthened and emboldened as there was seemingly no mainstream alternative to it. 

With mass layoffs, redundancies, short-time working and pay cuts now the order of the day, it would be easy to think that the depression of economic activity would necessarily always weaken workers’ often already fragile bargaining power at work. Even where workers remain in employment but are 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 and strike is hampered as workers become more fragmented and atomised – no matter the existence of social media platforms like WhatsApp and Zoom. And while there is much evidence of this, things are not always quite as simple and straightforward as they might at first seem.

In the airline industry, and tourism, entertainment and hospitality, for example, workers are very much on the backfoot. Since demand has collapsed, it is more difficult for them to resist employers’ terms for dealing with the impact of the crisis upon company profitability, much less advance their normal bargaining demands. The consequences have been layoffs, significant pay cuts (like up to 50 per cent) and being exempt from being furloughed (meaning employers have no obligation to rehire them afterwards). Of course, very low rates of unionisation in some of these sectors undermines any ability to resist. 

In a number of public services that have been closed or severely restricted – such as schools, colleges and universities, a similar sense of disorganisation and dislocation are present even if no mass redundancies have yet taken place. Outside of these sectors, car manufacturers, for example, are 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. Zero hours workers are now, literally, on zero hours (such as the vast majority of McDonald’s workers). Demand for energy usage is now falling too, with layoffs in oil and gas production. 

But scratch a bit beneath the surface and all is not quite as it appears. The coronavirus crisis has impacted unevenly across social classes and within the working classes. Large numbers of manufacturing workers in Italy, where the virus has been most extensive and deadly amongst all European countries, went on strike several times to stop production because it put their health and wellbeing in danger. In Canada, Chrysler workers in Windsor and sanitation workers in Hamilton did the same thing. In the United States, Detroit bus workers and car workers, some shop workers in Portland, Pittsburgh bus drivers and refuge collectors, and Memphis warehouse workers took similar action, as did a host of others. In France, Amazon workers struck against their unsafe working conditions, as did those at the country’s main aircraft manufacturer, as did call centre workers in Brazil and Portugal. A similar clutch of strikes has taken place in Spain amongst manufacturing and production workers (aviation, car, tyre, white goods). In Hong Kong, hospital workers struck to protect themselves, as did doctors and nurses in Zimbabwe. In Britain, there have been parallel actions. Starting with some postal and refuse-collection workers, council and library workers have also walked out to ensure their own safety. Meat processing workers in three plants in Northern Ireland and workers at the ASOS clothes warehouse in Barnsley did the same. 

This is not to suggest that strikes are on the rise: two swallows do not a summer make, as the saying goes. Strikes remain at historically low levels in most countries. These actions are important because they comprise grassroot revolts and unballoted walkouts rather than token action to support bureaucratic machinations in collective bargaining. Yet they are, nonetheless, defensive measures to protect workers and others from the virus, not offensive strikes seeking to raise terms and conditions.

These instances also need to be balanced out by recognition that many strikes have been cancelled or stood down because of the calls for social peace and national unity to deal with the crisis. In Britain, the CWU postal workers’ union has delayed taking action after winning a third ballot for strike action and the UCU university and college lecturers’ union paused its pay-and-conditions campaign by delaying the necessary re-balloting. Other examples include council-service workers in London, Liverpool and the Scottish Borders. There were similar moves amongst unions in South Africa, dockers in Brazil, bank workers in India, doctors in Kenya, health workers in Germany, bus drivers and teachers in Canada and the United States. In Queensland, Australia, teachers threatened to strike to shutdown schools if the government did not but then backed down. In Germany, the IG Metal union signed a social peace agreement for the coming year. Of course, there are also cases where demand for certain goods and services has meant that the normal bargaining strength of some groups of workers no longer exists, so that striking at present would be foolhardy.

Only a few groups of workers have rejected pleas for social peace in order to continue their existing actions – among them, housing workers in Britain. And, there have been just a few instances of health workers seeking to take advantage of the crisis to sort out their existing poor wages and conditions (like unpaid wages), whether in Palestine, Nigeria, Kenya or Lebanon.

But there are also groups of workers who provide goods and services that are now in greater demand than ever before. The most obvious examples are warehousing and delivery of products bought online, food retailers, welfare benefits, internet services, laboratory testing and respirator and hygiene-product manufacturing. Are these types of workers willing and able to take advantage of this new opportunity to do more than just ensure adequate social distancing or washing facilities? Whilst union organisation is necessary to do so, it is not sufficient, because the challenge these workers face is this: are they willing and able to withstand the backlash if they are accused of exploiting the situation for their own interests or even hampering the response to the virus? It will take brave and self-confident workers to withstand this barrage. 

But they also face other issues. Supermarkets in Britain are, for example, hiring some 30,000 temporary workers, reducing the potential bargaining leverage of the existing workforce (especially as it is expected most temporary workers will not join a union). Private care providers are also engaging in recruitment drives. In some instances, again such as food-retailing in supermarkets, employers have headed off any pressures for action by raising wages and conditions. In Britain, Canada, Ireland and the United States, major supermarket chains are paying danger money. Some are one-off bonuses while others are hourly wage increases (and it remains to be seen if these become permanent). Moreover, the reduced ability to physically associate on picket lines and on demonstrations – whether by law, public policy or common sense – also needs to be factored in. However, a group of food production workers in Northern Ireland did walk out over health and safety and mounted a dispersed and at distance picketline, showing physical picketlines are not impossible. Lastly, there is the issue of the effect of state intervention to prevent the loss of income to workers. In most European countries, albeit with uneven coverage, the state has temporarily subsidised around 80 per cent of workers’ wages to prevent mass redundancy. 

But that is the present and the foreseeable future. What happens when the virus has peaked, recedes, and some kind of normality returns? Will there be any lasting effects?

Amazon workers in France, Italy, Spain and the United States (but not Britain) have pushed forward their collective organisation by taking strike action. They will have augmented their collective confidence and consciousness by doing so and will be in a stronger position to contest Amazon’s anti-union stance going forward. In other cases, unions have shown themselves over the pressing health and safety issues to be the first, last and best line of defence, so again reaffirming – though maybe not extending – their prowess. Some unions, like PCS and Unison in Britain, have recorded small membership-gains in the period of the coronavirus crisis. But such instances are, as yet, pretty rare compared to the calamity imposed unilaterally upon workers. And, after all the plaudits for health and care workers (like the weekly #clapforcarers events in Britain), will these workers be able to cash in on their new political capital? If the past experience of firefighters is anything to go by, it will be very hard. Firefighters are praised to the skies when responding to big incidents, but this is all easily forgotten by politicians, bosses and the press when it comes to their pay and pension negotiations.  

And, if the global financial crash of 2008–9 is any guide, then it will take a long time for some groups of workers to regain their old bargaining strength in a weakened economy. Defensive battles to try 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 could look like mere child’s play compared to the coming depression – not recession – precipitated by the coronavirus crisis. This will not exactly strengthen capital, but labour could end up even weaker still. Employers may try to cap wages at the 80 per cent furlough paid during the crisis. Temporary and casual working may be prevalent, and competition for jobs intense. Some employers might find that home-working, by saving costs and weakening unions’ ability to organise, more than compensates for reduced control and surveillance of their workers. Those groups of workers, like Deliveroo or Uber Eats employees, who currently have enhanced bargaining heft, may find it evaporates swiftly. They’ll need to act robustly to ensure it does not.

This dovetails with another potential trend: the clamour for a return to some kind of capitalist ‘normality’. This will not just come from the capitalists and their political class but also from immiserated workers. Socialists and radicals are rightly taking the opportunity to raise searching questions about the consequences of modern capitalism, but we should harbour no illusions that this will segue into the desired change. The capacity of the radical, revolutionary and even social-democratic left, is at a very low ebb. For example, workplace protests (not strikes) by two groups of General Electric workers in the United States that the company’s productive capacity be turned over from making jet engines to making ventilators are the exception that proves the rule. Workers are not (yet) making their sectional struggles into a generalised struggle with the capacity to socialise production so the GE workers’ demand has no more manifest traction to be realised than the Lucas aerospace workers in Britain when, in 1976, facing job cuts and a world recession, they demanded that the company stop making warplanes and start making kidney-dialysis machines and the like. State intervention and Keynesian reflation measures are intended to be temporary, and do not in themselves portend progressive change. As importantly, workers have an immediate interest in normality, and are not fighting in substantial numbers for their collective betterment. It is not impossible that neoliberalism will, in a manner predicted by Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’ thesis, come out stronger than before. 

But there is also another possibility. This is not just of regression but of reaction if the calamity turns out to be a global depression of the order of that after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The embedding of national unity and social peace may allow the political class of the populist nationalist right – with some misguided support from the small forces of the red-brown front – to institute a form of state corporatism. Globalisation through neoliberalism will be overturned and the ‘natural’ material interests of the cosmopolitan capitalist class subverted as seems to have happened with Brexit in Britain. The result may be a form of nation-based popular capitalism instituted through the state by those that have captured the state. Either way, workers will continue to suffer unless and until they rekindle their class consciousness and class combativeness.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds. He is also editor of the Scottish Left Review, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and co-editor of Scottish Labour History. One of his most recent books is Bob Crow: Socialist, Leader, Fighter, published by Manchester University Press in 2017. He is currently writing a book called The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer.