While capitalism allows callous employers to prioritise profits over people in the face of the coronavirus crisis, workers and trade unions have been fighting back on an international scale, argues Alyssa Cassata
Across the globe, industrial action has successfully secured paid leave, more flexible hours, and ensured that employees are provided with protective equipment such as masks, gloves and disinfectant.
Prominent trade unions in Italy, (CGIL, CSIL and UIL), called for a general strike over the government’s lenient listing of some roles as essential, arguing that this put workers’ lives at risk.
The strike took place on March 25th and forced the Italian government to concede to union demands by reconfiguring its labelling of “non-essential activities” and reinstating the Workplace Representation agreement (RSU) with local unions, enabling them to negotiate with businesses on the closure of workplaces.
Furthermore, the Italian trade union Filcams has secured time off and flexible working hours from employers including Zara, Carrefour and H&M. It was also successful in obtaining the employers’ commitment to provide disinfectant, gloves and face masks, as well as allowing employees to wash their hands throughout the day. Additionally, Filcams successfully demanded that the companies grant paid leave to parents that were absent to look after children following the closure of schools.
In New York, Instacart employees have formed Gig Workers Collective and are demanding access to hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes in addition to hazard pay. So far, this has forced Instacart to negotiate with workers, resulting in an offer of a one-time bonus, a month’s paid leave to those diagnosed with the virus and the introduction of automatic tipping, the workers were also successful in having hand sanitiser be made available.
Further strike action in New York is rising against Amazon, where employees are calling for protective equipment and hazard pay. More than 100 Amazon workers walked off the job on March 30th in the hope that the company will shut down the plant and have it properly sanitised following accusations from Chris Smalls (who organised the strike) that Amazon are “sugar-coating” the threat of workers being infected. Smalls was outrageously fired by Amazon following the strike, but his actions have inspired workers in other Amazon warehouses to start organising, and on 31 March Whole Foods (owned by Amazon) workers nationally have planned a mass sick-out.
Similar protests against Amazon have been reported in France, where between 250-300 people staged a strike in Saran, insisting on closure. Trade Unions argued that Amazon delivers few essential products, with Julien Vincent, a representative of CFDT, estimating that 30-40% of the firm’s employees had been absent due to school closures or fear of catching the virus.
It is a sign of how deep the French government’s crisis is that the leading trade unions for police in France have recently put collective pressure on the government to provide police with protective gear. The ultimatum that they proposed warned Macron that without proper protective equipment, the police will refuse to enforce lockdown.
In the UK, Medway bin collectors and street cleaners have threatened to strike over concerns about a lack of protective equipment. Members of Unite the Union that are employed by Medway Norse voted unanimously for industrial action. They have warned that the strike could take place in 5 weeks if conditions don’t improve, this action follows the employer’s refusal to put self-isolating workers on medical suspension which would entitle them to full pay, leaving staff on statutory sick pay at £95 a week.
The company also offered negligent advice to staff that the choice to stay home was theirs, while by contrast Medway council employees have been given medical suspension and are sent home to isolate.
Furthermore, Mike Ashley was forced to u-turn on his decision to label Sports Direct an “essential service” after being successfully pressured to do so by MPs and trade unions.
The Baker’s Union (BFAWU) were also able to overturn Tim Martin’s callous decision to withhold pay from Wetherspoon’s staff following the union’s effective SpoonStrike.
While employers across the world are displaying their disregard for the workers when confronted with the coronavirus pandemic, trade unions are taking decisive action to protect employees. The devastating effects of the coronavirus will hit the working class hardest and these achievements highlight why joining a trade union is crucial.
Alyssa Cassata is a socialist, activist and history student
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