Field Notes: Covid Crisis and the Workers
With each day that passes, the reality of the COVID 19 crisis catches up with us. There is much work ahead for the Left and for us as anarchist syndicalists. How can we practice mutual aid in this situation? And how can we resist disaster capitalism? We need to address the unequal risks for our working elders and other marginalized groups. As the healthcare system struggles to keep up, we have to both demand systemic changes and help to “flatten the curve” by taking part in social distancing. And we must do what we can to support our people on the front lines of “essential work” each day.
While enacting mutual aid in our own social networks, we shouldalso document our experiences as workers and members of oppressed communities through each stage of this crisis. There is an inevitable period of initial depression, as we feel fear for our loved ones, our health, precarity in our jobs and the possibility of great loss.
Fighting through each stage of this crisis will help combat this depression. We must stay inspired to build our future society, while speaking out for labor rights now and as things get worse. Our political work and mutual aid will sustain us in this time of crisis.
Then, when the virus is under control, we will be positioned to fight for our needs and build resistance to the next phase of disaster capitalism and state power. We will keep building our movement through this crisis and beyond, documenting the lives and experiences of working people and those at the margins of society, all of who are othered by capitalism and social oppressions. When the virus is under control, we will be there fighting for a new society without capitalism, without class systems, and without bosses.
This past week we’ve been talking with WSA members and other comrades around the country who talked about their experiences, observations and reactions to the rapid changes. They also offered their early political thoughts on how anarchist syndicalists can be active in this difficult time. As the growing shutdowns of the past few weeks have gripped the country, these can serve as field notes for us as this challenge unfolds
Danielle Kulp, Philadelphia Pa
I’m scared for us, but I’m also scared on a wider level– for everyone, for everyone’s future. This is going to get worse before it gets better. How will people deal with it? What will change about society? This is in every corner of the earth, and it’s going to shake the globe. The U.S. is going to do the worst of developed countries, because everything has been built on greed and brutality.
Melissa Jameson, NYC, NY
I’ve been noticing changes since March 13th. A friend and I had scheduled to meet at 5pm in the Village for a very early dinner, and he called to see if I still wanted to travel downtown, to eat in a restaurant with other people around, questions like that. That call indicated a shift to me.
Since then, due to the government shutting down all entertainment; restaurants serving to-go or deliveries only; and calling for businesses to reduce their workforce by half, there is a lot less foot traffic, and I’ve seen much less people on the train and bus. I live and work in Manhattan, so I can only speak to what I’ve witnessed here, but it feels like I’m living in an old twilight zone episode.
I work for a nonprofit that serves homeless young people in the city. Yesterday we had a conference call, and talked about whether we can both promote social distancing, *and* protect a safe space for homeless youth. This is just one more threat they have to deal with. For example, they can usually come to us to hang out and take a nap and think of this as a safe space, but now we have to do this social distancing thing. The inequality is that because there is no place left for them to hang out, they may be forced to stay in less than safe places, for example, in the home of someone who doesn’t want them there. We talk in our program about building community. This crisis raises questions that require a lot of creative thinking about how to build that community safely.
Queer homeless youth don’t have the freedom that the one-percent of NYC has, or even what the middle class has. I guess all of these things happening now are a test of our values and our faith.
The poor will suffer the most. Capitalism and militarism are still in place. Now we are readying for disaster. And what comes after this? Another free-for-all of mass gentrification like we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina?
The mutual aid that exists will of course continue, because people are strong and creative.
Ryan Voelkel, Baltimore, MD
It wasn’t really until the week of March 10 that I began to see noticeable effects on my own daily life, and the lives of people that I encounter. I started hearing about big events getting cancelled and then one show that my band had booked on 3/27 was cancelled as well. As the week went on, I heard of more cancellations, and with the closing of universities, more personal stories of people’s social distancing. The rest of our band’s shows for the next couple months were cancelled by the following week.
During this time, local grocery stores were constantly packed and running out of many supplies. The most common out-of-stock items have been fresh meat, fresh produce, and the ever-popular toilet paper. Once the state shutdown all non-essential businesses, things really hit home for people, I think.
My work is in IT for a very small, locally-owned company. So, most of our client base is other small businesses and local residents. The panic was felt immediately. We had a surge in work while our customers were being told to stay home and many were laid off. Even then, they needed their computers to work or they needed to get a laptop in order to work from home. My industry is fortunate in that we have a demand for work, so we can still stay afloat.
I understand the need folks have for IT support right now, and feel compelled to help my community in this way. But it’s a daily decision I make, to go risk contact with people and their computers, or to remain home for safety reasons.
My main concern on the homefront is my disabled mother who is over 65 and at high risk. I am glad I have work to be able to pay bills and keep plenty of food stocked, but with this virus, it is a constant worry that I will bring something home and then we’ll have a real emergency on our hands. My situation is very fortunate in a lot of ways, and I can only imagine what so many others are going through in much worse situations right now.
I think it is important that we cooperate and use local resources to help folks in our areas. Mutual aid networks, programs to feed the homeless, etc. are all very important right now. The most vulnerable of us are at high risk during these times and we have to always consider those less privileged than ourselves. In addition, it is clear this pandemic is shining a light on the inherent problems of our economic system.
Now, more than ever before, I have seen people more willing to learn about ideas normally labelled as socialist. We need to keep these conversations going, support mutual aid in all its forms right now, and help others consider what it would mean to extend a lot of the emergency protocols beyond the crisis. Rent cancellations, utility bill delays, and college loan dismissals are all being talked about now, and it is a unique opportunity to get others to see things differently and look toward a future that highly values solidarity, rather than selfishness.
Sachio Ko-yin, Philadelphia, PA
By March 10th, our family was training ourselves not to touch our faces or public surfaces. We were worried about our older family members in Taiwan and Cuba, and right here in Delaware County. In our social network, co-workers and employers might have seen our precautions as a little over the top. Philly and Delaware County, at this point, seemed mostly unchanged, except for maybe the occasional sight of someone using hand sanitizer, or pushing elevator doors with a napkin.
By Monday March 16th everything changed. On the early morning trolley to the city, I usually see folks I know from years of travel– a mix of middle class and white, Black, and Hispanic working people. But on this Monday morning, traveling into a shutting-down city, there were few of us and the middle-class trolley riders were mostly gone; working folks of color and white working class, all heading to the city for work.
In Philly that morning, walking past the central business district on Market Street, the sidewalks were almost empty, and the buildings that held businesses looked empty. What little foot traffic there was, was noticeably all working people and homeless people. Normally, the foot traffic would be a flood of early morning office workers, but there were few white people and business people for this place and time.
Among our friends and associates, almost immediately there was a clear and hard divide along race and social class. While some working friends did start to video conference, the majority of our middle class and upper class associates began working from home and attending meetings via video conference while our family and working friends faced either layoffs, or a drastic increase in workload and risky situations.
Early on, Danielle and I noticed that the areas where the positive COVID 19 cases were spreading fast, seemed to be more upper class residential areas. We wondered if in our area, the virus would be introduced by the wealthy, as they often travel frequently, and if the virus would move from the wealthy areas into the poorer neighborhoods and the cities. Our questions were not to place blame on anyone, no one is at fault, but we were curious as to how the spread of the virus might happen and what we could learn from that. The impoverished areas will suffer the most in the long run, with less access to healthcare infrastructure, child care, and less opportunity to social distance.
Dia Basset, San Diego CA
Thursday March 12th, I had heard something about toilet paper, but didn’t believe it until I saw it. I couldn’t even find parking during the middle of a rainy day, when the time and the weather would usually mean the stores are slow. And for some reason, everyone was there at the store with grocery carts piled high. Then, California got a stay-at-home order on Friday, it got crazy depressing. Friday was the start of the lockdown. It seemed that what recently happened in San Francisco would next be happening in southern California– social restrictions, stay-at-home orders, etc. Today, I noticed there’s been lots of helicopters out.
In the schools where I work, there are many classified staff and who make 15 dollars per hour or less, in an area where the cost of living is very high, and their jobs are usually difficult, like working with special-needs students. The school closures are huge and these workers have few, if any benefits to sustain them through the closures. This will kill those workers financially. And many of those same aides are nursing mothers, so they have new and growing families to take care of. This is going to be really hard.
To support workers and communities, we should find ways to communicate their need for financial support in this moment. How do we advocate for others? The focus must be on action right now, because people are already suffering the economic effects. We can’t wait.
Zach Deitz, Central PA
This worsening situation we are dealing with makes a very convincing argument for the necessity of a socialist, self-managed society. Capitalism is a global system, but one of competition, not cooperation. Due to its competitive and profit-driven motives, it treats people as competitors and enemies. Everyone, every nation, for themself. How ill prepared capitalism is to handle this type of crisis has become nakedly revealed. I hope people begin to notice the inefficiency of such a throat-cutting and soul-crushing economic system. Socialism seeks world-wide solidarity based on cooperation and kindness. We need to present this as a rational option in this moment.
Clarissa Rogers, Northern New York State
I believe in this moment we can put radical ideas into action, so that people can experience them viscerally.The left has been great about describing our ideas, and writing about our theory. But this is a moment for experiential learning, which is often the way that people learn the best.
It’s an important time to center the voices of people with disabilities who have been working on the front lines of so many struggles that the rest of us may be newly understanding. They have been leaders in fighting for access, for health care for all, for a society where no bodies are disposable. We need to be following their leadership. If we had joined their struggle sooner fighting for basic needs, we’d be better equipped to handle coronavirus. Many marginalized communities are putting out great tools right now, tools that will help all of us in this crisis. Let’s use those tools and honor their leadership.
I’ve been thinking about the need to adapt traditional anarchist syndicalism for our historical moment. Capitalism has evolved and the workforce has changed. Our theory and our organizing need to change too. Selma James’ book Race, Sex, and Class has been on my mind a lot lately, as I think about expanding our definition of who “workers” are. It’s an important time to look at what sectors of labor are most affected by this crisis– domestic workers, undocumented workers, sex workers, workers in the underground economy, the gig economy, temp workers– and ask how we organize alongside them.
How do we use the stark inequalities made visible in this moment to build our base and increase our power to create real change?