[OPINION] May Day under quarantine: Situating labor’s role in navigating the crisis

[OPINION] May Day under quarantine: Situating labor’s role in navigating the crisis
'It is clear that a return to the normal – defined by the primacy of profit over the common good – is untenable, lest we risk further crises down the road'

As the world prepares to welcome this year’s Labor Day in the midst of a global pandemic, workers continue to assert their rights, fight inequality, and propose alternatives to the challenges faced by millions today. 

What is otherwise an important day for labor marked by massive parades, marches, and mobilizations will instead be celebrated inside homes, locked down communities, and online spaces. 

This year’s Labor Day celebration is a demonstration of the working class’ undying resolve to assert its collective power in response to a crisis that has endangered the lives of many. 

Death by hunger or by pandemic: The precarity of the international working class 

As COVID-19 continues to grip countries around the globe, numerous governments have resorted to draconian measures, risking human rights violations for the sake of containing the pandemic. For some countries, authoritarian leaders have consolidated more power under the guise of centralizing efforts to combat the spread of the virus. In the process, global economic activity had been severely affected with restrictions on movement, trade, production, and the flow of goods and services. 

Concretely, this has spelt disaster for working people across the world. In the United States, where the health care of many workers is tied directly to their employment, the massive job loss caused by the pandemic means that millions will lose access to health services at this moment of extreme risk. 

Meanwhile, in much of the Global South, existing issues such as low wages, precarious employment, and the lack of social goods and services have exacerbated COVID-19’s impact on the lives of millions. Hunger and poverty are just as likely to kill as many or even more than the virus. As one Filipino taxi driver remarked at the onset of the enhanced community quarantine, “mahirap pag mahirap” (it is hard when you are poor). 

Historicizing the crisis: How the unfettered pursuit of profit lead to the present pandemic 

Any discussion of the pandemic’s tragic human toll is incomplete without taking into account the broad political and economic developments that led to the current crisis. 

The previous decades defined by the dismantling of the Western welfare state, the systematic defunding and privatization of public goods and services by most governments, as well as the structuring of the world economy according to the interests of finance capital have left societies vulnerable against the present pandemic (needless to say, existing inequalities mean that some suffer more than others). (READ: [OPINION] From hospitals to farms and forests: Stand with our frontline workers)

All of these were made possible by the political defeat of working class power. This very class, through an organized labor movement, was responsible for the many concessions and victories that guaranteed stable jobs, dignified labor, living wages, accessible and publicly-funded healthcare, education, and other services in the years immediately after the Second World War. 

Dismantling these took place through decades of struggle that saw the destruction of working class communities in the face of economic restructuring in the West and new forms of exploitation for workers in countries where capitalist production had migrated. 

The political and economic decisions of these past decades shaped the governments and institutions that are now responsible for the global response to COVID-19. As we are seeing today, this normal has been thoroughly exposed by the present crisis. 

(Re)building labor’s organized and popular power: Towards a more egalitarian future

Viewed from this broader historical perspective, it is clear that a return to the normal – defined by the primacy of profit over the common good – is untenable, lest we risk further crises down the road.  

Like before, organized labor also has the potential to play a decisive role in changing the situation. But, for this to happen, it must rebuild itself. Moving forward, the labor movement must look beyond simply shoring up the traditional mechanisms of trade unionism and worker’s representation, epitomized by the practice of “social dialogue” between labor, capital, and government. 

Relying mainly on processes of social dialogue is politically dangerous in a context where organized labor is weak and business interests are hell-bent on the total destruction of worker’s collective power. In addition, governments today are often sympathetic or beholden to these interests, risking further compromise and frustrating efforts for meaningful reform. (READ: [OPINION] The unbearable emptiness of being called heroes in this pandemic)

Overcoming the current threats to working people thus requires the building of “social power.” This is understood as the development of the organized, popular, and collective power of millions of individuals through which the labor movement could win important reforms in the immediate term. This is also fundamental for any attempt at reimagining the current social order on a global scale. 

Crucial to this goal is the linking of working people’s struggles with other movements for social transformation. One key strategy that the trade union movement can adopt is the model of social movement unionism (SMU). At its core, SMU is the recognition that working people’s struggles do not end in the workplace. Often, worker’s concerns are intertwined with broader issues of race, gender, identity, and the environment. Faced with this, it is necessary for unions to participate in the broader political, cultural, and ideological field. 

Opportunities for going beyond traditional trade union questions abound. For example, labor has forwarded major proposals such as just transition for climate ambition and energy democracy in order to facilitate the transition away from carbon-based economies while respecting the dignity and agency of workers. 

Meanwhile, the campaign for expanded maternity leave in the country demonstrates the possibility for engagement with feminist movements and organizations on issues of gender equality. 

Celebrating Labor Day today demands that we articulate labor’s interests beyond the scope of traditional trade unionism. What we need is a unionism that understands the call for woker’s power as a stand against all forms of oppression. Only then do we stand a chance at transforming the present structures that have made the current pandemic the most recent human tragedy that could have been avoided under a just and humane social order. – Rappler.com

Benjamin Miguel Alvero is the campaign officer of the labor center Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (SENTRO). He is also a member of Akbayan Youth. 

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