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The Coronavirus Recession Is a Critical Test for the Labor Movement

Caught between a pandemic and the pressure to restart the economy, organizers have quickly adapted to fight for workers’ rights.

Protesters outside a McDonald’s in Los Angeles demand pay for quarantine time and health care for workers infected by the coronavirus. (Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

It’s become increasingly common to hear people say that America has been shut down by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This isn’t really true: Large sectors of the American workforce have been asked to function as close to normally as possible, and the rest of the country has been leaning on these workers more heavily than ever. “Workers who are still working in the midst of this crisis are cab drivers, they’re restaurant workers, they’re airport workers, flight attendants,” Meghan Cohorst, spokesperson for service and warehouse union Unite Here, told me last week. “It’s all of these folks. A lot of times these are low-wage workers, and they’re the only ones out there. And I think we’re beginning to have a national conversation about respect for work and just compensation for work that helps keep the economy going.”

That conversation has been spurred in part by an extraordinary spike in labor action that has unfolded amid the crisis. Instacart shoppers went on strike last week demanding hazard pay and protective equipment. Whole Foods employees staged a nationwide “sick-out” to demand hazard pay, paid leave, and free coronavirus testing. A group of sanitation workers in Pittsburgh and 10,000 construction workers in Massachusetts mounted strikes over the safety of their working conditions. General Electric workers have demanded that their plants be retrofitted to produce much-needed ventilators. There have been protests and stoppages at Amazon warehouses in New York, and walkouts have taken place at food-processing and meatpacking plants in Colorado, Illinois, and Virginia. These and other campaigns are part of a wave that is likely only just beginning as workers in still-active industries—many of whom have been deemed essential by state governments—continue to contend with docked hours or layoffs, inadequate compensation and leave policies, and the threat of the virus itself.

The fast-food industry is among the industries still employing thousands of workers on location, as it shifts to drive-through and pickup service in compliance with state restrictions. “McDonald’s says 5 percent of their locations will get two weeks of paid sick leave, but then they leave 850,000 workers who are franchised employees on their own,” Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry told me. “And we’ve heard tons of stories from fast-food workers who are deeply concerned about either transmitting or contracting the virus at work as they do the drive-through window and aren’t given any personal protective equipment or two weeks of paid sick [leave], and their hours are being cut.”

One of those workers is Adriana Alvarez, a mom working reduced hours at a Chicago-area McDonald’s. “I mean, we’re obviously all scared knowing that we have to go to work,” she told me this week. “Even though it’s just the drive-through, we still have that in the back of our minds, and we’re already living paycheck to paycheck. So that’s like another stress added to our lives, basically. And it’s, it’s a lot, to be honest.”

“I got the paycheck from that week that I only worked two days yesterday,” she continued. “And I almost broke down crying. But I’ve just got to keep pushing—hoping for the best and limiting myself to basic necessities and just not spending on stuff that we really don’t need. And with school shut down, I worry about who’s going to watch my son.”

Terrence Wise, another McDonald’s worker in Kansas City, was already in a precarious situation before the coronavirus hit. “I’ve worked at McDonald’s for the past nine years, and about a month ago, even before the coronavirus pandemic, me and my fiancée, who’s a home health care worker, and my three little girls became homeless,” he said. “We’re currently homeless and living with my brother-in-law in his basement, and he’s got his fiancée and his three little girls, and I’ve got my three little girls and my fiancée. So, it’s, what, 10 of us and a three-bedroom house with one bathroom. That’s my living situation right now.”

The situation at work is hardly more ideal. Wise says managers at his location haven’t kept employees informed about their plans to keep them safe. “They’ve just kept us in the dark since the pandemic started,” he said. “We haven’t had any all-staff meetings or any trainings of any type at my store, and workers are scared. They’re scared about what the future looks like. And one worker at my store has been confirmed that she’s been around a person who tested positive for coronavirus. She worked a shift after that. And now she’s on a 14-day unpaid leave. They didn’t even offer to provide her testing, or any of us in the shop.”

Both Wise and Alvarez are activists with Fight for $15, the movement that put a $15 minimum wage at the center of the progressive agenda. This week, in cities around the country, including Tampa, Florida, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, McDonald’s workers backed by the movement have launched actions and spoken out against the company’s response to the crisis. “We’re called essential workers but treated like second-class citizens,” Wise said. “Can we get protective gear? Can we get at least $3 hazard pay? We know McDonald’s announced that they’re going to get 5 percent of their stores paid sick leave for up to two weeks. But we’re talking about for every worker in the U.S.”

Alvarez says she’s hopeful that the crisis encourages more of her co-workers to organize in the aftermath. “I feel like now it’s a little clearer for people to see and realize what a union could actually do,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of ladies who heard about the first $15 and were skeptical, but that signed the petition that we did before this whole thing started and they shut everything down. But now I feel like they’re thinking about, ‘What’s gonna happen if I don’t get paid?’ I’m hoping it’s definitely on their mind, and I’m definitely here to remind them.”

The efforts of the Fight for $15 movement, as well as many of the other labor actions that have emerged in the past few weeks, are only partially a product of this unusual moment. There’s been a dramatic upswing in direct labor action for several years now, a trend that encompasses not only the original Fight for $15 campaign but a string of large teachers’ strikes across the country and a variety of other work stoppages. “I think that what’s happening right now in America and has been happening over the last couple of years is the recognition that we need solidarity more than ever before,” Sarah Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said. “And the fact of the matter is that the people who have been fighting to make a $15 minimum wage are the people who are saving America right now. The people who are cleaning our buildings and picking up our trash and stocking the shelves at our grocery stores. These are the people that we cannot live without.”

Much of the working world breathed sighs of relief after President Trump dialed back his push to fully reopen the American economy by Easter. But the administration’s economic rhetoric from last month—which could well return if Trump’s optimism about the state of the response is revived—revealed a potential willingness to put workers on the front lines of this national emergency at even greater risk in the months to come. Asked what the SEIU’s response to the administration and state leaders prematurely lifting work closures would be, Henry implied that the union would take action.

“We haven’t started to game-plan that, but my instinct would be to gather people in our union and with the workers we’ve been organizing and escalate the demands we’ve made to protect our workers,” she said, “and to create resistance to comply because we would want to follow the advice of public health professionals and not leadership that wants to worry about the stock market.”

Nelson, who called for a general strike in the wake of last year’s government shutdown, said that refusals to return to work across the economy should be considered. “We should be talking about it,” she said. “Just like I said last year when people said, ‘Are you sure? You’re going to scare people with the word strike.’ And I said, ‘Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike!’ Say it. It feels good. You have to say it.”

“We have to talk about it,” she continued, “but I want to be really clear, as I have been this past year, that the strike is the tactic. Solidarity is our power. The reason that Trump has already backed off is because people en masse pushed back. They pushed back through their companies and they pushed back publicly, and Trump has backed off because he knows he was going to lose because the power of solidarity was behind the backs of the people.”

Solidarity ultimately means more than valorizing underpaid workers with applause and supportive tweets. Hopefully, some Americans are developing a consciousness amid this crisis that workers deserve more material support from the companies that employ them and a government that ostensibly represents them. It’s certain in any case that many workers, thanks to more than a decade’s worth of reinvigorated organizing efforts, are developing a consciousness of their own power and that the activists of Fight for $15 are particularly well positioned to seize this moment on behalf of some of our economy’s most vulnerable and most essential people. “We know how to come together and get results,” Wise said. “And we know that in this time we’ve got to go even harder.”