Workers Vanguard No. 1172
20 March 2020
Democrats, Republicans Guilty as Hell!
Capitalist Anarchy Fuels COVID-19 Pandemic
For a Planned Economy Under Workers Rule!
MARCH 16—The COVID-19 pandemic starkly exposes the pathology of U.S. capitalism. Some 30 million workers get no sick pay. One-third of the population is uninsured or underinsured. Hospitals already have no spare ICU beds and ventilators to handle this epidemic, and medical staff have been refused basic protective gear because keeping inventory isn’t profitable. Only a tiny fraction of those exposed to the virus have been able to get tested, speeding its spread in the population. American medicine-for-profit provides top care to the wealthy while consigning millions of workers, the ghetto and barrio masses and the rural poor to preventable disease and death. It epitomizes an economic system based on the exploitation of labor and racial oppression.
For the capitalist Democratic and Republican parties, the people afflicted with coronavirus are a political football in the election season. The Democrats and their backers in the labor bureaucracy would have you believe that the spread of the disease is entirely due to the lying incompetence of the Trump White House. But the Democrats are just as guilty. The two parties alternate in running the government, the executive committee of the capitalist ruling class. Both have waged war on workers’ livelihoods, attacking unions and health benefits won through hard struggle. Both have overseen the rotting-out of the hospitals and public health apparatus to serve a system that has always shelled out just enough to have an adequate supply of workers to exploit. The capitalist parties have their priorities, and those are counterposed to the health and welfare of working people.
Early on, when quarantines and similar measures based on adequate testing might have contained the coronavirus, government authorities put up one obstacle after another. Now they’re seizing on the situation to step up state repression. With Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo in the lead, seven states to date have mobilized the National Guard in the guise of cleaning public spaces and delivering food. In 2005, the National Guard was sent to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, supposedly to rescue people. In fact, what they did alongside local and state cops was repress the thousands of desperate, mainly black residents, with the Guard ready to “shoot and kill,” in the words of Democratic Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco. Yesterday, Cuomo demanded that Trump mobilize the military nationwide. The aim is to inure the population to a military presence in anticipation of social unrest. We say: National Guard out now!
Trump has declared a national emergency, putting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge of assisting state and local authorities. Make no mistake: FEMA, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, is not some charity operation but is an agency of repression born in the 1980s anti-Soviet war drive. Trump has also announced bans on travel from Europe. We oppose the bans on travel to the U.S. We noted last issue that medical opinion was split on whether such bans could help limit the spread of infectious disease in the early stages and thus took no position for or against them at that time (“China Mobilizes to Contain Coronavirus,” WV No. 1171, 6 March). Travel bans have no medical justification now that COVID-19 is rampant in the U.S. Instead, they are an expression of national chauvinist scapegoating, which has already fueled the vicious anti-Asian racism that has spread with the coronavirus.
Workers are angry and frustrated that they’re slated to pay the price for the COVID crisis, from unsafe working conditions at the hospitals to the swelling number of layoffs throughout the country. The question is how to fight. The working class has enormous potential social power because its labor makes society run and is central to production, giving it the ability to stop the flow of profit. That power must be used to fight for the burning needs of the exploited and oppressed, as part of a struggle to wrest the productive wealth of society from the hands of the exploiting class. The key is to break the political chains that bind labor to the capitalist state and its political parties. What is needed is a workers party to lead the struggle for a socialist revolution that sweeps away the capitalist state and places the workers in power. Through building a planned, collectivized economy, a workers government would marshal resources to satisfy people’s needs, including to minimize the toll of infectious disease.
Workers on the Front Line
The daily workings of the capitalist profit system put decent health care out of reach for the vast majority. There are tens of thousands of flu deaths every year in the U.S. because the system neither provides adequate care to the most vulnerable nor ensures that everyone is vaccinated. While the vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms at most, the elderly and those with underlying conditions like diabetes and lung disease are at dire risk. The virus is a particular danger for those on racist America’s bottom rungs where rampant disease is a product of poverty and oppression—the inner-city masses, the homeless and the incarcerated. The vast majority of the black population, whose oppression is built into the very foundation of American capitalism, has to navigate this crisis while dealing with little to no health care and no savings—conditions compounded by enforced segregation.
The same ruling class that has been telling people to work at home through cyberspace has nothing but contempt for those who do the hands-on work that is keeping things going. Transit workers who deal directly with the public have told us that bosses are hoarding safety gear and cleaning supplies. Transit agencies that have long turned a blind eye to filthy buses and trains are refusing to hire more cleaners to sanitize against coronavirus transmission. The bosses’ concern for the bottom line puts both workers and the public at risk.
At EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Washington, an early epicenter of the disease, infected nurses were pulled out of quarantine to handle patients because staffing had been cut to the bone. Across the country, nurses and hospital technicians bitterly complain of getting no training to deal with patients who test positive and of the strict rationing of N95 masks and other protective gear. Key to combating epidemics is to protect the lives and health of medical personnel. Those lives have been jeopardized by the profit drive in medical care.
Faced with the bosses’ murderous neglect, the labor bureaucracy’s answer, as always, is to look to capitalist state agencies and the Democrats. The National Nurses United (NNU) staged rallies this month protesting against the Center for Disease Control’s weakening of safety guidelines and the lack of protective equipment. For the NNU leadership, these rallies were part of its effort to steer workers’ anger into the Democratic Party trap.
Along with other union bureaucrats, the NNU tops are pushing a Democratic Congressional bill that would put the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in charge of workplace safety protocols. The purpose of this government agency is to shield the bosses, whatever occasional slaps on the wrist it might give grossly negligent companies. What it doesn’t do is defend workers. That is the unions’ job. The same bill supposedly promises sick pay. In fact, what is on offer is temporary, limits the amount paid out and has so many loopholes that it won’t apply to most workers. The priority of Congress is bailing out companies and stabilizing financial markets. This harks right back to the Obama administration’s handouts to the banks and auto giants after the 2007-08 financial crash.
The main political agenda point for the labor tops is to replace Trump with a Democrat. The last time the Democrats had the White House, the union officialdom avidly backed Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). We opposed this sham “reform,” which was designed to further enrich the health care and insurance giants and to facilitate the bosses’ attacks on union health plans. The ACA’s overpriced, shoddy coverage means that today tens of millions lack adequate or even any insurance as they face COVID-19.
The labor movement has to fight back, starting by establishing union control of safety. That includes real COVID-19 training, extra personnel for cleaning operations at union wages and adequate supplies of protective gear. Unions must demand full sick pay for as long as anyone needs it and full pay for those thrown out of work, including substitute teachers, or who have to stay at home to care for children—a need accentuated by the closing of schools across the country. In schools that remain open, teachers and staff should get free testing for the virus, as should everybody else, and a full range of cleaning and other safety measures should be taken.
Labor must fight for unionized jobs to deal with the coronavirus and its effects on society. Organize the unorganized! The unions must rely on their own power, including strike action if necessary. A wave of strikes has just broken out in hard-hit Italy, including by workers at the Ilva steelworks in Puglia; at several Fiat Chrysler plants and at Amazon’s main warehouses. Workers are protesting against the lack of protective equipment and calling for safety and sanitation measures as well as a halt to all nonessential production.
Fight for a Socialist Future!
Thousands of working people are losing their jobs when there is a crying need for construction and staffing of hospital facilities and manufacture of safety gear; for massive cleaning operations; for delivery of food and other goods. These tasks pose a broader fight against the capitalist system that created the underlying conditions making COVID-19 a social crisis. To begin to rebuild the country’s crumbled infrastructure, not least the shuttered hospitals and the decaying schools, there needs to be a massive program of public works. Available work must be spread equally to address layoffs and systemic unemployment: 30 hours work for 40 hours pay! Such a struggle would resonate strongly among the dispossessed of this society, not least the black ghetto poor. To go forward, labor must champion the cause of black freedom, combating the racial divisions fomented by the capitalist rulers to divide the working class and weaken its fighting capacity.
The struggle for jobs for all at good pay and for other demands in the vital interests of workers and the unemployed runs straight up against the system of production for profit. It also would have to confront the obstacle of the union bureaucracy, which supports the profitability and “national interests” of American capitalism. Workers need a new, class-struggle leadership that breaks the subordination of the unions to the Democratic Party. Such a leadership would find its motto in what Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International: “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish.” Our aim is to build a multiracial revolutionary workers party that leads all the exploited and oppressed in overturning capitalist rule and establishing a workers state.
A workers government would expropriate the capitalist class, not least the bloodsucking hospital corporations and pharmaceutical giants. It would immediately establish socialized medicine: quality medical care for all, free at the point of delivery. Free universal health care was a great achievement of the workers state that issued out of the Russian October Revolution of 1917, and went on to develop a collectivized, planned economy. Despite the degeneration of the revolution under the Stalinist bureaucracy, Soviet workers had guaranteed health care, housing and jobs until the workers state was destroyed through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92.
China, the largest of the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states, has demonstrated the superiority of a collectivized economy over capitalist anarchy by its handling of COVID-19, despite initial bungling and cover-up by state officials. Two new hospitals were built in Wuhan within two weeks, and more than 41,000 medical and support personnel were mobilized from all over China. With the virus under control and factories starting up again, Beijing is sending medical personnel to help out Italy.
An internationally planned economy based on the rule of workers councils would unleash the productive forces in order to make this planet a decent place for all. That includes not least today’s neocolonial countries, where the capitalist-imperialist system ensures that basic public health measures like vaccines and clean water are unavailable to hundreds of millions. The purpose of the Spartacist League/U.S. and our comrades in the International Communist League is to forge the vanguard parties necessary to lead the fight for a socialist future.