The year the unions kept us strong

Amid the devastation and misery brought by the pandemic, the working class across the world was the core of the resistance, calling to account governments and standing in solidarity with the most oppressed

December 31, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Community health workers in India blockade a road during the historic strike on November 26. Source Newsclick

[Peoples Dispatch brings you a series of articles and videos on 2020, a momentous year that saw humanity face unprecedented challenges. The beacon of hope remained the historic resistance mounted by people’s movements, and the care and solidarity they epitomized, proving yet again that our collective struggles alone can dismantle and end oppression. You can read the full series here]

From the over 1,100 strikes in the US, averaging over three a day, to history’s largest known general strike witnessed in India, labor actions across continents in 2020 demonstrated the firm refusal of the working class to passively accept on to its shoulders the burden of an unprecedented economic that has been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ILO estimates that the global labor income has seen a 10.7% decline, compared to the same period in 2019, which itself saw the slowest economic growth since the 2008-09 crisis. This decline translates into a global labor income loss of US$3.5 trillion, which equals 5.5% of the world’s GDP during this period.

The hundreds of millions jobs lost are estimated to have caused well over twice the unemployment-rate increase suffered during the 2008-09 economic crisis. The stimulus packages announced by various governments were grossly insufficient to offset the loss of incomes.

In the meantime, the total wealth owned by the 2,000 odd billionaires of the world rose this year to a record high of US$10.2 trillion, up from US$8.7 trillion in 2019. At the top of this pyramid remains Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon emerged as history’s first trillion dollar corporation.

Its workers – among the underpaid and overworked, glorified during the pandemic as ‘frontline workers’ – “faced threats and intimidation if they spoke out for their rights to a fair wage,” according to the Make Amazon Pay campaign which launched in November.

While corporations evaded taxes, workers around the world buckled in as the governments refused to break from the austerity policies and undertake the required public investment.

Even the healthcare workers, hailed as “heroes” in the fight against COVID-19, were denied appropriate risk allowances, medical cover and even their basic labor rights to occupational safety. Hundreds of thousands of health workers were infected across the world and thousands died after contracting the virus on duty.

Americas

The Americas saw the highest rate of infections amongst the healthcare workers. According to the data of the WHO’s Pan-American Health Organization, as of the beginning of September, 570,000 health workers in the region were infected, over 2,500 of whom “succumbed to the virus”.

By December, the US – which is the worst faring country in the region with 322,488 infected health workers – was swept with a wave of strikes in the healthcare sector. Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least 16-unionized healthcare centers in the US have seen strike actions, according to Bloomberg Law.

Adequate PPEs, reduction in work hours from 12-hour shifts, hazard pay and increased recruitment to meet the healthcare needs of the population were the major demands behind this agitation.

In Latin America, demanding better conditions, special bonuses for COVID-19 work and greater budget for public health, which was downsized by 3.2% in Chile in the face of the pandemic, over 60,000 public and municipal health workers struck work for a week in November.

The workers’ strike in Chile in November

This labor action was led by the National Confederation of Public Health Workers (FENATS), the second largest trade union in the country. The Peruvian Medical Federation (FMP), the Health Workers Federation (FED-CUT-ESSALUD) and the National Social Security Medical Union of Peru (SINAMSSOP) also held various national strikes.

In Brazil, doctors and other health workers held several protests against the reckless abandon of far-right president Jair Bolsanaro‘s administration in the face of shortages of PPEs and medical equipment.

Europe

In Europe, inadequate state support for the healthcare sector and its workers led to mass mobilizations of doctors, nurses and other sections of the working class.

Soon after the lockdown was imposed, on April 7, the World Health Day, health workers across Greece, whose healthcare system had been undernourished over a decade of severe of austerity policies, marked the Day of Panhellenic Action for Health, at the call of Federation of Greek Hospital Doctors’ Associations (OENGE).

Demands around the needs of healthcare workers and healthcare rights of citizens were among the central issues raised by the trade unions and working class parties across Europe during the May Day mobilizations this year.

A May Day mobilization in Greece. Photo 902. gr

Health workers took to streets in Belgian capital Brussels, demanding a large-scale refinancing of the health sector. Massive rallies led by organizations including Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM) and the General Labour Federation of Belgium (FGTB/ABVV), denounced the commodification of healthcare, and pressed on the need to ensure greater investments in infrastructure, fresh recruitment and wage hikes.

In several European countries, progressive political parties demanded the governments to impose a one time special corona tax on multi-millionaires in order to ensure money to support the working class families.  The working class also protested the COVID-19 bailouts for corporates who invest their profits in tax havens and use the crisis to terminate tens of thousands of workers and cut down workers benefits. Strong resistance was registered against right-wing governments’ attempts to amend labor codes during this pandemic in order to increase over time working hours and to dilute workers’ right to maximise the profits of the capitalists. Unions also fought to defend the right to protest during the pandemic which has been also challenged by the governments in the garb of COVID-19 safety protocols.

In mid-October, healthcare workers in France – who had been protesting for almost ten months before the onset of the pandemic organized a demonstration outside the health ministry in Paris, amidst a fresh spike in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Launching a campaign called #JeSuisÉpuiséE (I am exhausted), health workers, organized under trade unions including the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), demanded a greater investment to facilitate immediate hiring, wage hike of existing health workers and improved safety measures and working conditions for the staff.

Africa

Africa with 16.72% of the world’s population had only 3.25% of the world’s COVID-19 cases. However, with the healthcare system already in shambles in the region, this relatively lower rate of infection is also taking a heavy toll on healthcare and the healthcare workers.

The shortage of PPEs, gloves, testing instruments, beds and other infrastructural needs is a particularly pressing problem in this part of the world. In addition, in a number of countries, payment of salaries to health workers had already been pending from many months even before the pandemic struck.

In Nigeria, health workers, along with other civil servants, had not received full salaries for months due to the federal government’s introduction of the controversial Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) platform in October 2019.

In March, when the third COVID-19 case was recorded in the country, doctors in the capital city Abuja, represented by the Association of Resident Doctors (ARD), downed tools, demanding the payment of their pending salaries. Most had received only a fifth to a tenth of the full amount. In case of the newly employed doctors, arrears went back to 5-7 months, leaving many incapable of paying their rents.

In August, government employees in the oil sector – the largest source of foreign exchange in Nigeria – struck work complaining that they had not been paid for three months due to non-enrollment on the IPPIS.

The most prolonged labor struggle in the healthcare sector on the continent has been raging in Kenya, where more than 2,000 workers have been infected.

Kenyan health workers stage protest. Photo: PD Online

A large section of doctors and nurses, who remain unpaid for many months, have been unable to afford the cost of treatment when they contracted the virus. A nationwide strike action began on December 7, when nurses and clinical officers downed tools. Doctors also downed tools to join the labor action on December 21.

While they returned to work on December 24 to break the paralysis of public healthcare amidst the pandemic, their demands remain unfulfilled as yet. The Kenya National Union of Nurses (KNUN) remains on strike.

Similarly struggling were the nurses in South Africa, who complained of being unable to make ends meet on their “poverty wages.” On May Day, striking nurses led by the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU) staged a demonstration, demanding that the government provide transport for nurses and other healthcare workers, in addition to danger allowance for those on COVID-19 duty and a tax break for a period of six months.

Nurses also demanded “scheduled periodic COVID-19 testing of all healthcare workers” and “decent and habitable accommodation for essential staff working in COVID-19 units.”

In solidarity with the nurses, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU) also raised similar demands to protect the food workers, “who are tirelessly turning up for work every day.. (and) have to interact with multiple others in factories or.. retail stores all over the country”. Declaring support for the struggles of the workers on the frontlines of the pandemic was the single largest union in the country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).

NUMSA has been on the forefront of a number of other struggles: including that of motor industry workers for the implementation of the wage agreement from which the employers have been backtracking and that of the workers of the South African Airways (SAA), to protect their jobs and save the national airline from being broken up and sold to private players.

Despite the many victorious labor struggles, the working class continues to reel under a crisis of unemployment and job losses. Millions meant for the protection of health and livelihoods of the vulnerable has been allegedly stolen through overpriced tenders.

An investigation into this corruption and punishing of the guilty was among the main demands raised by the workers in the general strike in October. This nationwide labor action was of particular significance because it raised the prospect of greater unity in the trade union movement, which had been divided over the support to the ruling ANC by the largest union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

The strike in October saw the participation of COSATU as well as the left-wing South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU).

In neighboring Zimbabwe, where the real income of an average worker has declined by about 80% over the last two years, the government responded to calls for a nationwide strike and protest action on July 31 by deploying army.

As murmurs of a mass uprising haunt the corridors of power, the ZANU-PF led government is growing increasingly authoritarian. Trade unionists live under continuous death threats and police harassment. Many cases of abduction and torture by alleged state security agents have also been reported.

Despite these adverse conditions, unionized health workers in Zimbabwe – who had already been amidst a prolonged and sustained struggle for restoration of the wages to the level of 2018 – won some crucial battles under the leadership of the Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZINA).

Asia

In many of the countries of South Asia, the most crucial links between the majority of the public and the healthcare system are the predominantly women community health workers, who are not even recognized as workers with the right to a minimum wage.

Brought together by the Public Services International (PSI), these workers launched a campaign called “Community Health Work is Work”, demanding labor rights and minimum wage.

In India, awareness campaigns and surveys conducted by the female community health workers played a critical role in facilitating a public health response to the pandemic. The government, despite describing them as “the first port of call for any health related demands of deprived sections of the population, especially women and children,” refuses to recognize them as workers. They are instead deemed as Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHAs.

ASHAs and other unrecognized community health workers held numerous protests this year, demanding increased recruitment, labor rights, PPEs, health insurance and retirement benefits. In the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, 2,000 ASHAs were detained by the police during one such agitation. Non-payment of wages and pending arrears pushed doctors and workers in the capital city, New Delhi, into protests and strike action.

Police repress protest by community health workers in India.

The far-right BJP government’s callous imposition of a strict lockdown without preparations to cater to the migrant workers in the cities who depend on daily wages had triggered an unprecedented forced mass-migration. This pushed tens of thousands to walk hundreds of kilometers back to their villages. Dozens died on the road.

The government also took advantage of the pandemic to scrap labor laws and deregulate the trade of agricultural commodities.

On November 26, despite heavy repression and arrests of trade union leaders, 250 million workers were mobilized by ten central trade unions in what turned out to be arguably the largest general strike in human history. On the same day, hundreds of thousands of farmers from neighboring states arrived at the borders of Delhi, braving tear-gas, water cannons and baton charge by police as they broke the barricades erected on their way.

The Asia-Pacific has also been an arena of resistance by workers this year. In the Philippines, workers and social movements held protests and rallies against the anti-terror laws, unfazed by the threats of violence from security forces.

Indonesian workers mobilize against Omnibus Law. Photo: IndustriAll

Indonesia witnessed a renaissance of radical social movements, as trade unions across the country joined hands in the fight against the government’s assault on labor and environment protections.

Across the world, unions managed to bring relief to millions and organizing continues to bring hope.

Painful as 2021 may be in the aftermath of the pandemic, trends across the world indicate that a radicalized global working class is emerging from the crucible of 2020, with a determination to challenge neoliberal capitalism.

(With inputs from Muhammed Shabeer, Anish R M and Tanya Wadhwa)

× To Subscribe