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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Just dying for them to reopen: The corporate coronavirus agenda

Two things are becoming clear at this critical moment in the western capitalist coronavirus crisis. One is that the capitalists and their governments want to "reopen the economy" as quickly as possible. The second is that this is incredibly dangerous for working people and the evidence is overwhelming that doing so is entirely about profits and greed. There is no particularly deep analysis required to show that these two things are true. Just a few recent examples in this newest front of the class war on workers by capital: - On May 11, the government of Quebec announced the "complete reopening of all construction sites and manufacturing companies" in the province. According to their triumphant press release, "all construction sites are returning to activity, including residential, institutional, commercial, industrial along with civil engineering, public transit and roads and highways." Yet just the day before La Presse reported (translated from the French):

The COVID-19 pandemic is not slowing down in Quebec: the province announced Sunday that it had recorded 142 deaths in 24 hours, which places Quebec in seventh place in the world for the number of daily deaths. Only the United States, Ecuador, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy and Spain reported a daily death toll higher than that of Quebec on Sunday.

- "Reopening", where it has been pushed forward in many countries or states, is often being followed by a totally predictable upsurge in coronavirus cases. This has been seen in places as far afield as Texas and Lebanon. In Germany daily cases nearly tripled after lockdown restrictions were eased forcing some German states to reimpose them. The German outbreaks were especially pronounced in meat packing factories, a disturbing trend internationally and also a reminder that "physical distancing" in factories is very difficult to achieve. - Justin Mayhugh in Labor Notes talked about exactly this issue. In an article entitled "When Auto Plants Reopen, Some of Us Will Die for Corporate Profit" he notes:

The United States is still confirming roughly 25,000 new cases of the coronavirus every day. At least 1,000 Americans have died from the disease every single day since April 2; there have been nearly 1.4 million reported cases and more than 80,000 deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control, racial and ethnic minority groups, the elderly, and people with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk to contract the virus. These underlying conditions include moderate to severe asthma and other respiratory problems, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney or liver disease. How many of our brothers and sisters have at least one of these underlying conditions? The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. are at elevated risk, including 41 million people under age 65. If you’ve ever worked on an auto assembly line, you know there is very little the corporations can do to carry out the CDC’s six-foot social distancing guideline. Many of us work side by side with others for at least eight hours a day, at least five days a week. Every vehicle assembled is touched by hundreds of workers. Breathed on by hundreds of workers. There is no way to avoid this reality in an assembly plant. For example, in my plant on the door line, many workers do their jobs face to face with co-workers only a couple of feet apart. On the headliner install job, where workers attach a composite material to the inside of the vehicle's roof, at least three workers are within six feet of each other as each worker snaps in a corner of the headliner. Masks are not a fail-safe precaution.

- That this is true could not be made more clear by the outbreaks in Cargill slaughterhouses and meat packing plants in Canada. The plant in Alberta had the largest single cornavirus outbreak yet in the country with over 900 cases. A second plant near Montreal has also had a large outbreak with at least 64 cases. Yet the Alberta plant has reopened over the strenuous objections of its union. - What if you don't want to go back to work because you think it is too dangerous? In most jurisdictions that is not going to be an option. For example the "Ohio state government has asked employers to report anyone who refuses to return to work because they are concerned about the coronavirus pandemic. Reported workers may be ineligible for unemployment benefits." This is not simply in Ohio. In Canada "at least 540,000 low wage workers risk losing CERB if they refuse unsafe work" according to David Macdonald in Behind the Numbers. He goes to state:

Once workplaces are opened, employers will start to call workers back. If a worker doesn’t return because of concerns about workplace safety, an employer could deem that non-return as quitting and issue the employee a Record of Employment to that effect, disqualifying them from receiving the CERB. Hypothetically, if a provincial labour board upholds a work refusal due to unsafe conditions (ie. Coronavirus infection), a worker could keep receiving the CERB. But provinces like Ontario simply aren’t shutting down workplaces due to a clear coronavirus infection risk. Furthermore, there has been little movement by many provinces to investigate unsafe workplace complaints due to COVID-19, and there seems to be no particular drive to ramp up labour protection programs. The discussion of “worker incentives” has already started, which really means cutting off basic income supports from low wage workers to force them back to work, putting themselves and their families at risk of infection. Conversely, there is almost no discussion of “employer incentives” to create safe workplaces. The narrative is being set: if businesses are allowed to reopen but workers don’t return, the workers—who are prepared to live off the supposed king’s ransom of $2,000 rather than working in potentially unsafe workplaces—are to blame for their greed. On the other hand, the same level of pressure is not being applied to employers to make necessary investments in shields, PPE and policies that will help keep their workers safe when businesses gradually reopen.

We know which class benefits from this situation. - As reopening proceeds, any type of temporary "pandemic pay" for "hero workers" will likely be rolled back even in cases where record profits were made. A case in point is Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the United States, which is eliminating the extra $2 hourly rate they were paying their workers on May 17. Yet "Kroger said the pandemic "triggered a significantly greater lift in sales across both physical retail stores and digital channels in March," with monthly sales up 30% from a year ago. Kroger added that it anticipates first-quarter sales to top its 2020 guidance." Things have been so good that "Kroger repurchased $355 million of its own shares in the first quarter, and holds about $2.3 billion in cash and temporary cash investments." - In an example of the total farce that unfolds when governments and corporations say "back to work" yet still claim to want "social distancing" one need only look at London, UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that people who cannot work from home should be starting to physically go back to work even as the coronavirus continues to rage. Of course, workers who cannot work from home are disproportionately lower wage workers. They also have to find some way to get to work and this led immediately to overcrowding on public transit. Thus we have a nearly Kafkaesque absurdity such as:

Johnson said in his address to the nation on Sunday that those unable to work from home should start returning to work from Wednesday, but urged people to avoid public transport and drive, cycle or walk. Unions say this is not a viable option for many in the capital, who either do not have a car or live to far away from their place of work to cycle or walk.

Telling people to head to work but to "avoid public transport" is something that only a clueless child of privilege like Johnson could do.

- In Ontario the march to reopen continues on the part of the big business Doug Ford government. Yet "Ontario's top doctor says he does not feel confident that the province has met the threshold to start on its economic recovery plan" and "the province reported 361 new cases, a second straight day of increasing case numbers" on May 12. - Billionaire Elon Musk used his power and wealth to force local officials in California to capitulate and allow his Tesla plant to operate despite local health regulations and concerns about workers. "Democracy" in action. When it comes to power never doubt that the billionaire class has far more of it than any government right now. There is no more transparent case of in whose interests "reopening" is than this one. - In South Dakota far right media darling Republican governor Kristi Noem is attempting to force the sovereign Sioux nations to open their borders up to travel and transit through checkpoints that they had established even though these only effected non-essential travel. Far from having any valid economic purpose it appears to be a vanity exercise and an attempt to undermine Indigenous sovereignty rights. It is no coincidence that the forces lining up to force a "reopening" agenda are a coalition of billionaires, CEOs, right-wing politicians, extreme right and white supremacist formations and "protesters", and the right wing press and media. This also tells you all you need to know about their motives. To the handful of "progressives" and "leftists" who are backing the line of these reactionaries, it is bizarre that anyone who claims to be anti-capitalist or pro-worker cannot see this corporate campaign for what it is based on. It is perfectly obvious that the push by capital to "get the economy moving" and to force governments to relax the pandemic lockdowns is all about profit and has nothing to do with the health and safety of workers or the general population. At this critical juncture it is essential that the left and workers' parties and organizations fight back against any attempts to restart capitalist production on the backs and lives of working people. Further Reading: Don't let the capitalists fool you...we have the social wealth to properly fight the pandemic

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