The Rebel Alliance vs The Empire
I’m a fan of Star Wars, but I’m not cult follower. I don’t dress up as characters or have Star Wars action figures. What I like about Star Wars is that the storyline is simple and familiar: There is a government (the Empire) which has become a totalitarian dictatorship that oppresses any opposition, and there is a rebellion (the Rebel Alliance) that attempts to restore freedom to the people. It’s a story we’ve seen play out over and over throughout history, and to a certain degree repeating today.
The following article is a response to calls for a massive labor strike as a strategy that today’s Rebel Alliance can use to bring down the Empire.
We The People
As we read the news today, it sometimes feels that we don’t have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Instead, it seems like we have a government that is made up of elitists who serve the wealthy in their quest to profit from exploited laborers and ravaged natural resources. That’s troubling.
I’ll offer this one concrete example, regarding essential healthcare supplies:
“…the federal government is quietly seizing orders, leaving medical providers across the country in the dark about where the material is going and how they can get what they need to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Hospital and clinic officials in seven states described the seizures in interviews over the past week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is not publicly reporting the acquisitions, despite the outlay of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, nor has the administration detailed how it decides which supplies to seize and where to reroute them.”[Source: Los Angeles Times, 7 Apr 2020]
There are many similar examples of the government functioning in ways that suggest serving the people is not a top priority. Such as, giving public lands and public money over to billionaires and their industries, like a welfare program where the poor subsidize those who are excessively wealthy. There are bailouts and tax breaks being handed out like door prizes to wealthy supporters and constituents while we the people get nothing.
At the Breaking Point
Are those in power taking too much and giving too little, and caring too little? Will millions of workers rise up? Are we at the breaking point?
An article published on 2 Apr 2020 by VICE offers one perspective: “Coronavirus Is a Labor Crisis, and a General Strike Might Be Next.”
The article leads with this statement: “Workers all over America are striking, walking off the job, protesting, and organizing ‘sick-outs’ during the coronavirus pandemic. A general strike could be big, and it might already be starting.”
There are some people who really like protests, rallies, and strikes. There’s an exciting social component and a feeling of empowerment, control, and impactfulness through unity. It’s a satisfying adrenaline rush, particularly for people who otherwise feel powerless at work or in other areas of life.
When these collective gatherings devolve into riots and violence, some will proclaim: “Perhaps now those in power will wake up and be motivated to listen to our demands. Throughout history, only violence has been able to bring about real change.”
Involuntary Labor Strike
We certainly did get the equivalent of a massive labor strike when everyone started staying home abruptly in March 2020 as a response to COVID-19. The unspoken and unconscious “demand” of the “strike” is for universal healthcare — we will all need it for our economy to survive even if people aren’t in the streets demanding it.
The Stage Crew
In theatre, when the set changes, there are people who, without the spotlight on them, arrange the stage with the items for a new set and scene. They are the stage crew. The same is true with a road crew for a music group. You don’t notice them, but without them the show won’t go on.
That’s what the working poor are like. Most people don’t notice them. Yet, without them, the show won’t go on. They’ve been told that they aren’t important. They’ve been told they are easily replaced. In reality they are individually and collectively essential.
Today with COVID-19, it is as if much of the stage crew has gone on strike.
Where Did the Working Poor Come From?
The working poor arrived in their state of poverty for a variety of reasons, but mostly through a calculated and strategic government and industry partnership that denies people easy and equal access to education, vocational training, high paying jobs, and opportunities. Added to this are generational challenges and institutional disparities that result in bad outcomes.
You can find many examples of how short-sighted state governments cut back on education funding to ensure a wider opportunity gap between the wealthy and the working poor. This creates a desperate workforce willing to work in poor conditions for low pay. That directly translates into greater profits for the few at the top of the profiteering pyramid.
Exceptions exist, like in Tennessee, where the state promotes equal access to affordable or free college education, vocational training, mentoring, and career placement for everyone in the state. Such initiatives are very successful in boosting the economy. However, in most states, the old way of thinking prevails.
Involuntary Compassion Through Selfishness
Usually there is little thought or concern expressed for the over 40 million working poor in America who are uninsured, underpaid, working multiple jobs, food insecure, and living in poverty to provide us with inexpensive products and services to help our dollars go further.
With COVID-19 there has been an abrupt brick-wall realization that we’re all connected and impact one another.
The working poor don’t have access to healthcare and the resources needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as masks, sanitizing hand lotion, or test kits. They don’t get paid sick leave, so they will likely work despite being sick. The working poor are in jobs that typically require many daily face-to-face encounters are the least protected and most likely to be infected. They work multiple jobs so these encounters are multiplied. They are overworked and stressed so their immune systems are depressed. This is a formula for a massive spread of COVID-19.
For some people, the plight of the working poor didn’t matter and didn’t impact their life. Now it does. If you don’t want the food service person sneezing on your food, you better make sure they have a 75-cent face mask. If you don’t want a COVID-19-infected worker inadvertently making you the next virus fatality statistic, you’d better make sure they have access to virus tests and paid sick leave.
This is a kind of involuntary compassion fueled by a desire for self-preservation, but at least it’s starting a wave of awareness and concern.
There has never been and probably will never be a protest in which poor workers rise up and in one voice say: “Give us healthcare, a living wage, and paid sick leave or we will make you sick and you might die. Oh, and entire industries and economies will collapse.” That’s a massive bargaining chip. With COVID-19, that is the unintended reality that we face. Take care of the working poor, or lose everything.
Show Me The Data
Before I put on my Che Guevara hat, grab a bullhorn, and begin shouting “Viva la Revolución!” I want to take a step back and evaluate the above-mentioned VICE article a bit more.
For example, I’d like to see some of the data behind the article’s claim that:
“Workers all over America are striking, walking off the job, protesting, and organizing ‘sick-outs.'”[Source: VICE Media, 2 Apr 2020]
Which workers? How many? In what cities? With what businesses? What specifically are their demands that need to be met for them to go back to work? Who is their spokesperson or representatives? What research has been done, and by whom? Where is the data?
The story offers some examples, but we need more than a few photos showing a half-dozen fast food workers in a parking lot with signs. Anecdotal stories, while inspiring, aren’t proof of a nation-wide movement.
Speak It Into Being
There is a type of writing method or technique that attempts to start some movement or trend by claiming that it already exists. Sometimes this is combined with wishful thinking. It’s a method that can be used for good to start positive trends and movements. The practice of speaking about those things which do not exist as though they did dates back to biblical times.
I know there are some people (including some liberals and conservatives) who hope and believe in a manifesto similar to this one:
“We need a complete collapse of the entire system and then we can rebuild it based on justice and equality. Only then can we redistribute the wealth and usher in a new world of progressive ideals. Before the COVID-19 it would have been difficult to organize such a massive strike. But now with the help of the virus, we already have millions effectively on strike. Now is the time to strike at the heart of the capitalist industrial complex that exploits workers and the environment. Anarchists of the world unite!!!”
Peace and Equality Through Chaos and Anarchy
How does one go from talking about common labor strikes to warnings of chaos and anarchy? Isn’t that exaggerated fear mongering to stigmatize the idea of unions and organized labor?
Small-scale well-organized efforts by workers to organize and make specific requests for fair wages, healthcare, safe working environments, and similar demands can be effective. Wide-scale poorly-organized efforts can get out of control, and it becomes difficult to define the messaging and demands.
From the VICE article mentioned previously:
“’There’s a gravitational pull bringing this movement together,’ a lead organizer of the Whole Foods sick-out, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation, told Motherboard. ‘A general strike is something we’ve talked about idly before but it has become a recurring conversation for us once corona broke out. We couldn’t have anticipated how neatly a general strike has started to coalesce this week. We didn’t know Instacart and Amazon workers were also going to strike.’ Organizers at Whole Foods, Amazon, Instacart, and Target told Motherboard that the coronavirus pandemic is radicalizing many workers for the first time to support collective action against their employers[Source: VICE Media, 2 Apr 2020]
We can’t predict what will happen if nation-wide protests impact multiple sectors of the economy and out society. There’s a belief that if we bring chaos, anarchy, and utter societal collapse that it will eventually come back together better than before. As with the Star Wars narrative, if we can just destroy the oppressive and exploitative Empire then the people can celebrate and live free in a perfect world for ever and ever.
Of course, the anarchists of the world are not going to unite because they typically don’t believe in an organized civil democracy. In an anarchy there would just be an unending chaotic dystopian hell scape of numerous independent ego-driven narcissists all fighting to be the leader trying to implement their own vision of heaven on earth.
The only world that we are going to recreate after a collapse will be much like the one that we have already created.
As one of the organizers interviewed in the VICE article states:
“For actions that do not require social distancing, the options are endless. Walkouts, work stoppages, and strikes at key production facilities, peak demand times, or across the country are all on the table.”[Source: VICE Media, 2 Apr 2020]
Wide-scale protests and movements are not easy to contain, organize, or restrain. The outcome can very quickly escalate into chaos. When dormant ‘sleeper cells’ get independently activated, they go off on their own. This was recently evident in Feb 2020 when some people claiming to be Bernie Sanders supporters went way off script and began heckling and threatening people who resisted the movement. Some rogue activists have apologized for being abrasive and confrontational, but others haven’t.
Large-scale nationwide massive multiple simultaneous labor strikes will have an equivalent impact of economic sanctions on the United States. We’ve all witnessed how economic sanctions against Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and other nations have primarily hurt innocent civilians, children, the elderly, and sick people. Governments and large corporations are relatively untouched by such sanctions. So, these national labor strikes would mostly harm the innocent.
As with war, widespread arbitrary social action can have collateral damage. The VICE article state:
“Even during a pandemic, it’s not hard to imagine striking ride-hail drivers from Uber or Lyft creating driver caravans parked outside of apartment complexes, neighborhoods, or public places with signs and materials explaining why a strike is happening and how to learn more or support it. The same goes for striking Instacart or DoorDash drivers who could create caravans, inform passersby, and also raise awareness outside of grocery stores and restaurants still open during this time.”[Source: VICE Media, 2 Apr 2020]
If there were a widespread labor strike, imagine the disruption it would cause and the impact on elderly people who might be depending on grocery delivery. People who might otherwise rely on safe home delivery of food and essential goods would now venture out to get their needs met. This would expose them to risks of getting infected. So, essentially, the outcome of the labor strike would be more lives lost from COVID-19.
The Demand for PPE
The other thing that stands out in the article is the claim that workers are striking to demand PPE (personal protective equipment).
The people I know who think we need more masks, are making masks, and giving them to healthcare workers, and colleagues at work, and to those at risk of dying from COVID-19. People who feel they need masks are making their own.
One might say, “Yes, that’s all well and good, but we need to demand that employers provide these masks to their employees!”
The problem is that the masks simply aren’t available. Demanding someone provide something they can’t provide isn’t a good strategy. This becomes somewhat of a straw man argument. It’s unlikely there are employers who want their employees to get sick and spread COVID-19 to their customers.
A Path Forward – For Progress
Here’s the crux of the problem. I believe that progressives (Bernie Bros, the Green Party, Marianne Williamson, etc.) do an exceptionally good job of identifying the real problems and inequities in society, but often the response to those problems is to protest, or go on strike, vilify the wealthy, blame others, and/or demand that ’the man’ come up with a solution. That doesn’t fix anything and doesn’t win the hearts and minds of the uninitiated.
At this point, the Democratic Party could be in full production mode, manufacturing branded face masks with little donkey’s on them, and giving those face masks out to those who most need them. Think of how many people that would help, and also endear to the Democratic Party. It’s so simple.
TWO STEPS: (1) Identify the problem. (2) Create and implement a solution.
Instead, what we are getting is…
TWO STEPS: (1) Identify the problem. (2) Complain, protest, go on strike, debate the problem on TV, blame moderates, blame Fox News, blame billionaires, blame employers, blame CEOs, blame Trump, and demand that others solve the problem for us.
The error of the VICE article illustrates a broader problem in the progressive movement. The one thing that would allow progressives and the Democratic Party to succeed would be the creation of and implementation of solutions. There are so many things that can be done now to solve societal and world problems with little or no funding.
For over 20 years I’ve been studying and warning about counterproductive activism. That’s when people have a stated concern and objective, but their actions produce the opposite result of what they claim to want.
In this case, don’t complain about the lack of face masks. Start making face masks. That’s the approach we should take to every issue and social concern. It’s not enough to say “I’ve got a plan for that.” We must have a plan and implement it so people can see and benefit from real-world positive outcomes. That will win hearts and minds and it will help those in need.
Create a new economy of home-based industries offering products and services horizontally. Rather than protesting an exploitative employer, create new opportunities for yourself and others. It’s a different way of thinking, but it’s how we need to think if we are going to transform the world. In this way, COVID-19 can help us create a better world, rather than focusing on complaining about and dismantling the one we don’t like.