A short summary of global Covid-19 struggles – 1st to 14th April 2020

First off, we have to admit the rather random character of such summaries, as the amount of strikes, riots, protests has been massive. Rather than pretending to present a complete picture, we want to make a few points, illustrated by examples. We call internationalist comrades to take part in our collective effort to share information about these struggles – beyond the headlines – in order to be able to support them:


1) The ruling class knows what’s at stake

In a Bloomberg article, a commentator alleges that the current peak-period of the Covid-19 pandemic might see a temporary lull in protests in regions which have witnessed fierce protest movements (Sudan, Chile, Iraq, etc.). After this lull the economic impact of the pandemic, which, according to the ILO will result in severe cuts in the income of 1.25 billion people, will intensify and spread these class movements. [1] We can see a slow shift in the state’s reaction from the ‘containment of Corona’ to the ‘containment of unrest’, e.g. when the Italian state sent troops to the south of the country fearing mass looting [2], or the Portugese state banning strikes as part of the emergency measures. [3] The government in France and Germany changed the law to allow the extension of the working week in the so-called ‘key sectors’ from 48 to 60 hours. In Brazil the state allows companies to reduce working hours and wages by 50%. [4] In central sectors like agriculture the state takes over the supply-management and social quarantine of labour power, by recruiting additional seasonal migrant workers, such as in the case of Germany and Italy [5]; by considering the recruitment of students and laid off workers in the UK for agricultural work [6]; or considering state-sanctioned wage cuts in the USA [7]. State measures and the bosses’ reactions have already led to an increase in disputes with agricultural workers, such as in Italy and Spain. [8]

2) Strikes of industrial workers are at the forefront of collective working class reactions to Covid-19

The most crucial revelation of the Covid-19 crisis is the fact that we don’t live in a ‘post-industrial’ society, dominated by ‘immaterial labour’. Nor that strikes, as a collective weapon of workers, are a relic of the past. Most of the collective reactions of workers to the crisis were strikes by largely manual workers in the essential industries. Initially these strikes were mainly about the lack of health and safety. In the last two weeks we saw strikes of waste and waste water workers in France, the UK and the USA [9]; wildcat strikes at the Royal Mail in the UK [10]; walk-outs of more than 10,000 construction workers in the USA [11]; strikes in packaging plants in France [12]; supermarket workers in Brazil and the USA [13]; Amazon workers in the USA, following France and Spain [14]; automobile workers in the supply-chain in the USA [15]; food processing and fast food workers in the USA and wildcat strike/mass sick leave in the UK. [16] At the centre of these strikes were hospital and care workers, who went on strike in the USA, India, Pakistan, Russia and Greece. [17] These strikes happen on top of a high rate of absenteeism, e.g. in Germany the cleaning sector and in the UK the food processing sector reported sick rates of up to 40%.

3) Some of the strikes moved from reactions in individual companies to joint company actions, independent from the union apparatus

Here the main examples are strikes in the automobile sector in Mexico, which took on a mass scale [18]; another example were spreading strikes in call centres in Brazil [19]; but we also saw smaller ‘spontaneous’ infections, e.g. in the case of workers of two separate companies walking out in Illinois, USA. [20] These organic expansions of strikes will create important links for the disputes to come.

4) Some of the strikes go beyond the initial and immediate demand for health and safety and address the question of wider control

In Detroit, hospital workers protested against the management’s planned decision to close down an emergency department in a poorer part of town, also given that most victims of Covid-19 in the US are poor, working class people. [21] In Chicago, nurses refused to work unless management would hire more workers. [22] Earlier on General Electrics workers in the USA, who normally produce jet engines, protested and demanded to shift production to medical equipment. [23] In Marseille workers at McDonalds transformed the fast-food restaurant into a food distribution hub for the local working class area. [24] These are real experiences where workers question the usual and most fundamental power structures. The ‘return to work’ will be the next point of contention, and we can already see how bosses and unions try to manage this conflict-prone issue, e.g. in the case of an agreement between FIAT and the unions in Italy to get people back to work. [25]

 5) Some of the strikes happened in a wider social environment which will risk the stability of the political regime

Here we saw strikes in the mining sector in Iran [26]; textile workers in Myanmar [27]; textile and electronics workers in Turkey (who also beat up their bosses). [28] It is not unlikely that the economic fall out of the Corona crisis in combination with such strikes will rattle those regimes who have been under fire recently anyway.

6) Strikes will increasingly move from the ‘health and safety’ issue to the issue of wages

We heard in the news that many companies are failing to pay full wages to workers and that, for example, 30% of workers in the USA and Canada are falling behind when it comes to rent payments. [29] The question of (outstanding) wages will become more central in the coming weeks and we can see first glimpses of this in recent dock workers’ strikes in China [30] and factory workers in Argentina. [31] The company’s ‘means of production’ will become workers’ main collective asset in order to enforce wage payments. This may include workers who might not be directly employed by the company. Here, one focus will be wages, another the question of housing, as we see an increase in squatting, e.g. in this case in Santa Cruz [32] and by domestic servants in Delhi [33], who take over their bosses’ empty apartments.

7) Workers in the informal sector confront the ‘lockdown regime’ and the mafia-state moves in

We can see a certain division appearing in the form and target of struggles depending on whether workers are directly employed or whether they depend on the informal sector, such as street markets or small enterprises. In the latter case, the state and the police which enforce the lockdown become the target, as ‘lockdown’ means no income for these workers. Here we’ve seen riots by informal migrant workers in Surat, India [34], proletarian youth in Iraq [35], or protests of market stall workers in Kenya. [36] Police brutality against marginal workers increases also in the western countries, e.g. the police killed young proletarians in Beziers, France [37] and Anderlecht, Belgium [38], which caused riots in the latter case. Here we can also see a division of labour emerging between the official state force, which aims at general ‘law and order’, and the mafia-state, which takes over basic welfare functions and tries to expand its influence within the lower sections of the working class, such as in Italy and Mexico. [39] Here ‘looting’ and collective reduction of prices alone, like what happened in Honduras [40], will not be a sufficient response to lack of food and state violence. Still, the recent wave of prison mutinies, from the USA, Argentina, Lebanon, Iran, Mexico to Russia show that the repressive arm of the system is fragile. [41]

8) We need a debate about working class strategy under the current circumstances

As a political collective, AngryWorkers encourages a collective debate about ‘revolutionary strategy’, which addresses the main questions  current struggles throw up: how can the struggles within the essential sectors extend their scope along the global supply-chains that they are part of? How can struggles in the essential sectors address the material needs of marginal sections of the working class? How can regional differences and divisions imposed not only by state borders, but by different levels of development be overcome? We wrote a working paper for the discussion and propose to debate the paper in confrontation with the actual struggles we currently see.

































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