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Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe says despite unprecedented challenges, working people are finding new ways to organize for basic protections during the coronavirus pandemic.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Worker: We’re going to stand together on May 1st. We’re going to come together and we’re going to protest. We don’t want to do this. We’re being forced to do this. We’re not protected, we’re not paid correctly, meaning there is no sick time leave or paid sick time or hazard pay.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. There’s no crisis the powerful won’t exploit and despite the enormous challenges, workers are continuing to organize and fight back. And have called for a general strike on May 1st. As the staggering death toll from the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow and working people are not only facing the health impacts but economic devastation as well. An unemployment rate unmatched since the Great Depression with at least one in seven workers now seeking jobless benefits. Half of those have been unable to secure assistance according to a survey by the Economic Policy Institute. Millions unable to pay rent or mortgages with no assistance in sight and governors seeking to reopen their economies against the advice of public health experts and threatening to punish workers who refuse to return to work.

Well now joining us to discuss this is a top labor reporter who was on the beat before it was cool. Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center and the author of Necessary Trouble, Americans and Revolt, and the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back. Thanks so much for joining us.

Sarah Jaffe: Thanks for having me.

Jaisal Noor: So workers are facing unprecedented challenges, there’s record unemployment numbers and many of those who have work, especially low income people of color, have to work in dangerous conditions. What are you hearing right now?

Sarah Jaffe: I’m hearing from workers who are scared, who are mad, who are laid off and struggling to figure out how they’re going to pay the bills and who are going to work in terrible conditions. And some of them are actually winning some concessions from the boss.

Jaisal Noor: Yeah. So can you talk about what that looks like?

Sarah Jaffe: It looks like a lot of different things right now. We’re in this moment where a lot of the traditional organizing tactics don’t work so much because people who actually respect the lockdown, which I’m sure we’ll get to that point later, are trying to stay apart from one another. So things like normal mass protests don’t look the same anymore. However, what we learned is that it’s really, really striking to see sort of perfectly socially distanced actions from workers ranging from nurses who are demanding more personal protective equipment, to the workers at GE plants who are demanding to make more personal protective equipment. And of course the strike still works.

Jaisal Noor: And those GE workers you talked about are really striking because they were demanding their workers create protective gear, sorry the factories create protective gear. Something Trump has the power to do. Something he’s used to help create his wall. And now he’s ordered the reopening of meat processing facilities, which have been hotbeds for the coronavirus pandemic, because, similar to other workplaces, it’s impossible to socially distance. But he hasn’t used that same power to, which some of the nurses have been demanding for for weeks and months now to use PPE. Can you talk more about that?

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah, exactly. So we’ve seen healthcare workers calling over and over again for the government to use the Defense Production Act, which allows them to basically requisition production to create protective equipment, to create ventilators, to create other sorts of healthcare things that would actually save lives during this crisis. And they’ve done that a little bit by now. Trump has used it in limited capacity and mostly, as an article I was reading this morning said, for places that were already doing it. So we’re seeing the call is coming from workers over and over again to use this.

And instead, after the CEO of Tyson foods took out, a full page ad in the New York times, suddenly Trump is mandating, under the Defense Production Act, that meat processing plants, where there have been documented outbreaks of the virus. I mean we should really stress that these are places that already are spreading the virus and they’re spreading it to the workers. But there’s a long history of us being quite aware that the conditions in meat packing plants, in particular going back to Upton Sinclair, that affects the cleanliness of the food we eat. I don’t know if you all want to be ordering some Tyson chicken with the side of coronavirus, but I sure don’t.

And so that’s what they’re doing and that case it’s essentially, you know, demanding, forcing, pressuring workers back to work. In situations like that strikes are forbidden, although once again, you can’t actually stop people from striking. You can fire them for it, but you can’t really forced them to go into work unless they’re in prison, which is a whole other situation we could talk about for probably years in this crisis. So to see where the government’s priorities are, it’s essentially keeping certain corporations profitable rather than making sure that we have the actual life-saving equipment that people, including if we wanted to keep those meat processing workers safe, those workers, the equipment that they would need.

Jaisal Noor: And just the level of profits that some of these big CEOs are seeing, it’s just truly astounding. I think Jeff Bezos, he’s already earned something like an extra $18 billion since this crisis started. And so the workers we’re talking about are the people that often work for these big CEOs. And it’s just striking to see how little has been done to hold these big corporations accountable. They’ve been given a blank check from the stimulus up to $6 trillion with few, if any, strings attached. Yet working people have gotten a pittance from this. Talk about, there’s mounting pressure now on Democrats to actually get some for working people, which are supposed to be their base. These are the people that are going to need to show up in November if Democrats are going to take back the White House, in a sense.

Sarah Jaffe: If we’re going to have an election. Well that’s a whole other story too. Yeah. Talking about Jeff Bezos, right? Jeff Bezos owns Amazon, which owns Whole Foods, which are two of the companies where workers are calling for strikes on Friday. I don’t know how big their strikes are going to be because this organizing is all really new and mostly again, taking place in unprecedented ways. We’re looking at organizing that’s happening online, on Zoom calls, Facebook groups, which is not, it’s not brand new, but it has been something that is both been used dramatically, in the case of worker-organizing at Walmart over the last several years, but also, sometimes with limited success. Still though we’ve seen workers walk out at Amazon’s factory or not factories, excuse me, Amazon doesn’t have a factory. Warehouses, distribution centers. Not just in this country but in France.

My friend Cole Stangler, who’s now reporting from France had a piece today in the New York times about the way that they’ve managed to bring Amazon to the table in France. Now of course in France and other European countries, they have what’s called sectoral bargaining, which means the companies are sort of forced by the government to deal with the workers’ representatives. That we don’t have here. We could have here. We’ve had sort of something similar to it at some point and it might be something that, if the Democrats cared about working people, thinking about ways to implement it might be a good idea. Again, leaving election alone for now.

Jaisal Noor: Yeah, and I’m glad you brought up France because, from what I read, in France Amazon has been ordered to stop shipping non-essential goods, which seems like a common sense demand right now. So that’s something that’s happened in France and I think courts were involved in that as well. So it’s those common sense basic demands you’re hearing from the workers, but not really hearing from that many elected officials. And something we were talking about off-camera is how the press has given far more attention to these reopened protests, which we know are backed by the dark money of the Koch donor network and demanding to reopen the economy when public health experts are saying this is going to cause new outbreaks. And we’re already seeing that in places in Tennessee where there’s been outbreaks after these protests have happened. Talk about what we know about who’s behind these and now there’s governors saying if workers don’t return to work, they’re going to get punished as well.

Sarah Jaffe: Yeah. I think there’s a few important things to unpack here. One of course, is that our unemployment system, as you mentioned, is designed to make sure people work. So you don’t get unemployment normally if you quit, you don’t get unemployment normally if you’re fired for cause. You get unemployment if you were laid off through no fault of your own. They’ve loosened that a little bit depending on the state with the coronavirus unemployment package that was passed through Congress, but it’s still quite difficult to get unemployment. As you mentioned at the beginning, only about half the people who have been laid off have been able to access it and that’s before these States like Georgia are trying to reopen, right? And what that means is that workers are no longer considered doing the right thing if they stay home. Suddenly they’re supposed to go back to work and they can get kicked off of those unemployment benefits if they do not go to work, take the first job that is offered, all of that stuff.

The other thing about these protests, right, is that it’s sort of like the tea party, right? This was during the financial crisis, with the resulting recession in 2008, 2009 the first big protest that we seemed to see were coming from the right and it was backed by the same kinds of people that, as far as we know are backing these protests now. And it’s sort of all wrapped up in this idea of freedom being you can buy whatever you want. Which is a particularly American definition of freedom and one that, as you mentioned, the workers at places like Amazon and Walmart are saying like, “Please don’t shop for unnecessary things right now.”

And the other thing about that definition of freedom is that it is, as historian Greg Grandin put it in his recent book, The End of the Myth, which is some great coronavirus reading if you’re bored right now. He argues that Americans’ understanding of freedom is sort of this understanding of, of not being restrained in what we do. And that that kind of lack of restraint has often meant the freedom to oppress other people. So when you look at somebody holding up a sign that says, “I want a haircut,” or, “Why can’t I buy XYZ thing?” What they’re demanding is that somebody else has to go to work in order to do what they want to be done. They are still sort of demanding the freedom to oppress other people. And what we know from the statistics on the essential workers who are currently working and the service industry more broadly is that the people who will be forced back into these unsafe conditions are largely black and brown. A lot of them are immigrants and a lot of them are women.

Jaisal Noor: And finally, you’ve been following the labor movement, organized labor for some time now. Where does organized labor stand in this moment? Have you been encouraged by some of the actions they’re taking or are they also in a really difficult space without a lot of political power at this point?

Yeah, I mean nobody I think would have said that the American labor movement was in a strong place at the beginning of 2020, right? There are some bright spots, the teachers organizing that has been going on for the last decade. That sort of first popped up in places like Chicago. That has been a really exciting bright spot for the labor movement. The fact that the public sector unions didn’t completely collapse after the Janus decision. That was just about a year ago. That has been a really good sign, but it is also true that a lot of the workers who’ve been laid off belonged to service sector unions. Those unions are in a rough place right now. Some of that is being outweighed by some of their members. Them being essential workers like the United Food Commercial Workers represents a lot of grocery store workers and they have done things like get them hazard pay, which is great, right? You get hazard pay, you can bargain to some degree.

Protective equipment, again, if you can get your hands on it you can bargain sort of safety precautions in the stores, limited amount of people, out-in, things like that. And then of course the thing that’s happening now is just that the calculus of going to work at a kind of lousy job used to be like, “Well it sucks and it doesn’t pay me enough, but it’s something. It’s better than nothing. I can get another job later.” Now, when that lousy job that was maybe okay is also possibly going to get you very sick or kill you, that’s a totally different set of calculations that people have to make. And when you work at say, the Smithfield plant in South Dakota that had hundreds of workers sick and then Trump says, “You got to go to work.” Are you going to go to work? What’s that going to look like? Are you willing to go to that job and who’s going to be willing to take those jobs if the current crop of workers, well A, hundreds of them are sick, but B, they just stopped doing it.

And so there’s a potential moment for a lot of power for working people right now. It’s also a really, really dangerous time where a lot of people are unemployed. And so the labor movement, if it is smart, should be thinking about also how you organize among the unemployed, how we think about and talk about work and the lack of it in a global pandemic. All of these things that we have some understanding of how to talk about, but not in this particular context. And so that’s something we all could be doing with our lockdown.
Well, we know the wealthy, the powerful are exploiting this crisis and the working people have to organize as well. Sarah Jaffe, thanks so much for joining us. Reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, author of Necessary Trouble, Americans in Revolt and the forthcoming Work Won’t Love You Back. Thanks so much.

Sarah Jaffe: Thank you.

Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.