Capitalism, COVID-19, and Collective Action

One of the key features of capitalism is the practice of “externalizing” costs, to increase profits. One of the classic examples of this is corporations who pollute the air and water to save the money they would have to spend by actually dealing with their waste products. That cost is then paid for by the people affected by that pollution. Loss in ecosystem services, increased disease, and shortened lifespans are all costs born by the general public, rather than the corporations responsible for causing the problems. Sometimes there are efforts to make corporations pay after the fact, but those payments are generally less than the profits gained through their irresponsibility, and the damage done is often permanent.

Right now, America is suffering from a few crises caused by that aspect of capitalism. Take the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. Despite all the articles about panic shopping, the mask shortage wasn’t caused by that. It was caused by the economics of supply and demand, and externalizing the costs of emergency preparedness. Our entire system operates on the model of “just-in-time manufacturing“. It’s not profitable, under normal conditions, to maintain a stockpile of masks, or of mask-making materials and machinery, at any point along the production chain. Buying more than you need, and not selling it, counts as a loss under pretty much any capitalist model, so things are made as they’re needed, and delivered just as supplies run out. Hypothetically the cost of preparing for emergencies was being externalized to the U.S. government, but, well…

The US has something called the Strategic National Stockpile, or SNS, which is several secret big-ass warehouses of medicine and other supplies that we might need for a national emergency. At the start of the year, the stockpile had about 12 million N-95 masks. The US will likely need upwards of 3.5 billion masks over the next year.

This isn’t a surprise. Researchers have known for years that a pandemic was likely, and that we were underprepared, but Trump disbanded the National Security Council in charge of shoring up our reserves. Back in 2018, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health warned Congress that “When you have a respiratory virus that can be spread by droplets and aerosol and … there’s a degree of morbidity associated with that, you can have a catastrophe. … The one that we always talk about is the 1918 pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people. … Influenza first, or something like influenza, is the one that keeps me up at night.” Scientists knew that this was a question of “when,” not “if,” but the Trump administration dismissed their concerns and cut the National Security Council in half. That’s why there aren’t enough masks, that’s why there aren’t enough tests, and that’s why the US is plunging headfirst into a national disaster that could have been handled six weeks ago.

Trump also moved oversight of the Strategic National Stockpile from the CDC to the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, and they apparently have no idea how to handle this emergency. Back when the first COVID-19 cases hit in Washington at the end of February, the state requested hundreds of thousands of masks and other personal protective equipment from the Stockpile. They got less than half. They had to fight with the HHS for two more days before they agreed to fulfill the rest of the request. Now they need more, and so does California and New York. Soon the entire country will need them, and the Stockpile will not have enough because it wasn’t being run by the people who warned us that this would happen.

We put people in charge who think that the government should be run like a business, and in business terms, it’s “wasteful” to have people and resources sitting around for emergencies that might not happen this quarter, or this fiscal year.

Similarly, many businesses have been operating without setting aside money in case of an unexpected loss in income like this. For a few small businesses, that’s just because they don’t make enough money to put anything aside, and that’s fine – I’m not judging them. For larger corporations, it’s because all the surplus cash generated in any given year goes to the top, and effectively leaves the company. Some of it’s through executive compensation, some of it’s through shareholder payouts (which is often also executive compensation), and some of it, stupidly, to manipulating the stock market through stock buybacks. That has meant that these companies, despite being profitable year after year, claim not to have the resources to pay their workers to stay home in the midst of a global pandemic that could, if not dealt with properly, kill tens or even hundreds of millions of people. The cost of saving against a crisis was, again, externalized, and is now being paid by society at large. This is part of what’s meant when people talk about “privatizing the profits and socializing the risks“. And because companies also generally pay their workers as little as they can, they “externalize” costs there too. Corporations like Walmart are infamous for getting corporate welfare by paying their workers too little to live on, and having the difference made up through public assistance programs like SNAP. Beyond that simple cost to society, though, there’s also the fact that in this scenario, workers simply can’t afford to save up for an emergency. That’s also a cost that has effectively been externalized by pushing it onto everyone who’s suffering now, and onto the government, through the proposed bailout and aid packages. It’s also why people are starting to engage in rent strikes – between low wages, high rent, and high health costs, Americans don’t have the resources to simply keep paying out when they’re not taking any money in. Responsible landlords, like other responsible business operators who operate at a real profit, have money set aside for emergencies, and so can do things like forgiving rent for a couple of months to fight a global pandemic.

That’s not to say that the government shouldn’t be providing any assistance to companies large and small, but it is to say that the aid should not come free from conditions, and for the people at the bottom, the options for influencing policy are very limited. The one thing the working class does reliably have is the ability to stop working en masse. Workers can influence policy by striking. Refusing to work, and refusing to pay certain bills, can serve a couple purposes through putting pressure on the capitalist class. The first is direct – faced with mass non-cooperation, capitalists must come to the table and negotiate with the people over whom they normally hold power. This pressure can be used to get more reasonable wages, lower rent, better workplace conditions, better building maintenance, and so on. The secondary purpose, as I see it, is that the capitalists who are “hurt” by a strike tend to have more political clout, and can respond to the strike by asking for assistance from the government much more effectively than the people striking could.

It’s also worth noting that strikes do often hurt people who aren’t responsible for the problems that cause the strike. As was pointed out in the comments of my last post, when garbage collectors strike as they did in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, it can mean a buildup of waste in the city, increasing risk of disease and other problems for the general population. 0That strike ultimately ended with the workers’ concerns largely unresolved: 

“There are only two ways the city could pay workers more: by raising taxes in a time of record unemployment and financial insecurity, or by laying off other city personnel to pay them,” he said. “Neither move would be acceptable at this time.”


Workers were asking for masks, Peduto said, but were informed they can cause more harm than good.

“Dr. Roth explained that by giving them masks and bringing their gloves to their face, they could potentially cause more harm,” he said.

But it’s worth noting that it’s never really a good time for a strike. As with other forms of political protest, the whole point is to cause problems that increase the need for a resolution. Work is done because someone needs it done, and the more trouble caused when the work stops, the more likely it is that the workers will be able to get some of what they’re demanding. Now that work is coming with the risk of exposure to a new and deadly disease, people are beginning to question how far they’re willing to go to earn a small portion of the profit they generate for their bosses. Workers at a Perdue meat processing plant are striking over the company’s negligence:

Over forty workers at the Perdue Perry Cook Plant, located in Kathleen, Georgia walked off the job Monday morning and protested outside the factory demanding sanitary working conditions, hazard pay and time off after multiple workers reported being exposed to COVID-19 at the factory. According to Bloomberg the factory has 600 workers who process chicken and pork products.

Local news station 13WMAZ conducted multiple telephone video interviews with workers outside the plant before several black unmarked SUVs loaded with Houston County Sheriff’s deputies surrounded the workers and forced them to disperse. There are no reports of any injuries or arrests at this time.

Speaking to CBS reporters, Kendalyin Granville stated that several workers on the factory line have been exposed to the novel coronavirus while on the job. Perdue Agribusiness, which posted $7.3 billion in revenue for 2019, has done nothing to clean the facility or isolate infected workers according to Granville. “Sanitize the building,” she demanded. “Everybody that’s been exposed to it, they need to go home. These folks are still on the floor.”

Several workers stated that the company has failed to provide a safe and sterile working environment and appears to have been lying in regard to nightly maintenance and cleaning. Workers have reported food from the previous day’s shift found throughout the production floor in addition to overflowing trash cans in the bathroom. While there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through the food supply, recent studies suggest the virus can survive on metal surfaces for 48 to 72 hours.

Over two dozen fellow workers agreed with Granville and joined her in courageously walking off the line. “You want us to go back on the floor to work? No, first sanitize the line, something, because this is not a playing matter. This is not a game,” Granville told local media.

Employees at Amazon, now infamous for its callous treatment of its work force, have been walking off the job for similar reasons:

“Confirmed #Coronavirus in nyc Amazon warehouse! Management tried to have us come in at 10:15 but we have shut the warehouse down to keep our coworkers and communities safe!” the group Amazonians United NYC wrote on Twitter.

“We are supporting the individual who is now in quarantine,” an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard. “Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with local authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and we’re following all guidelines from local officials about the operations of our buildings.”

The spokesperson added that Amazon is taking measures to reduce the spread of the virus including increased cleaning at warehouses and adding distance between workers and drivers and customers at the point of delivery. “In addition to our enhanced daily deep cleaning, we temporarily closed the Queens delivery station for additional sanitation and sent associates home with full pay,” the spokesperson added.

In a recent petition for paid sick leave and childcare accommodation, the Amazon warehouse workers in Queens wrote, “we have seen an increase in the volume of such goods, placing a greater strain on workers. Yet despite larger workloads, Amazon continues to enforce and raise productivity quotas. At the same time, many workers have been shocked to discover the company has been illegally denying them paid sick leave.”

The news arrives after five confirmed cases at Amazon warehouses in Spain and Italy, which lead to walkouts at the facilities. Amazon has refused to close those facilities.

Earlier this week, Amazon promised to pay all of its employees and contractors an additional $2 an hour until the end of April, as hazard pay during the worst of the outbreak

And even as workers are starting to fight for better treatment, and in some cases their very lives, the capitalists are fighting for even greater control of the economy, at financial and human expense of the people:


So, how do you go about fighting back? By working together.

Image is a poster from Industrial Workers of the World. It's a red poster with white block text and a sillhouette of a black cat with white eyes. The text reads,

Let’s be very clear – any individual waging a lone, heroic fight against the institutions of power will be crushed. As recent events have demonstrated, these people have no problem killing others for their own profits. If one person strikes, they get fired, and because they’re just one person, the company can afford the loss of labor till they replace that worker. If one person refuses to pay rent, they get evicted, and the landlord can afford the loss of that rent while looking for a new tenant. Thoughtslime goes into this in the video he published today:

If you go to his video on youtube, he has links to some resources for how to organize (like his video, while you’re there), and how to do this the right way. It’s worth saying again, as he does in the video, don’t try to engage in a one-person rent strike, or strike of any other kind. Do your research FIRST, and make sure you’re taking the right steps. The whole legal and economic system is set up to benefit the landlords and the bosses, and if you fight alone, you will lose.

That said, here are some more resources you might find useful if you’re looking to take action of this kind, or if you just want to learn more about the subject.

Industrial Workers of the World is an international union for all workers. They’re dedicated to bringing democracy to the workplace, and they have a lot of resources and information: 

The IWW is a member-run union for all workers, a union dedicated to organizing on the job, in our industries and in our communities. IWW members are organizing to win better conditions today and build a world with economic democracy tomorrow. We want our workplaces run for the benefit of workers and communities rather than for a handful of bosses and executives.

We are the Industrial Workers of the World because we organize industrially.

The Cornell University Library provides the following list of resources:

Teen Vogue has information about a rent strike movement in the United States.

The general strike hashtag on twitter is also worth keeping an eye on. It’s got both discussions and updates about ongoing efforts.

It’s Going Down has information on a whole host of related activities, and also mutual aid efforts.

I want to stress again – don’t try to take action alone. The history of labor movements is a bloody one. People with power are rarely willing to give it up, and are accustomed to using force to get their way. This goes from the labor movement of the early 20th century, to more recent activities by Coca Cola in Columbia, to the assaults on people protesting the Keystone pipeline extension. When it comes to a fight between workers and corporations, more often than not, the government sides with corporations.

So do research before taking action. Talk to people who know what they’re doing. Take advantage of your extra free time if you’re stuck at home right now. Organizing really is the most important part of this sort of thing. Business leaders are willing to see the death count from this pandemic skyrocket, if it means their wealth and power continue to grow. You have a right to fight back, but do it carefully, and do it with support. As the old song says, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong.”

Thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, layoffs have increased, job interviews have been indefinitely postponed, and many places aren’t hiring new workers. All of that means I really need help paying my bills and keeping a roof over my head. is a way for you to help with that, even if it’s just a little bit, and get some perks and extra content in return. You control how much you give, and how long you give it, and every little bit really does help. When lots of people pitch in, it can make a huge difference. Please help if you’re able, and share my work with others. Thank you!

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