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Bills are Due and Payable: Workplace Strikes and Rent Strikes

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Bills are Due and Payable: Workplace Strikes and Rent Strikes

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

In American political folklore, “kitchen table issues” are issues, generally involving — naturally — money, where the family sits down round the kitchen table and hashes out the famliy income statement: What’s coming in, and what’s going out, and are we the slightest bit ahead, or not?[1] It’s a warmly lit, sentimental picture of a vicious system where most of the population, the working class, sell their labor power to survive. Until they can’t. And don’t. So it’s no coincidence that there’s been an upsurge — power and consequences as yet unknown — of workplace strikes (the income side) and rent strikes (the expenses side). Kitchen table issues. In this post, I’ll aggregate some examples of each kind of strike — I’ll make no pretense to be exhaustive, since #COVID19 is drowning out everything and in any case, for some reason, collective action by the working class tends not to be covered — and then I’ll conclude with some brief remarks on the state of The Left.

Before I start, I want for what I hope is the final time to return to Peggy Noonan’s post,. “My Corona (or Is It Schmutz?).” Noonan concludes:

Here is a real-life moment. I mentioned running out to the bank. We’re all tipping $20s in Manhattan and I ran low. I walked over in full regalia—N95 mask, sanitary gloves, high-necked coat and scarf. As I walked home I passed by the 90th Street Pharmacy, looked in the shining windows, and saw Hamidou and Barbara at the counter. I felt so grateful for them. I knocked on the glass, they looked, and I drew myself up and threw them a full, formal military salute. At exactly that moment I thought: Oh no, the mask, the gloves, they won’t recognize me! But they did, immediately, and we laughed and applauded each other.

How fiercely we love people we don’t know we love.

How nice. Really. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that Hamidou and Barbara would be better served by solidarity rather than sentimentality, and solidarity takes material form. Surely Hamidou and Barbara would be better served by higher wages, protective equipment, and a freeze on rents, than by any salute, no matter how smartly delivered? There are different definitions of “love,” I suppose. And now to the strikes, workplace first.

Workplace Strikes

Here is a good wrap-up on #COVID19 from the New York Times, “Is Your Grocery Delivery Worth a Worker’s Life?“:

Last Tuesday, after a mechanic tested positive for the coronavirus, more than half the workers at Bath Iron Works, the famous shipyard in Maine, stayed home from work to pressure their employer to thoroughly clean the shipyard. Workers walked out at a Fiat Chrysler truck plant in Warren, Mich., because there was no hot water for washing up. Bus drivers in Birmingham, Ala., went on strike because they felt not enough was being done to protect them from contracting Covid-19 from infected passengers, while bus drivers in Detroit staged a sudden sickout for the same reason. Sanitation workers in Pittsburgh engaged in a work stoppage over their coronavirus worries.

“We want better equipment, protective gear; we have no masks,” one of the sanitation workers told the television station WPXI. “We want hazard pay. Hazard pay is very important.”

At a Kroger warehouse in Memphis, 200 workers walked out after learning that a co-worker had the virus.

“The ones that is here, they so tense they scared to touch the equipment,” said Maurice Wiggins, a Kroger forklift driver and father of two. (He also complained about being forced to work a 97-hour, seven-day workweek [Holy Lord. “Also complained”].)

These workers are demanding what everyone else wants during the worst epidemic in a century — safety. They feel their companies are taking them and their safety for granted, and they don’t want to risk their lives for a paycheck, often a meager one.

Note that none of these examples are delivery or gig workers; I suspect the New York Times thought that headline was clever because gig workers are the only working class people they interact with. That said, strikes at InstaCart, Whole Foods, and Amazon are garnering the most press, and it is true they provide an essential supply chain during the pandemic. Let’s take each in turn; the grievances are very similar for each.

Instacart. From Vice, “Instacart’s Gig Workers Are Planning a Massive, Nationwide Strike“:

Instacart shoppers are planning a nationwide mass revolt over the grocery delivery app’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, workers say they will refuse to accept orders until Instacart provides hazard pay of an additional $5 an order, free safety gear (hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and soap) to workers, and expands its paid sick leave to include workers with pre-existing conditions who have been advised by their doctors not to work at this time. Workers say the strike will last until Instacart agrees to these terms.

Instacart is reacting, but stingily. From CNN:

Instacart said Sunday that it will soon begin making hand sanitizer available to its “full service shoppers,” who shop and deliver groceries for the company. It is also making it easier for customers to set their own default tipping percentage in the app.

(NC readers know that hand sanitizer is inadequate; what is required is soap and water, and facilities for washing one’s hands for a full twenty seconds.)

And from an Instacart worker:

The strike was organized by the newly formed Gig Workers Collective; here is their Medium post.

Whole Foods. Also from Vice (why Vice?), “Whole Foods Employees Are Staging a Nationwide ‘Sick-Out‘”

On March 31, Whole Foods employees will call in sick to demand paid leave for all workers who stay home or self-quarantine during the crisis, free coronavirus testing for all employees, and hazard pay of double the current hourly wage for employees who show up to work during the pandemic.

The sick-out follows reports that Whole Foods workers at numerous stores across the country, including locations in New York City, Chicago, Louisiana, and California have tested positive for Covid-19. In each of these locations, the stores have remained open, leading some employees to charge that Whole Foods has failed to prioritize their safety during a period of record sales for the company.

This strike is being organized by Whole Worker.

Amazon. Jacobin, in “Amazon Is a Breeding Ground,” has an interview with strike organizer Christian Smalls:

Christian Smalls, from Newark, New Jersey, is a thirty-one-year-old assistant manager at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse. The facility, called JFK8, employs nearly five thousand people — and more with each passing week, as mass layoffs send workers onto the job market and Amazon puts them to work delivering packages to those staying home during the economic shutdown….

Tomorrow, Smalls and his coworkers are walking off the job, hoping to bring operations to a halt and grab Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attention. They’re demanding that JFK8 be shut down for a minimum of two weeks and professionally sanitized. Workers, he says, should be paid during this quarantine, which should be long enough for the virus to induce symptoms in whoever’s currently infected.

From the interview:

Why are sick people coming into work?

Because Amazon is not offering paid sick leave. They’re offering unlimited unpaid time off, which is ridiculous because people shouldn’t be forced to sit at home without getting paid for choosing to be safe in quarantine. Since I’ve been off the job, I’ve been taking money out of my 401k just to get by. I shouldn’t have to do that.

The way the policy works is that you only get paid quarantine if you get tested and it comes back positive. But we know you can’t even get a test unless you’re really sick, and even then it takes a while to get the results. So you get people who are obviously sick as a dog coming into work.

My colleague I told you about before, she’d been to work for the last eight days in a row. There are about 150 people in that department daily. She’d been in contact with the whole entire department. I sent her home on Tuesday and she tested positive on Wednesday.

She’d been in contact with so many people, and the only person they ended up giving quarantine to was me.

Yikes.

Finally, UPS is not on strike, but their grievances are similar, too. From Popular Info, “https://popular.info/p/ups-not-delivering-on-promises-workers”:

A UPS driver in Tennessee reports the following:

UPS is not doing enhanced cleaning of its buildings or vehicles in my area. There aren’t any automatic hand sanitizer stations…The cleaning of vehicles has not changed from before coronavirus. So, the only thing that they say that is actually happening is the sick leave…It is not a job that lends itself to frequent hand washing and to my knowledge the company is not making allowance to accommodate hand washing. They are not providing gloves in my area due to cost concerns. Parts of the operation in the building do not lend themselves to social distancing. So I would say that 90% of what they say on their website is PR bs.

UPS workers across the country had similar experiences.

Bring the supply chain to a halt, and you bring the country to a halt (especially of the Teamsters and the Longshoremen got involved….).

Rental Strikes

Now let’s turn to rental strikes. I know even less about rental strikes than I know about working place strikes, but I understand that organizing building by building is hard. For example, from The New Enquiry’s “Rent Strike 2020: A Resource List“d

HOW TO FORM A TENANTS UNION

1. Find five people in your building or area willing to support future action

Not easy. For example, in Chicago:

Getting the word out to his neighbors has been “really exciting” but also a challenge, [tenant Theodore] Bourget said, given that social distancing guidelines prohibit physical meetings. As a result, door-knocking has been kept to a minimum, with flyering and social media outreach taking priority.

Tenant organizer Cea Weaver:

“A rent strike is a powerful tool that should always be on the table for any tenant union, but it’s not the same as not paying the rent,” she said. “How can we convert thousands of people being unable to pay the rent into thousands of people who are taking collective, intentional, political action together?”

Nevertheless, the fact that so many people are going to have trouble making rent at the same time and for the same reason might create opportunities to make organizing easier. It is to be hoped, because response at the Federal and State level (certainly in liberal Democrat enclaves New York and California).

Federal relief (not). From The Intercept, “Millions of People Will Struggle to Pay Rent in April, But Few in Congress Care“:

[E]ven with unemployment at a record high, major bill payments have barely factored into U.S. politicians’ response to the crisis.

While some states — namely New York — have taken steps to temporarily block evictions, congressional Democrats, with the exception of a handful of progressive lawmakers, have shown almost no interest in addressing the bills due in less than a week, one of the most pressing financial concerns ordinary people currently face. “It shows that Pelosi and Democratic leadership still have their eyes on protecting corporations and not the people,” said one House Democratic staffer.

No duh!

New York relief. From The Gothamist, “With Cuomo Silent On Relief, Some Desperate NYC Tenants Say “There’s No Choice” But To Rent Strike”:

As the global pandemic pushes unemployment to record levels, a desperate and potent tenants movement is taking shape across New York City. A petition calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to cancel rent for struggling tenants has more than 75,000 backers — including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and NYC Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

With the federal help still at least weeks away for most Americans, housing experts predict that millions of tenants could soon be forced to choose between paying rent and other necessities. That calculus is particularly stark in New York City, where renters make up nearly two thirds of the population, and nearly half of all households are considered rent burdened.

(To be fair to the state of New York, Queens Democrat State Sen. Michael Gianaris has introduced a bill where “rent and mortgage payments would be forgiven rather than postponed.” It has garnered 21 co-sponsors.)

California relief. From the Los Angeles Times, “Newsom orders delay on evictions over coronavirus, while L.A. votes down a blanket ban”:

Through an executive order, Newsom announced a two-month delay on residential evictions for those who can’t pay their rent as a result of the virus — the first statewide action he has taken on evictions during the outbreak. But the order still allows renters to be removed from their apartments come June.

But Newsom’s order doesn’t prevent the legal process of being evicted from ultimately occurring and still requires renters affected by the coronavirus to jump through a number of hoops to qualify for the two-month delay. For instance, tenants must notify their landlords in writing within seven days of nonpayment, and a landlord could still file a case against a tenant for their removal.

Not looking forward to a return to normal where that’s defined as paying three months of rent owed because no money was coming in, when the money wasn’t enough to make paying one month easy.

Now let’s turn to the three examples of rent strikes I have been able to find. (Since so much rental property is now owned by private equity, it might make sense to attack the private equity firms, rather than go building by building; I’m not sure.) There are three. Chicago, Houston, and Richmond. I’m sure there are more.

Chicago. Once again, Vice, “‘We Were Out of Options’: Chicago Tenants Are Refusing to Pay April Rent“”:

[Tenant Theodore] Bourget is picking the last option available to him: Not paying his rent to his landlord, Mac Properties. He’s part of a group of tenants from several buildings, Mac Tenants United, that is calling upon the landlord to cancel rent in April and all months affected by the pandemic economic shutdowns.

Flyers in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood summarize the message many housing advocates are spreading: “Tenants, keep your rent. Landlords, keep your distance.”

Illinois is one of many states that has temporarily suspended evictions. But landlords are still asking for their money, which for most tenants is due on Wednesday, the first of the month. And some renters are preparing to refuse.

Houston. This Reddit thread:

Richmond. This is a property seizure rather than a rent strike, but they’re out there doing it:

Conclusion

It’s interesting to compare what the two campaigns are doing. First, Biden:

And here is the latest mail I got from Sanders. There’s no ask for the campaign at all. Instead, the ask is for the following worthy NGOs:

Restaurant Worker Disaster Relief Fund is providing direct financial support to restaurant workers in need. With restaurant closures happening in huge numbers, this fund provides small grants to workers who are out of work or with reduced hours.

The Workers Fund is providing direct aid to gig and low-earning contract workers, who have seen their income come to a halt and who don’t have a safety net.

National Bail Fund Network’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund is giving direct aid to organizations working during the crisis to free individuals in jails and immigration detention centers. Jails are potential hot spots for spreading the virus, and people who can be bailed out should be.

CERF+ COVID-19 Response Fund is offering a safety net and disaster aid for artists and artisans during the crisis. Protecting artists during this crisis is essential, as their income has disappeared, and sustaining the arts should always be a priority for our society.

Rent Zero Tenant Organizing Fund is supporting tenants across the country to organize and win demands for eviction moratorium and no rents during the crisis and recovery. With millions of people out of work, this is vital organizing work to protect people in need.

Amazonians United Mutual Aid Fund is organizing a mutual aid fund for Amazon warehouse workers who are putting themselves at risk during this crisis, focusing first on warehouses that have confirmed coronavirus cases but whose coworkers must still work without adequate safety protections.

Now more than ever it is important that we are willing to fight for people we do not know. With so many put out of work or put in harm’s way as a result of the coronavirus crisis, we must do all we can to help those impacted.

Now, there is much to like in this Sanders effort. For one thing, I far prefer Sanders’ definition of love — “we are willing to fight for people we do not know” — to Noonan’s. However, a political campaign is not about charity. A political campaign is about taking power. The Sanders campaign theory of change — expand the base by briniging in the disaffected working class — failed on its first try. Now there is an enormous opportunity to test that theory a second time, in conditions more favorable to success. Over here, we have the workplace and rent strikes arising spontaneously. They are bottom up, very fragmented, but all driven by the experience that a pandemic under the conditions of American capitalism cannot be borne. And over here, we have an enormous and unique political machine: A massive fundraising operation, a media operation, and an enormous canvassing operation. Surely it is not impossible to bring the Sanders political macnine and the organizing efforts of the workers together? Start by discarding that stupid “charity” framing. Replace it with “worker empowerment.” Why aren’t isn’t the Sanders campaign funding the Gig Workers’s Collective?[2] And be sure to raise money for strike funds and lawyers. The ultimate kitchen table issue is within the grasph of the Sanders campaign. Just a thought.

NOTES

[1] I was going to cite the “40% of Americans don’t have $400 for emergencies” factoid, but it’s debunked here (June 4, 2019). Unfortunately, reality is more cunning than any theory, and has debunked the debunking:

Why does the conventional wisdom about the $400 expense refuse to die? The easy answer is because it riles up voters and attracts readers. That raises a different question: Why is there an appetite for this finding?

I’d speculate, in part, that this faulty interpretation resonated during the slow and painful recovery from the Great Recession. The recession was traumatic, and affected how many people think about their personal finances, their employment relationships — their economic security.

Fortunately, the economic recovery is largely complete. But judging by the persistence of the myth that a broken washing machine would be a crisis for well over one-third of adults, the psychological recovery is continuing.

BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! Here we are again.

[2] And [family blog] the FEC. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

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