Back before the COVID-19 pandemic started, the year 2019 saw anti-government demonstrations in Paris, Manila, La Paz, Port-au-Prince, Bogotá, Prague, Quito , Beirut, Hong Kong, London, Baghdad, Barcelona, Budapest, Santiago, New Delhi, Jakarta, Buenos Aires and more, earning the title “the year of the protest.” It was also a year of resurgent labor activity in the United States. After decades of declining union participation, the country saw 25 major work stoppages involving 425,500 workers, the highest number since 2001.
The economic discontent that propelled both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to popularity had been building for many years. As a recent article in the journal American Affairs noted, $34 trillion of real equity wealth, in 2017 dollars, was created between 1989 and 2017. Nearly half that sum (44%) consisted of a reallocation of corporate equity to shareholders at the expense of worker compensation, while economic growth accounted for just 25% of that increase in wealth. In other words, despite the advent of seemingly near-miraculous, time- and space-saving digital technologies, the post-Cold War “economic boom” consisted mainly of America’s wealthy shareholders taking money from its increasingly insecure workforce.
America, and other Western societies, had moved from a model of real growth and expanding benefits for all to a model where the rich got richer by impoverishing the less wealthy orders of society—and the lower orders were fighting back. However, after lockdowns were imposed in March 2020, the balance of power abruptly shifted back toward billionaire oligarchs and large corporations. Tech-based U.S. monopolies widened their profit margins as workers and their children were confined to their homes and the Fed pumped money into Wall Street. As the Fed provided unlimited purchases of corporate debt and securities, millions of people filed for unemployment, nearly 1 in 4 households experienced food insecurity, and 200,000 small businesses closed. The result was an estimated loss of $1.3 trillion in household wealth for American workers. Meanwhile, U.S. billionaires gained $1 trillion.
COVID-19 stopped a nascent American workers’ movement in its tracks, as protests and acts of political rebellion were essentially banned. Amid intense fear and confusion, public health edicts effectively suspended the right to assembly. The concept of “social distancing” encouraged people to view their neighbors, colleagues, friends, and even family members as potential sources of disease. “Experts,” technocrats, and corporations became the heroes of the pandemic, while the masses became the villains.
When lockdowns began we were told that we were “all in this together,” but every measure since then has served to entrench inequality, sabotage the middle class, and enrich elites. Images of ultrawealthy celebrities parading around maskless at fancy events, surrounded by masked servants, have provided a powerful visual representation of the COVID-19 era—an era that has seen the greatest upward wealth transfer in modern history. As a result of lockdowns, between 143 million and 163 million people worldwide have fallen into poverty and there was a sixfold increase in the number of people suffering through hunger and starvation. At the same time, tech companies like Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft saw record profits.
Today, the U.S. is experiencing the fastest rate of inflation since 2008 and consumer prices have increased by 5.4%. The top 1% of the country has more wealth than the entire middle class, the top 10% own 90% of stocks, and BlackRock and other investment firms are buying up houses. It has been 83 weeks since “two weeks to flatten the curve.” Now, the question is not whether workers will accept temporary lockdowns, but rather, whether they will accept a permanent COVID-industrial-complex that continues to erode their quality of life.
John Deere is expected to see record-breaking earnings of between $5.7 billion and $5.9 billion this year, and the 10,000 UAW members now on strike hope to see their fair share of this windfall. Currently a total of 100,000 U.S. workers from John Deere, Kellogg’s, Warrior Met Coal, Kaiser Permanente, InstaCart, and many other companies are either on strike or have threatened to strike. Will this resurgent labor movement and the growing resistance to vaccine mandates be able to challenge the top-down class warfare of the COVID-19 era?
When “two weeks to flatten the curve” began, the workforce was split in two: Some were defined as “essential” workers, and others as “nonessential.” The “nonessential” ordered delivery from home while farmhands harvested crops, workers in meatpacking plants processed and packaged products, truckers shipped food across the country, cooks prepared dishes, Doordash “dashers” dropped off takeout on doorstops, and sanitation workers picked up the trash. This division allowed the professional class to be protected from exposure to the virus and set the stage for a two-tier society. These tiers are now upheld by medieval protocols that require service workers to remain masked while patrons show their bare faces, and by vaccine pass systems that disproportionately impact and exclude poor and working-class people, especially people of color.
In conjunction with this sharp class division, government assistance has often benefited the wealthy. In total, eligible Americans got $3,200 through three stimulus checks. However, the first stimulus bill, the CARES Act, provided 43,000 millionaires with $1.7 million each through a tax break, and the second stimulus bill included a $200 billion giveaway for the rich. The CARES Act also bailed out many corporations with few strings attached. In the case of the airline industry, for example, executives used taxpayer money to give themselves bonuses while laying off tens of thousands of employees.
This imbalance is part of what has fueled the ongoing worker revolt. A common theme in worker demands is that they have worked grueling and difficult jobs throughout the pandemic, in some cases barely making a living wage, while executives and shareholders hoard the profits. Another common theme is worker burnout and staffing shortages. In California 24,000 health care workers voted to authorize a strike, citing critical shortages in a third of the state’s hospitals. 78% of registered nurses in the U.S. have reported unsafe staffing conditions, and the NIH has found that increasing a nurse’s workload by just one patient raises the chance of patient mortality by 7%.
Staffing shortages have only been exacerbated by vaccine mandates. In New York state, 83,000 unvaccinated health care workers faced termination before a judge filed an injunction requiring the state to recognize religious exemptions. In the end the mandate reduced New York’s health care workforce by 34,000 workers, and New York’s governor has deployed the National Guard to replace staff in overwhelmed hospitals.
Perhaps the greatest impact of mandates could be on the trucking industry. A poll of truckers found that 26% of respondents would rather be fired than get the COVID-19 vaccine, and another 10% said they would quit before getting the vaccine. The American Truckers Association has come out strongly against vaccine mandates, with union President Chris Spear stating, “The first rule of any public health policy should be ‘do no harm.’ Unfortunately, these latest mandates and the unintended consequences they’ll create fall short of that standard.”
The consequences of a labor rebellion against artificially low wages and vaccine mandates may be even more profound during the winter ahead. Recent supply chain woes are caused by a combination of an energy crisis in China, the long-term effects of lockdowns, and a shortage of 80,000 truckers. These factors have created a feedback loop of backlogs and congestion, leaving nearly half a million containers and dozens of cargo ships waiting at Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, which handle 40% of inbound containers for the U.S., while hundreds of sailors are stranded at sea on cargo vessels that cannot be unloaded. American citizens are beginning to see the effects of this supply chain stress, with some school districts struggling to feed students, changing their lunch menus, and even considering remote learning due to food shortages.
In the midst of this looming crisis, many transportation, logistics, and frontline workers remain adamant that they will not relinquish their bodily autonomy. Over a third of Chicago’s police force has defied the city’s vaccine mandate, with the mayor accusing the union of attempting to “induce an insurrection” and threatening to withhold benefits from officers who opt to retire instead of getting vaccinated. Seventy-three unvaccinated school bus drivers were already forced to quit ahead of the first day of school in Chicago, resulting in lack of transportation for over 2,100 students. The city also faced off with unvaccinated teachers before finally giving up after 15% of school district employees refused to get vaccinated.
Similar chaos continues to brew in many parts of the country. Forty percent of TSA agents remain unvaccinated, as do hundreds of thousands of military personnel. About 12% of Washington state’s health care workers did not meet their vaccination deadline, hundreds of Los Angeles firefighters are now suing the city for $2 million each, and the San Francisco MTA warned of possible disruptions to transit. Southwest Airlines was recently forced to cancel over 2,000 flights in what was widely rumored to be a pilot “sick out” over the company’s vaccine mandate. Later, Southwest employees publicly protested the mandate, and the company has temporarily relented. Each local mandate battle ultimately contributes to a national high-stakes game of chicken that pits working people against a wealthy, increasingly authoritarian overclass.
The vaccine has provided the perfect pretext for ideological purges of major institutions and industries, but these purges may backfire. Currently, a considerable amount of human labor is still needed to keep society running. Although much of the pandemic response has resembled a controlled demolition, the potential for a transition to full automation, a rent-only economy, self-driving vehicles, and centralized biometric IDs has not yet been fully realized. As with countless ventures that come out of Silicon Valley, the capital and marketing plans have preceded many of the necessary technological developments.
For months, academics, scientists, managers, administrators, and journalists dismissed the hardships felt by essential workers as necessary to “save lives.” Now, after treating so many people as disposable pawns, the professionals who provided justifications for lockdowns and vaccine mandates may experience the repercussions of these policies in the form of strikes and shortages. If workers can create enough inconvenience for the intelligentsia and enough loss of revenue for corporations and elites, they may be able to gain some ground. While COVID-19 policies once served to undermine mass mobilization and organizing, a tight labor market is now providing a unique chance to reverse this trend.
Alex Gutentag (@galexybrane) is a writer and Tablet columnist based in California.