Frontline Healthcare Workers Are Becoming Socialists

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“Seeing coworkers die due to greed radicalizes.” Frontline healthcare workers in the United States are becoming critical of capitalism. Révolution Permanente, our sister site in France, spoke with four healthcare workers in New York City and Washington, D.C.: Mike Pappas, Tre Kwon, Jillian Primiano, and Shreya Mahajan are members of Left Voice.

Healthcare workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island on May 1. Photo: Luigi Morris

For the last few weeks, healthcare workers in the United States have organized walkouts, rallies, and a national day of action. They are fighting against the poor working conditions in hospitals and the lack of personal protective equipment. How were these actions organized? How did mostly local initiatives turn into a national event? 

Mike Pappas: While it could seem like these protests came out of nowhere, the actions you saw spring up around New York City were the natural result of organizing that began before the pandemic. Just over a year ago, nurses at five hospitals in NYC nearly went on strike after a campaign to demand safer staffing in hospitals. Many of the most militant organizers from this effort were crucial to organizing actions during the pandemic. Ultimately hospitals, along with union bureaucrats, put the bottom line of the hospitals over the health of the general public and did not provide safe staffing. But the organizers continued to communicate after these actions around the need for a healthcare system that put the health of the public over the profits of corporate executives. 

As the current Covid-19 pandemic spread throughout the country, healthcare workers again witnessed how the for-profit healthcare system, along with the capitalist economic system, was unable to respond. Frontline workers, already putting their lives at risk, were being more exposed due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies that should never be in shortage, especially in a country that allows an individual with a net worth of over $100 billion to exist. Hospitals, already short staffed due to years of “cost saving” measures, were near collapse from the influx of patients. This helped to further expose the system and drive healthcare workers to action. As they say, “the boss is the best organizer.”

Nurses and other healthcare workers began organizing actions calling attention to the lack of PPE and other supplies in their hospitals. These actions then led, in some cases, to larger critiques of the for-profit healthcare system and the economic system as a whole. At our hospital, we created the Covid-19 Frontline Workers’ Task Force to serve as a voice for workers who are putting our lives on the line during this outbreak. We thought it important that this task force extend beyond nurses and doctors and include other essential workers such as food service workers whose exploitation is crucial to hospitals’ continued functioning.

Tre Kwon: As the virus spread, the media published reports of other workers, such as warehouse workers at Amazon or meat packing workers, being exposed to the virus. I think this helped healthcare workers to draw the conclusion that it was necessary to stand alongside other essential workers forced to sacrifice themselves at the altar of capital. This culminated in healthcare workers, transit workers, and warehouse workers all standing together on International Workers Day at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island. Actions took place across the country to call attention to how the failures of systems had led to the crisis. 

We believe the type of cross-sectoral organizing seen on May Day will be crucial to not just confront Covid-19, but also to challenge the economic system that created this crisis in the first place. While our Covid-19 Frontline Workers Task Force may be temporary, we hope to continue beyond Covid-19 and organize groups of essential workers who strive to fight the bosses and win more control over their workplaces and run their organizations in a democratic manner. We can only speculate where this will lead, but we hope to help contribute to a movement challenging the capitalist economic system that is destroying our planet and, now during the pandemic, sending people to die at their workplaces. 

Since this national day of action, the tension in the medical sector has not subsided. In addition to demanding better working conditions, many healthcare workers had to take actions against the anti-lockdown demonstrations, with nurses physically blocking vehicles of right-wing protesters. Images of workers struggling for their demands or against fascist reaction are not that common in the United States. Do you think it is only the urgency of the situation that makes your colleagues so combative or are there other reasons for this? 

Mike Pappas: As touched upon above, healthcare workers have felt the burden as systems in the United States continually try to cut costs in order maximize profits. This is all occurring against the backdrop of a looming climate collapse while the rich continue to become richer. This reality became stark and palpable for healthcare workers even if we’re always told, “you are doing the work” — providing healthcare in itself is “the work” and good enough. Furthermore, during the pandemic we were told hundreds of times that we are “heroes.” But all the lavish praise can’t conceal the lack of response from the government to contain the pandemic and to provide us adequate equipment. While private hospitals and other corporations in the healthcare sector only care about their bottom line, for those in the frontlines, seeing coworkers die due to greed radicalizes. I think this has pushed many to action who typically would not come out. Covid-19 puts healthcare workers in life-or-death situation that other people experience on a daily basis, but was previously largely unknown to healthcare workers

Struggles for better working conditions and protective equipment in the context of the pandemic does not only occur in the healthcare sector. Strikes have sprung up in the logistics sector, particularly at Amazon. These struggles are directed against management negligence in the health crisis but also seem to be linked to capitalist exploitation. Are the demands of these sectors similar to those of healthcare workers? 

Shreya Mahajan: When we step outside the silos of our particular industries and strip aside shallow value-judgements that place one worker as alien from another, we find a common struggle and a common experience of exploitation. We are popularly deemed “essential workers” and yet are simultaneously the most disposable. This pandemic truth cuts across the healthcare sector and the shipping, food production, transportation, and retail sectors. The Covid-19 crisis has laid capitalist exploitation bare. The blatant disregard for PPE and other safety measures in workplaces dispels any illusions of partnership or reconciliation with the capitalist class. Amazon workers and healthcare workers share some of the same immediate demands which brings the potential for an organic solidarity.

Amazon walkouts and work stoppages have elevated the labor movement as a whole. 

Some of the initial fights in Amazon have been around the callous refusal to test workers with likely virus exposure or to shut down production despite the risk of mass infection. Hospitals have similarly obscured which staff are sick and there has been no contact tracing in these high-risk workplaces. Both hospitals and warehouses require employees to be in contact with many people. These are dangerous conditions that are not assuaged by measly hazard and bonus pay. In the face of this, “essential workers” have impossible decisions to make: prioritize your health and that of your family or maintain a certain economic security. In short, it boils down to risking your life for the bosses’ dollars. This shared disgust becomes shared rage unleashed against a system as its most ugly face is exposed.

The parallels between workers in these different sectors is not only in the immediate fight for PPE. Working conditions in hospitals for healthcare workers mimic conditions in Amazon factories and warehouses. Missed breaks, long hours, brutal night shifts, high rates of workplace injury, and severe understaffing are the norm for both industries prior to the pandemic.

Chronic understaffing alongside increasing demands for “efficiency” is a common practice in these privatized sectors — overwork less staff to produce more. In an economic crisis, the practice of “running lean” is even more acutely felt as swathes of workers are fired and furloughed. The remaining employed are forced to labor in more dangerous conditions with greater work demands. 

Our safety and really our lives as workers — whether in healthcare or Amazon — are considered expendable, while profit is most carefully preserved and relentlessly extracted. But there is also a growing consciousness that society depends on various essential workers for survival. We are a powerful and large force, and both the functioning of society and capitalist profits are dependent on our labor. 

On May Day, it was very encouraging to see workers from different sectors at a Staten Island warehouse expressing their solidarity with Amazon workers. How was this action organized? What are the next steps in linking different sectors? 

Jillian Primiano: Healthcare workers from Left Voice in NYC have attended actions at Amazon in Staten Island, in front of NYPD headquarters in Manhattan, on Wall Street, and outside of the ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in addition to PPE demonstrations at hospitals. We organize with other healthcare workers who also come to these events through WhatsApp — some groups are new and some existed before Covid-19.

The Amazon action was organized around Chris Smalls, who led the first Amazon walkout in Staten Island and was subsequently fired. Chris Smalls promoted it on Twitter and it was also promoted by the Transit Workers Union (TWU). There was not a successful walkout of employees but there were a lot of healthcare workers and media coverage. John Ferretti, a vocal socialist from the TWU, some teamsters, and a Google employee also attended. An Amazon VP resigned “in solidarity” the next week, and Chris Smalls has since done interviews with 60 Minutes and other media. Chris Smalls also attended two actions by the nurses’ union, including one in front of Wall Street, showing labor solidarity. 

The NYPD action was organized by a new group called Until Freedom which seems to be birthed out of Black Lives Matter (BLM). We actually didn’t know who had organized it when we showed up — we found the flyer on social media and showed up in solidarity. These types of protests tend to be subject to police violence, so we feel it is strategic and important to have a presence of healthcare workers. We stood between police and protestors at one point as a “human shield” — it’s much harder for cops to arrest a “health care hero” than a person of color protesting against police brutality.

The ICE detention center action was a 24-hour vigil — one of many vigils organized by Doctors for Camp Closure. Left Voice members attended and along with other healthcare workers we performed a “die in.”

The next steps will include further networking and political organizing with leftist healthcare workers. Right now, attending actions is a good way to network because only the most dedicated show up. Many attending are interested in cross-movement solidarity. We will use the trust and public sympathy for healthcare workers to shine light on other workers and movements. We will continue to stay in touch with contacts to develop relationships and build solidarity between workers.

Over the last few years, the United States has seen an upsurge in strikes, with a combativeness that has often challenged the union bureaucracy. Is this the case with the recent actions? How are union members involved? And what is the role of the union bureaucracy? 

Tre Kwon: Our experience with the nurses’ union in New York has been that they sometimes support the actions that rank-and-file workers organize at their hospitals, but they fail to coordinate those actions and organize something bigger. Moreover, in those hospitals where the union bureaucracy blocks any kind of mobilization, like at Mount Sinai Hospital where I work, they have not stepped in to allow members to protest the atrocious working conditions. So at best, they are trailing behind rank-and-file initiatives, and they are definitely refusing to take the role of coordinating and uniting these struggles, which for this reason remain isolated hospital by hospital.

At Amazon, there is no union, so actions are organized either by small groups of workers or by underground networks of Amazon employees that are trying to unionize. 

Then at the national level, we have seen union leaders like the national secretaries of CWA, AFT, SEIU, and the Teamsters praising companies for securing safe conditions for their members. It’s a disgrace and a great example of why labor is so weak and disorganized in the United States today. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw workers at GM and other car factories walking out their jobs in wildcat actions and forcing the plants to shut down. Teachers in New York started calling in sick as they saw the inaction of government and the union bureaucracy of the UFT, forcing the New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to cancel classes. Other, smaller wildcat strikes took place across other sectors, but they mostly go under the radar. I think it is likely that we see more wildcat strikes and rebellions against the leaderships of some unions as the economy reopens. 

In France, comrades have been able to discuss with their colleagues about questions that seem far removed from workers’ normal concerns, such as workers’ control over working conditions and production. Is it the case in your workplaces? Is it possible to call yourself a socialist where you work ? 

Jillian Primiano: Resentment against the bosses is high, and I have found it easy to turn a conversation about crisis pay for healthcare, for example, into a conversation about capitalism. It has been easy to turn a conversation about PPE into a conversation about worker’s rights across sectors or even workers’ control of certain key industries. I think that the extremes of the coronavirus have caused the most unsolicited socialist rhetoric I have ever heard at work. Awareness of the conditions of the working class is at an all time high. So it is easier to claim to be a socialist, but people don’t always know what that means. On the one hand, the rise of Bernie Sanders and his campaign has popularized the term, but at the same time, what he proposes are New Deal policies, or a soft version of social democracy. That’s why it’s important to clarify what we are talking about when we say we are socialists. We are talking about socializing the ownership of all factories, companies, distribution networks, about a planned economy that aims to satisfy the needs of society and not to increase the profits of a few billionaires.

What about Left Voice? Did the campaigns help to broaden your readership?

Mike Pappas: We broke our records in April, reaching a quarter million visits to our website. Our readership has increased dramatically over the last year, from around 40,000 visits at the beginning of 2019 to over 250,000 now. Left Voice has also gained recognition as a militant publication that intervenes in the frontlines of the struggle. Some of us have been featured in interviews with CBS, BBC, MSNBC, and many more, spreading the message of workers’ self-organization and an anti-capitalist take on the ongoing crisis. This has indirectly benefited the publication and helped attract new collaborators and political activists that are interested in working with Left Voice.

This interview was conducted by Igor Krasno from Révolution Permanente.

First published in French on May 24 in RP Dimanche.

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Révolution Permanente

Révolution Permanente

Our French sister site, part of the international network of La Izquierda Diario