Towards a Transitional Programme for the Working Class in COVID-19 Times

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By Barry Weisleder

World War 1 spawned the Russian Revolution, the Winnipeg General Strike, and spurred union recognition.  Following World War 2, out of the debris of fascism and holocaust, the industrial unions, the labour-based NDP, and the welfare state emerged.  What will be the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic?  Qualitatively enhanced class consciousness and greater social responsibility, or regression to capitalist austerity?

Sombre facts define the dawn of a new era.  The current plague, the fourth in less than two decades (SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2011, Ebola in 2014-16), won’t be the last.  It plunged the world into a Great Depression.  Stock markets tanked. Unemployment skyrocketed.  As of April 18, six million Canadians applied for emergency federal aid.  It’s unprecedented.

The reflex of the vast majority of people is to seek remedial action from….who?  Giant corporations?  Big banks?  The Business Council of Canada?  No.  They expect the government to act, to cushion the blow, to spend massively so that lives may be saved.

Reform-minded journalists, like Erica Ifill and Les Whittington, writing in The Hill Times, separately observed: “Market fundamentalism is dead.  We are all socialists now.”  This is a gross exaggeration, to be sure.  So then, why does it resonate with millions of people?

Because capitalism is exposed as a feckless and fraught system that utterly dooms humanity.  The private profit world order has shrivelled biodiversity, pauperized billions of people and is speeding the train to climate catastrophe.  In response to enormous pressure from below, bumbling capitalist regimes either improvise massive (but inadequate) spending programs and slowly move to restore health care services that should never have been cut — or they just deny pandemic reality.

A case in point is the scandalous situation in long term care facilities.  Over 80 per cent of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes, where aged and vulnerable residents live and eat in close proximity to each other, and where staff have been carriers or become infected.  At one care centre in Dorval, Quebec provincial health officials forcibly entered to discover many seniors utterly abandoned, de-hydrated, and laying in a fetid swamp of their urine and feces.  Quebec and Ontario requested the Canadian Armed Forces to send medical personnel, in an effort to save imperilled folks from a grisly end.

In late April 2020, the Ontario Nurses’ Association won a temporary injunction at the Ontario Superior Court.  It gives nurses the right to decide which personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed when working in long-term care homes with COVID-19, and the power to enforce infection control measures, such as keeping residents with COVID separate from those not infected, in places like Eatonville Care Centre in Etobicoke where dozens of seniors have died.

But questions persist.  Why is the long-term care sector so unregulated?  Why was inspection of facilities so radically reduced in recent years?  Was the top priority the maximization of private profit?  Is that why most personal care workers are paid low wages, limited to part-time hours, without benefits, without sufficient protective gear, forcing many to labour in multiple settings, even at the risk of spreading disease?  Could this infernal arrangement be the result of political lobbying by the major shareholders of Katasa Groupe Developers, which owns Maison Heron in Dorval, or Revera Inc., Extendicare, Centric Health Corp., Sienna Senior Living, Chartwell, and Vigil Health Solutions, just to name a few of the biggest players in the field?  Moreover, why the hell is any long-term care service in the hands of private, for-profit operators?  Is it because the sick and the aged no longer produce surplus value?  Does that make them/us expendable?

The demand for nationalization here is obvious.  It coincides with the call for public ownership of major enterprises, including the pharmaceutical industry, Big Oil and Gas, giant banks, and the telecoms.  Urgently needed is democratic control of the land development and construction firms (to enable the creation of social housing on a mass scale).  Socialization of the monopoly retail chains (for re-distribution of their super-profits), and agribusiness (to prioritize healthy food and ecological farming methods) is a necessity.  Sharing the trillions in wealth of the huge mining and forestry firms, and reducing the military to a domestic disaster relief and rescue role, will fund free public transit.  It will finance free post-secondary education, along with provide a generous reinvestment in public health and schools.

The present situation is so ‘novel’ and so compelling that it demands an elaboration of a set of demands and proposals, a Transitional Programme for the Working Class in COVID-19 Times, towards which the following is but a modest contribution.

More than ever it is clear that capitalism is a dying system that threatens to destroy nature and humanity.  What should we call it when capitalist governments cut funding to public health services and medical research?  When they fail to provide protective gear?  When they decry the shortage of staff at for-profit Long-Term Care centres, while brave personal care workers and cleaners are limited to part-time hours, low pay and no benefits?  What is it when the rulers close borders to starving millions displaced by wars and climate change caused by the G7?  Let’s not mince words.  It is MURDER.  Mass murder, rooted in the capitalist system.

But there is an alternative to this genocidal system – a rational, democratic, humanistic and cooperative alternative:  Socialism.  To achieve socialism, it is vital that we advance concrete transitional demands to increase the confidence and capacity of the working class to achieve change, to win power.

Socialist Action demands a decent living wage for every adult, regardless their immigration status – with no cuts to social programs and special benefits, and no privatization of public services.  Jobs for all can be achieved by reducing the hours of work, without loss of pay and benefits.  Put a halt to contract employment. End the gig economy. Enforce the right to refuse unsafe work with no loss in pay.  Guarantee the right to sue bosses for injuries due to boss negligence.

Provide unemployment insurance at a living wage level with no cut off.  Substantially raise the rates on welfare and housing allowance.  Ensure a living wage for people on disability and support programmes.  Institute full Canada Pension and Old Age Security payments at age 55, and at double the present rate. Require employers to pay all CPP and EI contributions. These are not taxes but deferred wages.

No one should have to buy their health care or medications. Nationalize Big Pharma.  Bring all Long-Term Care facilities into public ownership.  Incarceration is a pandemic death sentence.  Release prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes now.

The Ontario Health Coalition has exposed the criminal extent of the cuts to funding and beds within the hospital system. Given the impact of the virus on a weakened health care system, it is vital that the health network and hospitals be restored and improved.

There is stark fear of a ‘tsunami of evictions’ after the lockdown.  This cannot be permitted.  Our demands must be clear.

Freeze residential rents and mortgage payments.  No evictions.  No cut-off of heat, electricity, water, or inter net service.  Cancel student debt.  Make post-secondary education free.  Expropriate the big landlords and the construction/land development corporations.  Build quality social housing on a mass scale.  Learn from the brilliant example of Venezuela.

Freedom of communication, especially vital at a time like this, means putting an end to bandwidth limits, long distance phone fees, restricted minutes and exclusionary paywalls.  Nationalize the telecoms!

Tax the rich.  Expropriate the big banks, the giant oil and gas corporations.  No state bail-outs for private corporations without public ownership.  Seize ‘dead’ capital sitting idle in offshore and domestic bank accounts.  Use these resources to fund mass testing for COVID-19, to develop a vaccine against it, and to encourage farmers to grow healthy food.  Reduce credit card interest rates to zero.  Outlaw Pay Day loan sharks.  Transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear fission.  Move rapidly to green, sustainable energy systems, under public ownership and workers’ control.  Forward with socialist measures!  We will not go back to pre-COVID days!

Socialist Action remains opposed to Universal Basic Income as a solution to the present crisis.  In the April 12 edition of Canadian Dimension magazine OCAP-founder John Clarke observed, “As a social policy end run around the dominant regressive agenda, the UBI project fails to challenge low wage precarious work or the degrading of the social infrastructure, asking only for a basic payment provided out of general revenues, and it is taken on faith that the adequacy of this can somehow be assured.

“If UBI were to be implemented, progressive hopes would quickly be dashed on the rocks of neoliberal reality. It will take the form of a meagre payment that functions as an effective subsidy to low wage employers and that replaces, rather than complements, other elements of social provision. As public services are gutted and privatized, basic income recipients will find themselves shopping in the rubble of the social infrastructure with its cash replacement. In the period following the pandemic, when austerity and wage cutting are widespread and a ruthless drive to restore rates of profit and pay the bill for corporate bailouts gets underway, UBI would be an even more lethal weapon in the neoliberal arsenal.”

Under the present mode of production, it is capitalism for the poor, and socialism for the rich.  It must be replaced by a cooperative commonwealth, a genuine economic democracy – a goal the rich and powerful will resist tooth and nail.  Only a socialist revolution, led by a mass revolutionary workers’ party deeply rooted in the majority class, can crash the barriers erected by the rich elite.  Only in that way can the full potential of humanity be released, in harmony with nature.

The fight to win anti-austerity and eco-socialist policies takes place on many fronts, including in the unions and the NDP.  Inside the workers’ movement we face agents of the bourgeoisie.  We face the labour lieutenants of Capital, the union and NDP bureaucrats who collaborate with the bosses, vote for cutbacks, vote for military spending, condone sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba, and prop up the rotten capitalist system.  They put personal careers ahead of the interests of the working class as a whole.  They undermine the political independence of workers at every step.  Pro-business bureaucrats must be replaced by class conscious workers. Workers will develop class consciousness only in the fight against the bosses, and in the fight against the agents of the bosses.

That is why Socialist Action is engaged in struggles inside the mass working class organizations.  Few groups that claim to be socialist do that.  Most stand on the sidelines, talking to themselves.  For Socialist Action, building a disciplined working class party inside our class is the heart of our strategy for revolutionary change.  So, we fight for socialist policies and we run candidates for executive office in unions and the NDP.

When the postal workers’ union began rotating strikes in Fall 2018 to win pay equity and postal banking, Justin Trudeau ordered an end to the job action.  Socialist Action helped to organize mass solidarity pickets that shut some major plants.  That’s when the ranks of labour should have been unleashed on the lying Liberals.

When General Motors in Oshawa, which got billions from Ottawa in 2009, announced in 2018 that it would close its plants, UNIFOR brass should have spurred auto workers to occupy the assembly line and demand expropriation of GM.  When Thug Ford cut health services, increased school class size, slashed legal aid, and dumped environmental protection, it was time to Dump Thug Ford with a General Strike.  So, with our allies in the Workers’ Action Movement, we ran candidates for president and vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Labour convention on a General Strike platform and got 36 per cent of the votes!

An indispensable component of a Transitional Programme for COVID-19 times is a commitment to build a class struggle left wing that will shatter bureaucratic control of the unions and the NDP.  To fight imperialism.  To keep the bloody hands of Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland off Venezuela. To Boycott Israeli Apartheid.  To campaign to expropriate the natural resource pirates.  To recognize that there will be No Reconciliation Without Restitution to Indigenous people.  To establish a Workers’ Government to lead the transition to socialism.  We fight to win!  The enemy is capitalism.  Our banner is the world socialist revolution!

On April 8, the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily, editorialized for an “industrial policy”. It pointed out that a commitment to “free markets and unfettered globalization…left Canada scrambling for crucial medical equipment, relying on factories halfway around the world.”  The Star rarely misses a chance to wrap its threadbare reform policy in the Canadian flag.  Really needed is a democratically planned economy, with workers’ control extending from Canada, to the USA and the world.  Clearly, the prospect of a global socialist revolution is not imminent.  But the idea of it is glimmering on the horizon, born of necessity, as the working class grapples with the pandemic, and prepares for its aftermath.

The present crisis is pregnant with opportunity and danger. Recall that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ embodies both ideas. On the one hand, dangerous emergency measures give Capital and the far-right opportunities to rule by decree, step up racial profiling, surveillance and confinement, and bolster fascist mob violence (evident in India and the USA).  They may make border closures permanent, and violate labour agreements, Indigenous rights and environmental regulations.  Economic depression can be used as a weapon to curb demands for equality, including between the global North and South, and to privatize more public services.

At the same time, the survival of capitalism requires collective action (bailouts, stimulus measures) that business is not normally willing to concede.  This creates an opportunity for workers who understand that instead of trying to save the capitalist economy, just to have it repeat the post-2008 scenario, we should fight to transform the economy.  We should strive to confront the health and climate crises with democratic and socialist policies.

How?  Extend the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).  Act on palpably reduced air pollution by moving rapidly to replace fossil fuel with green energy generation.  See the industrial re-tooling that now enables the manufacture of more ventilators and PPE as an irreversible step towards planned production on the widest scale to meet human needs, not to serve private profit.  Turn government subsidized research for a COVID-19 vaccine into a publicly-owned pharmaceutical industry.

Some homeless people are being allocated rooms in empty hotels.  Free childcare is provided to front-line health workers in need.  Good.  But why just now?  Good quality housing, food, childcare, education and mass transit – these are rights and necessities, not privileges.  They must be enhanced, made permanent.  It’s time to organize in work places, unions, NDP district associations, social justice movements and in local communities to demand rapid progress, and beyond that, to insist on revolutionary change towards a society fit for human beings.

The prime directive is simple:  We Refuse to Go Back to pre-COVID times!