As Covid-19 infection rates gallop ahead and the creaking noises from the economy get louder it is clear that despite the ‘all in it together’ nonsense from politicians and the media, the capitalist class (the rich) are acting solely in their own interests.
A notable feature of the crisis has been the remarkable similarity in the approach of the various colours of capitalist government in Dublin, Stormont, Edinburgh, Westminster, and Cardiff. All are responding in broadly the same manner to the crisis. In a rerun of the hand out bonanza that followed the economic collapse of 2008, billions of pounds have been pumped in to big businesses to keep them afloat, hundreds of millions more have been squandered in awarding Covid-19 related contracts to substandard companies and the super-rich are continuing to make tax-free fortunes. Meanwhile the working class is finding that the various Covid-19 relief schemes are designed to cut pay and force them back to work without appropriate safety measures in place.
Alongside this transfer of untold billions of public monies to the capitalist class, their political representatives are presiding over a health disaster of mega proportions. On a world scale at least one million people have already died from Covid-19, but the real figure is likely to be much higher when underreporting in developing nations is considered. A new surge is likely to see this figure mushroom. At a local level, the various governments have been singularly unsuccessful in controlling the spread of C-19 and many deaths have followed.
Unquestionably the politicians were taken by surprise by the scale of the first wave, but even so, much more could have been done to save lives. What was lacking was the political will and an economy capable of addressing the issues. It has become clear that the so-called scientific evidence on which the governments base their decisions is in fact a balance between the needs of public health and the profit of the rich, with profit increasingly coming out the winner.
Now a new crisis is opening. It is a crisis of confidence in the scientific evidence, politicians, and the state. Repeated flip-flops on policy to suit economic interests, arrogant breaches of Covid regulations by the rich and the aggressive use of repressive powers under the cover of the virus have left an impression on the public. Inevitably this is reflected in a deep distrust of government and seething anger amongst ordinary people.
In many cases the only expression of resistance to this has been in the workplace through the mass organisations of the working class, the trade unions. Frequently they have been the only voice raised on behalf of beleaguered workers in the health service and other essential services. They have been playing a key role in attempting to stop the spread of the virus, protect workforces and mitigate the economic impact on workers. Without doubt the intervention of the unions has saved lives. But whilst they have played an important role within the workplaces, trade unions have not used their mighty weight to take the struggle to the bosses and the government and at times have played a deplorable role.
The cringe-worthy endorsement by the TUC in Britain of the Tories misnamed ‘Job Support Scheme’ and the stark failure by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to effectively mobilise the might of the movement to support over one thousand sacked Debenham’s workers are a new low. In part, this failure is a result of the stunning effect of Covid-19 and the shutdown of many of the trade unions’ democratic structures but it is also due to a lack of a real alternative to capitalism in the thinking of some lay trade union leaders and officials.
It is time for change. The trade unions must rise to the challenge of being the voice of workers and go on the offensive against the bosses. Failure to do so can allow dangerous anti-working-class forces to become a conduit for discontent. In the North, these are likely to be populist movements of either a sectarian green or orange hue. In the South, right-wing populist movements have already been able to ride the wave of discontent. They have gathered some of the more desperate sections of society to their banner. In addition, the detritus of fascist and extreme nationalist groupings are taking the opportunity to flex their muscle as well. Clearly, they can present a real danger in society if they remain unchecked and if an alternative is not provided.
If the union movement goes on the offensive with a fighting programme that not only prioritises safety but also counterpoises an alternative to the failed capitalist system, they will be able to lead successful struggles against the capitalist class and they can also cut the ground from under the feet of the populists and the far right. The movement should fight for a programme of workers’ rights including redundancy protection, pay increases, a cut in working hours without a loss of pay to ensure work for all and a safe return to work for those who can go back while ensuring shielding for those who need protection.
Alongside this, clear demands for the nationalisation, under democratic workers’ control and management, of key services and industries and of health and care services, education and all areas of business that are in receipt of handouts, would receive an echo from workers.
In addition, the trade union movement must step into the political vacuum. There is a crying need for a political strategy to replace the current bosses’ governments in Stormont, Dublin, Edinburgh, Westminster, and Cardiff. We need left governments made up of representatives who oppose all attacks on workers, including austerity and cuts to public spending, and who have track records of fighting against the bosses. A government with a programme to rebalance the economy based on a socialist model to provide for the needs of workers would be a rallying point for all working class people and would help to mitigate the worst effects of what is yet to come from the coronavirus.
These demands will not be gifted to working class people by appreciative and contrite capitalists. The rich will continue to defend their class interests and so the trade union movement and the working class must do the same. Industrial action including strikes, sympathy action, occupations and campaigning must become the order of the day and political action must be linked to mass struggle. Real concessions can be wrung from the bosses but only if workers fight for them through such struggles. In the final analysis, an end to poverty, homelessness and unnecessary deaths which are the hallmarks of the failed capitalist system will only be delivered through revolutionary change that sweeps it away and replaces it with a democratic socialist society.
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