May 1 is here, which means rents and mortgages are due, and tens of millions of Americans will be unable to pay.
Officially, thirty million people are newly unemployed. But the real number is higher, as government statistics fail to account for the 1.5 million-plus app-based drivers, other gig economy workers, independent contractors, and workers in the informal economy who have suddenly found themselves without work or income.
The COVID-19 pandemic began as a worldwide public health crisis, but here in America, where the social safety net has been shredded over the decades by leaders of both political parties, and where today the vast majority of residents lack even three months of savings, the crisis has quickly mushroomed into a housing and income emergency for tens of millions of Americans.
American political leaders and economic elites from Trump on down intone, “We’re all in this together,” as if forceful repetition will make it true.
No, we’re not all in this together.
While one-time federal relief checks arrive and quickly sieve through the fingers of millions of working class people, the combined wealth of America’s billionaires increased by $282 billion in the just first month of the pandemic lockdown, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.
The privatized, decentralized, profit-driven American healthcare scheme—you can’t honestly call it a system, because that would imply a level of national coherence that simply doesn’t exist—has proven itself to be manifestly incapable of mobilizing the scale of response needed, notwithstanding the tremendous heroics of frontline healthcare workers and scientists. Indeed, even while patients suffer and workers struggle with inadequate equipment, supplies, beds, and medicine, the healthcare profiteers are still angling to cash in on the misery.
There is a stark color line to the pandemic, too. In Georgia, where the governor blithely proceeds with “re-opening” the state in the face of scientific evidence that doing so will only worsen the crisis, African Americans are thirty-two percent of the population but fifty-six percent of the COVID victims. In Wisconsin, where less than seven percent of the population is Black, thirty-six percent of the coronavirus deaths are African American.
Meat processing plants, disproportionately staffed by low-wage immigrant workers, have become hotspots of COVID outbreaks. So far twenty meatpacking and food-processing workers have died of COVID, but last week, USA Today reported, “given the choice between worker safety and keeping meat on grocery shelves, the nation’s slaughterhouses will choose to produce food.” In other words, industry bosses will let workers die before they harm their profits.
The Democratic Party elite offer no countervailing blueprint. Democratic leaders obsequiously cling to healthcare and insurance industries that prize profits above people and a benefits structure that conditions access to care on tens of millions of jobs that no longer exist. They have no compunction handing out trillions to Wall Street while claiming, as Nancy Pelosi has, that there’s no money to fund a transition to Medicare for All. Their anointed nominee has assured rich donors that if he’s elected, “nothing would fundamentally change.” On this point, at least, you can believe Joe Biden.
Contrast this to the COVID response in other industrialized countries, where government payroll subsidies, nationalized healthcare systems, and relatively robust testing and tracing programs are making for a more coherent, if still far-from-perfect, response that is saving lives and lessening human misery.
If the COVID crisis has revealed anything about the state of America, it’s that we’re not “all in this together” in today’s gilded age. The rich and powerful will take care of themselves, as they always have. So, the rest of us must band together and fight for our interests. Working people increasingly recognize that and have begun to organize in new, creative, and militant ways.
May Day has become a national kickoff for the #RentStrike movement.
Under the banner, “No job? No rent!” Sami Bourma and hundreds of tenants at the Southern Towers in Alexandria, Virginia, most of whom are immigrants and many already practiced in organizing as members of Unite Here Local 23, are organizing a rent strike. They are demanding rent relief now, landlord-paid improvements to the buildings, and a commitment to tie future rent to tenant income.
In Seattle, tenants at one building controlled by a large property management company, Cornell and Associates, signed up a majority of their building-mates on a set of demands and took them public. They had help from City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who sponsored an online #RentStrike town hall, featuring the tenant activists. [Disclosure: I work as a community organizer for Sawant.] The ensuing media attention has led tenants at other Cornell and Associates buildings to begin to organize around similar demands.
The tenants at Southern Towers and Cornell and Associates are geographic bookends of a national wave of rent resisters.
What will build this wave is tenant solidarity around longer-term demands that go beyond simply not paying the rent, and an unwavering commitment to tenant-by-tenant, building-by-building organizing. A rent strike won’t succeed if it’s merely a cathartic reaction to the economic crisis.
Where is this headed? As Mordechai Lyon wrote recently in the Boston Review, “one tenant withholding rent will almost certainly be evicted, but if an entire building strikes, tenants may well get the landlord to cede to their demands. So, what if an entire country goes on rent strike? That’s uncharted territory.”
Workers at Amazon, Instacart, big box retailers Walmart and Target, and FedEx also are planning May Day worksite strike actions, demanding pay for time off, hazard pay for going to work, protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and corporate honesty in reporting worksite COVID cases. As with the #RentStrike movement, success will depend on basic one-on-one organizing that builds to majority actions. The demonstrations this past month at warehouses, stores, and other workplaces, while modest in size, have laid a promising foundation. Increasingly, workers recognize they have to act, because neither industry, nor government, nor mainstream political leaders are coming to their rescue.
All of these spring uprisings are the promising seeds of a formidable new movement, one that recognizes that our power lies in uniting workers, tenants, small business owners, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants, and more, to act collectively to force concessions from the wealth-hoarding elites.
We have been here before, as a people. It must have been dismal in the winter of 1930, with tens of millions out of work, homeless, hungry, and despondent after Wall Street speculators crashed the world economy.
But desperation also is the incubator of new alliances, bold demands, creative tactics, and a deeper understanding of power and class and the need to act. In the years that followed Black Friday in 1929, mass movements in the US of veterans, the unemployed, industrial workers, and farmers—led by socialists, communists, and other radicals—waged militant struggles and wrested historic wins from the political elites. They fought for and won Social Security, union rights, minimum wages, jobs programs, public housing, and more.
And yes, that organizing took years and unmeasured blood, sweat, and tears. But if we look at harnessing the energy of today, at uniting the workplace and community struggles born of the necessity of the present moment, we can imagine a powerful new movement that demands a reordering of society to put people and the planet before private profit.
This spring is a time of death, anxiety, and sadness. Most of us know someone who has succumbed to the coronavirus. But it’s also a time of great possibility. What happens this May Day and in the weeks to follow, in workplaces and community around the country, should give us all hope that out of the ashes of this pandemic we can see the possibility of building a powerful movement to force the radical change that this country, and the world, so desperately need.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum works as a community organizer for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017), and a member of the National Writers Union/UAW 1981. Find him online at https://jonathanrosenblum.org/ or Twitter: @jonathan4212.