The Coronavirus and Workers’ Democracy

The massive concentration of wealth and power at the apex of American society is not just obscene from the abstract standpoint of justice. It is a threat to our common health. 

Amazon employees hold a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

Like virtually every large American corporation in the coronavirus pandemic, the industrial conglomerate General Electric (GE) is laying off workers. GE executives justify their decision to fire 2,600 workers as necessary given the abrupt plunge in demand for the jet engines the company manufactures, brought about by the air industry’s near collapse.

In two separate silent protests this week, standing six feet apart, GE workers at a plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, and at the firm’s Boston headquarters, demanded another solution: the conversion of GE’s jet engine factories to make ventilators.

This is a story of two corporate divisions. GE Healthcare Systems is a major producer of ventilators, now in scandalously and dangerously short supply. GE Aviation workers, represented by the union IUE-CWA, argue that conversion of their plants to ventilator production is wholly feasible and would substantially increase GE’s capacity to meet the moment.

“If GE trusts us to build, maintain, and test engines which go on a variety of aircraft where millions of lives are at stake, why wouldn’t they trust us to build ventilators?” asked Jake Aguinaga, president of IUE-CWA Local 86004 in Arkansas City, Kansas, where more than half the workforce has been laid off and giant factory space lies idle.

The answer, of course, is that GE does not want the expense of converting and then reconverting factories that might benefit from eventual military contracts, even if they lie useless now.

This pandemic has revealed corporate structures that care more about profit than the well-being of their workers and the public, while workers creatively think about how to defeat the virus.

We see this in the Amazon workers striking to demand safe workplace conditions at fulfillment facilities.

We see this in nurses, doctors, and nursing home employees, heroically tending to the ill, who have been fired for speaking out about their managements’ lack of supplies, planning, and coordination.

As the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) taught a generation of us, health crises are social crises in need of political solutions.

There has been much suitable recent commentary about how invocation of the Defense Production Act could have impelled, coordinated, and ramped up production to meet the COVID-19 threat; about how the pandemic shows the need for universal health care and universal paid sick leave; and about how the idiocy emanating daily from a White House autocratic in pretensions but buffoonishly incompetent in its practice has resulted in delay, the spreading of erroneous information, and the certitude of vast numbers of deaths.

These points are all valid, but what is missing from the conversation is the perspective that this crisis shows a need to radically restructure our society so that workers gain more power over the conditions of their lives.

The massive concentration of wealth and power at the apex of American society is not just obscene from the abstract standpoint of justice. It is a threat to our common health.

A society organized from the bottom up, with democratic workplace structures, would have arrived more quickly at sensible decisions about how to protect us all.

There are many ways to accomplish a more democratic workplace life and to embed democracy in institutional decision-making, from worker ownership to workers’ councils to elected institutional leadership from below in place of shareholder-board accountability. Unions that offer a countervailing power to management are another piece of the puzzle.

Many debates can be had over the best means to achieve a greater degree of workers’ control and a more democratic economy. The point, however, is to experiment — to organize, protest, strike, all to compel new structures that can foster a transcendence of the neoliberal order, with its totalitarian workplaces justified by “the free market.”

As the workers at GE and Amazon — the former unionized, the latter rebels without union representation — have both shown in the past two weeks, the only way toward a more democratic work life, whatever it may exactly look like, is the organization, mobilization, and assertion of workers themselves.

We need a political revolution. We also need a workers’ democracy.