Britney Spears shared a graphic created by writer Mimi Zhu in an Instagram post March 24 that, among other things, called for a general strike in response to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Given that thousands of Instacart shoppers and roughly 100 Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island began striking Monday, it appears that at least some workers agree. A living wage, paid sick leave and a sanitary work environment are things that workers across the country should have access to all the time, and this pandemic has only emphasized how vital these resources really are, not only to the workers but to society as a whole.
The U.S. desperately needs a dismantling of its profiteering and oligarchic institutions through a general strike so that systems can be put in place that empower working people and set the value of human life higher than that of increasing profits. The only clear way to achieve this goal, other than an actual revolution, is for workers across the country to unite in a nationwide general strike that gives workers the ability to not only make demands of their respective employers but also of Congress and the White House.
Union membership in the United States has been declining since the 1980s, with only 10.3% of American workers belonging to unions. The annual number of yearly work stoppages, or strikes, has also decreased. In 1980, more than 150 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers took place, but that number shrank to 11 strikes in 2014. Recent mass strikes, however, such as those conducted by educators in many states over the last few years, have shown that striking workers still hold immense power.
It is important for workers engaging in massive strikes to have the support of their communities behind them, something that was key to the success of teacher strikes across the country. When workers are seen to be fighting for not only themselves but also those that benefit from their services, they create broader support for their demands and make it that much harder for those in power to turn them down.
The COVID-19 outbreak has made the value of essential workers abundantly clear. Not only do we rely on these workers for medical care, the distribution of necessities, public services and care for those who are unable to care for themselves to keep our society running smoothly year round, but we also trust and rely on them to continue doing so even during national emergencies.
Without these workers providing vital services, stay-at-home orders and social distancing recommendations would quite literally be infeasible, and we would have no way to flatten the virus’s curve.
It is unfathomable that the very workers who are now rightfully being called invaluable were, before the crisis, not deemed worthy of a living wage or paid sick leave. What is even more unfathomable, however, is that even as factory workers, grocers and service providers risk their lives to continue doing their jobs, companies such as Amazon and Instacart are refusing to meet the demands of their employees, even on matters like sanitation policy.
Though a general strike would be a major disruption to the economy as we know it, it wouldn’t necessarily shut the country down in the way that some might imagine.
In 1919, for example, union members in Seattle orchestrated a major strike in which they walked off the job and then, instead of allowing the city to break down into chaos, took a major role in providing necessary services to their communities by opening food distribution centers, which served as many as 30,000 meals a day, and relying on a community-based public safety system that actually resulted in a decrease in crime levels during the strike.
Just because a strike entails workers walking out of their jobs, it doesn’t mean they stop providing essential services altogether.
It is time for American workers to unite in a general strike that serves as both a reminder of the inherent power labor has over the country’s economic production and a demand that, at the very least, all workers are provided with a living wage and that the United States joins every other major country on Earth in providing some sort of paid leave for its workers.
Though a multimillionaire like Spears is an unexpected ally to the labor movement, her solidarity alongside working people is likely appreciated, because the conditions of many workers across the country are, like the title of her 2004 hit song, toxic.
Jerrett Alexander (he/him) is a freshman studying international relations and environmental sustainability. He sits on the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.