The Tory government continues to ignore the lessons from the pandemic’s growing death toll in Italy, and ultimately it is the working-class, not Boris Johnson and his Eton buddies, who will pay the price for his failures… in the short-term anyway.
Last Friday the military were brought onto the streets of Italy to enforce a lockdown, all the while millions of workers continued working in unsafe factories, many producing completely non-essential items like designer shoes and handbags for Gucci.
This only changed on Saturday evening when after much pressure being brought to bear upon the Italian authorities by enraged citizens and trade unionists, the government finally declared a shut-down of all factories producing non-essential items.
But all is not well, and on Monday trade unions based in the epicentre of the Italian pandemic pointed out how the list of workplaces that can be exempt from the shut-down “has been excessively extended, covering areas of dubious importance” which has allowed firms “excessive discretion” to apply for exemptions.
Militant trade union action was the only tool left at hand to the Italian workers, hence the Lombardy branches of the three main metalworkers unions, FIOM, FIM and UILM, moved quickly to organise strike action. Although not widely heard about outside of the region, the New York Times (March 23) reported:
“In a joint statement, the trio of unions said workers in all factories not directly linked to the beleaguered health sector would down tools. Lombardy’s chemical workers said they would also stay home on March 25.
“’The decree allows a lot of firms to remain open, many without the proper guarantees and safety norms, creating conditions not agreed with us and fanning a lot of concern among workers,’ said Paolo Pirani, national head of the UILTEC chemical and textile workers’ union.
“Bank workers threatened a nationwide walkout, saying they were forced to work in unsafe conditions without masks, gloves and sufficient amounts of antiseptic gels. Several banks have already temporarily closed branches to sanitize them.” (“Italy’s Coronavirus Deaths Slow, Offering Glimmer of Hope,” New York Times, March 23)
The important strike was also pushed forward by the USB (Unione Sindacale di Base) which released a press statement on Monday stating that if the government refused to listen they would be forced to take matters into their own hands:
“For weeks now, the USB has asked the government to stop all non-essential production activities to safeguard the health and life of millions of workers forced to go to work every day, a request that has not been listened to despite the explosion of the coronavirus infection.
“Faced with this wicked choice of government, USB has launched the declaration of strike in all industrial companies, logistics, commerce, telecommunications etc.
“Even the latest government decree does not accept the need to stop all non-essential production activities, indeed, with a decree that seems written in the ink of Confindustria, it decides to leave most of the production and industrial activities open.
“In this scenario, with millions of workers who will be forced to go to work with the real risk of getting sick and bringing the virus to their homes, the USB Private Worker has decided to extend the strike and therefore proclaims a further 48 hours of strike throughout Italy and in all industrial companies and sectors not strictly necessary in order to stem the coronavirus.”
The importance of such collective displays of working-class militancy and solidarity cannot be underestimated, and such actions are now being replicated around the world. Needless to say this fightback against the greed of the billionaire-class was going on before the coronavirus pandemic struck, and will continue afterwards, as capitalist bosses have never been too keen on allowing workers’ rights to get in the way of their profiteering.
Yet the true extent of the Italian government’s ignorance in respect to protecting the lives of their own citizens seems to get worse by the day. Yesterday the Financial Times (March 26) carried a shocking report wherein an intensive-care doctor in Brescia, a city in Lombardy.
“I think we all have it here but they won’t test us, even if we display symptoms, which allows the spread to continue,” the doctor, who did not want to be named, told the Financial Times. “They are not testing the medical staff because we are understaffed and they can’t quarantine us. If things go on this way, this will never end because we will continue to spread the disease and to get sick.” (“Lombardy medics fight to save patients — and themselves,” Financial Times, March 26)
The scale of the capitalist-fuelled disaster was further highlighted by the grim statistic that 5,211 medical workers at tested positive for the virus, with a total of 33 dying. That is a death rate of 1 out of every 160 medical workers!
“The first thing to do is to protect healthcare workers, to make sure they are not the ones spreading the virus. Our doctors have been sent to war unarmed,” said Filippo Anelli, president of Italy’s national doctors’ association. “The dead do not make a noise. Yet, the names of our dead friends, our colleagues, put here in black and white, make a deafening noise.”
With more than 7,000 already confirmed dead from the virus in Italy, given the lack of testing being undertaken the actual death toll from the outbreak will be even higher. Giorgio Gori, the mayor of Bergamo, has stated that: “For each person who is deceased with a diagnosis of coronavirus, there are three others for whom this is not ascertained but who die of pneumonia.” This would put the current death toll nearer the 30,000 mark!
The response of British capitalists is not all that surprising. Take for instance Steve Rowe, the CEO of M&S whose person income is a whopping £1.7 million a year. When his employees at one of his distribution centres complained about the unsafe working conditions and the fact that they were still delivering non-essential products, Mr Rowe sent the following appalling message to his work force stating: “We know customers want to get the essentials they need – like PJs and slippers – and we absolutely should provide them.”
Quite evidently PJs and slippers are NOT essential products!
Workers lives are however essential to protect, but all Mr Rowe is capable of thinking of is protecting his own wealth – an action he would no doubt deem essential! That is why M&S workers and all other workers being forced to work distributing or producing non-essential should follow the lead take by Italian workers and demand that their unions take industrial action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
It is clear that capitalist bosses and their Tory friends will only listen to workers when they take matters into their own hands. This happened in Ireland on Wednesday when:
“Approximately 80 employees at ABP Meats in Lurgan who are deemed ‘essential’ refused work today over fears for their safety. Unite [the union] has been informed that the workers are demanding adequate social distancing of two metres be facilitated and enforced and other measures be adopted to keep workers as separated as possible and deep-cleans are conducted on work stations where workers have self-isolated with Coronavirus symptoms.”
While in another inspiring action that took place on the same day:
“Up to one thousand workers have walked out of the Seagoe Moy Park site in Portadown. This follows the failure of the biggest employer in Northern Ireland to provide basic health and safety protections to its workforce.”
Now the breaking news this morning is that sixty workers at Linden Foods in Dungannon are protesting outside their factory demanding safe conditions so they can carry out their essential work.
Capitalism is not fit for any purpose. That much has been clear for years, but the dangerous response to this current pandemic is making this fact more apparent to millions of people across the world. We deserve better! That is why later this evening workers from around the world will be joining an ONLINE RALLY organised by Socialist Alternative to find out more about socialists across the globe are already organising to bring about the socialist transformation of society.
“Quarantine capitalism – A socialist response to the coronavirus”: https://bit.ly/2J7sS6m
- Giuliano Bruneti, Resistenze Internazionali, ISA in Italy
- Jacqui B, ICU Nurse and Unison NEC (personal capacity)
- Claire Laker-Mansfield, Socialist Alternative – ISA England, Wales & Scotland Political Committee