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A global pandemic? In this economy?

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By Ian Firstenberg

The early stages of the coronavirus pandemic have shown us how crucial a robust guarantee of health justice is for workers. 

As the coronavirus spread from a crisis to a pandemic, countries began taking unprecedented steps to quell a burgeoning disaster and hopefully lower a sizable death toll. Thus far, testing in America is not widely accessible, treatment is sparse at best and workers around the country are risking their safety, providing a modicum of stability in an otherwise perilous moment, especially health care workers.

The American healthcare system is bad, but just how bad is hard to tell unless you have some kind of global viral pandemic that forces us to handle all of the bubbling problems, all at once. How bad it is has become glaringly clear now that we have been presented with such dire conditions. It is a medieval level of inhumanity.

Healthcare workers in Oakland were ordered to reuse PPE to save supplies to stave off a possible shortage and now some could face termination for using their own face masks, according to unions representing nurses at the facilities.

These stories are monstrous, but unfortunately not unique. Amazon was, until last week, not providing paid sick leave for many of its employees. They’ve since expanded their policy to provide two weeks paid sick leave for “all Amazon employees diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine.” But they noticeably said jack shit about their largest workforce — contract workers — who make up the crucial labor backbone of Amazon’s gargantuan delivery and packaging profit machine.

As a relevant aside, Amazon drew $280 billion in revenue and $11.9 billion in profit during 2019.

These precarious workers must apply to the “Amazon Relief Fund” in hopes of scoring a grant to cover sick leave. The company itself donated an initial $25 million to the fund and offers multiple donation avenues for the public to contribute.

It’s kind of like if your dealer tells you he’s dry once you’re already at his house but then cries about a breakup so long that you feel obligated to give him something, and you end up shooting him $5 on Venmo him out of sadness.

They want this to be awful for all of us.

Medicare for All protest in Los Angeles, Calif. Photo by Molly Adams/Flickr.

This pandemic, in just a few short weeks, has illustrated how woefully underprepared the American healthcare system is for even a mild outbreak, let alone the global spread of a virus. What we need is Medicare for All.

We need a guarantee or protections in the face of workplace contamination, rising healthcare costs and a shortage of supplies.

Unfortunately, we aren’t holding our breath. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has condemned Medicare for All as being too pricey. How’s the coronavirus price tag looking, Joe? Similarly, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez has shown harsh opposition to any kind of single payer system, as has Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

According to recent Kaiser Foundation polls a majority of registered Democrats favor or somewhat favor Medicare for All. Issues with data collection and poll presentation aside, this is indicative of a huge gap between what the Democrats versus democrats want from the government.

What this shows us, the constituents of this increasingly corporate Democratic Party, is that during the political calculus being done by representatives on the Hill, the people are the last consideration.

Graphic illustration courtesy of John Eisenschenk/Flickr.

The Democrats are not a political party in any standard definition. The small group of establishment Democrats who have a meaningful chance at passing effective policy are more interested in protecting the invisible market than the the very visible people. They’re focused on protecting class interests of wealthy donors instead of saving hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of lives.

What can we do? Do we strike? Revolt? Do we hijack the establishment like the Tea Party did on the GOP side? Would that even be effective? Would the political action have to happen outside the political party organization?

What is clear, beyond any doubt, is that divergence between the democrats and the Democrats is reaching a breaking point. The establishment of a third party is really the most logical endpoint, a party of the youthful left that makes a Green New Deal, M4A, social and economic justice the platform core.

This might be less idealistic than many would care to admit.

The Sanders campaign routinely secured huge sums of donations from a subsequently massive number of donors; indicative of the fact that his campaign is popular.

Now, maybe it’s popular because this handsome 79-year-old Brooklyn Jew has some sex appeal that has been under reported. Picture Bernard running shirtless along the Embarcadero, stopping to bust out a quick 10 pushups.

Maybe it has to do with his quick wit and charm, or his viral know-how. Or maybe it has more to do with what he’s proposing. You know, that old political platform thing.

It seemingly has more to do with his policies than anything else and this may be the greatest example of how that constituent-representative divide can be capitalized on. Starting a solvent and possibly powerful third party in America, one that represents the views of young grassroots leftism, would admittedly be very difficult.

But it is not impossible, and it could be the only chance for real survival.

Democrats have no interest in supporting the people, their interests sit in direct opposition to ours, on the side of capital with the bosses and landowners. They would fight to squash a new, more left party just as quickly as their GOP counterparts.

But, here’s an important takeaway: They need us. The mass of support for Sanders-style policies, the young energy on the left, has been held hostage by the Democrats for so long because, until recently, the very idea of establishing a real left-wing party in this country was laughable.

In short, we had nowhere else to go.

Things are quite different now, and by no means would it be quick or easy, but it’s never been more possible than it is today.

Lessons from Hell World 1.0

It is easy to forget, but leading up the 2016 election felt pretty standard. It felt like business as usual. Because, why wouldn’t it?

But what arose from the chaos of early November 2016 was, yes, a bafoonishly corrupt reality star president, but also a powerfully energetic push for democratic control of our politics and economy. What started as a modest challenge to The Democratic Order caught fire among America’s youth, bringing Senator Sanders to a previously unimaginable level of success.

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 19: People attend a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in Queensbridge Park on October 19, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. This is Sanders’ first rally since he paused his campaign for the nomination due to health problems. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

This energy grew over the following four years and brought Senator Sanders again to a previously unimaginable level of success, winning hundreds of delegates and even still with a chance (albeit encumbered) to win the nomination. Regardless of what the shills say, that’s impressive.

Not only has a third, worker-centric party never been more possible, but there’s also never been a better moment. We have a tremendous amount mobilization power and with that comes substantial leverage opportunity to push for policies that favor worker empowerment over degradation.

But one lesson learned from 2020, 2016 — and even the bygone Labor Party that held some prominence for a brief moment in the late 90s — is about the need for dual power of some kind. These previous movements fell short when encountering Democrats, whether it was based on a perceived risk of pitting themselves against the establishment (as was the case for the Labor Party) or intense mobilization of oppositional class interests (the case in 2016 and 2020). It becomes clear that the first hurdle to any real democratically-controlled worker party is The Democrats.

What we can do?

Seth Ackerman’s piece in Jacobin highlights a conundrum with a third party strategy:

“This is one fundamental problem with the third-party strategy: the need to continually maintain ballot status — an onerous process in most states — places the party’s viability at the mercy of the legislature.”

The Democrats and the organizational structure they’ve put in place are the controlling operatives of election infrastructure. They are often the people behind setting up polling booths, transporting ballots and tallying votes.

Ackerman’s piece is detailed in the history of America’s repressive two-party system and that history is useless in hopefully shaping new, more effective strategies for some kind of party newcomer. What becomes glaringly clear is that the old model for a third-party challenge simply will not work. We must devise a new approach to electoralism, engagement and even membership.

What Ackerman proposes at the end of the piece is, in my analysis, correct and far more possible now than it was four years ago when it was written.

He details a party that would be accountable to its members and its platform, provide useful education both from practical political and historical stances  and one that would not immediately be drawn into what Ackerman calls the “ballot-line trap.” Candidates on each ballot would be decided on a case-by-case basis, hinging on a particular state’s or local authority’s election laws and partisan composition.

With crucial support and membership of union rank and file, this new party would be already inculcated into workers’ political discussions and have the means for organizing to spread organically through the union network. Establishing this new party through an intelligentsia or bourgeoisie class would result in a quick, if not immediate, disillusionment.

Donald Trump with part of COVID-19 task force at White House press briefing. Photo courtesy of the White House.

As the coronavirus pandemic becomes more dire and we see more deaths, people will rightfully begin to question leadership. How did this happen? How do we avoid it in the future?

One way we learn from this nightmare and walk into the future confident that it won’t repeat is by guaranteeing healthcare, is by providing an ecologically-efficient government work program to keep people employed and fed as a quarantine stretches on.

The robust energy encapsulated by the Sanders campaign has spurred a revival of political engagement and provided the critical mass needed to jump start a Workers Party into the national conversation.

This situation is frightening and increasingly horrific, but it is also an opportunity, one that may not present itself again within our lifetimes. We have the power to reshape our politics and economy for the people like never before and it is critically important we do so.

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