Tag Archives: Covid-19

Mutual Aid and Governmental Responsibility

New Orleans     Mutual aid or solidarity work has long been a feature of political activity in times of crisis and often at all times.  ACORN affiliates around the world have been involved at different levels in such work as we have tried to respond to the crises the pandemic has wrought on our members.  Our offices in Delhi and Mumbai are still providing daily meals to thousands in the slums where we organize for example.

The ACORN Union in England and Wales had mobilized up to 5000 volunteers to assist community residents in the sixteen cities where we had branches in our largest effort globally.  This week in they launched a national campaign called “Housing is Health” with demonstrations of various sorts throughout Britain.  Cancelling the debt accrued from deferred rent payments, suspended during the crisis was central, but partially, they were moving the membership from service back into action.

They understood that members needed to not be confused about ACORN, its mission, or its purpose.  Where do we draw the line between government responsibility and the voluntary good will and good works of neighbors?  This is an ongoing tension between the right and the left, with the left understanding that government has to be accountable and get on the job, and the right pretending that government is unnecessary and charity can somehow replace the weight that tax dollars can bring.

It was interesting to see this argument jump into the mainstream in a recent New Yorker article about mutual aid.  The article makes a good point about how often the media obscures the fact that mutual aid is covering up the fact of government mismanagement and callousness, as we’ve seen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Harvey.   The question that really engages the reporter is whether such neighbor-based good works sow the seeds of permanent change or are temporary.  On one hand, he quotes Harvard political scientist Nancy Rosenblum saying that “there is little evidence that disaster generates an appetite for permanent civic engagement.”  On the other he references Rebecca Solnit and her classic, A Paradise Built in Hell, and her hope that mutual aid is “a series of networks of resource and labor distribution and as an orientation, the former may become less necessary as ‘normal’ returns, but the latter may last.”

I think this is less point, counterpoint, than a way of saying the same thing.  The experience – in the whole – won’t last, and it won’t bring permanent change.  Far from it, but the change it brings to the participants, even if not to society and government as a whole might last and change them forever.  That’s a good thing, and might seed other efforts to create change and to force governmental accountability, even if new forms of organization do not evolve out of the crisis.  Admittedly, this is an exercise in mining the silver lining in the clouds, but it is what we do.

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Getting OSHA on the Job

Pearl River     If there were ever a time that workers needed to feel safe on the job, it’s got to be now in the middle of a pandemic.  Even with the lifting of restrictions in different states and various businesses reopening, many workers are still voting with their feet, and their feet are firmly planted at home because they are wary of work, church, and public spaces in many cases.  In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) is charged with protecting our health on the job, so “What me worry?”  Yes, indeed, we all should!

OSHA has been strangely silent and passive during this period when you would expect that they would be leading the calvary charge to assure that businesses opened correctly and safely so that workers were able to return to the job with confidence.  Instead, they seem like a footnote in this crisis.

When Local 100 United Labor Unions was confronting the giant service contractor, ResCare, about the lack of personal protection equipment in their community homes and their failure to isolate coronavirus positive consumers and inform workers fully of the situation, we filed an OSHA complaint.  They promised to move forward and take it seriously.  The company has now stepped up its game.

News broke recently that the warden in the federal prison system responsible for the huge facility in Oakdale, Louisiana, in the center of the state recently found himself reassigned to a desk job in the Atlanta regional office for the Bureau of Prisons and summarily replaced.  Reading carefully, his quick trip came when prison employees – and their union – confronted the warden directly about not providing PPE, not informing the workforce of positive cases, and not isolating the prisoners who had contracted Covid-19.  The union filed a formal OSHA complaint, and they got quick action from the bureaucrats and away the warden went.

I could add a third example:  Amazon’s warehouses in France.  Workers and their union objected to the lack of protection and health standards, filed suit, and the courts shut the companies warehouses down except for bare essentials.  They are now gradually coming back to work on a volunteer basis with a $2 per hour raise according to their union.

I think there’s a very clear lesson here from these examples.

OSHA is a sleeping dog, whether on orders from the Trump administration, weak appointees and vacancies, Congressional defunding, or just incompetence and indifference.  Like any sleeping dog though, if you give it a sharp tug, that dog can still move quickly and bark loudly.

Workers by themselves can’t get any action from OSHA.  It takes collective action, like the prison guards’ confrontation, the Local 100 workers’ petition and demands on local supervisors, or the CGT in France.

Oh, and don’t forget, it’s crystal clear that you have to have a union, if you are going to get action from OSHA or any assurance that your health and safety is as importance to your employer as the cha-ching on the cash register.

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