International Worker’s Day is a day to demonstrate and celebrate the power of the working class. The History of May Day and the significance of May 1st for the working class stems from the late 19th century. In 1886 in Chicago, a general strike began on the first of May for the eight-hour work day. An estimated 30,000-40,000 workers have been estimated to have been on strike and many had filled the streets to demand their labour rights. This general strike occurred on the same day in many cities in the United States and is a key moment in North American and global workers history. The strike, lasting many days, ended with a series of events that led to several injuries and deaths in Chicago, referred to as the Haymarket Affair. At the Second International in 1889, May 1st was chosen as the day to commemorate the Haymarket Affair which had began on May 1st, 1886.
On May 1st, proletarians globally unite in their common struggle for liberation. This often includes demonstrations, strikes, demands for the working class, and celebrations. This year, workers across the world will not necessarily be gathering in light of a serious global pandemic.
This pandemic has resulted in numerous deaths and injuries in Canada and world wide as the capitalist class flounders to maintain profit over basic needs during a capitalist economic crisis. As is typical with capitalist crises, as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the Canadian economy, it is the working class that suffers the most.
Approach to the crisis
Capitalism is inherently unable to manage crises. The global capitalist economy functions to continually extract a surplus profit and wealth from the labour of the working class. Profit is prioritized over working class needs, wants, and rights and the working class is the majority of the global population. Preventative policy measures that would have prevented the crisis from spreading as much as it did, but that would have slowed down profits, stagnated under an inefficient system and infection rates surged.
Although capitalism has always been incredibly wasteful, food waste by producers has surged in a time of slowed economic growth. A planned economy opposes the nature of capitalism – to profit off of competition through the sale of commodities. If the commodities won’t be sold, it benefits capitalist firms’ profit to destroy or dispose of these resources rather than make them available to the public, as demand to pay for the commodities available would then decrease. Although food shortage is a worry during a pandemic, food stores currently available are being wasted in a completely inefficient system that doesn’t balance production with the needs of the population – but rather, multiple individual firms overproducing in competition for the same revenue market.
Exploitation of the workers
The workers deemed essential and that are mandated to continue working through a pandemic by the Canadian state largely consist of those paid the lowest wages and in the worst of conditions. Workers in the retail, food production, and food service industries are exposed to the general public daily without adequate protections. They are placed in danger by being denied necessary protective equipment and paid sick days. The failure to adequately provide for the needs of these essential workers will only exacerbate the pandemic, further spreading the virus. Despite being labelled as essential by the government in a time of crisis, many of these workers are paid less than a living wage. On the other hand, countless workers in shuttered industries have been laid off with corporations taking no responsibility for the workers they employ in a time of lowered profits. Yet the working class must still come up with the funds to pay for its basic needs. According to Statistics Canada, at least 3.3 million Canadians are either away from work or have had their hours reduced, while nearly one-fifth of businesses have laid off 80% or more of their workers.
Our reality under the capitalist Canadian state can be understood according to the “division of labour,” wherein the effort to maximize profit and create phoney antagonisms within the working class is active. Workers who perform more “menial” forms of labour are given less value than their fellow workers who deal with a product in its final stages of transformation. This latter section of workers can develop into a “labour aristocracy.” The division of labour is thereby broadened and the bourgeoisie tries to deceive that section of the working class into believing that they share right-wing interests in the imperial core. A common turn of phrase in state media to mask wage exploitation is to call the lowest paid “essential” workers frontline heroes while the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie refuse to help them limit transmission of the virus to their families once they come home or provide any other significant changes. Among grocery workers and clerks, we have seen that Personal Support Workers (PSWs) who are in constant contact with immunocompromised people are not given proper PPE, and subsequently, are forced to expose themselves and those under their care to the virus. We also can see this occur on-site in hospitals across the country among doctors, nurses, custodians and so on.
Response by the government
One response by the government has been to institute the insufficient and unnecessarily exclusive Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The only purpose of CERB is to keep the exploited classes alive so that they can still be exploited later, but even so it cannot be accessed by undocumented, non-status, and many seasonal workers – workers who’ve earned less than $5,000 in the last year, post-secondary students, and workers who are unemployed or who have reduced hours. Considering the majority of Canadians prior to the pandemic were living on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, many will be forced further into poverty. Post-secondary students and recent graduates have been promised by PM Trudeau a taxable benefit similar to the CERB, little additional funding for students with disabilities. The Canadian state aims to incentivize them with a grant that rewards them for volunteer work they perform that helps relieve the effects of COVID-19 on their communities. This is a great example of how the state is tricking the students into associating mutual aid with patriotism and not class solidarity.
Certain provincial governments have also used the pandemic as an excuse to further implement their austerity agenda. The premier of Manitoba, for example, asked post-secondary educational institutions to cut their budgets by 30% in order to free up funds to address the pandemic, despite having also slashed the healthcare budget in previous years and orchestrating the closure of many emergency rooms.
Although the pandemic is not yet under control, some in the government are prematurely calling for an end to the pandemic emergency measures. They seek to grease the gears of the Canadian economy with the blood of the working classes’ most vulnerable members by risking a second wave of COVID-19 infections for fear that the profits of their capitalist benefactors will be further reduced.
Resistance & solidarity in an unprecedented time
Workers have shown their solidarity and strength through organizing to address their collective needs in a time of major crisis. By largely moving towards online forms of discussion for safety purposes, the working class in Canada has engaged in establishing mutual aid networks (some with explicit revolutionary character), discussing the possibility of rent strikes, and distributing propaganda and literature. It is evident that the working class recognizes that solidarity and unity are its source of strength.
Certain sections of the masses have also responded to the pandemic in ways that are backwards or reactionary. There have been protests calling for the reopening of the economy on the basis of the harmful economic effects related to the pandemic lockdown. These protests are misguided, since the damage to the economy is due not to the lockdown itself, which consists largely of necessary measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but due to inefficiencies inherent to a capitalist economy. The hardships that these mostly petty-bourgeois or labour aristocratic masses face are real, but the measures that they propose would only result in more death and hardship. Even worse, some few individuals have been misled by fascist propaganda, spreading false and racist conspiracy theories about the cause of the virus, or even whether it truly exists at all. In the US, far-right anti-vaccination groups have staged demonstrations against the pandemic lockdown, while in Europe cell phone towers have been sabotaged by those who wrongly think that COVID-19 is caused by the installation of 5G towers.
Faced with the myriad contradictory ideas of the masses, the role of revolutionary communists is to apply the mass line, working to strengthen the organizational and political unity of the working classes, and bring them in direct confrontation with their capitalist enemies.
In our context this means:
- Understanding the struggles and demands of the proletariat, applying a mass line analysis, and consolidating these demands into actionable forms of mass work to advance proletarian interests.
- Generating proletarian propaganda to combat capitalist and reactionary news outlets.
- Organizing strong tenants unions to wield rent strikes against landlords.
- Encouraging mutual aid (but preventing its degeneration into mere bourgeois charity) by revealing the failure of the capitalist system to provide for the needs of the working class, and using mutual aid networks to build further resistance.
- Isolating and exposing as harmful those sections of the masses who call for unsafe premature opening of the economy.
- Combating those who seek to mislead the masses.
Revolutionary Communist Party
Committee for Maoist Unity in Quebec Revolutionary Student Movement