Wisconsin businesses threaten to reopen, workers must fight back
Fight Back! is circulating the following statement from the Wisconsin District of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.
Employers have launched an aggressive campaign in Wisconsin and several other states to reopen businesses amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that is killing thousands of people in the U.S. every day. Forcing people back to work before the pandemic is under control would have a catastrophic effect. Workers, both with or without unions, must organize and fight back against reactionary business owners and demand a safe, science-based pandemic response.
The fight over business closures
On April 16, Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Tony Evers extended his “safer at home” order to May 26, which keeps non-essential businesses closed until the spread of COVID-19 is under control. In response, reactionary business owners are attempting to overturn closure orders which have proven to be effective at curbing the virus in Wisconsin and several other states with Democratic governors.
The first protest “against excessive quarantine” took place outside the Michigan state capitol on April 15. A small gathering of far-right wing groups including white supremacist and fascist organizations waved confederate flags, Trump signs and other white supremacist imagery. After Trump’s tweets and corporate media coverage amplified the protest, identical Facebook groups “against excessive quarantine” were launched for several different states. The Wisconsin group is planning a protest at the state capitol in Madison for April 24.
Following the announcement of a planned protest, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature said they would ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to overturn Governor Evers’s “safer at home” extension. Earlier this month the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Republican leaders made national headlines for overturning Governor Evers’s postponement of in-person voting. Early data is suggesting a surge in new COVID-19 cases resulted from the in-person voting on April 7.
If the business owners succeed in using the court to prematurely reopen the state, it would force workers to leave the safety of their homes for a dangerous work environment, and create another surge in COVID-19 cases.
Protests backed by reactionary business interests
While the protests are portrayed as being in the interest of regular people who just “want to go back to work,” they are in fact a rich people’s protest by and for bosses who rely on the labor of their employees to make a profit.
With over 22 million people on unemployment, many workers are desperate to start getting a paycheck again. But going back to work in a pandemic puts everyone at greater risk, and is not in the interest of working people. Workers and unions need to demand that the government and corporations need to maintain pay for workers and keep us whole – keeping us financially stable and keeping as many people safe at home as possible.
Protests demanding the right to “go back to work” are funded by major right-wing foundations with links to the Trump administration. Billionaire backers of these foundations include the family of Betsy DeVos, a Trump cabinet member. Facebook groups “against excessive quarantine” in several states were created by the same Facebook account belonging to Ben Dorr, whose profile claims to work for “Minnesota Right to Life,” and other far-right lobbying groups.
A large April 18 protest in the extremely wealthy and conservative suburb Brookfield, Wisconsin demonstrated the class nature of the protests as business owners held signs reading “let the free market decide” and “LIBERATE Wisconsin,” a slogan inspired by a Trump tweet.
One attendee of the Brookfield protest was Dan Zierath, who owns four bars and restaurants in Milwaukee suburbs. Zierath said he will begin reopening his businesses on May 1, violating the state closure order. “I see no harm in it whatsoever,” Zierath told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Reactionary bosses like Zierath want to “liberate” employees out of the safety of their homes and into dangerous, exploitative working conditions without any regard for their health.
Reopening the economy will cost lives
Due to the catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic response by Trump’s cabinet of business interests, the United States has become the epicenter of the virus, reaching nearly 40,000 deaths from COVID-19. The enormous death toll reflects the political priorities of the Trump administration and monopoly capitalist class who value corporate profits over human life.
Countries that were able to stop COVID-19 outbreaks relied on widely available testing, temperature checks at workplaces, free healthcare and sophisticated contact tracing. Wisconsin’s “safer at home” order has been successful in “flattening the curve,” but the virus is not yet controlled. Widely available testing and other measures will need to be in place before businesses can reopen safely, but the U.S. currently has none of these. If the economy reopens without safe measures in place and the pandemic under control, more people will die.
Essential workers on the front lines face the greatest risk of catching and spreading COVID-19. Oppressed nationalities such as Black and Latino workers who are more likely to have essential jobs and less likely to be able to work from home have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Two of the most affected ZIP codes in Wisconsin are majority Black and Latino respectively. The disparate impact on oppressed nationality workers has been seen across the U.S. as a result of centuries of racist oppression.
The pandemic has exposed the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system. Workers' lives are being sacrificed for capitalist profits. Working people must fight back.
Only a fighting labor movement can win a safe pandemic response
Recent successful job actions have illuminated the source of worker power: collectively withholding our labor – the strike. Since the virus outbreak reached the U.S., we have witnessed a notable increase in worker struggle driven by workplace safety concerns. Thousands of workers have protested, petitioned and went on strike for safer conditions, and all across the U.S. workers who fight back are winning their demands for temperature checks, hazard pay, PPE, paid time off and safe working conditions.
As bosses threaten to reopen non-essential businesses, organized labor must act quickly to prevent them from forcing workers back to work in unsafe conditions. Organized labor is the only force with the potential to take on the capitalist class and ensure a humane pandemic response that saves lives – but quick, decisive and militant action is required to defeat the assault by business interests.
Labor must send the Wisconsin legislature, Supreme Court, and capitalist class a strong message, that we will not go back to work if the “safer at home” order is prematurely rescinded.
We call on Wisconsin’s unions to issue statements supporting work stoppages, and take strike authorization votes if the “safer at home” order is lifted prematurely. Workers in unorganized industries should talk to coworkers and collectively refuse to work in unsafe conditions.
We cannot wait for a fair deal from bosses who want to balance their desire for profit against our desire for health and safety. We must refuse to work in unsafe conditions.