Supermarket checker wears mask in COVID-19 crisis

Yesterday’s Low-Wage Service Workers: Today’s Essential Labor

Towards the end of March, Leilani Jordan, a part-time grocery worker in Maryland, suddenly found herself on the front lines. The 27-year-old store greeter took pride in being an essential worker and helping senior citizens to shop and find their way around the store. When she started having trouble breathing, she stopped working and, after testing positive for COVID-19, was admitted to a hospital, where she died a few days later.

Leilani’s case was one among a series of grocery-worker deaths in the last two weeks, which included a Trader Joe’s worker in New York, and two workers at a single Chicago Walmart location. Dozens of other grocery workers have also tested positive for the virus.

For millions of people, an activity as simple as going grocery shopping now poses a threat to their lives and their loved ones. Many now rely on delivery services to avoid the risks involved in venturing out of the relative safety of their homes. As a grocery worker, like so many others who fall into the category of essential labor, staying at home to ride out the storm is not a luxury I am afforded.

In every aisle and department of my store, a sneeze, a close encounter, or even a small cough is enough to twist your stomach and produce feelings of utter dread. This is now the daily experience of grocery workers across the country.

In highly exploited, low-wage sectors like retail, grocery, and other service sector jobs, workers are used to being treated in a demeaning way under capitalism. Before COVID-19, people would say things like “get a real job,” or “you should go back to school,” or my personal favorite, “it’s just grocery.” In the last two or three weeks, things have turned into their opposite. Grocery workers, food service workers, and delivery workers are now viewed as essential labor. Before, customers would treat us like servants, expecting us to pamper them with a smile, and wait on them hand and foot. Now, they thank us for our service as they might do with someone who served in the military. In some ways, it’s surreal, in others, life changing.

Trader Joe's shoppers line up with social distancing
Shoppers at Trader Joe’s line up outside the store during the COVID-19 crisis. / Image: Loren Kerns via Flickr

This is having a profound effect on the consciousness of workers in these industries. Over 35 wildcat strikes have erupted across the US in the last month, mainly in front-line sectors like food, grocery, warehouse, and delivery, where workers now face much more dangerous conditions. Workers at non-unionized workplaces are also buzzing with talk of organizing and are making additional wage and safety demands.

Some food shoppers and warehouse workers have demanded an extra $5 per order as “hazard pay.” A group of Trader Joe’s employees under the mantle of the “Trader Joe’s Union” have demanded hazard pay at 1.5 times the normal rate. At my grocery store, they wouldn’t allow us to wear gloves or masks up until the last week of March, in order to avoid scaring the customers. We already knew how dangerous COVID-19 was for weeks, perhaps months. This goes to show that we can’t trust the bosses to keep us safe! The only way to ensure our safety in the workplace is for workers to take these matters into their own hands, by forming workplace committees to implement health and safety protocols at every store.

In addition to exposing the utter inability of the capitalist system to confront a crisis of this scale, the pandemic has revealed the immense power that lies in the hands of the working class. The importance of the labor of food, grocery, and retail workers is more apparent now than ever. In actual fact, we and the rest of the working class are keeping society going, and we should collectively be the ones to decide how it’s organized.

The movement of the working class is beginning to come to life and make up for lost time and decades of decline under a conservative pro-business leadership. Now is the time for socialists to be raising bold demands in our workplaces and on the picket lines. Workers are striking for hazard pay, safety protections, and unionization. But we can’t stop there.

We demand that wages be immediately doubled for all workers in essential industries, and for workers’ control to be implemented in all essential and non-essential industries. We are the ones who make things run and we should make decisions on the basis of public health and the needs of the fight against the virus—whether that means taking immediate action to retool production toward essential supplies, suspending non-essential production altogether, etc.

As of the writing of this article, the worldwide number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has surpassed 1.4 million, and the death toll is quickly approaching 100,000. The misery, insecurity, and grueling fear that has swept every corner of the globe is compounded by the desperate insufficiencies on medical front, and the sudden spike in unemployment. We must be clear: the nature of this crisis is not medical or biological, but social. It is a result of capitalism’s entire profit-driven structure, and it can only be solved by workers taking control of their own destinies and putting an end to this system once and for all.

We must remember that the class of employers are highly organized. If the workers are to fight them and win, we also must be well organized and have a determined leadership. That’s why I’m a socialist and a member of the IMT.

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