Spa workers take direct action in Austin, Texas – WW commentary

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas on March 17.

The writer is a worker at a health spa in Austin.

March 16 — The spread of coronavirus COVID-19 throughout the U.S. has opened wide the many contradictions inherent in the capitalist system — most importantly, the contradiction between workers and the capital that binds them. 

Here in Texas the response to the crisis is just a microcosm of the capitalist system as a whole — slow, lackluster and waiting until the eleventh hour. Recommendations are for businesses to shutter their doors or at least limit traffic by switching to “takeout only” options. 

Then why have local health spas and clinics made little to no attempt to mitigate the crisis? Massage therapists and spa aestheticians are incredibly vulnerable to pathogens, given our proximity to clients while in session. 

No matter how much we may sanitize surfaces in our spaces, coronavirus has been shown to remain airborne for a period of time. That is disturbing, considering our workrooms are not well ventilated and the flow of clients has not yet slowed.

In fact, corporate management sent out emails encouraging people to “book now” since “massages help boost the immune system.” But what about the workers’ immune systems? 

Workers brainstorm action

Last week it became evident to all of us working at the spa that no useful concessions for our safety would be achieved without forcing the hand of management. 

By using Slack, a group-chat application, the therapists and aestheticians coordinated a response that included the possibility of a “sick-in.” Texas is a right-to-work (for less) state. That makes it much more difficult for workers to organize against management. 

It took until late in the night to get a majority of workers to agree to the possibility of a sick-in. I was going to begin the action the next day, but with that timetable, some of the workers were a bit more apprehensive. They felt we should wait a couple of days. Some began to insist we meet with management and issue our demands first and then, if all else failed, escalate. 

I did not want to ignore the response of the other workers or try to force them forward when they were not prepared. So I agreed to drive to the spa early and meet with management alongside other therapists and one aesthetician. 

Protections won

You can ask for more than what will be given, so it now became a matter of compromise. We devised ways to decrease the flow of traffic within the spa and got a guarantee that, should any worker decide to take a leave, there would be no repercussions, such as termination — which was originally the position of management. 

As of this writing, we have one therapist prone to respiratory infections staying home, and possibly two more therapists to stay home who room with immuno-compromised people. A fundraiser has been set up for those out of work, and donations are being collected as long as the pandemic threatens the lives and livelihood of us workers at the spa. 

It’s a shame and disgusting that other spas have made even less effort to protect their workers. Our lives are not owed to these businesses, and we will struggle to ensure our health is prioritized. 

The other therapists know we cannot stop here. We must fight to end litigation by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is withholding mandatory paid sick leave from the workers of Austin. 

We must continue to organize! 

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