Pandemic cost-cutting crisis-tunity? Workers say, ‘Nope!’

Lechat is a member of Harvard Union of Clerical & Technical Workers (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3650) and Harvard TPS (Temporary Protected Status) Coalition. Childs is a retired chief shop steward in UNITE HERE Local 26.

COVID-19 might not discriminate — bourgeois narratives emphasize that people from all walks of life have been infected, even Prince Charles — but capitalism does. Although a large percentage of the world’s population may become infected, those most marginalized by capitalism are most endangered by the disease. 

The diverging stories of two people affiliated with Harvard University, which has a $40.9 billion endowment — while many among its 21,000 employees struggle to make ends meet — demonstrates how this discrimination plays out. Both developed symptoms consistent with COVID-19 on March 23, and both were sent home to recover in isolation for 14 days. However, only one of the two is a confirmed case, because only he, Harvard President Larry Bacow, was immediately tested. 

The other symptomatic person, Doris Reina-Landaverde, a Salvadoran custodian and mother of three, was told there were not enough test kits for her to be tested. Mildly symptomatic, President Bacow is working from home. Not knowing whether she has COVID-19 or not, Reina-Landaverde’s whole household is quarantined and she is confined away from her family. 

This isolation is a reminder for Reina-Landaverde, a leader in the struggle for permanent residency for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients  — the program covering half a million immigrants and their kids, which has enabled her to live and work in the U.S. since 2001 — that she may be separated from her young daughters and husband when her status expires in January. 

In a series of viral social media posts on March 16, a week before falling ill, Reina-Landaverde — also a steward with Service Employees Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ — complained that Harvard custodians were being rushed to clean dorms vacated by students ordered off campus due to the pandemic. Including a photo of herself wearing a dust mask and latex gloves, she explained that some masks had been donated by members of Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU-UAW), but university management claimed there was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for custodians working close to each other. 

However, on March 25, university public relations boasted that Harvard was “leaning in” to the crisis, donating unspecified quantities of PPE items to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. “They don’t care about us” was Reina-Landaverde’s conclusion on Facebook. 

New forms of struggle are necessary

Without workers like Reina-Landaverde to expose the COVID-19 fallout at her workplace, these plague days could almost be mistaken for a positive turning point for the least respected and lowest paid members of our class. Governors have been forced to acknowledge that janitorial, grocery, warehouse and delivery workers — whose nontelecommute jobs are often done by Brown and Black people — are, like doctors and nurses, too essential to let them stay home. 

This is said while nurses wrap themselves in trash bags to treat patients because the Trump administration obstructs the provision of PPE, overstating the national capacity to produce it. Dock and postal workers, delivery drivers and gig contractors have also blown the whistle over PPE shortages, filthy facilities and other dangerous conditions — sometimes with threats of striking. 

States like Nevada have gotten supplies directly from China, bypassing Trump and official assertions of COVID-19 test scarcity. SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, in search of N95 masks for themselves, also located millions of them and is now a supplier for a growing list of states and organizations. With these actions, workers are leading the fight for public safety during this pandemic, struggling for the material interests of our whole class and solving problems capitalism in crisis cannot. 

Now more than ever, the fight of workers for basic needs under capitalism is increasingly the source of protections for the public. Beyond exposing dangers in pandemic conditions, workers’ mass organizing is an intervention to win safety for all. At Harvard, management intended to lay off all workers as soon as they were finished speed cleaning and serving students being hastily evicted — perhaps so that any illnesses or deaths would occur off the premises and payroll. But together workers and students fought back.

In solidarity with international and other students unable to leave or without a safe place to go, workers started a campaign against the layoffs and service cuts, drawing broad student and faculty support. A joint effort by Harvard’s UNITE HERE Local 26 dining hall workers, members of SEIU and the clerical workers union, with law students from the Labor & Employment Action Project, as well as HGSU-UAW and undergraduates from the Student Labor Action Movement, the campaign demanded, “Harvard, pay ALL of your workers!” Crucially, this demand was framed without any assertions of Harvard’s supposed “moral leadership” that have characterized campus activism in the past. 

The late founder of Workers World Party, Sam Marcy, wrote that workers “are truly the most important creditors to the employers because they alone advance something of real value — their labor power — before getting paid.” Sustained organizing of Harvard’s union workers, especially since the 2016 dining hall workers strike, confirmed this value, and rightfully established them as movement leaders, not just the subjects of student advocacy.  

Ultimately, backed by a 7,000-signature petition endorsed by dozens of campus organizations, which signaled a community united despite being physically scattered, Harvard’s major unions negotiated over Zoom full pay for all nontelecommuting workers through May 28. This even included less-than-halftime workers, a super-exploited status that is categorically exempt from union membership. 

This was finalized as Massachusetts reported 147,995 new unemployment claims for the week. This innovative movement building in an unprecedented situation has also prepared workers for further action should the pandemic continue to disrupt operations into the summer.  

Harvard workers saved their jobs to continue to provide for their families. They ensured services and safety for students and kept themselves — employees of the world’s richest university — from joining the ranks of 3 million newly unemployed nationally and from becoming a strain on state resources for the unemployed. Because these efforts have been for all working-class people, not just themselves, their campaign has won support from students, faculty, community residents, even City Councillors. 

Only workers have the power to fight back against the pandemic crisis by building a mass movement. 

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