COVID-19: Global workers’ action to defend health & safety

By Conor Payne   

In Ireland and around the world, workers are being hit by the Coronavirus crisis. Mass layoffs and the start of a new global economic crisis threaten wide-ranging attacks on jobs, pay and conditions. Even more urgently, many are now being forced to work through the epidemic in unsafe conditions. This is a system which puts profits before all else – even workers’ health and safety during a global pandemic. But around the world groups of workers are fighting back.


Despite Italy’s lockdown significant numbers of companies have stayed open, jeopardising workers’ health in a country which is at the centre of this crisis. Workers across Italy have responded with strikes and demonstrations to demand that production is shut down, many of them spontaneous, including at the Fiat factory and among shipbuilders and metalworkers.

“Factory workers are not citizens for 24 hours minus eight. It is not tolerable that they see their everyday life protected and guaranteed by many rules, but once they have passed the factory gates they are in a no-man’s land,” one workers’ representative said.

Spanish State 

In Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Basque Country, 5,000 workers at the Mercedes Benz plant were told to keep working with no protective measures such as social distancing. When the Union Committee’s concerns were brushed off by management, they contacted the workplace inspection office, which did not respond, then called the police. Ultimately, the workers took matters into their own hands, closed down production and walked off the production line.

This action stopped production at the largest factory in the Basque Country. Mercedes was forced to apply to the state for a temporary close-down with guarantees for workers’ pay. Similar actions took place at large factories such as Michelin, also in the Basque Country, Iveco in Valladolid, and Airbus in Madrid and Toledo.

North America 

In Windsor, Ontario in Canada, workers at the Fiat Chrysler plant went on strike for a day after a worker at the plant had to self-quarantine, to ensure there were guarantees about their safety. In the US, Detroit bus drivers shut down the service for a day when the vast majority refused to work over concerns about vehicle cleanliness and lack of protective gear. This forced the bus service to propose plans to address these issues. In New York City, threats by many teachers to call in sick en masse were a factor in forcing Mayor Bill de Blasio to close the schools. In this way, workers’ action can also be key to winning measures for the protection of the whole population.

Important lessons

For workers in Ireland, these examples of workers’ action hold important lessons. Bosses will try to continue production and cut corners on health and safety to protect profits. But it’s possible to stand up to them. Workers need to get organised among themselves and use their power to ensure safety at every workplace which continues to operate. The trade union movement needs to be the fighting voice of all workers, unionised or not, who are being hit by the crisis and insist on the protection of health and safety for all. This should be part of a broader fight to ensure that workers don’t pay the price for the Coronavirus disaster or for any recession that follows.

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