The on-going Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped trade unions, it has not stopped workers from organizing, and it has not stopped protest movements like Black Lives Matter. Yet, ever since the 31st December 2019 when a strange virus was detected by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, workers and trade unions face a different landscape when organizing. The Covid-19 pandemic had a very serious impact on workers and trade unions – globally.
It all started in the days after 11th January 2020 when China reported the first Corona deaths. Perhaps on all of that, one might not forget a local health worker in Wuhan – Dr. Li Wenliang – whom the BBC called the Chinese doctor who tried to warn others about coronavirus. Since then, almost every country has reported Covid-19 cases, every region has had deaths, and many, if not almost all, people have been effected in one way or the other. By mid-2022, the Covid-19 pandemic continued approaching 6.4 million – officially recognized – global deaths because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While we know many of the facts surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, what we do not know it is full detail is what is the impact of the – at times – rather contradictory relationship between our response to Covid-19 and online media used when organizing actually is. Beyond that, the Covid-19 pandemic had more non-public-health related “side effects”.
For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on global food production as we are moving into a scenario where upwards of one billion people will be living in extreme poverty. This will be turbo-charged by the standard pathologies of capitalism, such as, for example, the unrelenting destruction of food just to keep market prices up.
On the other side of capitalism’s drive to sell – often highly processed and unhealthy – food to us is the fact global food corporations have created 650 million obese people globally. Global capitalism has a long history of structural food insecurity. Finally, there are also the war in the Ukraine and global warming.
Of course, behind the contradiction between online media and the Covid-19 pandemic also lurk some of the many additional contradictions of capitalism such as, for example, the one between market logic of protecting the economy and a public health logic of protecting lives. What neoliberal academics like to call protecting the economy actually means assuring the profits of what evil heretics call Big Pharma.
Underneath all this, the Covid-19 pandemic has also proven Hollywood-style disaster movies featuring the individual hero who saves the world as well as right-wing US doomsday preppers wrong again. The Covid-19 pandemic did not lead to a disintegration of society or civil war, and it did not lead to Armageddon either.
Instead, human nature did the very opposite of Herbert Spencer’s deeply ideological survival of the fittest (1880) liked to suggest. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw once again that cooperation, not competition, was necessary. Solidarity by supporting strangers, not social atomization, was required and human being delivered exactly this, again.
Apart from all that, the inextricable conflict between labor and capital did not cease during the pandemic nor did trade union organizing. Yet, Covid-19 has impacted on 98% of the globe’s working population leading to the loss of 225 million full-time equivalent jobs.
For both – changes in working conditions and union organizing – online media were critical. Most commonly, these were Instagram and Facebook, with some organizing work done on Twitter and private email messages, as well as Facebook groups, Twitter, Reddit and Zoom and Telegram.
In that, union organizers used Facebook Live with weekly question and answer sessions as well as weekly podcasts. On that, one trade unionist noted, Zoom, WhatsApp and Google Hangout enabled us to stay on top of what’s going on. Meanwhile, another organizer warned, there’s a sense of false security thinking Facebook or Instagram will respect privacy. But people feel confident with WhatsApp to organize actions.
On the other hand, living in an OECD country makes it easy to forget that Internet service is not free and so workers on reduced income because of the pandemic have to pay for the service. In other words, there still is capitalism’s global digital divide.
Yet on the upswing, a local government worker in the UK noted, union members have adapted quickly to teleconferencing or Zoom, becoming familiar with speaking on camera. And another unionist mentioned that they were using email and Facebook which we called a tea-break meeting which ran from 10:40am to 11am while also saying, we used WhatsApp groups to organize picketing (p. 68).
A trade unionist at a university also cautioned, we had used the University’s email system but stopped three years ago over concerns about the University accessing our communications. On the whole however, one might argue that the pandemic has shown the benefits of online media for organizing workers.
Beyond union organizing and set against the neoliberal dogmatism of competition is good, many people have set up non-profit mutual aid groups. Perhaps it is Kropotkin’s 1902 seminal masterpiece Mutual Aid and not Hayek’s short pamphlet on serfdom, after all.
Most, if not all, people working in and for mutual aid organizations reject ideologies that champion the individual over society. In championing working with and for others, while rejecting the neoliberal hyper-individualization of human beings, Zoom has made it easier for people to work together.
Yet, another trade unionist argues that online media can help but they are by no means all when he said, the trade union movement is built on camaraderie. Can you get that camaraderie on a Zoom call? I suspect you won’t. Online meetings have many, many, many benefits. But it will never get over that sort of thing.
Virtually the same can be said about online media and mental health. And indeed, many might like to argue that the Covid-19 pandemic changed the lives of those effected by mental health issues. It can be said that for those experiencing mental health challenges, digital meetings cannot replace those encounters that take place in a shared spatial and temporal environment. Worse, online media and online meetings can even lead to what has been identified as the Chronic Zoom Syndrome.
Investigating the role of online media and the Covid-19 pandemic leads to the examination of one of the most severely hit branches of the capitalist economy: creative arts. During the year 2020 alone, over ten million jobs were lost in the creative arts.
One might argue that the Covid-19 pandemic had an even more disastrous impact in Brazil, particularly under the right-wing populist president Bolsonaro. Interestingly, one artist commented, before my home and workspace were separated spaces. Now it’s in my living room. This is rather unsurprising as many office workers moved from an office building onto the kitchen table.
Almost self-evidently, the pandemic lockdowns enforced a moment of isolation on many, which made it difficult to organize people. Yet, linking isolated people via online media also has some entirely different connotations. Video conferencing use, which has become so crucial during the pandemic, is controlled by three products, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. It has been estimated there are over 300 million Zoom calls each day covering 50% of the market in at least 44 countries.
In the end, one can safely say that our individual experiences during the pandemic can indeed be generalized. Once done, it reveals the systemic problems inherent in existing social, economic, and political structures. Yet, it also identifies those responsible for failing to adequately deal with the crisis.
In his insightful book Organising during the Coronavirus Crisis – The Contradictions of Our Digital Lives, Mike Healy argues that the pandemic and the use of online media when organizing has also enabled us to see who our allies will be in a precarious future. These are not the established institutions of capitalism, nor will it be neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism or its relentless drive for competition. Instead, it will be – just as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown during the past years – mutual aid.
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