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Richard Florida is a School of Cities professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Since the arrival of a novel coronavirus in the United States, workers at Whole Foods have carried out a mass “sickout,” demanding that management provide them not just with masks, but with hazard pay, virus testing and paid leave if they have to self-quarantine. Gig workers at grocery-service Instacart went on strike as well, demanding a pay raise, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. Warehouse workers at Amazon facilities in Detroit, Chicago and New York City staged walkouts, demanding that their workplaces be temporarily closed for deep cleaning. And it isn’t just new-economy companies whose workers are concerned for their safety. Bus drivers in Birmingham, Ala., refused to work because of unsafe conditions, and across the country, drivers for Target’s delivery service, fast-food workers and gas-station attendants have all staged walkouts as well.

More than 750 cases of coronavirus, which accounted for roughly half of the confirmed cases in South Dakota last month, were traced to the Smithfield meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, which partly reopened Monday after nearly three weeks of closure. Deemed “essential workers,” which means they must remain on the front lines, most of its employees are immigrants – some 80 languages are spoken at the plant – who make between US$14 and US$16 an hour. According to union representatives speaking to the BBC, workers’ requests for protective clothing, temperature checks and sanitation stations had been ignored, while sick workers were incentivized to remain on the job. It’s a page that might have been ripped out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

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Late-stage capitalism, it turns out, still looks an awful lot like it did back in the days of William Blake’s “dark satanic mills.” The consequences are not just morally appalling, but economically unsustainable. The economy cannot stay up and running through the crisis, and it won’t be able to recover over the long term, so long as essential workers don’t have the protections necessary to do their jobs. Capitalists are so oriented to the short term that they don’t realize that workers are the people keeping their factories, companies and the economy, broadly, up and running.

Roughly three in 10 workers have jobs that require physical proximity to their co-workers and close interaction with the people they serve. They are disproportionately women, immigrants and visible minorities.

In what may be the strangest of the many strange turns spurred by the COVID-19 crisis, these front-line workers are telling capitalists what they need to do in order to save their factories, their companies, and themselves. Late capitalism sees these workers not as essential but as dispensable cogs in the machine, as costs to be minimized. Pay is low and working conditions are terrible, as workers are left to fend for themselves when it comes to securing the protective gear they need – if they are even allowed to wear it.

While leading companies, including large profitable ones, shirk their responsibilities to their workers and hence to their customers and society at large, it’s our front-line heroes who are calling this out. Demanding the protective equipment and spacing they need to do their jobs safely will not just protect them, it protects factories and warehouses from becoming hot spots for spread of the virus, and ultimately means production lines, supply chains and delivery systems and stores can all continue to function.

This emerging working-class movement for higher wages, more protective equipment, and better working conditions bears an eerie similarity to the movement of industrial workers that emerged a century ago in the wake of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, when low-paid workers in crowded and dangerous factories organized for higher pay and safer working conditions. Like then, it may take time to bear fruit. That earlier pandemic was immediately followed by the roaring 1920s, which featured horrifying levels of economic inequality that echoed the conditions of today. It took the better part of two or three decades before the labour reforms of the New Deal and the economic mobilization of the Second World War gave rise to the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, when factory workers finally vaulted into the middle class.

Hopefully, a reinvigorated movement of essential-service and factory workers can garner support from professional and “knowledge” workers, who depend on the products and services that essential workers deliver. What’s clear is that neither our political leaders nor our capitalists are up to the task.

In an irony that would have Marx himself rolling over in his grave: it is workers who may end up saving capitalism from itself.

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