When workers are done beating Covid-19, we won't go back to the broken 'business as usual'

This May Day, for the first time in a century, workers won't be in the streets. They're busy saving the world. They're keeping our relatives on life support. They're keeping food systems flowing. They are risking their lives to save lives - not as heroes, but as professionals. As Trade Unions, the only way we can do justice to these momentous efforts is by winning the deep, systemic change which workers, now more than ever, need and deserve

In the short term, our movement is supporting the strongest public health response possible. This means suspending medical patents, putting access to life-saving medicine ahead of corporate profiteering. This means promoting domestic production of essential resources. This means bringing the private health sector into public hands, so available beds can be used to bolster the public response and urgently hiring more health staff.

Austerity Kills

In Italy the number of hospital beds decreased by nearly a third in the past 20 years.

In 2016 I joined Francois Hollande and others on a UN Commission to help write an Action Plan for Health Employment. The Plan, adopted by the OECD, the International Labour Organisation and the WHO, was supposed to promote 18 million new health sector jobs by 2030. Yet this crisis is exposing how this "Action" failed to materialize. Why? Because of the continuous pressure of austerity policies - routinely imposed by other global institutions such as the World Bank - to privatise health services, cut public spending and limit public sector employment.

For frontline workers, austerity isn't some abstract political concept- they now face brutal under-staffing and dire shortages of life-saving resources. In Italy the number of hospital beds decreased by nearly a third in the past 20 years. Since the crisis, the National Health Service was slashed by 30 billion euros, in part to comply with EU expenditure rules.

After the most brutal austerity package in 2011, Angela Merkel assured us "the work of the Italian government will be rewarded." These rewards never materialized. Instead austerity continues to have deadly consequences across the globe.

A broken business as usual

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent $25 million donation to the Covid19 response is the equivalent of a nurse donating $30.

For the past 30 years, "business as usual" has worked great for billionaires whose wealth has skyrocketed. It's been much less beneficial for the working class who, in both developed and developing countries, have seen their share of income decline. To put things into perspective, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent $25 million donation to the Covid19 response is the equivalent of a nurse donating $30. If we look behind the philanthropy charade, what we really see is Facebook and the other major tech giants dodging over $100 billion in taxes across the past decade: money which could have saved lives. How can we let such a rotten system continue?

After the Global Financial Crisis, things got even worse as public budgets bailed out private finance while struggling households and public services took the hit. Corporations cashed in, spending trillions on stock buy-backs and bonuses while dodging their fair share of taxes. Meanwhile, right wing extremists took advantage of widespread - and justified- public anger and social alienation to promote false solutions and fear mongering.

As unions, we were not able to do enough to prevent workers from bearing the ultimate cost of the crisis. Now this time, not only is public spending holding back total global economic collapse: workers are on the frontlines, preventing a total health disaster. This time our response must be different.

Should we go back to a normal where employers are allowed to selfishly dodge their responsibilities to employees?

Should we go back to a normal where healthcare is reserved for those who can afford it?

Should we go back to a normal where corporations and the mega rich can use tax havens to steal from our frontline services?

Should we go back to a normal where the public sector is slashed, privatized and understaffed to the brink of collapse?

We must not accept a return to normal when that normal was part of the problem.

To prevent workers from bearing the cost again, those who profited in the fallout from the last crisis must be made to contribute their fair share. Now is the moment for the global labour movement to be bolder than ever:

  • We build the case for the deep changes needed to our global tax system. A 50% tax on excess profits. An immediate digital services tax on tech giants. No bailout funding for corporations operating through tax havens.

  • We support calls for debt relief, restructuring and the removal of public spending caps and conditionality; so repayment crises do not limit the health response, undermine economic growth or exacerbate social divisions.

  • We fight to end privatisation and build Universal Quality Public Services: free public healthcare, education, utilities, transport and social protections. Fully funded, localised, well-staffed and ready to respond to whatever might come next.

  • We lead the struggle for a Global Green New Deal: to reduce inequality, unemployment and our carbon footprint and limit the systemic threats posed by climate change.

Some people might tell you that this is all impossible.

But if there's one thing the Coronavirus crisis shows us, it's that everything seems impossible.

Until it happens.