Workers across the country are bracing for a premature return to their jobs despite public health warnings of a second spike in Coronavirus infections. A total of 23 states, with a combined population of 120 million people, have issued “back to work” orders which will take effect in the coming days. Another eight states have indicated they will do the same by mid-May. This will require workers whose workplaces were deemed “non-essential” or were laid off to return to work, or else they will risk losing their unemployment benefits.

Amid a sixfold increase in infections inside the meat packing plants of Sioux City, Iowa, right-wing state governor Kim Reynolds brazenly remarked: “If you’re an employer and you offer to bring your employee back to work and they decide not to, that’s a voluntary quit. … Therefore, they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

At least 20 meatpacking workers have already lost their lives, and over 5,000 more have been infected. In some Tyson Foods facilities, upwards of 15 percent of workers have tested positive for COVID-19. While workers at Tyson, Smithfield, Purdue, Case Farms, and other meat-processing companies were taking bold actions against speed-ups and unsanitary conditions on the shop floor, President Trump signed an executive order requiring meatpacking plants to reopen under any circumstances. This gives poultry and pork bosses a free pass to dodge safety regulations which they claim have made business too “unprofitable” to stay operating.

With unemployment benefits being stripped, this leaves many laid-off meatpacking workers to choose between risking their incomes or risking their lives. This is a sign of things to come as government officials in state after state heed the demands of giant corporations determined to dump the cost of “recovery” onto workers’ backs.

Meanwhile, the tide of layoffs, cutbacks and bankruptcies is far from over. On April 30, U.S. Steel notified the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it is prepared to cut 6,500 jobs in its mills and related facilities, while seven out of the company’s 10 blast furnaces in the U.S. sit idle. On May 4, General Electric’s aviation division announced that it plans to cut the company’s global workforce by a quarter, impacting more than 13,000 jobs. Already declining retail companies like J.Crew and J.C. Penney have also been pushed over the line into bankruptcy.

The public sector also reported in an estimate from the National League of Cities that between 300,000 and 1 million public-sector workers in education, sanitation, health, and safety will likely lose a job or pay in the coming weeks and months.

Benefits kept under lock and key

For the nearly 30 million workers who have filed for unemployment insurance in the last six weeks, it has been a struggle to obtain these benefits which have been coming out of their paychecks for years.

An April 28 study from the Economic Policy Institute found that for every 10 people who applied for unemployment benefits, there were four people who applied but were blocked from getting through the system to make a claim. Of those 10, an additional two people simply did not apply because the process was so difficult.

Anticipating another major economic meltdown which would likely swamp their facilities, state unemployment agencies devised application systems that would treat every case as potentially fraudulent. In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, states increasingly required workers to document their job searches weekly, to register with employment services and to go through a 10-day wait period before their first check.

However, these massive deficiencies in state unemployment systems can’t be reduced to bureaucratic incompetence alone. What this reveals is the deliberate policy of the ruling class to redesign the systems in place which grant workers access to their unemployment benefits with the hopes of blocking as many claims as possible.

The “relief” the government has provided thus far to the tens of millions of workers thrown out of their jobs has proven to lack substance. In reality, the bosses and their government have devised a plan to sacrifice workers for the “greater good” of rescuing their bottom line. But history shows that both can be defeated by the struggle of the people.

History of militant struggle

Unemployment insurance was never a gift handed down to the workers from their employers or from the government. Unemployment insurance was won through the militant mass struggles of the unemployed in the 1930s during the Great Depression, a time when thousands of workers died from starvation every year due to not being able to find work. Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets with the slogan, “Fight, don’t starve” as they were met with brutal clubbings and police riots. With the help of Communist-led trade unions and other labor organizations, Unemployed Councils were formed in cities across the country to direct the struggles of the unemployed for unemployment insurance, public works programs, and subsidized food and housing.

March 6, 1930, was declared “International Unemployment Day,” and mass demonstrations of unemployed workers, veterans, and landless farmers took the capitalist world by storm, particularly in the United States. Unemployed Councils rapidly gained momentum and size, and by 1936 all of the major unemployed organizations had coalesced together to help win reforms like the Works Project Administration, the Wealth Tax Act, the Wagner Act, and the Social Security Act.

The “back to work” drive must be understood as a new ruling-class attack on the unemployment benefits and living standards of the working class. During this time of rising anger and defiance against the cut-throat, anti-people policies of both Democrats and Republicans in response to the crisis, the lessons of the 1930s offers key insights into how we can fight and win against the bosses’ offensive which is putting so many lives at risk.