Workers Ordered Not to Leave Despite Looming Tornadoes
Image: Tornado destruction in Mayfield, KY
By Nicholas Wurst, United Steelworkers Local 1702, personal capacity
On Friday, December 10th, a massive weather system struck large parts of the US, producing powerful, out-of-season tornadoes that hit six states in the South and Midwest. This storm wave is the latest headline in the growing danger of climate disasters devastating many working class communities. Dozens of people were killed in various parts of the country. Mayfield, KY was the worst hit with over 70 killed. That number could rise to over 100 as search and rescue efforts continue. Eight workers at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory were found dead after a direct hit from the tornado. Supervisors threatened to fire anyone who left work early due to the approaching storm. Despite this, the company may not face any legal responsibilities for coercing workers to remain in a deadly situation. Similarly, in Edwardsville, IL, six workers in an Amazon facility were killed in a roof collapse. Again, management did not allow workers to leave early despite the tornado warning. This is documented by a heartbreaking last series of messages between one worker and his partner. Amazon has already tried to blame the dead, claiming they didn’t shelter in the proper places in the building, while workers have pushed back, citing the lack of disaster preparedness and the policy forbidding phones in the workplace.
The capitalist class always puts profits over people. This contempt for workers’ safety by Mayfield and Amazon represents murder by big business. It goes way beyond the negligence discussed in the mainstream media. Many comparisons have been made to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire which occurred 110 years ago where over 150 garment factory workers, primarily immigrant women and girls, burned or jumped to their deaths. The doors of the Triangle factory had been locked, as usual, to prevent workers leaving early or taking breaks.
While there have been many changes in terms of what working conditions look like since the emergence of capitalism, the system is fundamentally the same and produces the same horrors. In 1845, Friedrich Engels, a young German socialist investigating the conditions of workers in England, described what he went on to call “social murder” this way:
“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians [workers] in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live—forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence—knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.”– Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England
In May of this year, the AFL-CIO published its Death on the Job analysis of 2019 workplace safety statistics. On average, 275 workers died every day on the job and due to workplace related illnesses. Black and brown workers die at an even higher rate. Over 800 workers were killed in incidents of workplace violence, with women workers suffering two thirds of hours lost due to violent workplace injuries. The government response? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency nominally tasked with holding business owners accountable for workplace safety, had one inspector in 2019 for every 82,000 workers, and a budget that breaks down to less than $4 to protect each worker. From 1970 to 2019, only 110 cases of criminal prosecution had been carried out for killing a worker. The average fine for killing a worker was $12,000 at the federal level and $7,000 at the state level. The report rightly lays significant blame for this state of affairs at the door of the Trump administration, but the AFL-CIO’s hope for something better under Biden is flat out naive.
2021 has seen hundreds of news stories about the death of working class people, both on and off the job, in industrial accidents, shootings, and even on the picket line. There have been studies done about the improved safety that comes from a unionized jobsite, or even a higher union density in an area (see Cornell University, Economic Policy Institute, and the IBEW).But the continued high rates of death of working people also represent a massive failure of the current union leadership in the US. Membership has sunk to record lows over the past 50 years. Huge sectors of the economy, primarily filled with young workers, many of whom are pro-union, remain totally untouched by union representation. Both workplaces where workers died in the storms are non-union. In recent years, union officials have slashed organizing budgets in favor of spending time and money lobbying and campaigning for corporate politicians. These campaigns often promise sweeping labor law reform to make it easier to organize new unions but fail to deliver. Such is the case with the abandoned “Employee Free Choice Act” (EFCA) under the Obama administration and the similarly stalled PRO Act under Biden. Unions improve health and safety on the job but they have to be in the workplace to make that happen. The recent defeat of the union organizing campaign at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama comes with a price, which includes less pressure on Amazon and other corporations to care about worker safety.
In addition to the usual hazards of work under capitalism,the biggest killer of working class people by far is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Independent Socialist group pointed to the obvious danger in countless articles, including our statement on International Workers Day in 2020 published in the first year of the pandemic. Reopening workplaces after the initial shutdown has been one of the primary ways the disease has spread. On Tuesday, headlines came out with the latest data on COVID-19 deaths: over 800,000 dead in the US just two years after the first cases were spotted in China. Death tolls are double what they were during the initial vaccine rollout. Twice as many Americans have died from two years of the COVID-19 pandemic as were killed in 4 years of World War II. Existing vaccination efforts are hampered by for-profit healthcare policies. Patent law limits vaccine production and affordability, and for-profit sales encourage vaccine apartheid, where expensive doses are sold to countries that can afford them, and poorer countries are left behind.
We face a massive spike in infections due to the Omicron variant, yet the Biden White House, elected on the empty “pro-science” line, refuses to endanger corporate profits by calling another shutdown despite the obvious danger. The pandemic continues because of a completely inadequate, privatized approach to fighting the pandemic. Under both administrations, the government funneled billions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations for research and development of vaccines and treatments. To effectively fight another Covid surge, the Biden Administration needs to shut down non-essential workplaces while guaranteeing workers’ incomes and provide affordable treatment for COVID at the point of care, guarantee paid sick leave, mass produce affordable personal protective equipment (PPE), and seriously distribute vaccine doses around the world. Instead, the Biden Administration tries to lay the blame on individual workers who are reluctant to get vaccinated.
The working class of the US faces a capitalist system where we’re ordered to work through a pandemic and environmental disasters. Forced overtime, work hazards, and low quality, expensive healthcare destroy our lives and livelihoods at the same time. Corporate profits are at a record high. Tax evasion by the millionaires and billionaires is rampant, all while housing and other essentials are more expensive than ever. In 2019, the same year capitalists only paid an average of $12,000 for killing a worker, the average value added to the economy by one hour of our work surpassed $70. As long as they get enough hours of work out of you before you die, it’s still a profit. This is the gruesome math of capitalist exploitation.
- Open criminal investigations into the workplace deaths that occured in Kentucky and Illinois, including going beyond local management. Open investigations into all cases of workplace fatality, injury, violence, and disease, starting with 2021 incidents. Elect committees of working class people to direct these investigations.
- Full, lifelong compensation for the families of those killed or disabled, at the expense or the companies that harmed them.
- Fully fund disaster preparedness and relief efforts throughout the U.S. Institute a federal jobs program to repair and replace crumbling infrastructure and build new disaster and climate preparedness systems.
- Immediate creation of safety committees in all workplaces, elected by rank and file workers, not appointed by management. These committees must have every power available to them, including the ability to shut down a workplace indefinitely until concerns are addressed.
- Massively expand and fully fund OSHA. Bring federal and state level agencies under the control of democratically elected committees of working class people.
- Take back our unions! Build rank and file reform groups in all unions with the goal of electing working class fighters to local, state, and national leadership bodies. Unions should organize on a program to massively expand new workplace organizing and aggressively fight for improved safety and healthy working conditions, using every tool available, including strikes.
- People over profits. Build a mass workers party with a socialist program to challenge the corporate politics of Republican and Democratic Parties. The working class needs real action, not just words!
- Fight for socialism! Take key industries into public ownership. Remove the deadly profit motive of capitalism and replace it with a democratically determined plan of production and distribution to fulfill society’s needs.