by Ellen Isaacs
December 20, 2021
Workers crushed under structures collapsed by storms of greed – sounds like the theme of an overblown drama, but it’s literal, not literary, in the USA today. Not only are those who perished more likely to be poor and black or brown, but, based on prior experience, assistance to the survivors will be highly disparate. Just another example of racism, profiteering and the sacrifice of workers’ lives at the altar of the dollar.
Scented Candles at a High Price
We’ve all seen pictures of the demolished candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky in which eight workers died and others were seriously injured. When we examine who worked at Mayfield, who got rich off their labor and why were they in such danger on December 10, we see that this was no random tragedy hitting those who happened to be in the path of an unforeseeable weather event.
Mayfield is a town of 9800 people in western Kentucky that, according to Wikipedia, is 64% white, has a median household income of $20,400 and in which 27.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Mayfield Candles pays a starting wage of $8 per hour, with mandatory 10-12 hour shifts on Monday-Thursday and frequent required overtime either by shift extension or working on Fridays.1 There are no health benefits. The scented candles in a jar they produce sell largely at Bed Bath and Beyond for about $30, according to that store’s website.
In order to fill these low paid jobs, the Mayfield employs immigrants from Mexico and Guatamala(NYT 12/17/21) and has taken to importing workers from Puerto Rico. Immigrants make up about 100 of 600 employees and many others are black (although no exact figures could be found). They also have contracts with two local jails to supply workers, from whose wages 20% goes back to the prison system, fines are also deducted, and the workers have no rights or benefits. But no workers were safe at Mayfield, where the injury rate was 40% higher than at similar plants.2 There were 12 workplace violations issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 2019 for issues including “control of hazardous energy” and “maintenance, safeguards, and operational features for exit routes.”1
In the hours before the tornado, as cellphone warnings were received, at least 15 workers had their requests to leave for home denied under penalty of probable loss of their jobs.3 Although OSHA requires businesses to have Emergency Action Plans, there is no actual law that requires employers to shut down or send people home for an imminent natural disaster.4
Bigger Bad Business
If all of this reminds you of the practices you’ve heard about at Amazon, which has nearly 1.3 million employees, you’re not far off. At the collapsed warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, where 6 out of 46 workers on site died, only seven of the 190 workers were full time employees. That means that only seven workers at the plant had health benefits. This practice allows the company to avoid liability for accidents and other risks.5 Surviving workers say they had never had a tornado or fire drill. There are conflicting statements about whether employees are even allowed to have phones at work, and the facility claimed to have only 11 minutes warning before the collapse.6
Like Mayfield, Amazon relies on hiring poor and disproportionately non-white workers to keep wages down. Overall, workers are 31% black, 26.4% Latin, 28.5% white and 8.7% Asian, compared to corporate and warehouse managers who are 10.6% black, 9.5% Latin, 56.4 % white, and 19.5% Asian. In Bessemer, Alabama, where there was a recent unionization campaign, 80% of workers are black. Warehouse wages start at $15 per hour and average $36,640 a year, while base pay for corporate employees is $150,000.7
Unequal Recovery Across Racial Divide
For those who are injured, recovery will be made more fearsome for many because of the inability to pay. Some of the uninsured Mayfield and Amazon workers and residents may be covered by Medicaid, but those who are not state residents, citizens or legalized immigrants will not be eligible. Since the maximum family income for Medicaid in Kentucky to get coverage is $36,000, many families with more than one worker or who put in a lot of overtime may not be eligible either.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is also notorious for discriminatory dispersal of aid, giving more aid to white than black homeowners with similarly damaged homes and more aid to affluent than poor neighborhoods. When property values are higher, as in white areas, FEMA’s payments go up. Low income renters are especially vulnerable as the price of housing goes up with scarcity. FEMA emergency grants are also for only 1-2 months, after which re-application is required, a bureaucratic process needing good English and means of communication.8
Both of the collapsed warehouses used “tilt-up construction,” in which concrete walls are held upright by their connections to the roof. Since such a structure collapsed in a 2011 tornado in Missouri, this construction practice has been known to be unsafe, but warehouses have come to be the most common commercial buildings. OSHA guidance says auditoriums, cafeterias and gymnasiums should not be build this way, but warehouses are not included in this warning.4
Not just the susceptibility to tornadoes, but the tornadoes themselves are a result of capitalist greed. According to Michael Mann, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, warming of the Gulf of Mexico due to human-caused climate change causes warm moist air to drift into the southern US, which causes turbulence and thunderstorms. When these collide with the jet stream, massive tornadoes result. The storm on December 10 had wind speeds of over 300 miles per hour, hurled debris up to 30,000 feet and traveled 200 miles, all of which is unprecedented.9
Thus we must conclude that this loss of life was predictable and preventable and that it will surely happen again. We can also be sure that the surviving warehouse workers will have a difficult time with both their recovery from bodily injury and loss of housing and possessions, just as has happened after hurricanes in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, fires in California and countless other disasters. Once the initial outpouring of charity and grants has abated, the underlying disparities of US society only grow.
The huge inequality and racism in the US are what makes such events tolerable and easily forgotten, disproportionately affecting poor non-white workers and creating the illusion that better off white workers are immune. Of course, in absolute numbers, even more white workers are actually affected by poverty, illness, and workplace hazards and exploitation.
The lack of effective regulation and oversight and the dedication to profit is what makes more such tragedies inevitable. The destruction of unions, the lack of militancy of those that survive, the segregation of workers, the reliance on elections between various capitalists all severely limit the ability to resist. The simultaneous worsening of climate change makes it imperative that we build a multiracial movement that has the very destruction of capitalism as its aim. Otherwise the disasters of weather and exploitation, added to the dangers of raging pandemics and escalating imperialist conflict, will likely obliterate millions of us if not the planet itself. Let us begin now to think and act in truly revolutionary terms.