Stolen indigenous lands, stolen and enslaved people, stolen resources, and stolen elections mark US domestic and global history. Democratic and Republican Administrations have conducted wars and assassinations to annex foreign territories (Hawaii and Puerto Rico among others), oppose imperial competitors (Germany, Russia, and China), and remove pro-socialist governments (Congo and Chile among many others). Beneath its patriotic and racist calls to arms is a rapacious grab for for profits (https://multiracialunity.org/2018/02/02/as-u-s-imperialism-declines-we-must-fight-racism-and-nationalism/).
The US ruling class unleashed one of the worst genocides against the Indigenous inhabitants of the US territories beginning in the 16th Century. When the settler colonialists arrived, there were 5-15 million Native Americans; by the late 19th Century, only 238,000 remained. Because of 1,500 wars, massacres, the Indian Removal Act that pushed 60,000 people on the Trail of Tears into reservations, 230 treaties that seized Native land, and diseases like smallpox left untreated, rich white landowners and their government grabbed 99% of tribal lands to build their wealth.
Given the level of attention to the recently imposed freight rail contract that provides no, zero, acute sick days for railroad workers earning an average wage of $64,210 (before the recent 24% increase spread out over 5 years), let’s remember their huge toll of Covid-19 cases as shown in this table of infected rail workers from the Federal Railroad Administration.1
And let’s remind ourselves how terribly the US compares to the rest of the developed world in minimum sick days that are mandated for workers on a national basis.2
Then let’s recall that despite being the richest country in the world, the US has the worst health outcomes among developed countries.3 Moreover, within the US there are huge disparities of health and benefits based on race as well as class (for an overview, see https://multiracialunity.org/2017/04/13/racism-is-a-scourge-on-the-publics-health/), a fact that helps to hide this woeful state of affairs, blame it on the most deprived, and diminish the struggle for change.
Sickness Among Workers Spreads Disease and Costs Money
Workers who get sick are not just a problem to themselves because of pain and suffering with possible long-term consequences, lost income, contagion, and family difficulties, but society has a lot to lose too. Sick workers without sick pay are 1.5 times more likely to go to work with a contagious illness than those with this benefit. Three million unwell workers go to work each week, mostly low wage earners, mothers with young children or both. Moreover, most have jobs such as restaurant or child care workers that directly interact with the public. It was estimated that five million people contracted swine flu in 2009 because of lack of sick leave.4 Temporary emergency paid sick leave for Covid through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 is thought to have prevented 400 Covid cases in each state.5
Capitalist enterprises may think they are saving money by not offering sick days, but they are actually hurting themselves as well as the society at large. Paid sick days lead to more preventive care, like vaccinations, and getting earlier treatment when ill and thus avoid preventable emergency room visits. This alone would save an estimated $1.1 billion annually.4 Workers who go to work sick are also 38% more likely to be injured on the job than those who can take time off, and the resulting loss of productivity at work is estimated to cost about $208 billion annually. Access to sick pay also reduces the chance of job loss by one fourth over five months, while a need for new workers increases bosses’ costs for new worker recruitment and training.6
Who Has Sick Days
As of March, 2022, over 33 million workers in the US lack even a single sick day, which is disproportionately true of low wage service workers. 55% of retail and fast food workers are in this category. Only one fifth of workers with the lowest 10% of private salaries have sick days compared to near 90% in the top tenth of wage earners. Almost half of working mothers – 54% of Latin and 42% of black mothers – have no paid sick time.6 A little over half of hourly service workers at 91 large companies like Costco and Walmart have paid leave, although the figures vary widely. 7
Even though worker organizing in 15 states and dozens of cities has resulted in laws mandating sick time, there is no such federal law, and 24 states actually have statutes preventing cities and counties from enacting their own laws.6 The federal Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides up to 26 weeks off a year for unpaid medical leave for one’s own serious illness or to care for a sick family member, but it has many restrictions. The employee must have worked for a firm with at least 50 employees for at least 12 months and for at least 1250 hours a year. Only 59% of workers meet these criteria.8 In the case of rail workers, the requirement that the worker has put in 1250 hours over the past year excludes many because hours on call do not count, which may be 24 hours a day, seven days a week.9
Everything Is Worse Without Insurance
As of 2021, 30 million people, 9.2% of Americans, had no health insurance, the main problem being affordability The highest percentage of the uninsured is those of working age, 19-64, and is disproportionately black and Latin, the latter group being 30% uninsured.10 Approximately 5.2 million people have gained health coverage since 2020 via the American Rescue Plan, which has increased marketplace subsidies and expanded Medicaid.4 Although originally expected to end in 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act has now extended these benefits through 2025.11 Then, who knows?
According to the Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey of a representative sample of adults,
43% of those of working age are still inadequately insured in 2022
Of these, one tenth had a gap in coverage during the past year
For nearly a quarter their coverage does not provide affordable access to care.
Half said they could not pay for an unexpected medical bill of $1000 within a month, which includes 68% of black and 63% of Latin workers.
Undocumented immigrants, about 12 million people, are ineligible for any federally subsidized insurance
12 states that have not expanded Medicaid have huge uncovered medical cost risk.6
The result of these large gaps in coverage is that one fourth of people with chronic diseases like diabetes have skipped prescriptions because of out of pocket costs.11
The Overlap of Sick Pay and Health Insurance
It is very difficult to find data that show the combined effects of sick days and health insurance. The table below, although nine years old, illustrates that the combination of lack of both sick leave and insurance leads to the highest incidence of delayed medical care, while those with insurance and sick days do better than those with the ability to take time off but no insurance to pay for care. Doubtless the same is true today.12
Railroad workers, one group of insured workers without sick days, may take occasional personal days, but even these must be scheduled at least 48 hours in advance and so are useless for acute illnesses, which includes most infectious ones. If a worker does call in sick, there may be severe penalties, even termination. Since work schedules are irregular and may change at the last minute, it is very difficult to schedule any preventative or chronic health care.
What Is the Remedy?
It is hard to even contemplate the mindset of the US legislators or the President, well paid with generous benefits, who see fit to deny railroad workers even a single paid acute sick day. But it somehow is not out of kilter, not outrageous, in a society where workers are treated merely as means to an end, means to make a profit, rather than as human beings with intrinsic worth. And the disregard continues even though, overall, profits and general social health and costs are negatively impacted.
Partly this reflects the difficulty of planning beyond the next quarterly report under capitalism, always concerned with beating the competition in the here and now. Partly it reflects the need to reinforce the idea that workers, even in their own minds, are only an entity of service to a boss. And, of course, the poorer wages and benefits of black. Latin, women, and immigrant workers serve to physically and ideologically separate us and prevent the massive struggle that would be needed to overcome politicians, corporations, and sold out union leaders.
In order to uplift the status of US workers – from the unemployed to railroad and retail workers, to teachers and nurses – we must build a movement that unites us all. We must come together across all ethnicities and job categories to fight the injustices of this system, which range from working conditions to poor schools, housing and hospitals, to paying for and fighting in unjust imperialist wars. It is critical to build this unity. if we want to consider changing this whole system to one in which we can avoid climate disaster, pandemics, and nuclear war, we must overthrow capitalism and build a society we run ourselves in our own interests, without profits or racism, with only our own well being as its goal.
UPDATE: US workers just rejected the contract offer. 11-21-2022
There’s an old song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” that goes like this:
I’ve been working on the railroad
All the live-long day.
I’ve been working on the railroad
Just to pass the time away.
Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, rise up so early in the morn…
Written in 1894, this famous song depicts the back-breaking work of railroad workers. Built in the 19th Century, largely by black and Chinese workers, the railway system played an integral part in building capitalism in the United States, carrying oil, steel, and other critical products to western markets. The “robber baron” industrialists, such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, made a killing in these industries by cheating and violently attacking workers to create massive wealth.
Today, railroad workers are on the rise. This article will describe potential, current, and previous railway strikes. Because these militant multiracial actions disrupt business, they can improve the lives of workers much more substantially than any electoral strategies. Mass struggles teach us how to work together, identify our enemies and allies, and how to make changes.
The editors welcome this article from Joe Ramsey who analyzes Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. He argues that we must extend our compassion and beliefs that people can change to those whose situations lead to harmful actions. He states that: “the hierarchical sorting of people into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ invariably draws upon and contributes to the toxic legacies of nationalism, race, class, as well as gender, homophobia, ableism, and more. But, as Stevenson makes clear, it is not simply abhorrent as an expression of such injustice. It is fundamentally dehumanizing and alienating for all involved, and corrosive to the potential for positive social change in general.” Ramsey’s review contributes to the discussion of abolition, restorative justice, and mitigation. Is it possible to treat people with compassion under capitalism? Do we want to forgive perpetrators of crimes against the working class, whether police or fascist rulers? Can we abolish or mitigate racism under capitalism? Read on. The Editors.
“Our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.”
-Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”*
-Terence, African Roman playwright & former slave
(*favorite ‘maxim’ of Karl Marx)
Far too many people in the United States are officially condemned to have their futures cut short. The most extreme of these cases are found on Death Row, where thousands now sit, sentenced to be executed by the state—some likely for crimes they did not even commit. To these we must add another 55,000 people who languish permanently in US prisons, sentenced to “life” without even the possibility of parole. They too are condemned to die, behind bars, if not today, then eventually—no matter what they do or say, no matter how unfair the events that landed them in prison in the first place.
What does it mean for a society to condemn so many, so finally?
Are you sad because a bout of Covid-19 disrupted your life with illness, bills, or even the death of a friend or family member? Are you anxious because your benefits have ceased and you can’t find a new job? Are you worried because the brain fog after Covid has persisted so long? Are you angry because you are being evicted or are short of food? Maybe you are one of the statistics being counted in the supposed wave of the mentally ill. After having Covid, people were 55% more likely to be on antidepressants and 65% more likely to be on anti-anxiety drugs than uninfected contemporaries (NYT 2/16/22).
We will argue that the new stressor of Covid is only another one added to those that capitalism already provides: poverty, racism, poor social services, sexism, police violence. High quality housing, education, health care, recreation and a healthy environment are difficult to attain and maintain even for middle and modestly high-income workers. In addition, we now live in a world in which we are witnessing the imminence of climate disaster, the rising risk of nuclear war, the increased frequency of pandemics, and the worsening of inflation causing desperation among millions. We urgently need to prepare to change this system. Let us begin by examining the ways in which the powerful in our society try explain away its deficiencies by blaming them on deficiencies within us, within our bodies and minds.
Anatomy of a Strike – Class Struggle or Business Unionism
During August, 2022 in Prince George’s County, MD, 170 paratransit operators of Metro Access in the Amalgamated Transportation Union (ATU 689) walked off their jobs to demand increased wages, more sick leave, and improved health and retirement benefits. Metro Access transports people living with disabilities to medical appointments, grocery stores, and social events. Most are too poor to have cars or pay for cabs or Uber and need transport that accommodates wheelchairs.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates the bus and subway systems, contracted out Metro Access to the billionaire French Transdev Corporation known for its anti-union activities. In 2019, WMATA bus operators working for Transdev struck for 85 days to achieve pay parity with other WMATA drivers. These contract arrangements weaken the ability of workers to organize larger strikes and forge solidarity across the work sites.
We’ve all heard the news by now: the more than 150,000 people who live in Jackson, Mississippi haven’t had drinkable water in their homes since late July and no water at all from August 28 until September 7. As of then, you could at least flush a toilet. Even the local elementary school had to close. It is no surprise that 82% of Jackson’s population is black and 27% are poor.
Covid-19 has re-emphasized the inequities of capitalism, displaying how it leaves the aged, those with chronic illness, and those with low-paying jobs who labor in close-packed, unprotected workplaces and live in crowded housing more vulnerable. Even without Covid-19, capitalists treat older workers, whether sick or retired as surplus, disposable people who drag down profits and require costly health care. Under capitalism, the ruling class values workers only by their ability to produce and thereby create profit.
This article will discuss the politics of disability from a class perspective that supports the participation and inclusion of all workers in society according to their abilities and preferences. It argues against creating another category of identity politics.
The constant drum beat of white supremacy has enabled the murderers of many people: black Bible Study members in Charlotte, Asian women workers in Georgia, Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh, and Latinx shoppers in Texas. Now a white supremacist has killed 10 black residents in Buffalo. Shopping, working, and worshipping while black, Latin, Jewish, and Asian can get you killed. This shooting is a horrific outcome of the racism in Buffalo and elsewhere.
These attacks appear to be the random work of deranged people. While mental illness may be a factor, these men are deeply influenced by racism. It is hard to predict the exact time and place of these murders, but the intentional and perpetual inculcation of racist ideas by US capitalism ensures that it will sow division and distrust and erupt in violence.
After the shooting, The Washington Post polled a national sample of black residents on its effects, revealing a high level of mistrust of white workers and the police:
70% believed half of whites held racist ideas
55% wanted more economic investment to alleviate poverty and neglected communities instead of increased policing favored by 24%
1 in 4 considered buying a gun (Washington Post, Poll: Black Americans fear more attacks after Buffalo. 5-22-2022, A3).
Some white faces appeared at the funerals and vigils, but more white residents must overcome the segregation and reach out to their black neighbors with support and activism. While living conditions and racist violence differ in degree between black and white residents, both groups have high rates of poverty, 31% and 18% respectively, both over the 13% in New York State (Census data, 2000-2020, https://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-Buffalo-New-York.html).
This article describes how Buffalo businessmen promote segregation and racism to produce wealth for themselves and poor health, educational, and economic outcomes for black residents. It calls for building multiracial solidarity while rejecting the identity politics that divide us into separate silos.
Overturning a woman’s right to abortion is the latest effort to keep women powerless, providing free domestic labor in the home and under the control of the male-dominated state.
It is not the first attack. Seventeenth century witch hunts stigmatized and murdered outspoken women. Slavery turned black women into child and wealth generators for plantation owners. Throughout capitalist history, women have been demeaned and impoverished, especially black, indigenous, and Latinx women, in order to make extra profits. This article documents how capitalism oppresses women and argues that abortion supporters must broaden their demands to address the broader role of sexism under capitalism.