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Going To Work Shouldn’t Be A Death Sentence

Workers Have the Right to Safe Workplaces.

For workers at Amazon and a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, going to work was a death sentence. Workers must fight for the right to a safe workplace.

On Friday night, at a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, an alarm sounded with a tornado warning. One employee, Elijah Johnson, approached his manager. “I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired.” “‘Even with the weather like this, you’re still going to fire me?’” he asked the manager. The manager replied, “Yes.”

Workers who took shelter in hallways and bathrooms were ordered back to work. The bosses took a roll call to see if anyone had left. Three hours after the warning sirens began — more than enough time to send all employees home to seek shelter — the building was leveled by a tornado with 102 employees inside. Eight people were killed at Mayfield Consumer Products.

Workers make $8 an hour.

In Edwardsville, Illinois, Amazon workers were also on the job when emergency tornado warnings were issued across the area. Workers were coming in for a shift change when the tornado hit the warehouse. Larry Virden, a father of four, texted his girlfriend: “Amazon won’t let us leave.” It was the last thing he texted her. She responded “I hope everything is okay. I love you. ”Virden and five other workers died when the tornado tore through the Amazon warehouse that night.

The tornado that ripped apart homes and buildings in Illinois, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee is a horrible tragedy. Over 88 people have died, with the death toll rising as more people are found in the aftermath of one of the deadliest tornado events in U.S. history. Entire towns have been leveled and many people have lost their homes.

But the loss of life wasn’t a random tragedy. “Natural” disasters like these are yet another effect of climate change. Over the past 20 years, the number of tornadoes has increased across the southeast and midwest, sowing destruction in their wake. Recent research ties this increased frequency to climate change. Capitalism-induced global warming is creating the conditions for these kinds of tornadoes.

These extreme weather events expose the criminal negligence of the capitalist bosses who suck as much profit out of workers that they can. As climate change escalates, bosses will continue to put workers’ lives last. It’s urgent that workers take action to protect themselves from their bosses and from dangerous weather events. Going to work shouldn’t be a death sentence.

The Bosses Are Responsible

Both Amazon and Mayfield were criminally negligent of their workers, not allowing them to leave work once management was made aware of the tornado warnings. Hours passed between the first warning sirens and the time the tornado hit the Kentucky candle factory. Workers were actually called in for their shifts at Amazon in Illinois despite tornados being reported in the area.

Yet an Amazon statement blamed the deceased workers for their own deaths, saying they didn’t shelter in the right place in the facility. But the warehouse itself isn’t even built to withstand tornado winds. It was built using a “tilt up” technique — a cheap way of building big warehouses that experts clearly state “are not invented for resisting tornadoes.” There were no safe rooms built to resist tornadoes either.

In 2019, Mayfield was cited for 12 safety violations. The company’s injury rate was also above average for the industry in 2020, according to Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. And amidst the Great Resignation and Mayfield’s mass firing of workers in the pandemic, they had prisoners work in the factory for extremely low wages. In an astounding show of callousness, Mayfield’s spokesperson Bob Ferguson had the audacity to paint the situation in a positive light: “We’ve had a miracle situation. Only 8 lost.” The Mayfield and Amazon bosses showed criminal irresponsibility with workers’ lives. Their thirst for profit caused the deaths of these 13 people. This is murder.

The bosses must be held responsible — and not only the managers at the workplace, but the higher ups that set the breakneck pace of production. The blame goes all the way to the top. This means that there should be an independent investigation, made up of workers and scientists, of the full extent of Amazon and Mayfield’s negligence. While OSHA just opened an investigation into Amazon’s unsafe working conditions, it’s too little too late. The state ignores the warning signs until after the fact. And over and over we’ve seen how state lobbying keeps unsafe regulations on the books. Accountability must include the trial and punishment of the bosses at the highest level. And it also means compensation for the families whose loved ones were forced to stay at work in a tornado, especially the families of those who were killed by the bosses’ thirst for profit.

It’s Workers’ Right Not to Work in Inclement Weather

Amazon and Mayfield put workers in an impossible position during the tornados: stay and risk your life, or lose your job. Workers should not have to pay with their lives to keep capitalist profits running. This terrible choice is made possible by the maintenance of “at will” employment laws in states like Kentucky and Illinois that allow bosses to fire workers for no reason at all. Earlier this year, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly voted down the Illinois Employment Security Act, which clearly states that a “just cause” for firing does not include “an employee’s refusal to work under conditions that the employee reasonably believes would expose him or her, other employees, or the public to an unreasonable health or safety risk.” Amazon played a key role in lobbying to make sure the measure was voted down.

“At will” employment laws, which are on the books all over the country, mean that workers can get fired for leaving unsafe working conditions. Such anti-worker legislation ensures that bosses have plenty of weapons to use against workers and threaten their livelihoods in order to make more profits.

This week’s events are not an anomaly. Despite emergency declarations by the National Weather Service or local governments, many workplaces keep their operations running. Amazon has repeatedly forced its workers to keep working through life-threatening natural disasters. During excessive heat waves in the Pacific Northwest earlier this year, Amazon kept its warehouse workers packing boxes in over 90 degrees without fans. In the spring, Amazon made employees in New York City come into work during the devastating floods of Hurricane Ida.

We must fight to end “at will employment.” But this is nowhere near enough.

We must demand the immediate passage of a federal law that ensures that workers do not have to come into work during weather emergencies, and that they are paid for the hours lost because of the storm.

It’s a Worker’s Right to Have a Union

Amazon spent $10,000 a day to make sure that employees didn’t unionize in Bessemer, Alabama. All over the country, Amazon has developed an internal spying scheme to make sure that workers don’t organize.

Amazon wants to make sure they can squeeze every last drop of profit from every single worker. This means that workers can’t miss a shift or even take time during the workday to have fire or tornado drills. It means they can’t have any sort of union protection, since Amazon could lose its carte blanche to exploit workers in whatever ways it deems necessary for producing more profits. Neither Mayfield nor Amazon workers were unionized. But the deaths of these 13 workers shows why unions are essential, whether temporary workers or full-time workers. Unions can fight for contracts that make stipulations ensuring workers’ safety on the job, that they have a say in how safety precautions are implemented in the workplace, and that they are fairly compensated when they do get injured on the job. Unions provide workers with the ability to organize to fight for their demands against the bosses who want to extract as much labor from them as they can.

This is why it’s essential to fight against every single anti-union law that stands in the way of workers having their basic right to organize, and to fight bosses’ every attempt to union-bust. Every worker should have the right to organize and join a union, without having to jump through the infinite bureaucratic hoops put in place by the U.S. state doing the dirty work of corporations like Amazon and Mayfield. It is the responsibility of workers already organized in unions to fight against laws like right-to-work, side by side with unorganized workers. The more workers who are organized in unions, the more power we have as a class to fight against every injustice leveled at us by the capitalists and their allies, including safety violations like those at Mayfield and Amazon. But this also means that unions must organize to keep workers safe. This can’t be accomplished by top-down unions that spend money and energy, not on enabling workers to fight for their interests, but on electing the very Democrats who uphold anti-worker legislation. Only unions led by and for the rank and file can guarantee the safety of workers.

Worker-Led Health and Safety Committees

“After these deaths, there is no way in hell I am relying on Amazon to keep me safe.” The deaths of the workers in the candle factory in Kentucky and at the Amazon warehouse in Illinois are a tragic reminder of the fact that the bosses are not interested in keeping their workers safe if it means slowing down their profits. Whether it is sending nurses to treat Covid-19 patients in trash bags and masks they bought themselves, or keeping workers on the production line during a tornado, the bosses are more concerned with cutting corners to keep costs down than they are with making sure workers are actually safe in their workplaces.

The tragedy in the Amazon warehouse in Illinois isn’t just the product of a single night’s mistakes. It was years of management substituting real safety measures for crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, forgoing proper safety measures in order to keep workers filling orders and maximizing Amazon’s behemoth profits.

Workers at other Amazon Illinois facilities near Edwardsville report that they do not learn inclement weather safety procedures or do tornado drills. When employees brought up concerns about safety drills and other precautions, management responded that they were being suspended because of Covid-19. But workers say they haven’t ever received such training.

As one employee at an Illinois fulfillment center explained to The Intercept, “I have been here six and a half years and have never once been involved in a tornado safety drill on my shift, as well as have not taken part in a fire safety drill in about two years.” Another worker says the bosses care more about meeting quotas than preparing employees for possible weather events: “It would cost them a lot of money to stop production long enough to do it.”

Amazon is a particularly ruthless employer when it comes to workers’ safety on the job. The National Employment Law Project recently reported that Amazon warehouse workers in Minnesota are injured at more than double the rate of non-Amazon warehouses in the state. Amazon, like all employers, makes a cold calculation weighing the cost of workplace injuries and high turnover against the profits generated by speedy production and cutting personnel spending. This is what informs safety protocols at places like Amazon and Mayfield; the human toll of these events is hardly a relevant factor.

As one worker explained, “I don’t trust them with my safety to be quite frank. If there’s severe weather on the way, I think I should be able to make my own decision about safety.” And she’s right. Amazon’s supply chain model and the guarantee of getting products to people’s doorsteps in a couple of days requires workers to put their bodies and health at risk packing boxes and delivering them at breakneck speeds.

But as the people who perform the labor that makes society run, workers should decide what keeps them safe at work. The best disaster prevention tactic is to put decisions about workplace safety in the hands of the workers, not the bosses. Every workplace should be able to form independent, worker-led health and safety committees in which workers discuss the protocols they want to put in place in order to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe, and to organize to challenge the bosses if they threaten that safety.

Such committees could coordinate, for example, monthly tornado drills to ensure that all workers know how to respond in case of an emergency. They could demand the construction of tornado shelters onsite so that if any workers remain at work during an extreme weather event, they have safe and reliable protection during the storm. And it would be this kind of committee that decides when to evacuate the workplace, not the bosses.

Too Much Blood Has Been Spilled

Many are calling this Amazon’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, named after the 1911 fire that killed over 100 people in New York City and brought attention to the unsafe conditions in factories. Rose Schneiderman, a prominent socialist and union activist gave a speech about the fire at a memorial. She explained,

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship…Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

She was right in 1911. And today, as we stand on the brink of climate disaster, and mourn the deaths of 13 workers at the hands of capitalists, Schneiderman’s words are still true. Only the working class can protect itself.

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