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Capitalism vs. Safety, Health: An Old Story Again

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The U.S. president recently ordered meatpacking employees back into workplaces plagued by coronavirus. He did not order the employers to make their slaughterhouses safe. GOP-proposed legislation exempts employers from lawsuits by employees sickened or killed by coronavirus infections at workplaces. The GOP is mostly silent about requiring employers to maintain safe or healthy workplaces. Employers across the country threaten workers who refuse to return to jobs they find unsafe. They demand that employees return or risk being fired. Job loss likely means loss of health insurance for employees’ families. Being fired risks also losing eligibility for unemployment insurance.

Employers are now going to extremes to evade the costs of safe and healthy workplaces. Recently, New Orleans’ authorities and their contractors fired their $10.25 per hour garbage collectors after a short strike. The strikers had demanded protective equipment against garbage possibly infected with the coronavirus and also $15 per hour “hazard” pay. New Orleans replaced the striking workers by contracting for nearby prison inmates paid $1.33 per hour and individuals from halfway houses. Capitalism’s iron fist hits the working class with this “choice”: unsafe job, or poverty, or slave labor with both.

Capitalism has always struggled to minimize outlays on workplace safety and health. Workers have protested this wherever capitalism became the prevailing economic system over the last three centuries. Upton Sinclair’s popular book, The Jungle, published over a century ago, exposed spectacularly unsafe and unhealthy conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The 1906 passages of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act responded to public outrage over that industry’s working conditions. Coronavirus infection rates among employees of U.S. pork processing plants as high as 27 percent illustrate how employers forever “economize” on workplace health and safety.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the U.S. Department of Labor was established in 1970. It sought to add more systematic federal government supervision and inspection to the regulations pressing employers to provide safe and healthy workplace conditions. Its mixed successes attest to the lengths employers will go to evade, weaken, or ignore efforts to enforce workers’ safety and health.

The profit-driven logic of capitalist enterprises incentivizes not spending capital on workplace safety and health conditions unless and until they deteriorate to the point of threatening profits. Capitalists and mainstream economics textbooks repeat endlessly that profit is every enterprise’s “bottom line.” Profitability measures each firm’s economic performance. Profits reward employers; losses punish them. Employers use capital to yield profits; that is their chief goal and priority. As objectives, workplace safety and health are secondary, tertiary or worse: obstacles to maximizing profits.

Capitalism has always sacrificed the safety and health of the employee majority to boost profits of its employer minority. That minority makes all the key enterprise decisions and excludes the employee majority from that decision-making. No wonder employers figure disproportionally among society’s rich, safe, and healthy, while employees figure disproportionally among the poor, unsafe, and unhealthy. Capitalism displays not only extreme inequalities of wealth and income, but also all their derivative inequalities: economic, political, and cultural. Pandemics expose and worsen them all.

In some times and places, capitalism’s iron fist wears velvet gloves. When profits are high and/or critics of capitalism ally strongly with its victims, employers may spend more on making workplaces less unsafe and less unhealthy. Otherwise, employers can and do spend less. If and when they fail to prevent government regulations mandating minimum health and safety standards, employers campaign to evade, weaken, and eventually repeal them. Employers usually repeat the same old arguments to block or undo regulations mandating safety and health standards. Such regulations, they insist, divert capital from productive uses (hiring workers) to “unproductive” uses (improving workers’ health and safety). Thus fewer workers will be hired, hurting the employee class. With such arguments employers have often succeeded and undermined workplace safety and health.

Capitalism’s long record of maintaining nearly constant unemployment—its “reserve army”—not only got workers to accept lower wages for fear of being replaced by more desperate unemployed. Unemployment also got employed workers to accept unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. Unemployment is a kind of torture by one class of another. It helps maintain lower wages and unsafe and unhealthy worksites. That is one reason why reduced labor needs are managed, in capitalism, not by keeping everyone employed but for fewer hours per week. That option is not generally chosen because firing a portion of the workforce—depriving those unfortunates of jobs—better disciplines workers to accept what they might otherwise reject.

In today’s situation, employers and the government, equally unprepared for the virus, did too little too late to prevent a dangerous pandemic. Sudden mass lockdowns led to mass unemployment. Expensive reconfiguring for social distancing, mass testing, cleaning and disinfection, etc., might have rendered jobsites safe and healthy. Instead, employers and their political spokespersons press employees back into unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. A “reopening the economy” is ordered. Employers get to impose unsafe and unhealthy workplaces by reframing the process as a patriotic return to a noble, national “work ethic.” Employers are counting on this sham drama now.

Consider this historic parallel: capitalists in the U.S. and elsewhere once regularly employed children as young as five years old. Their jobs’ safety and health conditions were mostly inadequate and often deplorable. Their pay fell well below that of adults. They suffered injury as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Schooling was neglected if not altogether absent. Yet capitalists insisted that economic well-being and prosperity required their access to child labor. Ending it would bring economic decline possibly “worse” than child labor. A reasonable “trade-off” was required. Employers argued that poor families needed and welcomed incomes from employed children. Employers also insisted, then as now, that they had spent all they could and all that was needed to provide adequately safe and healthy work conditions.

Working-class responses to child labor took time to develop the necessary understanding and political power. Once they did, child labor was doomed. Working-class parents confronted capitalists with a non-negotiable demand: overcome the horrors of child labor by ending it. Employers would have to find other ways to profit. Many did even as many others moved abroad where child labor is still allowed. They still do.

Today’s parallel non-negotiable demand: end unsafe and unhealthy workplaces. That requires differently organized workplaces. The majority, employees, must control their safety and health. It must be a higher priority than profit for the minority of owners, boards of directors, etc. Once again we meet society’s need for transition to a worker-coop based economy.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at democracyatwork.info.


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Clash over government role in worker safety intensifies as businesses reopen

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Democrats and unions are trying to compel the Trump administration to aggressively police workplace safety as businesses from auto plants to retail stores begin reopening across the country. 

The AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million workers, on Monday asked a federal court to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue mandatory workplace safety rules, which the agency so far has refused to do. And House Democrats on Friday passed a coronavirus aid package that would require the agency to issue emergency safety requirements for employers.

The moves come amid a standoff that’s been brewing for weeks over who’s accountable if workers get sick on the job. Business groups say the economic downturn won’t end until places of work can reopen, and that can’t happen if employers are getting sued over exposure to the highly contagious virus. That message is gaining traction with congressional Republicans, who are pushing for liability protections for employers whose workers fall ill. And OSHA says new rules aren’t needed.

“Because of the enforcement authorities already available to it and the fluid nature of this health crisis, OSHA does not believe that a new regulation, or standard, is appropriate at this time,” an OSHA spokesperson said. 

Advocates for workers point to the data: Out of 3,990 Covid-19-related complaints that OSHA has received — many concerning a lack of personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gowns — the agency had opened only 310 coronavirus-related inspections as of May 18, according to a Labor Department spokesperson.

Some 2,694 of those complaints have been closed, and the agency has not yet issued a single Covid-19-related citation, the spokesperson said. (One possible reason is that OSHA takes into account a business’s “good faith efforts” when deciding whether to issue a citation.)

According to the watchdog group Accountable.U.S., OSHA inspections have gone down since Covid-19 was declared a national emergency on March 13,from 217 per day on average to 60. 

OSHA maintains that the agency investigates every complaint and “will enforce workplace protection requirements where appropriate.”

“The agency also responded to double the number of inquiries related to Covid-19 as compared to all inquiries handled in March and April of the previous year,” a spokesperson said. 

But David Michaels, who was OSHA chief during the Obama administration, said last week at a member briefing for the House Education and Labor Committee, “OSHA is essentially sitting back and saying, ‘We can’t do anything.’ It’s really appalling to me.”

Even when OSHA receives a complaint that someone died from potential Covid-19 exposure in the workplace, the agency’s enforcement plan says that “may warrant an on-site inspection,” but only in high-risk industries such as health care.

Safety complaints regarding lower-risk industries, the enforcement plan says, should prompt a “non-formal” response from OSHA that entails notifying the employer of the hazard by email. “All other formal complaints alleging SARS-CoV-2 exposure, where employees are engaged in medium or lower exposure risk tasks … will not normally result in an on-site inspection,” the enforcement plan directs.

The agency says the measures are an effort to take “appropriate diligence to protect our own personnel.”

“That is not enforcement. That is nothing,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA policy adviser during the Obama administration who is now with the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. “They are not responding to formal complaints and are simply sending letters to the employer.”

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia maintains his department can enforce worker safety under a provision in the 1970 statute that created OSHA called the “general duty clause,” which requires businesses to maintain “a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

The clause enables OSHA “to provide for the protection of employees who are working under such unique circumstances that no standard has yet been enacted to cover this situation,” the House Committee on Education and Labor said in 1970. Scalia has said the clause is “applicable” to Covid-19 safety enforcement, and that the agency will “use it as appropriate.”

But OSHA has rarely used the general duty clause in enforcement. According to the National Safety Council, it was applied in 1.5 percent of all OSHA citationsin fiscal year 2018 — in part, said Jordan Barab, who was OSHA deputy during the Obama administration, because it’s a cumbersome legal tool requiring a four-part legal test that makes it vulnerable to court challenge.

Worker advocates are now trying to force OSHA to become more aggressive. The AFL-CIO’s filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Monday came after the federation and other unions petitioned the agency directly to issue a coronavirus safety standard in March. The agency did not act on their requests.

“It’s truly a sad day in America when working people must sue the organization tasked with protecting our health and safety,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “But we’ve been left no choice. If the Trump administration refuses to act, we must compel them to.” 

The coronavirus stimulus bill that House Democrats passed on Friday would require OSHA to issue, within seven days of enactment, an “emergency temporary standard” — that is, mandatory coronavirus safety rules for employers. Through the crisis, OSHA has issued guidance documents, many in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect workers in meatpacking plantspharmaciesnursing homesdentists’ officesand various other industries. But these are all recommendations, not government directives.

The Democrats’ bill would also require OSHA to issue, within 24 months of enactment, mandatory workplace safety rules for future disease outbreaks. The Obama administration began work on such a standard in response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 but never completed work on it. That effort was shelved by the Trump administration.

To business groups and many congressional Republicans, more aggressive federal enforcement of workplace safety is a luxury that America can’t afford when business shutdowns have pushed unemployment up to Depression-era levels.

“We need to make sure bad actors are not given a break,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. “But the people who are trying to do it right, can reopen their businesses, their communities, schools and colleges with the assurance that if you practice the right procedures that you don’t have to worry about getting sued on top of everything else.”

But David Vladeck, a Georgetown Law professor, told senators at a May 12 hearing that providing blanket immunity to businesses, far from eliminating the cost of Covid-19 related injuries, would merely shift them onto workers and consumers.

“Immunity signals to workers and consumers that they go back to work, or they go to the grocery store at their peril,” Vladeck said, adding that businesses that safeguard employees and follow the recommended guidance will be protected from liability already.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. Her work has been published by The Washington Post and the Associated Press, among other outlets.


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Proper Chemical Safety Tips

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Employee safety is one of the top priorities in any workplace, but it’s elevated when chemicals are involved. Laboratories, pharmaceutical facilities, warehouses and other environments such as these carry additional risks. Some materials can release caustic vapors or cause serious burns if they come in contact with exposed skin. Spills can create hazards on the floor of a facility or require specialized equipment for cleanup.

Keeping people safe while they handle these chemicals may involve the use of safety gear, which has its own set of protocols. For all of these reasons and more, it’s crucial to take extra care when working in proximity to these substances. When it comes to creating a safer environment in this context, no point is too big or too small. Every action, from the big picture to the smallest detail, matters for protecting life and limb around these various hazardous materials.

From a macro perspective, it’s essential to have clear-cut protocols in place that detail precisely what’s expected of employees when handling chemical agents. Supporting those rules should be a regular training program designed to educate newer staff and reinforce safe practices in veterans. On a smaller scale, it is important to remember that even individual beakers and flasks should be inspected periodically for signs of wear. A hairline crack or other tiny flaw can lead to a leak or spill that could have disastrous consequences. Ensuring that all personnel are equipped with safety goggles, gloves, coveralls and other pieces of protective gear is another crucial element of a safe and productive workplace. Even something as simple as keeping all containers clearly labeled and on the appropriate shelves in storage areas can reduce the risk of accidents significantly. For more tips for working safely with chemicals, take a look at the accompanying infographic.

About EOC1: EOC1 is a leading provider of controlled environmental testing and certification services. For over 14 years, their experience covers a range of industries including hospitals, laboratories, pharmaceutical, manufacturing and more. EOC1 serves to help their clients meet their contamination control needs while meeting industry and regulatory requirements.


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Koch-Funded Think Tanks Are Lobbying to Send Workers to Their Deaths

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It’s no mystery what will happen if we rush to reopen the economy and send people back to work before epidemiologists say it is safe to do so. A model produced in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March projected a worst-case scenario of 1.7 million Americans killed. Another estimate by the Imperial College London put this number at 2.2 million. We know that COVID-19, which has already taken more than 40,000 U.S. lives, is disproportionately killing African Americans. Poor people are already bearing the brunt of this crisis—and will die in even larger numbers if they are prematurely sent back to wait tables and crowd together in warehouses and factories.

Amid this climate, a small army of right-wing think tanks and conservative organizations is cynically invoking the plight of the downtrodden to make the case for swiftly reopening the economy and sending workers into deadly conditions. Some of the organizations beating this drum the loudest—the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—are behind the most anti-worker measures of our times, from the anti-union Janus Supreme Court ruling to the Trump administration’s work requirements for food stamps. As Trump, the GOP, CEOs and now billionaire-backed “protesters” call for the economy to reopen, these think tanks are working fervently behind the scenes, crafting talking points, speaking with legislators and building coalitions aimed at boosting Wall Street’s profits, at the expense of ordinary people.

“The people running these organizations are going to remain safely ensconced in gated mansions with little danger of getting infected themselves, while they make millions of Americans go back to work standing shoulder to shoulder,” Carl Rosen, general president for the UE union (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), told In These Times.

On April 16, Kay Coles James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, praised President Trump for issuing guidelines for states to reopen their economies in three phases. “The administration is rightly working to restore livelihoods in the midst of catastrophic job losses while also taking care to balance Americans’ health and safety,” said James. “The Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission is also working quickly to deliver additional recommendations to governments at every level, the private sector, and churches, charities, and other parts of civil society on a pathway to reopen America.”

James was listed as a thought leader on Trump’s dubious “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups”—likely at least partially a P.R. stunt, but nonetheless, a measure of influence and power. For the Heritage Foundation, it’s a sign that the organization’s campaign to reopen the economy might be paying off. The group announced a “National Coronavirus Recovery Commission” on April 6 and, soon after, issued a five-phase plan for reopening America. According to the Washington Post, the Heritage Foundation is working with other conservative groups including FreedomWorks and ALEC as part of an informal “Save Our Country” coalition aimed at reopening the economy. With funding from the Koch Foundation, ExxonMobile and a bevy of wealthy donors, the Heritage Foundation is at the center of political efforts to prematurely restart the economy.

Remarkably, the organization is citing the well-being of the poor people it wants to send into treacherous conditions when issuing this call. On April 13, James declared, “Keeping the American people at work and prosperous is what will produce better health outcomes for our citizens. A growing economy has the money for research and development into new medical innovations and cures; has more resources to better educate and train medical personnel; and creates greater capacities of beds, equipment, medicines, and personnel to handle the sick. It’s also an economy where abundance allows us to have the resources to help poorer citizens get the medical help that they need.” In other words, she is arguing that reopening the economy will make people sick, but market forces will somehow offset this catastrophe by providing the things we need to treat them—a claim made without evidence, and against the advice of epidemiological experts.

This insistence on sending workers into treacherous conditions “for their own good” stems directly from the organization’s history. The Heritage Foundation was heavily influential in the Reagan administration and right-wing Tea Party movement, and was a major influencer in the Trump administration’s transition team. It is vehemently anti-union, a fierce opponent of a $15 minimum wage, a fervent supporter of the 2018 Janus ruling, which pummelled public-sector unions, and a proponent of so-called right-to-work laws, which say workers don’t have to pay dues to the unions that represent them. Heritage has  made gutting public programs for the poor a central focus throughout its existence, and opposes expanding healthcare access.

The organization saw one of its cruelest agenda items come to fruition in December of 2019, when the Trump administration placed further restrictions on who can receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, declaring that able-bodied adults without children in places that have an unemployment rate below 10% have to work 20 hours a week to qualify. This rule was approved by Trump despite warnings that 700,000 people would lose their food stamps. Maggie Dickinson, a researcher who studied SNAP in New York City from 2011 to 2013, wrote that “work requirements have been shown to not help unemployed people find work and to make it more difficult for them to feed themselves. But taking people who are unemployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who directly receive food assistance.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the rule change “appears to base its intellectual underpinning on policy developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, experts say.” The Heritage Foundation, for its part, claimed credit in an article titled “Heritage Research Influences Food Stamp Eligibility Rule.”

According to Rosen of UE, “The only thing these corporations want to achieve is corporate profits as usual. That’s their real goal—not making sure working people have an income, not to make sure health and economic needs were taken care of. If those were their goals, they would support much more robust policies right now that make sure everyone has a full income and full healthcare through Medicare for All. These are the steps that have been taken in many european countries.”

“People need to be paid to stay home right now—that’s the only way we can recover as a country,” Rosen added. “Attempts to force people to go back to work when it’s not safe for them to do so is a horrendous, murderous policy.”

When it comes to the push to reopen the U.S. economy, the Heritage Foundation is not going it alone. As the Associated Press notes, the Koch-backed AFP was “one early shutdown opponent,” making the case that business should be allowed to “adapt and innovate.” Intercept reporter Lee Fang noted on March 26 that AFP, which calls itself a political advocacy group, “wants employees to return to work despite desperate pleas from public health officials that people should stay home as much as possible to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.” State chapters of AFP have also joined in the effort.

Like the Heritage Foundation, the AFP cites the hardships of poor people when pushing for the economy to reopen. “We can achieve public health without depriving the people most in need of the products and services provided by businesses across the country,” the organization said on March 20. “If businesses are shut down, where will people who are most in need get the things they need to care for themselves and others? Rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health.”

Yet AFP, described by In These Times writer Mary Bottari as “the Kochs’ ‘grassroots’ lobbying arm,” has played a tremendous role in gutting public programs aimed at protecting ordinary people, including the CDC, and social welfare programs, particularly Medicaid. In recent years, the organization has gone on a blitz trying to pass right-to-work laws, seeing some success.

Before the COVID-19 crisis began, AFP was mobilizing against the PRO Act, which passed the House in February. This legislation would strengthen the right to strike, override “right-to-work” laws, and punish bosses who retaliate against workers for attempting to form a union. While the legislation is not perfect, it would “go a long way toward reversing decades of GOP-backed efforts to grind unions into dust,” Jeremy Gantz wrote in February for In These Times. AFP is presently circulating a letter which declares, “This legislation would turn back the clock on workers’ rights by undermining many pro-worker successes of recent years, just one year after the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that affirmed union membership is a choice for all government workers nationwide.” AFP is not only pushing to send workers into dangerous conditions: It also wants to erode their right to collectively fight back.

But perhaps the biggest villain of all is ALEC, the Koch-backed “nonprofit” model-legislation shop that has devoted its nearly half-century of existence to eroding workers’ rights. ALEC has been active in efforts to reopen the economy. Its CEO Lisa B. Nelson told Newt Gingrich on March 27, “We believe preparations need to be made for a clarion call to get Americans back to work, and so the economy can start its rebound.” ALEC hosted a March 21 conference call featuring ALEC Board of Scholar Member Art Laffer, a right-wing economist and key figure behind the Reagan-era tax cuts for the rich. “We need to get production back—period,” declared Laffer, who was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by Trump last year.

As ALEC has called for policies that would endanger society’s most vulnerable, the organization has sought to portray itself as a victim. On an April 1 legislators call, ALEC Chief Economist Jonathan Williams said: “I think we all know how times of crises like these can be very dangerous times for those of us who believe in the ALEC principles of free markets and limited government and federalism.” Meanwhile, the organization is pushing for a host of other goals, including deregulation of telecommunications and supporting “federalism” and “state’s rights.”

In an interview, Laffer cited the plight of poor people when staking out his political positions. Reuters paraphrases, “‘I think it’s really important to balance out the economic consequences with the health consequences,’ Laffer said, adding that increased poverty from an extended shutdown could mean lower life expectancy, more suicide and a jump in child abuse.” (Notably, robust social programs, which Laffer opposes, are proven to reduce suicides during times of economic downturn.) And in a podcast interview, Nelson cited “working” as a public good: “Open america and get America working again,” she declared.

ALEC’s current advocacy emanates from a long history. As Mary Battari noted in a February 2018 story for In These Times, “ALEC was founded in 1973 as a venue for politicians and corporate lobbyists to meet behind closed doors and draft cookie-cutter legislation, known as ‘model bills,’ that promote corporate interests.” Today it boasts a massive network of 2,000 legislative members and 300 or more corporate members, according to The Center for Media and Democracy, which says, “ALEC is not a lobby; it is not a front group. It is much more powerful than that.” Aided by funding from corporations, corporate trade groups and the Koch Foundation, its bills have aimed to undermine unions, criminalize protests and privatize public goods. Over the past 15 years it has worked closely with conservatie advocacy groups, including AFP, to undermine unions.

According to Rosen, groups like ALEC are a big reason why we are so ill-prepared to meet the COVID-19 crises. “Over the last 50 years,” he says, “we’ve allowed corporate forces to systematically destroy the social safety net. There was no preparation done for a pandemic like this, even though it was clear that something like this could happen. The groups demanding we reopen are the ones that destroyed the social safety net, thereby creating the pressures making some people want to start up again.”

These three think tanks are pillars of a much broader effort to “reopen the economy,” which is another way of saying “treat workers as disposable widgets in service of corporate profits.” The oversized role of wealthy people in pushing this effort calls into question any claims that local protests for reopening constitute an organic, working-class movement. As the Guardian reports, “The Michigan Freedom Fund, which said it was a co-host of a recent Michigan rally against stay-at-home orders, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos family, regular donors to rightwing groups.” The DeVos family is one of the richest in Michigan.

Joining in the cacophony are individual CEOs, who occasionally put conservative organizations’ talking points in cruder and more honest terms. Billionaire Tom Golisano, founder and chairman of Paychex Inc., told Bloomberg in late March, “The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they’re going then so many of them will have to fold.” He added, “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Of course, for him, the “pro” is that he will not be the one serving tables, stocking warehouses or struggling to get healthcare once the economy reopens: When he talks about the costs, he’s talking about other people. The same can be said about the leaders of the conservative think tanks and organizations that are leading the push to send workers into danger: It will cost them nothing. The price for ordinary people will be immeasurable.

Lu Zhao and Indigo Olivier contributed research to this report.

This article was published at In These Times on April 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


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Trader Joe’s Said I Was ‘Essential’—Safety Concerns Made Me Quit

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I quit my job this month. No, not the well-paying NGO summer position; that was canceled weeks ago. Not the paid internship either; my boss hasn’t returned my emails or sent me back pay for the past month. I decided to let go of my last source of income because Trader Joe’s didn’t appear to take their workers’ safety seriously when I was working there.

As COVID-19 has swept through the country, the spread of the virus has been accompanied by a massive shift in how we view our workers. Blue-collar starter jobs—the grocery clerks, janitors, and postal workers of the U.S.—are now seen as essential to the survival of our country. Though they are often praised on social media and by elected officials, policy has yet to catch up.

Across America workers and their unions are rallying for increased protections and accommodations in these unprecedented times, demanding proper protective gear, sick leave, and hazard pay in order to continue to serve the public.

Some national retailers like Walmart and Target have increased wages and protections for their workers, but others, like Trader Joe’s, have been reluctant.

I have some health issues. Not too bad, but enough to make me think twice before going outside during a respiratory illness pandemic. I had always loved my job, and genuinely looked forward to showing up, especially in a time of crisis, to help my community and maybe make someone’s day that much better. I trusted my team to keep me safe. But the billion-dollar company let me down.

At Trader Joe’s, your coworkers are called your “crew,” and upper management takes the moniker “mate,” with the store manager as our “captain.” Nautical titles aside, leadership has been lacking since this crisis began and the policies around personal protection have been confusing at best.

One week we weren’t allowed to wear gloves at all. Then next, we could wear gloves when stocking shelves, but not at the register. No masks allowed, period. No restrictions on how many people can enter the store, and no guidance around social distancing and how to stay safe as a cashier.

In our daily meetings, whimsically called “huddles,” I heard less about how to protect yourself from infection and more about why unionizing would hurt us.

As the weeks went on, and the full scope of the situation became apparent, I kept waiting to hear that our management would do something. Finally, the day came, and I was shocked: there was no message of safety protocols, no guidance on how to minimize contact, just a disclosure that those who had worked during the first weeks of panic would get a small share of the profits from the store as compensation. For most, this amounted to less than $2 per hour.

A week later, for my own safety, I quit.

I ultimately made my decision from a place of privilege, and I am thankful that I had the means to make a decision like that in the first place. I am fortunate to have family with the means to support me. I have lost all my income, and like many, will not see a cent from the Care Act tax refund. I am ineligible for unemployment benefits, but unlike other immunocompromised workers, I have the luxury to sit at home and wait this out, for now at least.

Since I quit, I understand there has been some clarification in store policies. Officially, masks are now allowed, and stores can limit the number of customers. Yet still, daily reports come in from stores around the country detailing contradictory messaging from management, and confusion over what the store’s policies are. There has been a temporary 10 percent increase to the employee discount. Employees are still encouraged to donate their own paid leave to their peers. I received a letter from national management two days ago, one that went out to all TJ’s workers around the country. I opened it eagerly, hoping it contained some new information about medical leave, or compensation. It was two pages on the dangers of unions.

The pandemic has revealed the urgent need for billionaires profiting from the food industry to truly protect and support workers on the front lines. Treat your grocery workers like the heroes they are for continuing to work in the face of danger. Just understand that for many, they have no other option.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. April 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Frakes is a former Trader Joe’s employee. To protect the author from workplace retribution, their name has been changed.


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Coronavirus has killed dozens of New York City transit workers after they had to beg for masks

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Workers in New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) took measures into their own hands. They wore their own masks, brought their own bleach solutions to clean shared workspaces, and had bus passengers enter through the rear door and blocked them from sitting too close to drivers. Eventually, the MTA started to catch up. But at least 41 New York City transit workers have died of COVID-19, another 1,500 have tested positive for the virus, and more than 5,500 others are self-quarantining because they have symptoms. That’s a huge hit for a workforce of 70,000.

It’s having a ripple effect through the entire city. The MTA is so understaffed it can’t keep up with even the reduced-by-25% schedule it had planned. Even with ridership down by over 90%, subway platforms and cars are crowded because trains aren’t coming as often, which in turn increases the danger of the virus spreading through the crowds in the city that has become the epicenter of the disease.

Union officials pushed MTA bosses to hand out masks and other safety equipment earlier, but the organization stuck by the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against masks. Some workers who wore their own masks were told to take them off because they violated uniform policy.

Bus drivers, whose passengers walk right by them, have been particularly hard-hit, with at least 11 dead.

If you want a devastating illustration of how the United States has let down its working people, check out the picture up top of MTA cleaning staff in early March and compare it with the one below of a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, being disinfected in late February.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Striking McDonald’s Workers Say Their Lives Are More Essential Than Fast Food

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The fast food industry has long insulated itself from organized labor by building a legal wall between the parent company and the individual franchised stores. That imaginary separation is being tested by the reality of the coronavirus pandemic, as McDonald’s workers across the country have held strikes and walked out, unwilling to risk their lives for fries with no safety net.

The Fight For $15 has found fertile new ground in helping to organize fast food strikes in recent days. McDonald’s workers in Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa, Raleigh-Durham and elsewhere have staged job actions this week, in a coordinated push for safer working conditions, paid sick leave and hazard pay.

Maria Ruiz, who has spent 16 years at McDonald’s, was one of the workers who went on strike yesterday outside of her store in San Jose, California. Ruiz said that employees have been worried for their own health for the entire past month, watching the store’s dwindling supply of hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies. On some days, there was no hand sanitizer at all. Ruiz says employees were only recently granted permission to wear masks at work, despite the fact that there are often more than a dozen people crowded into the store’s lobby.

“We are tired of taking the risk,” said Ruiz, who earns $16.35 per hour in a city that has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. McDonald’s workers are asking for an extra $3 per hour hazard pay, along with adequate protective equipment, a guarantee of two weeks of paid sick leave for anyone who needs to quarantine, and a guarantee that the company will cover their health care costs if they get sick with COVID-19. Ruiz acknowledges that she needs to work in order to pay her bills, but said that she could no longer ignore the danger to her health. “I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she said, “but I’m more afraid to lose my life.”

The Fight For 15 said that the McDonald’s workers are expected to stay away from work until their demands for protective equipment on the job are met. It seems likely that the country will see a steady, rolling procession of fast food walkouts in coming weeks, part of a nationwide strike wave that has been gathering momentum over the past month. Grocery workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, construction workers, and others who are directly exposed to the danger of infection on the job have all walked out in protest, doubtful that their low wages make up for the risks they’re taking.

After a decade of organizing fast food workers, the Fight For 15 is well positioned to facilitate these types of job actions on short notice. One of the movement’s key wins—a step that promised to make it significantly easier for organized labor to exert influence on a national scale in the fast food industry—came in 2015, when the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board revised the “joint employer” standard to make it easier to hold fast food companies like McDonald’s responsible for the labor standards at their franchised stores. The Trump administration’s NLRB rolled back that rule change, meaning McDonald’s is once again able to keep a legal wall between the parent company and the behavior of its franchisees.

In response to questions about employee walkouts in California, McDonald’s referred to a letter from McDonald’s USA president Joe Erlinger, promising to provide gloves, increased store cleaning, “wellness checks” for employees, and to send “non-medical grade masks to the areas of greatest need.” The company also sent a statement from the owner-operator of the store in Los Angeles where employees walked out this weekend, saying the store underwent “thorough sanitization” after a worker tested positive for COVID-19, and that workers who were in contact with that person were offered two weeks of paid quarantine leave. (The fact that the statement from the store owner is being sent out by McDonald’s corporate PR team highlights how closely the parent company and store owners are intertwined, joint employer standard notwithstanding.)

Though more visible “essential” workers, like grocery store employees, have successfully won hazard pay from a number of companies, fast food workers face a steeper challenge: They are forced to continue working by employer mandate and by economic need, but still viewed as a nonessential by much of the public. Without intense public pressure or widespread work stoppages, it is easy for major fast food chains to continue with business as usual, offloading all of the risk onto those below them.

“We are essential workers,” said Maria Ruiz, “but my life is essential too.” 

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Social distancing complaints at city businesses flood 311

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The few commercial establishments still operating in New York City saw more than 1,500 complaints of inadequate social distancing in a single week, as officials struggle to keep residents of the most densely populated big city in America away from each other.

Even with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo closing nonessential businesses on March 22, New Yorkers have had difficulty keeping their distance. And businesses like grocery stores, street vendors and takeout restaurants that have remained open are having trouble policing their customers.

The number of social distancing complaints against commercial establishments placed through the city’s 311 platforms hit 1,572 early Sunday morning, spanning a weeklong stretch of complaints beginning March 29, according to 311 data analyzed by POLITICO. And one of the biggest hot spots is a complex managed by the city’s own Economic Development Corporation.

Businessesthat have continued to operate in varying capacities amid the public health crisis took up more than a third of roughly 4,200 social distancing complaints reported to 311 that week. Businesses can control some aspects of social distancing — but much customer behavior remains out of their control, associations, owners and advocates said in interviews with POLITICO.

The business obligation is really around how many people are in that store at a time,” said Jessica Walker, president and CEO of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “Beyond that, though … aisles are not necessarily big. How do you move people around?”

The guidance to socially distance — or maintain six feet between people to abate the rampant spread of the virus — has become a volatile aspect of daily life among New Yorkers otherwise accustomed to tight spaces and contact with strangers due to the physical constraints of city life.

The NYPD reported its first social distancing-related homicide last week — an 86-year-old hospital patient in Brooklyn who allegedly failed to maintain a safe distance was struck dead by another patient.

Businesses across the city received social distancing complaints on average every six minutes, according to POLITICO’s analysis. But among commercial establishments, the complaints have been concentrated in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, received 14 complaints over the week examined by POLITICO —the highest number of complaints received among business establishments across the city.

The commercial complex spans 95 acres in Sunset Park and is a mix of warehouse operations, offices and docks. It has been operational during the Covid-19 crisis, an EDC spokesperson confirmed, though she could not say how many occupants fell under the exemption.

The spokesperson said the agency hadn’t been aware of the complaints until POLITICO inquired about them.

“The Brooklyn Army Terminal is an essential hub, in fact one of the tenants, Makerspace, produced face shields in-house for NYC Hospitals,” said agency spokesperson Shavone Williams in an email. “EDC has sent clear communications to all tenants outlining latest guidelines from the Mayors Office, Department of Health and CDC.”

Cesar Zuñiga, chairperson for Community Board 7 in Sunset Park, said he hadn’t heard members complain of the situation. He was, however, “concerned” about the complaints, given that the terminal is managed by the city’s EDC.

The 311 data isn’t immune to blind spots. It does not specify who made the complaints, such as a customer, neighbor or employee. But establishments have grappled with challenges to maintaining a healthy distance.

There is a growing concern among New Yorkers about social distancing in supermarkets, the root of which Elizabeth Peralta, executive director of the National Supermarket Association, attributed to some customers who haven’t yet adjusted their habits to the new reality.

“We’re seeing things get better and better,” said Peralta, whose association has a few hundred member businesses in New York City. “But we definitely see the negligence of people.”

Four grocery stores in Manhattan and Queens were among the top five recipients of complaints. A Fairway Market in West Harlem received eight complaints in the same week. Another Fairway, on the Upper West Side, received seven complaints; a Trade Fair Supermarket in Elmhurst, and a Met Foods in Middle Village, Queens,trailed close behind with six complaints.

Bill Fani, owner of the Middle Village Met Foods,said not all customers were taking adequate precautions within his 9,000 square foot store.

“I understand the social distancing. The store’s only so big. We allow x amount of people in the store. We put up signs … but how do I enforce people?” he said.

The remaining grocers and their parent companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Some supermarkets have hired security personnel to safeguard against masses of people entering. Gov. Cuomo extended his order on Monday to shutter nonessential businesses, leaving grocers among those spared, until April 29.

Many grocery workers have been on edge over their continued exposure to fellow New Yorkers.

Street vendors have similar concerns. None yet have tested positive for the virus, according to Mohamed Attia, executive director of the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, as far as he knew.

Vendors haven’t been fined or shut down by the NYPD over social distancing complaints, since it hasn’t been a major issue, Attia said. The same was the case for restaurants and bars, limited to takeout and delivery.

“Not to say that it hasn’t happened, but I’m not aware of that,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.

According to the NYPD’s breakdown of coronavirus-related enforcement, it made three arrests and issued 21 summonses in roughly the same time frame. The department did not respond to a request for further comment.

This article was originally published at Politico on April 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Bocanegra is an intern for POLITICO New York. She was previously at amNewYork and is currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school.


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Four grocery workers have died of COVID-19 in recent weeks and dozens more have tested positive

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Grocery workers have become some of the most essential workers of the coronavirus crisis—making clear that we’ve relied on them all along. But it’s also a dangerous job, exposing workers to hundreds of customers a day, often without adequate protective gear. The terrible, predictable result is that grocery workers are starting to die of the virus.

At least four grocery workers have died recently. Leilani Jordan, a worker at a Maryland Giant store, died last week. Phillip Thomas and Wando Evans, both of whom worked at the same Illinois Walmart store, died in late March. And an unidentified Trader Joe’s worker in Scarsdale, New York, died on Monday. Dozens more grocery workers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19.

At the same time, grocery chains are trying to hire tens of thousands more workers, with many offering the princely sum of $2 extra per hour and pledging to improve access to masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Some stores are also putting up plexiglass dividers between workers and customers.

But anyone coming into contact with hundreds of people a day is going to be in danger of being infected by COVID-19. An extra $2 an hour is not enough for that risk, and the fact that grocery retailers think it is is a sign of how unequal the U.S. economy is, and how desperate that leaves some people to pay their bills.

We should honor the workers who’ve died, and those who are sick and suffering. But let’s be clear that the best way to honor them is to protect them from the virus, to pay them as the essential workers they are, to support them in efforts to organize and build power, and to press for stronger labor laws.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on April 7, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Government Must Act to Stop Spread of Economic and Financial Consequences of Coronavirus

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The stock market fell 7% at the open Monday morning. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s a catastrophic collapse—a financial crisis type number. Typically, the market might gain or lose in a whole year the value that was lost by the time the sound of the opening bell faded.

The collapse appears to be the result of a combination of the spread of coronavirus and falling oil prices—two events that are themselves connected. But it needs to be interpreted as an alarm bell, because we are dealing with the threat of two deadly kinds of contagions—one biological and the other economic and financial—both of which pose serious but manageable threats to the well-being of working people.

We have heard a lot about biological contagion and how to stop the spread of coronavirus in our workplaces and our communities. You can get up-to-date information on workplace safety and coronavirus at www.aflcio.org/covid-19 and at the websites of our affiliated unions. But what about financial and economic contagion? This is something elected leaders, economic policymakers and financial regulators must take action to stop.

How does it work? Coronavirus is a shock to the global economy. It stops economic activity of all kinds—shutting down factories, canceling meetings, sending cruise ships into quarantine. The only way to prevent that is to stop the spread of the virus (see above). The consequence of economic activity slowing down or stopping is that businesses lose revenue, and generally with loss of revenue comes loss of profits.

People who trade on the stock market usually price stocks by making projections about the future profits of the companies whose stocks trade on the public markets. The stock market reacts instantaneously to changing expectations about what may happen in the economy and to specific businesses. The stock market itself doesn’t create or destroy jobs, but it does contribute to the overall financial health of companies and of people. When stock prices fall rapidly, they can create their own kind of contagion—exposing fragile financing structures for both companies and people. That can in turn lead to retreat—companies pulling back on investments or, in the worst case, going bankrupt.

So the stock market can create contagion all by itself. But the much more serious kind of contagion has to do with corporate debt. We have had low interest rates for years, and businesses around the world have gone on a borrowing spree. This spree has been one of the causes of relatively healthy economic growth in the last few years, but it has also led to businesses carrying a lot of debt relative to their earnings and growth. 

Here is where the danger gets very real, because, as we all know, if you borrow money, you have to make payments on that debt. What if businesses that have borrowed a lot of money suddenly don’t have anywhere near the revenue they expected to have? This is what empty planes and blocked supply chains mean.  

If no one does anything and the coronavirus leads to months of revenue shortfalls in overleveraged companies, there is a real risk of pullbacks in investments by those companies or, worse, bankruptcy. Falling stock markets and debt defaults can lead to weak business balance sheets and to weak financial institutions. That is what financial contagion means. We saw that in 2008 when first mortgage intermediaries failed, then hedge funds and stock brokerages, and then major banks.  

Even more seriously, once investment pullbacks, bankruptcies and layoffs start, that leads, like a spreading virus, to more losses of revenue to other businesses—in other words, economic contagion. Economic contagion, once it starts, is even harder to stop than financial contagion. Economic contagion means recession, unemployment, falling wages. What makes this crisis different is that it starts with a kind of layoff—shutdown of economic activity and quarantines to stop the spread of disease. 

We need government to act to stop financial and economic contagion until the worst of the coronavirus passes and, most importantly, until everyone has a better sense of the exact nature of the threat—that is, until the uncertainty diminishes. Working people must demand that government act, or we and our families will pay the price for others’ lack of action, as we so often have in the past.

What should government do? First, it should directly address the source of economic contraction by dealing effectively with the coronavirus itself and making sure people who are sick or need to be quarantined are able to do what they need to do for themselves and for society without being impoverished. This means emergency paid sick leave for all who need it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have proposed comprehensive emergency paid sick leave for all workers; this is an urgent medical and economic necessity. We need to recognize that until the coronavirus is contained, it will be very challenging to contain the economic consequences of the virus.

Second, government should deliver financial support credit on favorable terms to sectors of the global economy that are threatened by the coronavirus and vulnerable due to overleverage. The U.S. Federal Open Market Committee took a first step in that direction last week by lowering short-term rates by 0.5 percentage point, but that is unlikely to be enough. Central banks need to work with major financial institutions to target cheap credit to vulnerable businesses—airlines, hotels, manufacturers paralyzed by broken supply chains and the like. It is time to discard the old neoliberal idea that we should let banks lend to whomever they want when we appropriately subsidize them with cheap public assets.

Third, government should provide support to the economy as a whole. Congress cannot leave this job to the Federal Reserve. We need to look at bigger emergency appropriations to support our weakened public health infrastructure, particularly hospitals; if the Chinese experience is any indication, we are going to face serious strains to the system as the coronavirus spreads. We need to look at macroeconomic stimulus—public spending to help the economy. This would best be done in the form of investment, such as finally funding infrastructure. But we also need immediate spending; that is why universal paid sick days would be such a good idea, as would be steps to improve the effectiveness of our social safety net—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—and make it easier for everyone to get the health care they need right now.

What we don’t need is the standard right-wing response to any and all problems—tax cuts for the rich. Even more than in a normal downturn, that would do harm, diverting desperately needed public resources to those who don’t need them at all.

Most of all, we need leadership and coordination among federal, state and local governments, between the U.S. government and the Fed and governments and central banks around the world, and with multinational bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization. This is critical, because neither the coronavirus nor the world financial system respects borders, and because people will succumb to fear in the absence of credible leadership.  

If Monday morning tells us anything, it’s that we need that leadership now, because once fear becomes contagious, it may be the hardest thing to stop.

This blog was originally posted on AFL-CIO on March 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Damon A. Silvers is the director of policy and special counsel for the AFL-CIO. He joined the AFL-CIO as associate general counsel in 1997.

Silvers serves on a pro bono basis as a special assistant attorney general for the state of New York. Silvers is also a member of the Investor Advisory Committee of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department’s Financial Research Advisory Committee, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board’s Standing Advisory Group and its Investor Advisory Group.

Silvers received his Juris Doctor with honors from Harvard Law School. He received his Master of Business Administration with high honors from Harvard Business School and is a Baker scholar. Silvers is a graduate of Harvard College, summa cum laude, and has studied history at King’s College, Cambridge University.


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