The wave of tornadoes that struck the central Mississippi Valley on December 10 were disasters that in no small measure did not have to be. The storms themselves were “acts of God” in one sense, but their intensity and occurrence at this time of year were products of climate change due to the unbridled use of hydrocarbons as energy sources. More immediately, most of the casualty count could have been eliminated by a humane and common sense reaction to the impending destruction. But this was not the approach of the bosses of industries that lay in the path of the massive storms.
At the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Kentucky, eight workers died and others were severely injured when the roof collapsed and the building was reduced to rubble. At the Amazon Distribution Center in Edwardsville, Illinois, six workers died and others were injured as a roof collapsed. It was amazing that more workers didn’t die at these horrific scenes, but no one should have been hurt if the bosses had acted responsibly.
At Mayfield, multiple workers (including those hospitalized) claimed that supervisors threatened that they would lose their jobs if they left the factory. Haley Condor reported that she and other workers approached three managers and said they wanted to go home after the second alarm sounded. “You can’t leave, you can’t leave. You have to stay here,” were the responses. At the Amazon warehouse, some workers were actually allowed to seek shelter – and then were directed to a bathroom area that was one of the most dangerous spots. Most of the fatalities occurred when the nearby wall collapsed.
The bosses of both factories turned predictably to damage control – for themselves. “There was a tremendous effort that happened that night to keep everybody safe” said Amazon Senior Vice President John Felton. This is a crock. Not only were safety procedures awful, but the factory should have simply been closed in wake of the highly accurate storm warnings. Bob Ferguson, spokesperson for the Mayfield factory, told NBC that workers’ jobs were not threatened. He even claimed that a COVID policy was put in place whereby “employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.”
So who should we believe? There is a long history of bosses putting profits before safety – from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York a century ago to the collapse of garment factories in Bangladesh that killed thousand a decade ago. When disaster inevitably strikes, they reflexively lie to protect against lawsuits, their image, and to lessen the resolve of workers to fight back. In the December disaster it is beyond dispute that storm warnings had been given in plenty of time and the managements had opted not to shut down operations when they could have. The bosses in effect were accessories to murder.
Science has developed to incredible lengths under capitalism. Storm predictions such as these have become accurate and dependable. But the overlords of capitalism both limit and skew the fruits of scientific advances whenever they get in the way of profits and the profit system. In the same spirit they give high priority to science that develops weapons, surveillance tools and other means of repression. And, as evidenced by prominent anti-vax politicians and pundits today, the capitalist system has spawned powerful forces if denying science can be used to support their reactionary agenda.
There is supposed to be a “months-long” review of the Kentucky factory deaths by the state’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety Compliance. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is doing something similar in Illinois. But it should be understood that such inquiries are designed to produce the appearance of justice; only rarely does justice occur. Such investigations often string matters out until tempers have calmed down. They become bureaucratic, legalistic affairs: “the wheels of justice turn slowly.” And when conclusions are reached, even when it is decided that the bosses have broken the laws of the system stacked in their favor, it is rare indeed that they get more than a slap on the wrist.
What the working class needs is powerful demonstrations against the bosses’ dictum of profits before safety. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, condemned Amazon’s policies. “We cannot stand for this,” he said; “our union will not back down until Amazon is held accountable for these and so many more dangerous labor practices.” Indeed, Amazon is notorious for the high turnover in its warehouses due to their unsafe and inhumane working conditions. But despite the tough talk, Appelbaum is not organizing mass action. Or much of anything else, it would seem: the union’s website has been silent on the disaster since his one-paragraph statement in mid-December.
It is obvious that the working class needs a new leadership. Revolutionary socialists are committed to convincing radically minded workers that we do not have to live under a system run by predators and murderers. There is an alternative. In the modern world of advanced knowledge and technology, the working class could build a society oriented to serving the needs of all people, not capitalist profiteering. Mass actions that demonstrate the power of working-class and oppressed people could lead to a transformation of political consciousness that demands the end of capitalist rule. The goal is a workers’ state created through a working-class socialist revolution.