It’s the second time the same FedEx driver has delivered a large box of wine to my doorstep. Only this time, as I thanked him from behind my screen storm door, he wasn’t looking particularly happy. He was in a hurry and he quickly laid the box down, jumping back into his truck to continue down the street to his next delivery. Like other workers this country has deemed “essential” to maintain a semblance of normality and satisfy our seemingly bottomless appetites for patently non-essential goods such as my wine, my son’s sunglasses, and my wife’s paperback books, he was doing his job delivering these and other items to my doorstep not out of any sense of selfless heroism, but because he has to pay the rent.
I have no idea what working conditions he has to deal with back at the distribution center where he and others loaded my wine into his truck. I have no idea how far apart the people who received my wine from California and sorted it among the 10,000 other packages being delivered that day were made to stand, or what kind of protective gear they were provided. I do know that, like a disproportionate number of so-called “essential” employees making life bearable for me during this pandemic that they are probably Latinx or African American, just like the young woman at the Rite-Aid pharmacy this morning where I picked up some Windex and Diet Dr. Pepper for my wife, and just like the woman who helped me yesterday at the grocery store when the self-checkout scanner refused to believe I had properly bagged my vegetables.
And I know that all of these people stand a far greater chance of dying in the next two weeks than I do.
As Becky Dernbach, writing for Mother Jones, reminds us:
Essential workers have been heralded as “heroes” during the pandemic, cheered on by applause and music every night in some cities. While the symbolic appreciation is nice, the realities on the ground have been less so. The people who make our health care and food supply systems run, deliver packages and meals, and sanitize public spaces have been hit especially hard by the virus. And so far, these workers haven’t gotten much by way of increased pay and benefits.
The stakeholders who run the corporations that employ these essential workers haven’t seen fit to do anything beyond temporarily adding a dollar or two per hour to their wages, a so-called “hazard pay” allowance dangled in front of them mainly for the purpose of discouraging rapid turnover. But even this measly gesture of apparent munificence has apparently outgrown its shelf-life: As reported in Vox, 11 weeks into the pandemic, companies such as Walmart are now rolling back even these tiny increases, while CEOs such as Kroger’s Rodney McMullen are taking 20% pay increases on top of their already-obscene salaries, apparently as a reward for their own heroic sacrifices.
Meanwhile, the same companies continue to flout distancing rules designed to keep these workers safe. In this they are receiving a huge assist from the Trump administration, which has completely abandoned the field of enforcement of workplace safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency specifically created to maintain safety in the workplace, has not issued a single coronavirus-related citation during the course of this pandemic. Not surprisingly, the Department of Labor, under the control of the son of Antonin Scalia, has been about as anti-labor as could be expected, with an official policy of waiting to be sued before doing its job.
At the same time, workplace safety has often fallen by the wayside. This week, the AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit asking a court to order the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop temporary emergency standards for workers; the union says OSHA has so far issued zero coronavirus-related citations in the pandemic, despite egregious outbreaks in dozens of meatpacking plants and food packing facilities.
Robert Reich was secretary of the Department of Labor when that agency actually worked for the benefit of American workers. Interviewed by Derbach for her article, Reich confirmed that the Labor Department is now “almost nonexistent” in the face of the worst labor crisis this country has experienced since the Great Depression. Far from developing any coherent plan to safely return Americans to the workplace or to streamline and improve the distribution of unemployment compensation, Baby Scalia’s agency has forsaken any policy role whatsoever. Not only is OSHA not enforcing any safety standards, it has made no effort to establish what those standards should be. This, of course, is an open invitation for companies to endanger their workers without fear of any reprisal.
And that’s what they’re doing. Amazon, possibly the most egregious offender outside the meatpacking industry is, as Reich observes, simply “rolling in money” right now, with record sales and profits causing CEO Jeff Bezos’ net worth to increase by $24 billion since the pandemic began. As Reich observes, Amazon has more than enough profits to implement strict worker safety measures, provide their workers a higher salary for risking their lives during this pandemic, and offer paid sick leave. Instead, the company rolled back the paltry $2 an hour increase it initially paid to workers along with Whole Foods, which Amazon also owns. Meanwhile, as its California workers got COVID-19 due to the dangerous working conditions, Amazon told them that the state’s paid sick leave law didn’t apply to warehouses. When one employee organized a small workers’ strike to protest the unsafe conditions in Amazon facilities, he was first fired, then subjected to a smear campaign.
That’s the corporate mentality we are seeing a lot of during this pandemic, unveiled at last for all to see.
As Reich notes, the meatpacking workers actually have it worse. Most of those workers are people of color. By indulging Americans’ voracious appetite for meat and to prop up their state’s economies, Republican governors have essentially abandoned any pretense of caring about their working conditions. Nowhere was the sneering, dismissive attitude towards these workers better illustrated than in the remarks of one racist Republican Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice who dismissed such workers as a far cry from “regular folks” who deserved protection from the pandemic.
In short, it’s a horrible time to be an “essential worker” in the U.S.A. But Reich believes that something positive may still come out of these workers’ experience; namely, a clearer recognition that unions are absolutely necessary. If the Democrats take the Senate and Joe Biden is elected president, Reich believes the first order of business is to legislate ways to make forming unions easier. Because the decline of unions “is directly related to the decline of wages and working conditions and safety and benefits and all the other things that American workers have experienced over the last 40 years.”
Reich believes that out of the ashes of this crisis “we’re going to see a wave of labor activism such as we haven’t seen in this country in decades.” And after it finally ends, Reich has some advice for all of those “essential workers” whom the corporations tried to lionize as heroes while forcing them to risk their lives for the sake of their CEO’s profits.
My message for them is: number one, thank you. Thank you for risking your lives for the rest of us. My second message is once this is over, threaten to go on strike. Go on wildcat strike. Do whatever you need to do to improve your wages and working conditions. You deserve it. You have the public support. The big corporations—many of them for profit and are doing very, very well; they really need to respond better to your needs and they can afford to do so.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that corporations will gladly squeeze whatever they can out of American workers, even to the point of endangering those workers’ lives, as long as they are permitted to get away with it. The type of behavior we’ve seen from Amazon, Kroger, and WalMart shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; it’s the natural product of decades of Republican efforts to demonize unions and whittle away whatever power organized labor once had. It is only the sudden appearance of a deadly public health crisis that has laid bare the underlying callousness and disregard these companies actually feel toward their employees.
But nothing terrifies the Jeff Bezoses and Rodney McMullens of the world more than the thought of a workforce empowered to speak, act, and yes, strike, on its own behalf. Worker protests against the conditions they’re being forced to endure have thus far been limited to short-lived walkouts and largely ineffective efforts to urge the public to refrain from buying their company’s products. In the circumstances of a pandemic that is still killing Americans at a record pace, efforts to raise awareness by these workers are understandably less resonant as Americans remain homebound for the most part, unable to get the goods they so desperately want.
But if these workers are truly as essential to our lives as we say, if they are the “heroes” that these corporations have made them out to be, and they still aren’t being given the consideration or pay they deserve, then maybe Americans need to be reminded of just how “essential” they really are. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic will end up providing these American workers with a voice that they’d all but forgotten how to use.