In 1906 Americans were riveted and horrified by “The Jungle”, Upton Sinclair’s novel which vividly described the sickening working conditions of Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. This muckraking bestseller, with its underlying call for government intervention and regulation, in no small part contributed to the creation of what is now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Today we often think of the era before Teddy Roosevelt as a dark age, an era where workers could get swallowed into vats of lard and end up in the sausage on our breakfast table.
Over one hundred years later, in April 2010, Americans watched in horror as coal miners in West Virginia were also swallowed up, paying the ultimate price for working for a company that by many accounts, views its workers as disposable. As the details of the tragedy unfolded, the cavalier attitudes of Massey Energy and its CEO became widely known: the culture of placing profits ahead of the very people dragging coal from of the earth; the regulatory citations; the open hostility towards unions and their own internal safety mechanisms. Most of us, who can’t even begin to fathom what it takes to summon the courage to work in a coal mine each and every day, could only shake our heads in sadness.
Months later it was déjà vu all over again. An oil rig explosion in the Gulf took the lives of 11 workers. Again, BP’s striking disregard for worker safety (as evidenced by reams of violations) became public knowledge. Millions of Americans then got to the business of voicing our collective outrage at environmental degradation that we can barely wrap our heads around.
In the first instance, we targeted our collective wrath upon Massey CEO Don Blankenship. He was a cartoonish villain of a guy who all but sneered, twirled his mustache and bought judges on camera (ok, so that last part at least, wasn’t on camera). After the second disaster, BP CEO Tony Hayward – the millionaire who “want[s] [his] life back” - was the focus of our bulls-eye. Later, Americans, along with our President, eventually channeled this anger on the obscure DOI-based Minerals Management Agency, with its sex and drugs and rubber-stamping of deep-water drilling permits. These are all valid targets in the short term, but how do we possibly prevent the next “tragedy” if we only view these disasters as aberrations, as isolated incidents in our industrial economy?
Here’s a little known fact and sobering fact: Approximately 16 workers die EACH DAY on the job due to employer negligence (www.16deathsperday.com). So what do we make of the mini-disasters which occur each and every day? When workers are killed on the job producing our chicken nuggets that can so easily be tainted with salmonella? Or when our farm laborers are literally dying slow deaths picking our pesticide blasted strawberries? Worse yet, is there a Chernobyl-like disaster awaiting us, as the drumbeat gets louder for increased nuclear energy as the panacea to our energy woes?
What needs to be shouted to the hilltops is that these two latest headline-grabbing incidents aren’t merely similar, they’re related. Sure, both have fact patterns that included the flouting of existing regulations, and the failures of systematically underfunded, understaffed agencies. But it’s far more important to note that the root cause of both is a business culture where the mantras of “Faster” and “Increase the bottom line” are placed ahead the individual lives of the men and women (and in the farm fields, children) who toil at the actual work. This is the culture thousands of students each year getting their MBAs are indoctrinated to. This is the culture where it is perfectly acceptable for a politician like Rand Paul to call people who criticize corporations “un-American.” This is the culture where BP and Massey are hardly alone in their disregard for their employees. This is the culture where the good corporate actors – and yes, there actually are a few – are increasingly warned that they aren’t “competitive.” This is the culture where workers are once again, disposable.
Without a fundamental shift in our thinking about workers, profit and the role of government we are doomed to repeat these disasters over and over again, with a musical chairs game of industries and government agencies. So, here’s one suggestion on how to effectuate this radical shift in thinking:
Every time you hear a Republican or Blue Dog Democrat in Congress harping about how retrofitting factories and enacting new safety standards hamstrings business, I want you to think of a dead worker. Every time you see a tea-partier’s sign about government “treading” on them, again, think of that dead worker. If one dead worker rouses your sympathy, but not your belief that a radical shift in how we extract and produce things on our planet is necessary, it’s ok, I understand. Upton Sinclair understood this too. He famously noted the limited effect of his book by stating, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." So, in that vein, perhaps try imagining how you’d react if you learned that this worker died on the very same floor of the very same plant that processes your kid’s favorite chicken nuggets.Guest-poster Claudlaw is a Baltimore-based mother, labor union researcher and campaigner. Trained first as a ballerina, and later, a lawyer, she is still recovering from her stints with both professions. She now spends much of her time encouraging workers to stand up for their rights.