Tornadoes that struck Kentucky, Illinois, and other states over the past week have left almost 100 dead across the damaged areas, with around the same number unaccounted for, countless injured, and vast swathes of homes and infrastructure destroyed. As is usual with these phenomena, this is yet another ‘natural’ disaster that has fallen the hardest on our class. And as is usual, plenty of these deaths could have been prevented were it not for the profit-centered system called capitalism that we live in.
In 1911 we had the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in US history, in which 146 workers at a clothing factory in NYC died after a fire broke out and the workers couldn’t escape the building because the doors of the building were chained shut. The bosses did this so that workers couldn’t leave or take breaks during their shifts, and it was a regular practice against workers. The fire ended up exposing the barbaric practices of the ruling class to workers across the city and country, and in response to it, the working-class movement in the US erupted in a wave of organizing directed towards greater safety standards and practices in the workplace. By organizing together workers forced the adoption and implementation of stricter health and safety standards throughout the country, as well as achieving other victories like the adoption of minimum wage laws and greater protections for women workers, who were the vast majority of those killed in the fire.
110 years later in 2021 we have the deaths of 14 workers at two separate facilities in Kentucky and Illinois, all of them, like in 1911, caused by the bourgeoisie’s sole preoccupation with profit over everything else. In Illinois six workers were killed at an Amazon warehouse(1), and in Kentucky eight workers were killed at a candle factory. In both cases, the workers were prevented from leaving the facilities even in the face of incoming tornadoes.
Amazon knew of the fact that there was severe weather and tornadoes incoming, yet despite this did nothing to protect the lives or safety of its workers. Rather than closing the facility and sending the workers home for the evening well in advance of the storm, the Amazon facility in Edwardsville, IL, waited until the very last minute when the tornado was ten minutes away to begin sheltering workers in the facility. One of the workers who was killed that night texted to his girlfriend that “Amazon won’t let us leave.” He left behind four children. In addition to the six deaths, around 50 workers were trapped under the rubble before finally being rescued after the storm. Amazon was even negligent outside of the facility. Texts between a delivery driver and her boss reveal that the driver was forced to continue delivering even in the face of the tornado warning.(2) After the delivery driver asked to be able to head back to the facility to shelter, her boss told her: “Just keep driving. We can’t just call people back for a warning unless Amazon tells us to do so.” The driver continued to ask to be able to return, but her boss was adamant, telling her: “If you decide to return with your packages, it will be viewed as you refusing your route, which will ultimately end with you not having a job come tomorrow morning.” The driver survived, but this is nothing more than attempted murder.
It was a similar situation at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory, where workers were told that if they left the facility in the face of the tornado, that they would be fired, according to at least five workers there as of December 13th. Workers at the factory begged to be able to leave early and go home, but their managers refused to allow them to. The result was that eight workers were killed in the storm at the factory, and countless others injured.
It feels like a parody of reality or some sort of Onion article painting an exaggerated portrait of the depravity of our ruling class. Sadly it is all too real. It is a demonstration of the desperate, subordinated position of our class, which is so enslaved to the capitalist class that they risk their own lives in a tornado rather than be fired and lose their means to survive and support their families and loved ones. The members of our class are caught between death and death. They have the freedom to ‘choose their own poison.’ They can die a quick death in a tornado or they can die a protracted, miserable death as they struggle to eke out an existence without anyone to sell their labor-power to in return for wages. This whole episode reveals the sick nature of the system of wage-slavery.
The deaths at these factories is also a foreshadowing of how the ruling class is going to respond in the future in the face of increasingly common climate disasters, and climate change overall. Whether or not this tornado is a definitive product of climate change is debatable, but what is clear is that ‘natural’ disasters such as hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires are becoming both more common and more powerful, leaving greater amounts of rubble and dead bodies in their wake. The science proving the existence of climate change generated by human activity is also clear, as are its effects. The global climate has already warmed 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels due to human activity. This itself is a consequence of the rise of capitalism. The advent of the capitalist mode of production across the world coincided with the rise in CO2 emissions, and as economic growth increases, so too do emissions and other forms of environmental destruction. Capitalism is itself, then, a system predicated on the looting and wholesale degradation of our planet’s resources and health.
In its response to the climate crisis, the ruling class has already proved that it is not serious about either preventing future emissions or protecting the lives and safety of the members of our class across the world. Despite hollow words at summits like COP26, the world’s rulers are accountable to the capitalist classes of the countries which they represent, not the workers whose exploitation they manage.(3) Therefore while promising to lower emissions one day, ruling class politicians follow the more immediate imperative, which is both continuing to ensure ‘economic growth’ based on continued extractions and emissions, and protecting the ‘national interests’ of their states, which demands that they remain focused on competing with their imperialist rivals rather than transitioning to cleaner sources of energy.
At every instance, workers are made to bear the full brunt of both the more visible climate disasters, as well as the more protracted processes of the withering of Earth’s health. Beyond factories in Illinois and Kentucky, Amazon workers in NYC were also forced to work during the deadly floods caused by Hurricane Ida in September. Over the summer, an extreme heat wave caused hundreds of deaths in California, Oregon, and Washington. The poor and working class were disproportionately represented in the dead. Most of those who died lacked proper air conditioning, only having fans to keep them cool. Additionally, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that “Mobile home park residents were significantly overrepresented among the dead: 10% of the deaths were people living in a mobile home, RV park or vehicle. Mobile-home parks only make up about 1% of the housing units available citywide.”(4) Some of the victims of the heat-wave were also homeless and had to sleep in their cars. Capitalism left them for dead. In Somalia, a chronic drought partially brought on by climate change has intensified there, affecting nearly 2.3 million people and forcing 100,000 people to “[abandon] their homes in search of food, water and pasture for their livestock.”(5) No matter which angle one looks at it, the climate crisis only appears as another outgrowth of the crisis of capitalism, where workers’ lives are sacrificed on the altar of capitalist profits. Only the climate crisis will accentuate that trend even more, with the ruling class guarding their wealth first and foremost, not caring how many workers have to fall off the cliff to retain their mountains of gold.
The bourgeoisie wants us to look at the massacres of workers at the Amazon and candle factories in Illinois and Kentucky as the result of an individual failing on the part of management, or even worse, as the fault of the workers who carelessly got themselves killed. But in reality it was truly just that: a massacre. It was a massacre of 14 workers to squeeze just a little more surplus value out of them, with their lives being valued no more than the machinery in the facilities. For the capitalists, they were replaceable robots, merchandise that was only important insofar as it turned them a profit. Beyond that, they didn’t and don’t care for them. The common capitalist refrain that ‘we are all a family’ doesn’t actually hold up when it ever matters; it’s just another piece of ruling class propaganda to try to convince workers that they have a stake in this system. It’s the same with when Amazon offers its “thoughts and prayers” to the dead workers in Illinois, because that’s the most that they’ll ever offer if our class doesn’t struggle and fight back.
Most of the focus on worker organizing at Amazon in recent years has been on efforts to unionize the company’s warehouses, such as in NYC in 2018 or Bessemer, Alabama earlier this year. But what is really needed aren’t unions, but genuine forms of working-class self-organization and activity. Unions are at best defensive tools for workers but they will never be tools in the hands of workers for going on the offensive and conquering political power. The most that they can achieve is acting as the price that capitalists are willing to pay for social peace. The capitalists will permit the existence of unions so long as they don’t pose any real threat to the system or their profits, often enabling that system to work more smoothly because the unions have a shared interest in keeping workers generating profits for the bosses. Unions are permanent economic organizations, based on negotiating the price of workers’ labor power (wages), and since they depend on the system of wage-labor to survive, they have a vested interested in the survival of capitalism.
Working-class self-organization poses the alternative to the unions and their dead-end strategy. This can take the form of anything from as small as groups of workers getting together to discuss ways of agitating and propagandizing for a strike, to strike committees and mass assemblies themselves which arise in struggles as workers fight for their class interests and take the struggle into their own hands. The union keeps the struggle out of the hands of the workers as a whole by entrusting it to supposed representatives who rely on the union for their salary. Genuine forms of workers’ self-activity ensure that it is the workers themselves who lead the struggle, with no room for back-room deals between union representatives and the bosses. These forms of organization, unlike the unions, are not permanent and therefore cannot become materially invested in the preservation of capitalism. They exist only so long as the struggle lasts. It is the job of communists to be active in these workplace struggles, trying to fight for these forms of workers’ self-organization and working to broaden the struggle, always with the intention of spreading the understanding that what is ultimately needed is a struggle for political control against the ruling class. Beyond the day-to-day battles which workers find themselves in whenever they challenge the modern tyranny of managerial capitalism, the working class has to win this pivotal struggle against capitalism itself if we want to live in a sane world where workers don’t die in a tornado so that an Amazon warehouse can keep running to pour more blood gold into the coffers of the world’s second richest man.
FB (Internationalist Workers’ Group)
Photo from: commons.wikimedia.org
(1) The next issue of Revolutionary Perspectives, journal of the UK affiliate of the ICT, will feature an article providing an inside look at the exploitation within an Amazon fulfillment center.
(3) Marginal Notes on COP26 in Glasgow