The Expendability of “Essential” Workers

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has said repeatedly that “slavery never ended. It just evolved.”

I have been thinking about that statement as I have watched and listened to conversation about “essential” workers as we live in this pandemic.  They include health care workers, janitors, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, waiters and waitresses, bus drivers, police and fire personnel, those who run the subways and more …and yet, it seems to me they are the people considered to be most expendable by the federal government and by the businesses which employ them.

So many of these “essential” workers have lost their lives and/or their jobs, but from the federal government, I hear little concern. Instead, there is a push to get the economy alive again, with corporations joining forces with the Trump administration to get the people back to work. And the president is apparently being urged to open the country – come what may – by nervous corporations who are losing lots and lots of money as this virus ravages through the country.

In this country, 3.8 million people have lost their jobs. The federal government and big businesses are very concerned about that number.

The latest insult to the lives and dignity of these workers came this week as the president issued an executive order ordering meat-packing plants to stay open, in spite of outbreaks of the coronavirus in several of them. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/28/trump-meat-plants-dpa/) At least 17 people who work in these plants have died of COVID-19, and over 5,000 have been affected by the disease. A report today said that some workers who are afraid to return to the plants or to any businesses opening before the recommended wait time for fear of contracting the virus are facing the possibility of losing their unemployment benefits if they refuse to return to work. (https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/29/847937625/workers-scared-as-trump-orders-meat-plants-to-open-during-coronavirus-crisis) (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/29/unemployment-coronavirus-safety-223216)

The workers are being placated and are being told that there will be extra or adequate protective gear for them, the same necessary gear that health care workers – again, essential workers – have been begging for which they have not been able to get in the numbers they need for the past two months.  Not to worry, dear meatpacking workers. The protective gear will keep them safe. If it doesn’t?  Unfortunately, the attitude seems to be “well, we tried.” If any of the workers get sick and/or die, the focus will be replacing the deceased by immediately hiring more people to do the work.

Period.

The government feels like it is being run by the president and corporate presidents that consider human beings to be mere commodities, and those not in the highest ranks of the plantation infrastructure – from cabinet members to legislators to some local politicians – are acting as the overseers. Their job is to keep the plantation open and thriving.

It is heartbreaking to see the lack of concern for human life being shown by the president and by big business. In this country, over 60,000 people have died – more than those who died in the Vietnam War – and yet, there has been no outpouring of concern from bedfellows big government and big business, a tawdry partnership if there ever was one. The only thing that matters is the making, accumulation, and sustaining of wealth and power. If some of those who are making these individuals and their businesses wealthy, then so be it. “The partnership” has many supporters, people who are a part of the 99 percent of Americans in this country who are struggling to survive, even as the one percent hoards wealth. Many of the supporters have said that it is no big concern if some people die in the work to save the economy. That must make “the partnership” smile, but the sad reality is that their lives are expendable too, to themselves, apparently, as well as to those whom they support so vehemently. As long as they can work, they matter. When they can no longer help fill the coffers of the wealthy, they, too, will be disregarded and forgotten.

This is none other than slavery by another name.

I have – as have many of us – read about how enslaved Africans were forced to work, regardless of how they felt physically. Pregnant women would work in the fields up to the moment of giving birth, which means they worked while in labor. All of the slaves worked in oppressive heat and humidity; those in the rice fields stood knee-deep in mosquito-infested water for hours each day, which made malaria a common malady. The mortality rate among those enslaved could be as high as 90 percent, but neither the plantation owner nor the overseers cared. The goal was to keep the money coming, and the essential people – the enslaved Africans and their children – were needed and used until they got too sick to work or they died. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2956.html

We are seeing the same attitude today from the federal government and from some state governments. Yes, the status of the economy is bad and frightening, but the fact that there is no concern for or even gratitude being voiced for the work these people are doing is telling. People, it seems, of all colors, but especially brown and black, are still commodities, objects, not human beings, worth their weight in gold because they make the ruling class wealthy, but at the same time, worth nothing because of their color and economic status.

Bryan Stevenson is right. Slavery never ended. We are seeing its evolution now. The soul of this country is terminal. And that being the case, so is the image and the myth of the “exceptional” United States of America. Essential workers are truly essential – to everyone – but in the eyes of the moneyed class, they are also expendable.

A candid observation …

Democracy Understood

Sometimes, what we want to be true and what actually is true do not intersect.

What we want to believe in, in America, is that we live in a democracy – meaning, to most of us, that there is an ideal to which we adhere: that  “all men are created equal,”  and that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights…” That is, at least, what I grew up understanding “democracy” to be.

But what seems to be more true is that we live in a capitalistic society – in which all people are not created equal, nor should anyone expect that to be the case.

Of course, when the Declaration of Independence was written, as well as the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution, the words “all men” meant white, landowning men. The framers of our precious document never intended for the phrase to be understood as one that included people of all nationalities and/or races, nor did they intend for it to include women. “We the people”  did not include what was then and what would become the vast populace of this country. The boundaries of race, class and gender were set up from the very beginning of the life of this nation.

As time passed, we idealized our founding documents, and we decided that the phrase “all men are created equal” meant that the Founding Fathers had a love for “all people.” On that basis, the downtrodden decided that according to our Constitution, they had the same rights as anybody and everybody else. This was America, where everyone was free, or was at least supposed to be.

The stark contradiction between our idealization of the words of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, however, was there from the beginning.  Slavery was an American reality, and in spite of a horrible Civil War fought, a war which accounted for more American deaths than any modern war, nobody really wanted them to be “free,” and certainly, nobody believed black slaves to be “equal” to whites. President Abraham Lincoln, though he freed some of the slaves, particularly those who lived in the South who were needed to help fight for the Union, never thought they were equal to whites, nor did he think black people, slave or free, should have the same rights as white people.

Enter capitalism. The right to be “free” was based in capitalistic theory from the beginning, it seems. The wealthy landowners had the power from the beginning, and to them, “freedom” was the ability to make money! That’s why people want to flock to America; our free enterprise system means, theoretically, that “anyone” can make it here. The prevailing thought seems to be that if you are down and out, then it is somehow your own doing.

That just is not true. As I have watched our country in this current economic crisis, and read about how the country fared during the years (and afterward) of the Great Depression, it has become increasingly clear that the capitalistic system is constructed to protect the monied class. “Too big to fail,” though distasteful, seems to be a part of capitalistic ideology. It feels like America’s economy is graded on a curve, much like exams I took in college were graded. In a curve, some will fail. It’s built into the system. What used to be true in America is that there were a fair amount of people “in the middle” who could make it, and the number of the very rich was small, proportionately.

Now, however, that middle section of people is getting smaller and smaller, while the number of very rich and poor to very poor is getting larger.

That is the way a capitalistic system works.

The tension between the “haves” and “have nots” has been a standard reality in America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt fought for the common people during his presidency, and he had a pretty broad swath of support at the beginning; the country was in such dire straits that even big business let him have his way in shaping the New Deal. FDR knew that in order for a capitalistic system to work, its people had to work so that they could make money and spend money.

But after a while, big business grew uneasy as big government, acting on a democratic principle that “all people” should be able to work and make a good living wage, spent money in order to create programs for literally millions of people.

Big business, people who understand capitalism and how it works, are not all that concerned with millions of people making a living wage. I would imagine  they would say “it’s not personal. It’s business.”

If we understand that we live in a capitalistocracy as opposed to an ideally defined democracy, we might not stew as much as we do about the economics of these days. The arguments back in FDR’s days – the need to balance the budget, cut government spending, lower taxes …were the same as they are now. FDR fought against what he believed to be economic policy which adversely affected the masses of American people, but he knew that he was making big business angry.

Perhaps the most telling statement about this country, and what it is, came from President Calvin Coolidge, who said,”The business of America is business.”

That sums it up fairly nicely and succinctly, does it not?

As I understand what America is, the relationship between big business and big government, I seem to pause. I realize that not only I but a vast number of people have been confused about this word “democracy.” We are not supposed to be a nation where everybody can make it, and if they cannot, can be assured that the government will stand in the breach.

I get it now.

A candid observation…