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 …

Two Americas

“If profit is your only metric, man, where …do people stand?”

David Simon, a reporter, author and television producer, asked that, and says that in America there was a class war between the working class and the rich …and that the working class lost.

His words stunned me. There is something about hearing stark truth spoken out loud. If you don’t hear the words, you can pretend that things are not as bad as they are. If you’re in a relationship that’s over, you tend to do better, feel better, pretending that things are not as bad as they are until your significant other says, “I don’t love you anymore.”

Once that’s said, pretense is shattered.

That’s what Simon’s words did to me – jostled me into an uncomfortable reality. In America, something has gone horribly wrong, and much of it is because of our economic system which has pushed too many people to the brink of despair.

Simon says that democracy was supposed to be, or is supposed to be, about sharing. Yet, in the grip of capitalism, the notion of sharing has gone missing. If one talks too much about income inequality, or people needing to make a living wage, cries of protest – yelling out “socialism,”   “communism” or worse are heard in full force.

If you keep on and push the argument further, suggesting that Jesus believed in sharing, (some have suggested that Jesus was a socialist in his world view) then you will surely be shot down as a heretic.

And yet, it is clear that something horribly wrong has happened. The Congress, points out Simon, is full of people with good wages and health care; they have lost touch and do not care about – cannot, in fact, relate to – those who work hard and still cannot support themselves and their families …and who do not have health care. They cannot hear the cries of the growing underclass because their quest for more comfort for themselves and their families takes front and center.

Was capitalism supposed to turn out this way?  Conservatives like to quote the Constitution as the reason for all of their beliefs …but do they understand the spirit of that document …or, for that matter, do I? Did I get it wrong? Wasn’t “democracy” supposed to be a form of government that insured some type of equality for all its people?

If I listen to Conservatives or Libertarians, the answer would be a resounding “no.” All of us who have interpreted the Constitution as a document of, for and about economic parity and  “fair chance” of all people would be criticized as being constitutionally ignorant.

Simon says America’s government is a “purchase government.”  Capitalism worked, he says, when more people were, in fact, able to “purchase.” That is not the case anymore; too many people can purchase little to nothing …and from what I’ve learned from listening to economists, our economy cannot be at its best unless large numbers of people can purchase things that they need and some things that they want.

Big money, notes Simon, has purchased much of government. Consider Art Pope, who is said to have purchased much of the government of North Carolina and the result is that the poor, the almost poor …and the “gonna be poor” are suffering and struggling like never before. Simon says there are “two Americas.” Damn if he isn’t spot on. One only has to open one’s eyes to see it. The poor are getting more and more numerous. It’s not just people of color, either. Plenty of white people are in the “poor” category.

I am just beginning to deal with this on a gut level. And it hurts…I think I wanted my government to be better than all governments. I liked living in the myth that justice and the tenets of the Constitution would ultimately prevail.

Apparently, that is not so.

A candid observation …

Big Government Be Damned?

OK. So Nancy Pelosi says Republicans are anti-government ideologues. My question: So why do they run for office?

If one does not believe in government, then what do such political candidates believe in? Why spend literally millions of dollars to be elected to office? Why are they there?

What do these anti-government ideologues want? They don’t want the government to do anything for the underdogs of our society.  They prefer for the private sector to do that, some kind of way. But doesn’t the private sector, businesses, want to make money most of all, and are pretty much not concerned with the well-being of those who do the work?

President Calvin Coolidge said that the business of government is business. Some have said that democracy and capitalism, as two belief sets, are not compatible. Democracy as we have come to understand it, or the way many interpret it, is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We who believe in democracy have internalized that to mean ALL people.

But capitalism is different. Capitalism seems to adhere more to the line of thought which promotes the “survival of the fittest.” Capitalists scorn those who cannot “make it,” and do not believe that democracy is supposed to mean that everybody can and should get the same benefits. Capitalists promote the thought that the only reason some people don’t make it is because they do not try, especially in America.

True, there are more opportunities for attaining the so-called “American Dream” in these United States, but some people really try to make it and just cannot. Maybe it’s because of extenuating circumstances or personality flaws, but maybe it’s because of something called discrimination. Surely that cannot be ruled out, no?

If it were not for government, people who have dealt with discrimination wouldn’t have had any protection, it seems. Blacks, browns, women …have all had to call on government for help and fairness when business and/or society would not budge. Government acted …albeit slowly …to insure a more level playing field for those who had been essentially pushed off to the sidelines.

So, there IS a need for government.

So, if there was no “big government,” what would happen to those who are making their way to center field now? Would there be a repeat of post-Reconstruction, when blacks, who had made political and economic gains were essentially pushed back into legalized slavery in the system known as “convict leasing?”

The federal government really stayed out of the Southern states after Reconstruction got underway, and slowly, state governments began to return their society to the way it had been before. The powers that be didn’t want blacks, and certainly not women, to have the opportunities that white men had. They didn’t even think blacks should have been freed from slavery.

Big government, then, has its place, it would seem. When people are trying to make money, they want to make money, not babysit or placate people who are having a hard time making it. They want the most work for the least buck, period. Without a big government that cares about people, many ordinary folks would just be out of luck.

That’s not to take away the fact that some people are extremely skillful at pushing against the resistance that comes with pursuing any dream. Some people just will not quit, and they deserve to move ahead. Vince Lombardi once said “winning isn’t everything but it is the only thing.” That is the mantra for many people and it works.

But some people with a little less chutzpah, or a whole lot more discrimination working against them, need help. Heck, even the most tenacious people need help. So if that help comes from big government, that should be OK.

Of course, this conversation is kind of superfluous. Everybody calls on government once in a while, whether or not one is pro or anti-big government. Everyone has a sense of entitlement when something catastrophic happens; then we want our government to kick into gear, and be BIG.  If the government does not, we get indignant.

But we tend to only understand, as human beings, our own needs, and cast the needs of others aside. We don’t even want to think about the “have-nots” too much; we avoid really getting to know why they are where they are, because to see their suffering makes us uncomfortable. That’s human nature. Nobody wants to see suffering.

So we work hard to make sure we are comfortable, and criticize big government it attempts to do things that will make the lives of some legitimately suffering people a little easier. We shut our eyes to the real barriers which spring up in a capitalistic world and society and instead blame those who struggle for the situations in which they find themselves. We regard those who cannot make it as moochers.

Some of them are, and some of them are not. We just don’t want to take the time to make the distinctions and give help where it is needed. We are content to charge the poor and blame the poor for being poor, thus helping to keep them poor, and we defy the government to try to change that reality. We in America have little regard, it seems, for the burgeoning population of older Americans who barely have enough to live on once they can no longer work. And so, many older Americans are living in deplorable conditions, and we will not look that harsh reality in the face.

What does it take to make people in a democracy do what democracy purports to do – to make a society where all people are created equal? Those who do not like such a notion say that to want that is to be socialist. OK, but really, that’s what our United States Constitution says – all men (people) are created equal.

We have a problem in our formative ideology. It seems that there is an untenable tension between capitalism and democracy, and capitalists are criticizing the very political system which has made their wealth acquisition a reality.

A candid observation …