Capitalism vs. Safety, Health: An Old Story Again

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Yves here. The history of the long and bloody battles by laborers for safe workplaces has been largely airbrushed out of US history. It’s easier to water down wage, health, and hours protections when most people have little idea of how most employers once operated.

By Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism<, both available at by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The U.S. president recently ordered meatpacking employees back into workplaces plagued by coronavirus. He did not order the employers to make their slaughterhouses safe. GOP-proposed legislation exempts employers from lawsuits by employees sickened or killed by coronavirus infections at workplaces. The GOP is mostly silent about requiring employers to maintain safe or healthy workplaces. Employers across the country threaten workers who refuse to return to jobs they find unsafe. They demand that employees return or risk being fired. Job loss likely means loss of health insurance for employees’ families. Being fired risks also losing eligibility for unemployment insurance.

Employers are now going to extremes to evade the costs of safe and healthy workplaces. Recently, New Orleans’ authorities and their contractors fired their $10.25 per hour garbage collectors after a short strike. The strikers had demanded protective equipment against garbage possibly infected with the coronavirus and also $15 per hour “hazard” pay. New Orleans replaced the striking workers by contracting for nearby prison inmates paid $1.33 per hour and individuals from halfway houses. Capitalism’s iron fist hits the working class with this “choice”: unsafe job, or poverty, or slave labor with both.

Capitalism has always struggled to minimize outlays on workplace safety and health. Workers have protested this wherever capitalism became the prevailing economic system over the last three centuries. Upton Sinclair’s popular book, The Jungle, published over a century ago, exposed spectacularly unsafe and unhealthy conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The 1906 passages of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act responded to public outrage over that industry’s working conditions. Coronavirus infection rates among employees of U.S. pork processing plants as high as 27 percent illustrate how employers forever “economize” on workplace health and safety.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the U.S. Department of Labor was established in 1970. It sought to add more systematic federal government supervision and inspection to the regulations pressing employers to provide safe and healthy workplace conditions. Its mixed successes attest to the lengths employers will go to evade, weaken, or ignore efforts to enforce workers’ safety and health.

The profit-driven logic of capitalist enterprises incentivizes not spending capital on workplace safety and health conditions unless and until they deteriorate to the point of threatening profits. Capitalists and mainstream economics textbooks repeat endlessly that profit is every enterprise’s “bottom line.” Profitability measures each firm’s economic performance. Profits reward employers; losses punish them. Employers use capital to yield profits; that is their chief goal and priority. As objectives, workplace safety and health are secondary, tertiary or worse: obstacles to maximizing profits.

Capitalism has always sacrificed the safety and health of the employee majority to boost profits of its employer minority. That minority makes all the key enterprise decisions and excludes the employee majority from that decision-making. No wonder employers figure disproportionally among society’s rich, safe, and healthy, while employees figure disproportionally among the poor, unsafe, and unhealthy. Capitalism displays not only extreme inequalities of wealth and income, but also all their derivative inequalities: economic, political, and cultural. Pandemics expose and worsen them all.

In some times and places, capitalism’s iron fist wears velvet gloves. When profits are high and/or critics of capitalism ally strongly with its victims, employers may spend more on making workplaces less unsafe and less unhealthy. Otherwise, employers can and do spend less. If and when they fail to prevent government regulations mandating minimum health and safety standards, employers campaign to evade, weaken, and eventually repeal them. Employers usually repeat the same old arguments to block or undo regulations mandating safety and health standards. Such regulations, they insist, divert capital from productive uses (hiring workers) to “unproductive” uses (improving workers’ health and safety). Thus fewer workers will be hired, hurting the employee class. With such arguments employers have often succeeded and undermined workplace safety and health.

Capitalism’s long record of maintaining nearly constant unemployment—its “reserve army”—not only got workers to accept lower wages for fear of being replaced by more desperate unemployed. Unemployment also got employed workers to accept unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. Unemployment is a kind of torture by one class of another. It helps maintain lower wages and unsafe and unhealthy worksites. That is one reason why reduced labor needs are managed, in capitalism, not by keeping everyone employed but for fewer hours per week. That option is not generally chosen because firing a portion of the workforce—depriving those unfortunates of jobs—better disciplines workers to accept what they might otherwise reject.

In today’s situation, employers and the government, equally unprepared for the virus, did too little too late to prevent a dangerous pandemic. Sudden mass lockdowns led to mass unemployment. Expensive reconfiguring for social distancing, mass testing, cleaning and disinfection, etc., might have rendered jobsites safe and healthy. Instead, employers and their political spokespersons press employees back into unsafe, unhealthy workplaces. A “reopening the economy” is ordered. Employers get to impose unsafe and unhealthy workplaces by reframing the process as a patriotic return to a noble, national “work ethic.” Employers are counting on this sham drama now.

Consider this historic parallel: capitalists in the U.S. and elsewhere once regularly employed children as young as five years old. Their jobs’ safety and health conditions were mostly inadequate and often deplorable. Their pay fell well below that of adults. They suffered injury as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Schooling was neglected if not altogether absent. Yet capitalists insisted that economic well-being and prosperity required their access to child labor. Ending it would bring economic decline possibly “worse” than child labor. A reasonable “trade-off” was required. Employers argued that poor families needed and welcomed incomes from employed children. Employers also insisted, then as now, that they had spent all they could and all that was needed to provide adequately safe and healthy work conditions.

Working-class responses to child labor took time to develop the necessary understanding and political power. Once they did, child labor was doomed. Working-class parents confronted capitalists with a non-negotiable demand: overcome the horrors of child labor by ending it. Employers would have to find other ways to profit. Many did even as many others moved abroad where child labor is still allowed. They still do.

Today’s parallel non-negotiable demand: end unsafe and unhealthy workplaces. That requires differently organized workplaces. The majority, employees, must control their safety and health. It must be a higher priority than profit for the minority of owners, boards of directors, etc. Once again we meet society’s need for transition to a worker-coop based economy.

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  1. Amfortas the hippie

    I generally LIKE the idea of regulation.
    Boss Class simply cannot be trusted, and therefore must be forced to be less evil and exploitative.
    However, the Regs to show a disconcerting tendency towards absurdity, sometimes.
    Only OSHA Type things I’ve ever dealt with in my working life are the rubber mats required on “the Line” in commercial kitchens…which, remarkably, work pretty well to save one’s back/legs, etc. You notice their absence after a shift.
    But there’s a reason that “Osha wouldn’t like this” is a common joke among construction workers…sometimes, it just gets in the way of doing one’s job….and, as a food producer for all my life, from dirt to plate to dirt, I can attest that some of the Regs are obviously written by the Big Boys in order to erect yet another Barrier to Entry to the Little Guys….because the former doesn’t want to compete with the latter.
    (thinking specifically of the impossible requirements for slaughter/ butchering which led to the concentration in that sector of Ag…which is a large part of the problem we’re seeing now in “meat packing”)

    there’s analogous phenomena throughout the working world…Leviton rewrites the electrical Code so that their GFC plugs are required, so they can sell more, justified by a few morons who try to use a hairdryer in the shower…or the Manure Handling Requirements for “Organic Ag”, written into the Organic Rules when they were federalised, that effectively exclude someone like me(or any of the bigger farmers around here) of even thinking of Organic Certification….and i could go on…
    Money in Politics, Regulatory Capture, using the Regs to kill competition and drive monopoly, and a distant and unresponsive governance…it all undoes what the very idea of Regulation was meant to accomplish.
    and, indeed, makes “Regulation” into a joke, and provides fodder for the Righty propaganda…so successful since Reagan…that the regulatory arm of the state is somehow harmful if not just plain stupid.
    To fix all this, however, would require the same level of massive change that effectively prevents all the rest of the Human Centered things that must be done.
    We have a large hill to climb.

    1. TomDority

      Amfortas – Well said !!
      Regulatory capture – in addition, now big business has been changed to big finance and zero investment in real capital – mainly just financial engineering to strip away all that was built before and enrich the FIRE sector.
      Regulations used as a strategery advantage for the big doofs at the expense of everyone else and everything else like all the animal species, and habitability of the planet.

    2. Krystyn Podgajski

      >We have a large hill to climb.

      Maybe instead of going uphill we could go downhill? Which we are, and will, then all this work suddenly has a lot of other workers and it all becomes effortless.

      I am always surprised at people’s faces when I tell people what my grandfather did, and went through, during the Pennsylvania coal strikes. They think they were offered protection from getting black lung by voting?! HA!

      The good treatment of employees only comes when workers are hard to get. So let’s play hard to get! But we are so easy to get, whores for consumerism. Our demands are pitiful; “just give me some internet”!

      1. periol

        I suspect that a meaningful deep dive into actual unemployment numbers for the past two decades would show that there is a quiet strike going on, at least in America. There’s a reason immigration, both legal and illegal is such a battleground, as well as the prisons and their slave labor. Lots of people, even without jobs, refuse to do some of the work for the offered pay. So cheap labor must be found somewhere.

        More and more people have simply dropped out of the workforce. Is it an intentional strike? At least for some, I think it is. For others it may just be an instinctual “I’m worth more than this”. They’re not counted in the unemployment numbers anymore. Invisible people. But their numbers are growing in America.

    3. Charger01

      Good post. The point of “USDA organic” as a shifting sands is an excellent paradox.

    4. lyman alpha blob

      …some of the Regs are obviously written by the Big Boys in order to erect yet another Barrier to Entry to the Little Guys…

      And that has been built into the system for over 200 years. You can read the history of the Whiskey Rebellion, which was brought on by a tax on the booze. Whiskey at the time was more or less equal to currency in certain locations, so it wasn’t simply a sin tax. And it deliberately targeted the little guy – large whiskey operations were allowed to pay a greatly reduced tax – with the imprimatur of Alexander Hamilton himself, the hero of today’s supposedly ‘woke’ liberals.

    5. Bsoder

      While going to college I also did an Union carpentry apprenticeship, and after finishing college, was sick of it and went to work as a carpenter. Union wise we are really strict about health and safety and all our jobs require money being spent to make sure things are safe and stay that way. I’d rather too much Osha, then too little, but our labor agreements go way beyond Osha. Any contractor, project manager that’s been in business for any time doesn’t give us grief. Our productivity and quality of work is exceptional as well. As to Leviton, every outlet in my house is GFP, it’s the kids, now grandchildren that I worry about. I suppose there’s some charm in being instantly electrocuted by a knob and tube bare wire setup, but I don’t see it myself. The real money is in being a contractor so I finally did become one – Union. I still don’t have any problems with gvt. Maybe certain inspectors but that’s life. Building codes are always changing and one can give inputs if one wants. Where I live in Michigan the codes haven’t gotten in the way of anything I want to do. It’s zoning that’s got to go and is oddly.

  2. K teh

    Government is a corporate machine. Inalienable Rights, Bill of Rights, Founding Father’s – all myths. Scotus Harlen confirmed that a long time ago. Public education is built on a pack of lies. The same people lamenting GMO are determined to alter the DNA of every child in America.

    We have now reached the most absurd state of all, obscure political appointees with fake degrees given police power. What next, a $gazillion bailout.

    That banks would give the “loans” to their “friends” to the end of deciding economic outcomes should be of no great surprise. It’s always a hammer looking for a nail with the experts. Cuomo wasn’t doing math when he sentenced those people to die in nursing homes; they wouldn’t be there if they had a political voice.

    Government exists to protect corporate zombies.

  3. John

    I feel the problem with the USA is not economics, its culture and the right understands this well. Keep the culture such that practices in meat packing industry are acceptable.

  4. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

    It seems like a variation on the “Guns or Butter” debate, although that was in times where borrowing was intended to be restrained, both are tools of our oiligarchs to direct our spending. I worked in a slaughterhouse for a year and a half to get money for college (nursing school). Many jobs require a high respiratory rate since they are physically demanding.
    How ironic is it that we have finally arrived at a stage in human history when such a high proportion of mind-numbing jobs can be done by robots and mass education in a dazzling array of subjects can so easily be provided and yet because we are focused on monetary profit we devalue our human capital and waste one of Nature’s most valuable developments, our minds.

    1. Rolf

      Mark, this is an excellent point. Why, exactly? All of the benefits of machine control and automation have passed largely to the robot owners, and if anything we are now virtual slaves to automation. Emily Guendelsberger’s book, “On The Clock“, in which she documents her personal experiences working for McDonald’s, Amazon, etc., really drove this home for me. Next time you’re in a fast food palace, witness the hapless wage slaves (teenage self raises hand) scrambling across greasy floors amidst the cacophony of alarms, constant beeping, etc., all of which are signals that the required time to complete a given task, recorded quite literally down to the second, has been exceeded. Yes, automation and computer control have given us unparalleled advantages. But at a cost, unequally shared.

      1. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

        Thank you Rolf. I will check this book out. I remember in the slaughterhouse one of the jobs I did was boning the spine from an forty pound piece of meat. All the jobs required you to qualify for them by proving that you could do the job in a certain amount of time consistently. For the forty pound chuck it was twelve seconds, the twelve hour shifts were punishing. As an RN, the large public hospital for which I worked did studies where we had to keep track of how many times an hour we performed tasks. It wasn’t enough that they had classified RN’s as management so that they could stop paying us time and a half for overtime and force us to work unpaid time as well. This at a time when one third of all the money that the hospital took in went for “administrative expenses”.

        1. John Richmond

          Mark — if you don’t take a break that’s 5 pieces per minute, 300 per hour, 3600 per shift, x40 minus the spine — probably 100,000 pounds or 50 tons of meat. From you. In half a day. My god.

    2. cnchal

      Capitalists think, you’re wasting your mind, to learn things that, won’t make you a dime.

      > How ironic is it that we have finally arrived at a stage in human history when such a high proportion of mind-numbing jobs can be done by robots

      The conditions in an iPhony slave factory says otherwise. Ten million fingers are needed to assemble that diabolical device. Were they to attempt to better their working conditions and pay, they would get shot for their effort. Should anyone be surprised that those same working condition are being exported and adopted here?

      What’s the difference between a meat packing plant and an Amazon warehouse? None, other that the whip cracking buy button pushing shoppers can join in on the sadistic fun. Amazon doesn’t bother reporting corona cooties cases to the workers in the warehouses anymore. The reason? It would scare the workers even moar.

      And Amazon is held up as something aspirational and worthy of massive government subsidies. Barf.

  5. Susan the other

    For 50 years I have been puzzled about why American corporations were against nationalized health care. The narrative was always that it was the first step toward socialism, etc. But in reality in countries that did nationalize their health care systems their corporations – private enterprises – were more profitable and stable than ours. I’m thinking the Europeans here. Our anti-health propaganda was driven by the big health “insurance” companies; Pharma; and a corrupt congress, imo. But looky what finally happened. The relentless cost of externalizing costs to achieve profits has finally won. There simply will be no more profits until we fix profiteering; until we prevent rampant socialization of losses. We need a new social contract. Nobody denies it. We need comprehensive M4A; and an entirely new domestic industry for economic maintenance. One category will be sanitizing and securing work places – it’s a no-brainer. Lots of jobs to be created. And environmental spinoffs like a viable recycling industry. A backyard gardening industry. The list for social and environmental remediation is long. And long overdue.

    1. Mel

      As I recall, when nationalized health care first came up (Clinton-ish times?) big companies like Walmart and General Motors were interested. Something happened, though. They all bought into insurance companies instead?

      1. cnchal

        There is a difference between GM and Walmart, one being unionized and the other, not. Walmart realized that chaining an employee with “health” insurance sets the bar really high for that employee to say “phuck you, I’m outta here”. Shitty pay augmented by shitty insurance is a winning combination for the biggest corporations.

        Note, that during this get back to work startup, Ford has closed two plants for at least a day or two for deep cleaning theater after a few workers tested positive. Does anyone with even one firing neuron believe that would have happened without a unionized workforce?

        Amazon is aiming for herd immunity in every warehouse, whether it kills them or not.

    2. Bsoder

      American corporations, per se were never agaisnt some kind of gvt healthcare. C- level types wanted there all everything plans to be made available for all time but beside that, CEOs I know just as soon have somebody like Medicare do it. The problem always has been doctors, mds, those guys. The problem – the the fear that one won’t make $250k a year. Which is funny because most make $125k a year. But that is also why we don’t want high taxes on the rich, because I might be one someday. Like .000000001 is a chance.

  6. Pelham

    Meat processing plants, notably, are a major source of infection, and minorities working in these hellholes are suffering the greatest harm. But it should also be noted that immigration is the reason.

    After neoliberals in the 1980s allowed the industry to consolidate, meatpackers bused up thousands of migrants from Latin America and used them to break the unions in the plants and introduce vastly more dangerous working conditions. Thus the once safe, well-compensated, middle-class jobs with benefits that were highly sought by Midwestern whites disappeared.

    Now we’re led to believe that migrants are the only people willing to do this type of work. Well, yes — but only given the intense crapification introduced in the sector over the past four decades. And now they’re dying so we can have our steaks, a truly magnificent compounding of capitalist injustice and homicidal recklessness.

    1. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

      I worked in a beef packing plant for a year and a half in 1977-78. We had a union, The Teamsters, the only union I was ever able to join in Texas. Like democracy a union is nuanced. The union members must be educated and proactive. A big part of the problem with unions in the South is the local culture of ignorance, toxic masculinity, and obeisance to power. It is also difficult for a union to stand together and to stand up when there is a huge turnover. There were two groups a week of new employees. Of the US employees about one third would quit the first day and another third within a week. And this was for one of the few well-paying jobs in the isolated city (6/hr with lots of overtime, in Amarillo in 1978 there were many people with bachelor’s degrees not making 15k a year). The only people who stayed for years were the Viet Namese and Laotian refugees who had no other options. And as for “homicidal recklessness” you are also more correct than you realize. When the power line would snap under the weight of ice and the lights would go out in a huge room of people armed with 6-10 inch incredibly sharp knives hiding under the conveyor belt table was the safest place.

  7. k teh

    The experts not only continue unabated, but are accelerating the process. They have achieved their goal with China, a prototype social credit surveillance system and are now ditching China. The politicians fly off to Hawaii while half the workers are fired and the other half work on cement for 8-12 hrs/day, wearing masks, to serve the corporate machine.

    The hive evolved in deception, say one thing and do another. It takes a great deal of energy to escape the inertia trap, so keep your distance. Don’t follow the free banana. SCOTUS ruled a long time ago that children belong to the hive; give unto Caesar…. or your own family throw you under the bus. Work your 24 hours at wages 4x rent and run your business to build assets in your head. Nero always burns down the empire.

  8. George Stubbs

    Extend Wolff’s argument to an important piece of the corporate/Republican campaign strategy–the “jobs” card, or, jobs as the ultimate charity. “We provide jobs. Be grateful. No matter that you need two or three of them to be secure. No matter that they expose you to hazards that will kill you outright or shorten your lifespan–to say nothing of generating pollution that will harm your children intellectually, physically, and emotionally. You’ve got a JOB, and if you insist on these regulations, you’ll lose it, and civilization will crumble. So shut up and get back to work.”

  9. Lee Christmas

    People are being forced back to work in unsafe conditions, yes, because the employers are making demands. But we consumers also make demands, and we need our meat not just packed and shipped, but for someone to sell it to us when it arrives. And it seems that most people don’t care much who picks up their trash, as long as someone does it. A prisoner and a worker might look the same depending from where you stand.

  10. TimH

    Remember also that you don’t have to buy the food products from whomever. There are choices.

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