The deadly off-season tornadoes that hit six states this weekend have taken at least 88 lives so far. 74 of these deaths occurred in Kentucky alone where over 100 people are still unaccounted for.
Among the dead are six Amazon workers from a collapsed warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois and eight workers from a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky owned by Mayfield Consumer Products. In both cases, reports are emerging about employees who were not allowed to leave, and were not provided with adequate protections against the tornadoes.
Larry Virden, a 46-year-old Amazon worker, texted his girlfriend, “Amazon won’t let us leave.” He was killed when the tornado hit the Edwardsville warehouse. Amazon workers said that they had little to no tornado preparedness instructions, and were expected to keep working during tornado warnings in the past. Meanwhile, the company blamed the deceased workers for their deaths, claiming that they were not sheltering in the designated areas. If true, this is altogether unsurprising when workers have not had tornado drills and are expected to work during tornado warnings. Amazon has a long history of compromising worker safety in the interest of prioritizing productivity, resulting in injuries and deaths.
Workers at the candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky said that they were threatened with being fired if they left during the storms, and were told to go back to work. Mayfield Consumer Products, like Amazon, also has a history of ignoring worker safety. In 2019, federal regulators found 12 violations including problems with exit routes, electrical safety, and handling equipment. The factory was operating 24/7 during the holiday season and paying its workers a meager $8 an hour. The factory was struggling to find workers during this busy time and had to rely on prison labor to meet demands. On the night the factory was hit by a tornado, seven inmates from Graves County Jail were working there. Although the inmates survived the tornado, the correctional officer supervising them was killed. The candle factory workers who survived the tornado are now suing the company for showing “flagrant indifference” to workers by expecting them to work during a tornado.
The employer expectation for Amazon and Mayfield Consumer Products employees to keep working through a tornado should not come as a surprise. Even though Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to have an Emergency Action Plan, it is ultimately up to the employers’ discretion whether or not they shut down or send workers home in the face of a natural disaster.
In the wake of the worsening climate crisis, these senseless worker deaths in Illinois and Kentucky highlight once again how often it’s perfectly legal for the ruling class to treat workers as expendable. Laws and safety protocols are often designed to protect and shield business interests rather than workers. We have already seen this play out during the pandemic, when essential workers were called heroes while being denied PPE and hazard pay. Health workers who raised safety concerns were disciplined or fired.
Over four million people in the United States have left their jobs in healthcare, retail, tech, and hospitality in what has been called “The Great Resignation.” While individual reasons for people quitting one’s jobs might vary, one common theme is discontent with current working conditions.
Businesses are structured to cut costs and maximize profits. Their solutions don’t go beyond pizza parties, virtual happy hours, or other similar empty gestures. Workplace safety protocols are often developed in a top-down manner without consultation from workers who are most affected by unsafe working conditions.
Neither the Amazon warehouse, nor the candle factory were unionized. To keep us safe we need combative unions in every workplace that are willing to take action for safe working conditions. Additionally, we need democratically elected worker safety committees composed of rank-and-file members who can determine what measures are needed to keep us safe in any situation such inclement weather or a pandemic. For example, during the tornadoes over the weekend, worker safety committees could have quickly decided what safety measures were needed in the moment.
A rank-and-file worker safety committee could also encourage vaccine hesitant and anti-vaccine workers to get vaccinated against Covid-19 through discussions, education, or having them do work that does not put them into contact with others. This would be a more effective solution than imposing vaccine mandates from above.Employers will not improve our working conditions or keep us safe. Only seven of the 190 workers who worked at the Amazon warehouse in IL were full-time employees. Outsourcing jobs to contractors, rather than hiring employees, allows companies like Amazon to maximize production while avoiding blame through indemnity clauses when things go wrong and workers get injured. Unions and workers’ safety committees can play a crucial role in preventing this outsourcing and fighting for permanent job positions. Capitalist bosses will want to continue to exploit our labor and the planet for profit while leaving us to die. Too many workers have already died as a result of the bosses’ drive for bigger profits. We need a democratic movement of rank-and-file workers in every workplace to keep us safe.