Capitalism Kills — Workers’ Deaths Are a Cost of Production

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There's plenty of evidence that capitalism the imperialist wars that are the hallmark of capitalist decadence for over 90 years, in the grinding poverty that shortens the life span of millions of people, in the diseases and inadequate medical care that afflict society,  and in the inhuman living conditions that people are forced to exist in. The month of August included several stark reminders that capitalism also kills at the workplace, that even in the simple act of showing at work everyday, in the daily exploitation of their labor power, workers risk their lives. For a mode of production characterized by a relentless drive for profit, the safety of workers is only a minor, peripheral concern that cannot be allowed to get in the way of making money. Within a period of three weeks, we saw the release of two reports on gross safety violations that led to the deaths of two subway workers in two different incidents in New York City last spring, and the heartbreaking mining disasters in Utah and across the world in China.

On August 2, authorities released reports that detailed the poor safety procedures and an "organizational culture" that flouted basic safety rules that led directly to the needless deaths of two track workers just days apart in April. On April 24,  Daniel Boggs, a 41 year old transit worker was struck on the express tracks at Columbus Circle (near 59th Street) in Manhattan, where he was working at 11:20pm. The express track had been scheduled to close to train traffic at 11:00 pm, so Boggs went to his work location on the tracks confident that it was safe to do so. But he didn't know that after a train became stalled at the nearby 66th Street station, train dispatchers decided to keep the express track open a little longer to enable other trains to bypass the stalled train. Incredibly, in the 21st century, in the era of a communications revolution, in an epoch of telephones, radio communication, and cell phones, there was no communication between the train dispatchers and the supervisors of the track workers to inform them that traffic would still be continuing on the express tracks, and that it was not safe to work on the tracks. There's been talk from time to time about acquiring two-way radios for work crews in the New York subway tunnels but the MTA always decides it's too expensive. Even more incredibly, the supervisor of the track workers was ignorant of a requirement that he had to inform the dispatchers that he was sending workers onto the tracks. Boggs went to his death thinking it was safe to go onto the tracks.

Four days later, on April 29, 55-year-old Marvin Franklin, another track worker with 20 years experience on the job was killed and another was seriously injured when they were struck on the tracks between the Hoyt -Schermerhorn and Jay Street stations in Brooklyn around 3pm. The two workers were carrying a ninety pound equipment dolly across live tracks to the out-of-service tracks where they were assigned to clear scrap metal debris. Transferring the dolly across live tracks was a safety rule violation, but a supervisor told the workers that he would watch for and signal on-coming trains with a flashlight (called "flagging"). The supervisor, Lloyd London, positioned himself in an appropriate location, but soon abandoned his post to help another worker, unbeknownst to the two workers on the live tracks, who still thought he was warning oncoming trains that they were on the tracks. Moments later, the two workers were struck by an approaching train. 

Following these tragic deaths, transit authority supervisors held safety meetings with workers throughout the 40,000 employee system. The transit system claims that worker safety is a priority. Over the years they've developed a safety rules and regulations books, adding new procedures and rules drafted after every accident and fatality to show how much they care. The book is swollen with rules that are so contorted in their language that you need a lawyer to figure out what they say. The whole thing is more to protect the system from legal liability in lawsuits than to provide guidelines on how to work safely.

To illustrate this point perfectly, at one meeting workers were warned that they'd better abide by all safety regulations because otherwise if something happened to them on the job, their families would be denied full death benefits. One angry worker, angry at this effort to blame the victims, retorted, "How come every time a fireman or a cop gets killed on the job they call him a hero. But when a transit worker gets killed, you try to say it's his fault and threaten to penalize his family." After the reports were released, supervisor London was made the fall guy and demoted to subway car cleaner, and that was that. The failing of the entire city administration and its public transportation authority were absolved of any responsibility. Nothing has been done to make sure that the safety of the workers is the top priority. After all the transit system has a railroad to run and schedules to keep.

A few days later in August national media attention was riveted on the Crandall Canyon mine in Huntington, Utah where six miners were trapped in a collapsed coal mine on Aug 6th. Repeated efforts to drill shafts for ventilation and to send down food to the miners ended in failure. Ten days later, on August 16, three rescue workers were killed and six others injured as crews worked around the clock to dig through the collapsed debris to reach the miners. Rescue operations ceased and the 6 trapped miners will be entombed forever in the sealed mine.

Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy Corporation, co-operator of the mine, held repeated press conferences and briefings during the doomed rescue operations that seemed more designed to build up his personal image and shift blame for the tragedy from the company to mother nature than to facilitate the rescue. Contrary to all scientific evidence, Murray claimed that the disaster was caused by a 3.9 magnitude earthquake. However, scientists at the University of Utah and elsewhere said that the opposite had occurred-the spike in seismographic readings was caused by the mine collapse, which was caused by a particularly risky technique, called "retreat mining," that the Murray Corporation was using to extract the last vestiges of coal in the largely depleted mine.  The previous owner of the mine, Andalex Resources, thought it was too dangerous to use the "retreat mining" technique to extract coal from so-called "coal barriers," the pillars of coal that are left to hold up the mine ceiling and the rest of the mountain above it. While commonly used in shallow mines, at Crandall Canyon with a depth of 1800 feet, with tremendous pressure from the millions of pounds of mountain above it, the technique is extremely dangerous.  When Murray took over control of the mine in 2006, they applied for and were granted permission from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, to employ the controversial technique, so it's not just that they're an evil corporation-their dangerous techniques were endorsed by the state apparatus itself. 

The coal mining industry is particularly dangerous, in the US and around the world. In the past three years, the industry has opened 50 new mines per year in the US, increasing the number of coal miners by 20%, yet safety inspections have declined to their lowest level in 10 years. In 2006, 47 American coal miners were killed, double the number in 2005.

To drive home the fact that the loss of human life is just a collateral cost of production for the industry, Murray callously announced that the trapped miners were hopelessly lost, that it was too dangerous to try to retrieve their bodies, that the area they were in would be permanently sealed and that coal mining operations would be resumed in other parts of the mine. There was simply too much money to be made to permanently shut down the unstable mine. The fact that the mine was too unsafe to even reclaim the bodies for appropriate burial was not going to stand in the way of profits. Under pressure from the public outcry triggered by this ruthless, profiteering, inhuman and unsafe decision, the Murray Corporation retreated, saying that the Crandall Canyon mine would be closed forever and permanently sealed in honor of the missing men, and that mining would resume several miles away in a new mine, with a different name-of course they'll be tunneling into the same mountain from a different angle and give this so-called "new" mine a different name..

While Robert Murray tried to portray himself as a champion of everyday coal miners, he and his company are no strangers to safety and other legal problems. The company was cited by the National Labor Relations Board for violating federal labor laws by penalizing workers in a labor dispute in 2001. In 2001 a worker in one of Murray's mines in Ohio bled to death after a conveyor belt cut off his arm. An investigator attributed the death to a lack of adequate first aid in the mine. In 2003, one of its subsidiaries and four executives were convicted of conspiracy, lying and violating safety laws regulating dust levels in a Kentucky coal. The Crandall Canyon mine, the scene of the recent cave in and deaths, was cited for 33 health and safety violations in 2007 alone. A company mine in Illinois accumulated more than 850 federal health and safety violations in 2007.

Mine safety problems are not just limited to the US of course. Half way around the world in China, at the same time as Crandall Canyon was in the news, 180 coal miners were lost in flooded coal mines in Shandong Province. This brought the death toll in China's coal mines to 2,163 for the first seven months of 2007.

In the United States, the most advanced, capitalist power in the world, with all manner of government regulations and oversight in place last year 5,703 workers died in  job-related fatalities, 1226 of them in the construction industry.[1] In other words nearly double the number of people died on the homefront in work-related accidents last year than the number of US soldiers who have died in four years of combat in Iraq.

Clearly, in a mode of production where the quest for profits drives the system, safety is an after-thought, an add on, an extra cost - unless of course if accidents disrupt production so much as to endanger profit margins. As long as capitalism exists, people will die needlessly and horrendously. In a system controlled by the working class, where production is designed to satisfy human need, then safety would be a high priority. Accidents and illnesses will never be eliminated, but there is no rational reason for them to be so prevalent. The deplorable safety conditions that prevail today are still more proof that capitalism has outlived its usefulness and has forfeited its right to continue. Capitalism needs to be destroyed and replaced by a society controlled by the working class. - J.Grevin, 10/13/07.

The workplace carnage in the US is of course only the tip of the iceberg. Worldwide more than 60,000 deaths occur in the construction industry annually, about one death every ten minutes. According to official United Nations statistics, job-related accidents and illnesses claimed the lives of 2 million workers in 2005, with more that 300,000 of those deaths caused by accidents. By contrast, in three years of combat during World War II (1942-1945), the United States suffered an estimated 407,000 military deaths. Asbestos alone claims the lives of 70,000 workers throughout the world annually. Globally there are an additional 268 million non-fatal accidents that require workers to lose three days of work and 160 million new cases of job-related illnesses each year. According to the International Labor Organization job related accidents and illnesses waste 4% of the world Gross Domestic Product each year.[2]


[1] US fatality and accident data based on Bureau of Labor Statistics Press Release/Report, Aug. 9, 2007

[2] Global fatality, accident and illness data based on UN News press release, Apr. 28, 2005

General and theoretical questions: