By JOHN LESLIE
On Friday evening, Dec. 10, violent storms and tornadoes ripped through the Midwest and South, killing at least 70 people. During the storms, a candle factory roof in Kentucky and an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Ill., collapsed, killing at least eight workers in the former and six in the latter. Dozens of people are still missing. In both cases, bosses reportedly kept the workers on the floor and would not allow them to take shelter until it was too late.
Amazon worker Larry Virden texted his girlfriend shortly before he died that “Amazon won’t let us leave.” He is survived by four children. During the Amazon disaster, 29-year-old Clayton Cope tried to save his co-workers and was crushed in the debris. Forty-five workers had to be rescued from the building debris in the wake of the storm. Reports state that workers were told by managers to shelter in restrooms on site at the last minute.
Amazon boss Jeff Bezos was reported to be celebrating another successful space launch with super-wealthy Blue Origin passengers while first responders were digging through debris for survivors and the bodies of the dead. About 24 hours after the disaster, Bezos finally tweeted that “our thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones.” The dead in Illinois were identified as Deandre S. Morrow, 28; Kevin D. Dickey, 62; Clayton Lynn Cope, 29; Etheria S. Hebb, 34; Larry E. Virden, 46; and Austin J. McEwen, 26.
Workers at Amazon facilities near Edwardsville complained to NBC news reporters that the company expected them to keep working despite tornado warnings. “We have never had any tornado drills, nor had we sheltered in place for any of the warnings we’ve had in the past,” a woman who has worked for the past two years at STL8, an Amazon facility about 66 miles west of Edwardsville, said. She added that during two previous tornado warnings during her overnight shift, she was expected to continue working even when the company sounded alarms.
Many Amazon workers have pushed back against the company’s ban on cell phones. For years, Amazon banned workers from carrying cell phones while on the job, only relaxing the policy during the pandemic. In recent months, the company has been reinstating the ban, forcing workers to either leave phones in their cars or their locker. A company statement, however, responded to criticism by denying that the ban was in force at the Edwardsville plant at the time of the tornado.
Several workers stated that they would quit if the company restored the blanket ban on phones. They noted the need to be able to access information or call for help in an emergency. Press accounts cite the phone ban at FedEx when reporting about the murder of eight workers by a mass shooter at the company’s Indianapolis facility on April 15. During that event, workers were unable to contact loved ones or the police.
“Our phones are the lifeline—we need them,” one worker pointed out to a reporter from Bloomberg. “That’s what we want—we want our lifelines. We’re not going to just let this sit.”
Another Amazon worker told People magazine, “A bunch [of employees] has had enough. … We’re just going to bring our phones even if they tell us the policy is coming back into play. We’re not going to abide by that.” The worker said that many workers feel like Amazon “doesn’t care about our wellbeing” and that “conditions are very difficult to work under.”
Mayfield workers were trapped
In Kentucky, the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory had 110 people inside when the building caved in. Initial reports expressed the fear that “dozens” of the workers had perished. Mayfield worker Chelsea Logue told the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper that there was a “really big boom and the building lifted up, swayed and crashed down.” She continued, “All you could hear was screams from people. … I was trapped under a wall … by the grace of God I got out of there.” Rescue efforts in the town of Mayfield were hampered by the widespread destruction of the town itself.
Several Mayfield workers told NBC News (Dec. 13) that, after sirens had sounded a warning of a tornado danger, supervisors informed them that leaving the factory would probably jeopardize their jobs. “If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired,” McKayla Emery said she had heard managers say to four other workers. “I heard that with my own ears.” Elijah Johnson said he joined several other employees in asking supervisors whether they could go home, but “they told me I’d be fired.” Johnson said that the managers went so far as to take roll in order to find out who had left work.
Earlier that same day, Mayfield had advertised that they were hiring. Full-time candle production jobs were listed at a starting wage of $8 per hour and requiring 10-hour to 12-hour shifts Monday through Thursday. The job listing stated: “Mandatory overtime will be required frequently either by extending your shift or working on Friday.”
Seven prisoners from the Graves County jail were working Friday night as part of an “inmate-to-work program.” All of the prisoners survived the storm, according to the jail, although some were reported to have suffered life-threatening injuries. A deputy from the jail died.
Before the disaster, Mayfield, once praised by a former governor as a ”great employer and strong corporate citizen,” was set to expand the size of the factory.
They don’t care about us
In November 2018, a tornado struck an Amazon warehouse in Baltimore, causing a partial collapse of the building and killing two contractors. The question remains, why are factories and warehouses built in tornado-prone areas not built with hardened storm shelters?
According to the National Climate Assessment, “Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and new and stronger evidence confirms that some of these increases are related to human activities.” The number and intensity of severe storms, which often spawn tornadoes, has increased. Tornadoes in December are a rarity, and one of the tornadoes on Friday reportedly broke a 100-year-old record for the length of time a tornado stays on the ground. Scientists also report that what is commonly referred to as “tornado alley” is shifting eastward from the Kansas-Oklahoma region and into the Mississippi Valley as the planet warms further.
These tragic events show the need for working-class organization and power in the workplace. Unions at Amazon and Mayfield Consumer Products could have fought for worker safety, including more adequate safety procedures and the construction of these buildings with hardened storm shelters. Workers are too often forced to work long hours and in unsafe conditions for insultingly low wages.
During the Pacific Northwest heat wave, Amazon workers worked in warehouses without air conditioning. Organizing Amazon and other industries is not just about better wages, it’s about dignity and the quality of life at work and at home. The safety of workers must be paramount.
There must be consequences for management indifference to worker safety. Surely, if you can prosecute the parents of a school shooter, you can prosecute managers who keep people working during a tornado warning. But, of course, the rot goes all the way to the top—to the sociopaths who own the companies and profit from the inhuman conditions they impose on working people. The labor movement must demand a Justice Department investigation and accountability for this tragedy.
These events show, once again, the need for fighting unions and a real mass movement to organize the unorganized in every sector of the economy. It’s clear from the callous ruling-class response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when “essential” workers were praised for working through the crisis but often received little in the way of hazard pay, or in these “natural” disasters that the bosses care little about the welfare and safety of the people whose labor makes them rich.
It’s also clear that the Democrats, despite their claims to be for working people, are not reliable allies in any way. They covet our votes and enjoy the union get-out-the-vote efforts, but do little for us when in power. The success of any mass organizing drive will hinge on the realization that the unions have been subordinated to the Democrats for far too long. Workers need our own political instrument, a fighting labor party controlled by workers and oppressed peoples, to struggle for our interests.
Photo: Damage at the Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill. (Tim Vizer / AFP / Getty Images)