Rep. Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, has COVID-19 and he decided to inform his staff of that fact in the worst possible way: by going in to the office and telling them in person, because he “didn’t want them to hear it on the news.” (I have a feeling they would much, much rather have heard it on the news.) Staffers in Gohmert’s office are also said to have been berated for wearing masks to work, which Gohmert does not believe in (he thinks he got COVID from a mask).
What Gohmert did is, of course, criminally irresponsible. He put his employees’ lives at risk by deliberately going in and exposing them to a deadly virus. But he almost certainly will not suffer any consequences. In the United States, the boss is the boss, and if the boss wants to call you in to a meeting to tell you all he has the coronavirus, the boss can do this, and if you complain, the boss can take away your livelihood.
In the United States, most workers have very few legal rights, and the legal rights they do have are often unenforced, because enforcing them requires hiring a lawyer and fighting against an incredibly powerful institution through a drawn-out court process. Wage theft, meaning employers just declining to pay their employees money that they legally owe them, is so common in this country that it nearly equals the value of all other property crimes like burglaries and robberies. A profit-motivated employer has an incentive to stiff workers for as much as they can get away with. In fact, Milton Friedman, who believed the only social responsibility a business has is to increase profits for its shareholders, would probably go so far as to say there is an obligation on the part of employers to commit wage theft—after all, if they don’t, they’re not maximizing shareholder value.
“At will” employment means that people have little recourse when their employers are cruel or abusive. If they complain, they can simply be fired. There is very little democracy in the average workplace; corporations operate as private dictatorships, and you don’t get to “vote out” your manager if they make your life a misery. If, say, Republicans succeeded in destroying Social Security and my mother was forced to take a job in an Amazon fulfillment center, Amazon could tell her that unless her mouthy son stopped writing venomous articles about Jeff Bezos, she would lose her livelihood. The theoretical range of abuses possible in a free market system is vast: employers could tell employees that unless they have all their bodily functions monitored off the clock, they could be fired. Or they might demand full access to your social media accounts, and permission to post on your behalf. Or they might tell you that unless you leave your friends and move across the country, you’ll be fired (forcing your employees to move is what capitalists call “giving them freedom.”)
That’s bad enough during “ordinary” times, but during a time of mass unemployment when people can’t afford to lose their jobs, the power that management has to dictate terms is heightened. Horrifyingly, in many workplaces that has meant that people are forced to press on despite obviously unsafe conditions. At North Carolina meatpacking plants, for instance, workers have been complaining to state regulators for months that companies like Tyson and Smithfield are not notifying people when their coworkers test positive for the virus, not allowing masks to be worn, and docking people points for staying home when they feel sick, thereby encouraging those with coronavirus to keep working. Unless those state regulators do something about it, the choice that many people have is between keeping on with their work (thereby exposing themselves to coronavirus) and quitting (thereby facing eviction, loss of healthcare, etc.)
The cure for this, of course, is labor unions. If the workers at Smithfield and Tyson were unionized—and their union was a democratic one that fought hard for its members—the union wouldn’t put up with that shit for a second. They would lay out what people’s rights are, and if the employer didn’t play ball, the workers would go on strike. This is how it works in France, for instance, where if the workers don’t like what the executives are doing, they form an angry mob and chase the human resources director over a fence (or kidnap the boss). As Fortune reports, France is the one country where Amazon warehouse workers are succeeding in forcing the company to the bargaining table. (Though Somali workers in Minnesota have managed to do it, too.) The New York Times reports that:
As early as March 17, the day France’s national lockdown took effect, Amazon warehouse workers held protests and strikes. The unions that represent them railed against a lack of hand sanitizer and risks of overcrowding, and more than 200 of the company’s roughly 10,000 warehouse employees gave formal notice that they were refusing to work in unsafe conditions. Amid the outcry, national labor inspectors ordered Amazon to address safety hazards found at several of the company’s warehouses.
Fortune concludes, “If you want to take on a trillion-dollar company in the midst of rising unemployment and a deep economic slump, it helps to live in worker-friendly France.” That’s true, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing special about France except their long tradition of wanting their lives to be good (good jobs, good wine, good bread) and their willingness to challenge anyone (whether kings or HR departments) who gets in the way of that.
The U.S. labor movement has a long, long way to go. But one thing we need to start doing is raising people’s expectations, so that they do not think of the right of an employer to infect people with coronavirus as a feature of the natural world, but an unacceptable dysfunction of the United States. Unless people think they (1) deserve and (2) could have something better, they will put up with the status quo. It’s hard enough to convince anyone to take the incredible risks that come with trying to agitate for better treatment in a country where the powerful have made it extremely clear that they do not care if you die of coronavirus. But to even get to the conversation about risk, first there needs to be a shared sense that everyone has rights, and those rights are being violated.
Take, for instance, the right to be safe. Republicans, because their priority even during a pandemic is to protect the profits of the wealthy, of course made the “L” in their HEALS Act “liability protection,” meaning the removal of your existing legal rights to be compensated for harms done to you by your employer. It’s important to understand what that means, because it’s easy to mistakenly think that something like this is just making sure that businesses don’t unfairly have to bear the costs of an Act of God like a pandemic. Certainly, Republicans will spin it as just keeping businesses safe from frivolous lawsuits. But you need to remember: frivolous lawsuits will be dismissed; to succeed, a lawsuit must show that someone violated someone else’s legal rights. The entire point of the legal process is to decide whether a case has merit. What the “liability shield” does is prevent a court from deciding whether a claim has merit, meaning that even if an employer obviously behaved negligently and caused terrible harm to their employees, they would be immunized from paying costs. All this does is shift the costs of an employer’s wrongdoing onto the employees, and exempt people from having to pay for the consequences of harms they cause. Republicans are going to work very hard to make sure businesses do not have to pay for exposing people to coronavirus, even if they didn’t observe any reasonable safety precautions, because Republicans are terrified far more of having the wealthy lose money than having people die of coronavirus. (That shouldn’t be a controversial statement by this point. They’ve made it very clear.) We need to fight hard to make sure that there is a right to be safe and that employers who do not respect that right are punished.
There are other critical rights that everyone deserves, such as the right to be secure in your employment, meaning that you’re not constantly under the threat of being arbitrarily fired. This should include the right to free speech, meaning that anything you say off the clock, so long as it doesn’t directly affect your work, should not be grounds for dismissing you. On the left, sometimes there is pressure to get people fired for hideous opinions they have, and I tend to think this is a mistake, because secure employment is a human right, and while there should be social consequences for monstrous opinions, one’s employment should be very heavily protected. An important implication of this is that the best way to protect free speech is for everyone to be represented by a labor union, who will be able to fight back against attempts to dismiss people for reasons other than violation of their employment contract. (And yet I see so few free speech warriors arguing for massively expanding union membership. How odd.)
These are tragic times, and they may soon get worse, since as I write, Congress is about to cut the unemployment lifeline keeping millions of people afloat. But even though so many are beaten down and sick and it’s difficult to think clearly in the midst of so much chaos and sadness, we have to be very firm about one thing: every single person deserves to be protected at work, both from infection and from abuses of power.