On April 12, tornadoes tore across eight Southern states, killing 33. Chattanooga, Tennessee, was especially hard hit. An EF-3 twister killed nine, injuring dozens, and destroying or damaging 150 buildings.
Yet within minutes, there was hope. First responders were soon on the scene, and at 6 a.m. the following day, 500 workers began conducting a “grid search”; as Hamilton County Emergency Management Communications Director Amy Maxwell explained to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “We’re still in the rescue mode and that’s pretty much going through the area which was affected, going door to door to make sure that we got everyone accounted for.”
At the same time, emergency rooms at local hospitals were receiving new patients, such as four-year-old Grayson Meadows, who suffered a grave brain injury when the storm ripped through his home.
Given the size of the response, one might almost forget that at the same time, the nation is in the grip of the coronavirus epidemic—although, of course, nobody is forgetting. As of April 15, Hamilton County has had 110 Covid-19 infections, and 11 deaths; nationwide, more than 26,000 have died.
So we can see: Many public servants are putting their lives on the line on a routine basis. Some are on duty when the storm breaks, others work their way through the wreckage—risking hazards as they search for victims—and some treat patients afterward. In the meantime, of course, all know that a highly contagious virus lurks.
It’s hard to think of any job categories more essential than these; this isn’t just essential work, it’s the Lord’s work.
We might note that the median salary for an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Chattanooga is $33,000; for a police officer, the median is a bit more than $50,000, and for a registered nurse, the average salary is a little over $60,000.
The pay scales for these workers seem low, especially in relation to the personal risk to them and the social value for the rest of us. Sometimes these incomes are beefed up by overtime, and yet even so, they seem meager next to many white-collar jobs that now seem, well, un-essential.
The New Meaning of Work
As we think about the first responders and frontline health workers in Chattanooga, and across the nation, we might wonder whether perhaps the pay-system itself is out of whack. Why do those who work so hard, at such risk, and do so much good get paid so little, especially relative to those who contribute little or nothing to society?
Moreover, we might also give some thought to all the other workers who are keeping our society going these days. We might ask ourselves: Why is the power still on? Why do the police still patrol the streets? Why do firefighters still come when called? Why do the traffic lights still work? Why do our phones still work? And the Internet?
And let’s not stop there: Let’s also ask: Why are many stores still open? Who’s stocking the shelves? Who’s working the cash registers? Who’s making deliveries? And behind those workers, who’s driving the trucks, operating the trains, and flying the airplanes? We could go on and on, listing all the many millions of workers, in the public and private sectors, who are proving themselves essential, helping us to get through this virus crisis.
Indeed, in a different vein, we might further ask: Where have all these people been? Why have these working-class heroes been so invisible for so long? The answer, of course, is that both the political and popular culture has devalued, even disdained, the toil of ordinary people.
Once upon a time, America lauded GI Joe and Rosie the Riveter; in 1942, the vice president of the United States declared that the 20th century should be remembered as the “the century of the common man.”
Yet weirdly, in the last few decades, an inordinate amount of praise has gone to billionaire tech tycoons and even to Wall Street plutocrats—once seen as the arch-enemy of the working class—especially if they’re progressive and woke.
So now, in the Covidean Era, we realize that we need police service more than we need the carried-interest tax loophole, and so this ridiculously rich-worshiping cultural-value system is changing. We now know about those working stiffs who are actually keeping us safe and fed—and we need them more than some billionaire with his money invested in China.
One who makes this point well is Maurice Glasman, a thoughtful British critic of neoliberalism and globalism. Writing in the New Statesman on April 12, he argued that one bright spot of the current crisis has been “the visibility and necessity of the working class.” Indeed, Glasman continued:
The crisis has clarified a distinctive aspect of the meaning of labour: it is something you can’t do from home. It requires real physical presence, leaving home and doing something, usually involving your hands, for other people.
One immediately might insist that yes, of course, some people do real and important work at home. And yet at the same time, Glasman has a point. As this virus stalks the world, the man or woman who goes outside to work seems braver than those who stay at home.
And yet here’s something interesting: The wages that such workers receive do not at all line up with the risk they take on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than a tenth of workers in the bottom income quartile can work from home. By contrast, more than half of workers in the top income quartile can do so.
To put the matter another way, the working class is taking risks—taking the hit, one might say—for the benefit of the well off.
A Better Deal for Workers
For decades, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has been charting wages and wealth in this country. For example, here are nine charts EPI released about American wages and income inequality back in 2015, well before Donald Trump’s election; as we can see, they make two key points about conditions under Trump’s predecessors:
First, productivity has soared much faster than median wages, which is to say, American workers are no longer gaining the benefit of their own hard work as a factor in rising productivity and wealth; the benefits are being captured by others. And that leads us to …
Second, the income of the top one percent has risen nine times faster than the income of the bottom 90 percent. And much of the reason, of course, is that the one percent typically gets its income from capital and investments, and so one percenters make their money from the stock market. And big corporations have found it easy, and profitable, to outsource production overseas, especially after China opened up in the ’90s.
We might add that EPI admits there’s been some improvement in the years since 2015, which is to say, Trump’s policies have made a positive difference. And yet still, it’s obvious that the gap between labor and capital has widened vastly.
So let’s think about what the nation owes working Americans. And then let’s think about narrowing the gap.
In the short term, the key issue is protecting worker health, as well as, of course, the health of all Americans. And that entails everything from face masks now to a cure or vaccine tomorrow. In other words, we need the full mobilization of the United States for the sake of working people, for the economy they have built—and for everyone else.
In the longer term, we should be thinking about raising wages for those at the low end of the scale, and also about guaranteeing them the basics of dignity and safety on the job. This author, as well as others here at Breitbart News, having taken note of hazardous working conditions at Amazon facilities, as well as of rising protests among the e-commerce giant’s employees.
Then, on April 14, came the news that Amazon had fired three more workers for their activism. On April 21 came more protests; as one worker in Michigan told New York magazine, “We are essential workers, but we’re not receiving essential protection.” Admittedly, the protests reportedly amounted to only 300 workers out of some 250,000 at Amazon nationwide, and yet it’s a safe bet that there will be many more protests. Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before labor inspectors—and tort lawyers—take a good long look at Amazon’s facilities. So while Amazon can claim success in the short run, the long run prospects for the company’s defiant stance are cloudier.
Yes, it’s an easy prediction that such corporate high-handedness will be met, soon, with a stern legal and political response. And that’s as it should be. After all, as Abraham Lincoln declared in 1859, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital … capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed … labor is the superior—greatly the superior—of capital.”
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is not the first American tycoon to think that he can run roughshod over his workers. And yet most likely, soon enough, he will be reminded of what happened to those earlier tycoons; they were brought to heel by a popular upswell of congressional oversight, regulation, unionization, and anti-trust action. In our republic, the people rule.
Yet there’s no need to worry about Bezos; during the current crisis, his fortune has actually increased by $24 billion, so he’ll still be fabulously rich, even if he has to spend more to keep his workplaces safe and pay his workers higher wages.
Indeed, Amazon, as well as the nation, will actually do better if workers feel that they are being cut in on the action. Social stability, after all, is good for business.
A Nation Fit for Heroes
When this war—this World War Virus—is over, we, as a nation, will have to stake stock. We will mourn our losses, we will regret our economic calamity, and we will thank our essential workers.
And then we will have to figure out how to secure that better deal for all American workers.
It’s no longer possible to kid ourselves. We can no longer live with the illusion that the forces of globalism—who outsourced all those jobs to China and who devalued work here at home—have our best interests at heart. We won’t get fooled again.
Instead, for inspiration, we should look to labor—the labor that the great Lincoln told us was always superior to capital. Let’s look, for instance, to the frontline workers in Chattanooga, to all essential workers, and to working people across the country.
If we see the world through their eyes and respect their best values, we’ll be reminded that hard work brings something that money can’t buy—honor. And a politics that celebrates earned honor is an effective politics—as in, winning elections.
So here’s the opportunity for conservatives, for populists, and nationalists, and all the rest of the right and center-right: The Republican Party should always abide by its core principles, and yet at the same time, it should return to its Lincolnian roots, becoming the avowed party of first responders, blue-collars, and other frontline workers—and joined by, of course, soldiers, homemakers, and believers.
And yes, of course, entrepreneurs, small businesses, venture capitalists, and even fatcats would be fully welcome into this party; they should understand that if ordinary Americans are doing well, then they, too, will do well. After all, what a business needs most is a customer.
If we can we organize our economy around the well-being of the middle class—just as we once did—then we can all have a healthy, strong, and secure country.
By contrast, if we are weak as a nation, and either viruses or China rule the world, then nobody—and nobody’s wealth—will be safe.
The nation is ready to reward the party whose platform reflects the hard lessons we have learned these past few decades—and the even harder lessons we have learned in the past few months.
Can this happen? Can the Grand Old Party become the Grand Worker Party? We’ll have to see.