America Unregulated: Severed Limbs And Starvation Wages

03/30/2017 04:47 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2017
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

As Donald Trump and his Republican cohorts continue their crusade against safety and environmental regulations that they claim “hurt businesses,” the horrendous consequences of not having them in place remain laid right before America’s feet.

Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published a terrifying, yet unfortunately not surprising, account of the status of Alabama’s supposed auto jobs boom. The state’s auto parts industry currently employs 26,000 workers and apparently has dubbed itself the “New Detroit,” signaling the kind of industrial resurgence that Trump promised on the campaign trail. To the untrained eye, this can seem like a utopian rebirth of American manufacturing, but when you look closer, it is far from it.

In many ways, the environment of this industry reflects that of the countries we say operate the wrong way, the countries we pick trade fights with incessantly. Right here in our amber waves of grain, “pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.”

And who bears the brunt of these conditions and who pays the price of this slight boom? Surely not the CEOs and the managers.

In the Bloomberg article, we hear about Regina Elsea, a 20-year-old who went to work in February 2016 at Ajin USA in Cusseta, Ala., a South Korean supplier of auto parts for Hyundai and Kia. Last summer on June 18, 2016, she was working another long day shift when a machine malfunctioned. Safety crews did not answer the workers’ call for assistance, so Elsea, who never received proper training, attempted to bring the machine back to life. The machine did just that and crushed her against a steel dashboard frame during its reboot. Emergency crews arrived, pulled her from the machine, and flew her to a hospital where she died the next day.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency whose budget Trump wants to slash, the company “had never given the workers their own safety locks and training on how to use them, as required by federal law.”

This story is tragic all on its own, but is even more so when you realize it is just one of many.

There is Nathanial Walker, who fell into a dipping pool of acid at WKW-Erbsloeh Automotive suffering full-body burns and spending four days in intensive care. He was also working 12-hour night shifts, seven days a week, for up to six months straight.

There is Reco Allen, who lost his right forearm when a metal parts stamper slammed down onto him after the company had known for years that the press Allen was forced into operating was dangerous.

And there is Cordney Crutcher, who lost a finger due to a cast-iron hole puncher failing to deploy after he already worked for 12 hours but was pressured by a supervisor into staying longer.

If total lack of safety wasn’t bad enough, workers in the auto parts industry in the South typically earn not much more than minimum wage. Crutcher was lucky to be making $12 an hour at the Matsu plant where he lost his finger, and now he commutes an hour to the General Motors Co. assembly plant in Tennessee where he earns $18.21 an hour and is represented by the United Auto Workers Union.

Devoid of accountability and regulations, these profit-hungry companies in America’s South are already able to go unchecked and pay their workers next to nothing while letting them die without consequence. And if Trump continues to make cuts to safety measures and agencies like OSHA as well as erase previous executive orders such as the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Act, which was signed by President Obama to protect workers by improving federal contractor compliance with labor laws, the industry will continue to kill its workers, and the blood will be on this president’s and his fellow elephants’ hands.

The icing on top of this cake is Trump, along with the rest of the Republican leadership, supports right-to-work legislation, which makes it harder for unions to operate. It is union-busting legislation through and through. Yet, unions and the contracts they negotiate are what can provide family-sustaining wages and safe working conditions.

Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,004 in 2016, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $802, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wages aside, there is also a direct correlation between non-union jobs and fatalities. Unions focus a lot of their attention on safety training in every industry, especially those that are high-risk. Let’s look at the construction industry. In New York City, an average of 80 percent of the workers dying in fatal falls on construction sites are non-union workers. To Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, this can be attributed to improper, or even non-existent, safety training.

“On union sites, there is rigorous training. Just to get into the union, a worker needs to complete a nine-month apprenticeship program,” said Obernauer.

Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of the Staten Island Community Job Center, also cites these companies’ lack of liability as a reason for the high rate of non-union fatalities. In his experience, “owners have little incentive to improve safety since they are barely slapped on the wrist when things go awry.”

This is where OSHA comes in. This is where unions come in. Yet Trump wants to diminish the power of both of these in order to make business owners even more rich and feel less hindered even though he continuously promised to be the best president workers have ever seen.

Sure, a boom similar to what’s happening in Alabama can bring some jobs back. But these jobs will be low-paying and just as dangerous as those in the countries from which Trump says we must reclaim them.

The only thing these rollbacks will do for workers is make them suffer either from starvation wages or from workplace injuries and even death. It’s already happening, as witnessed in the very unregulated South, and it is bound to get worse and spread across the country as a result of this administration’s disregard for American workers.

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