Tornadoes ripped the roof off American capitalism | Will Bunch Newsletter
Plus, the reason the Jan. 6 coup failed that no one is talking about
Happy holidays from a guy who just paid $85 (plus tip) for a Christmas tree that would have been too scrawny to make the final cut for The Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Way to go, Brandon! OK, that’s sarcasm, although I know there are folks out there blaming the 46th president for tree inflation. All I know is that the price of trees will now never go down, even if Zombie Ronald Reagan wins in 2024.
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America, let’s talk about folks who toil for $8 an hour when a tornado is coming.
When tornadoes tore a deadly path through six Midwestern and Southern states on Friday night — demolishing several small towns, where rescue workers are still searching for some of the scores of people who were killed — two powerful forces of modern American life also collided. In two communities in the path of the twisters, the Christmas crush of the nation’s chaotic, low-wage, just-in-time economy met the new realities of climate change, when not-normal pockets of hot air now can spark massive tornadoes in mid-December.
In Edwardsville, Illinois, just east of St. Louis, a day of dire weather forecasts didn’t deter delivery drivers contracted by the online retail giant Amazon from making their appointed rounds right up until just after 8 p.m. That’s when a powerful tornado formed — according to company officials — in the parking lot right next to its large, boxy depot. One of the drivers, 44-year-old Alonzo Harris, was just pulling into the depot when he got an alarm on his phone. He raced to a shelter inside the structure, which did little good. “I felt like the floor was coming off the ground,” he told the New York Times. “I felt the wind blowing and saw debris flying everywhere, and people started screaming and hollering and the lights went out.”
Another driver who’d started his job just weeks earlier, 46-year-old Army veteran Larry Virden, texted family to tell them he was gassed up and ready to flee the storm, but then sent a second text to his girlfriend: “Amazon won’t let us leave.” Virden would become one of six people, of the roughly 50 at the site, killed by the tornado.
Nearly 200 miles to the south in Mayfield, Kentucky, about 110 people working the night shift to meet the Christmas season demand for candles at stores like Bath and Body Works were directly in the path of one of the lines of tornadoes that would ravage the Bluegrass State. Many of the workers in this economically stressed corner of western Kentucky had just answered ads by Mayfield Consumer Products offering $8 an hour, including mandatory overtime. Seven of the Friday night workers were inmates from the Graves County Jail, through a deal with the county.
As the first tornado alarms sounded, some of the Mayfield workers reportedly begged to leave. “[Employees] had questioned if they could leave or go home,” 21-year-old McKayla Emery told NBC News. ”‘If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired.’ I heard that with my own ears.” Officials have now found eight bodies in the twisted rubble of the factory that was torn off its slab foundation, injuring dozens more.
This weekend was a time to mourn the large death toll — at least 74 people were killed in Kentucky alone — and express condolences for their loved ones, while gawking yet again at the destructive force of Mother Nature. But with the sun out and the December chill settling in, it’s now time to start asking some tough questions about the nature of work in 21st century America. A probe by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, into building codes and safety procedures at the Amazon depot should be the first of many.
Among the many questions: Are today’s giant warehouses and open factories — the building blocks of our consumer economy — safe in an age when climate change is fueling stronger tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods? Do business practices aimed at maximizing production — Amazon seeks to ban employees from having cell phones on the job, for example — threaten worker safety in emergencies? Would the return of labor unions bring more protection for workers in the warehouse economy, as well as living wages that account for the dangers of today’s work?
Mindy Isser, the Philadelphia-based labor organizer and writer, whose recent work has focused on the intersection between workers’ rights and global warming, told me Monday that the deaths in Illinois and Kentucky show that “our lives, outside of productivity at the workplace, matter very little. Our safety and our families are completely ignored and belittled the vast majority of the time, and that includes during natural disasters.” She said the risks of working in extreme weather — including punishing heat, which has particularly been a problem at Amazon warehouses — make a compelling case for the Green New Deal, and for unionizing the workforce.
Weather experts noted that the extremely rare December twisters — fueled by a cold front’s collision with pockets of unseasonably warm air in the American heartland — were the kind usually seen in the spring. That’s key here, Jason Furtado, an associate professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, told NBC News. “We’re seeing these environments that can support tornadic activity.” But is the American workplace ready for this new era?
The past records of the employers involved in Friday nights tragedies are not promising. Mayfield Consumer Products had been cited in 2019 by OSHA for “serious” violations at the site, including along its exit routes. Recently, a worker from Puerto Rico sued the firm, claiming he was fired for being overweight, producing a text message from management: “We are working diligently to clean up the epileptic, obese, pregnant, and special needs issues[.]” Meanwhile, the Amazon worldwide consumer CEO Dave Clark who tweeted his “thoughts and prayers” to the Edwardsville victims was famously known in company circles as “The Sniper” for admitting he used to hide in the shadows at warehouses to catch workers slacking off, and fire them.
In modern America, it feels like it takes a horrific natural catastrophe — remember what Hurricane Katrina revealed about poverty in a major U.S. city like New Orleans? — to show us the grim everyday struggles of working-class Americans. Friday’s deadly tornadoes literally tore off the roof and exposed the hard life of this country’s low-wage workers, and we shouldn’t accept the status quo. Our neighbors who toil in these factories and warehouses need stronger representation, stricter rules, better enforcement, and a living minimum wage that takes into account the risks they face as essential workers. These things will mean so much more to the workers of Kentucky, Illinois, and the rest of America than 280 characters of empty thoughts and prayers.
Yo, do this
OK, I confess — I’ve been consumed with the content I’ve already plugged on here: The remarkable Season 3 finale of Succession, working through eight hours of the Beatles, finishing The 1619 Project. Eventually I hope to have time for Aaron Sorkin’s new flick Being the Ricardos — about the power couple of Lucy and Desi navigating the McCarthyism, racism, and general backwardness of life in early 1950s America. C’mon, 2021 — you owe us at least one memorable movie, no?
One currently very popular form of media I have yet to recommend in this newsletter is ... another newsletter. But if you like what we do here at The Will Bunch Newsletter, I think you’ll really like what my friend Eric Boehlert does multiple days a week with his PressRun, an in-depth look at how the media covers — or doesn’t cover — the issues of the day. There’s no better writer to go after the frequent small-mindedness of the Beltway press, and remind us the so-called “liberal media” isn’t that liberal.
Ask me anything
Question: How do you think the large number of GOP candidates for the Pa. senate seat will impact the election? — Via @PhillyResistNow on Twitter
Answer: Call it the Donald Trump effect, perhaps, but interest in the 2022 Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey — a contest that may well determine the balance of power in Washington — has clearly skyrocketed since Mehmet Oz, the TV celebrity doctor, threw his stethoscope into the ring. On one hand, I didn’t sense any clamoring for an Oz campaign either from the GOP establishment or the party’s newer, Trumped-up adherents. But the bigger the field, the more that the power of TV notoriety with casual, low-information voters kicks in. Unless Oz finds himself facing a Trump-endorsed candidate in a smaller field, he surely could capture the Republican nod.
Shock and awe would be a good phrase to describe the pace of bombshell disclosures as the House Select Committee probing the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill picks up the pace of its investigation. In particular, though, there is one new revelation that both shines a light on how close a coup to unlawfully keep Donald Trump in the White House came to succeeding, but also on a key twist that caused it to fail. The House panel has obtained an email from Trump’s top aide at the time of the insurrection — his chief of staff Mark Meadows — from January 5 stating that the National Guard was on standby to “protect pro Trump people.” That sounds very bad in and of itself, but it’s even worse when you take a step back to understand why Trump’s people thought his “Stop the Steal” backers would need help from troops.
There was, in that great Sherlock Holmes-uttered analogy, a dog that did not bark on January 6. Based on a series of encounters in the streets of Washington going back to Trump’s inaugural weekend in 2017 and continuing through the final days of 2020, Team Trump expected that supporters marching on the Capitol would encounter left-wing protesters — include the hardcore folks branded as “antifa” — along the way. Trump himself even tweeted about antifa a couple of times on January 5. He’d also spent his final weeks staffing the Pentagon — which had the power to call in the Washington National Guard or otherwise intervene — with die-hard loyalists. If clashes involving left-wing protesters had turned bloody or even deadly on January 6, troops commanded by Trump-friendly generals like Michael Flynn’s brother, Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn, might have entered the Capitol early in the day — and stayed there, thus preventing the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory, while Trump instead declared “a National Security Emergency.”
There was just one problem: There were no leftist protesters in D.C. that fateful day. Smelling the potential rat in the room and not willing to put Biden’s victory at risk, left-wing opinion leaders on social media had one big message for January 6: Stay away. There was even a Twitter hashtag: #DontTakeTheBait. Instead, the Pentagon and National Guard did receive urgent requests from D.C. district leaders and others to intervene — not on behalf of pro-Trump insurrectionists, but to stop them. No wonder those military men froze, like deer in the headlights, for hours before acting. And no wonder Fox News commentators stayed on script and blamed violence on the “antifa” who were nowhere in sight. Lacking its planned pretext, Trump’s coup by national emergency had become a non-starter. The rest is history.
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Given the widespread interest in Mehmet Oz, celebrity doctor turned politician, and his move from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to run for the U.S. Senate, my Sunday column tackled what the unbearable lightness of his pro-”freedom” campaign so far says both about America’s entertain-ourselves-to-death politics but also about the GOP in the Keystone State. Is the party so broken that only out-of-staters will run here?
Over the weekend, I was alarmed by two related things: The news report that the Trump White House circulated — and Republican members of Congress were briefed on — a PowerPoint presentation on how to declare “a National Security Emergency,” seize 2020 election ballots, and essentially stage a coup to keep POTUS 45 in power, and the fact that this story wasn’t dominating the news. The real problem, I wrote, is that the coup to ensure a Trump win in 2024 — regardless of who gets the most votes — is ongoing.
What’s more important — that Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner said something dumb when he insisted his hometown doesn’t have a crime problem despite the all-time record number of homicides, or the bigger picture on criminal justice reform? Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong expressed the angst of the loved ones of the more than 500 murdered: “We need city leaders to quit parsing numbers and come up with solutions to all of this lawlessness.” But community activist Paula Peebles voiced her ongoing support for Krasner “to make sure the criminal justice system stops robbing innocent people — and people suffering from poverty, mental illness, and addiction — of their potential and freedom.” A city like Philadelphia needs wide open public debate, and to hear its most powerful voices. You support this civic conversation when you subscribe to The Inquirer.