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Are Working Class Jobs Bad for Your Health?

The Pope is Catholic; bears shit in the woods; working-class jobs are bad for your health.

This last dog-bites-man story is something I’ve gleaned from weekly readings of the medical records of Latino immigrants who are applying for federal disability benefits. I don’t read these records for fun but for my job as a lawyer at a community center in a working-class section of Brooklyn (where we charge no fee). By now I’ve done enough of these disability cases to profile my typical client. She’ll have done factory work from the age of 14 in Mexico or the Dominican Republic and then more of the same in one of New York’s many non-union sweatshops. By her mid-40s her lower back will be an unsteady tower of herniated discs and lumbago; she’ll have arthritic pain in at least two of her knees and shoulders; inevitably asthma and more often than not type-two diabetes. On top of all this she’ll confide to me that she’s “deprimida,” and will be taking a daily cocktail of antidepressants accompanied by a visit to a therapist once a month. (In this single respect she resembles much of New York’s upper-middle class.) The medical care my client will be getting is often substandard, standard accompaniment of the substandard job that’s run her body through the ringer the length of her working life. I’d like to be able to report that at least her American-born kids will probably do better–but the odds are they have shaky job prospects and statistically they’ll come down with type-two diabetes before they’re 40.

Not a happy story, but my prototypical client really isn’t an anomaly in America, not even close. For tens of millions of Americans, work itself is the sickness unto death.

Consider the following:

* Throughout the 1960s and early 70s, more Americans died every year in automobile plants than died in any year of the Vietnam War. More Americans were struck down with disabling injuries and diseases from work in the auto plants than were hospitalized in any year for wounds from the war. 16,000 dead, 63,000 sick and sidelined, 1.7 million deafened or hearing damaged-every year (1).

* The epidemic continues: In the United States, 65,000 workers die of work-related injuries or illnesses every year, according to the impeccably mainstream American Journal of Publi Health (2).

* More than one out of twenty private-sector US workers are injured on the job or get an “occupation-related illness” each year according to the Center for Disease Control (3).

* 8.3 million working-age Americans getting Social Security disability benefits and/or Supplemental Security Income, a means-tested disability benefit for the indigent. That’s about 4% of the working-age population of this country (4).

That’s a lot of disabled workers. But the physically crippling effects of work aren’t just normal, they’re normalized: a plethora of government programs concern themselves with occupational health and safety, and guess what? They’re often useless. OSHA has no teeth and its supposed regulators are a bunch of industry hacks–even the New York Times has gotten wise to that (5). The monthly disability benefit check for former low-wage workers is a joke, about $700 in relatively liberal New York. True, there are some federal programs specifically tailored to the health needs of retired mineworkers, railwaymen and longshoremen, professions that have not coincidentally been dominated by white men. But there are no special programs for the non-whites and women who make up the majority of poultry processing plant workers, homecare attendants, and hospital workers. And of course the most dangerous jobs- in slaughterhouses, nonunion consruction sites, cleanup the 9-11 wreckage in Manhattan-go to undocumented immigrants. If they get injured on the job, they’re pretty much screwed.

The liberal solution to this ghastly but absolutely routine crisis is to ratchet up the monthly benefits of everyone’s disability checks and increase government spending on healthcare. More doctors! More nurses! More meds, more psychologists, more nutritionists, and more therapists of every stripe.

But beefing up the welfare state addresses the problem far too late, and creates too many problems of its own. America’s medical-industrial complex (15% of GDP!) is plainly and fundamentally broken, and however insatiable Big Pharma, to the American Medical Association may be, diverting another river of cash to them is surely not the answer. Besides, do we really want more doctors, therapists and “counseling” as a response to workplace injustice? Doping people to the gills with antidepressants is not the solution to a political problem, but it does turn out to be a semi-effective way for the medical system to pacify a large group of people with plenty of good reasons to be militantly pissed-off about the status quo.

The answer then is and forever shall be not to fix the treatment but to fix what people call “the economy”. Labor movements everywhere have always made workplace safety a major issue, and during the most recent peak of union radicalism in the early 70s, strikes over plant safety violations and struggles over the speed of the assembly line were common (5). Less so today, given the weakness of unions and the relative difficulty of correcting safety issues at more decentralized service-industry workplaces.

Throughout, it’s crucial to realize that what’s good for “the economy” may be terrible for workers. (Yes, I’m indulging the lazy habit of putting big words in quotes, but one of the few words that deserves this treatment is “the economy;” people talk about “the economy” today with the same level of rationality that ancient Mayans used talked about the implacable, sacrifice-demanding god of the corn harvest.) Although it’s clear that getting laid off has nasty effects on people’s physical and mental wellbeing, there’s a growing body of evidence that shows a white-hot economy with a tight labor market can be even harder of workers’ bodies and souls. The mandatory overtime and longer hours without rest up the risk of every type of workplace disaster, the increased stress and strain, the lack of sleep…. A national program of full employment isn’t in itself enough to stop people’s jobs from killing them, it may just do it faster.

In short our task is to transform the economy into a source of worthwhile labor that doesn’t kill you or make you sick. Hey, nothing wrong with getting a little utopian on May 1st. All of the above is just one of the things that will be on my mind and the minds of my many clients-they may have gotten their disability benefits but they’re still pissed off– when we go out on May 1st and raise some hell for workers’ rights y un minimo de justicia. ¡Sí se puede!

CHASE MADAR, expressing his own views, is staff attorney at Make the Road by Walking, “one of New York’s most militant community organizations” according to CP, and a member of the National Lawyers Guild. He can be reached at chasemadar@hotmail.com

1) JoAnn Wypijewski, “Pounding Out a DRUM Beat,” New Left Review I/234, March-April 1999. “Autowork casualty figures were not kept until the early 1970s; these, from the Health Research Group Study of Disease Among Workers in the Auto Industry, were compiled by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in 1973. This was three years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. According to the US Army Center of Military History, the year of greatest carnage in Vietnam was 1968, when 14,589 American troops fell and 46,797 were sent to hospital. That same year, by these records, was the most catastrophic for the ‘enemy’: 181,149 killed and, by extrapolation, 271,723 wounded.”

2) Robin Herbert, MD and Philip J Landrigan, “Work-Related Death: A Continuing Epidemic,” American Journal of Public Health: April 2000, Vol. 90, No. 4.

3) http://www2a.cdc.gov/niosh-Chartbook/imagedetail.asp?imgid=11

4) http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/STATS/DIbenies.html for SSD recipients; http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/ssi_sc/2005/table1.html
for SSI recipients

5) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/25/washington/25osha.html

6) See Wypijewski, ibid.

 

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