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The following article concerns the Minneapolis Bridge among other items.

Badge Of Slavery


THE PEOPLE SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007 (The official journal of the Socialist Labor Party)

VOL. 117 NO. 3

Editorial-- BADGE OF SLAVERY

When the Department of Labor counts up the number of workers who will lose their lives in job-related "accidents" in 2007 it seems likely now that it will have to include the six coal miners trapped in a Utah coal mine since Aug. 6. Three construction workers who died in another coal mine in Indiana that same month certainly will be among those included in the gory statistic. Greg Jolstad, another construction worker who died at work in August, also is certain to be represented.

Jolstad had nothing to do with coal mines. He was working on the trans-Mississippi bridge that collapsed in Minnesota on Aug. 1. At least eight other people died and 100 or more were injured when the bridge's supports buckled and the structure plunged into the river.

More than 140,000 cars, trucks and other vehicles passed over that bridge on an average workday. The vast majority of those who occupied the vehicles that traversed it were commuters. Although Jolstad was working on and not driving over the bridge, and though he did not drive for a living, he had several things in common with many of those who were crossing the span when it fell.

The disaster occurred during the evening commute. Many of those who had crossed safely over the span, and at least some of those who were not so lucky, were working men and women headed home after a day's work or to night jobs in Minneapolis or St. Paul. How many who happened to be on the bridge at the moment it gave out, how many were driving themselves, and how many were carpooling, is hard to say. However, every day nearly 130 million Americans drive themselves or carpool from home to work and back again. Jolstad also had driven to work, some 90 miles from his home north of the Twin Cities.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health keeps track of the number of workers killed and injured while operating vehicles on the job. "From 1980 to 1992, motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of work-related deaths in U.S. workers," according to one of its studies. "During this period, traffic-related motor vehicle crashes accounted for the deaths of 15,830 workers--or 20 percent of all fatal workplace injuries....The number of traffic-related deaths was eight times the number not related to traffic."

More than 42,000 people lost their lives on the nation's streets and highways last year alone. Many of those traffic "accidents" involved workers commuting to and from work. When the Department of Labor counts the number of workers injured or killed in relation to their jobs, however, those who sustain their injuries or lose their lives while commuting are not included.

According to Alan Pisarski, author of COMMUTING IN AMERICA III, published last October by the Transportation Research Board, "Commuting is the major factor in determining peak travel demand and therefore serves to define the high cost peak capacity and service requirements of our transportation systems far more than other travel purposes."

"Workers are the major part of the population and their travel activities constitute the major part of all travel," he added. "Much of that travel is wrapped around, intertwined with, or otherwise affected by their work travel activities, whether the location, route, time or mode of travel."

Truth is, however, that neither Pisarski nor anyone else knows precisely how much of the nation's highway traffic is directly or indirectly connected with workers transporting themselves to work and home again. "Commuting exists in a continuum of transportation," Pisarski conceded. While commuting "is just one demand that we make on our transportation systems," sorting it out from those other demands is a difficulty that no one has overcome. As Pisarski put it: "It is not feasible to describe the share of this total activity represented by commuting because of the mix of freight, services, and passenger activities. There are no comprehensive data sources...from which such a picture could be constructed."

While that may be, it is understood that the vast majority of American workers are forced to commute to work. They have no other choice. Furthermore, the amount of time that workers spent traveling to and from work increased dramatically during the 1990s. According to one summary of Pisarski's report, "The number of workers with commutes lasting more than 60 minutes grew by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 2000," and there is every reason to believe that it has continued to increase in the years since.

To reach their jobs and return home after a day's work, workers not only travel longer but farther than ever before. Indeed, the proportion of "workers leaving their home county to work...has risen from under 24 percent to almost 27 percent in 10 years," according to Pisarski, and "of the new workers added during the decade [1990s], about 51 percent worked outside their home county, an extraordinary change."

Because commuting is a necessity for tens of millions of workers, it is clear that the vast number of automobiles in the country represents something different from the sign of prosperity and well-being it is said to be. "Actually, Americans aren't addicted to their cars any more than office workers are addicted to their computers," as Ted Balaker and Sam Staley wrote for THE WASHINGTON POST last January. "Both items are merely tools that allow people to accomplish tasks faster and more conveniently."

Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Karl Marx, once observed that before capitalism "the laborer, slave or serf, was exploited...but the proprietor had at least certain obligations towards him; e.g., the slaveholder was bound to feed his human beast of burden whether he worked or not. The capitalist has been released from all charges, which now rest upon the free laborer."

Another of the obligations capitalists have freed themselves from is that of transporting their laborers to and from the workplaces where they are exploited. Today's "free workers" not only must bear the cost, but also run the risk that commuting implies. While the vast number of cars and trucks that workers use for the purpose may create the illusion of freedom and prosperity they are, in truth, merely another sign of modern-day slavery--WAGE SLAVERY.