Unsafe Work and Exploitative Labor, by Winter Trabex

Unsafe Workplaces

Christopher Nowinski 

Christopher Nowinski was once a professional wrestler with a promising career ahead of him. After participating in a talent search show called Tough Enough, he began working for World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002. Much was made of his having graduated from Harvard University; he was a smart guy who was valued as a talented person on the company’s roster. It appeared that he had a long, successful career ahead of him.

Then, suddenly, everything went wrong. Somewhere along the way, he suffered a severe concussion. Unable to continue working, he chose to retire after only two years as a pro wrestler. He walked away from the promise of fame and (possible) riches that many other wrestlers enjoy.

In 2006, Nowinski, now passionate about post-concussion syndrome published a book entitled Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis. Although the league had begun looking into concussions suffered by players as early as 1994, not much had been done up to the point in the way of policy or rule changes.

Later that year, Nowinski, together with Dr. Bennett Omalu, initiated an inquiry into the suicide of 44 year old former NFL player Andre Waters. After studying images of Waters’ brain, Omalu stated that Waters had a brain that looked that of an 85-year old man, one in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. Getting hit on the head so often and so repeatedly had taken its toll.

Then, tragedy struck Nowinski’s former employer. Longtime pro-wrestler and recognizable star Chris Benoit killed his wife and child, then hung himself over the course of a weekend. Benoit had been known for using a moving called the Diving Headbutt, in which he would jump off a turnbuckle and land on his opponent (or sometimes the mat) head-first. He would also regularly get hit on the head with steel chairs.

More information about Benoit can be found in this video.

 An examination of Benoit’s brain revealed that he had extensive brain damage that could have led to dementia, a cause of which is most often Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is most often associated with cognitive dysfunction caused by advanced aging.

After cobbling together a hasty tribute show on June 25th, 2007, World Wrestling Entertainment has done their absolute best to erase or forget all memory or mention of Benoit, a man who had been a pro wrestler for twenty-two years, seven of which were spent with the WWE.

Christopher Nowinski went on to found the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which almost immediately caused all sorts of media outlets and medical organizations to take notice. No longer was it just someone “getting his bell rung,” concussions had now become an embarrassment to the NFL and the WWE. Neither organization could turn a blind eye any longer.

Both the WWE and the NFL created the own concussion policies. By then, though, it was too little, too late. From 2012 to 2017, between 200 to 300 incidents of concussions were recorded each year. There have been recorded cases of players having been put onto the field with concussion-like symptoms, even after the NFL put their  policy into place. These players include: Case Keenum, Tom Savage, Russell Wilson, Matt Moore, and a whole host of others.

Meanwhile, despite having to pay out a 765 million dollar settlement in 2013, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell always remains optimistic and confident about how things are going in the NFL. He’s always there, ready to hype up the next big football event- whether it be the season opener, a game in London, the Super Bowl, or the NFL draft. The damage that has been done, and continues to be done, is mostly pushed under the rug, only discussed behind closed doors, if at all.

Players continue to get hurt, NFL teams continue to mishandle specific situations, and not much appears to be changing. Brett Favre once went on CNN  to describe the last play of his career: he fell on the cold, hard ground in a late December game and hit his head. He was instantly knocked unconscious. He woke up a few seconds later, and never played again. He was forty-one years old then, having played for twenty years and having done well enough to earn himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In his segment, Favre offers one solution and one solution only to the NFL’s concussion problem: don’t play. At times, he appears to have trouble concentrating. He expresses worry about what’s going to happen in his future. He, like many other NFL players, worked very hard to be highly compensated. They sacrificed their own personal health and well being for a lucrative paycheck.

While I would like to stop this article here and just end it with a scathing critique of professional sports, there’s a deeper issue at play here. People get injured on the job on a regular basis doing regular tasks that, at first glance, do not appear to be as dangerous as colliding at full-speed against a muscular 300-pound man wearing a helmet and body armor.

Although workplace injuries may not be common in any one particular workplace- at least according to the safety statistics that such places publish themselves- when viewed in the aggregate, people are getting injured quite frequently.

At Amazon, one of the world’s biggest companies, employees are expected to work very hard- often for twelve hours each working day- with the caveat that they must report any injuries they suffer immediately to their supervisor at once. Having worked at Amazon myself, I can tell a personal story that relates to this.

Having accepted a job at an Amazon fulfillment warehouse, I was asked to be a ground picker. This is someone who goes around with a large cart and takes orders off shelves based on the information presented in a scan gun. One of those items was a weighing scale. I dropped it on my foot- luckily without damaging the product or myself.

When I followed company procedure and reported it at once, the supervisors in charge did something I didn’t expect. They tracked down the scale that I had dropped and took a picture of it.

Only later that day did I realize that they were preparing themselves for a personal injury lawsuit. Their concern was not for my personal health as an employee, but rather for the company’s own interests. They gave me an icepack- rather than rushing me to the doctor for an immediate X-ray- and I felt fine after about an hour or so. I didn’t have to sue anybody, and Amazon didn’t have to claim employee negligence.

Since then, whenever an article or video appears about Amazon treating their employees badly, I take notice. One such article deals with the story of VIckie Allen, a 49 year old woman who injured her back and became homeless after working for Amazon. The company failed to install a piece equipment called a brush guard, something that would keep products from falling on the floor.

Case after case after case appears of individual workers getting injured, and of the company refusing to protect such workers after they do. Amazon employees are moving too fast. They’re focused too much on the next task, of getting the next product out as quickly as possible. Or, in Allen’s case, the company simply refuses to install the proper safety equipment.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health identified twelve of the most dangerous companies to work for in America. They called these businesses “the Dirty Dozen.” These companies are: Amazon, Case Farms, Dine Brands Global (IHOP and Applebee’s), JK Excavating, Lowe’s Home, Lynnway Auto Auction, New York and Atlantic Railway, Peterson UTI Energy, Sarbanand Farms, Tesla Motors, Verla International, and Waste Management.

The report cites a finding by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics which says that, in 2016, workplace deaths had increased by 12 percent over a five-year period starting in 2012.

When attempting to identify who is most at risk, the report had this to say:

“Tens of millions of workers in the U.S. suffer from unnecessary risks in the workplace because employers fail to observe well-documented safety practices. Some groups of workers, however, are more at risk than others. Latinx workers, immigrants, older workers and contract employees face particular challenges in the workplace and in 2015 each group counted for a significant share of U.S. workplace fatalities.”

The Exploitation of the Disadvantaged

The question is, why do they do it? Why do company owners and managers intentionally create working environments that endanger the health of their employees? In 1904, when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a fictional novel, he offered one possible answer as to why meat-packing plants ship out unhealthy products in unsafe working conditions: because the boss has to make a profit. Whether people get sick from the product sold, or whether employees get injured on the job makes little difference to the company owner so long as profits continue coming in.

This explains why some companies, such as Nike (headquartered in Oregon), utilizes sweatshop labor- in spite of continual protests for them to stop such practices. Just like Sinclair’s fictional meat-packing plant and just like the National Football League, companies that continue making money need have no regard for their employees at all. Whether a person in another country is getting paid ten cents a week (or whatever low modern equivalent) for a full work week of making shoes is simply not Nike’s- or any other company’s- concern.

In fact, so many garment and shoe companies are using sweatshop labor from third-world countries that one may be left wondering whether such companies care about anything at all other than profit and personal gain.

While sweatshops don’t have a serious concussion problem, as the NFL does, there’s another issue involved that is nonetheless troublesome: that of time. Workers who are forced to labor in sweatshops for little to no pay are often stuck there. They are unable to learn new skills. They can’t advance their careers. They often don’t have the money to move to another country where they might be able to improve their situation. They are stuck in the sweatshop.

Conditions are so bad that, as was the case in an Apple sweatshop in China, 18 workers killed themselves in 2013. Workers there were tasked with making iPhones. They found the job so tedious, so boring, that some of them chose to end their lives rather than continue in a hopeless situation.

Five years later, Apple reported a revenue of 265 billion while they conversely encounter scandal after scandal involving, but not limited to: anti-competitive behavior, suing people at the drop of a hat, possibly misleading warranties and security issues- some of which might involve a US security program called PRISM. There’s also that pesky issue where Apple admitted to deliberately slowing down older iPhones in order to “keep batteries running”- a farcical excuse when one considers that batteries can be replaced.

It’s pretty clear that anything goes so long as profitability is maintained. Whether people are hurt, whether they suffer, whether they go homeless, whether they die, whether they receive sub-optimal product experiences- none of it appears to matter all to a business owner as long as the company continues making money.

Why then, are we continuing to work for such places? Why don’t workers and/or consumers organize against such companies for better, more humane, treatment?

Surely no one would want another person to be injured and homeless after doing the job they were paid to do in the best way they knew how to do it. Surely no one wants a television personality to commit a murder-suicide because he may have taken too many blows to the head.

Why then, do we tolerate it?

The Reserve Army of Labor

In 1845, Friedrich Engels invented a term called “the reserve army of labor,” in his book The Conditions of the Working Class in England. Karl Marx, to whom the term is generally credited, defined the reserve army of labor as being necessary to the furtherance of a capitalist society.

A worker who might suddenly become unemployed for whatever reason would feel thankful that he had a job at all; this would keep him from rebelling against manifestly unjust conditions in the workplace. At the same time, an unemployed person wanting to eat and wanting to find or keep a place to live would have to accept whatever job they can find in order to support themselves. This would give the capitalists, ie the owners and bosses, a highly favorable bargaining position.

They need not necessarily pay a high wage to a person who is just looking to avoid starvation. Wages soon become a race to the bottom when, under such conditions, bosses select the people willing to get paid the least in order that they might obtain maximum profit.

For the NFL, the reserve army of labor can be found in college football. There are (by my count) 881 college football programs. Many of those players have no intention of playing in the NFL. Many others do.

As far as I’m able to discern, there is no limit for roster size within the season. But, since the NFL limits its teams to 53 players on their active roster (46 of whom are allowed to dress on game day), this is as good a number as any to figure out how many young people the National Football League can call upon in the event of player injury.

For the NFL, the reserve army of labor can be found in college football. There are (by my count) 881 college football programs. Many of those players have no intention of playing in the NFL. Many others do. As far as I’m able to discern, there is no limit for roster size within the season. But, since the NFL limits its teams to 53 players on their active roster (46 of whom are allowed to dress on game day), this is as good a number as any to figure out how many young people the National Football League can call upon in the event of player injury.

The number- as an estimate- turns out to be 46,693. Among those players, only 224 will get drafted. The rest will have to work their way up from being undrafted players. Those hoping for a roster spot will have to compete against 1,696 others for a playing spot in the regular season. Because the NFL expands the roster size limit to 90 in the offseason, roughly 1,178 players won’t make the cut who actually got invited to training camp.

This is how it happens that, in spite of all the injuries, in spite of rampant safety issues, in spite of concerns over how the league may not be necessarily taking care of its players, there are always more fresh bodies to go out and participate in games every Sunday afternoon.

The reserve army of football talent keeps the NFL alive when the player’s association might have gone on strike long before this. In fact, there is so much football talent to be had that WWE Chairman Vince McMahon has decided to bring back the XFL.

For professional wrestling, the situation is much the same. Despite the fact that World Wrestling Entertainment currently has more shows than it knows what to do with (Raw, Smackdown!, NXT, 205 Live, Main Event, among others- in addition to the roughly 16 so called pay-per views show they run every year), there are always more fresh bodies to throw in the ring if someone gets injured. Or, as is often the case, upsets the boss.

In the 1970’s, before the rise of cable television, the only way anyone could watch wrestling was on local TV they might snatch off the airwaves with a pair of rabbit ears on the television. This led to localized companies working in localized markets. While many of them would share talent with one another, they generally had their own core group of stars each year that worked events throughout their area.

This was called the territory system.

Although the territories are largely gone, there are still a number of lesser-known pro wrestling companies that have their own full rosters of talent, many of whom would like a chance to get their name on television and make themselves a star. Among these companies are: Ring of Honor, Chikara, Impact! Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and the new wrestling company that former WWE talent Cody Rhodes may or may not be forming.

No matter how many wrestlers might get injured or die- as WWE wrestler Owen Hart famously died at the age of 34 during an unnecessary stunt- there will always be someone out there to take that spot and make themselves some money. Regardless of whether they are treated well or poorly, regardless of how many injuries they receive, professional wrestling is a business that favors the bosses far more than the workers.

One commonly used phrase by people in that business is that “the booker (ie, the boss) screwed over the boys (ie, the workers).” Such a situation happens so frequently that it’s considered standard practice. Sometimes, there isn’t much a wrestler can do other than suck it up and try to be as professional as possible.

The situation is the same for almost any employer, anywhere in the world. Bosses need not treat their people well, pay them a living wage, or take their needs into consideration. If an employee doesn’t work out, there is always someone else ready to step up and take that spot. There are so many unemployed people in the world that entire companies could spring up overnight if those people were put to work.

If, on the other hand, there was not a reserve army of labor- if workers were a scarce commodity for an employer- then they might be motivated to share their profits with the people working for them. They would have to do this, or else risk their company losing money when employees suddenly decided to walk out.

In his book, Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith points out that the poor and destitute serve as an example for the working class of what might happen to them if they decide to quit their jobs. This, he claims, keeps them working hard, keeps them industrious, regardless of how they might feel about their work. He also remarks that, owing to a greater accumulation of capital, a boss can almost always wait out a strike longer than an employee can. What’s more, since there will always be some people who are unemployed, the boss can simply bring in replacement workers- so called “scabs.”

What Can Be Done

Checking out of the system entirely doesn’t appear to be an option. Nor is it possible for every human being in the world to obtain fulfilling, meaningful work that pays well and doesn’t leave them injured or dead. Some people are simply going to be stuck taking whatever employment is available at whatever price is offered at the time.

The capitalists, by amassing both wealth and political authority, have captured the system to the point where a seemingly free-market economy such as that in America is devolving into an oligarchical command economy.

After all, the NFL is still making lots of money with millions of viewers everywhere. World Wrestling Entertainment, in spite of repeated negative backlash from its fanbase, reached a highly lucrative agreement with FOX to broadcast their show, Smackdown! Live. Amazon is still the world’s biggest warehouse company- and they’ve been expanding so fast and so quickly that one wonders whether they will ever stop. Apple and Nike aren’t filing for bankruptcy. They don’t even appear to be close to insolvency. The profits for all these companies continue rolling in.

These companies probably aren’t going away. People will probably continue being employed by them. Their products will likely continue to be popular enough that people will want to support them. It must be lamented that the average consumer has no regard or sympathy for the average worker. The consumer is only thinking about their own interests, what they can get themselves out of the transaction.

In order for a shift to occur away from exploitative capitalist practices, consumers first must realize that their purchasing power is really the only vote they get that matters. Whether they purchase a product with money or time, consumers can choose to reject products that they don’t like.

For the NFL at least, this process is underway as the company experiences a decline in ratings (though, as a caveat, it’s not known whether this is due to personal distaste or the NFL not being able to adopt a streaming service for people who prefer online content).

The solutions, if any exist, are not going to be easy. Nor are they going to take a small amount of time. The media bias that has existed for thousands of years- a tradition dating back to the Roman Empire that arose from the fact that not everyone knew how to read and write, much less had the time to record their actions down on paper- appears to have conditioned the human race to believe that those with money, power, and authority are a better kind of person than the rest of us.

Those of us who are conscientious citizens, who care about the well being of others, have to demonstrate to others just how bad it’s gotten. We have to remind people that paying workers a lower wage means those workers won’t be able to buy the products a capitalist system is producing, which in turn means companies will have less money to invest in worker salaries. The introduction of a debt-based economy appears to have put a band-aid on this problem; yet, as anyone who has closely studied the 2008 economic crisis will tell you, debt economies create bubbles that can easily burst.

The only way out of this mess appears to be a socialist-based economy where, as Marx was known for saying, the workers owned the means of production. The system that I envision will be one in which private property rights will still be respected– roughly according to the principles of John Locke. The only distinction I draw here is that living spaces, transportation, clothing, and food (the necessities are life) ought to be shared in common.

In such a system, it would be possible for someone to receive something like a merit card- a proof of their participation in the local economy. This could work like a debit card. Instead of money, it would only have a “yes” or “no” recorded to it each week. Whatever work they did for that work would enable them to have access to the necessities of life as provided by others in addition to whatever luxuries might be available that week. Mentally challenged people could provide whatever work suited them best- such as cleaning or manual labor. With corporate profits no longer eating up massive amounts of discretionary income, those who could not work or who chose not to work could still be provided for.

Although, one penalty of their decision not to work is that they would not be given luxury items such as video game consoles. (Though whatever items they did have would be theirs and would not be taken away.) It is not difficult to imagine that a worker’s collective, managed by consensus-based decisions- would not let one person’s ideas hold too much sway in the local economy. There would be checks and balances against abuses of power.

A person would simply go into the meeting, raise their objection, and a solution might be arrived at. The democratization of the workplace would almost certainly cause people to feel that they have a personal stake in the system- that their ideas are being taken seriously, even if they’re not universally adopted.

Inspiring workers to become motivated is the quest of every human resources professional. They try to do this through pizza parties, though random fun events, and sometimes through bonuses every Christmas (though entry-level and low-skilled workers of the world shouldn’t count on that one). It turns out that human morale and motivation have largely been solved already. People want to feel invested in the work they are doing.

They want to have their ideas taken seriously. They want their labor to be meaningful in the world at large. They don’t want to feel like they are wasting their time at their job. They certainly don’t want to have to dance around a dangerous environment knowing full well that they will not be taken care of in the event of an injury.

Since only a small number of jobs can provide these conditions under capitalism, most employees aren’t going to be engaged on their jobs. Many will slack off. Those who are forced into slave labor- as is the case with many of America’s prisoners- have even less motivation to do any work at all. Prisoners in Texas, for example, have been known to refuse work outright.

Until a more equitable society arises, this is one of the few options that most people have. We are all working too hard. We are working for forty hours a week or more to own houses we don’t live in, to own cars we hardly ever use except to get to work, and for access to food we don’t have the time to cook for ourselves. Despite all the hard work put into the system, many people don’t have the savings they need to cover themselves in the event of a negative life event (such as unemployment or sudden illness). We’re all thrown out into the world, told that we’re on our own, and then expected to take the blame when circumstances don’t work in our favor.

Naturally, this expectation is patently ridiculous. There is no need for someone to work in unsafe, deleterious conditions. There is no reason why anyone should have to ruin the prime of their lives in order to live in relative comfort during their old age. Since company bosses don’t have any intention of helping workers by raising wages- or even consistently providing safe work environments in which to earn those wages- we have to help each other.

Discretionary income earned above and beyond what we live is best engaged when used to help fellow members of the community, rather than large corporations who already have enough money as it is. So, if you have to work, try not to work to hard. Try to be safe while at the workplace. Remember that you can say no if you’re asked to do something dangerous or potentially unhealthy (and also remember that people like Owen Hart die because they don’t say no).

When Friday afternoon or evening rolls around, and that new shiny paycheck is in your hand or bank account, remember that you don’t have to go to McDonald’s or Burger King right off the bat for some enjoyable food. Those companies don’t need your money. Rather, it’s better to find someone in the community who is good at cooking and willing to do it for a bit of cash. The price might be higher, the wait time might be longer, but it’s a good bet that the quality of the food would be higher while your money would actually go to support an individual who is trying to feed their family- and not help fund another rich person’s private airplane.

If agitation and disruption are not possible or desirable, then we can at least spend our money wisely, help those who need it, and make sure that those who can’t necessarily take care of themselves have everything they need. Speaking from personal experience, this usually doesn’t require more than a few hours of labor every weekend.

In order to build a new world, one in which the personal health and well being of workers are not sacrificed for the purpose of endless profit, we have to do so by diminishing our reliance on those who actively are oppressing others. These can be corporations, local companies, or government institutions.

The goal is to create community-based solutions specifically tailored for the needs of those in the community- rather than the needs of people who don’t have any active interest in workplaces that cause people to suffer other than as a source of personal income for themselves.

For the aforementioned industries: instead of supporting the NFL, support the individual football player by paying for autographs or merchandise rather than tickets at the stadium; for professional wrestling, buy DVDs or T-shirts from the wrestlers themselves so they benefit directly from the sale rather than paying to see a show put on by a rapacious, sleazy promoter; for Amazon, try to find out if third-party sellers have their own online stores and buy from them instead of anything that says Amazon fulfillment.

Oddly enough, thriftbooks.com is much better at providing lower prices, wider selection, and higher value than Amazon itself- a company that was created specifically to sell books online.

Amazon Prime might be nice, but the way the company treats its workers certainly isn’t.

While I’m not naive enough to say that we can see the world we want to see overnight, we can in the interim make small changes that have a positive impact on the world around us. We might not see increased personal freedom for everyone. We might not see that bad business with its horrible bosses close down anytime soon. But we can at least stop working so hard for a system that causes active harm to those who support it most.

We can at least help one another.

After all, for better or worse, no matter how isolated and alienated from the real world modern work might make anyone feel, we are all in this together.

One thought on “Unsafe Work and Exploitative Labor, by Winter Trabex

  1. Pingback: WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 1 – The Sporting Life, Continued) - Abolish Work

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