Rich get richer, poor get poorer — and sicker

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  The old cliché is still true — obscenely true.

In six months, March to September — when the working class was clobbered by COVID, mass unemployment and a rise in white supremacy — the rich got richer. 

Specifically, the collective wealth of this country’s 643 billionaires expanded by $845 billion. That’s a 29% raise. Not bad considering we’re in the midst of an unprecedented economic contraction. (americansfortaxfairness.org)

And there’s more. 

Almost half of that wealth growth — $401 billion — went to the 15 richest billionaires. More than half of that sum went the notorious top five — Bezos, Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk and Buffett. The highest percentage increase went to the “poor man” of the bunch. Number 15, Dan Gilbert, real estate and finance capitalist and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, saw his net worth grow 672.1% from $6.5 to $50.2 billion. (americansfortaxfairness.org)

Not everybody has fared so well.

Not the 30 million people in the U.S. who have gone hungry nor the same number who have had to depend on unemployment benefits. Not the 12 million who lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. And not the almost 8 million on record as having COVID — or the 220,000 of those who have died.

The harshest impact fell on the most oppressed — workers of color, women and gender-nonconforming workers, LGBTQ2S+ workers, workers with disabilities and others.

“In sickness and in health,” to borrow another cliche, the rich do get richer and the poor do get poorer. And sicker.

Billionaire Bezos twists the numbers 

On Oct. 1, under pressure from unions to release the numbers, Amazon made public that 19,816 of its 1.37 million U.S. frontline workers have had COVID. At least eight workers have died. Yet the company — owned by the world’s richest billionaire, Jeff Bezos — is trying to put a positive spin on these numbers. 

“Amazon said the rate of infection among employees was 42% lower than expected, compared with the ‘general population rate’ in the U.S.,” CNBC reported. “If Amazon’s infection rates were in line with the community, the total number of cases would have reached 33,952, the company said.”

If Amazon’s figures are accurate, the company’s infection rate is 1,449 per 100,000 workers. That’s close to Michigan’s statewide rate of 1,467 per 100,000. Only 12 states have rates below Michigan. And about 20% of Amazon’s warehouses are in Michigan and the 12 states with the lowest infection numbers. 

So Amazon claims its safety measures are limiting infection rates. But how safe are the working conditions in communities where rates are fairly low? 

Not very, according to Amazon workers in Shakopee, Minn. By June 30, 45 had tested positive, and the infection rate at the warehouse was 17 times that of Scott County.

If Bezos sacrificed only the increase in his personal wealth and invested in the maximum protections for Amazon workers, fewer workers would be sick. Vulnerable older and immunocompromised workers could be paid to stay home.

In fact, it took worker walkouts at Amazon warehouses and Amazon-owned Whole Foods to get any workplace protections or hazard pay — which was later cut. 

This is the sickness that Amazon and Bezos — who fought releasing the infection figures for months — now think they can obscure.

Only class struggle keeps workers safe

A massive transfer to the wealthy of more wealth — all produced by labor — has taken place amidst a tragic pandemic. This injustice is not just the result of personal greed, although there’s no shortage of that. Capitalism itself, defined by the exploitation of labor by capital, is why one class keeps getting filthy richer while the vast majority suffer.

Workers, organized and unorganized, are fighting to keep themselves safe on their jobs. A group of unions and environmental organizations has sued the federal government to force application of the Defense Production Act — to produce more personal protective equipment needed by frontline workers, especially in health care. 

“People are dying, and more people are going to die because the Trump administration has totally failed to protect Americans who have been on the job throughout the pandemic, keeping our country running,” said Communication Workers President Chris Shelton. 

This is a progressive lawsuit, but safer conditions won’t be won in the courts alone. It took strikes and sit-downs decades ago to win basic safety protections in factories, where loss of limb and even life was a daily risk. Now rank-and-file workers, in health care, transportation, sanitation, food processing, warehouses and retail, are showing the way by withholding their labor.

Justice can best be won at the point of production.

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