bloomberg.com
Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs
The South’s manufacturing renaissance comes with a heavy price.

Regina Elsea was a year old in 1997 when the first vehicle rolled off the Mercedes-Benz assembly line near Tuscaloosa. That gleaming M-Class SUV was historic. Alabama, the nation’s fifth-poorest state, had wagered a quarter-billion dollars in tax breaks and other public giveaways to land the first major Mercedes factory outside Germany. Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai followed with Alabama plants of their own. Kia built a factory just over the border in West Point, Ga. The auto parts makers came next. By the time Elsea and her five siblings were teenagers, the country roads and old cotton fields around their home had come alive with 18-wheelers shuttling instruments and stamped metal among the car plants and 160 parts suppliers that had sprouted up across the state.

A good student, Elsea loved reading, horses, and dogs, especially her Florida cracker cur, named Cow. She dreamed of becoming a pediatrician. She enrolled in community college on a federal Pell Grant, with plans to transfer to Auburn University, about 30 miles from her home in Five Points. But she fell in love with a kindergarten sweetheart, who’d become a stocker at a local Walmart, and dropped out of school to make money so they could rent their own place.

Elsea went to work in February 2016 at Ajin USA in Cusseta, Ala., the same South Korean supplier of auto parts for Hyundai and Kia where her sister and stepdad worked. Her mother, Angel Ogle, warned her against it. She’d worked at two other parts suppliers in the area and found the pace and pressure unbearable.

Elsea was 20 and not easily deterred. “She thought she was rich when she brought home that first paycheck,” Ogle says. Elsea and her boyfriend got engaged. She worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, hoping to move from temporary status at Ajin to full time, which would bring a raise from $8.75 an hour to $10.50. College can wait, she told her mom and stepdad.

On June 18, Elsea was working the day shift when a computer flashed “Stud Fault” on Robot 23. Bolts often got stuck in that machine, which mounted pillars for sideview mirrors onto dashboard frames. Elsea was at the adjacent workstation when the assembly line stopped. Her team called maintenance to clear the fault, but no one showed up. A video obtained by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration shows Elsea and three co-workers waiting impatiently. The team had a quota of 420 dashboard frames per shift but seldom made more than 350, says Amber Meadows, 23, who worked beside Elsea on the line. “We were always trying to make our numbers so we could go home,” Meadows says. “Everybody was always tired.”

After several minutes, Elsea grabbed a tool—on the video it looks like a screwdriver—and entered the screened-off area around the robot to clear the fault herself. Whatever she did to Robot 23, it surged back to life, crushing Elsea against a steel dashboard frame and impaling her upper body with a pair of welding tips. A co-worker hit the line’s emergency shut-off. Elsea was trapped in the machine—hunched over, eyes open, conscious but speechless.

No one knew how to make the robot release her. The team leader jumped on a forklift and raced across the factory floor to the break room, where he grabbed a maintenance man and drove him back on his lap. The technician, from a different part of the plant, had no idea what to do. Tempers erupted as Elsea’s co-workers shoved the frightened man, who was Korean and barely spoke English, toward the robot, demanding he make it retract. He fought them off and ran away, Meadows says. When emergency crews arrived several minutes later, Elsea was still stuck. The rescue workers finally did what Elsea had failed to do: locked out the machine’s emergency power switch so it couldn’t reenergize again—a basic precaution that all factory workers are supposed to take before troubleshooting any industrial robot. Ajin, according to OSHA, had never given the workers their own safety locks and training on how to use them, as required by federal law. Ajin is contesting that finding.

An ambulance took Elsea to a nearby hospital; from there she was flown by helicopter to a trauma center in Birmingham. She died the next day. Her mom still hasn’t heard a word from Ajin’s owners or senior executives. They sent a single artificial flower to her funeral.

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“Capitalism is about freedom for everyone, especially when it comes to the freedom to live off of other people’s labor and get obscenely wealthy in the process.”

“If you don’t like the way a business treats its employees, shop somewhere else; ethical consumerism will shift attention away from those who treat their workers like shit and onto the individual consumer.”

“The right to voluntarily enter into binding contracts should never be abridged, especially when those contracts carry implicit power and class imbalances with them.”

“Corporations participate in philanthropy every now and then, thus alleviating the structural theft they participate in every day.”

“Poor people just need to find jobs and prove that they can be profitable to me, all so they can demonstrate that they deserve to gain access to the life necessities I have so much of that I could wipe my ass with them.”

5

You’ve heard the “1%” statistics. This year, just eight men have the same amount of money as half of all people on earth combined

The rich have seen a disproportionate increase in wealth over the past few decades. The top 1% saw gains 182 times the size of the bottom 10% from 1988-2011. “Had growth been pro-poor between 1990 and 2010, 700 million more people, most of them women, would not be living in poverty today,” the report reads. 

Gifs: CNBC

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Capitalism is explicitly designed for private (top-down) ownership over the means of production and the subordination of labor to capital. The fact that there is ungodly wealth inequality, to the level where a mere seventy people control more wealth than half the world, is not “a flaw in the system”. As long as autocrats make all the major economic decisions, you’re going to wind up with a system with less equality and less freedom by default.

And yes, that applies to both “corporatism” and “true capitalism” – either way you slice it you still have economic authority and ownership concentrated in the hands of a minority class of elites. This minority class controls the workplaces we labor in and the housing we live in, and they reap the rewards produced by us because of their ownership. Capitalism may be a different economic mode from feudalism, but you still fundamentally have a majority class of laborers generating all the goods that keeps society functioning while a parasitic ruling class accrues the bulk of the utilities. These are class relationships; “power-over” relationships.

They fuel hierarchy in other areas of life – sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and imperialism. Social problems are overwhelmingly traceable back to the roots of social organization: the economic system. The elite owning class would prefer a divided population so that common interests aren’t recognized, and so the system benefits some people proportionately more than others. This is where privilege comes in – and yet, the conversation is incomplete if one leaves out the material basis for which patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and cisheteronormativity operate. We can’t expect hierarchical bigotry to dissolve as long as we have a class-based economic system.

Economic democracy is the way forward. A new system focused on meeting human needs through direct democracy rather than on accruing profits for capitalists through concentrated decision-making. If capitalism creates huge wealth chasms AND deprives people of the ability to influence decisions that affect them, then socialism should aim to do the opposite – genuine social equality (a lack of “power-over” relationships and equality of access to social utilities) achieved through democratic organizational structures (horizontal workplaces, communal housing, common land returned to the commons) where individuals actually get to have a voice in the decisions that affect them.

The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to [how free markets “naturally work on their own”].


In particular, the reduction of inequality that took place in … developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was … a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war. Similarly, the resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due … to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation & finance.


The history of inequality is shaped by [how people] view what is just and what is not, as well as by [their] relative power ….…

— 

Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty (Arthur Goldhammer, trans.)

(highlights, [], and … are mine)

Capitalism is the problem

“Over the last century, capitalism has repeatedly revealed its worst tendencies: instability and inequality. Instances of instability include the Great Depression (1929-1941) and the Great Recession since 2008, plus eleven “downturns” in the US between those two global collapses. Each time, millions lost jobs, misery soared, poverty worsened and massive resources were wasted. Leaders promised that their “reforms” would prevent such instability from recurring. Those promises were not kept. Reforms did not work or did not endure. The system was, and remains, the problem.

Inequality likewise proved to be an inherent trend of capitalism. Only occasionally and temporarily did opposition from its victims stop or reverse it. Income and wealth inequalities have worsened in almost every capitalist country since at least the 1970s. Today we have returned to the huge 19th-century-sized gaps between the richest 1 percent and everyone else. Rescuing the “disappearing middle class” has become every aspiring politician’s slogan. Extreme inequality infects all of society as corporations and the rich, to protect their positions, buy the politicians, mass media and other cultural forms that are for sale.“

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Democratic Socialism:

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If you’ve ever taken an economics course, you know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. If we had a market system like that, then a television ad would consist of, say, General Motors putting up information, saying here is what we have for sale. It’s not what an ad for a car is. An ad for a car is a football hero, an actress; the car doing some crazy thing like going up a mountain or something. The point is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices. That’s what advertising is all about.
—  Noam Chomsky