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Mike Davis: As Workers Face Dangerous Conditions Amid Reopening, We Need Unions & Medicare for All

Web ExclusiveMay 22, 2020
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We look at conditions for workers as all 50 states reopen their economies in Part 2 of our discussion with historian and author Mike Davis, whose latest piece for Jacobin is headlined “Reopening the Economy Will Send Us to Hell.” In it, he writes: “A volcanic rage is rapidly rising to the surface in this country and we need to harness it to defend and build unions, ensure Medicare for all, and knock the bastards off their gilded thrones.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our discussion with historian and author Mike Davis, his latest piece for Jacobin headlined “Reopening the Economy Will Send Us to Hell.” His newest book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

Now we’re talking about today. Workers at beef, pork and poultry processing plants across the United States have protested conditions as coronavirus outbreaks have created a public health crisis in these slaughterhouses. Last month, President Trump signed an executive order to bar local governments from closing meat plants. The order declares meat plants as critical infrastructure. Dozens of meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19. More than 5,000 have tested positive That number is expected to be much higher due to the lack of available testing. The League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC, joined a coalition of Iowa farmers, activists, workers, elected officials and community organizations to announce the Meatless May Mondays campaign to draw attention to the conditions workers are facing.

Last month, dozens of Bell & Evans workers and activists circled the company’s Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, poultry processing plant in a funeral caravan, after two COVID-19 deaths and dozens of infections connected to the plant.

PROTESTER: Bell & Evans has gone radio silent while their workers die. That’s unacceptable. We demand Bell & Evans to tell us how many workers are infected and how many workers have died. We need to know how many other workers have been infected by the failures of this company.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Davis is our guest.

Thanks so much for staying with us for Part 2 of our conversation. In your Jacobin piece, Mike, you write, “A volcanic rage is rapidly rising to the surface in this country and we need to harness it to defend and build unions, ensure Medicare for all, and knock the bastards off their gilded thrones.” Talk about the social distance protests, the mass organizing that’s taking place.

MIKE DAVIS: Well, you’ve had a strike outbreak and workplace actions from mid-March, and I think there have probably been about 500 of these, 500 different workplaces that have had protests. You had a big national day of action by the nurses in mid-April. You, of course, had the May Day essential workers’ general strike. But you’ve had strikes in all kinds of places — a really heroic struggle by sanitation workers in New Orleans. In the Yakima Valley of Central Washington, which is Grapes of Wrath country, if people know anything about that area, there are some strikes going on right now of people who work in the fruit-packing houses and the seasonal workers who live in the dormitories, because their conditions are very similar to that of people working in the big pork and beef processing plants, and, of course, then also a lot of protests in the
poultry plants throughout the South.

People are not going gently into Trump’s good night. They’re fighting like hell. But the problem is: Have you read about this very often? Have you heard about it even on CNN? And you haven’t, because there’s not been any kind of decisive action from the Democrats to support the protests, or by the progressives to build a national movement in solidarity. I mean, Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Caucus, as they always do, support the strikers, but basically everything is tied up in negotiations with Biden and passing legislation in the House of Representatives under the iron thumb of Nancy Pelosi which contain massive concessions. I mean, right now it looks like one of the things that may be given away is removal of any liability from private companies and, above all, from the nursing home industry. And I think we’ll see by the end of the year that probably about 40 to 50% of the deaths in this country have occurred in nursing homes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, these protests at the plants — the amazing fact of what President Trump has done, after the Tyson CEO, John Tyson, said the supply chain is breaking, Trump issued an executive order forbidding states to intervene and shut down plants. As workers were dying, as thousands have tested positive, he invoked this executive order, saying no to closing the plants. Then, as we record this, he’s just come from Michigan, where he went into a plant. This is as he’s opening for Memorial Day weekend. You’d think he’d want to minimize deaths and be an example in the country. All of the workers at the plants, the executives at this Ford plant in Ypsilanti, were wearing masks. President Trump refused. When confronted by the press, he said, “Oh, I wore one like backstage, in the back.” This isn’t like taking a pill, and then it protects you. You wear it because you’re with people, and you’re trying to protect them from coronavirus, as well as protect yourself. Can you talk about the actions he’s taking?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, some people seem to believe it’s all a matter of his disorganization, the chaos in his mind, his incompetence. It’s all been bungled.

I don’t think that’s really true. I think, from very early on, in the White House, they’ve embraced this theory that in order to keep the economy open or to quickly reopen it, to rely on herd immunity, let people get infected. And it’s a strategy that is absolutely parallel with that of Prime Minister Johnson — pardon me — in England, although, on his side, they were a little more explicit about it. His chief political adviser was overheard, recorded, saying at a private event that key thing is to keep the economy going, herd immunity, and if a lot of pensioners die, well, so be it. And that’s what [Dan] Patrick, the king of fools in the Republican Party, the lieutenant governor of Texas, was saying: “Well, you know, old people are ready to sacrifice themselves to save the economy.”

AMY GOODMAN: Mike, let me go to who you’re referring to, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who rejected the idea of social distancing, urging a swift return to work, saying older people, who are much more vulnerable to the virus, should sacrifice for the country’s economy. Patrick was speaking on Fox News with Tucker Carlson. This is what he said.

LT. GOV. DAN PATRICK: No one reached out to me and said, “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in. And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that. I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick. Your response to what he’s saying?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, the Nazis had a program of killing elderly people with dementia, and they put them in a category with children with severe handicaps. And the phrase in German is “lives not worthy of life.” And that seems to be the kind of neo-Nazi ethic that’s running through the Republican Party right now. They don’t really care how many people have to die, as long as the economy is brought back, and, above all, President Trump’s major obsession, which is the stock market. He’s willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of American lives for, you know, his personal fetish.

But this policy has been pursued also, as I say, more explicitly in the case of Britain, by Bolsonaro in Brazil. And the kind of moral revulsion against this should have taken on a louder and more sustained form. And, of course, it’s a choice that nobody wants to make. You know, let Patrick sacrifice himself. You know, I would love to see all the brave Republicans, senior citizen Republicans, you know, drink Kool-Aid together as something to save the economy. But, you know, don’t touch people’s grandmothers. Don’t touch people whose sister has, you know, bad diabetes. I mean, this really is a kind of fascist attitude, and it exposes the true heart — or the heartlessness — of the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Davis, you mentioned Bolsonaro, and as we’re speaking, they have just recorded the biggest spike yet in Brazil, Latin America becoming a major hot spot right now. Bolsonaro, who is a close Trump ally, who has been calling coronavirus a “little flu,” refused to wear a mask for a long time, though he has actually most recently worn one, before his friend Donald Trump has in public. Now, talking at that global level, I wanted to turn to Donald Trump threatening to pull out of and end all funding of the World Health Organization. He dodged questions about that and about his letter to the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom, in which he threatened to cut U.S. funding to the agency unless it commits to, quote, “substantive improvements.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t want to go through it. The letter is a very detailed, long letter. But basically, they have to clean up their act. They have to do a better job. They have to be much more fair to other countries, including the United States. So we’re not going to be involved with them anymore. We’ll do it a separate way.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, there are many critics of the World Health Organization in also being slow in dealing with coronavirus, though far faster than President Trump himself. But the idea that the World Health Organization had the first tests for coronavirus, that countries around the world were using. The U.S. refused to use that, tried to develop its own, the CDC did, and those tests were faulty, leading to weeks’ delay, not to mention the PPEs not being developed. But this sense of the U.S. being part of a world community, and even if thinking selfishly, not altruistically, you know, we now understand that an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak that threatens us all everywhere. Even if Trump were to think just in our own self-interest, it’s an astounding thing the way it is the coronavirus pandemic that has given people a global perspective. But if you can talk about how President Trump fights against this?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I think we should recognize that it’s not just the United States and Trump or Bolsonaro in Brazil. I mean, look what happened in Europe. Although EU member nations are responsible for their own health system, there’s a treaty and a disaster agency. And in the event of cross-border epidemics, each country is supposed to aid the other. Italy, in late March, invoked this treaty, and 29 other EU members did absolutely nothing. They sealed their borders, like France and Germany. They refuse to spend — send supplies. I mean, this has happened across the world.

The World Health Organization has international health regulations, which are also something that have statutory power, and all countries have signed onto. They were totally, totally ignored.

Now, what’s at stake here is a very large part of humanity, and, in a sense, too, immunological humanities — people who have some access to regular medicine and good diets, and suffer mainly from obesity, in wealthier countries, although there are large enclaves of people who live in Third World conditions. But you look at the continent of Africa, where there are 24 million people with HIV, millions more with tuberculosis. A couple hundred million kids go to bed hungry every night. And this is a humanity in which this disease could take a new course, because it’s interacting with so many existing conditions or comorbidities. And we can anticipate what we might see, unfortunately, by the end of June or July in Africa and other parts of the Global South.

The U.S. failed to even send a representative, I believe, to a meeting that was called in Europe to develop a people’s vaccine for the world. And one thing we know for sure is that if a vaccine is developed in this country, it won’t be going to Africa, probably won’t be going to South America. I assume it will go to red states first and then maybe trickle down to blue. But it’s not simply abandoning the existing institutions of internationalism. This is a kind of triage of humanity, where wealthy countries have retreated from even the pretense of moral obligations to the poorer countries.

And, of course, in this vacuum, there are two countries that have responded to calls for help. The Cubans immediately sent medical teams to Italy and elsewhere, their heroic doctors. And China, of course, because of its enormous logistical capacity, has tried to acquire the kind of soft power and prestige that it’s not had in the past — its quite enormous amount of hard economic power throughout the world, though they’ve — obviously kind of spoiling this by sending defective equipment and so on. But nonetheless, when the EU countries’ sisters turned their back on Italy, within a week, a plane landed, and Chinese medical experts walked out, and they began unloading pallets-loads of crucial medical equipment. People no longer see the boxes that say “from the people of the United States.” They now say “from the people of China.”

AMY GOODMAN: Or also from the people, for example, of Cuba, where Cuban doctors were sent to Italy. I wanted to turn, though, to your 2005 book, The Monster at Our Door, about the avian flu. The New Yorker magazine recently did a profile of you. And in it, they quote you saying you were so scared by this book that you refused to keep a copy in your house. For those who are not even familiar with the avian flu, if you can talk about why this frightened you so much?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I sometimes write books about the things that scare me most. And the threat of avian flu remains as great today as it was when I wrote the book in 2005. In fact, there’s a new form of avian flu that’s possibly even more deadly than H5N1, which is the name of the original avian flu.

And it’s important that people recall that we’ve been preparing for an avian flu pandemic for almost 20 years. Bush administration adopted a national pandemic strategic plan for avian flu, but every measure in it would apply equally to coronavirus. The Obama administration took a number of important steps, setting up an early-warning system in Asia, funding research into reservoirs of potential human viruses, particularly studying bats in conjunction with the world center of research on coronavirus, which is in Wuhan and China. And, of course, under Bush and Obama, we had a pandemic directorate or committee within the National Security Council, that John Bolton abolished.

You have to understand that the Trump administration has gone about systematically laying waste to all the preparations that were made in the previous 15 years, ignored all the warnings. There was a simulation a week before the inauguration, where the outgoing Obama officials wanted to convey the urgency of the pandemic threat to incoming members of the Trump administration. When they carried out the simulation, it showed, you know, that the response would fail, for a number of reasons, and highlighted the areas that had to have improvement. The strategic inventory of N95 masks, which had once been in the territory of 120-130 million, was left at 10 million, which is just, you know, staggering, because everybody has been saying forever that there’s going to be a shortage. And finally, Trump’s own Council of Economic Advisers, in September, three months before the outbreak was acknowledged by China, warned of the pandemic threat.

But it also pointed out that Big Pharma and private-sector pharmaceutical companies, the big ones, were probably incapable of producing vaccines, just as they had abdicated research and development of antivirals and antibiotics. No profit in it, unless the government, which Trump administration is now preparing to do, gives them billions of dollars to develop it. Big Pharma, essentially rentiers, they hold patents and spend most of the money on advertising and political lobbying. They’re not the major engines of research for lifeline medicines. Those are public universities.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to address two major issues. One is, you’re saying that if this doesn’t show the need for Medicare for All as a nonnegotiable part of the fight for the survival against the coronavirus. Start there.

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I mean, we’ve seen millions of people — I’ve seen different statistics, whether it’s 12 million or 27 millions — people who have been laid off work, lost their jobs, and, with it, lost their workplace-based health insurance. So, right now we’ve seen this incredible increase in number of people.

Medicare across the country is in danger, the Medicare that already exists for seniors and Medicaid for poor people, because states are going literally bankrupt. Of course, Mitch McConnell thinks it’s a good idea that blue states declare bankruptcy, so they can’t — uncertain of being able to fund their share of it. Public health, the system is collapsing. Hospitals are going under. There’s over a million healthcare workers laid off.

And there’s only one possible way to make progress in all this. And that is, you know, the combination of single-payer, universal healthcare — we should also include long-term living and nursing homes, which are totally piratical industry. These should be publicly administered. But the combination of Medicare for All with universal sick leave.

And to be very honest with you, I was totally shocked that Elizabeth Warren, as part of this obnoxious beauty contest for vice president, is backtracking on this, making a concession to Biden. My hope was that the fight would be taken to the platform committee at the convention and that you could have — there are probably enough Sanders and Warren delegates, plus Biden delegates who also support Medicare for All, to make a fight for that, to insist that it be included in the program.

It’s one thing that I’ve really had my eyes opened up by my two younger children, who are still in high school, and by the students I’ve been teaching this year. They will not vote unless there’s absolutely radical, serious structural change in the Democratic platform and that they can believe in. And this is something that, as I say, I mean, we need to fight like hell for that. And we need to make this, you know, very clearly a condition. I mean, of course, whatever happens, we’re going to have to get out and vote for Biden. But I can’t convince my own children of that, and I can’t convince my students, unless they see some dramatic changes in Biden’s attitude about this and in the elite of the Democratic Party.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, another person who is being talked about should be president, in the media and a lot of liberal Democrats, saying — watching Governor Cuomo’s press conferences, Cuomo now, in the midst of this pandemic, cutting funds to healthcare institutions and well known for cutting those funds for years before the pandemic.

MIKE DAVIS: Of course. And, you know, everybody in New York knows this. But the Democrats, the establishment Democrats, needed a superhero, so it ended up being Cuomo, and Newsom in California, my governor, who’s a cut better than Cuomo in terms of public services. But he’s going to be making cuts, first of all, in crucial programs for disabled people and elderly people, but also swingeing cuts in the education budget. At the end of the day, yeah, he’s going to become the enemy of vital services, as well, unless there’s a movement to compel him otherwise.

I mean, look, since Ronald Reagan and the tax rebellion, the Republicans have become experts at creating movements or manipulating movements. We’re seeing such a movement today. It’s just the reborn tea party. It’s Tea Party Patriots. It’s FreedomWorks. It’s the same group of billionaires that rallied to Trump in 2016. Overnight, they created a phony protest movement, while the real grassroots protest movement in the workplaces goes without very little, you know, political support or publicity.

I mean, the Biden camp and establishment Democrats are never going to hand out pitchforks to their base in the way that the Republicans do. And they can’t be relied on. But it’s obvious now the price is being paid by the fact that there is no national movement endorsed by the Democrats. Instead, there’s a phony movement created by the Republicans. And by the way, the Republicans are very smart at this stuff. Why all the militia guys with the automatic rifles and Confederate flags? Oh, guaranteed to be primetime news, if you bring assault rifles. That’s why the militia always get invited to the rallies. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike, we just have a minute to go, but I wanted to end on this question of what gives you hope. You have said that you reject the choice between optimism and pessimism. Why?

MIKE DAVIS: This is not scientific concepts. I mean, people fight for what is necessary and for what is right. And the necessary very often is not the realistic. And I think the test of a true radical is always choose the necessary, what is humanly essential to be done.

And it’s essential right now that we rally to the cause of workplace safety, to the labor revolts that are going on. But we need to get back into the streets safely. One thing that’s happened recently has been the reinvention of an old, sacred weapon of the labor movement, used by Ford workers decisively in 1941 when they rang River Rouge, the biggest plant in the world, with hundreds of cars. Now we see demonstrators in cars, moving picket lines. You’re not going to get sick sitting in your car. You’re not going to infect anybody else.

You know, we need to be out there. And we need to be calling for some kind of national coalition and a national day of action, because people, particularly the kids in the Sanders movement, I mean, tens of thousands of people who volunteered, were active organizers, they’re sitting at home for instructions that haven’t come yet, and they may never come. We have to be sure that they’re given a strategy and a narrative to follow, to fight through. And this must begin, I think, with solidarity with the workers who are already struggling.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mike Davis, I want to thank you so much for being with us, writer, historian, author of a number of books, including Planet of Slums, City of Quartz and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. His new book is just out; it’s called Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. And I look forward to having you back, Mike, to talk about that book. And we’ll also link to your pieces in Jacobin, your most recent piece, “Reopening the Economy Will Send Us to Hell.”

To see Part 1 of our discussion with Mike Davis, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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