Episode 131: The “Essential Worker” Racket — How ‘COVID Hero’ Discourse Is Used To Discipline Labor

Citations Needed | February 17, 2021 | Transcript

Citations Needed
47 min readFeb 17, 2021
A worker deemed “essential” during the COVID pandemic. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yes, and our Patreon has about 70-plus mini-episode News Briefs we’ve done throughout the last few months and years, and you can go there and listen to those. And, of course, it helps keep the show totally independent and sustainable.

Nima: “Elon Musk sent a thank-you note to Tesla’s workers returning to work,” Business Insider squeals. Walmart teams up with UPS to air an ad, quote, “thanking essential workers.” “Jeff Bezos Just Posted an Open Letter to Amazon Employees About the Coronavirus. Every Smart Business Leader Needs to Read It,” insists an article in Inc. In that letter, Bezos writes this, quote, “We’re providing a vital service to people everywhere, especially to those, like the elderly, who are most vulnerable. People are depending on us,” and he adds, quote, “I’ve received hundreds of emails from customers and seen posts on social media thanking you all. Your efforts are being noticed at the highest levels of government, [including] President Trump.”

Adam: Throughout the pandemic, corporate leaders, politicians and celebrities have been quick to paint quote-unquote “essential workers” or what’s sometimes called “frontline” workers, as heroes — laborers conscripted, presumably against their will, into a wartime-like scenario of heroism and sacrifice as our country battles COVID-19.

Nima: The sentiment behind this rhetoric is understandable, especially from everyday people simply trying to express their deep appreciation for the underpaid labor doing the work to feed, house, care for and treat everyone else. But when employed by powerful politicians and CEOs, the essential workers as heroes discourse serves a more sinister purpose: to curb efforts to unionize, preemptively justify mass death of a largely black and brown workforce, protect corporate profits and ultimately discipline labor that for a brief moment in spring of last year, had unprecedented leverage to extract concessions from capital.

Adam: As Wall Street booms and America’s billionaires see an increase of $1.1 trillion in wealth since March 2020 — a 40 percent increase — while the average worker suffers from unemployment, depression, drug abuse and a loss of healthcare, it’s become increasingly clear that “essential” never meant essential to helping society at large or essential to human care or essential to keeping the bottom from falling out, but essential to keeping the top 1 percent of the 1 percent’s wealth and power intact and as it turned out to be the case, massively expanded.

Nima: Indeed, 2020 saw the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in decades, a transfer largely made possible by the essential worker as hero narrative, with little discussion or debate. In March 2020 everyone agreed in this wartime framing that was going to send off millions of poor people to their deaths for a vague, undecided greater good of the quote-unquote “economy,” when really it was for the seamless maintenance of Wall Street profits.

Adam: In this week’s episode we will explore the origins of the concept of “essential work” and “essential workers,” how it’s been used in the past to discipline labor during wartime, how hero narratives provide an empty, head-patting verbal tip in lieu of worker protection and higher pay, and why so few in our media ask the more urgent of all: whether or not low wage retail, food, farming, and healthcare workers ever wanted to be heroes in the first place.

Nima: Later on the show, we will be joined by Ronald Jackson, a worker and organizer at Warehouse Workers For Justice.

[Begin Clip]

Ronald Jackson: You can say the management team of XPO/Mars, you know, they had a meeting saying how essential workers we are, so if we are essential workers, while you’re not telling us about people being sick on the line? They say that if there is any problem we can come to them, we had a meeting one time about the work conditions and everything, and the manager of the facility, he got kind of upset, ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave.’ You know, that’s kind of strange, why would you tell your employees, ‘If you don’t feel safe, you can leave,’ when all we’re trying to do is make an honest living and make sure we can go home to our family?

[End Clip]

Adam: So the essential worker frame, as we note in the introduction, the reason why it’s a great propaganda term is that in certain contexts, it certainly can be nice or meant as a compliment. The unions themselves and workers themselves and the strikes from Amazon and other places, they’ve embraced this term “essential worker” because it tells you that they have always been essential, and that they’re essential for an economy to function, which happens with a lot of these terms we talk about on the show. It has a benign meaning or kind of good meaning but then slowly in certain contexts and coming out of the mouths of certain people, has a quite sinister meaning and the purpose of essential worker discourse or essential workers as heroes, who have been conscripted into a war without permission or without any kind of discussion as to whether or not they were supposed to be conscripted, this was simply sort of asserted overnight back in March, it serves two purposes we’ll detail on the show. Number one, it flattens class analysis, it lumps small business owners, wealthy doctors — who I know oftentimes can be technically still workers — with low-wage workers, people who work in Amazon for $9 an hour, janitors, teachers who make just above minimum wage in certain places, like the term “middle class,” it is designed to flattened class analysis. So it’s not the worker in the sense that they work for a wage, and their relationship with the people who own the means of production in capital, their workers in this kind of abstract sense that they’re “essential,” quote-unquote, to running an economy and the second thing it does is it conscripts low-wage workers into a war by borrowing a term that was popularized and used primarily in World War II, against a pandemic, which was not a foreign enemy that could be defeated, but the conditions that require them to go back to work were entirely manmade and political in nature, they were not the natural result of COVID-19 pandemic, they were a political choice we made in the face of COVID-19 pandemic, as opposed to other countries who did not do this, where we largely decided, and I think somewhat bipartisanly, although obviously Republicans were more gung-ho about this, we largely decided not to have a strong centralized state response and pay people to stay home but we decided to basically let a skeleton version of the economy operate and to serve the primary functions of feeding housing, healthcare for people with very little regulation, or more importantly, any kind of offset to these essential workers who are effectively painted as soldiers in a war. A war they never signed up for and never received any real benefit from.

Nima: So, by hailing workers as essential, you turn them into heroes, send them out, that they are keeping us safe, they are keeping us alive, but what that rhetoric really does, especially coming out of the mouths of the CEOs, of politicians who are not passing bills to get rent and mortgage moratorium or extending unemployment benefits or sending checks to people directly so that people can stay home or feel like they can stay home and stay safe, you’re calling essential workers, what you really mean is expendable workers. And so the use of this essential worker trope, pre-2020, pre-COVID-19 pandemic, really peaked during World War II. It was used to describe workers in industries that the federal government at that time deemed unable to strike in the face of war, essentially, they cannot decide amongst themselves to not go to work. FDR created the National War Labor Board that would act as an arbitration tribunal in labor management disputes, ostensibly to prevent work stoppages, which might hinder the war effort. A similar National War Labor Board was created during World War I a couple decades earlier, and is credited with strengthening mainstream traditionally racist unions like the AFL while working in parallel with the Palmer Raids and other Red Scare tactics to snuff out radical unions, such as the IWW in 1919, for instance, whose leadership was almost all jailed during World War I.

National War Labor Board poster, ca. 1942. (Source: U.S. National Archives)

Adam: So from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we borrowed this term from World War II, which was used again to basically say labor can’t strike. Now, during World War II — and there’s much debate about this among labor historians, we won’t go into the details — some concessions were given to labor. FDR, of course, had the backing of labor, FDR’s administration had socialists in it, there was some sense that there was, and again, this is largely limited to the white unions at the time, AFL, we don’t want to romanticize it too much, but there was some sense that there was a give and take, and that give and take, the sort of concessions that was made to labor because there is no, the labor movement is so much smaller, and so much weaker, and the radical elements are largely gone, those concessions during this war effort were nonexistent and the National War Labor Board later went on to become the National Labor Relations Board and this was — who we’ll discuss later with our guest — is actually the villain who largely exists, especially under the Trump administration to discipline labor. So, there was a close cousin to the idea of essential worker, which is something we’ve talked about on the show a couple of times, which is essential government. During previous shutdowns, especially in 2013, and almost shutdowns that were in the ’70s and ’80s and even 2016, we had this idea of essential government or kind of essential state functions, which are decided by politicians in closed doors, where we basically say via funding, who is and who isn’t essential, and this is something, as we also discussed in a News Brief on this topic almost two years ago, it was never debated in the media, we don’t actually discuss what is and what isn’t essential. It’s just kind of asserted as a tautology that because the media says something’s essential, therefore it is essential.

Nima: Right. If you’re going to maintain empire, it’s essential. If you’re going to provide housing, education or healthcare to largely Black and Brown communities, that’s probably not essential.

Adam: So you have a lot of ideological work done by this concept of essential and the definition of essential, as you would imagine, because it was so ad hoc, it was based on tautology with very little public debate very, widely based on state and country.

Nima: And so you have this idea where even in the deployment of the term “essential worker,” it has no legal standing that is commonly understood across the whole country. So while, of course, it is rhetorical, it does have implications on a state level because of decisions that are made for or on behalf of, or sometimes against essential workers. So for instance, as Vox has noted:

“In Arizona, the governor deemed golf courses essential. In Pennsylvania, liquor stores were shuttered as nonessential; in New Jersey, they were not. Guidelines as to whether construction workers are essential vary from state to state, and not everyone who is considered essential wants to be. There is federal guidance laying out parameters around the essential workforce, but for many people, whether they’re expected to go into work and what sort of protections they’ll get depend on their state governors and their company bosses. Millions of essential jobs are low-paid ones, where paid leave isn’t an option, let alone the offer of employer-subsidized health insurance. They are jobs disproportionately held by women and, particularly, women of color. Black and Hispanic workers are able to work from home at lower rates than white and Asian Americans, and so if they’re working in essential posts, they’re likelier to be in person. The higher representation of black and Hispanic people in the ‘essential’ category likely contributes to the race gap in coronavirus deaths in many parts of the US.”

End quote.

Adam: Another reason essential workers is a slippery political idea is that the US, many people in the US, governors and the president, declared industries essential that were not at all essential. Recall March 20, 2020, when the Pentagon released guidelines that the quote-unquote “defense-industrial base” is critical infrastructure and its workers should keep working. That meant people who were building tankers and bombs, people who worked for giant weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, were instructed to keep showing up to work physically in person, spreading the disease. The Pentagon went further — it directly pressured Mexico and India to keep open factories that supply materials for this defense-industrial base, including missiles and parts for bombs. So from the beginning, the maintenance of empire, that is sort of keeping our edge against the evil baddies Russia and China, was deemed essential in those factories that build bombs were kept open, because the definition of essential, again, has more to do with the maintenance of capital empire than it does providing food and shelter and healthcare for the average person and so from the beginning, this word “essential worker” became a political tool to be used to serve certain interests, again, by conscripting these people into this war against a pandemic for which they had no choice.

Nima: Yeah, also, I remember back in April, when all of a sudden, WWE professional wrestling, owned by the McMahon family, was deemed an essential workforce in Florida by Governor DeSantis down there, and — surprise, surprise — Linda McMahon was in charge of GOP fundraising. So, as one can imagine the political implications of who is deemed essential, who is to put themselves at risk and for whom, I mean, you hear that the benefit is for all of us, right? That’s why these are heroic acts of UPS drivers, of warehouse workers, right? But who are they ultimately serving?

Linda and Vince McMahon pose with Donald Trump. (Source: Wrestleview)

Adam: Yeah, March 25, 2020, in a comment sent to The New York Times, Kurt Gibbs, who is an electrician at a parking garage in Syracuse, New York, wrote, “I’m essential to the pocketbooks of the rich contractors and essential for spreading the virus, but that’s about it.” Because he was essential he was forced to go to work, he couldn’t collect unemployment and stay home, which of course, was the humane thing to do. So, you know, I think again, most of the workers, including the one we’re going to talk to today, are very aware of this scam.

Nima: Yeah, it is definitely not lost on the people whose lives are at risk. And of course, they understand why they are the ones who are deemed essential and have no choice but to work in person, in quite often unsafe, unhealthy environments and yet, the companies that they work for reap the benefits. But at the same time, what we have seen, you know, we’re a show that talks about media narratives, we talk about political narratives, we talk about business narratives, right? And what better than to go over some examples of our wonderful noble American CEOs thanking during this devastating pandemic, the essential workers?

Adam: Yeah, so you had a bunch of CEOs and corporate commercials that thanked essential workers, right? This is one of the reasons why this term is so grating. It’s a total verbal tip, it’s like a pat on the head saying, ‘Thank you, we appreciate it,’ while at the same time these corporations and CEOs were reaping massive benefits. So Elon Musk, whose wealth has increased by 628.5 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, he was worth $24 billion in March of 2020, he is now worth $180 billion, he sent an email thanking Tesla workers in May of 2020 after he somewhat controversially reopened a Tesla factory in California despite local health authorities ordering it to stay closed, he sent a letter thanking the Tesla team saying, quote:

“Just wanted to send you a note of appreciation for working hard to make Tesla successful. It is so cool seeing the factory come back to life and you are making it happen!!

“An honest day’s work spent building products or providing services of use to others is extremely honorable.”

So, of course, he of course was not going to the plant, he was presumably, with his highly advanced cutting edge doctors, so if he even did get COVID, it wouldn’t really matter. The CEO of Exxon Mobil, Darren Woods, sent a message to his employees saying, quote:

“These are challenging times for all of us. We are grateful for the efforts of first responders and medical professionals around the world who are working so hard to help manage the effects of this pandemic. Our company is proud to assist where we can, and I’m grateful to the ExxonMobil team for their focused response efforts. On our offshore platforms, in our refineries, at our lubes and chemical plants and throughout our facilities worldwide, our people are getting the job done while protecting themselves and others.”

They really weren’t, protecting themselves and others.

Nima: Then you have the CEO of Starbucks writing this:

“During times of adversity, values are tested. I remain inspired by your resilience and am optimistic that together we can overcome this challenge. Words cannot capture the immense pride and gratitude I have for you, my Starbucks partners, as you demonstrate support for one another, your customers and the thousands of communities we serve. During this overwhelming and difficult time, you have shown up and stayed true to the Mission and Values we stand for, and I am forever grateful.”

Adam: Other than the verbal bullshit, the only thing that was offered was what a lot of corporations did, called “hero pay,” where they increased wages by a token amount in April, in May of 2020. They got a ton of PR offered by Fox News. CNBC loved these stories. Target, Amazon, they created “hero pay,” they can’t call it hazard pay, because that would acknowledge that they’re sending people to go work in a hazard. It also would mean that the hazard would by definition last as long as the coronavirus pandemic lasted and they didn’t want to be on the hook for a year or two, three years, however long it took for the coronavirus to go away.

Nima: They’re like, ‘Hey, you’re a hero and then we can stop that hero pay and go back and just have regular pay.’

Adam: Release a bunch of press releases and then in May of 2020 NPR reported:

“This weekend, such temporary pay bumps are ending at companies including Amazon and Molson Coors. They already ended at Rite Aid and Kroger. Some companies, like Walmart and CVS, paid one-time bonuses instead. Some had no hazard pay altogether. Target and Kraft Heinz told NPR they’re extending their temporary extra pay a bit longer.”

But they eventually got rid of it the following month. So to the extent to which this rhetoric was matched, it was quote-unquote ‘hero pay,’ which is really just a way of incentivizing people to not go on the recently implemented unemployment insurance, which existed from April to August of last year. That actually was the only form of transfer to the poor we had, it was basically to keep the masses from rioting, which many of them ended up doing anyway and this was the completely token gesture that we’ll show later was wholly trivial in terms of the actual profits reaped by these corporations and so the mother of all this was Jeff Bezos.

Nima: Yes, of course. But I have to read a little more of Jeff Bezos’ open letter to the Amazon employees, because it’s just so manipulative. So I read a little bit at the top, but I’m gonna go back and do a little more. Here it is:

“This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress and uncertainty. It’s also a moment in time when the work we’re doing is its most critical. We’ve changed our logistics, transportation, supply chain, purchasing, and third party seller processes to prioritize stocking and delivering essential items like household staples, sanitizers, baby formula, and medical supplies. We’re providing a vital service to people everywhere, especially to those, like the elderly, who are most vulnerable. People are depending on us.”

So you have from Jeff Bezos, one of, if not at times the wealthiest person in the world, saying to the workers who create that wealth for him, you are so needed, are so valuable, stay doing the work in the warehouse, and to drive this point home Amazon put out this ad during the coronavirus pandemic.

[Begin Clip]

Man: Right now, delivering the things people need has never been more important. To all of our Amazon retail heroes, on the floor, in the air, and behind the wheel. We want to thank you. We’ll continue to do everything we can to keep you healthy, safe and protected. The work you’re doing means everything right now. Thank you.

[End Clip]

Adam: Right. So this is, you know, we drew the analogy about a war and it’s actually kind of the same racket, right? ‘You go off and you fight in this war so we can get rich, you fucking chump,’ whether it’s, you know, whatever war it is, right? Since basically the beginning of wars. ‘You go off and fight and you die and we’re not really gonna offer you anything, we’re not gonna pay that much but what we will offer you is this hero status, you’re gonna have social capital, people are gonna look at you and say, man, that person is doing something valuable for society because you’re doing my bidding, you’re helping me and I’m not going to give you any pay really, or give you any equity in the company or make you feel or give you even any protection really, I’ll pretty much leave you to die and hang out to dry, but I will call you a hero.’

Nima: ‘If you get sick, we’re not going to help you.’ It’s like the VA, right, that can still get cut and ‘If you try and organize, we’re gonna make sure that you absolutely cannot form a union.’

Adam: Yeah, and you know, cut to November and this was, by the way, this commercial came out on March 27, 2020. So they busted out that really soon because anyone could have seen which way this was going, right? Since Amazon is going to be supplying the entire country during this pandemic for god knows how long and it’s gonna make our CEO insanely wealthy, we have to sort of preemptively get ahead of this narrative, and do the hero narrative, which is to say ‘Go sacrifice, you’re a hero,’ and without any discussion as to whether or not any of these fucking people wanted to be a hero, and whether or not they should be showing up to these distribution plants at all. And so cut to November 2020, a headline in Fortune magazine, “Thousands of Amazon workers will walk off the job today to fight for fair pay and COVID protections.”

“Unions representing tens of thousands of Amazon.com Inc. employees are planning walkouts and other action as the year’s busiest shopping season begins this week, in protest at the e-commerce giant’s handling of everything from sick pay and COVID-19 precautions to user privacy.”

There were massive lockouts from Amazon warehouses throughout the year, specifically the ones designed around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, to basically say that they’re not really protecting us. Vice’s Motherboard revealed in November 2020, that same month, quote, “Amazon is using union-busting Pinkerton spies to track warehouse workers and labor movements at the company, according to a new report.” They were literally using Pinkertons, that’s the same company that existed in the 1840s, started by Pinkerton himself, a Scottish immigrant. This is a recap from Business Insider:

“Amazon has hired detectives with the infamous Pinkerton spy agency to monitor European workers’ labor union organizing efforts, per a Motherboard report. The outlet obtained leaked documents from Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center, where data analysts can easily track workers’ union organizing activities down to the date, time, and location.”

So in addition to these walkouts, claims that they don’t have PPE, Amazon has been abusing workers since the beginning of the pandemic and meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ wealth has grown from $113 billion to $281 billion for an increase of 60.6 percent. So his wealth has grown roughly the equivalent of the GDP of Guatemala. So this is in less than a year, this is a 10-month, 11-month span. So this is the problem with this whole hero narrative, right? Because instead of having a conversation where a CEO says, ‘You’re about to go into perilous conditions, you’re way more likely to be exposed to the coronavirus and die, you’re way more likely and more importantly going to expose your family, loved ones, mother, bring it home with yourself.’ Again, this is why people of color are disproportionately represented in coronavirus deaths. One of the main drivers of this is that they have these low wage jobs. Instead of saying, this is something we need to talk about, or debate, we just get past it altogether and then we go into this heroes narrative. So even people who I think were well intentioned or kind of wanted to co-op the idea of essential worker or frontline worker, once they embraced this martial language, we effectively move past the debate about whether or not these low wage, largely Black and Brown, but of course, many white workers as well, but whether or not their lives were worth sacrificing, because of some abstract quote-unquote “economy” and what they were going to get in return for the sacrifice and then we drafted them into this war that they never, ever agreed to be a part of and then we went straight into, ‘Well, how do we, how do we mitigate the harm at best and how do we kind of witness and hand wring about the inequities that resulted from the pandemic?’ And there was never a sense that maybe this martial framing was one of the primary drivers of why this was permitted at all.

Nima: Because the consequence of this is not only mass sickness, mass death, but also as, incidentally, Brookings Institution researchers Molly Kinder and Laura Stateler have noted, ”Jeff Bezos and the Walmart heirs have grown $116 billion richer during the pandemic — 35 times the total hazard pay given to more than 2.5 million Amazon and Walmart workers.”

Adam: Hey, Nima, not hazard pay, hero pay.

Nima: Right. (Chuckles.) Yeah, exactly. Kinder and Stateler note:

“Together, they have earned an extra $10.7 billion over last year’s profits during (and largely because of) the pandemic — a stunning 56% increase. Despite this surge, we ranked Amazon and Walmart among the least generous of the 13 large retail and grocery companies studied in our report. The two companies could have quadrupled the extra COVID-19 compensation they gave to their workers through their last quarter and still earned more profit than last year.”

End quote.

Additionally, the Institute for Policy Studies has reported this:

“As of November 17, [2020] the combined wealth of 647 U.S. billionaires increased by almost $960 billion since mid-March, the beginning of the pandemic lockdown — an increase of nearly $1 trillion in less than a year.”

Since March, there are 33 new billionaires in the United States. When you actually look at the difference between what Jeff Bezos and the Walton family have acquired, to the wealth that they have added to their coffers during the pandemic versus the total pay given, as you know, hazard or as we’ve been saying “hero pay,” to their labor forces, it’s stark. The Brookings report that I mentioned earlier, has this amazing, striking graphic that really shows the pandemic wealth increases versus total amount spent by Amazon and Walmart on hazard pay for all of these deemed essential workers as of December of last year. So on the one side, you have Jeff Bezos, who during the pandemic, mid-March through the end of December, got $75.6 billion richer. The total amount in this hero pay paid to about a million Amazon workers was $1.8 billion. So Bezos made 42 times more than was paid out in COVID pay to Amazon workers. Similarly, the Walton family, Jim, Alice and Rob Walton, their wealth increased by $40.7 billion during the pandemic, which is 26 times more than the $1.6 billion in quote-unquote “hero pay” paid to the 1.5 million workers at Walmarts.

Adam: And this is not unique. America’s top billionaires all became extremely wealthy during the pandemic. Bill Gates’ wealth went from $98 billion to $120 billion, an increase of 22 percent. Warren Buffett’s went from $67 billion to $88 billion, an increase of 30 percent. Mark Zuckerberg went from $54 billion to $92 billion, an increase of 68 percent. Larry Ellison 47 percent, Larry Page 50 percent increase, Sergey Brin, former Google founders, 51.2 percent, Steve Ballmer 37.5 percent, Alice Walton 24 percent, Jim Walton 24 percent, Rob Walton 24 percent, Michael Bloomberg 15 percent, MacKenzie Scott 52 percent and Phil Knight 78 percent.

Nima: 78 or 79 percent increase in wealth between March 18, 2020 and January 18, 2021, a 79 percent increase in Phil Knight’s wealth. (Laughing.) That’s fuckin’ bonkers.

Adam: They obviously all worked very hard for that, you know, Elon Musk earned that $154 billion in less than a year, clearly, and meanwhile, in this time, 73 million workers between March 22 and December 20 lost their job. 60 million people were collecting unemployment as of January 2, 2021. Nearly 100,000 businesses have permanently closed. 12 million workers have lost their employer sponsored health insurance during the pandemic as of August 2020. So what you saw was a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, which was predicted by many people at the beginning of this pandemic, there is basically no crisis does not result in that and so much of that inequity and the mass death of the poor, you see this now, even with the vaccine apartheid, which we talked about in a previous episode, that is just brushed away as the death of a soldier in a war, not a deliberate policy decision to basically say that these people were essential, not to the functioning of a society, because again, much of this could have been handed over to federal workers or done in a more far more efficient way or paid a lot more, you know, paid $200,000 a year to offset the risk, they were essential to those numbers I just read off to you, they were essential to making sure that these people stayed wealthy. We can put it under the guise of the economy or the stock market or whatever abstract force, but basically that was the goal. The goal was to make sure that the 1,600 billionaires stayed rich and that’s ultimately what happened and indeed many ways, they got much richer, and that required sacrifice from someone and it wasn’t going to be the rich, it was always going to be the poor and that hero narrative pathologizes and justifies that, even if that’s not one’s intention for using it.

Nima: To discuss this more we’re going to be joined by Ronald Jackson, a worker and organizer at Warehouse Workers For Justice. Mr. Jackson was retaliated against and fired from his job at the Mars plant in Joliet, Illinois — Mars candy bars, that is — for organizing his fellow workers, for letting them know what rights they had. Ronald Jackson will join us in just a moment. Please stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Ronald Jackson. Ronald, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Ronald Jackson: Very glad to be here.

Adam: So before, I guess, we get into some of the nitty gritty here or the bigger issues, we want to sort of orient our audience as to the situation that happened at the Mars/Wrigley warehouse in Joliet, Illinois, over the past year specifically, the XPO and DHL Logistics subcontractors. Can you tell us briefly, if you don’t mind, to the extent you’re comfortable, tell us about what happened with you and other workers who attempted to try to achieve some degree of safety or proto-unionization?

Ronald Jackson, speaking at a protest outside Mars Wrigley’s Chicago headquarters in October 2020 (Credit: Warehouse Workers For Justice)

Ronald Jackson: Okay, what we did is that during the COVID-19, the C-19, when it started off, we saw a lot of the people in hazmat suits. So we wondered, you know, what’s going on, this must be really serious, so they’re taking our temperature and everything and saying that we got to wear the masks and this and that, but then some of the workers came up sick. So, you know, they’re not telling us anything when the workers came up sick, they were still having us working, instead of closing the facility, they had us work through the epidemic when people came in sick, and they had contracted the virus and what made it so bad as when they contracted it, you can say the management team of XPO/Mars, you know, they had a meeting saying how essential workers we are, so if we are essential workers, while you’re not telling us about people being sick on the line? They say that if there is any problem we can come to them, we had a meeting one time about the work conditions and everything, and the manager of the facility, he got kind of upset, ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave.’ You know, that’s kind of strange, for you to be a manager to tell people, ‘If you don’t feel safe, you can leave.’ You know, that’s kind of strange, why would you tell your employees, ‘If you don’t feel safe, you can leave,’ when all we’re trying to do is make an honest living and make sure we can go home to our family? So when the governor was saying that, you know, you can have your people tested, I voiced my opinion and said to them, I said, well, to make everyone feel comfortable why don’t you have everyone tested?

Warehouse Workers for Justice protest outside a Mars warehouse in Joliet, Illinois. (Source: The Times Weekly)

Adam: Right.

Ronald Jackson: They didn’t like when I said that. They said, ‘We can’t do that.’ I said why not? I talked to my state official, they said, they don’t have a problem with you testing your employees and when I said that they did not like that. They did not like that at all. Because I said that, I guess, I don’t know how they took it, but here you are a manager of a company, and your workers is bringing a concern to you about, we don’t feel safe, and I’m saying, and if you got any brains, you will say to your people, ‘You know what, I’m gonna have everyone tested so everyone can see a secure.’ That’s the first thing you would do to settle everyone’s fear because we did have a lot of elderly people that were working there, too.

Nima: So what was your reaction to that when they kind of said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that?’

Ronald Jackson: Well, what it is, is he got mad because I guess the management team got mad because I called them out because, like I said before, I talked to my state official and they didn’t have a problem. So I guess he must have went back and checked and said, ‘Okay, we don’t have a problem, we can do that,’ but yet, they never did it. So when the meeting was over, I went back on my line and one of the managers came up to me, pulled me to the side and said, ‘I don’t like what you did,’ and I said, did what? ‘Scam all my workers,’ I say how did I scam all your workers, because I said to make them feel comfortable that you can have everyone tested? She said, ‘I don’t like what you did,’ she told me, ‘Well, the next time you do that again, I’m gonna talk to your temp service and see about getting you fired.’

Adam: And then you were fired, correct? You were retaliated against.

Ronald Jackson: I was retaliated against because, when we started organizing, they didn’t like it. I used to make complaints but I said to them, you know, like in some of the meetings, why would you pay someone $100,000 to come in and try to organize how the people should work when we as the workers are giving you something to work on?

Adam: Right. Clearly, from their perspective testing was expensive and would also mean that they would be forced if they had a positive test to send people home, which they obviously didn’t want to do. So I guess the long and short of it is that they didn’t really give a shit. You all attempted to do some kind of collective negotiation, you were retaliated against and then you filed a complaint with the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, which I know, especially under Trump, was very pro-management. Can you talk about that experience and sort of how that went?

Ronald Jackson: Okay. It’s like when they give us, what they did, they came to us, I’m aware, ‘We’re gonna give you our appreciation pay, we don’t want to call it hazard pay’ and you know, we say, okay, cool, you know, we know it was hazard pay, but they want to turn it into another thing.

Adam: Right, because then they would admit it’s a hazard. Right?

Ronald Jackson: Right. Right. So, you know, after they stopped it, we started back complaining, I said, wait a minute, this epidemic is not over. You’re not giving us nothing. So I organized other people, people signed a petition, it was presented to them and the next thing you know, like I said, I was retaliated against. On numerous occasions I was retaliated against, you know, to go to, let’s say, you’re in a building, you got a hundred people that you can work with, and you can come to and get, but I’m all the way at the end of the building, you come all the way to the end of the building to get me to work on someone else’s line when I’m already on the line. So I said okay, I’ll go to the line, as I worked this line, I have to go to the bathroom. I go to the bathroom, the guy gets upset, ‘You were gone more than 20 minutes, you gone over 20 minutes.’ Wait a minute, I told the other workers where I went. He was somewhat of a supervisor. I told him where I went. ‘You go home, you punch out, you go home.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I said I was in the bathroom. I told everyone.’ So he went to the office. I don’t know what they said to him in the office. He came back and said, ‘Next time just come to me and let me know.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re walking all over the building, I’m not going to look for you when I have to go to the bathroom. That’s crazy for me to look all over the building for you when I have to go.’ You know, they told us as long as we informed someone that we went to the bathroom and all the guys that was on the line told him where you went to, so to make a long story short, I told them, ‘You know what, I can’t work with him. I’m not gonna get into no confrontation with him.’ Because the way he came to me like I’m some kid on the street, you know? So I told them I do not want to work with him, they did give us a special jacket, I gave it back to them, I said, ‘I no longer want to work with him.’ So that was when I, you know, went back to that line and wow. So again, they came down the line, they came again and said that, uh, ‘We want you to go to the line.’ I said, ‘Me and had him already had a confrontation.’ If me and you have a confrontation why would you put me over there with a person that we had a confrontation, why would you put me over there on the line? And that’s like, ‘I want you to do something so you can get fired.’

Adam: And just to be clear, this is a packing plant for Mars candy and other products. So Reese’s Pieces, whatever, I don’t know what, sorry I forgot what Mars makes? I forgot.

Ronald Jackson: Reese’s, M&Ms, Snickers.

Adam: Reese’s, M&Ms, Snickers, right.

Ronald Jackson: So, to catch on to the form of retaliation, is that I didn’t go to the guy because I knew what they were doing. So why would I get set up to get fired when I say you know what, I’ll go home. So they didn’t say anything. I went home and came back the next day. No problem. Our job is to open up the box and pour in candy. I’m giving them suggestions about how to make the production easier and more productive for the workers. And so the last straw that broke the camel’s back was, I was on the line, we were told not to open up no boxes until they came in counting. So the guy told me to open up the boxes and I sat there and said, ‘Well, they got to be counted.’ The lady goes to him and says, ‘He didn’t want to open up, no boxes, no boxes.’ What are you talking about? That’s all we do in that building is open up boxes. That’s all we do is open up boxes. If you’re working, and you see people sitting there, and you say, ‘Well, how come they’re not opening up boxes too?’ He comes back and says that I’m a disturbance because I got petitions in the building, I got petitions outside the building, and see what they did, they saw me outside talking to people. I wasn’t in the building. I didn’t violate any of the laws. So I told my supervisors, I say, ‘They will come after me,’ and that next day, when I came in, the same lady talking about how I didn’t want to open up boxes, he came, let two ladies in and said for me to leave the floor because I’m causing a disturbance. So I filed a grievance because I got the document to show that I have not done nothing, I’ve been to work every day and everything. I went to the Labor Board, I filed the complaint and everything. Now what makes the funny part is about it, the Labor Board took my complaint, everything seemed to be good, so when they came up with a decision, they said they still need some more information and shows you how they don’t work for us, they work for corporate.

Nima: Right.

Ronald Jackson: My question would be how is it that once all this is done with, you find them guilty of threatening me, but you don’t find them guilty of retaliation?

Adam: Anyone who’s worked in any kind of retail or restaurant or warehouse situation knows that if you start the grumblings of collective negotiation or you do petitions or whatever it is, they obviously, for labor reasons, they can’t fire you for that reason so they manufacture a reason, then they sometimes even, they will gaslight you, they’ll sort of convince you that you’re being a malcontent when you’re not, which is obviously what happened with you.

Warehouse Workers for Justice at a labor rights protest. (Source: Warehouse Workers for Justice)

Ronald Jackson: Yeah, that’s what they did because when people listen, that’s what the company did, or if they stopped listening to you, they said, ‘Wait a minute, now all these people might get together and walk out,’ because I’m letting them know what the law says, by state and federal law what you’re allowed to do, you know, and they come to me in the cafeteria and everything, I give them the brochure saying, this is what you’re allowed to do, this is what you can do, and the Labor Board said that they see you, I said, ‘Yeah, they see me doing this in the lunchroom. They know it. You know, I had a right, I wasn’t on the work floor.’

Adam: So, yeah. So the second you started doing that they needed to nip that in the bud.

Ronald Jackson: That’s what they did, when I was checking out everybody was looking like ‘What happened?’ ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘They said I refused to open up boxes.’ Everybody said, ‘Are they crazy? That’s all we’re doing in this building is open up the boxes.’

Adam: Yeah and to put in context to our listeners, this was in the context of a bunch of different walkouts at poultry plants, Amazon warehouses, so there was certainly a fear of that happening —

Nima: From the management side. Yeah.

Adam: From the management side. Sorry, from the bad guys’ viewpoint.

Ronald Jackson: Yeah, that’s what yeah, that’s what it was the bad guys and, you know, when I, if any worker who has been in this field knows, I asked them, ‘Okay, so what is it I’m being let go for? Can you give me a reason, so I can understand why I’m being let go?’ They keep coming up with different things saying I’m disturbing, not opening up the boxes. I said, ‘Well can I get something in writing so I can take to the,’ well, I’m saying to myself, so I can take it to the Labor Board, they won’t give you nothing, but they’ll say it, but they won’t.

Adam: Right.

Ronald Jackson: And you know, the Labor Board is a bunch of junk. These are the people, they said themselves, ‘If there is a situation in a workplace come to us and by law, we’re supposed to protect you from getting retaliated against.’ I come to you, I got my evidence, I did not do any fighting, I did not do any cursing and they do nothing. You’re saying that you’re going to protect me. You didn’t protect me. You can’t protect someone if you say, ‘We found them guilty of threatening you, but not retaliation.’ How did that sound? I mean, I want to listen to, how did that sound? How are you going to say ‘Well, that’s not retaliation, because they said you didn’t want to do this six months ago.’ Wait a minute, you bring it up from six months ago?

Nima: Yeah, you know, this really gets back to what you said earlier, when there was even the most modest move by management to give their workers a little more money, but they called it “appreciation pay,” right?

Ronald Jackson: Right, right.

Nima: So what we’ve been talking about on this episode so much is how the label of “essential workers,” you hear it time and again, this idea that there are these people who are just putting themselves on the line for the benefit of society. We hear this in media, we hear it in politics, but basically what it’s doing is ensuring that line workers, warehouse workers, precarious workers doing these jobs are seen as these heroes, right? There’s this hero idea, but as nice as that sounds, the government and certainly the CEOs or the supervisors and the managers all the way kind of down, have done nothing to match this idea of “you are heroes” with doing anything for you as you would actually do for a hero. You can’t really get anything, you’re not getting hazard pay, they have to couch it into “appreciation pay” and then that goes away. Unions are discouraged, and it’s unsafe where you’re working.

Ronald Jackson: You know, the funny part about it is they said we are essential workers and you know, when the governor of Illinois put out that no one’s supposed to be on the streets unless they are essential workers who have to go to work and you have to have a piece of paper so if the police stop you, you can say, ‘Look, sir, I’m on my way to work, here’s my letter.’ What did they tell you? We’re essential workers then. That right there tells you.

Nima: But then, at your job, you’re not being treated like that, right? I mean, so like, there is this huge disconnect.

Ronald Jackson: Yeah.

Nima: Where we hear praise for the people who are going to work every day doing this, but then you get nothing for it except retaliation when you try to organize.

Ronald Jackson: We are like that movie, The Suicide Squad. You get nothing.

Adam: Right. You’re expendable.

Ronald Jackson: That’s what it is. We’re expendable. You said one thing to us but when the media comes to you, we’re not essential workers.

Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about that a little bit. So the kind of double game that corporate CEOs were doing where I know that the Mars CEO, they gave like $500,000 to local food banks. They did, you know, sort of token charities. They delivered M&Ms to frontline workers and they took, you know, they got all the PR for it.

Ronald Jackson: Yeah.

Adam: What kind of puff did you get? I imagine, you know, when I used to wait tables, we used to call it a verbal tip, where somebody would say, ‘You did a really good job’ and leave you 5 percent. Can we talk about what kind of verbal tips did you get? Pats on the back? Pretty much anything but pay you more or give you rights or PPE.

Ronald Jackson: Only thing we get is every morning when they have a, as they call it, a group meeting, the only thing they ever said was ‘Keep up the good work.’ ‘We’ve met our quota,’ and everything. That’s all the only thing we got was ‘Good work, we met our quota, you know, you all did real good and let’s keep it up.’ You know and ‘You all might not have to work on a Saturday, just keep up and you keep the quote you might not have to work on Saturday.’ What about the money?

Adam: Right.

Ronald Jackson: We’re meeting quotas but we’re not getting no money and we’ve been working in unsafe conditions. You want us to work in a safe environment, but the condition is really a hazard and when we tried to maneuver around it, you come in, you want to say, ‘If you keep moving this, we’re gonna send you home.’ Wait a minute, this is in my way, we tried to explain to you how to make this easy for us and you’re still saying, ‘You put a piece of plastic right there where we can’t get to what we need or help the other workers.’ You’re saying this is in our way, you look at us saying, ‘I don’t care. Do what you have to do.’

Nima: Was there a period, early on in the pandemic, Ronald, where you were not working and then were there pressures to go back? Or was it this, you were there the whole time, but then you saw things really kind of change on the floor?

Ronald Jackson: Nothing’s changed, nothing’s changed. They used an audit, when the virus came through that building, they used an audit, they said, ‘We have to do an audit, we’ve got to do an annual audit so we’re gonna have to shut down the building,’ instead of saying that there’s an outbreak. So they did a quick, they used a code audit, and everything.

Adam: Totally routine. They had a plan ahead of time, right?

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Ronald Jackson: Yeah, yeah. They had a plan. Yeah. They had a plan. But my thing is, you had an outbreak, they said they came to the building on a weekend when it was closed. We didn’t see any paperwork, we didn’t see anything. We’re only going on what you’re saying that you know, and my thing is, how long will it take? If you have to clean the building, don’t you gotta clean from the top to the bottom?

Adam: Did many of your co-workers, I mean, I assume so, but did many of your co-workers or any of your friends that you knew get sick from COVID-19?

Ronald Jackson: It was, okay, we have certain lines like 34, 33 and on the line, 33, it was the whole line had to go home because three people had got sick and it seemed like they knew they had it but they didn’t tell anybody and they let them work. So the whole line had to go and they had to go get tested and they couldn’t come back until they had a negative test.

Adam: When they had to take off for the disease did they get paid for that?

Ronald Jackson: No. The temp workers didn’t get paid and really it was like a stunt thing that they didn’t care because one of the girls, she was snapping at men and said, wait a minute this lady was on that line, she was also with them, how come she had not been tested? She’s back at work, the girl, you know, they say, ‘Oh we’re gonna look into it, we’re gonna look into it.’ What they did was they swept it under the rug and just let the lady come back to work. You know they had their lines still running. So wait a minute, if the line, we’re trying to get everybody from the first shift to the second shift and the third shift not even try to come in but when you have to pay your bills you’re really between a rock and a hard place. You can’t take off, you know, you’re taking the virus home to your people and all Mars thinks about is, ‘Wait a minute our production has got to go up. We’re gonna ship these candy on out, we got to do this.’ But wait a minute, you keep saying that ain’t nobody, all the stores are closed, so what’s going on? But the CEOs and everything they’re getting paid.

Adam: Right.

Ronald Jackson: When we try, like I said, one time there was supposed to be a meeting with some of the workers they set up and they said it was going to be this afternoon, then they changed it to six in the morning and I’m asking, ‘What’s going on with the meeting?’ ‘Oh, we already had that meeting.’

Nima: Wait, what? So the company you work for or the management was like, ‘We’re gonna have a workers meeting and talk to you about the workplace environment or safety’ or whatever and then they just shifted the time and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that already happened. Never mind.’

Ronald Jackson: Yeah, I’m asking them and they said, ‘We had it this morning.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, we have to be here at 7:00, you want us here before 6:45, who had the meeting?’

Nima: They were like, ‘We spoke to ourselves and then we figured everything was okay.’

Ronald Jackson: That’s it. Okay, I see what’s going on. It’s like the, ‘Okey dokey. We’re gonna say we had a meeting, everybody said this and that.’ But there wasn’t any meeting. And like I said, I was outspoken, I really didn’t care because I wasn’t scared. Other people, you know, they talked behind closed doors, because you know, a lot of them, they gotta work and I have to work too but like I say, sometimes you have to put your foot out there, and hope for the best. And I thought that the Labor Board was going to really say, ‘You illegally fired him for this and that, we’re saying that we can make you give him his job back but we’re going to say you’re going to pay him for all the times he’d been off.’ That didn’t happen. I was stuck. I mean, that messed me up for Christmas and everything. Put me behind for the rent, even though they said they had a freeze on rent, but come on, once that freeze goes, where are you going to be? In the cold? It isn’t like the Labor Board is going to care. It isn’t like the politicians going to care.

Adam: So you hooked up with Warehouse Workers For Justice?

Ronald Jackson: Yes.

Adam: Who are active in the Chicago area. Can we talk about how that happened, what work they do and what kind of, you know, for lack of a better term, what kind of perceptions do you think in terms of how the media covers it or how the public understands these things that you think you’d like people to know or understand?

Ronald Jackson: What it is the public sees one thing, they see, as you said, Mars is doing all this publicity. We’re doing this, we’re expanding our candy, we’re making all these donations to these people, we’re doing this and that, but they don’t see the ugly side of Mars. It’s three sides of it and the ugly side is Mars does not care about the workers. If you have a hazard pay why would you take that away when you said we’re essential workers? We’re helping you make money. The media don’t see that, the media don’t see what Mars does to their workers. The media doesn’t know the truth, if the media sees what happened in the warehouses and how the whole thing gets sick, they might not even eat Mars candy because they might think it has been infected, or the virus, the way Mars treated their workers.

Adam: Do you want to talk a little bit about the work that Warehouse Workers For Justice does?

Ronald Jackson: What Warehouse Workers does, is that the workers, especially temp workers, know what their rights are by state and federal law. A lot of these workers do not know that they have a right for like, if you work, if they have you to come in and send you home, that you’re allowed to be paid for four hours. A lot of workers don’t know that. I was surprised. The company is not going to tell you that, they’re not going to tell you, they will send you home and you won’t even know that you’re going to get paid. What Warehouse Justice does is let you know, as I said, what your rights are by state and federal law, and everything. You know, you might not win all, but you’re going to get something out of it and that’s what they do. They let the people know. And also, to try to put it out there, you know, they don’t have much money, but they’re going against these big companies to let people know, you need to be safe, you have no transportation and the company brings you to the job site, they have to bring you back. It used to be these companies were bringing you, the temp services were bringing you to the worksite and leave you and you have no way back. What Warehouse Justice has done, they have put into place where they mandated, they take you there, they have to bring you back, that you’re no longer allowed to be paying for drug tests out of your own pocket or paying transportation and everything out of your pocket, that they rip you off. It is bad enough they’re not paying you nothing but the money they are paying you they’re taking that back.

Adam: They charge you for your own drug test?

Ronald Jackson: Yes, they used to do that. But now they no longer do that, now you got some that might try to pull an ‘okey-dokey’ over you, and if you don’t know, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do this,’ and that’s what they’ve done. It used to be where you have some people who, the foreman in the company, who worked it and the company didn’t want to pay because they might not have this or they may not have that so you better not say nothing. Warehouse Workers now they could go to someone to speak and say, ‘Wait a minute, no, you’re not, you’re not gonna do this. We’re gonna make sure that they have a backup, you know, we’re not trying get them fired but we want to make sure that if you do a day’s work, you get a day’s pay, and you’re not going to take their money because they might not have this and that, but when you hired them, you knew what they had and what they didn’t have.’ So in other words, ‘You’re doing illegal activity.’ You know, a lot of people want to work, but that’s the funny part, these companies can do illegal activities and nothing happens to them but if you do something, everything is taken away from you.

Nima: Of course, before we let you go, is there something that you’re working on right now that you can tell our listeners about either through Warehouse Workers For Justice or something else you got going on you want people to be paying attention to?

Ronald Jackson: What we’re working on and I’m also, I’m calling out every elected official who’s getting donations from Mars, Walmart, any of these big companies, we want to know who’s paying you. They say it’s donations, we’re saying it’s something else. That’s what they’re saying. So we want to know, what we’re asking for is any politicians that are out there, we want to see, who do you work for? Do you work for your constituents or do you work for the corporate? And we also, you know, it’s like, if anyone out there who wants to know about WWJ, you can go to the Facebook page, and put up WWJ, Warehouse Workers For Justice, so we can help those out there who don’t know. There’s an ordinance that was passed in the city of Chicago, where they said, everyone who works in the cities will be paid a minimum of $15, if I’m right, and they will be paying $15. I went to some of them and they said, ‘We’re not getting paid that.’ I said, ‘Well, let me double check. Yes, you do.’ And that’s what I’m saying, these companies are allowed to bypass laws and then when you go, like I said, when you go to the Labor Board, ‘They did nothing wrong, you have no case.’ Wait a minute, what the law says in this part of the city, ‘Well, the federal says something different.’ So if we don’t have a Labor Board that works for us, what’s the use of us doing anything? They don’t care, you know, how many people they bring out, in wheelchairs that work for the company, the Labor Department don’t care. Because, as I say, the Labor Board say they’re for you but as soon as they walk through that door, you got one of those companies saying, ‘Here you go, good job, you know, getting rid of that case, good job,’ and we’re sent home with no job and they put someone else in place and that’s how they stop us from organizing. If there was a law on the books that wait a minute, ‘What did he do for you to terminate him? Did he come to work?’ ‘Yes, he came to work.’ ‘Did he do his job?’ ‘Yes, he did his job.’ ‘What reason did you let him go? Okay, we tell you what, you’re gonna pay him until he finds another job. If he doesn’t even get up and look for a job, you’re gonna pay him because there was an illegal fire.’ That will stop a lot of these companies from firing these temp workers.

Adam: Right.

Ronald Jackson: Because I called out some of the CEOs, I asked them to come to the warehouse and work for a month and get the pay that we get and let them take out the taxes and let’s see if you can survive on that.

Adam: Right.

Ronald Jackson: But, you know, ain’t none of them took me up on that offer.

Nima: No, I doubt it.

Ronald Jackson: I doubt it. We can’t even talk to any of the CEOs. Wait a minute, we are essential workers but you won’t talk to us? That doesn’t make any sense.

Adam: Right.

Ronald Jackson: I’m also working with the Chicago Teachers Union sometimes.

Nima: Oh, great.

Adam: Big fans of them. In case it wasn’t clear what our politics are.

Ronald Jackson: Oh yeah, yeah. I agree that, you know, schools don’t need, in the Black and Brown neighborhoods, schools shouldn’t be open. I agree with the teachers. And just like the warehouse, you say you clean something but yet where’s the paperwork at? Because we’re the workers, but as I say we just like that movie The Expendables and Suicide Squad. That’s what we are.

Nima: Well, Ronald, this has been so great to talk to you. Of course, we’ve been talking to Ronald Jackson, a worker and organizer with Warehouse Workers For Justice, a worker center fighting for stable living wage jobs in warehouses and distribution centers around Illinois. Ronald, thanks again, really, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Ronald Jackson: Oh, you’re welcome.


Adam: Yeah, so this is another example of there was never any sense that all these people were going to suffer and die and be exposed to a virus and that we were going to, as a society, do anything other than a token half-ass $1,200 check that kind of went to everybody, then we did a little bit of hazard pay. The UI was great, but it was very short-lived and of course, the UI was in the absence of essential work or sort of supplemental to ones needing to be an essential worker. But I think there’s a general theme on the show, I think when people start using martial language, when they start using the language of war and conscription, and sacrifice, all your fucking alarm bells, all of them need to go off because the question is always, who is sacrificing? Hamilton Nolan at In These Times, so he wrote in a piece mocking the idea of essential worker, March 24, 2020 in an article titled, “Back to Work? You First.” He wrote:

“‘We must reopen the economy,’ you say. ​’It is vital that we send people back to work,’ you say. Well, it sounds important. By all means — you first.

“Lloyd Blankfein, the reasonable cheerleader for restarting commerce, you can be a doorman, throwing open the doors of your Manhattan office building for all the bankers to return to their desks. The doorman, who prefers not to die, can be the CEO of Goldman Sachs. That office is sufficiently large for social distancing, I’m sure.

“Art Laffer, the discredited economist, can be a waiter in a crowded restaurant. A waiter, who prefers not to die, can become an economist. No waiter could be a worse economist than Art Laffer, anyhow.”

Then this was the idea that this waterfall of responsibility was never discussed, it was never at least, okay, there’s some finite amount of sacrifices we have to make to function in society, society needs to have food, society needs to have some form of feeding people and healthcare, we get that, we’re obviously not arguing against that. There was never any sense that we were going to conscript the wealthy, or ask any kind of sacrifice through higher taxes or some other means of some kind of sacrifice from the wealthy, the sacrifice was just immediately assumed to be from the poorest of the poor, because that’s what it always is. The essential workers have always been asked to sacrifice and in this time of supposed national crisis there was never any sense of collective sacrifice. It was always going to be people like Ronald who, like you said, were expendable.

Nima: And the martial language also really gets back to Major General Smedley Butler in the war is a racket concept. He was a US Marine Corps Major General in World War I, the highest rank authorized at that time, was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history and after World War I went around talking about organizing veterans, organizing soldiers, talking about how war is a racket. In 1933, he said this in a speech:

“War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.”

Major Gen. Smedley Butler addresses an audience at an anti-war rally in 1935. (Bettman / Getty)

And in his book War is a Racket, two years later, in 1935, wrote this, which is really basically what Hamilton Nolan was writing, and it’s this:

“How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat infested dugout? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?”

And of course, when you start using martial language, that’s when you have to figure out who, as you said, Adam, is benefiting from this. So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for listening, for supporting the show. You can of course Follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, an extra special shout-out goes to our critic-level supporters through Patreon. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. This episode was co-written by Sarah Lazare. Our newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, February 17, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.