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Are Factory Jobs Good Jobs?

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No, not unless they are backed up with worker power that ensures a safe workplace, good working conditions, and a decent wage and benefits. It took a century of struggle to make that happen in the United States. Even though industrial unions have been largely crushed in this country, the residual effects of those unions are not reversed overnight. So we talk about good factory jobs today, even in nonunion southern states, because they do tend to pay better than a job in Walmart or McDonald’s. But that’s because unions made them that way and the employers can’t completely reverse that overnight. However, they can slowly reverse it and that brings us to this horrible story out of Alabama, where a dead worker is a window into how everything that made those jobs good is disappearing.

On June 18 2016 — a Saturday — a robot that Elsea was overseeing at the Ajin USA auto parts plant in Cusseta, Alabama, stopped moving. She and three colleagues tried to get it going, stepping inside the cage designed to protect workers from the machine, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When the robot restarted abruptly, Elsea was crushed. She died the next day when she was taken off a life-support machine, with her mother, Angel Ogle, at her side. After an investigation, Osha concluded that the accident that killed Elsea was preventable.

The life and death of Regina Elsea points to a national predicament as President Trump seeks to “make America great again” by increasing industrial employment. With automation on the rise and unionisation on the decline, manufacturing jobs no longer guarantee a secure middle-class life as they often did in the past. Much of the new work is low paid and temporary. Staffing agencies sometimes supply factories with workers who have little training or experience — and who can quickly find themselves in harm’s way.

Elsea’s factory status was indicated by the colour of her clothing. Although she worked at Ajin, a Korean parts maker that supplies Hyundai and Kia and is Chambers County’s largest private employer, Elsea was not an Ajin employee. She wore the blue shirt of Alliance Total Solutions, which along with another labour agency, Joynus Staffing, provides roughly 250 of the nearly 800 workers at the plant.

Starting in early 2016, Elsea worked Mondays to Fridays, her family says. But the demands increased. In her last weeks, she worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, hoping to qualify for a full-time position and an hourly wage of about $12. The only respites were a half-hour for lunch and sometimes an eight-hour shift on Sundays. Otherwise, she was on her feet all day. “She was always tired,” says her mother, who lives near the parts plant. “She would come over here and take her shoes off and I would rub her feet. She said her feet hurt.”

Elsea’s death came less than a year after David Michaels, the assistant US labour secretary for Osha, warned Hyundai and Kia officials during a 2015 visit to Korea about hazardous conditions at their suppliers. Osha records show that accidents at Hyundai and Kia parts makers in Alabama and Georgia in 2015 and 2016 resulted in 12 amputations — one of a worker’s foot, the rest involving all or parts of fingers.

In December, Osha levied a $2.5m penalty against Ajin, accusing it of 23 violations of federal safety rules, most of them “wilful”, in Elsea’s accident. Osha alleged that Ajin failed to put in place the proper controls to prevent machinery from starting up while being serviced or when workers entered robotic cells. Elsea’s family has also filed suit, seeking damages from Ajin and Joynus.

This is the type of job that Trump talks about when he goes MAGA. These aren’t good jobs. They are terrible jobs. They are also the only even halfway decent jobs in the rural South. Because of capital mobility and the inability of unions to organize southern industrial plants (which may be changing but we will see), these jobs are unsafe and they are getting worse, not better. The lack of any real industrial policy in the United States for a half-century combined with the desperation of American blue-collar workers to take anything they can get these days contributes to this situation. There aren’t any easy answers either except to fine the living hell out the suppliers, the subcontractors, and the auto plants who buy supplies from these factories. Of course, that’s not going to Make America Great Again so you can forget that for the next 4 years.

But we need to remember is that there is nothing inherently good about a factory job. What makes any job a “good” job is a union or at least competition with unionized workplaces. Whether it is McDonald’s or Kia suppliers, only a union can protect workers. Promoting union workplaces needs to be the left’s primary goal, not creating specific types of jobs except in areas that already having a union presence that would make their creation automatically a pretty good job.

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