West Virginians Tolerate Chemical Spills Out of Fear of Losing Jobs

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Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, WV. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

This post originally appeared at Robert Reich’s Blog.

Last week’s massive spill of the toxic chemical MCHM into West Virginia’s Elk River illustrates another benefit to the business class of high unemployment, economic insecurity and a safety-net shot through with holes. Not only are employees eager to accept whatever job they can get. They are also also unwilling to demand healthy and safe environments.

The spill was the region’s third major chemical accident in five years, coming after two investigations by the federal Chemical Safety Board in the Kanawha Valley, also known as “Chemical Valley,” and repeated recommendations from federal regulators and environmental advocates that the state embrace tougher rules to better safeguard chemicals.

No action was ever taken. State and local officials turned a deaf ear. The storage tank that leaked, owned by Freedom Industries, hadn’t been inspected for decades.

But nobody complained.

Not even now, with the toxins moving down river toward Cincinnati, can the residents of Charleston and the surrounding area be sure their drinking water is safe — partly because the government’s calculation for safe levels is based on a single study by the manufacturer of the toxic chemical, which was never published, and partly because the West Virginia American Water Company, which supplies the drinking water, is a for-profit corporation that may not want to highlight any lingering danger.

So why wasn’t more done to prevent this, and why isn’t there more of any outcry even now?

The answer isn’t hard to find. As Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a citizen’s group formed after a 2008 explosion and fire killed workers at West Virginia’s Bayer CropScience plant in the state, explained to the New York Times: “We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.”


I often heard the same refrain when I headed the US Department of Labor. When we sought to impose a large fine on the Bridgestone-Firestone Tire Company for flagrantly disregarding workplace safety rules and causing workers at one of its plants in Oklahoma to be maimed and killed, for example, the community was solidly behind us — that is, until Bridgestone-Firestone threatened to close the plant if we didn’t back down.

The threat was enough to ignite a storm of opposition to the proposed penalty from the very workers and families we were trying to protect. (We didn’t back down and Bridgestone-Firestone didn’t carry out its threat, but the political fallout was intense.)

For years political scientists have wondered why so many working class and poor citizens of so-called “red” states vote against their economic self-interest. The usual explanation is that, for these voters, economic issues are trumped by social and cultural issues like guns, abortion and race.

I’m not so sure. The wages of production workers have been dropping for thirty years, adjusted for inflation, and their economic security has disappeared. Companies can and do shut down, sometimes literally overnight. A smaller share of working-age Americans hold jobs today than at any time in more than three decades.

People are so desperate for jobs they don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want rules and regulations enforced that might cost them their livelihoods. For them, a job is precious — sometimes even more precious than a safe workplace or safe drinking water.

This is especially true in poorer regions of the country like West Virginia and through much of the South and rural America — so-called “red” states where the old working class has been voting Republican. Guns, abortion and race are part of the explanation. But don’t overlook economic anxieties that translate into a willingness to vote for whatever it is that industry wants.

This may explain why Republican officials who have been casting their votes against unions, against expanding Medicaid, against raising the minimum wage, against extended unemployment insurance, and against jobs bills that would put people to work, continue to be elected and re-elected. They obviously have the support of corporate patrons who want to keep unemployment high and workers insecure because a pliant working class helps their bottom lines. But they also, paradoxically, get the votes of many workers who are clinging so desperately to their jobs that they’re afraid of change and too cowed to make a ruckus.

The best bulwark against corporate irresponsibility is a strong and growing middle class. But in order to summon the political will to achieve it, we have to overcome the timidity that flows from economic desperation. It’s a diabolical chicken-and-egg conundrum at the core of American politics today.

Robert B. Reich is the chancellor’s professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley and former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration. His new film, Inequality for All, opened in September.
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  • DavidW

    The more we own, the less power they will have.

  • ludie

    Gone red for prez last 4 election cycles. And many of the dems elected are known as “republicrats” because they always suck up to the extraction businesses.

  • James B

    If laws and regulations are uniform across the country, and made uniform through trade deals across the globe, then these anti-humanity companies will buck up and stay put! That’s when the free enterprise system is really working!

  • GreenCPA

    It’s sad thought to be expected that very few workers understand capitalism and how our economic system works.

    First, it must be acknowledged that employers and their employees have fundamentally conflicting interests in the workplace and, that employers organize work hierarchically, in a top-down way, in order to extract work from employees in order to make a profit.

    Because the classes (capitalist class and working class) have conflicting interests, the relative power between the classes is a strong determinant in the outcome. And because so much power has shifted away from labor towards the capitalists over the past 40 years, the results we see are obvious and predictable.

    These items reduce the power of the working class:

    Weakened unions

    Incomplete labor contracts (Contract specifies the wage but not the work, so that work keeps expanding without a corresponding rise in wages)

    Increased cost of job loss (costs/loss of income a worker experiences as a result of quitting or getting laid off from a job)

    ^^^^ change those, and you begin to strengthen labor’s position in this market based economy.

  • john gensheimer

    The TPP could have maybe been one of those opportunities, but it appears that it will do the opposite and continue to make the situation worse.

  • GreenCPA

    That’s because the TPP was written by the capitalist class for the capitalist class.

  • Veteran

    Very good post.

    I worked for a company that my grandfather helped unionized. I was union when I started there. The union wasn’t what my grandfather fought for, it was the brotherhood. The union was as bad as the company in cronyism and nepotism. Women were either sexually “used” to gain better jobs or had to be tough enough to physically fight for it. I was the later.
    The unions need to be cleaned up, educated, and re-empowered by the same minds that created what my grandfather fought for.

    I live in SC, and I’ve worked here. This article is dead on as to why the south votes against its self. BMW violates osha laws left and right, and the State cooperates with them. Workers get hurt via repetative injury, and fired before they can file workers compensation. All companies fight every unemployment claim, and the workers either are denied because they are injured, can’t work, or blamed for being fired and loose months of unemployment pay. It’s a racket. Workers will go along to get along. Anyone that tries to make a difference is job killer.

  • NotARedneck

    Unfortunately, most Americans are suckers for a “good” racist pitch and will slavishly follow those who pander to this side of them. Most right wing beliefs have their roots in this.

  • Kanta Bhagat

    What a shame!! How long will it go on? I am in India these days visiting and have watched the news in awe. Mostly undeducated, every day man is fighting for their rights. Mind you this a third world nation supposed to be illeterate except few. It saddens me to see what has happened to us in America.

  • Justin King

    When you talk to a conservative on Breitbart or the Daily Caller about this idea of “voting against your own best interests”, they write it off to “communist propaganda”.

    The parallel universe of Fox Nation is much more powerful than alot of liberals would like to believe,
    See the new book by Jeffrey Berry : THE OUTRAGE INDUSTRY.

  • PGreen

    What you say is true, but…

    The free enterprise system not necessarily good for workers unless you are looking at a system (such as once existed in France and still does somewhat) that regulates/prohibits the laying off of workers. Companies will use not only the threat of moving elsewhere against workers/unions, but also monopoly conditions and collusion (following the precedent set by others.) It leads to a race to the bottom just as easily as to worker upward mobility.

    I’m not sure that fair competion in a way that benefits labor can exist between different members of the current model of corporation without enourmous regulations: environmental regulations, working conditions, anti-trust, etc wage laws…. Most of these are good practices, but they often prove unenforcable–and are subject to being overturned as happened with Glass-Stegal.

    I suspect that changing the fundamental model of corporations so that they are controlled by STAKEholders, not shareholders and executives, might be an effective way to restrain greed that is mandated by charter. Such a change might enable these regulations to actually work.