By Chris Hedges
Dean Henderson’s career with FedEx ended abruptly when a reckless driver plowed into his company truck and mangled his leg. His doctor will decide this week if it needs to be amputated. No longer able to drive, stripped of value in our commodity culture, he was tossed aside by the company. He became human refuse. He spends most of his days, because of the swelling and the pain, with his leg raised on a recliner in the tiny apartment in Fairfax, Va., he shares with his stepsister. He struggles without an income and medical insurance, and he fears his future.
Henderson is not alone. Workers in our corporate state earn little when they work—Henderson made $18 an hour—and they are abandoned when they can no longer contribute to corporate profits. It is the ethic of the free market. It is the cost of unfettered capitalism. And it is plunging tens of millions of discarded workers into a collective misery and rage that is beginning to manifest itself in a dangerous right-wing backlash.
“This happened while I was wearing their uniform and driving one of their company vehicles,” Henderson, a 40-year-old military veteran, told me. “My foot is destroyed. I have a fused ankle. I have had over a dozen surgeries. It hurts to wear a sock. I was limping pretty badly, but in the spring of 2008 FedEx said I had to come back to work and sit in a chair. It saved them money on workers’ compensation payments. I worked a call center job and answered telephones. I did that for three months. I had my ankle fused in January 2009, and then FedEx fired me. I was discarded. They washed their hands of me and none of this was my fault.”
Our destitute working class is beginning to grasp that Barack Obama and other elected officials in Washington, who speak in a cloying feel-your-pain language, are liars. They are not attempting to prevent wages from sinking, unemployment from mounting, foreclosures from ripping apart communities, banks from looting the U.S. Treasury or jobs from being exported. The gap between our stark reality and the happy illusions peddled by smarmy television news personalities and fatuous academic and financial experts, as well as oily bureaucrats and politicians, is becoming too wide to ignore. Those cast aside are reaching out to anyone, no matter how buffoonish or ignorant, who promises that the parasites and courtiers who serve the corporate state will disappear. Right-wing rage is being fused with right-wing populism. And once this takes hold, a protofascism will sweep across our blighted landscape fueled by a mounting personal and economic despair. Take a look at Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.” It is a good window into what awaits us.
“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out,” the philosopher Richard Rorty warns in his book “Achieving Our Country.” “Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
Whoever rides to power on the back of this rage will swiftly broker a deal with corporations and corporate overlords. But by then it will be too late. Dissent will become a form of treason. The security state will be quickly cemented in place. The bankrupt liberal class, which abandoned the working class and the fight for basic civil liberties, will be reviled, discredited and impotent. America will develop its own peculiar form of Christian fascism.
Obama, entranced with power and prestige, is more interested in courting the elite than saving the disenfranchised. The president, when asked to name a business executive he admires, cited Frederick Smith of FedEx, although Smith is a union-busting Republican. Smith, who was a member of Yale’s secret Skull & Bones Society along with George W. Bush, served as John McCain’s finance chair. I guess Obama is hoping for some cash. And Smith has a lot of it. He founded FedEx in 1971, and the company had more than $35 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in May. Smith is rich and powerful, but there is no ethical system, religious or secular, that would hold him up as a man worthy of emulation. Those who make vast profits at the expense of workers and the common good are not moral. They are not worthy of adulation. They build fortunes and little monuments to themselves off the pain and suffering of people like Henderson. Jesus called them “vipers.”
“He’s an example of somebody who is thinking long term,” the president said of Smith in an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, adding that he “really enjoyed talking” with him at a Feb. 4 White House luncheon.
Smith does think in the long term. His company lavished money on members of Congress in 1996 so they would vote for an ad hoc change in the law banning the Teamsters Union from organizing workers at Federal Express. A few stalwarts in the Senate, including Edward Kennedy (in a speech reprinted in the Congressional Record on Oct. 1, 1996) and his then-colleague Paul Simon, denounced the obvious. The company had bought its legislative exemption. Most members of Congress, then as now, had become corporate employees.
“I think we have to honestly ask ourselves, why is Federal Express being given preferential treatment in this body now?” Sen. Simon said at the time. “I think the honest answer is Federal Express has been very generous in their campaign contributions.”
Following the Senate vote, a company spokesman was quoted as saying, “We played political hardball, and we won.”
What happened to our historical memory? How did we forget that those who built our democracy and protected American workers were not men like Smith, who use power and money to further the parochial and selfish interests of the elite, but the legions of embattled strikers in the coal fields, on factory floors and in steel mills that gave us unions, decent wages and the 40-hour workweek. How was it possible in 1947 to pass the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which, in one deft move, emasculated the labor movement? How is it possible that it remains in force? Union workers, who at times paid with their lives, halted the country’s enslavement to the rich and the greedy. And now that unions have been broken, rapacious corporations like FedEx and toadies in Congress and the White House are turning workers into serfs.
UPS is unionized. It is the largest employer of the Teamsters. Labor costs, because of the union, account for almost two-thirds of its operating expenses. But Smith spends only a third of his costs on labor. There is something very wrong with a country that leaves a worker like Henderson sitting most of the day in a tiny apartment in excruciating pain and fighting off depression while his billionaire former boss is feted as a man of vision and invited to lunch at the White House. A country that stops taking care of its own, that loses the capacity for empathy and compassion, that crumples up human beings and throws them away when it is done with them, feeds dark ideological monsters that inevitably rise to devour the body politic.
FedEx is busy making sure Congress keeps unions out of its shops. It has lavished $17 million, double its 2008 total, on Congress to fight off an effort by UPS and the Teamsters to revoke Smith’s tailor-made ban on unions. Smith, again thinking “long term,” plans to continue to hire thousands of full-time employees and list them as independent contractors. If his workers are listed as independent contractors he does not have to pay Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance taxes. And when they get sick or injured or old he can push them onto the street. Henderson says FedEx treats its equipment as shabbily as its employees. There’s no difference between trucks and people to corporations that view everything as a commodity. Corporations exploit human beings and equipment and natural resources until exhaustion or collapse. They are cannibals.
“The trucks are a liability,” Henderson said. “They are junk. The tires are bald. The engines cut out. There are a lot of mechanical problems. The roofs leak. They wobble and pull to one side or the other. The heating does not work. And the company pushes its employees in the same way. The first Christmas I was there I worked 13 hours without a break and without anything to eat. It is dangerous. I could have fallen asleep at the wheel and injured someone.”
If you have to send packages do not be a scab. Send it with UPS or the U.S. Postal Service. They have unions. Every step, however tiny, we take to thwart the corporate rape of the country and protect workers counts. We would have to do more, much more, but this would be a small start. Like Smith, our politicians have sold their souls. They will not help us. We must help ourselves. And the longer we stand by and permit the Democrats and the Republicans to strip American workers of their jobs and their dignity the less we will have to say when the day of angry retribution arrives.
AP / Elise Amendola